Cultural and Spiritual Transformation – addressing the Climate Crisis in our daily lives
Rachel Dempsey, founder of Full Circle Change, on how we can take on the Climate Crisis together, through rejecting the destructive aspects of capitalism and embracing cultures closer to nature alongside modern ideas
“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.” — Gus Speth, American Lawyer & US Advisor on climate change
This is an audacious remark, but it is true that the current approach to solving the ecological and climate crisis is not working. UNEP, the UN environment agency has now said that there is “no credible pathway to 1.5C in place”, and that the only way to limit the worst impacts of the climate crisis is a “rapid transformation of societies”.
The richer nations and individuals on the planet are more responsible for, and more empowered to act on, the ecological crisis, yet even in the face of a horrific future, they have largely refused to do so. In the meantime, ordinary citizens have either looked away or felt powerless to respond.
For decades the orthodoxy has been that we can continue to grow the economy in more or less the same way as ever, while cutting emissions and reducing pollution.
That is, we can have our cake and eat it.
This is like putting a plaster on a suppurating wound. We face an existential threat and cannot fix our problems with the same thinking that caused them. Instead, as Speth states, we need a “deep retrofit” of our beliefs around human nature and to live well.
When many people think about our failure to address climate chaos, they blame human nature and sink deeper into apathy, despair and inaction. This is flawed thinking.
For the vast majority of our 250,000 or so year history, we homo sapiens have lived largely within ecological boundaries and in many cultures and contexts have chosen to distribute power and resources within groups, and not just as hunter gatherers, as shown in 'The Dawn of Everything', by anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow. We are not pre-ordained by our genetics to organise ourselves in any particular way as a species.
Although the ecologically destructive dominant global order of today has been in the making for the last few centuries, it is the product of certain beliefs and policies which are no more or less representative of the human psyche as those of Indigenous people for example. At 5% of the global population, there are more Indigenous people on the planet than there are US citizens (!) and although diverse, most have a deep reciprocal relationship with the natural world.
Consequently, though they occupy or use just a quarter of the world’s surface area, they safeguard, or at least attempt to, 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. So, is human nature defined by the Kogi of Colombia, who see themselves as ‘the elder brother, the guardians of all life on Earth’, or is our nature closer to the CEOs of Exxon-Mobil who lied about the link between global warming and burning fossil fuels?
To combat ecological destruction and climate change we must go back to the fundamentals of what it means to be human on this planet.
The problem which we need to deal with to solve our ecological crisis is not who we are at our core, it is who we think we are. We have forgotten that our modern, industrial way of living is, in the grand human scheme of things, completely bizarre, new, and untested. We forget that the now dominant global worldview and socio-economic system has been so heavily influenced by the culture of one small region.
Although Europe represents only about 8% of the planet's landmass, from 1492 to 1914, Europeans conquered or colonized more than 80% of the entire world. The dominant culture has been built up by suppressing most of the wisdom accrued by human beings surviving on this planet for thousands of years. While the resulting global capitalist consumer culture has given many of us material benefits, it has left us bereft in terms of finding meaning and purpose beyond acquisition, status and comfort.
Our economy and material comfort is predicated on the exploitation of natural resources, other animals and indeed, even people (think sweatshops and child labour), which leaves many feeling both guilty, anxious and empty. Instead of mitigating against a propensity towards greed, we have elevated this one human trait into a fundamental driver of our economy and of our lives (aka the market).
And the rationale that justifies all of this?
The idea that humans are superior to other life forms, nature is an inanimate resource bank for humans and life is a race to acquire power and money, which is currently being won by certain rich ‘developed’ countries.
To combat ecological destruction and climate change we must go back to the fundamentals of what it means to be human on this planet. As Speth says, we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. It is no longer enough to focus solely on tech solutions to reducing emissions, we need to involve all sectors, and especially the creative ones, in creating a new life-sustaining ecological civilisation. We need to discern what are our true needs and how to meet them by blending the best of what the industrial and technological society has given us with, the wisdom of older, more successful cultures.
We need to retire the tired old ‘I think, therefore I am’ paradigm we inherited from the likes of Decartes in the 17th century and find a globally relevant one to take us back from the precipice. What we need to inform a new way of life has been around for thousands of years; the idea that humans are of nature rather than above it.
We need to think of what we leave behind for the next generations. Instead of letting despondency about who we are and what we have done takeover, we need to fall back in love with humans, with life and with the living world.
And we can start this process right now by re-connecting to each other and sharing our feelings about the crisis, reconnecting to nature and attending to our more intrinsic human needs (e.g., for beauty, awe, meaning, belonging and rest) - that can be simple acts like participating in community events, spending more time in nature, volunteering for an environmental NGO or learning more about sustainability issues.
Dealing with the climate crisis is about so much more than data and carbon dioxide - it is about co-creating a life-sustaining culture by collectively rewriting the story of what it means to be a human on this planet.
- For further information on the work of Rachel Dempsey's organisation Full Circle Change, click here