Only Radical Environmental Activism Can Bring About Whole-System Change
To come to terms with the many dimensions of our ecological crisis we need to co-create conscious, connected communities, and act together
A healthy future for humanity requires a healthy living planet. And our growth economy based on constant material expansion has become incompatible with the health of our finite planet. But transitioning beyond a growth-dependent industrial economy will require a multidimensional transformation, not just outward political and economic change, but radical cultural and psychological change as well.
This means that to radically reengineer the system, we will have to simultaneously reengineer ourselves. This is whole system transformation — requiring a healthier, more creative, more compassionate and engaged humanity than we have ever seen up to now. Both of these together — our Earth and its biosphere, and our own inner lives and life choices, individually and in community — constitute our life-support system. And on every level we are poised at a tipping point.
The nature and unprecedented seriousness of our predicament presents us not only with great challenges, but with a basis for radical hope.
The more I learn, the more I find myself moving in two directions simultaneously. On the one hand, I have grieved ever more profoundly for the worsening state of the planetary biosphere. On the other, the more radically I submit to the chilling recognition of our actual situation, the more I find myself opening into radical acceptance of the adventure of doing what we can on behalf of our personal, interpersonal and global health and future, even amidst great uncertainty.
We must do our best to anticipate future conditions. But clearly, our ability to foresee the future has severe limits. This calls for forms of activism rooted in something much more profound than prediction and strategy. The nature of the problem demands a kind of thinking that we mostly don’t yet know how to do. As Einstein is quoted as saying, “We can’t solve our most pressing problems with the kind of thinking that created them.”
We are being called to make a transformative leap to a whole new paradigm not only of thinking, but of being human — a new consciousness and a whole new stage in the evolutionary trajectory of our species.
No one can say with certainty how our civilizational crisis will play out. We don’t know how much suffering and destruction — human and nonhuman — might lie ahead, or where, or exactly how, or how soon. But we do know, with increasing certainty, that the actions of human beings have created an existential predicament; and we also know that the actions of human beings — for good or for ill — will determine the future of our great grandchildren and most other living beings. The stakes could scarcely be higher. We cannot wait to “see what happens” before we act on this awareness. Rather, we are obliged right now to do whatever we can to help prevent or mitigate the horrific scenarios that we may have set in motion. What could be a greater moral imperative?
Only human beings can protect and defend the future of life on Earth from human beings. It will take conscious individuals making deliberate choices based on the best information available — people presuming responsibility to make a difference. Nothing could be more honorable and worthwhile.
Profound large-scale transformations at every level — physical, behavioral, technological, scientific, economic, political, social, cultural, and personal — are implied here. We are talking about profound “whole system change.” Can it happen? Critical masses of people rising up as one have made positive differences (as well as negative ones) many times throughout history. But in this case, more is required than simply winning some political and technological victories; it will also require quantum leaps in human maturity and spiritual vision. It will take a new structure of consciousness to catalyze many other cultural and societal breakthroughs, and a new kind of politics in which wisdom can increasingly guide human affairs.
One of the foundations for that innovation in consciousness, and for the relationships and communities that would express and embody it, would be radical honesty and basic shared agreement about at least certain aspects of reality. We will need to penetrate or cleanse everything that veils and distorts our personal and cultural doors of perception in order to achieve such a clear view.
None of the great issues of our time can be effectively solved without meaningfully addressing our climate emergency and broader ecological predicament. But those issues are intertwined with the whole structure of our lives, of our societies, and of human civilization. They challenge our whole way of life.
And we cannot fully accept this challenge until we begin to understand and change the circumstances — both external and internal to us — that have kept this urgent imperative off our radar. Whole-systems change is required, and in a real sense it must begin inside ourselves.
But how to begin? Nothing could be more confounding! Facing the impossible questions that our predicament asks of us is like confronting a multidimensional koan, an impossible Zen riddle that has no direct answer the mind can devise and understand, but which must nonetheless be answered.
