Can our spiritual paths help us to choose heroic and just transitions over global chaos?
Imtiaz was still speaking when Jean started sobbing. At first, gently; then, she really cried hard. What I felt unfolding in me that afternoon, was something I had not allowed to happen to myself for more than a decade of being an environmental scientist.
We were standing with Ilusha, our beloved musician friend from Brooklyn, along with his friend Jean at the foyer of the visitor center of “Garden of Gods.” In front of us were the panoramic paintings depicting a wide range of climatic conditions that had existed at that very spot over many millennia. Imtiaz, my climate scientist husband, was explaining different panels in the panorama one by one. He went over the early period when there were frequent and massive volcanic eruptions on the young Earth and then he spoke about the times when that spot was covered by a warm ocean teeming with life. Slowly he moved to those parts of the panorama which described the period of Earth’s history during which human species evolved, the period which alternatingly saw “ice ages” when much of the Colorado Rockies were glaciated, and there was about a mile thick ice sheet where Jean and Ilusha were visiting us from – New York. He explained that our home planet has cycled between the long “ice-age” and the short warmer periods of “inter-glacial” conditions several times in at least the last one million year. “These two conditions,” he said, wearing his scientist’s hat, “seem to be diametrically opposite extremes; but our current climate change path is moving us too far away from these cyclic climatic conditions: off on a tangent.” He was giving his wife and friends a taste of what he deals with everyday. Instead of calmly taking it all in as most people do, especially when on a vacation, Jean experienced a sudden and enormous loss. She couldn’t believe that we were changing the Earth so much that we could never get back to the conditions that have existed on our home planet for longer than human species has been around on Earth: our home which Carl Sagan referred to as “the pale blue dot,” the only place in the vast universe which we know of that harbors life. I didn’t look around to check Imtiaz and Ilusha’s eyes, but mine were wet. I was deeply touched by grief. Not denial, not blame, shame, or frustration. Plain grief.
Technically speaking, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) today in our precious thin layer of atmosphere is four hundred parts per million. Four hundred parts per million (ppm) means that for every million air molecules, there are 400 molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2). (For more details, check a technical background paper co-authored by me here.) For hundreds of thousands of years, and certainly since the evolution of Homo sapiens, Earth’s climate has cycled between 180 and 280 ppm. An ice age, with 2 miles thick cover of ice corresponds to 180 ppm CO2 and the warmer period similar to what Earth had in pre-industrial times (before 1900) to 280 ppm. Never before has the human species seen either CO2 concentration as high as 400 ppm or the rate at which this concentration has been increasing.
The last time we had carbon dioxide concentrations as high as the present levels was 3-5 million years ago. At that time, global average temperatures were between 3 to 4 degrees Celsius higher than today, and as much as 10 degrees Celsius warmer at the poles (see the havoc that change can cause here) and sea level was as much as 130 feet higher in many places. The only reason we do not have such high sea levels and temperatures on Earth today is that it takes years for the emitted carbon dioxide to be fully experienced by all parts of the Earth. We don’t yet know what other worse effects, including crossing of tipping points which can cause runaway climate change will occur as the whole planet experiences the ever increasing amounts of CO2. The recent news of giant Siberian craters leaking methane is, at best, definitely a worrisome warning but, at its worst, represents our closeness to a dangerous tipping point which should have been one of the last ones we would ever want to cross.
So….what Imtiaz said is true: we are on a tangent so far away from Earth’s normal climate cycle that unless we drastically change the current course of actions, we might not go back to the norm for next hundreds of thousands of generations. And each passing day of non-action is going to keep making it much worse for planet’s ecosystems and all its inhabitants. We have the choice to burn through all of the fossil fuels in geological reserves or switch to non-fossil fuels. The sooner we switch to non-fossil fuels, the smaller will our suffering be.
If we continue burning fossil fuels at the present rate, Earth will eventually find a healed balance, but we will keep suffering and have to endure millions or billions more extreme events, especially intense heat-waves, rain and snow-storms, and long-lasting stronger droughts! In the shorter term, in next few decades, our ability to meet basic human needs (e.g., food and water) will be enormously compromised. Overall, climate change portends increasing starvation and disease, resource-driven national and international conflicts, along with enhanced air pollution and steroidal weather. We will also lose enormous biodiversity in our oceans including in coral reefs which will no longer be able to tolerate ever-increasing amounts of acid in the ocean (when dissolved in the ocean, CO2 makes water acidic). In the past, as Earth cycled through relatively minor and slower climatic changes, plant and animal species could migrate towards regions of conducive weather. Now, most species are isolated in regions they currently inhabit because buildings, roads, and other structures created by us leave them little opportunity to experience and test the habitability of regions which might indeed have a home to offer them. They will be trapped within confines of regions, immobilized by human presence.
