Home Free your heart from climate change penitence and impotence

Free your heart from climate change penitence and impotence

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In the shadow of the immense climate crisis, what difference could it possibly make to bike to work or eat less meat? The mismatch between what we’re being asked to do and the size of the problem has created disillusionment, as changes in personal lifestyle like these have been promoted as a primary way to prevent climate change.1 It’s natural to ask: how are my tiny choices going to do anything about our civilization’s fundamental energy system? What good is reducing the size of my carbon footprint when it’s just a billionth of our collective carbon emissions?

Out of this disillusionment, a number of strategic counterarguments have risen. Seeing that a significant response to climate change would require major shifts in our society’s structure, some have begun asking for political engagement rather than responsible consumption. From this perspective, the way advocating for lifestyle changes places the locus of responsibility on individual consumers is a misdirection—diverting our focus from other responsible parties, like governments, the fossil fuel industry, and other large corporations. Alternatively, some might turn to carbon offsets as an easier and more efficient way of mitigating personal carbon emissions. Why make personal sacrifices like eating less meat or flying less, when you can just buy relatively cheap carbon offsets to counteract your carbon emissions?

For a good while, I was swayed by the argument to emphasize political engagement rather than responsible consumption, but I’ve come back around to hold personal consumption as an important driver of social change. My goal here isn’t to add to the chorus of voices saying that you urgently need to reduce your fossil fuel emissions to prevent climate change, but rather to offer a different way of understanding and relating to these kinds of choices—one that nourishes and frees the heart, rather than saddling it with penitence and impotence. To understand this possibility, we’ll need to zoom out and consider climate change and our response to it on the level of our civilizational paradigms.

Climate change and paradigms: the geomechanical and living earth worldviews

We can’t avoid catastrophic climate change by adjusting things around the edges, rather we need deep systemic change. And not just of our energy, agriculture, and transportation systems, or the finance system that underlies them. We need deep change in our culture, in our worldview and values that all these systems are built on, those that drove the creation of these systems in the first place.

The geomechanical wordlview

One aspect of the underlying worldview that has brought about climate change and broader environmental destruction is the mechanical view of nature, which says that the non-human world works essentially as a machine, a non-living system with replaceable, interchangeable parts. It says we can readily comprehend the functions of these parts. Their value is based entirely on their value to human beings. While this geomechanical worldview has enabled the development of significant power through science and technology, it is also propelling us into a global environmental crisis.

The geomechanical worldview assumes that we can understand the entirety of our impact on the natural world as we interact with it, yet we repeatedly fail to do so. This is a kind of hubris, one that thinks we can micromanage the world. It fails to see the natural world as a complex, dynamic, interrelated ecosystem. In a classic example, the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations introduced cane toads to Australia to control beetles that damaged the sugar cane crops. However, there was no evidence that their introduction did anything about the beetles, and resulted in “the depletion of native species that die eating cane toads; the poisoning of pets and humans; depletion of native fauna preyed on by cane toads; and reduced prey populations for native insectivores.”2

Perhaps more significantly, the geomechanical worldview enables extractive capitalism to justify environmental destruction for profit. Built on this is the financialization of nature—the idea that the value of various individual parts of the natural world can be accurately measured or determined, and based on that, brought into the economy. With the value of natural resources only evaluated based on their value to human beings, ignoring their many functions in the Earth’s interconnected systems, the forces of capital are permitted to extract whatever resources are deemed profitable, destroying ecosystems along the way.

The living earth worldview

The living earth paradigm presents a radically different point of view. Charles Eisenstein defines some of the key points of the living earth paradigm3 as:

Earth is a living organism

Each biome, local ecosystem, and species contributes in unique ways to the health and resiliency of the whole; they are the organs and tissues of the Gaian organism

All beings—plants and animals, soil, rivers, oceans, mountains, forests, etc.—deserve respect as alive, sentient subjects and not mere things.

Any damage to the integrity of the planet or the beings on it inevitably damages human beings as well, whether or not the causal pathways for that damage are visible.

A civilization based on this paradigm would have these values expressed in its norms and institutions. How might such a society behave? It might legally codify of the rights of the various organs of the Earth’s body—the right of a river to not be polluted, or the right of a domesticated animal to have humane living conditions. I don’t think it would have allowed the environmental destruction we’ve perpetrated so far, and if it existed now would set about trying to restore the health of the Earth’s organs.

Shifting from the geomechanical view to the living earth view is about changing our fundamental relationship with the natural world. Not just our material relationship, but also our inner, felt experience of that relationship. From the paradigmatic perspective, changes at this deep level would ripple out into changes in our collective behavior and institutions.

