We’re in an age of tipping points now, tipping points upon tipping points. No sense beating about the bush.
The climate’s tipped into free fall. We mostly conceive of climate change in increments of temperature rise, but it might as well be depicted as a plummet into bottomless unpredictability, also known as chaos, because that’s what’s coming upon us now as the icecap thins and cracks, the tundra belches millennia of freeze-framed methane, tropical rainforests are scoured bare, air and ocean currents slacken and flip, and countless fellow species on this teeming membrane of life vanish into the void.
Public awareness of the crisis has also tipped, finally, among the world’s richest and most culpable populations, accelerating us into a phase of widespread concern and crackpot solutioneering. Flames are licking at the margins of the comfortable existence we claimed as birthright. Floodwater is seeping in under the door. Populations are on the move.
Urgent voices clamour for attention, some promising safety this way – Biofuel! Electric vehicles! A Green New Deal built on zero-carbon infrastructure! – and others saying that way – Walls! Space weapons! Make our Empire Great Again!
We’re torn – who do we follow? Do our meagre, individual efforts have any impact at all? We see those gormless billionaires tripping over one another to vaunt Earth-friendly vanity projects, unaware that nothing which can be articulated in billionairespeak makes a fig of difference to the trajectory of environmental crisis. Infuriatingly, we are supposed to admire and be grateful to them.
Also, it is rumoured, we are on the point of – perhaps experiencing the first teetering moment of – a social tipping point which may free up the better nature in our kind and in the blink of an eye rewrite the destiny of our species and the rest of the living world. If I could pray, that’s what I’d pray for.
But then why not pray? A prayer’s as valid as any peer-reviewed paper now, because no-one knows anything. There’s no solution, because there is no nameable problem, only a blank in the collective thought process where language should be. We can barely confront the hydra-headed nature of the thing without relinquishing the right to be taken seriously. But as an unashamed loser and lunatic, let me state for the record: Climate change is a symptom. Mass extinction is a symptom. The bonfire of the rainforests is a symptom.
The underlying pathology, on the other hand, is a sickness which cannot speak its name.
When we challenge the madness of open-ended extractivist ‘development’ and profit-driven ever-expanding consumption, we’re surely closing in on the root problem, even if it means shunting ourselves outside the parameters of acceptable debate. Likewise when we denounce the cruelty of man-made, hierarchical stratification among peoples and individuals, and call out the cult of arrogance and supremacy, and expose what it has done to the human relationship with the rest of nature including our relationship with ourselves.
Likewise, too, when we charge the most privileged, most predatory, most damaged amongst us with the crime of crippling the collective immune system in pursuit of their self-seeking ends. They – fellow dependants of this beautiful living world! – have used and still abuse their money and influence, their monopoly on the levers of power, to distract the rest of us with woes and incentives while robbing us of the capacity to identify the sickness they foisted on this world.
The pathology is somewhere in the shadows of the paragraphs above, and the clue to the only effective treatment – reviving the living world’s immune defences – is in there too. To clearly see the sickness and treatment, though, we need enough time and humility, courage even, to take pause, to shut out the clamour and fight off the seductions tendered by the self-seeking. We need the shamanic endurance to dig deep back inside ourselves, our culture, our heritage in nature, and to listen – really listen – to what life’s inner spirit tells us.
For me, what that spirit is telling us is something present in very young children and often in the very old – the kindness, the benign curiosity, the instinctive generosity, the attraction towards fun, the innate appreciation for fairness, the deep-rooted desire to trust and be trusted by others, the empathy with and reluctance to harm any living thing. It’s there in the presence of the rest of the animal kingdom, in the warmth of the sun, the air we breathe. In our lust for life, in the smile of a friend…
I’ve been trying this listening project all my life, in a shambolic and non-shamanic way, and though it’s distorted by noise – something’s coming through now. An overwhelming sense that this is what we’ve got, this is who we are. Open-hearted beings in world which could and should be good too. A world in which none of us exploit or set ourselves above any other of us, or any of our fellow voyagers in this astonishing family of life.
It’s been like stumbling onto the track back home, after all the mistakes and missteps. When belatedly you realise there are and always were countless voices out there saying these same things, and that the strongest and clearest voices come from peoples on the margins of the brave new world of the moderns. The voices of indigenous peoples in their diminishing pockets of freedom, voices of colonized peoples, minorities, vulnerable groups.
Some of us couldn’t hear those suppressed voices, or, as I did, diligently learned to dismiss them. It has taken – is taking – a lifetime to unpick some of that learning.
We can’t roll back the environmental crisis, or reverse what’s already been set in motion. The climate system is in free fall, and we may be too. But we know its causes, and what we’ve got is something the crisis doesn’t have to take away from us. We are the child who’s got his own, God bless him. We carry, deep inside, the code for a good life. It’s been around since forever. So, there’s plenty to be getting on with.
First, we must do no harm, which in practical terms means turning the curve on the damage we inflict on the living world through our habits of extraction, consumption and emissions. Yes, every individual act of environmental awareness does make a difference, no matter how small, but the bigger the better. Reduce, reuse, recycle, that’s all good stuff – but also regroup, resist and revive! And this is happening. It’s happening where I live in South Wales – many more people than before are tentatively talking, and planning and taking action – and I get the sense, albeit filtered through suspect traditional and social media, that a tide of this is breaking out all over.
Second, look inside to who we really are, minus much of what mass-population post-industrial society works so hard to make us into, so that we can be kinder to one another than is commonly the case. Kinder to the whole family of life. Everyone in this family’s got their struggle. Doing this one thing alone, universally, automatically changes so much for the better. Again, this is happening already, organically, in my little corner of the cosmos – though I’m not sure if it’s running neck-and-neck with (or invisibly outpacing) the artificially whipped-up currents of intolerance and bigotry that are causing so much grief.
Third, identify the links between the dead end we’re heading down today and who stands to profit. Follow the money. There is agency in this crisis and it cuts both ways.
Agency, in that our world isn’t succumbing to catastrophe because of original sin or supposed inadequacies in human nature, so much as it is being propelled into catastrophe by the active endeavours of a possibly tiny minority of our kind. In antiquity they were rulers and high-priests, and, crucially, they were the hierarchy’s active enablers. The same smooth-tongued, glossy-suited masters of disaster and their acolytes are still on the loose today. Remember, it’s not those who turn a blind eye and “say nothing” when they come for the neighbours, that we need to worry about, so much as the out-and-out facilitators of foul deeds, the kind that knowingly seed hatred and willingly design, construct and operate the death camps. Which in climate-change terms means those who are consciously burying the truth and stoking the furnace of runaway extraction and consumption.
So, let’s identify those links and, bearing in mind that we have agency too, borrow Nina Turner’s (Grandma’s) rallying cry and use our wishbone, jawbone and backbone to stand up to the planet-wreckers, call them out for what they are, stymie their efforts (at the very least we won’t buy their products or invest in their schemes), deny them the unmerited status they crave among us hoi polloi, and shame them out of the public forum.
Three positive tweaks which are not beyond us. None of it halts climate free fall mid-air, but it’ll soften the eventual landing. And no matter what, it means we’re doing the right thing.