13 June 2019

Charles Eisenstein's New Story of Climate Change



Every now and then you come across a book that radically changes the way you look at things. I’ve been an environmentalist for a few years now, but before reading Charles Eisenstein's Climate: A New Story, I was confused about where my priorities should lie. The current wave of discourse on plastics and climate change suggests that these are the only issues that require our immediate attention. But even before reading this book, I was painfully aware of other concerns this conversation leaves out: soil erosion, loss of biodiversity; the list goes on.

CE’s book gave me a completely new perspective on the environmental crisis in all its forms. It helped me to navigate through the mainstream, reductionist narrative of climate change, go deeper, and re-set my priorities. Whether you are an environmental activist, a neutral, or a climate skeptic, this book will change the way you look at climate change, the earth, and yourself.

A little disclaimer before I start: This blog post really doesn’t do the book justice; it’s a mere introduction to some of CE’s ideas. My hope is that I might spark an interest in CE's writing – in which case, I really encourage you to read the whole book. I've used a lot of quotes, just because he writes so eloquently that often there isn't much point in my paraphrasing. OK, here goes.

A SIMPLIFIED PROBLEM

If you watch the news, you might think global warming is the biggest environmental issue we face right now, and that if we could only overcome this issue (by switching to renewable energy), people could carry on with their lives undisturbed. Or, you might be a skeptic who doesn’t believe in global warming at all.

CE’s book presents an important assertion: climate change is not the only, let alone the main, environmental issue we face. Rather, climate change is one symptom of a much deeper, more widespread condition that has dominated ever since the birth of modern civilisation.

This condition, in its most basic form, is a warped relationship with nature. It's rooted in the perception that we humans are not part of nature, but separate to or 'above' it. Following this perception, our relationship with nature is one of dominance: we must control it, extract its 'resources' and maximise its productivity for our benefit. This manifests itself in every part of our lives, from the food we eat, to the way we develop our cities, to how we work, travel and spend our leisure time. 

Knowingly or unknowingly, we are attacking, manipulating, and degrading nature on every level, across the planet. Climate change is just one piece of evidence that our actions are causing a seismic shift, but it is by no means the whole issue. And chasing after one piece of superficial evidence will leave the real root of the cause untouched.

“Earth is a complex living system whose homeostatic maintenance depends on the robust interaction of every living and nonliving subsystem. […] the biggest threat to life on earth is not fossil fuel emissions, but the loss of forests, soil, wetlands, and marine ecosystems. Life maintains life. When these relationships break down the results are unpredictable: global warming, perhaps, or global cooling, or the increasingly unstable gyrations of a system spinning out of control. This is the threat we face, and because it is multifactorial and nonlinear, it cannot be overcome by simply reducing CO2 emissions.”

Why have we simplified the issue, you might ask? Well, it’s in our nature to find the easiest way out: identify an obvious, tangible ‘cause’ and solve that immediate problem. We do it all the time in medicine, by treating surface symptoms of a disease rather than going deeper to explore the multitude of circumstances and factors that have caused it. 

“Bodies, ecosystems, genomes, societies, and the planet are complex systems. It is tempting to view them otherwise – as extremely complicated machines – because then we can apply our familiar methods of top-down problem solving and feel like we are in control of the situation. The epitome of this illusion is war thinking, […] and it extends to every technology of control, from border walls to antibiotic drugs to concrete waterways. Each ends up generating awful unintended consequences, usually including the very opposite of what it was attempting to control (immigration, disease, flooding).”

“I am not saying that there is never a time to surgically remove a cancer, wipe out an infection with antibiotics, or suppress an invasive species. There is, in life, sometimes the occasion for a fight. Fighting is not the problem; the problem is the habit of fighting, motivated by an inaccurate world view that rushes to find an enemy to blame.” 

