We humans have a funny way of dismissing that which we do not like. We decide that it is not real, or does not apply to us, or perhaps, whatever it is that is troubling us is transformed through the magic of language into a battle of wits and words, leaving the real world issue far, far behind. Some facts from the real world, just to remind us:
World population has tripled since 1950
40% depletion in ozone above the Arctic in 2011
Waste is created at the rate of 13.3 million tons a day
1/3 of all land is at risk of turning into desert
These are taken from a colorful DK publication now available in the states, What’s Really Happening to our Planet: The Facts Simply Explained by Tony Juniper. The book hosts page after page of infographic descriptions of the numerous pressures coming to bear on us as we reach the end of the fossil fueled industrialized age. It is a very handy source for those who might be looking for a single book to provide a summary of ecological data and trends. There are a number of criticisms I could make, such as leaving out the concept of tipping points and including a bit too much of the green gee-whiz factor, but they are mostly minor. There is plenty of material here to provide the seed facts for ecological contemplations, particularly if supplemented with additional study.
This book is a good example of the type of information that lead me to think about what a mindful ecology might mean. After reading a book like this – then what? Am I supposed to just go back to business as usual? That was not an option for me, so I asked, what is an individual to do? For people like me, changing a few light bulbs and hoping ‘they’ will think of something, when the last few decades show ‘they’ most certainly will not, is just not enough of a response. Mindful Ecology tries to be proportionate to the crisis. It is a serious and big change to alter one’s life around a contemplative practice. Undertaken with the intention of healing the fractured relationship between our lives and our planet, we learn to embrace the limitations of our own lives – as they really are – and do what we can.
The art of contemplating a fact consists of turning it over and turning it around, giving it a slow and respectful examination in one’s mind. We look at the fact from many points of view, trying to sus out its relationships with other things we already understand in a search for the fact’s implications. This introduces us to the larger interdependent features which are often easily missed unless we are very careful in how we think about things. Facts never exist in isolation, nor do we ever bring an empty mind to our contemplations. System science insists that when we query our facts we ask ‘and then what?’ Have we accounted for all the inputs and outputs? For the side effects? Have we clearly separated the one way path of whatever energy is involved from the recycling of materials? Have we accounted for thermodynamics along the way, what we often encounter as the phenomenon of diminishing returns? These are means by which seemingly isolated ecological factoids, such as one finds scattered throughout works like this one from DK, are knitted into the larger understanding of the real world one’s mind has constructed.
It is important to recognize this model of the real world each of us has constructed within our psyches, it is part of recognizing that the psyche is real. The meaning of the world that we experience is a product of the unique understanding each of us has developed over a lifetime of experience. In the Bayesian model of inference this is captured in the prior. Parts of that understanding will have been constructed with right thinking about real things and other parts will not. We can all be quite sure that much of what we are quite sure about, is not so. There will be cases of right thinking being applied to unreal things or wrong thinking applied to real things, or even wrong thinking applied to unreal things. One role of the ego, among many, is to guide this gathering of information by which our understanding increases. Through an interplay of the gift of curiosity and the curse of needing to find an answer to relieve oneself of confusion and pain, we are each lead to learn more about that which our soul’s need, what our psyche’s need to fully integrate their experiences. Contemplation increases understanding but not if one spends all one’s careful thinking time thinking about BS. The horns of a rabbit visualized in exquisite detail, or documented in libraries full of scholarly volumes, or even delivered by the special effects department to every television in the land, do not gain one whit of real existence thereby.
Shadows remain shadows of that which is casting them, fantasy remains fantasy and confusion sews more confusion unless these things are transmuted in the alchemical vessel of imagination. In our fantasy enthralled culture the role of imagination is very poorly understood. The image making ability of the human mind is in service to the real human life one is able to lead out here in the environment of the earth’s molecular world, out under the blue sky and stars. The imagination concerns the heart’s deepest dreams – and wounds. It takes a strong imagination to perceive the possibility of happiness in the future, not as an abstract goal but as something you can actually strive for in your own life. We prefer fantasies about how our lives might be because our real ones are defined by limitations. Your actual life, the one that is really even now unfolding its precious few moments, is defined by the limitations your character will encounter along its path of fate and fortune. This real life you have can only be seen as valuable when it is clearly understood that you are living the life of a finite mortal who will one day die having had only a very, very small taste of all that human life has to offer. To take our seat as adults and claim our equality with other sentient beings requires seeing this clearly, recognizing it is the same for everyone else, and saying to these very limitations ‘yes’ and ‘thank you.’
