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The Long Way Home

The awful truth is that global warming is just the tip of the melting iceberg. Fortunately, unprecedented numbers of people are affirming that our destiny is inextricably tied to the well-being of the web of life.
 
 
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You have to figure the Force is with you when Yoda gets on board. In this case, "Yoda" is the Pentagon's term of endearment for Andrew Marshall, a revered military oracle who heads up an elite military think tank that envisions future threats to national security. After reading a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report on global warming, the octogenarian sage decided that indeed the sky is falling. He commissioned two master futurists to produce an analysis.

Their report, titled "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for US National Security," draws on recent research showing that climate change can be very sudden, occurring in a matter of a decade or two. This has actually occurred at least twice before that we know of – about 8,000 and 11,000 brief biological years ago.

The report lays out several possible scenarios, ranging from worse than we ever imagined to unthinkable. By 2020 we could face mega-droughts and floods, mass starvation in many regions, hordes of desperate ecological refugees and war over scarce resources of food, water and energy. Or, the reports says, if climate change is really abrupt, the world could melt down in three to five years, then flip the switch into an ice age. Think snow for hundreds of years on end.

Yoda concluded that the force of global warming is definitely with us. Call it actionable intelligence. So he decided to do an end-run around the political top brass by leaking the unclassified report to Fortune magazine. His hope was that the business world would get the picture and move decisively to alter the course of civilization. Pentagon spokesmen later confirmed that indeed they had not bothered to pass Marshall's report on to his higher-ups in the Defense Department or White House.

The report demurely suggests this: "Alternative fuels, greenhouse gas emissions controls and conservation efforts are worthy endeavors." It concludes by posing the alternative: "Abrupt climate change is likely to stretch [the Earth's] carrying capacity well beyond its already precarious limits. Disruption and conflict may well be endemic features of life ... Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid."

Some choice.

As reporter Andrew Zaitchik summed up the Pentagon's response, "The Department of Defense and Energy have recently installed photovoltaic panels atop the enormous building's five-sided roof. And if a solar-powered Death Star isn't the perfect symbol of humanity's two possible futures, then I don't know what is."

There is indeed a clash of civilizations, but in this case it is not between Islam and the West, or tradition and modernism. It is between a disposable civilization and a sustainable civilization. We have created a civilization that is a suicide bomb. We need to start disarming it right away.

Einstein famously said that "God does not play dice with the universe," but we are. All bets are off when you're gaming the Earth. The house always wins. And the awful truth is that global warming is just the tip of the melting iceberg. We are running evolution in reverse, shattering the very mirror of nature that can show us who we are and how to be in this place in a way that lasts. The jagged shards are so dreadful to contemplate that most people don't want to go there. The problem is – we're already there. Denial and neglect are only going to seal the deal.

As painful as it is, it's imperative that we grasp what's already happening on the ground in order to shift our course immediately. Here's just a fractal of the signs of the times. I promise we won't linger.

One of the best ways to see what's happening is to watch the animals. In Scotland's northern isles, home to some of the world's richest bird life, ornithologists are calling it the "year without young." Birds by the millions have not hatched eggs, if they've laid them at all. This unprecedented nesting failure is caused by starvation from the overnight disappearance of the small silvery sand eels the birds feed on. The ocean warmed, the sand eels went north, and a massive ecosystem that has functioned for millions of years is crashing.

The oceans themselves are turning acid from absorbing all that CO2 from the bonfire of the fossil fuels. The acid environment is killing off coral reefs, shellfish and plankton, the basis for nearly all marine life.

All over England, wildlife are exhibiting a feminization process that could throttle evolution itself. An estimated third of male fish in British rivers are growing female reproductive tissues and organs. Seals, sea otters, peregrine falcons and honey bees are heading for what reporter Mark Townsend calls a "unisex" existence, which is a bee line for eventual extinction. The culprit is gender benders, endocrine-disrupting chemicals that scramble the body's subtle hormonal growth signals and that are now pervasive globally.

