At the end of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore spoke about the danger of going directly from a state of denial to a state of despair when confronted with the potentially devastating effects of global warming on the earth's ecosystem. It's almost as if he foresaw the current food fight between so-called "climate deniers" and "eco-fascists" that would ensue once the daunting prospects of melting glaciers and rising sea levels had seeped into our collective consciousness. And really, who could blame us for being a bit irritable, with words like “collapse” and “catastrophe” being served as staples of our daily media diet?
Now that we’ve had time to absorb the initial shock of our climate diagnosis and collectively teetered between denial and despair, the question arises: Is there a better way through this polarized mental landscape, a more enlightened activism toward making the physical changes needed in order to reduce our carbon footprint, without losing our minds and our hearts?
Taking a deep breath
Having been a greenie all my life, I’ve had my share of panic attacks and heated arguments regarding the planet’s condition. I usually get worked up for a while about what’s going to happen if I don’t sign this petition or donate to that organization. I feel the sheer magnitude of the problem squarely on my shoulders. In these moments, the history of humanity flashes by me like an epic movie: From homo sapiens’ first ventures in walking upright to the agricultural revolution to billowing smokestacks enabling hockey teams in Florida, my head spins at the exponential speed with which we’ve accelerated our coveted emancipation from the restraints of nature.
Then I take a deep breath.
As my mind begins to calm, decluttering the endless chains of worry lodged in a thicket of acquired knowledge about melting permafrost and carbon credits, my heartbeat slows and I begin to feel a soft spot in my center. My tense muscles begin to relax, then the rest of my body. The world around me is abuzz like a beehive on steroids, trucking and jetting plastic tchotchkes across the globe and lobbing exabytes of pixilated information through a maze of fiber optic cables -- but just for once, I’m sitting still and surrendering to sweet nothingness. My brain is finally sputtering on its last drop of worry juice.
And then the engine fades to a gentle halt. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.
I’m not naïve enough to suggest that meditation is going to save the planet. But I do think we’ve got it all turned around. Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that this big huge problem that was caused by our big huge ego will be solved by big huge action focused on one big huge subject. From Kyoto and Copenhagen to Cancun and Rio, we hope that the big treaty that will take care of things is always just around the corner. We seem to think that the same horse race mentality that got us into this mess is also the way to get out of it.
The mind searches for what the heart knows
Aside from the obvious political and strategic risk of serving up a whole range of assorted ingredients as one big climate change buffet — the most rapacious climate change deniers rejoice in the prospect of kicking over the dining table and smashing the every course on the floor — there are other reasons why this unbending fixation on this “you’re either with us, or the world is coming to an end” proposition may run counter to its intended purpose.
For one, the epic story line puts the solutions out of our own individual reach. It overwhelms the senses and creates the kind of coping mechanism that disengages us from being active participants in our own transformation.
But perhaps more importantly, the almost obsessive focus on carbon levels is making it sound like global warming is solely a mathematical problem. Climate change has become a numbers game, because it speaks to the mind -- and the mind is king in Western industrial society. We think, therefore we are; and if only we could reduce carbon emissions X percent by Year XYZ we’d be cool (pun intended). The problem with this line of thinking is that it only treats the symptom, not the cause. It’s like we’re doing CPR on someone with a broken heart.
Yes, I get it: the numbers don’t lie, and we’ve got to get the CO2 out of the atmosphere. If only we shut down all coal-fired plants and replaced them with clean alternatives, the thinking goes, we’d be able to go about business as usual, driving our hybrid SUVs to the solar-powered Walmarts to buy electric leaf blowers. Or just suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere altogether! To our western rational understanding of the world there’s nothing the right kind of engineering and product can’t fix.
And yet, while numbers and graphs may be helpful in reminding us that our lives are lived out of balance with the home planet, it seems that the more fundamental realignment away from the materialistic rat race needs to come from a more intuitive and creative place. A place of consciousness. A place of fearlessness. A place of love.
