Allowing ourselves to feel the burn

Consensus is growing. Civilization as we know it is on a death watch. Like so many who stand at the bedside of ones we love, I feel helpless and heartbroken.

With all the information we’ve had for decades –

  • all the books/ papers/ websites with ever more dire warnings, with
  • all of the scientist ever more courageously speaking out, with
  • all of the IPCC reports, with
  • all of Bill McKibben’s indefatigable reporting and
  • all of James Hansen’s courageous truth telling and
  • all of the knowledge oil producers have had for decades of the inevitable impact of transferring oil from ground to atmosphere,

– why the F*CK are we here on the brink of climate disaster?

With all of the finger pointing and name calling from all of the sides – you sound angry/ intellectual/ chicken sh*t/ stupid/ hippie-dippy/ carnivore/ willfully ignorant/ too Pollyanna/ too bleak – why can’t we pause to realize that blame is a delay tactic when action is needed?

With all of the changing lightbulbs and bicycle riding and veganism and driving Priuses, why the inexorable march to civilizational self-destruction? 

I’m the type that takes all the warnings seriously and have for 30 years. Your Money or Your Life was written to address overconsumption, the biggest driver of climate chaos. Blessing the Hands that Feed Us was written to explore, extol and encourage a shift to eating more locally, since industrial agriculture is measurably one of the main drivers of carbon pollution. Social scientist Everett Rogers claimed that innovations spread when just 20% the population takes on a new belief or behavior. After that, it becomes what everyone knows and does. My partner, Joe Dominguez, and I took the bait. Convince enough people to prefer “enough” over “more” and the overconsumption problem is solved. Tens of millions read about, heard and saw us, but let’s be honest, another team called capitalism/ or money/ or advertising outspent us in promoting “more”. We helped many people but we did not change the system. One iota.

We were certainly not alone in this effort. In the 1990s studies confirmed that 25% of the US Population embodied at least some of the beliefs and behaviors of Voluntary Simplicity, thanks to Dave WamplerCarol HolstCecile AndrewsDuane ElginWanda UrbanskaJohn DeGraafJerome Segel and so many more. Even getting to the magic number for rapid adoption to happen, nothing happened at the necessary scale.

It’s a Humpty Dumpty moment. We’ve called out the horses. We’ve called out the men (and women). We are failing and we don’t know how to do the hardest thing ever for any self-destructive being:

We need to stop. Not give up, but stop.

Do nothing, if only for enough minutes to feel the enormity of our situation, the brevity of our lives and how lost we really are. 

Resistance hasn’t made a dent – yet. Calls to morality can polarize as easily as mobilize. Yet we need to keep asking, “By what lights do I guide my life? Is my path honest? Humble? In service to all and resistance to none?” By the way, there are no good answers to these questions. They are not designed to be answered. Our children, by their very vulnerability to a future they didn’t create, are asking us to look. By their very existence, they press the issue. It’s never too late for anything when your children are at risk.

Much of what we love will perish – people, ideas, forests, sweet little towns like the one I live in – and there is nothing we can do to stop it. We don’t know how the unraveling will sequence.

Let’s at least talk about this.

What needs to stop? What needs to never stop?

We need to accept our condition. To accept it means we cease, if only for an hour or an afternoon, analyzing and strategizing. It means a pause in contradicting the bad news with recitation of the good. It means really sitting with the reality, if only for a little while, that we can’t stop this unraveling. 

Acceptance doesn’t mean slowing down so you can see more clearly the next step. It is acceptance. It is not hunkering down until it is safe and then getting back to life as we have known it. It’s actually being here now in a gut-wrenching way.

Acceptance is seeing what is right in front of you and not trying to make it any different than it is. How do we stop thinking about means and ends, about “If I do this, that will happen”?

Activism is my drug of choice in denying the grief that is present when I drop my efforts to change things. To that degree, I render myself noble but ineffective.

This is what makes our moment in time holy. To be able to read or see the news without flinching but also without a sense of failure or dread. To be able to get good news without assuming the war is over and peace has returned to the land.  To see how we have participated in the chain of consequences that have brought us to the hard times we are in – climate disruptions, rising authoritarianism – and not feel like a failure or a criminal or a patsy. Reality is not proof that you are good or bad. 

This is a good moment for the Serenity Prayer: God give me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t and the wisdom to know the difference. 

Can you do this? Can I? Accept without trying to change, act without attachment to results?

Accept… without stopping the commitment to be the most courageous human you can be, whatever that means to you. Accept… while fighting for our humanity, our ability to stay awake and do what the situation requires. Accept… while knowing that conditions beyond our control – floods, wars, plagues, droughts – may arrive on our shores and swallow all we’ve built. Accept that each of us is merely and glorious one human being among over 100 billion who have ever walked this earth.

You are a sentence in a paragraph of the book of all humanity. Or a word. Or letter. Or comma. That fate is sealed. You are a human. No one, ever, has ever known what the future will bring.

