Chapter 6: One Earth, Indivisible: Climate Recovery & Regeneration
Updated: Mar 21
“Earth is alive. What is alive, we can love. What we love, we wish to serve. When what we love is sick, we want to ease its suffering and serve its healing. The more deeply we know it, the better we can join its healing.”
~ Charles Eisenstein
A Climate Trauma Informed Perspective
For this concluding chapter, we will pivot to the future, with the guiding question being “what then shall we do?” Not so much collectively, though certainly in solidarity, but rather from our standpoint as relatively sane individuals operating within an increasingly traumatized collective. Since this chapter represents a shift of perspective towards an uncertain and disconcerting future, I feel it important, both in the interest of full disclosure and for context, to begin by confessing my own intuitive sense for how the Great Dying 2.0 is likely to unfold as we, the willing, the climate crisis’ adults, lean into this existential challenge.
When I began this book, in the Prologue, the idea of a Great Dying as applied to humans, not just wildlife, may have seemed over-reactive, coming as it did at the outset of what is, for us, an unprecedented pandemic. Waves of mortality from pandemics in a newly filled up world just seems more reasonable to expect, however, than a one-off event. As economic historian Adam Tooze more recently pointed out in the NY Times:
The coronavirus was a shock, but a pandemic was long predicted. There is every reason to think that this one will not be a one-off. Whether the disease originated in zoonotic mutation or in a lab, there is more and worse where it came from. And it is not just viruses that we have to worry about, but also the mounting destabilization of the climate, collapsing biodiversity, large-scale desertification and pollution across the globe.
All of these destabilizing factors are inter-related, with each other and with Gaia’s self-regulating defense system. Even this initial pandemic of the post-Holocene climate era, which many expected to go away with the introduction of a vaccine, continues to come at us in waves, with the fourth wave currently gaining terrible force. [ed. note: now into 6th]
“Winter is coming,” as they like to say in Game of Thrones. And the Coronavirus is out-smarting us. We humans are not just a bloated population after decades of exponential expansion, both numerically and spatially. We’re quite a vulnerable population now, too. An easy target, when you think about it from the perspective of transmissible pathogens. And Gaia has a whole host of such pathogens at her disposal.
She should at least have our attention by now.
Generally, I try to avoid predictions about our anthropogenically driven climate. I’ve been watching scientists get the future wrong for decades now, which is to be expected with the advent of a new specialty as complex as climate science. More to the point, I have great respect for the radical uncertainty that is inherent in our ‘experimenting’ on a living organism as vast and mysterious as Gaia. At the same time, I share Greta’s, Extinction Rebellion’s, and probably your own dismay over the maddening inertia of those who are most responsible for placing the planet in peril by ignoring science and risk management.
One might think that the risk of human extinction would be motivation enough to enact fundamental changes. Obviously, then, the system is rigged.
But we are legion - 70% or more of the general populace worldwide agree that dramatic action is required on the climate front, and we generally avow our readiness to make the necessary sacrifices. The other 30% have been carefully and carelessly groomed to deny reality. Because they’re forced to repress the largest trauma on the grandest scale that we’ve ever collectively experienced, it’s no surprise that they act out in the most childish ways, throwing tantrums and taunting death.
But what’s really stopping the rest of us from acting? Are we not a significant, potentially overwhelming majority of the human race? This is a question worth pondering, and we'll return to it again.
So in the interests of full disclosure, I’m a long-term optimist, or at the very least a ‘possibilist’ in the sense William Ury speaks of. I have great respect for the wisdom of Jane Goodall’s admonition that privileged people like myself have a moral obligation to those without a voice to be optimistic in the ways we engage the climate issue - whether we’re actually feeling optimistic or not!
Cynicism is a selfish choice, a form of personal grievance more suited to Trump’s death cult, since it carries a dangerous seed of self-fulfilling prophesy. As with despair, there is really no place for cynicism in the climate movement, in spite of its attention-grabbing prevalence. With the exception of politics, of course. Being cynical about politicians is just being realistic in the context of crisis, and necessary it seems until they prove us wrong. We cannot afford to stop holding their feet to the intense heat of climate fires.
So, in spite of my avowed optimism, at this point it still should come as no surprise that I think things will have to break down a lot more than they already have, with the attendant derangement that we’re already witnessing, before we’ll finally muster the collective willpower and critical mass to embark on massive regeneration and re-arrangement of our relationships in the natural world. We’ve already passed through the threshold of yet another Dark Age. The tragically unnecessary human and other-than-human suffering in the world is already at intolerable levels, and thus all our efforts can’t help but have the appearance of planetary hospice and biodiversity triage.
