Thursday, February 22, 2007

Climate As Teacher - Or Climate As Mirror?

I was telling my friend Nancy some of the ideas I've been writing about here - that climate change may be a teacher for us all – and she put into words an idea I've been peering around the edges of all week, unable to shape it into words.

Climate change might not be so much a teacher that shows us something new, she said, as it is an experience that helps us trust what we already DO know.

That sounds exactly right to me.

Isn't there a part of us that knows that the Earth is alive, as we are; that we are connected to one another and the rest of the Earth; that we need to share with each other and take care of one another if we are to survive; that we can find peace and happiness and joy while co-existing with that which supports us?

Saints and scientists and prophets and writers and teachers have been telling us about this terrain for generations.

Little children seem to know much of it intuitively.

But there are so many ways that we are taught to distrust the part of ourselves that believes these things. Advertising teaches us to distrust our sense that we could be happy just being, in nature, hard at work, with friends and lovers and family. Economics teaches us that we are separate and must follow our own narrow interests, that our interests are different than those of the people who make the things we need and the Earth that provides those things and receives them when we are finished with them. Our maps, which divide up the single unitary Earth into cities and states and nations, teach us to distrust our sense that we live within one complete and indivisible whole.

No wonder we feel a little stressed and strained and bewildered. There is so much of our own knowing, so much that our senses are telling us, that we've been taught to distrust.

I think the Earth, stressed by the burdens we are placing on her, is offering to us something solid to cling to in this confusion, a point of reference in the conflict between what we know in our hearts and what we learn in our culture.

Look, she says, look where the advertising and the economic theory, and the idea of nation-states and disposable plastic everything has led you to - right to the very edge of disaster. Those theories and ideas don't fit with the Earth's realities of chemistry and flows of sunlight. They ignore most of what goes on in the dark layers of forest soil, in the microbial mats of swamps, in the quiet secret roots of trees, in the hearts of the poor and the dispossessed.

There she is, our Earth, huge, ponderous, slow, reporting out the consequences of 500 years of a certain way of thinking, showing us that a lot of that thinking is misguided or counterproductive.

If she were to ask us a question, perhaps it might be this: what is the risk of trusting in what you already know, in the most treasured and deepest parts of yourself?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I spoke with a friend today who told me of a small struggle. She's longed to see the Grand Canyon, and now she has a chance, to go there, to travel it, down river, with friends. I want to go, I've always wanted to see it, she said, but I'd have to fly to get there. Knowing what I know about climate change, she said, I'm not sure that going is right.

She wasn't asking for advice, which was good, since I didn't have any to give, beyond noting the paradox -- that love of beauty and nature and this wondrous Earth leads those of us who can afford it to weaken the very thing we love, as we drive and fly to take in that beauty and be restored by it.

There's so much loss, my friend said. So much we are accustomed to that we are coming to understand cannot go on.

I agreed, thinking of all that I do that I know works against the future, thinking of all the habbits I'm trying to break.

What we might have to give up in response to climate change is one side of the coin, but there's another. On good days I can sense it, and today, was a good day. After my friend left, I walked, on the hillside above my home. The hemlocks were dark against the clear grey sky and the hills rolled out in blue waves beyond them. I stood still at the top of the hill, a quarter mile from home. Two ravens flew up the valley below me, calling deeply. In the birches a woodpecker cried, a few quiet flakes of snow drifted downwards.

That hillside is always there, above my house, and is never the same, from one day to the next. But days go by, weeks, without my dipping into the peace and beauty that are there, waiting.

I know that hemlocks against snow, and the black of ravens arcing across the sky are a different sort of beauty than the Grand Canyon, and not the same as the sands of Florida or the waters off Belize either.

But I also know that this one hillside has enough to notice - if one is prepared to notice – for a lifetime of walking. If changing to meet the demands of the climate means staying home more, seeking restoration by foot, and not by airplane, I know that assured restoration is there, on this simple, nearby hilltop, where it always has been.

Like Gravity

I remember my two girls learning to walk. I remember their struggle to stand, to find balance. I remember the clumsy shifting of weight from foot to foot. And finally, one, day they had it - forward motion, a few steps, then more, and now, years later, grace - running, skipping, pirouetting, ice skating, speed.

All of it, impossible if not for the falling that taught them about walking, about gravity. Falling taught them that it isn’t wise to lift both feet off the ground at once. It taught them not lean too far forward no matter how bright and shiny, how nearly in reach, the toy on floor might be. Falling taught them that there is a center, a place of balance. To walk they had to find that center, and learn to stay in it. There is not a single person who knows how to walk who didn't find that balance, and we all found it by losing it.

And this is how I can make sense of climate change, as a species-wide stumbling, a stumbling through which we might – still, now – learn. It doesn’t change much, to see it this way. CO2 levels are still rising, too fast. Emissions cuts – as deep as we can make – are still needed, as soon as we can manage. New policies and new technologies and new ways of seeing ourselves are still so deeply needed.

But, doesn’t the work of doing these all seem lighter, if we look at it as something like the work of learning to walk? Babies aren’t stupid, mean spirited or short sighted. They are just struggling to fit into the constraints of their world. Bump-by-bump and tumble-by-tumble is the only way they learn to do it.

