“I’m by no means convinced that consumerism and inequality are the worst things in the world, or that we are hurtling towards environmental doom. But wouldn’t it be nice if all those who believed these things to be true moved to bucolic communes where they’d busy themselves with handicrafts instead of tormenting the rest of us?” 1
Cynical put downs of those who care about humanity’s fate amid escalating climate crises — like the quote above — arise from fact denial in favor of “business as usual” convictions, no matter what.
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Former Vice President Dick Cheney famously said, “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” 2 This was not a new sentiment. As far as we know, these words originated with former President George Bush Sr., who uttered them back in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro. Talk about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time!
The stunning myopia that these words reveal shines a hard light on how perception arises from beliefs, not facts. It’s not difficult, especially now, over twenty years later, to understand how the insistence on our American lifestyle — not restricted to Americans — has blinded us to the facts of what is happening in our own back yard and on the planet at large.
Statistics about climate change, species extinctions, ice melts and rising sea levels, do nothing to alter perception based in beliefs about exceptionalism. Humans are exceptional. Americans are especially exceptional. We live above the laws of life themselves. How strong are those convictions? Strong enough to blind us to the cliff we’re fast approaching.
Remember, the Titanic was unsinkable. As it cruised through iceberg infested waters, racing at an unsafe speed, the Captain sipped his tea (at least in the movie depiction), convinced his great ship was immune to damage. A more sobering perspective was delivered by their engineer who studied the damage (no, the ship was not immune to damage), and reported, simply, “The ship will sink.”
There are scientists who argue that it’s already too late to save ourselves. This ship will sink. Humans will go the way of the Dodo bird, the long extinct flightless bird last seen in 1662 on the island of Mauritius. History tells us the Dodo was hunted to extinction and that until fossil remains confirmed its existence, it was thought to have been a myth.
Is it possible that human beings will one day be a myth, in the lore of whatever life forms replace us? That’s not likely; weve left our mark! The planet is scarred with our activities and those wounds will take time to heal. What about an alternative? What about human survival through adaptation, because survival — not lifestyle — becomes non-negotiable?
In her essay, The Skill of Ecological Perception, Harvard lecturer Laura Sewall writes, “Skillful perception is the practice of intentionally sensing with our eyes, pores, and hearts wide open. It requires receptivity and the participation of our whole selves, despite the potential pain. It means fully witnessing both the magnificence and destruction of our Earth. It is allowing one’s identity and boundaries to be permeable and flexible. I refer to this way of perceiving as ecological perception.” 3
It hurts to see this way because what’s revealed is the extent of human caused destruction. I’m reminded of an old Star Trek TV show, from the original series, where Captain Kirk is held captive by a race of advanced beings adept at mind control. Breaking free, Kirk sees things as they are, including the damage caused by his crew’s phaser weapons, which they had fired indiscriminately when first attacked but discarded when they seemed to have had no effect.
We’ve used more than phasers, and our actions have had effect, monstrously so as evidenced by environmental catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukashima and the rash of devastating oil spills, plus droughts caused by rain forest decimation, etc. “When will they ever learn?” Pete Seeger sang in his 1955 epic, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Apparently, not yet. Tea Party Activist and 2012 Presidential candidate Herman Cain said, “Do we have climate change? Yes. Is it a crisis? No. … Because the science, the real science, doesn’t say that we have any major crisis or threat when it comes to climate change.” 4
Where do we turn for hope? This Native American prayer is a good start: “Give us the wisdom to teach our children to love, to respect and be kind to one another, so that we may grow with peace in mind.” Learning to love is the answer that has eluded us. This is what develops peace in the mind, which leads to a fundamentally different attitude towards the earth. American philosopher David Abram wrote, “The ecological crisis may be the result of a recent and collective perceptual disorder in our species, a unique form of myopia which it now forces us to correct.” 5
American philosopher David Abram wrote, “The ecological crisis may be the result of a recent and collective perceptual disorder in our species, a unique form of myopia which it now forces us to correct.” 5
Time will soon tell if enough of us can make this correction and, looking with the eyes of love, find novel ways to care for our home planet and each other and - miraculously - collaborate towards survival as a species. Perhaps we might even begin a new and more noble chapter in our human story…
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1. - Reihan Salam, A New Hippie Movement Has Some Families Returning to Nature. from the British magazine Spectator, reprinted in The Environment in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Greenhaven Press.
3. Laura Sewall, The Skill of Ecological Perception, from Ecopsychology, Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, page 204