The following is an excerpt of a talk Charles Eisenstein gave about his new book, Climate: A New Story.
The key concept of my new book, Climate: A New Story, sees the earth as a living planet, unlike the conventional climate discourse, which is heavily influenced by a geo-mechanical view of the world. From that view, fixing the planet becomes a matter of tweaking the atmospheric gas composition, just like you were adjusting the air/fuel mixture in a diesel engine.
If we see the planet as a living being, its organs are the forests, the wetlands, the soil, the corals, and the whales–all of these are the organs of Gaia and tissues of Gaia. And it understands then that even if we cut carbon emissions to zero overnight, if we continue to degrade the organs and tissues, the planet will still die a death of a million cuts. When we see the world as alive, we can go beyond that to see it as intelligent and conscious, as well.
A lot of the environmental conversation is based on fear. The basic narrative is we better change our ways; otherwise, bad things will happen to us. And that’s really different from environmentalism when I was a kid.
When I was a kid, it was save the whales because they are so magnificent. They are so beautiful. We love the whales. It wasn’t–We better save the whales; otherwise, look at the economic losses. We better save the whales; otherwise, sea levels are going to rise. No, it was save the whales because we love the whales.
And when climate change came along, environmentalists thought that this was a gift from heaven because now they’re going to have to do the things we’ve wanted them to do. We have no choice now. Now, we’re going to have to stop offshore oil drilling. Now, we’re going to have to stop mountaintop removal. Back then, it was just strip mining. Mountaintop removal is like strip mining on steroids, but now we’re going to have to create bikeable cities. We always wanted that.
We always wanted clean energy, and now we’re going to have to do it. And now, we can tell people, we can tell the policy establishment that you have no choice now. It’s going to cost you money if you don’t do this. It is a bargain with the devil. For one thing, you are implying that if, in fact, it won’t harm us, then it’s okay to do it.
When we put a value on a forest, a monetary value—in my book, I quote this study that put a value on the world’s oceans of, I can’t remember what it was, $30 trillion, or $60 trillion. The implication implicit in that is that if we could make $100 trillion by destroying the oceans, then we should do it.
If that’s the value, then we are reducing the sacred to the mundane. We’re reducing the infinite to the finite by doing that. And we’re switching from love to self-interest, and I think it’s a huge mistake because to change our ways is going to require courage, and courage comes from love. It does not come from fear. If you’re going to appeal to self-interest, really what is in the self-interest from that lens of one person, or one city, or one company, is for everybody else to make the profits, everyone else makes the changes. That’s what’s in your self-interest. So, I disagree with operating from that framework and strengthening the template of self-interest.
Here’s a little metaphor that I’d like to use here. My wife Stella and I have a five-year-old son. And yes, I had three children before that, and I was done being tied down. But, I decided to have another son. And, you know, what if I said to you, I think that was a mistake. I don’t want to take care of him anymore. What if I just abandon him and put him out into the street? What would you say? Is that a good idea? I think I’m going do that.
And you said, “But Charles, if you do that, then you’ll get in trouble with the law, and he won’t support you in your old age.” And I say, “Yeah, you’re right. I better take care of him.”
That kind of argument makes sense if we’re talking about my cell phone. If I said, “Yeah, I’m just going to leave it out in the rain and not take care of it, and just ignore it,” you’d be like, “But Charles, if you do that, you’re going to have to buy another one, it’ll get ruined.” I’m like, “Yeah, you’re right.”
That’s okay if it’s a cell phone, if it’s an object. But not if it’s a child. If you have to make those kinds of arguments, then there’s already a problem. And that is similar to the kinds of arguments that are being made in the environmental context. You’ll get in trouble with the law. It won’t take care of you in your old age. What’ll happen to us? All of these have a corollary.
But as long as we do not see Earth as a being, we are left only with those utilitarian instrumentalist arguments. If it’s only a matter of avoiding legal penalties, I’m not going to take very good care of my son. I’m only going to be able to take care of him if I love him, if I see him as a being, if I see him aware of his needs. If I’m asking always, what does he need? What is it like to be him? Only through that relationship am I able to meet his needs, will he even be healthy. The same is true with Earth.
