Facing a bleak landscape of environmental destruction, the protagonist of Dr. Seuss’s book The Lorax offers a profound truth: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”
Thich Nhat Hanh offers a different take on this same idea in his online article “Beyond Environment: Falling Back in Love with Mother Earth”:
When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection—love is born. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one…. You would do anything for the benefit of the Earth, and the Earth will do anything for your well-being.
In other words, love is connectedness itself—connection with each other and connection to the Earth. Perhaps the true depth of affinity with the Earth goes even deeper than an idea or feeling of connection, instead resembling the fully embodied state an ancient Zen Master pointed to when asked a pointed question about love: “I have already become like this,” was his provocative reply. “Like this”—meaning fully congruent with stars, earthworms, and everything in between, with no separation, no picking or choosing, and no possible hesitation in defending it from harm.
In his remarkable work on the evolution of the positive emotions, George Vaillant points out that the ancient Greek philosophers left out a vital element of human love. They distinguished only between universal unselfish love (agape) and instinctual sexual desire (eros). The former is not selective; the latter is not enduring.
We humans, however, are mammals whose primary positive emotion is a selective, enduring and unselfish love of our young. It resonates in the paleo-mammalian limbic core of our brain. Since mothers have experienced this for millennia, and babies have depended upon it, their relationship is the perennial symbol of passionate, unselfish human love, appearing in every culture on Earth. This is the form of love that most fiercely sustains life and guards survival at the most fundamental level. Maturity, as well as certain contemplative practices, can allow us to generalize from that basis—widening our circle of love to people or beings different from ourselves, and radiating out to embrace the Earth herself.
The psychophysiology of the positive emotions as a whole is now the subject of intensive research. Barbara Fredrickson has identified the emotions that broaden and build character, creating resourcefulness, resilience, and the capacity to thrive even in hard times. They are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. The great majority of people in consumer culture experience far too little of these subtle emotions, though anyone can now train themselves how to recognize and cultivate them—especially if we lift our eyes to acknowledge the magnificence of a jewel of a planet such as this. Unlike the strong and long-lived negative emotions of fear and anger, they are short-lived but renewable. Fredrickson considers love the supreme positive emotion, because it contains elements of all the others, and is the one we experience most frequently. Wherever there is genuine connection, there is also the fingerprint of love.
Love is also the positive resonance at the heart of our enjoyment of the natural world, whose presence, as Wordsworth wrote, “disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts.” In the encounter with the multidimensional beauty of this planet, the great being within which our species has evolved, positive emotions like inspiration, gratitude, awe, and love are born in us. Nowadays we can only benefit from every opportunity to embrace the Earth, in every particularity. To become like this is to offer and be offered in reply a recognition so deep that our own faces appear in every detail of the living world. To recognize the Earth in such a way is a deep spiritual practice, one that proceeds wholly beyond the terminal, parasitical relationship toward her into which humanity has fallen.
The Metta Sutta of Buddhism recommends that we cherish all living things, “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child.” The nature of the Earth has created our species in every detail, and we are now increasingly creating the nature of the Earth. Should we approach this evolutionary responsibility in the way Frankenstein approached the creation of his monster made of dead things? Or even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child?
Our planet, our only planet.
Corruption, Systemic Change, and Climate Warming
Our collective relationship with the Earth is largely dictated to governments by fossil fuel corporations. This is the most delinquent example of what Robert Monks in the Harvard Law School Forum has termed “the corporate capture of the United States.” It ignores the reality of unprecedented weather extremes, related agricultural disasters, and a momentous milestone (400 parts per million) this year in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. That is the highest level for 3 million years—long before the appearance of the modern human species, some 250,000 years ago—and 50 ppm too high for the planetary ecosystems we have inherited, and upon which rain-fed human agriculture depends.
Absent urgent and major systemic change in global society, we will be unable to keep the increase in the average temperature of the planet (since the Industrial Revolution) within any “safe limit” such as an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed, some eminent climate scientists such as Sir Robert Watson, former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, acknowledge the likelihood of an average temperature increase of 3-5 degree Celsius. Even establishment institutions like the IMF and World Bank are expressing urgent warnings. Why do we sleepwalk through the alarm bells of this comprehensive scientific consensus?
