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?” One compelling answer for me 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 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 motivating, and I’ll spend most of this piece summarizing or reflecting on points he made in the book.
Before I discuss the “new story” however, I’d like to mention the current story from which Eisenstein seeks to draw a contrast. A simplified version 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 increasingly, survival becomes difficult for humans, too.
This story 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. The simplification is useful in that it allows all of us to pull together at a time of extreme urgency around global warming. By some estimates there may be only 2-3 years before an inflection point in warming makes it essentially impossible to come back to today's temperature baseline.
Indeed, many have signed on to this story and are doing what they can to reduce atmospheric carbon and cool the planet. Yet there are many others for whom this current narrative has yet to convince them to change course. There are many reasons for this. It could be that they feel alienated by the divisive politics that surround climate change, that they are too overwhelmed by the scope of the problem to feel like any one human's actions can have an impact, or simply that they feel it is already too late.
I never want to think of Earth as a lost cause. Even if we do reach a point where cooling to pre-industrial levels is all but impossible, there will always be something that we can do as individuals to improve the quality of the ecosystems that surround us. As such, while our current narrative offers a clear short term directive to address climate, I find myself wondering if there is another approach which could offer a framework for meaningful action in a future where the global temperature situation may feel hopelessly out of control.
To begin with, Eisenstein questions whether the current carbon-centric narrative for climate action has us rowing in the right direction at all. Consider the following thought experiment, in which Eisenstein hopes to show why optimizing for carbon or temperature reduction 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 a spread floating nano-cells that harvest energy while making the atmosphere more reflective, embrace lab grown meats, and create giant filters that suck the carbon out of the atmosphere. As a result, we solve the climate crisis in that Earth’s temperature normalizes and we can go on with business as usual.
The world I described above could be one in which every single tree has been replaced with a more efficient CO2 to O2 conversion device; where no inch of grassland is left uncovered by solar panels; where the only extant animal species are humans, dogs, and brainless lab-chickens. While these extremes feel unlikely, this example pointed out for me that our current model for healing the environment isn’t structurally guaranteed to do so.
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 just 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 ask what that particular patch of nature wants, 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. 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 now needs our acts to heal and thrive.”
In conclusion, 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. While I still feel that resolving carbon-related warming needs to be the primary compass directing near term action, Climate made me feel motivated to address 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 practicing and promoting regenerative agriculture, with the hope that human by human, acre by acre, we have the potential to heal the Earth from the ground up.