So what? Are we to allow our actions and inactions to be determined by appearance and projection, knowing how deceptive appearances tend to be, and how what we project is invariably tainted by our own shadow? After all, we may be a long way from critical mass, but we’re already embarking on regenerative paths, we’re already engaging in intersectional reconciliation, and we’re already planting the seeds of climate recovery. There will never be a good reason to abandon these necessary efforts.
As the adults in the room, we cannot afford emotionally reactive responses to the trials and tribulations of the world - especially to human travails. While human extinction is still a rather remote possibility, population decline is not. And if a necessary “correction” from Gaia’s side involves a population decline of hundreds of millions or even billions, that necessarily implies unimaginable suffering and losses to come. Birth is painful and messy, after all. The most productive stance, in my experience, is to be a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist, based upon an informed faith in the natural world and great compassion for every living being. As the Dalai Lama likes to remind us, all beings are born with the seeds of their own destruction.
To counteract emotional reactivity as the world continues to deteriorate and unravel around us, it is incumbent on each one of us individually, and/or in tandem with our intimate other(s), to build and maintain our spiritual container in whatever ways we find conducive to living honestly and compassionately with our hearts broke open, knowing full well that our hearts will be pinged repeatedly once we’ve made the choice to walk the path of truth, reconciliation, and recovery. It’s that spiritually grounded broke-open-heartedness that will ultimately see us through the Great Contraction that's likely to unfold over the course of our children’s and grandchildren’s lifetimes.
That was the whole point of “Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth,” which begins with this quote from ancient Greece:
“Truly the gods have proclaimed a most beautiful secret:
death comes not as a curse but as a blessing to men.”
And it’s that same growing spiritual resiliency and moral fortitude that will rebirth us out the other side as well, having plowed all our adversity into the path of recovery, learning from our failures and mistakes.
That willingness to accept what cannot be changed is what makes us real to one another. It allows us to love what is broken from a place of our own humble brokenness, or vulnerability. And just as we find in hospice, we’ll always be able to find consolation - joy, even - in the quiet moments, because of our integrity, our concern, our empathy, and our growing solidarity in the face of the greatest of adversities. There is no greater adversity than death and dying, after all. Coming to terms with mortality and impermanence is what spirituality is all about - it’s what makes us human.
So we wisely decide to embody light in an age of increasing darkness. We are Earth Guardians, and we’re Light Keepers, at the most critical time in the procession of human development. What a privilege!
As I’ve already noted, it is both learned humility and faith that sustain me in all my cognitively generated hopelessness. Taking my cue from Emerson’s natural law of compensation and Thoreau’s vision of the foundations of Earth, I have faith that all that needs to break down — meaning the destructive constructs of modern civilization, like the excesses of capitalism and vestiges of colonialism — will in fact break down long before the foundations of Earth give way. And we humans will be forced to adapt with more constructive approaches.
This is the message I have consistently received in communion with Gaia, and that I hear from wise Indigenous elders as well. She is patient, she lives in deep time, and while her trauma is our trauma, her distress does not seem to reflect the heightened levels of our own individual distress.
I find comfort in that maternal fortitude. Our distress is existential. Hers is transactional. And her love for us is tough love, free from attachment.
In other words, we might say that the laws of nature require that global economic breakdown will happen long before global ecological breakdown, despite any and all appearances to the contrary. Given our current political climate, and the hold that consumerism has on the quietly desperate masses, it’s hard for me to believe that great global economic dislocation will not be required in order for a great global ecological consciousness to finally and firmly take hold of our collective senses. And seeing how dire (but far from hopeless) things look ecologically right now, I anticipate that the global economic house of cards will likely tumble down long before these “roaring twenties” peter out. Followed by an even “greater” depression than those precipitated by the Civil War and the severe drought and dustbowls of the 1930s, along with the resulting global dislocation, population decline, breakdown of borders, a predictable mad scramble for scarce resources, ad nauseum.
