Gaia is Responding to our Actions. Will We Act Differently in Time?

The Earth is not dying.
Gaia is not changing.
Gi is responding.

So often we hear the phrase ‘save the world’ or the ‘save our planet.’ We may even use it. But sometime back in my career someone wise corrected that, explaining that the planet is not dying but changing—and through that change many species, including our own, will probably die. But the Earth, in all likelihood, will not die.*

Save the Earth, I stand for the Earth, Make our Planet Great Again are sentiments visible in this scene from a climate strike. (photo of 2019 Geneva Climate Strike from MHM55)

But to say the Earth is changing, just as to say it is dying, is passive, like, saying ‘Oops, too bad, we were born on a sick old planet—just our bad luck.’

No, Gaia is responding. Responding to our actions. Whatever metaphors you want to use here, feel free: You want to make Gaia into a finely-balanced aquarium filled with exotic fish, and us a wild child dropping soap in the tank to ‘clean’ it? You want to make Gaia a partner suffering from domestic abuse who finally lashes out on us, her abuser, after years of mistreatment? You want to make Gaia a complex planetary system that holds heat from space with a thin coating of co2—a layer that has increased to a level not seen in 23 million years, higher than even three million years ago when global temperatures were 2 degrees C warmer and sea levels were 15-25 meters higher? While the last isn’t artful, it is accurate.

Gaia is responding. To the altered conditions we have unleashed—with our profligate burning of fossil fuels, our cutting down of forests and ravaging of oceans, and our sheer numbers (us and our pets and livestock).

Amazingly, I don’t see us correcting course any time soon.

This past year, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we shut down large parts of our economy. And so far an additional 1.7 million people have died from COVID. Each and every death is a tragedy. But guess what? Atmospheric concentrations of co2 increased this past year, hitting yet another record (though at this point every year is a record as long as it keeps going up).

That’s pretty amazing. Air travel declined dramatically and is currently 46% lower than in 2019. Road travel in the US declined 11 percent compared with last year. Many businesses were shuttered and will never come back, particularly restaurants. But we kept eating, kept making things (after a brief pause) and perhaps even more things to fill consumer demand for novelties while stuck at home (from appliances to backyard patio sets),** plus, all the personal protective equipment (129 billion masks a month!), vaccines, and the equipment needed to deliver them (see, for example, the current boon in freezers and dry ice).

If anything, this year of pandemic, of urgent antiracism protests and prodemocracy demonstrations (not just in the US but countries like Belarus), and of endless Trumpian shenanigans and stoking of conflict and partisanship have crippled the climate movement. Online protests don’t draw eyes—especially when there are half a dozen other crises to report on every day (including climate-driven ones like raging fires and a record hurricane season). And while groups like Fridays for the Future and Extinction Rebellion have remained active, the smaller actions they’ve taken have gotten much less attention.

Greta

This past week, my wife, son, and I watched I am Greta. It was certainly a moving film, exploring how Greta Thunberg went from one individual striking, alone, in front of the Swedish parliament building for the climate, to sparking a global climate movement to becoming a symbol—both of youthful leadership and truth-telling as well as a vilified figure for those on the right, even receiving death threats.

Greta Thunberg in front of the Swedish parliament, holding a “School Strike for Climate” sign, in August 2018. (Photo from Anders Hellberg)

And thus Greta has also become a symbol of this whole polarized nightmare. Climate change is a threat to our existence, but truly effective action (meaning economic degrowth and daunting levels of cultural change) is a threat to “our way of life” (i.e. the dominant consumer-capitalist paradigm). And thus, as viewers see in one scene, Thunburg argues passionately for action in front of the European Economic and Social Committee and Jean-Claude Juncker (president of the European Commission at the time) responds by saying that they’re working “to harmonize all flushes across all toilets in Europe,” which will help save water and energy. You could see the palpable contempt on Thunberg’s face.

Deep down I was hoping my son, 8.5, would say to me let’s start going to the Middletown Town Hall every Friday to strike. I’d be up for that. I want to do that. But I want him to lead that. I don’t want to ‘use’ him, like in an uncomfortably funny scene in the Dutch show Rita where parents make their daughter lead a school climate strike in order to get a book deal.

But the majority of kids, nej, the majority of all people do not want to spend their days protesting. They simply want to enjoy their lives.

