Do we really need to live through social and environmental crises to learn who we are and how to adapt?
Every year the global environmental outlook seems to look more dire. There are plenty of improvements in places. But our atmosphere is becoming choked with carbon dioxide. Forests that have sustained humanity for thousands of years are being flattened for farming and mining. Nuclear waste in Japan is leaking into our seas. Dead zones in lakes and oceans are starving fish of oxygen. Famines from droughts, water scarcity, farming methods, and soaring food prices are looking more likely.
You get the picture. It’s not pretty. And it would be dishonest to paint a good story over all this—the veneer would quickly crumble.
Most stories about our planet’s future are gloomy. And regardless of what we like to say or think, if we keep living and working in the ways that we’re doing then we’re not heading for a happy ending. By “we” I mean humanity, even though some of us are causing much more benefit/harm than others.
We can respond to our world in plenty of ways.
We can stay comfortably numb. We can blame others, like businesses or government. We can feel traumatised and frozen by the scale of the damage. We can feel disoriented and confused about the source of the problems. We can feel disempowered. We can wear a mask of hope. We can try to be the hero. We can hold back the tears or bristle with anger. We can fight. We can wallow. We can feel world-weary and worry. We can make changes in our life and work. We can light a candle in the dark. We can make time to notice all the great people and positive changes. We can be honest. We can work with others. We can do what we wish for. We can sink, or keep one another afloat.
Our future is written in our words and our actions.
This morning I heard UK sustainability leader Jonathon Porritt speak at an event in Wellington. When I first heard this great man speak ten years ago, I felt incredibly inspired. Today I felt his anger. He recently wrote that “Whenever I see ‘sustainability’ included in a long list of issues to be addressed by a company or a local authority, I find it difficult to avoid exploding with rage.”
I’m easily freaked by how much harm we could do to our planet and people this century. Sometimes I also feel anger. Fear and anger are easily-provoked emotional responses that surface when we’re feeling threatened. When we see ourselves as part of something larger (e.g. a family, a tribe, a community, a nation, or our planet) then there’s plenty to feel threatened by. We want to protect what we love.
But the future is always an open book. We don’t need to live in fear or be driven (and burned) by anger. That’s a recipe for self-destruction.
What I really admire about Jonathon Porritt’s approach is that he’s telling stories about how much greater the world could become in the next few decades. He sees people’s potential. He’s spreading the seeds of change. He shines light on possibilities, which inspire other people.
Our stories reveal our inner states (i.e. how we feel and think about the world). I get the impression that Jonathon Porritt has fought for a lot over the last forty years because he cares so deeply. It’s hard to not “explode”, but he still has faith in humanity.
But I have a great fear…
When I look at how much change is required, I wonder if humanity needs to experience a series of crises that could well be coming our way, such as droughts, hurricanes, famines, wars and poverty, to learn what we need to learn for living well on our planet. What saddens me is that we already have everything that we need to avert these crises in the first place.
Fictional stories—which are based on deep observations of human beings—can teach us something here.
Stories are usually based on plot and character. It’s the role of the plot to reveal the character (i.e the inner qualities of a person, such as their courage, strength or determination). The protagonist of a story often encounters a big challenge, or obstacles, which force them to face the truth about themselves. When they resolve these issues, they “win” something worthwhile (like a lover, a race, freedom or peace).
So let us, for a moment, imagine that humanity as a whole is just one character in a big story about climate change. Do we need to go through cascading crises to reveal our courage, compassion, beauty, strength, resilience, ingenuity and real power? Or do we just think that we need to go through these crises, because that’s how our minds are used to seeing stories play out?
There’s only one way out of this hole, as far as I can tell: drop the drama and just show good character. It really just comes down to having the conviction to care for what we value.
There’s great character in all of us.
The pulling-power of any story is based on how well we can relate with its characters. We relate with these characters because they mirror our own (embodied or potential) character. We see our own strengths, weaknesses, fears, fallibilities, foolishness, beauty, power and potential played out in the lives of these fictional characters.
It’s the same with real-life people. We feel greatly inspired by some leaders or everyday heroes because they reflect part of ourself: who we deeply are and how we could be in the world. Sometimes we also feel hatred or anger towards people because they reflect part of ourself that we do not like or understand.
So really all the world needs is more of us showing courage, creativity and compassion. We need more people showing us what we could do, if we really put our minds to it. We need more people taking leaps of imagination and conviction. We’re part of this planet and its collective intelligence. We’re limited by our beliefs more than anything else. We don’t need to create our own crises.
Easier said than done? Maybe. But let’s get on with it.