In the past few months I have been trying to ask myself, “what truly motivates you?” and “what cause would you be willing to make major sacrifices for?” Among several answers the most compelling is the beauty of the natural world.
Human activities are overwhelmingly pushing the planet in a direction where that natural beauty is being destroyed. As a human I am participating in that destruction. This does not feel ok to me. I feel truly motivated to take action that makes me healing force for the natural world. I would be willing to make sacrifices for this.
But how? In such a large, complicated world, how can one orient themselves and their actions in such a way as to know, as best as possible, that what they are doing does in fact have a positive impact?
In my quest to answer these questions I picked up the book “Climate: A New Story” by Charles Eisenstein, which was recommended to me by a friend.
Eisenstein’s book offers, as the title suggests, a “new story” on the situation of ecological destruction and climate change. I found his perspective very compelling and motivating, and I’ll spend most of this piece summarizing and reflecting on points he made in the book.
Before I discuss the “new story” however, I’d like to mention the current story. A simplification of the current story is this: Industrial humanity has an addiction to energy. In our quest for energy, we do things (such as burning fossil fuels) that release carbon into the atmosphere. This causes the planet to get hotter, which creates a vicious cycle of increasing heat. At the higher temperatures, forests dry up, sea levels rise, ecosystems fail, and eventually, survival is difficult even for humans.
The advantage of this story is that it allows all of us on team “save the planet” to row together against a common enemy. It reduces the problem of an unhealthy planet into a single number that allows us to feel like we can quantify, offset, and eventually control the quality of the environment.
While it certainly would be better if we could limit the increasing temperature of Earth, Eisenstein offers a convincing thought experiment to show why optimizing for this metric alone may not be our best foot forward as environmentalists.
Imagine a future in which technology continues to improve, and as it does, we are able to apply a technology solution to every process that is contributing to climate change. We build solar panels for electricity, embrace lab grown meats, create giant funnels that suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, and huge robots to sweep the oceans for plastic. As a result, we solve the climate crisis, Earth’s temperature normalizes, and we can go on with business as usual.
The world I described above could be one in which all forests have been replaced with massive arrays of solar powered hyper efficient CO2 to O2 converters. While that is unlikely, I hope that this example demonstrates the point that our current model for trying to save the environment isn’t actually well structured to do that.
So what is the alternative? Eisenstein suggests that to find that answer, we might go back to what originally motivated us to care in the first place. For me, it’s a love of forests. I grew up in the Oakland Hills, surrounded by majestic live oaks and towering pines. Now, 20 years after I first moved to the region, the changes are noticeable. The hills are drier, there are less insects, the salamanders have gone, and many of the live oaks that give the city its name are dead and brown, including two in my backyard.
I loved those trees, I cried when I realized they were dying. I felt an almost irrational zeal when I considered what I’d be willing to do, what I’d be willing to sacrifice, to save those two trees.
In Eisenstein’s new story, we are invited to partake in ecological healing at the level where it evokes the strongest feelings for us. Rather than looking at the dying oaks behind my house and thinking “the oaks are dying because of global climate change, I’ll make a donation to carbon offsets in their honor” and moving on, I’m asked to actually go into the forest, to look at the dying trees, to feel the earth, to notice the something like the ivy gradually enveloping the nearby pine trees, and to take action to make a positive change.
While these may seem like small actions, they teach a skill that I, and other humans, need to learn if we want to begin to heal the Earth. To understand the land around us, to care for it, and to help it recover on a local level.
Eisenstein cites impressive examples of regenerative agriculture - farms that have found ways not only to maintain but increase yields per acre while simultaneously restoring the beauty and balance to the local ecosystem and sequestering carbon in rebuilt topsoil deposits. Among these are Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota and Ernst Gotsch’s farm in Brazil.
It’s possible to work the land in a way that is productive for human consumption needs and healing to the Earth, but there is a caveat: this type of farming requires many more human labor hours than conventional industrial farming. In order for this to work, a much larger segment of the population would need to live and work on the land, or as Eisenstein puts it: “figuratively and literally, we need to go back to the land.”
This would be a massive restructure of our society. Eisenstein gives examples of changes in policy and our monetary system that could incentivize and enable it, such as negative interest and UBI. Viewing the climate crisis as an inevitable symptom of broken socioeconomic structure, he acknowledges “the necessity of that change reaching to the level of money.”
Making these changes would allow more humans to assume roles as boots-on-the-ground stewards of Earth’s ecosystems. As challenging as it might seem to achieve, this is a destination for the future role of humans on the Earth that I feel good about orienting myself towards. On a personal level, the next steps towards that destination feel clear. Understanding this perspective allowed me to shift my thinking from “humans are bad: the Earth would be better without us” to “humans can be good: Earth needs our acts to heal and thrive.”
To summarize, I came away from my reading of Eisenstein’s book feeling newly humbled to the challenges facing our planet, and how inappropriately oriented our society is to address them. I also felt inspired about the possibilities of what we can do and be as Earth-loving humans. It made me feel justified in a desire to address the environmental issues closest to home for me, to the level of simply maintaining my own garden or the woods around my house. If I want to take a step beyond that, I’m excited by the idea of promoting or partaking in practices of regenerative agriculture, with the hope that human by human, acre by acre, we have the potential to heal the Earth from the ground up.