Musings #1 October 2006

The Spiritual Challenges of Global Climate Change

and Peak Oil

As I watched the story of global climate change unfold in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, something happened inside; an inner shift took place. I could no longer regard “global climate change” as a threat, as something we needed to work to prevent. I saw that it is already upon us—and has been upon us for the last five or ten years.

The conditions for the changes have been building up over the last hundred or hundred and fifty years, but we might have been able to avert their cumulative effects if we had acted twenty years ago. But most of us in the United States and Canada didn’t. In fact, we made things worse. We continued to use petroleum at ever increasing rates, as if there were no tomorrow. And now tomorrow has come.

I feel the way I imagine a person might feel receiving a serious cancer diagnosis when it is clear that he or she may not get well. Only it’s the whole human race that has received this diagnosis, along with many other species, large and small. Yes, it is possible to mitigate some of the effects by making significant changes in our energy use and our relationship to one another and the environment. But our efforts may be too little, too late. We may die prematurely, anyway.

And just like many cancer patients who cannot or will not change their diet or other habits, we may not make the changes needed. It’s not up to an individual cancer patient this time, yet it is only by millions of people making individual changes that we might be able to improve our situation. If I reduce my energy use (and waste) significantly, while all my neighbors continue in their old habits, my efforts will have little effect on the outcome. On the other hand, if we all think our efforts are futile and don’t make individual changes, guess what: we are all doomed!

Brown-outs and black-outs are already becoming commonplace in large metropolitan areas in the record-breaking heat of this summer. Hurricanes and storms are getting stronger and more frequent. If we look at the evidence, we have to realize that these occurrences are not going to go away in a few years. These are not simply temporary phenomena that will cycle back to “normal” in a few months or even years. There is no “normal” in a time of global climate change.

Moreover, we also face the prospect of declining oil supplies as we reach and pass the peak of global oil extraction—so-called “peak oil.” The price of oil is already spirally upward and may soon exceed $100 a barrel. This will not only affect our ability to travel and commute, it will also curtail the transportation of goods upon which most of us rely for food and other necessities. Our global economy may crash, resulting in wide-spread famine, poverty, and civil unrest.

I see my comfortable lifestyle changing radically, and probably uncomfortably, in the very near future. I find myself contemplating things I use daily around the house, wondering which will soon be unavailable to me, and how I might be able to substitute for them—or do without.

We can do some things to prepare: create gardens and greenhouses to grow more of our own food, dry clothes outside, buy fuel-efficient appliances and cars, make bicycles our primary mode of local transportation (weather permitting), reduce our travel, insulate our homes, turn the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter, let go of energy intensive toys, and so on.

Beyond all this, however, is a deeper issue: how shall we live now with this life-threatening diagnosis? We can take our medicine and make the recommended changes, but it may not be enough. Many will die from hunger, epidemics, and natural disasters; will you or I be among them? If we survive, we will need to cope with enormous losses—of family and friends, of familiar habits and routines, of jobs and economic security, and who knows what more. Huge and unpredictable emotional and spiritual challenges lie ahead. How shall we prepare for them?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to that question, but I do think we will need to keep asking it and similar questions as we make our way through the unknown territory ahead.

One response I find right now is to appreciate what I now have, while I have it. Many of us live in considerable abundance and comfort. Rather than living in fear of losing it, I want to enjoy it fully now, perhaps even more keenly knowing it may not last. Rilke asks God, “Just give me a little more time!/ I want to love the things/as no one has thought to love them/until they’re real and ripe and worthy of you” (Rilke’s Book of Hours, Macy/Barrows translation).

Buddhism teaches about impermanence, how everything arises and passes away and nothing ever remains the same. We all grow old and eventually die. Not only do little things arise and pass away, but also entire civilizations, whole cultures and economic systems. In the normal course of daily life, it is easy to forget this stark fact, or to think of it only theoretically. Global climate change and peak oil may bring home the fact of impermanence to us in a new way, remind us of the preciousness of human life, and call us to practice acceptance, equanimity, and compassion at new depths.

