Energy Transition and Inner Development

The Vatican published Laudate Deum in early October, written by Pope Francis and titled “To All People of Good Will on the Climate Crisis.” This letter builds on Laudato Si, the Pope’s 2015 Encyclical describing integral ecology – a concept that flows from recognizing interconnectedness and the importance of relationships.

Laudate Deum comes ahead of the UN COP28 climate conference scheduled to begin tomorrow in Dubai. As the world prepares to take stock of progress towards climate commitments, Pope Francis is calling for a “decisive acceleration of energy transition.”

Energy transition requires multiple forms of capital – for example, natural, built, and financial capital – and can be accelerated by inner development that enables change and collaboration.

In a world full of calls for outer energy transition, what is the role of inner development? As steward of the Pathways to Planetary Health initiative, I think about this kind of question in relation to our work that generates contemplative-based systems change.

Human energy systems are transforming. Progress toward renewable energy is fast in some sectors, slow or invisible in others. We are shifting reliance on different energy resources, electrifying vehicles, and transforming electric grids. And, innovative policies (plus research on new ideas like “energysheds” to inform policy) are providing essential institutional infrastructure to support energy transition.

Fifteen years ago, through a fellowship supported by the Rocky Mountain Institute, I grew to appreciate how energy transition is not purely a technological issue, but very much a social and human behavior issue. Inner development in shared mindsets is key to shifting outer energy systems. For example, many of the conditions for addressing climate change that Pope Francis mentioned relate to inner development: Courage. A shift toward responsibility. Broad changes in lifestyles.

Figure: This word cloud shows the frequency of words in the Pope’s written response to climate change. While a word cloud provides limited analysis of text data, it provides an overall sense of the Pope’s letter by visually reflecting commonly used language. The 10 most common words appear larger and colored purple. In order, they include “human, climate, one, global, world, change, power, time, countries, even.” 

In many ways, climate change is a human crisis of relationship that reveals a need for reconnection with self, others, and nature. Pope Francis wisely cautions that if we focus only on technological fixes without tending to deeper roots, “we risk remaining trapped in the mindset of pasting and papering over cracks, while beneath the surface there is a continuing deterioration to which we continue to contribute.”

Deeper roots have to do with underlying structures. Another dimension of inner development involves a change of heart, a move toward Earth that can inspire immense care and a deep recognition of shared responsibility across peoples, generations, and species. Recognition of this responsibility (or re-cognition, to know again) could add momentum to outer energy transitions.  

The Garrison Institute’s 20th Anniversary Forum on Metamorphosis featured rich, expert dialogue about system transformation – both inner and outer systems. As the impacts of climate change unfold, we can apply inner contemplative practice to how we accelerate solutions like energy transitions. Doing so means delving below surface-level symptoms, and addressing deeper underlying systems.

Stephen Posner, PhD, is the Garrison Institute’s Director of Pathways to Planetary Health and a boundary spanner who explores the role of scientific inquiry and contemplative practice in systems change.  

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