by Will Wilkinson
“The environmental crisis may be the result of a recent and collective
perceptual disorder in our species, a unique form of myopia
which it now forces us to correct.”
Sometimes a ¼ inch is enough to separate two worlds.
I recently attended a weekend for men on Climate Change. I’d been attracted by the topic, the fact that it was guys in nature discussing a serious issue, and the keynote speaker, a Marine Biologist who promised to provide the scientific, non-political-bs truth about just how threatened humanity is in the 21st Century (I have friends who believe in what’s called Near Term Human Extinction… are they crazy or realistic, I’ve wondered? Here was my chance to find out).
We met at a nearby camping ground and it was pristine, even with drought conditions that have rendered the forest matchstick dry and shrunk the lake to a pond. Still, it was nature, with all of her enthralling magic.
The first sign that the weekend might be challenging in ways not anticipated was the labored erection of a giant tent and, upon puzzled inquiry, learning that we 65 men would be meeting inside, under cover of canvass and tarps. The sun was shining, the weather was warm; why were we under cover?
“It’s a better teaching environment,” I was told. And that was arguably true for the keynote, which included a slide show. But that took 90 minutes and we stayed in the tent for the rest of the weekend, just talking. It was cold in there and we shivered… while the sun shone outside.
That separation from nature symbolized, for me, our greatest challenge in addressing the challenges of climate change. If it’s true that human activity has contributed significantly to the crisis—which this scientist calmly demonstrated it has, with actual statistics carefully referenced—then before we charge ahead inventing solutions, we might be wise to pause and consider just what might have caused this species-threatening nightmare. Like, for instance, ignoring nature.
It’s simple to blame greed and centuries of choosing money over people; that’s an easy case to make. But what’s behind this tradition? As the weekend progressed I found out. What started well (minus the tent) with a thought-provoking lecture and graphs, statistics that shocked even the most educated of us, and projections into the near future capable of keeping even skeptics awake at night, quickly deteriorated into narcissistic navel gazing. Our Climate Change weekend veered into personal processing. The next two days were filled with tears, angry shouting, and hugs all around. Blatantly absent was any deep diving into our topic and certainly no linking global to local, so that we might leave with clear instructions for “what one person can do.”
As I drove home, disappointed but inspired to keep my own inquiry going, I remembered an essay by Tom Wolfe in Harpers Magazine that I read during college days. He’d written on gloom and doom lecturers speaking to college students about the urgent problems of the day. Back in 1976 it was income inequality, racism, and the “rape of the atmosphere by aerosol spray users.” Wolfe’s story really hit its stride when a student spoke up.
“I’m a senior, and for four years we’ve been told by people like yourself and the other gentlemen that everything’s in terrible shape, and it’s all going to hell, and I’m willing to take your word for it because you’re all experts in your fields. But, around here, at this school, for the past four years, the biggest problem, as far as I can see, has been finding a parking place near campus.”
Most of the men at our Climate Change weekend were more interested in “finding a parking place close to campus” than in addressing the global climate change crisis. In other words, urgent personal issues trumped global problems. As I mused on this, I remembered Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle, which is often used to clarify priorities.
There are four levels. The lowest priority is Not Important and Not Urgent. These items, in all their infinite variety, are distractions. Next up comes Not Important but Urgent. These can be delegated or rescheduled. Next is Important but Not Urgent. The recommended strategy here is to face them before they become urgent. Finally, the top priority is Important and Urgent. These are inevitable—some are anticipated, some are surprises—so it’s wise to work time into the schedule for handling them as they arise.
Important and urgent matters are supposed to be our top priority. OK, that’s the theory. In fact, as this student articulated so honestly, and as the men during my weekend demonstrated, the Not Important but Urgent issues—like finding a parking place or recovering self-esteem—tend to take over. That’s not to say they aren’t important to address. They are, at the right time. But the inner demons these men sought to exorcise were, in fact, neither urgent nor important relative to the topic of climate change. Discussion of such could have been, should have been, rescheduled—in order to keep us on topic.
Our weekend leaders did not re-focus the conversation. This leads us to an insight about one possible role for Elders relative to climate change: to focus the conversation. Climate Change is important to talk about, important and urgent. Bravo to this Conscious Elders Network (CEN) for making Climate Change the first topic in the premiere edition of this new journal. Whatever else Elders might provide, we need to lead by example. In this case, we are personally facing a species-threatening issue. That hurts. I bet most of us would rather not. But, we can hold our own feet to the fire, fighting the urge to weasel our way out of facing ugly truths that demand action beyond our comfort zones. This is the kind of heroic focus that Elders can offer, to provide an inspiration for others.
It’s true that close-in problems can easily eclipse what really matters. Hold a penny up to the sun, that’s how it happens—relative proximity distorts size. Small things become big; big things become small. So, “What’s my penny?” Of course, that should be plural, because I have a circus of distractions and misplaced priorities that routinely seduce me away from grappling with what matters most. What does matter most? As far as climate change goes, that could be a long discussion, and should be. Thankfully, millions of people are talking and acting. Close to home, activists have devoted their young lives to getting carbon-tax legislation passed. An attorney friend is working with a solar power company, providing charging stations to schools and businesses in remote locations. And conferences convened around the world do manage to keep their participants focused, and to brainstorm out-of-the-box solutions. But even these earnest souls often make the same fundamental mistake that we did out there in the forest: they ignore nature. I don’t mean in theory, I mean in practice.
As American natural sciences writer and self proclaimed “nature nerd” Janine Benyus writes, “Biomimicry [is] innovation inspired by nature. In a society accustomed to dominating or "improving" nature, this respectful imitation is a radically new approach, a revolution really. Unlike the Industrial Revolution, the Biomimicry Revolution introduces an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her… ‘Doing it nature's way’ has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information, and conduct business.’”
“Doing it nature’s way” begins with paying attention to what nature is doing. Sitting inside a tent or a conference room may not be the best way to do that. It only emphasizes the separation between humans and everything else. There we huddle, cut off from a universe teeming with life that operates interdependently in a rich dance of spontaneous and systemized symbiosis. Reaching out to fix the mess our alienated state of consciousness has created, without changing our consciousness first, can only produce more of the same. Consciousness must change first, and in fundamental ways.
This can happen gradually or with a single epiphany. Either way, deep change—transformation even—is aptly celebrated in that famous song, Amazing Grace: “I was blind, but now I see.” The problem with this formula is that it’s incomplete. Those who “see” can become fanatics, now stuck with what they see anew, so that it quickly becomes as blinding as their old vision. A more complete celebration would be: “I was blind, but now I see, and what I see is just the beginning.”
Czech philosopher Erazim Kohak wrote, “Set aside the learned ways of perceiving the world as dead matter for your use and see if you can recover again your actual perception of the world as a community of beings to whom you are meaningfully related.”
This kind of seeing is a beginning. It involves “discovering what works in the natural world, and more important, what lasts. After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival. The more our world looks and functions like this natural world, the more likely we are to be accepted on this home that is ours, but not ours alone."
To see or not to see, that is the question.
Will Wilkinson lives in the woods outside Ashland, Oregon, with his wife of 22 years. He’s been a professional writer for three decades; his most recently published collaborative books include Forgiving the Unforgivable and Awakening From the American Dream.
Will’s 21 year experience as an Educational Director within an international non-profit provided the foundation for his current explorations. He is developing a new paradigm learning model that marries eco-psychology with interactive guided imagery, delivered through one-on-one life coaching and in workshops for small businesses: Living on Purpose. He proposes learning to live in a “wonderfield” of child-like inquiry where “solutions” become synergistically harmonic, the way of all nature (including humanity).