We know that our kin through time have faced Ice Ages and desertification. We know our adaptability is one of our strongest suits – as well as our hubris. We are not talking about our species winking out entirely (though it is possible). We are talking about decimations at the scale of the Incas and Mayas and Romans and countless others. Only the most humble and close to good land and strong communities are suited to live without the features of civilization. We cannot imagine how helpless we are. 

Yet we must imagine this unraveling. By giving up fixing we can see the true awe-fullness of what we have wrought.

Now is also a good time to think of what Krishna said to Arjuna, the reluctant warrior unwilling to enter the battle because his allies and enemies were both his kin. In this exquisite part of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says:

“Considering also your duty as a warrior you should not waver. Because there is nothing more auspicious for a warrior than a righteous war. Only the fortunate warriors, O Arjuna, get such an opportunity for an unsought war that is like an open door to heaven.”

This is echoed in Christopher Fry’s sentences in A Sleep of Prisoners:

Thank God our time is now when wrong comes up to face us everywhere, never to leave us till we take the longest stride of soul we ever took. Affairs are now soul size. The enterprise Is exploration into God.

Our task is not to fight them or it, but to fight the many ways we don’t want to do this hard thing: to face where we are. To feel the burn. And then do what your heart, not your mind, shows you.

Is there one something, right now, however small, that you can practice accepting without changing, as an expression of your humble openness to what is?

 

8 Comments

  1. Thank you, dear Vicki. You so often say what I need to hear, and then I can hear that it is what I have been saying to myself and not listening to. And perhaps that is the battle – the battle within – to hear what we already know and value the wisdom and truth in it, in us. Blessings, friend, and gratitude.

    Barbara Lamb
  2. I agree with you Vicki, especially about the ‘stopping’ and what few people say much about, although Mother Jones magazine tried a few yeara ago, is the conversation about overpopulation. Overpopulation doesnt happen by accident. Why in America are there so many so-self identified intelligent people ignoring their option to not have children. You say that your hook aimed to help inplug consumerism and I think you did help to promote the lessening of that, and yet one thing that does lead to consumerism is childhirth, yet it is so taboo to name that element as a significant contributor to what is happening now. Like you, I paid attention to the warnings, part of what I did was to choose not to have children. I dont need a gold star for having done that but I do want more conversation rather than denial around it.

    Tina
  3. Such a bittersweet truth. But the reality must be faced. Civilizations before this one have come and gone… apparently that is what civilizations do….. at least human ones. I have always held the hope that we will wake up and get it and come to some kind of global agreement of how to co-exist and support one another, rather than objectifying and dehumanizing one another. The bottom line is, this time we never thought would come is here. Rather than giving into fear or panic, we can choose to live as honorably and wisely and fully as we can and know that we are as much in harmony with ourselves and our world as we can be, as often as we can be. Or we can go down screaming…. it’s our choice individually. We lie in whatever beds we make. The great cosmic joke is that life goes on….. with our human bodies or without them….. in whatever form(s) that will take. Life goes on. And planet Earth is quite likely going to be around long after we have vacated the premises….

  4. Dear Vicki, I like the fire with which you speak. For what it’s worth, I read your book YMOYL almost twenty years ago and it changed my life in profound ways. Understanding that frugal is green is all the insight I needed to live a very full and happy life on a shoestring. Although I believe that individuals can change systems by voting with their money and their choices–which is the reason the organic food market has grown so much in this country, for example–, we must not ignore the responsibility of corporations that have distracted and swayed people away from the better choices they were making. One day people were buying smaller cars, and then the SUV came back with a vengeance. How did that happen? You can read my story here https://magali055.wixsite.com/home/blog/raising-little-earth-warriors-part-1, but I am someone who wasn’t going to have children, and then had one at age 42. I remember my shamanic teacher, Hank Wesselman, who through mystical experiences perceived and described the world after the collapse of our civilization in his Spiritwalker Trilogy, saying “The people who should have children, aren’t having them.” That sounds like an extreme statement, but now that I am a mother, I am determined to raise my child to be a peaceful warrior for the Earth. I see no other choice. The thing is, motherhood has galvanized my own activism beyond what I thought was possible, and now I am blogging about Parenting in the Age of Climate Change and Writing the New Stories. Thank you for your book and the life tools it has given me.

    1. Your Money or Your Life was my “late in life” child! I’m so glad YMOYL changed your life. I don’t diminish the power that teaching has had in so many lives and how many, like you, were affirmed and liberated to work for the world. I celebrate every single person’s story of transformation. the work was not useless by any means! but it didn’t really move the needle or understand the tools of the powerful to resist change and do nothing. Most of my friends have been and are heroic in their interventions – they, like you, see what’s going on and do what calls them in response. What I’m calling for in this article is to let go of the thought that if we do x we’ll get y, an underlying assumption of activists. My using my voice more directly is what I am now called to do. With no idea what will come of it, but with great pleasure in being awake in these consequential times.

      Vicki

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