Learning how to live as a viable part of a huge species on a complex planet is a lot harder than learning to walk, of course, because the feedback is so much weaker. When we here in the modern industrial economies overbalance or over-pollute it is almost always someone else, somewhere else, sometime in the future, who will have to ride out the stronger hurricane, hoe the dusty ground, live through the heat wave. The teaching done by the climate is so slow, so convoluted, that we can live right through the lesson and hardly notice it.

Which must mean that if we are to turn to climate change as a teacher, part of our work must be to learn to take in the all the pain, the suffering, and the loss of our neighbors as though it is our own.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Looking To Climate Change

So I’ve said that I am looking for lessons in climate change, and maybe you are wondering what I mean by that.

I’m not looking for ‘lessons’ in the way this word is sometimes meant. I’m not looking for a list of what we did wrong, or were we could do better. Without doubt climate change has plenty of those, and, thankfully, many hardworking, smart people are searching them out. We should be more efficient. Waste less. Design our cities and our agriculture differently. More and more lessons like those are coming, which is good, which is welcome, but I think there must be something more, something else to find.

Here we sit, so far beyond the limits of the planet to support us that the climatologists say we may have as little as ten years to prevent runaway climate change. How could billions of people, each wanting to live, each wanting a good future, have gotten into this situation, how could we have walked together into such danger?

There must be things we’ve learned and taught that are not true, and things that are true that we’ve yet to learn.

We can’t be who we thought we were. Or the Earth can’t be what we’ve been taught it is. A people who understood themselves and their place wouldn't have so overstepped it.

And so, I have been holding this one small hope about climate change. Could it be that all the pain and loss and waste that climate change has already brought, and all the more that is yet to come, might carry along with it also a small set of gifts? Insights. Lessons about how the Earth works, about how we fit into it. Lessons about how we can make our way through our lives with out doing so much harm, and perhaps even insights that show us to live in a way that gives back to that which gives us life.

I believe we’ve stumbled into climate change by not knowing – or not believing – who we are and what we are a part of. And so I wonder: can we look climate change straight in the face, without flinching, can we see what it is that we’ve misunderstood, or forgotten, or been blind to? Can we find some bits of meaning out the fact that in trying to be happy and prosperous and make a future for ourselves we’ve stressed and strained the very things that future depends upon?

I don’t have much hope for solutions – from corporate responsibility to high-speed rail – that don’t include some element of this sort self-reflection.

So, how does one find the lessons that climate change has to teach?

Humbly I am sure of that. With the clear understanding that this is the work of all, and that we can each only find climate change’s lessons for ourselves. With the realization that climate change is one way into these lessons, but not the only way, realizing that these lessons have been known for millennia, by mystics, by thinkers, by anyone able to open themselves to them.

I would guess that the same lessons could be found by asking what we had misunderstood that we allowed Hiroshima and Nagasaki to happen, or by asking how it is that slavery happened or that poverty continues. All of these unacceptable things that persist, don’t they each point the way to something untrue, something we believe or cling to, that is not right?

And so there is the hope I have, this wild, almost unexplainable hope.

It is that that Earth, our reality, may finally be speaking to us with such strength and vigor that we won’t be able to ignore Her. And in her actions, floods, storms, extinctions, and also in her resiliency, and bounty, we will find a way to see ourselves that makes more sense and leads to wiser choices than the way we’ve traveled so far along.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Climate Change, a Teacher?

Well, what did you learn?

As long as I've been a mother of children old enough to converse with, it seems I've been asking that question.

What did you just learn about running barefoot over sharp rocks?
What did you just learn about teasing your friends?
You played all day and didn't get to your math assignment and now it is 8:30 at night and you are crying tears of exhausted frustration. What did you just learn?

My kids don't always greet these questions with deep appreciation. But I still keep at it. No matter how awful something turns out there's usually something to learn from the experience. People say that about coping with illness, divorce, financial ruin, injury. We know that the most effective business and organizations are those that reflect on what worked well and what didn't and try to learn from both.

But when I look around at this world that is beginning to wake up to climate change, this world that is rising slowly to face that tremendous question - what should we do – I don't see many places where this other question - what can we learn - is being asked.

I understand that now feels like a moment of crisis, a moment for action. How can we sit around and think and learn, you may ask, in this moment of deepening danger? But how else are we going to navigate the changes that are coming if we haven't learned how we got here, if our understanding of our planet and our place on it hasn't been sharpened by this experience of climate change? I can't see any other way.

People are already suggesting solutions to climate change - from giant mirrors out in space, to biofuels, to a return to a simple life, to a new high-tech super-efficient society. How do we know which choices to leap for, and which might just make things worse, if we don't take some time, right now, to try to figure out what we might learn from the reality of climate change? What does it show us about how the Earth really works and about how we fit into that Earth? What does it show us about what really matters, and what is a mere distraction? What does it shows us about how to live good, fair and ethical lives?

My goal over the coming months is to open myself to as many lessons from climate change as I can find. I'm creating this place to record what I find, and share it with others, so that it may be refined, sharpened, improved and shared.