Photo courtesy of Witty Sandle

There are of course all manner of ways to respond to the climate crisis. Many simply deny that there is one; many others distract themselves to varying degrees of intensity. (Understandable as those are, neither of those responses I support or endorse nor will I say anything more about those!) At the other end of the spectrum, there are a host of ways to take action – several of these are highlighted on the Climate Action page. Here are a few other responses that from a contemplative ecology view, are particularly insightful.

The Dark Mountain Project

A series of conversations between Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth led to their co-writing and self-publishing of a 20 page pamphlet Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. Taking the image from a Robinson Jeffers’ poem of “the dance of the/dream-led masses down the dark mountain”, the manifesto puts the question “Civilization?” as directly as possible. In short, the leading stories and dominate mythologies of civilization no longer hold, have become obsolete, and destructive, and we need to both hold still in this empty space, chaos, and crumbling ruin that is left behind, as well as begin to tell new stories and create more live-able mythologies. In their words (from the Dark Mountain website):

“Together, we are walking away from the stories that our societies like to tell themselves, the stories that prevent us seeing clearly the extent of the ecological, social and cultural unravelling that is now underway. We are making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted. We are tracing the deep cultural roots of the mess the world is in. And we are looking for other stories, ones that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty.”

Putting together story, visual art, performance, poetry, and radical questioning, the Dark Mountain project is a fascinating and provocative artistic work drawing upon aesthetics and deep myth to offer us powerful new ways to think and to language both the going through, and the ‘what might come after’, this time of multiple global crises; climate crisis, civilizational crisis, and so on.

Deep Adaptation

Deep Adaptation Forum

In 2018 Jem Bendell self-published a paper “Deep Adaptation“. It had been rejected by the “sustainable business” journal to to which it had been submitted, in large part because it questioned the very premise of “sustainability”. Along with sustainability, there is a whole discourse invoked, about mitigating the effects of climate change, stopping climate change, and so on, that Bendell was arguing was largely obsolete and out-of-step with the degree and ongoing momentum of climate change. Instead, Bendell argues we need to be acknowledging the truth of what climate science is telling us: that climate change is far enough along that mitigation efforts or sustainability attempts will NOT succeed at “stopping” climate change. This is not to say we shouldn’t be trying to do them – a point on which Bendell has been largely misunderstood – but that we need to understand these are at best “adaptations” that might well be worthy to do, but not because they will succeed in “stopping” climate change. In short, Bendell is arguing for a much more truthful translation of the work of climate science into our daily lives, rather than the usual approach of “spinning” that translation to manipulate how the recipients hear the message; for example, spinning it as hopeful, or spinning it as effective.

If we move from a discourse about sustainability and mitigation to one of deep adaptation; if we stop spinning the predictions from climate science and start accepting them; what then? Bendell’s argument is that there will be a transformation within the recipient who faces the situation truthfully, and thus rather than an “either hope or despair” response, instead there will be inner conflict and questioning that will lead the recipient elsewhere. Bendell’s paper struck a chord in many readers (more than half a million downloads of the paper in the first year, is a broadly cited figure within the movement), and pretty quickly a world wide Deep Adaptation Forum became established.

Perhaps the central focus of Deep Adaptation is not the climate crisis per se, but that one of the near term outcomes of climate crisis will be societal collapse. Thus to prepare ourselves to adapt deeply to climate crisis, we must be alert and responsive to the ongoing collapse, in the present, of societal structures, institutions, and values, and begin to live accordingly. To give one concrete example: one proposal Bendell makes is “the four R’s” :

  • Resilience: what do we most value that we want to keep, and how?
  • Relinquishment: what do we need to let go of so as not to make matters worse?
  • Restoration: what could we bring back to help us with these difficult times?
  • Reconciliation: with what and whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our mutual mortality?

Joanna Macy & the psychological

Certainly, between denial & despair at one extreme or radical action & political activism at the other extreme, much of the response to climate crisis is psychological: how does it make you feel? The DSM has not yet added “eco-anxiety” to its listing of disorders and mental illness, although it is increasingly recognized as a major symptom (as, too, is “solastalgia”, distress caused by environmental change). Of the many psychologists researching and/or treating the psychological effects of the climate crisis on our mental health, Joanna Macy is the ground-breaker.

A scholar, Buddhist, psychological counselor, and activist, Joanna Macy has done tremendous work in advancing our understanding of the psychology of climate crisis. Above all she has named “psychic numbing” in addition to denial and despair as the common psychological responses to climate crisis. She has also made clear what is the widespread psychological insight: that in acknowledging and sitting with the powerful negative responses of despair, grief, hopelessness, anxiety, despondency, and so on, this begins a deeper psychological process of transforming, wherein we find more authentic sources for hope, courage, resolve, and resiliency.  

Macy has also contributed a number of therapeutic ways of working ecopsychologically that engage us with the nonhuman world, above all in what she has called The Work That Reconnects. Ways to ritualize our connection to the earth and to living systems, workshops that deal with our mourning for the earth or grief over mass extinctions, activities such as the “Council of All Beings” (which has been taken up by numerous organizations) in which we practice identifying with a nonhuman other, such as a plant or animal or element, the advocacy of “active hope” rather than hope as a kind of uncritical, blind optimism, are a few of the ways in which Macy has innovated practical interventions to address climate crisis.

What all the above have in common is the effort to face, honestly and courageously, the climate crisis and its many related consequences, from civilizational collapse to personal overwhelm. What each have also found is that this effort is inevitably one that engenders a psychic transformation in the individual that pushes us deeper, into depths of negative emotion like grief and despair but also into deeper sources of positive emotion like hope and joy, and also into deeper and renewed appreciation of our communal nature in needing our fellow human beings and of our ecological nature in accepting our animality, our limitations, our deep belonging to other animals, to living systems, and to the earth.

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