The Root Cause of Climate Change?

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On the surface, the cause of climate change is easy to explain. We are pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere and this is causing Earth to heat up with potentially catastrophic consequences. But why, with full awareness of what is happening, do we continue to abuse our planetary atmosphere, thereby jeopardizing our very survival as a species? This is not easy to explain.

There must be a reason, right? Our behaviors and actions are invariably the result of our beliefs—our story—about who we are and our purpose for being. And this, it turns out, has everything to do with climate change. For example, imagine what it would be like if each of us understood that our purpose, our central mission, in life was to express gratitude, love, and kindness, not just toward each other, but for everything—breath, rock, soil, sun, moon, moth, meadow, mussel. Can you conjure an image of what such a world would be like and would feel like? Does it offer you a sense of calm and well-being? Clearly, if we had been living in this story of deep relatedness over the past hundred years, we wouldn’t be facing climate chaos today.

But our story is different. We knowingly continue to exploit and abuse Earth’s animals and plants and soil and water and atmosphere because we experience ourselves as distinctly separate from Earth. After all, would you abuse something or someone you truly cherished? No. Abuse occurs when there is an absence of relationship, absence of care, absence of love; it occurs when we live in a state of alienation. A father who abuses his child is disconnected—alienated—from that child; a CEO of a multi-national company that abuses land and water is alienated from his Mother, Earth; the crew of an ocean trawler that bulldozes the ocean floor to harvest shrimp is alienated from the wonders of the sea; government leaders who wage war are alienated from human life.

On the surface it is this story of separation that leads to such abusive behaviors but, still, this begs the question: Why have we become so separate, so alienated, so divorced from Mother Earth? What’s at the root of our separation? Elementary psychology offers an answer: The chaotic world that we humans are creating is a reflection (“projection,” in psychological terms) of our inner psychic worlds. Said differently: Our separation from Earth is a manifestation of a tragic separation—think, alienation—from ourselves. This self-alienation manifests in four realms: emotion, body, mind, and soul.

Alienation from Our Emotions

Pause for a moment and note what happens when you take in the enormity of the unfolding climate crisis. What are your thoughts? Even more important, how do your thoughts leave you feeling? Confused, anxious, angry, guilty, hopeless, ashamed, bereft? Or perhaps what you mostly “feel” is a pervading sense of numbness? This wide range of emotional response is surprising.

More serious and noteworthy, however, is our fear of our own feelings. We need to be able to draw upon an emotional response to climate change, yet our culture conditions us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to believe that emotions cannot be trusted and will get us into trouble. In school we are often taught to separate our knowing and thinking from our feelings, our head from our heart, our mind from our feeling bodies. Given this conditioning, it is not surprising that many of us have come to see our emotions as an encumbrance—something that can cause embarrassment and that must be held in check. Indeed, in most homes and schools, the messages young people receive, explicitly or implicitly, sound like: if you are feeling bubbly, calm down; if you are feeling depressed, take a pill; if you are feeling sad, get over it; if you are feeling angry, get yourself under control; if you are feeling afraid, rise above it.

But our emotions are an important part of us. They are our responses to the world around us as well as to our thoughts and beliefs. Charles Darwin recognized that the capacity of human beings to experience a wide range of emotions is critical to our survival. Just as the armor plates of the armadillo help it survive, so, too, our capacity to feel and express emotions contributes to our survival. Emotions act as catalysts, inviting us to know ourselves, each other, and the world more fully.