Think of it this way: Whether the world’s leaders come to any agreements or not, life as we’ve known it for the last century or so can not go on indefinitely. One way or another, the speeding train that is our perpetual growth-based, fossil-fueled economic system will be slowing down, and with it the pace at which we move, think and act. But rather than thinking about it in terms of sacrifice and shortage, or of replacing the fear of scarcity with the fear of doom, this is our great opportunity to shoot straight for the deeper truth of the matter that living a simple life can be full of happiness, fulfillment, and dare I say, abundance.
Unsung fun things that make the planet cooler
Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together. And the most effective way to get people on board a slower train is to get out of our muggle state-of-mind and become more creative in our discourse. We can talk all day about industrialized agriculture and its role in producing unprecedented amounts of CO2 and methane; but it's not until someone has sunk their teeth into a juicy organic heirloom apple, or dug their hands into richly textured soil, that they are personally connected to changing that dynamic. We can bring attention to automobile emissions -- but it's not until someone has worked up a sweat and lost a few pounds while riding their bike to work that they understand the fun of living lower on the carbon chain. We can bemoan the wastefulness of buying plastic crap from China-- but it's not until someone receives a gift handmade from an old pallet that they see the beauty and ingenuity of reusing what's already there.
However, the root of our environmental predicament and our pathway out of it goes far beyond even the obvious “eco-friendly” acts. We may not think of horsing around with the neighbors’ kids as a contribution to the green cause, but there’s no material thing in the world as fulfilling as the discovery of simple and spontaneous joy. Learning to play an instrument will never make it on any “Top Ten Things That Will Save The Planet” list, but there’s nothing like a living room or sidewalk jam session to get in tune with what really matters in the short time we have on this planet. Spending Sunday afternoons on the front stoop to watch the world go by may not make it into the Rio+20 outcome document, but the experience gleaned from simply observing and perhaps having a random laugh with a neighbor teaches us that we don’t have to go far to find meaning. And yes, in a world where everyone is talking, choosing to listen may actually be worth a million carbon credits.
From theory to lived experience
Some may say this is all just a bunch of fluff, but these are the acts that turn intellectual exercises and theoretical models into human experience -- which is the only thing that can inspire the kind of conscious and engaged spirits that will change the cultural and political paradigm. Making personal changes is hard enough for most people, so browbeating and shaming them for destroying the planet is always counterproductive.
If we’re told that our carnivorous ways are causing global warming, we get defensive; but if a friend cooks us a delicious vegetarian meal, we’re all over it. If we’re admonished for driving to the store, we get indignant; but if our secret crush asks us to come on a sunset grocery stroll, we can’t wait to put on our walking boots. There‘s something about being inspired that changes not only the world inside us, but the world around us.
Embracing the unknown
Ultimately, a lot of the more technical questions about how to reduce our ecological footprints are intrinsically linked to what it is that we actually value in life. If our primary concern continues to be exclusively to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible — literally speeding past a wealth of experiences and sights along the way — then no matter how brilliant the alternative energy grids we come up with, we humans are going to continue to chase our own tail while burning up our resources. But if we’re willing to slow down enough to marvel at what lies along the way, all else follows.
There’s a reason why almost all the quotes from the most famous left-brain thinker of our time have to do with right-brain stuff. In the words of Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Put in the context of climate change, the only way we can live in balance with the earth’s rhythms and resources is if our mental capacity to solve physical problems is guided by a fearless, expansive, and loving heart.
Whenever I’m frustrated and overwhelmed by the enormous challenges and I need to recharge my soul batteries, I turn to my refrigerator magnet:
Dance as though no one is watching.
Love as though you've never been hurt.
Sing as though no one can hear you.
Live as though heaven is on earth.
Because, you know, heaven really is on earth. And this is the moment to live and love fully. Even at 393 parts per million of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.