We’re focusing all our attention on ‘fighting’ climate change: the obvious enemy; the surface symptom of the deeper disease. Our top-down approach leads us to look at reducing carbon emissions as the matter of utmost priority, and meanwhile we go back and forth in furious debate with the “deniers”. All the while, though, the deeper disease, the real crisis – the condition of humans destroying the natural world – carries on. Even if we reduce carbon emissions to zero, as long as we don’t change the conditions of this real crisis, the earth will continue to degrade.

“The problem with the climate debate then, is primarily one of misplaced emphasis. Whether average global temperatures are increasing is not the main issue. We are engaged in the wrong debate. Climate derangement will continue even if we stop emitting carbon, and it will bring calamity even if average temperatures remain constant. That is because Earth is a living body, not a machine, and we have been destroying its tissues and organs.”

Moreover, the idea that energy is our biggest issue, that we need to meet a continually growing demand for energy, assumes that we can and should carry on living lives that exploit the planet in all realms, so long as we reduce carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are “the convenient problem, fitting comfortably into the familiar blueprint narrative of the onward march of technology”. CE is arguing that deeper transformation is necessary, and it must disrupt our ideas of technological progress, development and money.

THE REAL CRISIS

OK, if climate change isn’t the main issue, then what is? I’ll leave it to CE’s words, because he puts it better than I can.

“We are in fact facing a very serious climate crisis. However, the main threat is not warming per se; it is what we might call ‘climate derangement.’ This derangement is caused primarily by the degradation of ecosystems worldwide: the draining of wetlands, the clear-cutting of forests, the tillage and erosion of soil, the decimation of fish, the destruction of habitats for development, the poisoning of air, soil, and water with chemicals, the damming of rivers, the extermination of predators, and so on. Through disruption of the carbon cycle, the water cycle, and more mysterious Gaian processes, these activities degrade the resiliency of the ecosphere, leaving it unable to cope with the additional greenhouse gases emitted through human activity. The result may or may not be continued global warming, but it is certain to bring increasingly wild fluctuations not only in temperature but also, more importantly, in rainfall.”

The book goes on to explain in detail the myriad consequences of the actions described above, including destabilising the water cycle, which in turn affects all other natural processes. The ultimate consequence (already underway) is the overall weakening, and literal death, of swathes of the planet - what we can consider its "organs and tissues". The slow death of a living planet. That's already alarming enough, but for those who might still consider climate change to be "the main issue", CE devotes the next chapter to exploring the effects of ecosystem degradation on carbon specifically.

“Quite possibly, the effect of deforestation, soil loss, biodiversity loss, swamp and peat bog draining, draining of mangroves, and other land use changes is so severe that one could reasonably argue – even in the carbon (as opposed to water) frame – that climate change is caused by these activities as much as by burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuel burning intensifies the instability that ecological devastation would cause anyway.”

So, ultimately, whichever way you look at it (and the book explores a multitude of perspectives, including that of the climate skeptic/denier), our first priority must be to address the deeper issue of ecosystem degradation. We must work to restore these ecosystems, starting on a local level. A reduction in carbon emissions will naturally follow.

THE REAL SOLUTION

“We face a choice. Which world shall we live in? […] a concrete planet, or a planet profuse with life? A beautiful world or an ugly world? A living world or a dead world?” 

“Caring about other beings, about life, about our planet is aboriginal to our humanness.”

The real solution of the ecological crisis depends totally on our reconnection with nature. We need to want to protect the planet because of its inherent beauty and value, not because we fear human extinction, or because we want to generate more ‘resources’ for our consumption. We need to fall in love with nature again, instilling a deep dedication, akin to a mother’s unconditional love for her child. CE calls it a “revolution of love:”

“It is to know the forests as sacred again, and the mangroves and the rivers, the mountains and the reefs, each and every one. It is to love them for their own beingness, and not merely to protect them because of their climate benefits.”