Imagine this scene: You are seated in a circle with ten other people. You have gathered to mourn the wounds that humans are inflicting on Earth. In the center are a stone, an empty bowl, a sturdy stick, and some dry leaves. Each has been chosen to evoke a distinct emotion: the dry leaves for sadness; the stick for anger; the stone for fear; the bowl for emptiness. You begin in silence, allowing your gaze to fall on each of the four objects. Then, a young man named Ray moves to the center and, cradling the bowl in his hands, speaks of the emptiness and hopelessness that is overwhelming him: “I want to do something to stop this climate mess but nothing I do will make a difference; it’s already too late,” he laments. Then, he grabs the thick stick and shaking it fiercely, shouts, repeated, “We’re fucked . . . We’re fucked . . . We’re fucked . . .” When his anger subsides, the others simply say, “We hear you.” After a time, a mother holding her newborn son moves to the center and picks up the stone, a symbol of her fear: “Look at this child; can you see his innocence, his goodness; this is what each of us is! This is what Earth, our Mother, is . . . ” And then her voice cracks and she sobs her lament of fear: “I am so, so afraid for my baby; he didn’t ask for this broken world. Oh God, why have we done this to him, to us?” In time, others move to the center to speak.

This truth-telling council was conceived by eco-psychologist Joanna Macy.[1] She did it knowing that we have been conditioned to regard emotions like sadness, anger, fear, and emptiness as downers; but as Macy notes, if you can’t feel profound sadness, your capacity to feel profound joy will be proportionately muted. Indeed, our capacity to speak of the sadness we feel for Earth’s wounds is rooted in our capacity to love Earth. It is the same with the anger we feel. This anger is a reflection of our passion for healing. And the vulnerability of the mother to voice her fear is an expression of her trust in herself and those other truth speakers in the circle. Even the emptiness symbolized by the bowl can be seen as a reminder that empty space offers opportunities for something new and more life affirming to emerge.

Connecting with our emotions is critical in this time of climate chaos for the simple reason that our emotions move us. And it is time to move, to act. The first step is to publicly speak the unspeakable—namely, that our current worldwide model of never-ending growth, expanding consumption, and ever-widening inequity is life denying, soulless, and heartbreakingly immoral.

Our old story tells us to hush our emotions, hush our voices. That’s not working very well. Our new story says it’s time to come out; time to be real, alive, and vulnerable with each other; time to trust our feelings and give voice to them.

Alienation from Our Physical Bodies

If you are like most people in America today, you are probably a bit repulsed by dirt, and you don’t like being “dirty.” But what if we were to eschew our cultural conditioning and simply understand that dirt is the skin of Earth and, in so doing, acknowledge that it is dirt that is the source of all the minerals and nutrients that make up each of our bodies? Indeed, we are each an animated constellation of Earth’s minerals, Earth’s waters, Earth’s energies.

Our body and the body of Earth are one and the same. As your liver cells, skin cells, and muscle cells are to you, so you are to Earth. When you stand, you are literally Earth standing; and when you walk, you are Earth walking. Being an Earthling is our primary identity. Each of our bodies is an appendage of the grand and nurturing body that is Mother Earth.

But it’s easy to forget this, especially when so many spend lives separate from Earth, living in large artificial boxes—houses, offices, cars, classrooms—preoccupied with smaller boxes—televisions, computers, cell phones. Dazzled by speed and innovation, we easily overlook the fundamental miracle of our very existence. But consider that our every breath is given to us by Mother Earth. We don’t have to pay for each breath; it simply comes to us freely, as a gift. This is no less true for each sip of water, each morsel of food—all gifts given freely to us from the body of Earth. That so many of us live, day-to-day, oblivious to this is a reflection of the magnitude of our separation from Earth.

Our abuse of Earth’s body is rooted, to a significant degree, in our abuse—our alienation from—our own bodies. From this it follows that we can’t overcome our abusive relationship with the body of Earth, including Earth’s atmosphere, until we learn to love our own bodies, just as they are.

And how might we do this? Begin by considering how you treat people whom you love? You delight in them; you respect them; you listen to them; you care for them; you see deeply into them, knowing that they are beautiful and wondrous and worthy, through and through.