Pollution and ecological disruption are also triggering bizarre behavior in animals, reports the New Scientist: "Hyperactive fish, stupid frogs, fearless mice, and seagulls that fall over." Not to mention the fact that a bevy of species no longer know how to mate, parent, build nests, learn, dodge predators or forage.

People seem to have forgotten that we are animals, too. Similar patterns are becoming visible in human beings. All life is connected, and we're in this together.

As the big wheels keep on turning, the environment will increasingly set the agenda. Nature is deregulating human affairs faster than a lobbyist can buy a politician, and we are so not ready. Just ask Florida, Haiti or Bangladesh. We face a perfect storm of environmental degradation and the ongoing collapse of a rickety, misbegotten infrastructure that in most cases is provoking the very conditions that will topple it.

Nature has a mind of her own, and we need to get good at reading the mind of nature and get with the program. The good news is that for the most part the solutions are already present. Even where we don't know exactly what to do, we have a good idea of what direction to head in. The solutions residing in nature consistently surpass our conception of what's even possible. The most vexing problems are not technological. They are political, which makes it both more do-able and more difficult.

What makes matters especially confusing for many people at this crucial juncture is the toxic political cocktail of delusion and deceit. It's one thing to be blind to the fact that we are one with the environment. It's another to cover it up. Arguably we face the most secretive, deceptive and crooked political administration in American history, but make no mistake: These are true believers. This is faith-based politics of delusional grade.

So-called "sound science" is the sound of one hand clapping. The suppression of science for ideological and political ends in the U.S. has reached such epic dimensions as to drive 60 of the world's most influential scientists, including 20 Nobel Laureates, to go public with documented charges of distortion, misrepresentation and outright lying.

Such a unified response to an entire science policy by normally disinterested, apolitical professionals is unprecedented. Hey, faith is great. But as they say in the world of science, "In God we trust. All others must provide data." At this pivotal moment in the fate of the earth, we cannot afford anything less than a clear-eyed view of how the world actually works, as best we can know that inscrutable mystery.

As ecological reality intrudes thunderously on delusion, it's clear we're dealing not only with ideological extremists looped on belief systems; they're also jacked up on greed. There is a dark wind howling across these disunited states. It's polarizing us with one hand and picking our pockets with the other. A more faithful characterization would be "Let us prey" – let us prey on the public, that is. It's edging us toward a feral reversion to a dog-eat-dog world of extreme inequality that is a formula for permanent strife.

As Paul Hawken wrote in Nature's Operating Instructions, "If we are to save what is wild, what is irreplaceable and majestic in nature, then ironically we will have to turn to each other and take care of all the human beings here on earth. There is no boundary that will protect an environment from a suffering humanity."

The greatest weapon of mass destruction is corporate economic globalization. It, too, is more theology than fact, an article of faith that is discrediting itself daily as the world becomes only more impoverished and ravaged.

Cleaning up the environment depends on cleaning up politics. Democracy is key to restoration. To achieve real democracy, we need to enforce the separation of corporations and the state.

We stand on the edge of a vast historical discontinuity in our most fundamental relationship with nature and with each other. It's going to be a long way home. Educator David Orr reminds us of this: "In Irish folklore, the salmon is regarded as the wisest of creatures because it knows how to find its way home. That, in a way, is our challenge. Can we find our way back to a future in which our best traditions, highest values and a sense of connection with place and posterity prevail?"

Biomimicry master Janine Benyus puts it this way: "The criterion of success is that you keep yourself alive and you keep your offspring alive. But it's not your offspring – it's your offspring's offspring's offspring ten thousand years from now. Because you can't be there to take care of that offspring, the only thing you can do is to take care of the place that takes care of your offspring. That's why the one non-negotiable policy that we need to write into law is that life creates conditions conducive to life."