Classically, a koan is pondered for minutes, hours, days, years, or even a lifetime. Eventually it confounds the conventional mind, awakening insight and transforming one’s whole way of being. The question transforms the questioner, awakening at least a glimpse of higher consciousness. The practitioner stays present to the koan by “living the questions” and “loving the questions” over time, until they reveal their answers (and then even deeper questions), as Rilke wrote to his young poet friend Franz Kappus.
Among the most famous classic koans are “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “Show me your original face, the one you had before your parents were born!”
Dogen, the founder of Zen Buddhism and koan practice in Japan, wrote Genjo Koan, a monograph in which he pointed to the inseparability of life and practice, and called for recognizing the koans given to us by life itself. He might have called our world crisis the great Genjo Koan of our time, the existential Genjo Koan of humanity’s whole evolutionary trajectory.
Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to face these impossible questions, this Genjo Koan. If we face the questions of our time; if we recognize that they really cannot be avoided; and if we acknowledge how important, real, and existential they are, we will have accepted our mission.
If we don’t numb and distract ourselves, these deep questions will inevitably affect us. Facing them will deepen, awaken, and transform our consciousness, our whole way of being, and our behavior.
Once this challenge is accepted, the real work begins — and this work takes place both inside and outside of us. It requires quantum leaps in consciousness, community, and dedication, as well as in technological and social innovation. It requires new creativity at the levels of the individual, the local community, the virtual community, institutions, corporations, cities, and nations. It requires us to develop and express creative potential that has been virtually untapped — or, all too often, sabotaged — until now. It involves, in countless ways, the need to translate abstract ideas into concrete terms, and to discover what mandates such knowledge creates. And — starting at the level of every individual — it involves taking stock of where we are, and who we ultimately are.
It is Never too Late
Tracing our evolutionary history, we can infer that life wants to live, to thrive. Evolution wants to keep evolving. Gaia is powerfully resilient. Our efforts to respond, which may seem too little, too late, will create changes throughout the biosphere in ways that we also cannot know.
On the negative side, these efforts may initiate disruptions, even what we call “cataclysms” — but they will also be triggering the self-regulating resilience of the living planetary system. We are not separate from the intentionality that will naturally surface under these systemic conditions.
Times of catastrophe are moments when the system is breaking down and breaking open. Surprisingly, they can present remarkable opportunities to create larger systemic change.
Most of us tend to think of change in very limited ways. When we think of change, we tend to think only about the projects that we can imagine human beings actively accomplishing. We hope that those will avert catastrophe. And yet transformative change often comes amidst disruption, after a crisis creates a window of opportunity. It will perhaps be the “black swans,” the unforeseeable game-changers—like another financial meltdown — that will open the opportunity for something radically new.
Consider the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. On March 11 of that year, a mega-earthquake (measuring 9.0 on the moment magnitude scale) unleashed a fifteen- foot tsunami across Honshu Island, the main island of Japan. Some 19,000 people died. Then the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi lost its generators, and within three days several of the radioactive cores melted. The world watched as one of the largest nuclear disasters of all time unfolded in slow motion, and everyone seemed helpless to stop it.
Meanwhile, in Europe, a group of Swiss advocates for sustainability moved into action. They had anticipated another Chernobyl- type disaster, and they had prepared for it. Over the years leading up to Fukushima, they had built relationships of respect and influence with people at the highest levels of Swiss politics. They had also quantified the cost of the premiums for a private insurance company to insure Switzerland’s nuclear industry against public liability. (Like the U.S. and most nuclear- armed nations, Switzerland had passed laws indemnifying the owners and operators of nuclear power plants from public liability.
Their research had carefully quantified and documented the size of this enormous public subsidy.) Moreover, they had done the work to compute the (lower) costs of subsidizing other clean energy technologies in preference to nuclear power. Thus, when the Fukushima accident happened, they were ready. And they then reached out to the decision makers and supplied them with white papers that built a carefully reasoned argument for dramatic policy decisions. All of this happened while the inertia of the status quo was interrupted and a window of opportunity for more fundamental reform was open.