Practicing paradigm change

By living in such a way that we embody the future paradigm we wish for, we begin to actualize it here and now. Paradigmatic acts can propagate in a number of ways:

  1. Simple person to person transmission: we are social, often conforming beings, always looking to others as guides for what to do. Each person engaging in a norm helps that norm propagate.
  2. Values and identity often follow behavior, so moderate changes to personal behavior can pave the way for more invested action in the future. So for example, beginning to eat less meat may lead to identifying as someone who cares about animal wellbeing, leading to voting for humane farming ballot measures or giving money to animal welfare organizations.
  3. Choices often have an economic gravitational pull to draw other institutions toward the new paradigm. With eating meat, eating less or ethically sourced meat encourages restaurants to offer vegetarian options, the development of lab-grown meat, and sustainable, humane farming.

So a moderate change in behavior can create a momentum beyond just the immediate, quantifiable impact of that action.

Inner dimensions of paradigmatic practice

Our paradigm-shifting practices, including those of responsible consumption and self-taxing, have inner dimensions that shape their results, both on others and ourselves. Because they are about changing the worldview at the root of society, beginning with our own, our internal experience of them is important, not only their immediate tangible results. In this case, as a part of a shift from a utilitarian relationship to the natural world to one that recognizes it’s intrinsic value, these choices can be felt as meaningful in themselves, beyond their impact.

When we engage in practices like these, we can gently investigate our intentions and the qualities we bring to them—what comes up in our hearts? Are we doing this to absolve our guilt or is there an empowering sense of responsibility? Do we feel that by doing good in one area we’re let off the hook in other areas? Are we losing connection to our care by developing a sense of moral superiority? These are all traps we can disentangle ourselves from through mindfulness and inquiry, to uncover a simple motivation of care and respect for life.

Responsible consumption as a part of paradigm change

When considered from the perspective of its direct impact on fossil fuel emissions, changes in personal consumption can seem pointless, but they can be a potent intervention to bring about paradigm change. Our choices about consumption are an element of our relationship with nature, a place where that relationship is expressed daily, and a place where that relationship can begin to be changed.

When living the shift toward the living earth paradigm through the practice of responsible consumption, our care can extend beyond just considering carbon emissions. If we are thinking of eating meat, for example, the greenhouse gasses produced would just be one factor among many—we’d consider too the animal’s living conditions, the sustainability practices of the farm, and our own inner relationship to eating this meat. This gives the heart a lot more room to get involved than the one-dimensional consideration of carbon emissions.

Investing in a Just Transition instead of carbon offsets

Alternatively, to reduce our carbon footprint we might be told to buy carbon offsets, a form of self-taxing.4 But carbon offsets are built on the geomechanical worldview and financialization of nature, and their adoption perpetuates and furthers it.

With carbon offsets, the value of carbon in the atmosphere is measured and valued independently of how it got there or where else it might go. The value of the carbon held in the Amazon rainforest, for example, is deemed interchangeable with carbon in monocrop tree plantations. So it’s ok to clearcut the Amazon, so long as you plant trees somewhere else. Or, we’re fine to drill for oil wherever we please, as long as we also build industrial carbon capture and sequestration plants. Widespread adoption of carbon offsets could lead to a world where the wealthy continue to destroy life-supporting ecosystems while trying to replace the lost ecosystem services with artificial alternatives, an arrogant and hopeless endeavor.

While carbon offsets are built on the mechanistic view of nature, we can self-tax for paradigm change. But rather than trying to cancel out our carbon emissions, which so often comes from a place of anxiety and guilt, we could invest in institutions that embody the worldview, culture, or values we wish to see in the world.

One aspect of paradigm change is the inseparability of the means and the ends. The Climate Justice Alliance’s definition of a just transition5 speaks to this well:

Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste-free. The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations. If the process of transition is not just, the outcome will never be. Just Transition describes both where we are going and how we get there.

A strategy framework for a Just Transition

Because the means and the ends are consistent, when we invest in this kind of change, we are brining the future we want into existence here and now, rather than trying to avert a dangerous future. This grants inspiration and confidence in the merit of what we’re doing.

Cultivating the heart

Through engaging in these practices, we can begin the long journey of restoring our relationship with the natural world. We can nurture a caring heart by bringing our sincere intention into our daily choices—remembering our vision of an alternate paradigm and using them as a way to call it into being. Cultivating a heartfulness of practice in this way is itself a paradigmatic act—the world we’d like to bring about is one where people are motivated by genuine care for the earth and their overall impact in the world.


[1] Personal Actions can fix climate change; that recent study didn’t mention them

[2] National Geographic, Cane Toad

[3] Climate: A New Story

[4] Rhys Lindmark, We should tithe more and where I’m personally giving 20% of my income

[5] Climate Justice Alliance, Just Transition

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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