There is a great awakening around the globe today. Unprecedented numbers of people are affirming that our destiny is inextricably tied to the well-being of the web of life. But as the worldwide movement for restoration gains traction, we will increasingly confront the relentless demons of rationalization. They will tell us, "We can't get there from here. We need to go slower. We need to stick with what we've got or face economic ruin." We cannot compromise on what is non-negotiable from nature's point of view. That is sound science. That is sound policy.

We, too, have a pre-emptive strategy. It's called precaution, pre-empting harm before it happens or can happen again. The Precautionary Principle taking hold around the world is transforming the way we operate, and it's spreading rapidly. In German, the word for the precautionary principle means "forecaring" or caring into the future. That is our charge.

Precaution also engenders a profound sense of humility at how little we know. As the Native American restoration ecologist Dennis Martinez observes, "Indigenous people have recognized that you can't control the environment to this extent without serious repercussions. So ethics have been developed which teach us that, if we ignore the needs of our relatives in the natural world, we will suffer serious repercussions. It's no accident that tricksters like Coyote and Raven are often the creators in tribal stories in North America, because it's the nature of the universe to be real iffy. You work with chaos, you work with change, you work with the unpredictable, and you work with humility. Restoration is a community-based intergenerational endeavor. It is more a process than a product. It's about relationship. It's about our responsibility as human beings to participate every day in the re-creation of the earth."

Perhaps our greatest faculty as human beings is our ability to reinvent culture rapidly. Around the world today people are spontaneously spawning a culture dedicated to creating conditions conducive to life. It reflects the unique convergence of the global peace movement, the global justice movement, and now the global environmental and health movements. This has never happened before. It is a historic turning point in human civilization.

The brilliance of the group mind is on the loose. People everywhere are stepping into the breach with real solutions and the social strategies to allow these solutions to take root. It's a culture of restoration, of reconciliation, of healing.

Ecologists say the surest way to heal an ecosystem is to connect it to more of itself, and this movement is rapidly connecting up a globally decentralized nervous system. The environment is the ultimate transnational issue, and solutions on the ground are poised to spread worldwide at the speed of text messaging. But here in the U.S., we have a very special responsibility both to our own country and to the world because, for good or for ill, our actions make an outsized impact.

David Orr reminds us that the Framers of the Constitution never imagined the destruction of the biosphere. "Extermination without representation," he calls it. "No good argument," he says, "can be made for the right of one generation to deprive subsequent generations of the ecological requisites for the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Constitutional rights in such conditions would be worth little more than legal entitlement to an apartment in a demolished building."

Orr proposes a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to a healthy environment in the recognition that we are trustees poised between our forebears and our posterity, that we are one species in one web of life. These are family values.

The American Revolution is a work in progress. As we move toward a Declaration of Interdependence, our greatest work is yet to come.

Even in these darkest of times – no, especially in these darkest of times – we gather as bioneers to celebrate life. It's what the Tibetans call "crazy wisdom." As Tom Robbins writes, "Crazy wisdom is the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one's gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything. Ancient Egyptians believed that when a person died, the gods immediately placed his or her heart in one pan of a set of scales. In the other pan was a feather. If there was imbalance, if the heart of the deceased weighed more than the feather, he or she was denied admittance to the afterworld. Only the lighthearted were deemed advanced enough to merit immortality."

Several years ago, we held an evening round table on Ecological Medicine here at the Bioneers conference. A midwife got up from the audience to speak. She said she viewed the state of the world through the lens of her work. There comes a moment during labor when a woman knows she cannot possibly draw another excruciating breath; cannot endure even one more agonizing contraction. Right then, said the midwife, she knows the baby is about to be born.

The baby is being born. These are birth pains.

Keep the faith.

Author and filmmaker Kenny Ausubel is the founder and co-executive director of Bioneers. The 15th annual Bioneers conference takes place Oct. 15-17, at Marin Center in San Rafael, Calif.