Two months later, Germany made the same decision, and for similar reasons. In May 2017, Germany hit an all-time worldwide record for a nation its size, using 85 percent renewable energy.
The key is to liberate our thinking and our activism without triggering our paranoia. We can prepare well, to take advantage of the windows of opportunity that disasters will bring for initiating more fundamental systems redesign. And this can and absolutely should be done in tandem with preemptive kinds of activism. Let’s minimize destruction, regression, and suffering, human and nonhuman. Let’s preserve our mother planet and our brother/sister creatures. And let’s expand our thinking and creative action.
We need to do what we can, where we are, even while disasters are on their way. Entangled, hyper-complex system dynamics link human activity with our diverse, living planetary ecosystem. We can’t realistically “figure it out” in full detail. And yet we need a vision of how we can move forward despite our current political and cultural gridlock. Against this resistance, we must initiate a discussion, at the level of politics and the media, about what should be one of the most significant political issues of our time: how to create pathways to sustainability with minimal catastrophic disruptions. We can call this a “soft landing.” We can focus on optimizing global human culture’s passage through an epochal adaptive transition. Since our current social patterns and habits are overheated and unsustainable, the goal is to transition as quickly as possible to more sustainable modes of living, while minimizing traumatic disruptions. It is especially important not to trigger cultural regression into (“dark ages” or dystopias, on any scale).
Preparation is everything. Realistically, most well-informed observers believe that big disruptions are probably inevitable — huge shocks, disasters, and crises seem not only likely, but maybe even necessary to catalyze the political will for us to change our collective choices and behavior. The “silver lining” is that these crises will disrupt our current deadlock. They can “unstick” our stuckness. Each will present windows of opportunity for more fundamental systems redesign. We can anticipate and prepare for them. This is an enormously important aspect of evolutionary activism.
We Need Each Other
I believe the only way we can come to terms with the many dimensions of our ecological crisis — and with all of our built-in resistance to acknowledging and acting upon it — is to co-create conscious, effective, connected communities, and act together. And that is wise in any case, regardless of our future. Our best security will be our families, our friendships, our communities, our ability to be self-responsible, resourceful, and resilient — and these connections are also how we reweave the social fabric, at a new level.
Our psychological, social, and spiritual resilience will become our most essential capital. More important, our thriving may depend on our ability to work with our fear, find happiness and peace amidst sorrows and difficulties, and bounce back creatively after traumatic setbacks. When he was in his eighties, James Hillman wrote The Force of Character,18 in which he identified the soul work of his moment in the life cycle, which is to withstand the ultimate ordeal of decline and death with grace and grit, and to put “finishing touches” on one’s life’s main creative product — one’s own character.
If “it’s too late,” we can at least write a beautiful end to the human story, through self-understanding, love-in-action, brother-sisterhood, elegance, genius, and wisdom. That is why it’s so crucial, regardless of ultimate outcome, that we cultivate our best capacities and form intimate spiritual friendships that can grow into a broader social movement inspired by a grounded, healthy, and responsive spiritual vision.
By practicing and acting together in profound new ways, a truly auspicious future could well await us, as well as a deeply meaningful relationship to apparently “dark” times. Together, we can forge a productive path through a landscape that will undoubtedly be forever altered, literally and figuratively.
Evolution has always taken place under life-and-death conditions. And so it is again, as the illusion of security is seen through. No matter what, each of us will die. And before then, we will experience both good days and bad days — both beauty and terror. This is a great adventure, and no one will be immune. But life will still be beautiful. And perhaps more meaningful than ever.
We will live into a future of joy and wonders as well as destruction and heartbreak — as is our present moment. It will be shaped by human beings — affected by what is worst in us, but even more significantly by what is best in our collective character and imagination. Our highest values can shape the future — but only to the degree that we grow up and show up at our very best.