Limits chafe the fevered dreams of ego’s ignorant beginnings. When we first set out on the long road of psychological development we are on our hero quest. We learn to build our ego to be strong enough to serve as a vessel for the raging winds of the life force animating our bodies. This is how the mind first grounds consciousness and gives us our sense of being our own point of view, our own self. The heroic ego dreams of becoming a god; it is foolish enough to believe it wants to be a god instead of love a god. This is what the hero learns in the Grail Castle, when the quest is completed and the happily ever after takes over. Not everyone has made it to the castle yet. Many still dream of being god-like instead of human. Many of those who dream of becoming gods cloak their hubris in a type of twisted faith; they claim simply to be serving gods of limitless power. They are but the humble true believers. The give away is in how, inevitably, a human voice somewhere along the line of authority assumes the mantle of that limitless power that rightly only belongs to god alone. Doing so, for a human being, is a suicidal act of self denial.
Limitless righteousness brings nightmares of cleansing fires and sacrificial lambs slaughtered by the hundreds of millions. ‘Great alpha male in the sky, god of thunder and war, have we not become equal? Was there ever a priest more holy than I, more important than I who push the red button?’ Some such bewitchment awaits anyone who ventures so far from home. It is one thing to be on a hero’s quest, quite another to be way-laid by Dracula.
Limitless money, limitless shopping, limitless sex, limitless knowledge, limitless war and conquest, limitless fame, limitless power, limitless holiness, limitless depravity, limitless ecstasy, limitless fresh water, limitless fresh air, limitless crop land, limitless time to address our problems, limitless oil, limitless ego – drinking saltwater, the hungry ghosts trying to slake their insatiable thirsts never find the satisfactions they so desperately seek. Ungrounded, they are torn apart by the star gods, becoming little more than limitlessness twinkling darkly in shells of human beings devoid of compassion, little more than mouths shouting ‘more.’ Why are the hungry ghosts taught to be ghosts? Because they have not become real by recognizing they have been given, in fact, what they need. And that that is enough. Are you breathing? That is the evidence. These false infinites are the dangers that haunt the mind untrained in the disciplines of yes and thank you which arise from the heart. These are what tempt and tease our minds, attempting to strong arm their way into how we perceive the world, draining it of all human sense. Soon the simple pleasures of sex, romance, love and children, shared food and drink, the songs we sing together while dancing in our colorful costumes, somehow all this and more is just not enough. The Buddha’s graveyard vision of the young maidens as disgusting as corpses and the world but one of sorrow, this is what haunts the minds of those traumatized by the modern world. These minds have yet to ride the rafts and visit the isle of non-duality, the nirvana of our nature. They are stuck in the Buddha’s ascetic extreme. They have yet to soften in acceptance of a grain of rice from the hand of a maiden, in acceptance of loving kindness from others.
The husks of understanding these mind parasites leave their victims to feed on make it seem that the best way out of our current ecological predicament is through an all out nuclear holy war. Out in these extremes, where exponential curves never encounter limits, are the howling winds of hell on earth. They can trap us in a prison of madness if we let them.
Your life, what is it in fact? Whatever you are actually able to experience, achieve, accomplish, perceive, absorb, understand, partake of, participate in, share with others, receive from others, and generally the way you carry your body, speech and mind throughout your life span. That is your life. Something larger than our day to day selves makes its appearance across the span of a life considered as a whole. This is what Carl Jung was referring to when he talked about the archetype of the, capital S, Self. The Self is a way of approaching discussion about a psychological fact, namely, that the unconscious mind or larger psyche contains an imago dei, an image of god. This archetype is a psychological feature of the inner world the ego must learn to relate to. As an image of how an individual encounters god, Jung found it played a central role in the healing or disintegration of the psyche which he observed in his patients. He taught that the Self is related to wholeness and integration, individuation and meaning or, when inverted, shows its flip side as dark authoritarianism, a possessing spirit, a numinous complex capable of over powering and bewitching the ego. This inversion is the psychological reality of the demonic as it is projected into totalitarian social movements and the mass sacrifices of life, dignity, and compassion involved in the brutalities of indiscriminant war. But if it was the image of god in man’s psyche that Jung wanted to draw our attention to, why did he name this archetype the Self?