The corrupting influence in our cultural worldview is fossil fuel capitalism, subsidized by governments to the tune of $620 billion a year, and determined to drive through any “red lights” in the Earth’s climate system. The nearest tipping point we face is the imminent loss of all summer sea ice in the Arctic: massive systemic change in the biosphere will inevitably follow from it.
Modern civilization has been based on a pseudo-religious conviction that “progress” is defined by the technological mastery of nature. An industrialization of consciousness too is reinforced continuously everywhere by mass media, advertising, and consumerism—in what amounts to a vast, uncontrolled experiment with cultural evolution. Neither science nor the world’s religious traditions can compete in an electronic marketplace of imagery and ideas where only big money counts. Apparently we are destined to learn in the hardest possible way what ecological interdependence means. It will not be a “soft landing.”
A Social Tipping Point for Evolutionary Responsibility
Since the turn of the century, we have been living through a global “triumph of propaganda” that promotes climate change denial. Does this not call into serious question the sanity and sustainability of our whole civilization? The governments of our leading economic powers, such as the United States and China, appear incapable of sincere interest in future generations or the survival of our species.
Nonetheless, we need to ask if there is any other reason why science and environmentalism have not connected with the larger community of people who value the living world, in so many different ways. As Gandhi, King, and Mandela demonstrated, we have to move people if we want to ignite a movement on the scale that creates a social tipping point. We cannot simply invoke strong negative emotions such as fear and anger. The American civil rights movement proved that people could redress real grievances through confrontation, disobedience, and nonviolence, because it had a dream that was told with the rich limbic resonance of faith, joy, hope—and love. The climate crisis demands that we discover and share an equally powerful, positive emotional engagement—with our own evolutionary survival, in a world worth living in.
The Earth is certainly in trouble. To “become like this” in empathic love right now is to admit to being in that same deep trouble. That’s already an evolutionary advance over the indifference of a parasite toward the fate of its host. Feeling the grief and pain, being profoundly troubled is the beginning of sanity and compassion, just as singing the blues of deep pain and trouble was the formation and proving of soul. It is an entry-point not just into the climate movement but into the undeniable climate moment. Climate change is accelerating all around us, eloquently expressing the self-destructiveness of what we have accepted as a workable human world. It is neither workable, nor will it remain profitable, for more than a few more “geological seconds.”
Nothing short of a fundamental socio-political, economic, and personal transformation will get us out of this life-threatening trouble. As Yotam Marom said recently, “We have to re-learn the climate crisis as one that ties our struggles together and opens up potential for the world we’re already busy fighting for.” The forces propelling climate change are the same ones targeted by the Occupy, Indignado, and Idle No More movements, and by those who seek recognition in law for the rights of the Earth.
Love is the force that undoes the “logic” of the ruthlessness that pervades our economic “order.” When we see the Earth and each other clearly with the recognition that is love, and dissolve the apparent boundaries that divide us, with the love born of feeling the suffering of the other, that is the noble emotion of compassion—“suffering with.” Then, as Thich Nhat Hanh said in an interview with Jo Confino of The Guardian:
You have the courage to speak out because you have compassion, because compassion is a powerful energy. With compassion you can die for other people, like the mother who can die for her child. You have the courage to say it because you are not afraid of losing anything, because you know that understanding and love is the foundation of happiness. But if you have fear of losing your status, your position, you will not have the courage to do it.
So we begin to discern the lineaments of a threat that brings an awakening—no longer individual in its scope, but composed of all who share a common love of this singular and sacred provenance that is the Earth. The Buddha or Avatar of our time may turn out to be a community rather than an individual: a true grassroots community, saying an unshakeable “no” to the forces that show such unholy indifference to life. Distributed and networked in space like an ecosystem, it is rooted in the sacred fact of the Earth. Nonviolent and loving, it expresses a strong force as implacable as the Earth; a persistence that cannot die, though it outlast even our species.
To love enough to meet the crisis we are facing is to become like this.