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A Turning Point in Consciousness

By Christian de Quincey

Clearly, we face looming crises of unprecedented proportions and dimensions— environmentally, economically, socially, psychologically, spiritually. It is critical we wake up to the fact that the human predicament is the planet's problem. Who among us is innocent of responsibility for the degradation our species inflicts on the natural world? And what can we do about it?

I teach a course called "Paradigms of Consciousness" at John F. Kennedy University. We spend eleven weeks exploring the dynamics of beliefs, about how our stories affect us as individuals, as communities, and as global "eco-citizens." This week, we shuddered to a halt when we looked at the impact of human actions on the natural environment.

Revelations about the scale of the problem left some students feeling helpless, even despondent. The situation seems so hopeless, and the consequences so vast and inevitable. One brave student, not happy that I identified human actions as the main culprit in climate change, emailed me with a very direct question: "I believe there is innocence at the core of every human, and that humans haven't intentionally damaged the planet. Do you disagree?"

Her question got me thinking and in response I wrote a lengthy essay. I have decided to share the main points here...

Human Innocence
Given the evidence pro and con, I simply don't know whether every human being possesses an innate and abiding innocence of the heart. I'm not even sure I know what "human innocence" means. If, for instance, it means that no human carries any responsibility for the impact our species has on our surrounding ecology, I do not accept that. It is quite evident to me that all of us living in modern civilization make choices every day that contribute, one way or another, to the degradation of the environment—and we are responsible for those choices. In short, that means we are not "innocent."

I'm not just talking about our ecological footprint (some eco-footprint is unavoidable from every member of every species). By "choices," I'm referring to those decisions we make with our purchases and other actions even though other, less eco-impacting, alternatives are available. In my experience, few people consistently live lifestyles where they always choose optimum eco-sustainable actions. Of course, some do come much closer than others to living lightly on the land. But even organic farmers use internal combustion engines to transport their produce, and they use electricity in their homes. I don't know of anyone who lives entirely off the land, powered by sun and/or wind, and who produces their own food and raw materials for clothing and housing. Even if people are unaware of alternative options, ignorance is not the same as innocence. Who among us, then, is truly innocent?

It is hardly a matter for dispute that human activity contributes significantly to climate change and global warming as a result of the vast amounts of CO2 we emit into the atmosphere daily, weekly, monthly, annually, for decades and centuries. Yet despite all the hard science to back this up, the outgoing Bush Administration has shown a profound disregard for the health and integrity of local and global ecosystems. Even worse, by their actions political and corporate leaders demonstrate they are willing to intentionally destroy ecosystems (e.g., by leveling mountaintops to access coal reserves and pouring polluting sludge into the surrounding environment. Bush has just issued a signing statement to make this legal for mining companies). The politicians who enable this to happen along with the corporations and individuals who participate in making this happen are by no stretch of imagination "innocent" in my view. They do, indeed, intentionally harm the environment and other species—all in the biased belief that "humans are special" ("God's chosen species").

Sixth Great Extinction
In my writings and lectures, I often express acute frustration at the dire plight of so many of our kindred species whose share of the planet is denied, disrupted, or destroyed—as a result of chronic self-serving human actions. These endangered species are the true innocents. As is now widely known, we are living through the sixth great extinction on Earth (the last one occurred about 60 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out). This time, however, the extinction is being caused by a single run-away species—humans. My sense of urgency is fueled by a growing awareness that we (and other species) are running out of time. Experts predict that within thirty years fully one-third of all mammalian species will become extinct as a result of human activity (including, for example, gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, cheetahs, tigers, rhinoceros, and on and on . . . along with countless other species of birds, reptiles, and fish). According to latest estimates, up to 90 percent of large ocean fish species have already become extinct due to over-fishing and pollution. I find the numbers staggering, almost beyond belief. In my opinion, anyone who is not alarmed about that is either not paying attention or simply doesn't care because they have bought into the self-serving myth that "humans are special" (I think of Sarah Palin and fellow fundamentalists as extreme examples).

The Crisis is Real
It really doesn't help to adopt a Pollyanna perspective that, despite the evidence, "everything will turn out all right in the end," or that we really shouldn't talk about the prospect of environmental catastrophe in polite company. No amount of "let's all stay positive" head-in-the sand wishful thinking will help us address the various crises in any useful way. I'm urging us to "wake up" and take responsibility. That means becoming informed about what is really happening—including the shocking "shadow" aspects of human actions and intentions, without ignoring the "light" inspiring visions for a better, more compassionate and sustainable world. Reality always includes both shadow and light. Always. We need to acknowledge and embrace that dance.

