Secular Guilt

“Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere between 2012 and 2013 grew at their fastest rate since 1984… reached 396 parts per million (ppm) in 2013.”
BBC ‘Greenhouse gas levels rising at fastest rate since 1984


Weeks like this depress me. The worldwide demonstrations against carbon pollution on the eve of the UN conference on climate change toy with my deepest beliefs. While I would like to hope this might lead to something substantial, well, it’s hard to see the entire spectacle as anything but farce. Do you know how long we have been having meetings and talking? All the sincere, and not so sincere, attempts at slowing down business as usual so far have got us this headline at the top of this post. The article quotes Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, “The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows that, far from falling, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years.” In other words, we have not even leveled off the production of these toxic emissions, let alone begun the deep cuts those who study the science say are required.

I applaud the attempt to do something about the ecological crises and believe that for many involved it will prove to be powerful medicine; taking action in the face of the horrors beats apathy. What I can no longer believe in is that even if by some miracle the world really did start cutting our global carbon emissions substantially it will make all that much difference to the near term climate chaos in store. By my way of thinking so many ecological blow backs are already baked in right now the best we can realistically hope for is to lighten the load on generations yet to come. This point of view requires familiarity with the science of ecology. It is in this field that there is evidence that the human race is in overshoot and that the maintenance cost of our social complexity has exceeded the benefits we are able to derive from that complexity. It is in these sciences that we discover the true character and cost of pollution by examining it in light of the second law of thermodynamics.

More personally, it is in ecology that I find relief for my depression. Ecological thinking allows me to set aside all my only-anthropomorphic concerns in recognition that the mystery of life and planet are vast and grand. Before the raw IS-ness of “nature” spinning galaxies and spider webs I remember a more basic part of myself, a deep time self. Regardless of what fate might await us humans in times to come, the breadth and diversity of evolving life is majestic, like a dream. Even if we were to go extinct in some future year, it would not change the glory we can see in the flight of an eagle, the howl of a wolf, the jumping of the dolphins or all the rest of the exuberance of life as it is actually lived outside our human made environments.

I am depressed from a sense of missed opportunity, as if things could have turned out differently if we had made other choices. No doubt they would have but that is not what happened. Together these two interpretations of events depresses, it brings a great sadness. This sense of missed opportunity, I submit, is eating away at the heart of modern cultures.

It was with the beginnings of the industrial revolution and all the subsequent wonders of science and engineering that the human race for the first time had a chance to feed, clothe and educate everyone on earth. Instead we turned our production to the pursuit of individual wealth maximization, greed. The bloated bellies of the malnourished haunt the dreamers in the land of obesity. I believe that at some level, collectively a sense of guilt festers. It is the same story when talking about the sixth extinction event, the one happening right now because of our ways of life.

All these things have left us with a poisoned image of what it is to be a human being. As a culture we seem to have declared ourselves guilty as charged and are pursuing the death sentence.

Cause and effect rules this universe. Sorry and sentiment do not change these things one iota. The climate we are experiencing today – the wildfires, extreme storms, warmed oceans, melting ice caps, methane releases and all the rest – is the result of the pollution we added to the earth about 40 years ago. Since then we humans have been on a binge of unprecedented polluting behaviors. Those chickens are coming home to roost and to put it simply, there is not a damn thing we can do about it. Little wonder so few people are capable of looking at the reality of our situation. Those that do ask themselves just what is this heart of darkness within humankind that has lead us down this path? Little wonder too that among those who do have the courage to start to look deeply into these things many conclude the human species is a parasite and that all life on earth would be better off if we were to go extinct.

I cannot help but wonder if in some shadowy way our collective mind has reached the same conclusion. We sure seem hell bent on trying to make that particular extinction happen. Having lost our compassion for others we find ourselves without morals, standing naked in the desert of the real without a scrap of dignity left. We have a long way to journey to get home again and the path will be steep and jagged, none will escape getting bloodied. Awareness can pierce the veil of the guardians of the threshold and deliver one into the pure land of our true being, which has never changed and never will. Simple being is holy, in the heart of hearts there is a purity of the human beyond the reach of the stains but how can this insight possibly be sustained if we continue to assault our young, kill our friends and eat our future?

The Dali Lama often points out, “What was made by the human mind, can be unmade by the human mind.” Good news and bad. First the bad; our minds have a tendency toward hatred, anger, fear and pride although love, joy and compassion are just as real as well. The good news is that a not insubstantial degree of choice is within our power, we can cultivate the traits of the mind we choose and let wither those we do not. What the western cultures have forgotten is that this is a serious work, effort is required and those that succeed at it are a boon to the society.

In the west our forms of industrialized science led us to believe the destiny of humankind was to explore outer space. Who among us did not grow up strongly believing that our species was destined for the stars? All the other cultures of the world throughout history, that have not been industrialized, teach that the destiny of man is to explore the inner space of the mind, not the outer space of the stars. Those cultures had their shamans, meditators, spirit visions, initiations, sacred use of psychedelics and a whole host of similar forms. There are some today that dismiss all those older forms as just so much superstition but I agree with the other camp that see in them a type of science, at least as  much science as there can be for dealing with something as mysterious as the utmost depths of conscious human experience. Having made a Faustian bargain with the oily, black blood of the earth we should not be too surprised to be so completely disappointed in its feverish dreams of conquering the universe. The devil is not merciful to those he dupes, as John Michael Greer once remarked. Blind to the value of inner space we were seduced by the cold vacuum of outer space into believing the lie that somehow we would transcend all the painful limitations life on a single planet entails. Now as the 21st century dawns and there are no colonies on the moon, no mining of mars, no jet packs and all the rest, it has become obvious that outer space does not provide an endless source of resources or an endless sink for our pollutions. This creates a profound disappointment, as if the whole justification for the cruelties of the moderns was taken away right alongside the hope and reason for its existence. When this disappointment joins the collective guilt spoke of above it produces a real witch’s brew. What of our culture will survive the exorcists’ fire by which this Faustian arrangement can be undone?