Now, imagine experiencing your own body in this way—i.e., as your beloved! See yourself standing naked before a full-length mirror, beholding yourself, fully accepting, embracing, and delighting in your body, just as it is. Imagine lovingly touching all those previously censored parts—the weird freckle, the pointy nose, the crooked tooth, the scarred stomach, the droopy eye, the fleshy thighs, the skinny arms. Picture yourself cherishing each part as one of your unique and wonderful distinguishing characteristics.

And rather than an isolated experience, see yourself gradually coming home to your body, day by day. Greeting yourself in the mirror each morning with an open, easy smile, free of judgment; beholding yourself with compassionate eyes; offering gratitude to your body for all that it does for you—your magnificent kidneys filtering, flushing; your heart beating, enlivening; your lungs connecting you with Earth’s cycles; your digestive organs, transforming Earth’s bounty into new skin, new hair, new blood, new you.

Now, take a final step and imagine yourself walking completely naked, in a secluded woodland, your bare feet pressing down into the moist living flesh of Earth—two bodies—yours and Earth’s commingling, two lovers acknowledging each other in blissful union.

This, too, is part of the new story that climate change is inviting us to grow into. This story tells us that it is our vulnerability—our willingness to accept ourselves just as we are—that makes us truly beautiful. And the good news is this: Once we are able to accept and love our bodies as unique and beautiful expressions of the body of Earth—it will become nearly impossible for us, ever again, to abuse our larger body, Mother Earth. Yes, this is the good news. But, my, do we have a long way to go!

Alienation from Our Deep Knowing

Have you ever heard the expression, “Human beings are really just brains on a stick?” In this view, our bodies are simply attachments that our heads have to take care of by feeding, medicating, grooming, resting, and so forth. This head-centric view of identity conjures the often-quoted dictum of René Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” For Descartes, our core identity rested in our head—but today, this “brain on a stick” view is increasingly seen as hopelessly naïve. Neuro-physiologists have confirmed that the cranial brain is not the only seat of intelligence in our bodies. Indeed, aside from a “heart brain,” we have a “gutbrain” (often referred to as the “enteric brain”) that perceives, thinks, remembers, and communicates continuously with the cranial brain. While our cranial brain is dense lump of neural tissue located in the bowl of our skull, the enteric brain is a diffuse, complex neural network centered in the pelvic bowl.

Unlike the cranial brain, the enteric brain is relationship/feeling based, as evidenced in expressions like, “I have a gut feeling about it.” Our cranial brain is good at reasoning, dealing with abstractions, acquiring knowledge, and offering perspective; but it appears that we may need our enteric-body brain to integrate and achieve deeper knowing. Said differently, your head brain is designed to analyze and control the world; your enteric brain is designed to make sense of and harmonize with the world. Control and harmony are opposites. Control imposes top-down order; harmony creates conditions in which all parts of the world can operate in accord with each other. As Phillip Shepherd points out in New Self, New World, many past cultures had ready access to the enteric brain, and vestiges of this connection are still apparent today.[2] For example, in Chinese medicine, the human belly is known as “the palace of the mind.” Similarly, the Japanese word for belly, “hara,” signifies the center of one’s being—i.e., the place where one’s deepest truth resides. Even today in Japan they say, “She has a well-developed belly,” whereas we might say, “She is level headed.”

While it is true that our cranial brain excels when it comes to reasoning, we easily forget that reason is of no use when it comes to some of the most important things in life. For example, you can’t reason your way into love, nor can you use reason to coax yourself to live in the present moment. Likewise, reason will be of no use to you if you seek to learn how to listen to the world through your body. But develop access to your enteric-body brain, and you come into relationship to the present. Think of it as akin to riding on a surfboard, your body’s sensitivities serving as a resonator allowing you to be in conversation with the ocean’s waves. As we develop a belly-centered integrated intelligence, we will come to see ourselves not as separate—apart from—but as connected—a part of Earth; and, when it comes to climate change, this deep knowing could make all the difference.