But Gaia is responding. To our carbon-intensive life-enjoyment processes. And if we don’t try something different—perhaps partaking in “good trouble”—we’re gonna be in great trouble.

Carbon March to DC

Back in late 2008 (12 long years ago), I shared a proposal with some of the leaders of the climate movement at the time. It was a proposal to organize people from around the United States to walk to Washington,*** taking several months, building the energy and media attention as smaller groups merged into bigger ones and neared the capital, and then blockading major entryways into the city until the new president, Barack Obama, and the Congress felt compelled to respond. Note, this was before Occupy Wall Street and XR but absolutely not a new idea—I took it directly from Gandhi’s Salt March to Dandi mixed with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and other non-violent actions (as you can read here).**** I got some generic positive comments—like Greta at the European Commission—but nothing more. And considering I had a cushy job at a sustainability think tank, and had just been invited to direct a new book (on consumerism and cultural change—my passion), I didn’t push very hard. Especially as everyone else seemed so optimistic that, under the new president, we’d deal with climate change.

Mahatma Gandhi and others marching to Dandi to break British salt laws, March 1930.

But we didn’t. And I should have pushed harder. And I should now. But even now, as the crisis is upon us (not a looming threat any longer), when I have a young son who will inherit this mess, I find myself hesitating at the idea of putting life on hold and risking life and liberty. Sure, in part it’s because I have a child—though old enough to walk with me now (and he’d probably get a kick out of walking from Connecticut to DC, where we used to live). And partly it’s because I’m conflicted about whether it’s simply too late to stop the climate unraveling (see the postscript below). But if I’m honest, it’s also because I’m too comfortable.

Yet, without sustained and consistent pressure, Biden’s climate policy—especially with a divided Congress—will not be enough—nor will the Green New Deal that activists are advocating for and mostly consists of unsustainable techno-fixes instead of returning to live within Earth’s limits. No country is currently doing enough, as yet more research shows. Do we just accept that and prepare for collapse as best we can or do we fight, risking our freedom, safety, and comfort for that?

Perhaps the Carbon March is not a good idea (though I admit I still really like it—post-pandemic) but we certainly need to expand, support, and deepen efforts of groups like XR and Fridays for the Future, particularly in the United States, where climate protests have taken a back seat to issues that feel more pressing (and frankly have never gotten enough attention or energy here). Of course, we need to address racism, COVID, inequality, growing far-right extremism, and gun violence, as well, but if we don’t find a way to fold climate change into the mix—or even fold all of these into an intersectionalist environmentalist framework—then we’re toast, and, as the world burns, all the social gains fought for over the past two centuries will go up in flames with it.

Postscript: To Fight or Adapt? Or Both?

Taking on one other dimension of this, there is a new divide growing between those still trying to ‘save the world’ (aka stop runaway climate change and the mass die off of life including people), and those who simply think it’s too late, and that the best we can do is prepare for the inevitable transition ahead. This latter community, perhaps best represented by The Deep Adaptation Forum, may be right. But that doesn’t mean we can throw in the towel. Every part per million of co2 in the atmosphere is going to make things worse (in a non-linear kind of way). Yes, we need those working on preparing for the transition (in both direct ways, like the Transition Town Movement, and deeper ways, including, I’d argue cultivating an ecocentric spirituality that can help us get through the horrors ahead with our humanity intact), because a post-growth future—one wracked by a never-ending series of disasters—is coming soon to a theater near all of us. But we also need those slowing down this march to collapse (especially as after a point, adaptation is impossible).

This is the ideal, though: the actions we take in one realm would also help in the other. For example, a months-long march to Washington to press for climate solutions would also build social capital, engage communities around the country, teach participants to live simply (and get used to living with less), and rediscover basic skills like cooking (for their cadre of marchers). This might subtly do a lot to get us ready for the degrowth/collapsed reality ahead. And cultivating an ecospirituality that strongly encourages its adherents to be engaged politically and socially (especially in ways that help normalize degrowth) would also support both realms. Ultimately, with the scope of change needed, it does not much matter if you devote yourself to deep adaptation or to slowing the collapse—both are essential and both are part of our bigger collective struggle. The only thing we cannot afford is no corrective action at all.