I would dearly love to be proven wrong, of course. And I will do whatever I can to avoid these tragic outcomes, and to facilitate a less messy birth of a new ecological era. Wouldn’t it be grand? But the point is it doesn’t really matter how things unfold - there’s a good chance all of our predictions will ultimately be proven wrong, and the future will be full of surprising twists and turns. What really matters is how we respond. I intend to continue working on behalf of that nascent shift of consciousness no matter which way things break in the short term, because I have faith that human nature is ultimately humane, that the healthy seeds we are planting now in the collective psyche will take root, grow, and eventually flourish, and that the resulting shift in collective consciousness is an absolutely necessary part of any positive outcome without regard to foreseeability.
None of us may live to see that final, quantum leap in collective humane consciousness, but again - so what? We’ll can still be an integral part of it, which permits and even empowers us to die with peace of mind and love in our heart no matter the state of the world at that time. That’s all any of us can reasonably ask for at the end of life on the cusp of a new era.
And yes, I could also end up being wrong about the long-term survival of the human species. But even in the midst of that unfathomable prospect, the struggle to midwife a more humane species into existence itself makes life more meaningful, and is clearly the appropriate response to the day and age we happen to inhabit. And besides, there won’t be anyone left to say “I told you so” if they do turn out to be tragically correct!
In emotional reactivity, there is only torment and frustration. With humane and compassionate (spiritual) response-ability, there is empathy and true contentment. That’s the way towards individual fulfillment during a time of great collective spiritual crisis, not in being a 'nattering nabob of negativity' or clinging to worst-case scenarios. The eternal beauty of “right action” from the Buddha’s 8-spoked wheel of dharma is that it is not dependent on future outcomes.
So I really felt the need to get that out of the way here before going on to describe how we can and will regenerate human nature in this quasi-terminal stage of human development. Otherwise, what I have to say could come off sounding pollyannish. To better illustrate this perspective of innate resiliency and transcendent faith in the natural foundations of Gaia, I will share a short allegory from N. Scott Nomaday’s grand offering to Gaia, Earth Keeper (2020):
The force of life is very great… Some years ago the prayer tree at Rainy Mountain was struck by lightning. It burned and turned black, but it did not fall. There had not been time to speak of the tree to Man-ka-ih, the storm spirit. The tree seemed to be dead. But a long time afterward there appeared a tiny sprig of green on a charred limb, and then the hidden life of the tree burst out in a hundred leaves. It was a wondrous sight, and I wept to see it. I believe that the earth gave of its irresistible life to the tree. How can we give thanks in return?
XR Rx: Our Shared Responsibility for the Climate Crisis
The more pertinent question for us as we face into the storm of climate chaos is the question of personal and collective moral responsibility. I think this aspect of the crisis is almost as confused now as the science seemed to be in most people's minds a decade ago. Collective respond-ability, something that has clearly been in short supply, is intimately interconnected with ethical notions of personal responsibility. In other words, if we all had a clearer sense of our own individual responsibility in relation to the climate crisis, we would be more responsive collectively.
If you’ve been paying attention to the crisis, you’ve likely seen some version of this headline in recent years: 90 companies responsible for two-thirds of historical greenhouse gas emissions. The implication, which I’ve seen expressed by even the most intelligent activists, is clear: "Don’t blame me for not doing all I can to reduce my carbon footprint - blame the 90 corporations who are responsible for the crisis.” But how can this kind of finger-pointing possibly lead to the radical changes that we know are now urgently required to avoid a global nightmare?
What does it even mean to blame a corporation for fossil fuels emissions? Let’s place that exculpatory quote in the previous paragraph in some kind of non-twitter context. Picture if you will a person standing at their local Chevron station filling up their tank while laying the blame for global warming on Chevron, or maybe going home and turning on their AC to beat the heat while blaming coal producers for the excessive heat. I’m reminded of the famous line by Charlton Heston’s character at the end of the movie Soylent Green: “SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!” Or in this case, “CONSUMER DEMAND IS US!”
Yes, those 90 corporations are people, too! Not in the perversely privileged, constitutional sense of the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Citizens United; but rather, in the sense that it is ‘We, the people’ who:
Charter corporations, giving them life;
Work for corporations, granting them agency;
Buy stock in corporations, lending them capitol; and,
Buy and use corporate products, keeping them viable.
Just as you should not be able to blame livestock production for the biodiversity crisis while eating a Big Mac, or blame tobacco manufacturers for your lung cancer while taking another drag of your cigarette, so we cannot shift blame for the climate crisis to those 90 carbon intensive corporations while we continue to patronize them as we did before (funny how these claims never come with a call for boycotts!). They are us, after all. And we are Gaia, too.
