It’s known by many names: Eco-grief. Collapse-grief. Climate Change Shock. Extinction Despair. Climate trauma.
There are a ton of writings out there about this phenomenon. I’ve tried to ignore most of them (for the reasons below), but the one by my friend and teacher Vicki Robin really grabbed me in a way that produced this response.
I’ve known Vicki for almost 30 years. I’ve had a lot of respect for both her and her work. Her book “Your Money or Your Life” has been a personal game-changer for me — I see myself as both practicing and encouraging her philosophy of “Voluntary Simplicity”.
However, her recent work has affected me in precisely the opposite way: I do NOT agree with it! I see the world very differently. As I was reading and feeling her levels of despair, I was trying to figure out where the despair came from. I simply don’t feel it.
Here’s her article: Climate Change from the Inside Out: Shock. Grief. Respond. Relief. Repeat
Dismay, Yes. Despair, No.
I am incredibly pissed off that we let ALL of our crises get this bad. We’ve seen the handwriting on the wall for decades, and have done little except try to paint over the handwriting. Over 30 years ago, in “The Power of One: Authentic Leadership in Turbulent Times”, I talked about our need to transform our consciousness.
I’m dismayed that Commonway’s workshops on global crisis and global solutions get a handful of participants, while the latest “success” and “get rich quick” seminars have thousands of followers (as though you can “find success” on a decimated planet). And “dancing kittens” videos get millions of hits.
Despite this, I don’t feel grief or despair. I think there are several reasons:
The Camden Factor:
One reason may be that I was raised in Camden, NJ. I never thought of the world as “working”. I never saw the erosion of society… I was born and raised INSIDE the erosion! Living/surviving in the “Worst City in America“ gives one a perspective that is especially useful in times like this.
Living in systems failure, I had no expectations of “success“. Nothing worked. I never thought, at any time, that any of our institutions worked, or would work. I was never trying to resuscitate the Breaker Society, so I’ve never been disappointed when it didn’t work.
What Societal Collapse Looks Like
I remember the dazed and anguished look on the faces of many of my friends on the day Trump was elected. Not me. I knew Trump could get elected. And, I saw his election (and the subsequent train wreck of his Presidency) as a necessary step in the metamorphosis of our society. Trumpian politics is what political collapse looks like.
Trump’s election is a major step in the death of the American political system. That death is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. The butterfly cannot begin to take form until the caterpillar is complete mush. It’s like a woman’s water breaking, right before labor. Always uncomfortable, embarrassing, unpleasant… and an absolutely necessary precursor to BIRTH.
What Societal Birth Looks Like
Most ecological mitigation is like a woman with a garden hose, trying to re-fill her womb after her water breaks. She doesn’t understand the purpose of her water breaking. She doesn’t understand the process. And she doesn’t understand that the process is one-way.
Vicki‘s essay is what a fetus in the womb would say, right before it experiences birth. Like climate collapse, birth is not something that we have ever consciously experienced. It is something that we can believe in, that we can KNOW, once we understand and believe that SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENS.
If you are in grief and despair, you are not thinking about what comes next.
Let’s take the birth analogy a little further:
- An image: a woman sitting with a huge belly, despondent, sad, lamenting the “tumor” that is growing inside of her, sapping away her life. She is talking about how miserable she is, how much pain she is enduring. She has no future. The pains are getting worse. She is contemplating suicide.
- Another image: a second woman with a huge belly, her hand resting lovingly on her “bump”, beautiful smile on her face, talking about how happy she is and how great her future looks. The pains are getting worse, but she’s not focusing on them. She is contemplating breast-feeding.
What is the difference between the two images? I think it’s belief and vision.
The woman joyfully anticipating the birth of her child has millions years of terrestrial biology informing her perspective. She’s heard of babies, she’s seen babies before, she has BEEN a baby. She knows what’s happening… including the pains, the swollen legs, the mood swings. She knows the end result.
So, the question isn’t whether or not we are experiencing the global equivalent of labor. The question is: do we understand/know what being born?