So, because Earth is a living being, ecological healing calls us into that kind of relationship, as well. And that is one reason why the equation of green with low carbon is a problem.
From the living planet view, I’ve developed a list of priorities.
The first priority in the healing of the planet is to protect remaining pristine ecosystems, especially the deep Amazon and maybe a few others around the world because these are where the soul of Gaia still is alive, where the dream of Gaia resides, where the ancient information, the memory of the planet and the reservoir of health of biodiversity is still intact. Where the nature spirits are still full in their being. And, you could also make scientifically acceptable ecological arguments for why these beings are so important. Forests, especially.
The second priority is to focus on regenerative agriculture to rebuild the soil. In school, we learned that it takes 500 years to build an inch of soil. Actually, it takes one year, if you do it right. People like Ernst Götsh in Brazil, Allan Savory, Gabe Brown, and various people in the permaculture, regenerative agriculture field, who are healing land. Springs that have been dry for 30 years come back to life. Rivers that stopped flowing year-round begin flowing again. Biodiversity returns.
Songbirds that haven’t been seen in the area for decades return. These are really tangible things. We should have half of the world’s oceans in inviolate marine preserves, where there’s no fishing allowed so that the ocean can regenerate.
Third priority is on the tissue level, to stop dousing the entire environment with pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, PCBs, heavy metals, toxic waste, radioactive waste, pharmaceutical residues, antibiotics, and sunscreen. Because that poisons the Earth on a tissue level, and we are in the midst of a 90-year experiment in repeated dousing the environment in poison. How can that be good?
And so, we see—and this is the most—if you want to talk about what alarms me ecologically, it is the 75% decline in flying insect biomass over the last 30 years. The insect holocaust.
Insects are crucial to every terrestrial food web. They are life. Seventy-five percent decline in insects is 75% decline in life. It is the Earth becoming less and less alive. And they must be declining because of climate change, right? The researchers that I’ve looked into do not think that is the case. They think it’s habitat destruction and pesticides.
We are so conditioned in this society to find the cause, to find the enemy, and to solve problems by defeating the enemy. This is one of the templates that is actually at the root of the problem, the enemy, because that involves dehumanizing somebody, objectifying somebody. It’s reductionistic. Find the enemy, problem solved.
Problem: environmental deterioration. Enemy: climate change, greenhouse gases. Solution: cut the greenhouse gases. Problem: crime. Reason: criminals. Solution: lock them up. Problem: terrorism. Reason: terrorists. Solution: kill them. Problem: I’m sick. Reason: bacteria. Solution: kill the bacteria. Same template. Problem: misogyny. Reason: bad men. Solution: humiliate them, shame them, stop them. When we only address the symptom, we create the conditions for endless war.
Fourth priority: cut greenhouse emissions because they still put more stress on a weakened system. If the organs and tissues of Gaia were healthy, carbon emissions would be no problem. But we have half the number of trees we had a few centuries ago. We have half the number of the biomass of fish that we did when I was born. Eighty percent of the mangroves in Southeast Asia are gone. Eighty percent of the seagrass meadows in New England are gone. The system is really weakened.
I’ll say that actually by valuing those first three priorities, greenhouse emissions would have to fall, too. Because if you are holding all of the ecosystems as sacred, you’re not gonna be able to produce energy like that.
You’re not going to be able to do offshore oil drilling. You’re not going to be able to build pipelines or do fracking. And so, I call this flipping the script on climate change. Whatever your views on global warming, I think that the narrative that I’m offering is more effective as a call to love and to care, as a call to intimacy with the precious beings of nature. And it doesn’t require that we believe scientific consensus. I went deep into the skeptic side of things.
And what I realized is that whatever side is right doesn’t matter, in the living planet view. The things we need to do are still the same.
Charles Eisenstein is a speaker and writer focusing on themes of civilization, consciousness, money, and human cultural evolution. He is the author of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible (North Atlantic Books, 2013), Sacred Economics (North Atlantic Books, 2011), The Ascent of Humanity (North Atlantic Books, and Climate: A New Story (North Atlantic Books, 2018).