Accessing Deep Knowing. In its most elemental formulation, human intelligence manifests as sensitivity. This sensitivity comes in many forms. Perhaps you are sensitive to numbers or rhythm or color or patterns or bird song or soil or subtle energies; these are all forms of intelligence! Indeed, when we live exclusively in our heads, as is so common today, we are only aware of—sensitive to—our thoughts, living in a kind of mental prison.

Consider that our climate crisis is, in part, an outcome of cutting off our head intelligence from our body intelligence. But we need not be doomed. We have all been born with an enteric brain that has an innate ability to attune to and be informed by the messages from the world outside of our skulls—messages that are available to us in every moment. This is the gift that our enteric brain offers us once we learn to regain access to it.

As a way to begin to explore this dormant potentiality, pause now and bring your awareness to your head. This is easy because our awareness usually resides up there, in “headquarters.” Now bring the word “tree” to mind. Your cranial brain treats “tree” as an abstraction that is separate from you. But to fully know “tree,” you would have to somehow develop the sensitivity—the intelligence—to experience it in an embodied way. In other words, you would have to convert it from a concept or idea in your head into a body sensation. This is probably challenging for your cranial brain to grasp in so far as it lacks the unique intelligence that your enteric brain possesses—namely, the intelligence to engage the world in an intuition-based realm that lies beyond reason.

Here is a simple exercise to begin to integrate your cranial brain with your enteric brain. Begin by taking a minute to bring your attention to your breath. Then, when you are ready, picture an elevator shaft that extends from your head, along the front of your spine, all the way down to your pelvic bowl. Now, holding the idea “tree” move your awareness from your head down that elevator shaft, until it comes to rest at the very base of your pelvis, the center of your being. Don’t simply imagine this; rather, the task is to literally move your attention—your awareness—from your head down your spine until your attention is firmly rooted way down there in your pelvic bowl. Now, continuing to breathe slowly with your full awareness in your pelvic floor, simply be attentive to any differences—any sensations—surrounding your experience of “tree.” Be patient, breathe, relax, as you gently hold you awareness in your pelvic bowl, open to any and all sensations that arise as you move from thought to experience. As we learn to drop down into our body like this, we begin to integrate our pelvic intelligence with our cranial intelligence, moving away from separation and toward harmony with the world.

Climate chaos is upon us, in part, because we have lost access to our body-brain. Locked in our head, our thinking has become detached from our being. We will not resolve this crisis by relying on the command and control strategies issuing from our heads. Do this and we remain stuck, constantly doing, organizing, controlling, planning, strategizing, fixing. Might it be, instead, that the way forward is to recognize that our body, via our enteric brain, is uniquely designed to be in communication and harmony, not just with our cranial brain, but with the grand intelligence that is Earth? This, too, is part of the new story that climate change invites us to consider.

Alienation from Our Higher Purpose

Who are you? Why are you here? Whether you are twenty or fifty or eighty, when was the last time you gave these fundamental questions serious consideration? Do you spend time with your family and friends pondering these questions? If not, join the club. Indeed, in our culture we are told that these are philosophical questions without answers and so it is not worth spending too much time on them. Instead, it makes more sense simply to accept our culture’s teachings in these matters.

And what is our culture’s story about who we are and why we are here? Well, first we are conditioned to believe that we are skin-encapsulated egos—we are each an “I” separate from every other “I.” No surprise, then, that when it comes to the purpose of life, our culture has programmed us to believe we’re here to be successful, and this usually means standing out, winning, achieving, getting ahead. To achieve this kind of success, we are socialized to ignore—even to disparage—the idea that each of us has a higher purpose and that we are here to give the world something that is uniquely ours to offer. Express this publicly and we are told, “Those are nice thoughts but let’s face it, they’re just not practical and, my gosh, if everyone thought that way, we’d be done for!”

The result: By the time we reach “adulthood,” we unwittingly understand our life purpose as simply working a job to make money so that we can be secure and happy. But as you probably already know, this recipe is hollow. Our real purpose—our genuine mission in life—is not to get rich working at a soulless job, and genuine happiness has little to do with amassing possessions.