I can tell you for sure what is NOT EVER GOING TO WORK: we will not reverse/ reform/ delay/ mitigate ANY of the processes we have set in motion. Ecological, social, political, economic… all of these processes will be transformed, into systems and structures that look nothing like what now exists.
Grief comes from frustration, because you’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem. The problem is not BEHAVIOR. The problem is CONSCIOUSNESS. You can pass a million laws, treaties, regulations, and they all can be overturned, nullified, or just ignored.
- Remember that the United States Congress and Supreme Court ignored the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, for 100 years. They didn’t repeal these laws, or even debate them. They simply ignored them.
- Remember that the Dust Bowl farmers, as soon as the regulations on damaging farming techniques were lifted, went right back to the disastrous practices that caused the Dust Bowl in the first place. The laws changed, but their consciousness didn’t.
Without a consciousness shift, people will just find more clever ways of avoiding them. With a transformation of consciousness, you won’t have to pass laws.
INDIVIDUALLY, YOUR GRIEF IMPAIRS YOUR IMAGINATION.
So, what IS the goal? All of the upheavals, past, present and future, are aimed at transforming our CONSCIOUSNESS. These are all SYMPTOMS, for which there can be only one RESPONSE. (Well, two, if you include denial, despair, depression and suicide as a response.)
All of our maladies are the result of individualized, atomized, separated consciousness. This has reached its practical/spiritual climax. It’s birth or death.
Our vision: a global human consciousness, a consciousness not at war with itself, in harmony with all other living beings and the Earth Herself.
Awakening the Consciousness of the Whole
We’ve been talking about “awakening consciousness“ for a long, long time. There are entire institutions that have sprung up around people clarifying their inner beings and working through their limitations, shadows and barriers, becoming deeper connected to themselves and the world.
I endorse all of this. It’s really good and necessary work. I’ve done awakening work on myself, over decades of time.
AND THAT IS NOT WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. The problem is that those who have been doing their individualized inner work think that they’re finished. But, the individual work is just half the transformation.
If every single person in America meditated, we would live in a much more mindful and compassionate society. AND IT WOULD NOT BE ENOUGH TO HALT THE SLIDE TO DESTRUCTION. We are being called to something greater.
The stakes are higher than that, higher than the individual, no matter how “enlightened” that individual may be. A unified, global consciousness would not trash the environment in the first place.
We have a powerful role to play in this global transformation to planetary consciousness. In fact, this birth will not happen without us. (Let me be clear: the Earth will get along quite fine without humans. If humanity does not take this collective path in time, we will hit overshoot and die-back – we will extinguish ourselves. The Earth will look like its had a bad cold for a few centuries, then it will bounce back… without us. And then some other species will come forward to provide the systems and structures for a planetary consciousness.)
Within the caterpillar, we are the “imaginal cells”, the individual cells that hold the pattern, the blueprint for the butterfly. Many of us know the analogy of the caterpillar-butterfly metamorphosis. But, the one thing we pay little attention to is this: THE IMAGINAL CELLS CANNOT DREAM UP THE BUTTERFLY AS INDIVIDUALS. It is only when the imaginal cells start clumping together that the butterfly happens.
YOUR TASK IS TO FACILITATE OUR COMING TOGETHER, INTO A COLLECTIVE HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS.
What’s that have to do with climate change? Actually, everything.
My friend Peter Russell talks about his prediction of a “collective near death experience“, something that humanity on this planet will experience in the near future. I agree with him. It’s just that I call this moment “birth“.
Think about how profound the metamorphosis is between fetus and child. The fetus receives ALL of its nutrients through a relatively tiny hole in its belly. It has no need for… just about anything! Lungs, stomach, nose, eyes… No sense of smell, touch, taste, sight … It is a clean slate.
Is a fetus aware of its lungs while it’s still in the womb? Probably not. If the fetus were a Breaker scientist, it would label its lungs “junk organs”. It has no use for them. And it wouldn’t even know HOW to use them. Lungs are completely theoretical, even “fictional”, until the moment of birth. And then they are both logical and essential.