Throughout the book, CE masterfully explores why, for many of us, nature is no longer sacred. Why we might consider ourselves separate from nature; the planet a resource for our consumption. I won't go into these discussions here, but like all of the nuances in this book, understanding how we got here is essential to moving forward.

In terms of practical solutions, we need to shift our attention away from the “emissions obsession” and towards regenerating ecosystems, specifically on a local level.

“Whether we are looking through the lens of carbon or water, from the living systems perspective we see that climate health depends on the health of local ecosystems everywhere.”

If we proceed with CE's analogy of the earth as a living body, we can consider the earth's ecosystems different parts of the body, parts of the whole. Just like a body depends on healthy organs and tissues to thrive, so too the earth’s survival relies on healthy forests, soil, oceans, wetlands, etc. and a respect for its intelligent, self-regulating systems. Protecting the river that runs nearby your house might seem futile in the big, bad “fight” against climate change, but if we look at the earth as living, that river is a vein that connects to the entire body; it might even be a vital artery leading to the heart.

Local action of this kind is the key to ecological healing. Crucially, local action is accessible to all. Most people, whether environmentalists or not, feel totally hopeless in the "fight" against climate change. This is often because they believe it too big a problem for any one person or community to do anything about. "Leave it to the governments", they might think, "it's up to them to switch everyone to renewables and ban dirty energy." Local action, on the other hand, offers concrete opportunities to take part in positive change, small but significant. It invites participation from all members of the community, and the results are tangible and even visible.

“People cannot see changes in atmospheric concentration of invisible, odourless gases, nor can they be directly aware of distant effects on climate, but they can see (or feel the effects of) denuded hillsides, erosion gullies, smog, toxic waste, contaminated water, and so forth. They can also see the return of songbirds, the rising of water tables, the return of fish, and the clearing of air and water pollution where pro-environmental policies are implemented.”

Moreover, it's much more likely people will be persuaded to protect a local place that means something to them. Most people live (or have lived) near a woodland, or near the ocean, or even perhaps just near a tree; a piece of nature that brings them joy, something they value just because. If asked to protect it, to fight against activities that would destroy it, or to take part in activities to help it thrive, most people would gladly accept. Because they care about this piece of nature. Therefore, the motivation behind local action is sincere love and care. It isn't, like the standard climate change narrative, motivated by fear of natural disasters in faraway places, or of human extinction;

“Let’s admit that we are acting from love of this forest, not for its instrumental role in global carbon sequestration. That we are acting from love of this soil, this lake, this estuary, this place, trusting that the health of one will contribute to the health of all, whether or not we can cite a climate argument to prove it.” 

“If everyone focused their love, care, and commitment on protecting and regenerating their local places, while respecting the local places of others, then a side effect would be the resolution of the climate crisis.”

This is not to say that local action is the only thing that should happen, or that wider political and societal transformation is not necessary. But falling in love with nature again, honouring its inherent value, acknowledging ourselves as part of it - this is the essential medicine that addresses the root of the condition. It's where the transformation begins, and that must start from each and every one of us.

The book does explore, in detail, the necessary wider “shift in values toward the local, the participatory, the embodied, the communal, toward wholeness and empathy, toward the restoration of ecological relationships”. However, I’ll leave you to read the rest and complete the picture of Charles Eisenstein’s masterpiece, of which I’ve only scratched the surface. These are a few of the things I’ve left out:

  • Why we find ourselves in this condition of environmental degradation
  • Our relationship to the earth and each other
  • Climate skepticism, alarmism and apathy
  • How ecological health and social health are intertwined
  • What successful regenerative agriculture looks like
  • Why the earth is sacred in itself and cannot be quantified
  • Our ideas of progress and development, and the faults therein
  • What sustainability really looks like
  • Distribution and abundance of resources
  • The problem with our economic system: endless growth on a finite planet
  • What an ecological economy looks like
  • The limitations of science
  • A clear list of policies and changes necessary for social and ecological healing


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