The modern industrial sciences have provided a unique gift and we should be deeply grateful to all the men and women who worked so hard to bring us its discoveries. We understand so much more today about how the whole of the outer world works, how the universe works, than we did 500 years ago as to be almost unbelievable. It is as if we have become another species all together in the realm of knowledge. As incredible as this is, of more value than the contents of our science is the context, the discovery of the scientific method itself.  The challenge now is to listen to the science when it is saying something we do not want to hear.

It will do us no good to deny the reality of the planetary situation either collectively or as individuals. Since the collective is just the sum of the individuals, it stands to reason that the key to any effective action, skillful action, in the face of the current difficulties lies within the realm of the individual. Within the critique’s vision are the archetypal forces that can shift the center of gravity of a person’s psychological life out of the mindset that causes and sustains the ecological crises. What this means for the bigger picture is hard to say but as one of my teachers has remarked, “at the least there will be one less desperate, crazy person on the planet spewing their anger and hatred about, hurting others.”

Eastern philosophy includes the idea that there may have been countless earths, countless universes over endless time. If this human existence on this earth is to become extinct, in this larger view nothing much will have really happened. The Hubble telescope tells many people the same thing. In the West such ideas have opened up an abyss of nihilism in which nothing really matters so we might as well party on our children’s inheritance. We are pissed we have to die, we are pissed we get sick and old. We feel entitled to fix and change all these things as the heirs of the enlightenment and if they cannot be fixed, as has now become obvious a few centuries since the scientific revolution, then to hell with it all. Somehow we need to mature a little, just a little, to see that although everything is impermanent, this just makes the here and now more precious. If we can manage that, even this nightmare time is bursting with opportunities for us to say, from the very depths of our hearts, thank you and yes. Thank you and yes to existence exactly as it is.

Saying yes to existence, existence just exactly as it is, is the great secret of spiritual enlightenment. It is the great grace. It is the final attainment. It is the fruit of the simple things of life, the gift waiting on the breath.

As a global community we are very good talking about what we should do about the ecological crises but not so effective when it comes to actually doing anything substantial about it. Is this just another example of the general cussedness of humankind or might there be other factors at work? Are we to blame for the way in which ignorant actions in the past have created the present?  Ecology teaches that there has been precedent for the predicament we find ourselves in and that we are not as unique as a species as we might like to believe. Both the disappointment and the guilt might very well be misplaced. We will start the development of our ecological understanding with next week’s post.

5 Replies to “Secular Guilt”

  1. I came to your blog through your comment on JMG’s blog. Your writings have a softer edge to them than his generally do, but are just as pertinent. Excellent works; I hope you persevere and remind the rest of us of your presence in the blogosphere by continuing to contribute comments to JMG’s blog as well as expanding your work here.

  2. Thank you Mike. There has been a fair amount on traffic on this site but you are the first to have the courage to add a comment. I’d buy you a coffee if I could 😉 I hope to fill in a slightly different need than what JMG provides. I have found there is a profound psychological / spiritual aspect to the limits to growth teachings in my own life. Mostly it has been a tough struggle, but after more than a decade grappling with these things there is now also a gratitude and spaciousness. It lifts me up. I hope to be able to share whatever of that I can to the community that gives me so much.

  3. Dear MindfulEcologist,

    The answer to your angst is in your angst. The mind your both exhort and dismiss is certainly not a finished product nor a useful one. In the mean time we have got this new era racing at us from a not too distant horizon and the unfinished mind we currently possess is useless to meet it. I repeat; Nothing it has produced is a finished nor useful product. So why take anything it concludes from this unfinished state as some final truth on which to settle yourself in either deep hope or deep despair? After all, it is only unfinished ‘thought’ upon which you are resting your case. On the whole nothing truly is significantly different than ever yet for ‘modern’ sapient humans. All the work at consciousness, the pain of that birth, has not yet ended in birth. We are still struggling at the final threshold of that birth, but still the terribly confusing hubris in acting on the one hand as if we are born, while admitting on the other, we are clearly not. That is your problem, and in the macro, all of humanities problem.

  4. Hi Dea,
    Your comment is appreciated. It is a very useful reminder that our cognitive life is not the perfect, completed realm we like to think it is. You hit the nail on the head with the observation that in taking the manifestations of the mind to be really real in an ultimate sense we are tempted toward believing there is a final truth within our grasp. I hear the echoes of deep time in your comments about birth, thank you for the spaciousness in which it is easy to let things be, just as they are.

  5. Thank you MindfulEcologist,

    You clearly got what I shared and deepened the idea and shared back very great insight. A first.

    I look forward to visiting your blog on a regular basis because if we can help each other grow, our ability to help ourselves will grow.