There is a Native American story that describes our purpose in a different way. It came to pass one day, many moons ago, that the Great Spirit called together one representative from each of Earth’s creatures. When all the creatures had assembled, the Great Spirit asked each to step forward and declare his/her purpose for being. Deer—a four-legged—went first, declaring that she was put on Earth to run lithely through the forest and to participate in life’s great cycles of birthing and dying. Then came earthworm, who declared that his purpose was to mix and aerate and fertilize Earth’s soil. Next was a two-winged, who explained that her purpose was to dine on Earth’s fruits and in so doing to transport seeds over the land. And so it went, each being having utter clarity as to its purpose until the very end, when there was just one creature who had not spoken. It was the human, a two-legged. Timidly, he stepped forward and after stammering for a time, ashamedly confessed that he did not know his purpose. This admission astonished all the other creatures. Finally, the Great Spirit addressed the human with these words: “Don’t you know, beloved, that your purpose—the reason you are here—is to glory in the wonder of it all. Your purpose is to see the utter miracle and majesty of life and in so doing to dwell in gratitude and love for all that is!”

This story affirms that the simple fact that we have been born out of Earth is testimony to our worthiness; that we belong; that we have a right to be here; that we are enough just as we are. And that our “job” is simply to love ourselves, to love each other, and to love our home. That this is what the world calls us to—what our souls call us to. And that there are as many ways of doing this as there are beating human hearts.

§§§

In the classic rendering of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the hero leaves the comfort of home and steps into the unknown, facing harrowing ordeals. Consider that today’s climate crisis represents the unknown (in the form of challenging ordeals) for all of us. Our willingness to face these challenges will be a measure of our character, our aliveness, and our humanity, as well as the determinant of our legacy, for better or worse, to future generations.

There is no doubt that Planet Earth will survive this ordeal—her climate has changed many times over the past 4.5 billion years—but the prognosis for our species is far from certain. Yes, we, too, have now become an “endangered species.”

Our future, for better or worse, will be determined by the stories we live by. If we continue to live in our old story of alienation and abuse, then this story will dictate our fate. But there is a new story that we can choose! This new story is grounded in the belief that healing is possible; that a more beautiful world is possible; that our highest calling in life is not separation, but connection; not abuse, but nurturing; not alienation, but love; and that genuine success is not about taking, but giving; not about mindless rushing, but mindful presence; not about dominating, but serving. When we are attuned to this soulful story, we see that climate chaos, for all its horrors, is an opportunity to move beyond our current adolescent behaviors and to birth ourselves as full-fledged nurturing adults! In this light, climate chaos might even be interpreted as Earth’s way of directing our attention to our childish ways. In this vein, it is important to acknowledge that just as a human mother might boot a disrespectful, selfish adolescent out of her home, so might Mother Earth give us the proverbial boot if we don’t shape up and grow up.

If there is to be a new story for us, I am certain that love will be nested at its center. It all comes down to love, doesn’t it? Isn’t love our deepest and highest calling? Isn’t love why we are here! And if so, might the way forward be to transform the horror story that is climate chaos into a love story that begins with our coming home to ourselves. How? By honoring and respecting our emotions, our physical bodies, our intuitive intelligence and our higher purpose; and in so doing, coming to honor and respect the planet that has birthed us into being, Mother Earth. 

[1]. J. Macy and M. Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect, Our Lives, Our World (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1998).

[2]. P. Shepherd, New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010).

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  • Christopher Uhl

    Christopher Uhl is Professor of Biology at Penn State University. He is author of two books: Developing Ecological Consciousness: The End of Separation; and Teaching as if Life Matters: The Promise of a New Education Culture. Visit Uhl’s personal website at www.chrisuhl.net and his teaching website at http://www.personal.psu.edu/cfu1/.

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