Things that might seem the right things to do or think or feel today, may not seem to have been so wise from the perspective of tomorrow. We learn this as we age. In learning it we are to gain a more critical appreciation of the understanding we have at any given moment. We learn that our conscience, that still small voice, that it too grows wiser. In every moment of our lives we have been operating from the best understanding of ourselves and our world of which we have been capable of. Yet not one of us knows where the inevitable confusions still lurk. If we knew that, we would not still be confused. This teaches us to appreciate the real nature of the prior understanding of the world and our place in it which we bring to any new study we might undertake. Honest humility is the result. Ours is a limited understanding, one shot through with mistakes but not without worth because of that. The mistakes are, more often than not, motivated and not simply random errors. Psychological factors are at play when we deliberately or ignorantly misunderstand that which is real and allow fantasy to usurp imagination. Those threads of confusion lead our understanding further. This is hopeful but errors remain errors none-the-less, sins in western parlance. Knowing even our best understanding is bound to have errors, we would be wise to bring our very best to bear on our problems of critical importance. It does not help matters to deliberately introduce falsehoods, obscurations, distractions and stubborn denial of facts, all backed up by violence, when the real state of our prior understanding of ourselves and the world we live in does not jive with what we want it to be. Isn’t that, more or less, what we are doing today in our public discourse about ecological matters?
This is not academic. This is what is keeping our society from starting a sane discussion about our un-sustainability and what we might choose to do differently. Our understanding has changed, our prior in the Bayesian equation, yet we are not able to bring it to bear when we are called on to interpret the ongoing data stream of evidence from the ecological sciences.
Our understanding of the earth’s climate has evolved over the last century into one of the most impressive scientific studies ever undertaken by mankind. Today we know so much more about its defining characteristics then we did when we first started burning fossil fuels that it is a cognitive lie to pretend our understanding, because it necessarily includes mistakes, is insufficiently developed to support the alarming and terrifying conclusions of the ecologists studying these matters. The same could be said for so many other areas of our crisis from over fishing to drawing down aquifers and all the rest.
I think every important public discussion should start within the full acknowledgement that the facts are facts. That the ecological facts are, at least roughly, as laid out in summary form in works like What’s Really Happening to the Planet? As it states on the back of the book, “Now is the time to understand this heart-stopping subject.” Our way of life needs adjusting, it is un-sustainable and this is what that means. It seems the only question is whether or not the public is going to have any chance to weigh in on this at all, or not. So far the real discussion we need to be having has not even begun. Families throughout the earth’s many nations and our interests, when they conflict with those of corporations about what we should be doing right here and right now, are nowhere to be seen or heard.
We have got to grow the economy. Really? We need to shrink the economy, nothing less will begin to reduce the oversized ecological footprint that is our un-sustainability. We need to drive our cars less, worse, we need fewer cars on the road. The average car is contributing 5 tons to global warming gases annually. 5 Tons! We should start talking about how to pay people to stay home and how to stop making any more of these things. We need to decentralize our power generation, reduce the peak requirements it needs to meet and thoroughly re-create the daily life of those living in the overdeveloped world to use less electricity and transportation fuels in the process of acquiring what they need to sustain their daily life. These are just a few of the obvious conclusions ecological study suggests. That they are impossible to talk about seriously in the public square is a measure of our collective psychopathology.
Drawing logical inferences from limited data sets, reasoning, is not a free for all. To reason is to update what we believe in light of new evidence. The book we have been discussing summarizes, in about 200 pages, a boat load of serious evidence demanding our collective attention. Today we live in denial of the true implications of that evidence. We fear drawing the correct inferences. If we continue to refuse to use our reason in planning for the future, what will we use in its place when the shocks of ecological and societal collapse continue to grow in strength and frequency and things become, shall we say, more desperate? Blood and soil?