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Initiation Into a Living Planet

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Most people have passed through some kind of initiation in life. By that, I mean a crisis that defies what you knew and what you were. From the rubble of the ensuing collapse, a new self is born into a new world.

Societies can also pass through an initiation. That is what climate change poses to the present global civilization. It is not a mere "problem" that we can solve from the currently dominant worldview and its solution-set but asks us to inhabit a new Story of the People and a new (and ancient) relationship to the rest of life.

A key element of this transformation is from a geomechanical worldview to a Living Planet worldview. In my last essay, I argued that the climate crisis will not be solved by adjusting levels of atmospheric gases, as if we were tinkering with the air-fuel mixture of a diesel engine. Rather, a living Earth can only be healthy -- can only stay living in fact -- if its organs and tissues are vital. These comprise the forests, the soil, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the fish, the whales, the elephants, the seagrass meadows, the mangrove swamps, and all the rest of Earth's systems and species. If we continue degrading and destroying them, then even if we cut emissions to zero overnight, Earth would still die a death of a million cuts.

That is because it is life that maintains the conditions for life, through dimly understood processes as complex as any living physiology. Vegetation produces volatile compounds that promote the formation of clouds that reflect sunlight. Megafauna transport nitrogen and phosphorus across continents and oceans to maintain the carbon cycle. Forests generate a "biotic pump" of persistent low pressure that brings rain to continental interiors and maintains atmospheric flow patterns. Whales bring nutrients up from the deep ocean to nourish plankton. Wolves control deer populations so that forest understory remains viable, allowing rainfall absorption and preventing droughts and fires. Beavers slow the progress of water from land to sea, buffering floods and modulating silt discharge into coastal waters so that life there can thrive. Mycelial mats tie vast areas together in a neural network exceeding the human brain in its complexity. And all of these processes interlock with each other.

In my book Climate -- A New Story I make the case that much of the climate derangement that we blame on greenhouse gases actually comes from direct disruption of ecosystems. It has been happening for millennia: drought and desertification has followed wherever humans have cut down forests and exposed soil to erosion.

The phrase "disruption of ecosystems" sounds scientific compared to "harming and killing living beings." But from the Living Planet view, it is the latter that is more accurate. A forest is not just a collection of living trees -- it is itself alive. The soil is not just a medium in which life grows; the soil is alive. So is a river, a reef, and a sea. Just as it is a lot easier to degrade, to exploit, and to kill a person when one sees the victim as less than human, so too it is easier to kill Earth's beings when we see them as unliving and unconscious already. The clearcuts, the strip mines, the drained swamps, the oil spills, and so on are inevitable when we see Earth as a dead thing, insensate, an instrumental pile of resources.

Our stories are powerful. If we see the world as dead, we will kill it. And if we see the world as alive, we will learn how to serve its healing.

The Living Planet View

And in fact, the world is alive. It is not just the host of life. The forests and reefs and wetlands are its organs. The waters are its blood. The soil is its skin. The animals are its cells. This is not an exact analogy, but the conclusion it invites is valid: that if these beings lose their integrity, the whole planet will wither.

I will not try to make an intellectual case for the livingness of planet Earth, which would depend on what definition of life I use. Besides, I'd like to go further and say Earth is sentient, conscious, and intelligent as well -- a scientifically insupportable claim. So instead of trying to argue the point, I'll ask the skeptic to stand barefoot on the earth and feel the truth of it. I believe that however skeptical you are, however fervently you opine that life is just a fortuitous chemical accident driven by blind physical forces, a tiny flame of knowledge burns in every person that Earth, water, soil, air, the sun, the clouds, and the wind are alive and aware, feeling us at the same time as we feel them.

I know the skeptic well because I am he. A creeping doubt takes hold of me when I spend a lot of time indoors, in front of a screen, surrounded by standardized inorganic objects that mirror the deadness of the modernist conception of the world.

Surely the exhortation to connect barefoot with the living Earth would be out of place at an academic climate conference or meeting of the IPCC. Occasionally such events indulge a moment of touchy-feely ceremony or trot out an indigenous person to invoke the four directions before everyone enters the conference room to get down to business, the business of data and graphs, models and projections, costs and benefits. What is real, in that world, is the numbers. Such environments -- of quantitative abstractions as well as conditioned air, unvarying artificial light, identical chairs, and ubiquitous right angles -- banish any life except the human. Nature exists only in representation, and Earth seems alive only in theory, and probably not at all.

What is considered real in those places are the numbers -- how ironic, given that numbers are the quintessence of abstraction, of the reduction of the many to the one. The data-driven mind seeks to solve problems by the numbers too. My inner math geek would love to solve the climate crisis by evaluating every possible policy according to its net carbon footprint. Each ecosystem, each technology, each energy project, I would assign a greenhouse value. Then I would order up more of this one and less of that one, offsetting jet travel with tree planting, compensating for wetlands destruction here with solar panels there, to meet a certain greenhouse gas budget. I would apply the methods and mindsets that have grown up around financial accounting -- money being another way of reducing the many to the one.

Unfortunately, as with money, carbon reductionism ignores everything that seems not to affect the balance sheet. Thus it is that traditional environmental issues such as habitat conservation, saving the whales, or cleaning up toxic waste get short shrift in the climate movement. "Green" has come to mean "low-carbon."

In the Living Planet view, this is a huge mistake, since the ignored whales, wolves, beavers, butterflies, and so on are among the organs and tissues that keep Gaia whole. By offsetting our air travel miles with tree planting, sourcing our electricity from solar panels, and thereby donning the mantle of "eco-friendly," we assuage the conscience while obscuring the ongoing harm that our present way of life generates. We imply that "sustainability" means the sustaining of society as we know it, but with non-fossil fuel sources.

This is not to say that it is fine to continue burning fossil fuels as always. In reaction to my last essay, some people labeled me a climate denier or a tool of climate deniers. This is a natural reaction in a highly polarized environment in which the first lens applied to any person or position is "Which side are you on?" In a war setting, any information, however true, that is inconsistent with our side's narrative must be rejected as rendering aid and comfort to the enemy. When both sides do that, the result is a binary choice that shuts out any alternative that may lie outside either pole and even outside the spectrum of opinion that the two poles define. Furthermore, shutting out conflicting data means that each side becomes impervious to growth, change, and truth.

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Charles Eisenstein is a visionary author and speaker, 
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