So… what organs or abilities do we now have that we are currently unaware of, until the moment of our collective human consciousness transformation? What are the possibilities when you bring human beings together, to envision and manifest a global consciousness? Think about some of the ending chapters of “The Chronicles of the Upheavals“. We will be able to revive the environment with a THOUGHT. End “climate change” in a weekend…
[NOTE: as a matter of policy, Commonway does not publish “anonymous“ comments. However, as is this case, Commonway knows the person in question and respects their wish for privacy.]
Comments by “Portland Resident“ in black.
Thanks for this. Good stuff!
I liked your point of shifting our collective human consciousness, about the problem being consciousness not our behaviors.
It raised a number of questions/comments for me:
Question: First and foremost, how? How do we shift our collective human consciousness? I know there are no silver bullets to this work, but I think we’re in need of a general pointer.
Actually, this is the EASY part! There ARE silver bullets! We already know HOW to blend human consciousness… we’ve been doing it for a long, long time. We’ve just never done it with the purpose of benefitting ALL BEINGS.
The techniques of transcending individual consciousness have been used for millennia, by religions, governments (and increasingly, corporations) to get people to conform to a perspective, a point of view. We easily recognize these techniques: voices (songs, chants, tones); coordinated movements (dance, ritual prayers); smells (incense, communal cooking); sounds (drums, bells, horns, silence); communal events (religious festivals, political rallies).
In modern times, the list would include basketball games, movies, and concerts (classical to rock). A friend of mine, a well-known mezzo soprano, was once singing in one of Europe’s famous opera houses. While she had sung a particular song before, that night, the conditions were “right” for an experience in blended consciousness. In the middle of the song, she burst into tears — without missing a note. And the entire audience joined her. Not a dry eye in the house.
If you asked the thousands who were in the audience WHY they were crying, they may talk about the beauty of the singing, or the acoustics of the opera house. But the real reason was that the moment was SHARED.
Consider this moment, mentioned five years ago in “Currents and Futures” as an experience of “ordinary ecstasy” (https://commonway.org/2014/02/16/ordinary-ecstasy/):
When I lived in Charlotte, NC, I was one of the hundreds attending the outdoor movies on the Art Museum lawn. Once, when the operator was changing reels, a huge meteor streaked across the sky. The hundreds of us, all at once, said, “Oooh!” And then fell silent.
It wasn’t just the beauty of seeing the meteor… it was all of us, having a shared experience of that beauty. A moment of ecstasy.
Now: What if we can create these moments of shared beauty and shared consciousness INTENTIONALLY? And CONSISTENTLY?
I believe “blended consciousness” provides the setting, the framework for an experience of “ordinary ecstasy” — the ecstasy of the ordinary moments in our lives.
(I invite you to read that article, as well as the comments attached to the article. They are important. Said one (in part):
“…all of the darkness and ignorance so prominently displayed in the world must have it’s equivalent of wisdom and light. These latter elements do not, by their nature, stand up and ask for attention, and so are less apparent to the casual observer. If I look, though, it really is obvious that ecstasy is, indeed, extraordinarily ordinary.”
Question: Are there examples of where this has happened — a shift in consciousness — throughout history? I feel like end of the Atlantic slave trade was one example. Women’s rights (which we still have a long way to go on). And maybe the move towards Democracy. There are probably countless economic development examples, though most of those seem to be elite-driven.
While all of your examples point to changes in human behavior that demonstrate incremental changes in how people think about things, none of them are changes in what we mean by “consciousness“.
What I’m talking about is quite profound, the bedrock of existence itself.
We know the “Standard Model”. We know what “consciousness” is. It’s something in your brain. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the physical world — it just moves you around.
What if the Standard Model” is simply WRONG? Or, perhaps not “wrong“, but only one way, one half of the way of looking at the question of “what is consciousness“. What if it’s half of the equation, and the other half is held by the Keepers (indigenous people) and the Eastern mystics? People who have had a fundamentally different experience of consciousness.
What is possible, when there are NO LIMITS TO CONSCIOUSNESS?