*Then again, as James Lovelock has noted, Gaia is older than Gi once was. There is a point when the strain of switching states could end all life on Earth and thus Gaia. And of course, like all beings, it is inevitable that Gaia will one day die—the sun’s growing heat and finite life guarantee that. But I have faith that Lynn Margulis is right in that the bacteria deep in the Earth will spread out and create new variations to fill in the empty niches of the new hot world humanity unleashes, starting another cycle of life.

**And factoring in hoarding, we may have even consumed more household goods and food (though it is feasible that this increase might have been offset by food waste avoided from eating at restaurants).

***Due to the extended nature of this journey, many of the participants would be students and elders (retirees)—supported by the communities with food and shelter and attention as they passed through.

****I was inspired to write this after listening to Wendell Berry speak, telling his audience of environmental journalists that the time for “symbolic” civil disobedience was over (in 2008). By that he meant short-term actions that were designed for media attention but did not really disrupt anything in any sustained way that would force a serious response.

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2 Responses

  1. Dan Fiscus

    Erik,

    Thanks for another excellent article full of important facts, insights and reflections! I have had many thoughts stimulated by your articles, and I want to start sharing my thoughts by commenting here.

    You invite folks to choose a metaphor suggesting that many metaphors are welcome or possible. Of many possible metaphors we could imagine, I have been thinking of three basic types of metaphors or stories we could discuss in relation to the global ecological crisis we now live in. In most general terms, we could describe stories / metaphors:

    1. That depict a shared and unifying story to facilitate and guide coherent and collective action. These would have to be very general for many unique individuals to share a collective story.
    2. That are individual and unique stories reflecting the lives and visions of unique individual people. These may be divergent and may not be amenable to fitting neatly into a coherent shared collective story.
    3. Stories that are mix of types 1 and 2 with some very general aspects that may be relatable to all or most people, and other more specific aspects that have limited ability to overlap with the personal stories of large numbers of people.

    You mentioned two qualities of metaphors – “artful” and “accurate”. You also mentioned “a new divide growing” between the two camps you describe as Deep Adaptation and “slow the collapse” camps. You also describe the ideal actions now and going forward: “the actions we take in one realm would also help in the other.”
    I think we could use the three types of metaphors / stories above to add some more qualities of stories worth examining and for helping to develop and use stories to increase our chances that “the actions we take in one realm would also help in the other.”

    Your article spurred me to see it important for us to ask and discuss – What aspects or qualities of stories and metaphors are most likely to foster unity between people, and mutually beneficial actions between Deep Adaptation and slow the collapse camps? A related question is What aspects or qualities of stories are most likely to lead to positive futures for all people and for Gaia as a whole?

    This could lead to long and in-depth discussions. I would propose these initial rough answers as possible places to start discussing these two questions:

    Stories and metaphors most likely to foster unity and lead to positive futures are ones that:

    1. Are inclusive, embrace a great diversity of people and views, and provide important places, roles, and power for a diversity of people.
    2. Provide a positive vision for the future including social justice, peace, and harmony between diverse peoples and their diverse views.
    3. Include positive principles and actions that anyone can do to participate in the story and achieve the positive outcomes depicted in the story.
    4. Focus on values, experiences, qualities and “things” that are most widely if not fully universally shared by all people. This focus on the human common ground makes it possible for a story or metaphor to have a unifying rather than dividing influence. This also suggests an important role for Gaia and the Earth in such unifying and positive stories.

    Also, I see value in folks who are able to understand, appreciate, share and advocate for more than one story, not just one’s own favorite or cherished story. This mediator, translator, go-between role is important to foster unity, peace and harmony between folks with diverse values, beliefs, metaphors and stories and decrease conflict that arises when one sees one’s own story as absolute truth and rejects or feels threatened by the stories or metaphors of others.

    The story or metaphor that is my current favorite at the moment is that the time we are now living is like a birthing event – Gaia is giving birth! And as for humans, birthing can be very painful, chaotic, stressful and transformative, as well as a glorious, joyous act of creation. But I will save more on that story for another day. The more we can openly and freely articulate, reflect on and discuss the stories and metaphors that motivate us, and learn and appreciate the stories others live by, the more I think we will have a chance to create a shared story that leads to a positive future. Thanks for the invitation to “feel free” to choose a metaphor and the inspiration to find actions that succeed for uniting people.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks Dan. I look forward to hearing more about this metaphor. It reminds me (from the tiny bit you wrote) of Joanna Macy’s Great Turning–but perhaps it’s something more?

      Best,

      Erik

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