The United Nations has repeatedly endorsed “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” According to some scientists, however, this is too lenient a target. To have an 80 percent chance of avoiding this modest limit, we would have to limit emit less than 550 billion tons in carbon dioxide equivalents. The trouble is that that the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies have ~2,800 gigatons of carbon dioxide trapped in their fossil fuel reserves. And that figure does not include unconventional sources like tar sands, oil shale, and methane hydrates.
We are faced today with the heroic responsibility of controlling our collective behavior for determining climatic future that all life on the planet including our human descendants will inherit. If we are lucky, we will transition into a renewable energy planet sooner, more smoothly and more justly. If we don’t start doing that, chaos will not be far away.
Role of spiritual paths and spiritual communities
I have heard from many people that when the reality of climate change really hits them, they feel terror. Unless we have ways to accept and work with our own terror, insecurity and grief, we will not be able to compassionately muster our energy and act to bring about transformation. We will not be able to get our communities and institutions to accept the widespread changes underway. And then of course there are those of us who are not yet hit by the climate reality. There is no shortcut to healing our eco-grief; we have to start by being able to identify with it. And we have to clear away many acute and not-so-acute distractions and preoccupations that are in the way of us acknowledging our eco-grief fully? We need, more than ever, ways to connect with a source of clarity in ourselves that is deeper than what our individual, conscious and discriminating minds are capable of generating. Without clarity and energy, we will not be able to skillfully work through distractions, confusion and grief of our times.
The multi-faceted crisis that we face calls for both a tremendous sense of urgency and a limitless reserve of patience. We need both personal and collective action in order to adapt to what will happen even if we stop all emissions today, and also to reduce (mitigate) emissions so that we don’t enter run-away climate change scenarios. We need to work more systematically on the development of communities that can become a meeting place for top-down and bottom-up strategies. These communities must be well equipped to honor individual and collective stories, and transform fears, denial and anger into collective courage and even delightful energy – which are all much needed for any kind of fundamental personal or institutional change. And that is exactly where our spiritual paths and spiritual communities come in.
In ways more than one, our spiritual communities need to confront and grow with our deepening eco-crisis. It is not enough to work towards individual happiness salvation or enlightenment. We need new, skillful means to organize our spiritual communities in order to demonstrate that it is possible to actualize the truth of our inherent inter-dependence, interconnection and solidarity.
As a long time meditation practitioner, I feel that my path has had a lot to offer me. When I am grieving, I turn to my eco-dharma sangha for a space where I can express my feelings. This ever widening circle of friends also celebrates with me the joys and little triumphs we have in our journey. To adapt to the growing onslaught of discouraging news on melting glaciers and raging fires and floods, I turn to my meditation cushion to encounter and become what Zen folks call “Mushin” (Zero-ness). This luminous clarifying zero-ness has restored me innumerable times. In shattering silences, it has brought the realization that the journey isn’t and can’t be lonely – the precious world and its inhabitants that I want to protect is meditating with and through me. Right here. Meditation has also helped me see that questions and intentions matter even when there are no clear answers and even when there are “mistakes” and “shadows” on the way. The time I spend on my cushion reminds me that there is a source of energy and creativity to tap into even when there is profound confusion swirling around. In a nut-shell, Zen realization of inter-connectedness, embrace of complexity, importance of community (sangha) while we grieve and Bodhisattva’s endless vow of acting in the “here and now” out of compassion irrespective of assurance of success have had a great deal of wisdom to offer me when I feel challenged.
I take heart in the knowledge that you also recognize the nature of our climate crisis. I would like to know how you mobilize your creativity in order to do everything you can to slow and stop the rapid and painful change to many of the fragile living species and ecosystems on the pale blue dot. Do you think that our spiritual practices and communities can help us to choose heroic and just transition over global chaos? We all need to hear your story!
Kritee (Dharma name Kanko), Ph.D., is a Zen teacher (Sensei) at Boundless in Motion. She works as a senior scientist for International Climate at the Environmental Defense Fund, where she is primarily involved with examining the effectiveness of environment-friendly methods of farming in Asia with a three-fold goal of poverty alleviation, food security and climate mitigation and adaptation. She lives in Boulder with her husband, Imtiaz Rangwala, who is the real climate researcher in the family. You can follow her on Twitter @KriteeKanko.