Choosing Levity and Creativity
In the essay to my students, I added something I didn't get around to in class. It's this: While I do think we need to wake up to the stark realities facing us, I don't think it is useful or productive to allow ourselves to be brought down by the gravity of the problem. Yes, I want us to be more alert to the dangers and more awake and aware of our responsibilities. At the same time, I encourage us to walk through the world with levity and a light heart. Even while (or if) we feel pain and grief (indeed even anger) at the predicament our civilization has created for ourselves and other species, we do not have to slide into ineffectual despair or depression. We can, instead, take responsibility for our participation in the situation and allow ourselves to fully feel that pain, grief, anger, and fear, and simultaneously choose to relate to each other and nature with a light heart to match our deliberate lightness of step as we move through the world. We do not need to give up our sense of humor while acknowledging the seriousness of the crises. Creativity is enhanced by the levity of a light heart—even in the face of dark realities.

A Time of Opportunity
An ancient Chinese proverb tells us: "Every crisis is also an opportunity." Indeed, we are now confronting what looks more and more like a major disruption and breakdown of our ecological, economic, and social systems, unprecedented since the birth of human societies. A civilization rooted in, and profoundly dependent on, a fossil-fuel based industrial technology/economy to boost the march of human "progress" is simply not sustainable. Even if (when) we switch to alternative sources of energy (solar, wind, geothermal, wave) the current lifestyles of modern civilization cannot be sustained. The fact is that only a fossil-fuel based economy can provide the enormous energy needed to mine the raw materials, transport them, process them, and distribute the products needed to manufacture solar panels, wind generators, etc. (I don't consider nuclear energy a viable option.) It is disappointing and sobering to realize that even alternative energy technologies are deeply dependent on fossil-fuel technologies. Our addiction runs that deep. The remedy lies within us and around us. We have the opportunity to change our foundational myth, to change our story about the place of humanity in nature, and to choose radically different actions, by expressing ourselves more creatively in ways that enhance our relationship with the natural world.

'Dark Night, Early Dawn'
We are rapidly running out of the fossil-fuels that modern industrial civilization relies on to feed, clothe, house, transport, educate, and entertain our populations. Sooner or later, our numbers will have to be drastically reduced and our ways of life radically altered (e.g., by learning to live together in much smaller communities, living off locally produced food and raw materials). We are just in the very early stages of this profound social shift. It seems quite likely that the time of transition will at the very least be disruptive and uncomfortable beyond mere inconvenience; more likely, it will be a time of acute and prolonged physical and emotional disturbance, even suffering, for a great number of people. The good news is that some of us will survive, in reduced numbers, and will be faced with the challenges of creating a new society that is intrinsically more ecologically sustainable and sane.

Not to Be Repeated
Although there is no guarantee that those who survive the global crises will not repeat the grave errors of past generations (e.g., maintaining the myth that "humans are special"), we can be sure of one thing: There will be no Second Industrial Revolution based on non-renewable energy resources. This planet can be raped only once of its deposits of "ancient sunlight." Once the oil, gas, and coal are gone, they're gone. Our species will then have to turn to other, renewable, sources of energy (solar, wind, thermal, wave, etc.)—including a return to a much greater and widespread reliance on muscle power. I do not foresee a return to pre-industrial or pre-agricultural ways of life. We cannot go back. But our post-industrial (and post-information) societies will have the benefit of building on the lessons learned from all past generations—from the potentials of alternative localized technologies, from the values and errors of global industrialism all the way back to the wisdom and limitations of indigenous hunter-gatherer societies. The opportunities for a far more environmentally integrated human species will be rich and potent. And these possibilities, also, lie hidden in the heart of the current crises.

Consciousness Shift
And so we come to the point of this essay. We have good reasons to be optimistic about the long run—even though getting there will take its toll. Most important, the turning point will require a radical mutation in consciousness, involving increased and deepening awareness that we are truly interbeings, as Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh pointed out. Each of us is, without exception, mutually dependent on our relationships with the full symphony of all other sentient beings. The coming paradigm shift in consciousness will involve a recognition that, at its core, consciousness is intersubjective—that, literally, we co-create each other, and thereby participate in the co-creation of our world. Truly: We are the world! That realization and awareness will come with an enhanced sense of willing responsibility for the consequences of our intentions and actions. Visionaries, such as Jean Gebser and Sri Aurobindo, refer to this "mutation" as the "Integral" phase in the evolution of consciousness.

Shadow and Light
If highlighting the "human predicament" and confronting the complex transition between crisis and opportunity disturbs our cognitive or emotional equilibrium, consider this: Each of us, as humans (indeed as animals), has the capacity to experience the full range of emotions—from anger, to sadness, to fear to joy. To the degree we allow ourselves to experience and express the depths of our "negative" emotions we will likewise be open to experiencing and expressing the heights of our "positive" emotions. Conversely, to the extent we deny or suppress our "shadow," we also suppress our "light." We all contain both. As healthy, integrated beings, we need to learn to acknowledge our "zombie" and "angel" aspects, and learn to embrace all of who we are.

I think that is a necessary first step in healing our relationships with the awesome and mysterious world that gives birth to us, sustains us, and one day will receive us back into its ever-replenishing womb.

In The Wisdom Academy, we integrate knowledge about "Evolution of Consciousness" with the lived, pragmatic wisdom of "Conscious Evolution." It's where science and spirit meet. Knowing unites with being. This article was first published in 'Q' magazine.

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