I believe the changes that lie ahead will call upon each of us to serve one another and our communities in ways we may never have thought possible. I am convinced that such service will prove to be the most fulfilling experience many of us will ever have had in our lives. It may not be “fun,” but it will be meaningful and rewarding to our souls. Many of the opportunities for service will come along unexpectedly, which means we often will need to respond in the moment. We will be called to serve in our neighborhoods, on the street, in our work places—and not just when doing designated “volunteer work.”

A client of mine who lives in Sweden recently spoke of making herself “available” in a new way, available “to do the work of the heart.” She has been working with Swedish survivors of the 2004 tsunami through the Red Cross and was recently asked to meet a flight of refugees from the bombing of Lebanon. At first she thought it was a waste of time, because all she did was give people directions in the airport; anyone could have done that. However, as the crowd thinned down, someone asked her to speak with a man who appeared to be in shock. After sitting with him for a while she figured out what he needed and found others to bring him food, coffee, and a wheelchair. More importantly, she provided him with a sympathetic ear so he could tell his story of trauma. Amazingly, by the time they parted, they were laughing and joking together, the man restored to himself. In thanking her, he said he would remember this meeting for the rest of his life.

This story struck me as a model for what may happen to many of us in the years ahead. We may be called upon to listen to and support people going through trauma, strangers as well as friends—and we may never know in advance when we will be needed. At other times, we ourselves may need help, receiving the same kind of support we have given. We are all in this together.

How then can we best make ourselves available to help when needed? I think it is mostly a matter of clearing away inner and outer encumbrances. Outer encumbrances might be commitments that don’t really serve us (or anyone else) anymore: general busyness, a full schedule, a particularly demanding job, volunteer situations that no longer bring us fulfillment, unnecessary house and yard work, or a difficult relationship that takes a lot of time and energy to maintain. Inner encumbrances, probably more problematic, include beliefs about ourselves and the world, “should’s and ought’s,” fears and self-doubt, addictions, old habits, and so on. I suspect they would fall into the three causes of suffering according to Buddha: attachment, aversion, confusion. To release these, we need to work on ourselves through prayer and meditation, counseling or coaching, spiritual and psychological self-help books, spending time in nature, journaling, and so on. Suddenly personal growth doesn’t seem like a self-indulgent luxury, but rather a necessary preparation for the challenges ahead.

This is but one important dimension of our preparation. Another lies in our coming together in community to provide food, clothing, shelter, energy, and other life necessities for ourselves and our neighbors. We cannot survive alone, individual by individual, family by family. We can only survive by helping each other, bringing our varied skills and gifts to bear, sharing what we have, and planning together to obtain what we collectively need. Community building and economic relocalization need to begin right now. Indeed they are already happening, in many towns, including Mount Shasta and Ashland. Relocalization groups are forming, creating community gardens, improving public transportation, encouraging bike use, working with local governments to change regulations to support truly local economies. (For more information on this movement, visit www.postcarbon.org). I believe our towns and city neighborhoods can be transformed in the process into more friendly, vibrant, sustainable communities.

In facing global climate change and the effects of declining oil supplies, we truly face the unknown. Scientists and economists can make educated guesses, but in a chaotic system anything can happen. Global climate change could bring on searing heat and drought in one region, torrential rains and sudden freezes in another. The prevailing world economy could respond gracefully and gradually to declining oil supplies, adapting as needed, or it could remain on its crash course for several more years, suddenly reaching a breaking point and collapsing altogether. We will have to learn to live in the moment with impermanence, making many different sets of contingency plans, with a readiness to change course on short notice. This is an essentially spiritual stance, because it depends on our trusting ourselves and the larger whole of life to adapt and respond.

Can we let go of our limiting beliefs and expectations about how it’s supposed to be? Can we find a new flexibility and openness to change within ourselves? Can we let go of ego-driven desires and demands and accept whatever gifts come to us moment to moment? Can we surrender to the flow of life and death, blessing those who survive us and giving thanks for the life we have had? These are some of the spiritual challenges we face in the early years of the 21st century.

Who knows what our descendents will face 100 years from now? May they be living in a healthy, sustainable world, and may we play our parts in creating that world for them. I believe we are up to it!