In this new era of pervasive interdependence and interconnectivity, the idea that we can in some way exonerate ourselves of any moral responsibility for this shared crisis by pointing elsewhere, the idea that we could know what we know and still not change anything in the way we relate to the world, is both obscene and intellectually indefensible. It’s nothing other than toxic attachment to our fossil-fueled affluence.
Indeed, when our children do this - as with “he started it!” or “everyone else is doing it!” - we have no problem telling them this does not excuse their own conduct. Why should it be any different for us in relation to our carbon footprint? So once again, we can see the need here to act like adults in responding to this existential crisis, and not like immature, spoiled children.
We broke it. We must own it. Only then can we hope to fix it.
For me, that’s the whole point of the Anthropocene.
It’s well worth diving a little deeper into this, as I’m sure we can all offer up arguments to the contrary (and likely do, in our own mind’s rationalizations). Because what we’re really talking about here is an ethical question. Fortunately, there is a valuable collection of clear thinking on this subject in the 2012 book Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, edited by Allen Thompson, a Professor in Philosophy at Oregon State, and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, an Ethics Professor at Case Western Reserve (and author of The Ecological Life: Discovering Citizenship and a Sense of Humanity). In particular, we will hone in on Ch. 10 by Professor Thompson: “The Virtue of Responsibility for the Global Climate.”
This is so critical for us to understand and embody in our activism.
Thompson begins by pointing out that the sense of feeling personally responsible for the global climate signifies the advent of “a new environmental virtue, because it is well suited to express human moral goodness in the emerging Anthropocene Epoch (Crutzen 2002).” It’s important to begin here, as there is no solid basis for blaming others for our crisis, at least without having first considered and dismissed the underlying logic. Still, “[g]lobal warming threatens our contemporary form of life, the basic ecological conditions to which all life on Earth is adapted, and the moral status of our self-conception as humanity.” What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene, in other words, echoing Pope Francis on this crucial point. That. is a question for each one of us to answer.
Thompson characterizes our default mode of assigning blame for problems, like blaming the 90 dirty corporations, as a “distributed sense of collective responsibility” or “group fault,” which derives from our understanding of legal liability. Pursuant to this legalistic notion, we may consider ourselves responsible for certain consumer behaviors, but we have a much more difficult time relating that sense of personal responsibility to the vast scale of harms we see with climactic events. Understandably so, as we are mixing apples and oranges here. Under this kind of ethical consideration, we fail to appreciate any personal obligation to reduce our own impacts, and we also fail to hold the group responsible as a whole, since “the serious harms are genuinely the product of many hands.” If everyone is at fault, then nobody is at fault - how convenient for us!
It's easy to see here why we might absolve soccer moms of responsibility for the climate crisis, or even consumers generally, while pointing the finger of blame at the 90 evil fossil fuel producers, who appear to us as other than human.. And we see where this kind of reflexive thought leads, don’t we? 2021 was the hottest year on record with the sharpest increase in emissions ever, and we’re on pace to beat that in 2022.
For these most practical of reasons, Thompson concludes that the notion of shared responsibility (sometimes referred to as political responsibility) applies with much more moral force to our personal relationship with the climate crisis. This idea of shared responsibility differs from distributed responsibility in critical ways, not the least of which is that it’s forward-looking, rather than looking to blame someone for the present results of past actions. Which is precisely the orientation we need to adopt in response to an accelerating existential threat. Suing and even imprisoning or executing corporate CEOs and their enablers will provide small consolation when civilization crumbles and we join the sixth great extinction event. Activists need to call out and emphatically reject the faulty reasoning and ineffectiveness of distributed responsibility as applied to the climate crisis.
Shared responsibility, as with a group of people facing a tsunami wave, “seeks not to reckon debts, but aims rather to bring about results” - something that has been monstrously lacking on the climate front.
“Unlike a blame model of responsibility, [shared] responsibility does not seek to mark out and isolate those to be held responsible, thereby distinguishing them from others, who by implication are not responsible… Most accounts of collective responsibility aim to distinguish those who have done harm from those who have not… [Shared] responsibility, on the other hand, is a responsibility for what we have not done.”
Isn’t that radical? Again, let's use the simplistic example of a group of people facing a tsunami, which is an apt metaphor for climate trauma. Under a distributed responsibility model, they would just stand there arguing about how they got there, and whose fault it is that they're about to be subsumed by the ocean. With a shared sense of responsibility, they'd shout things like "PUT ON YOUR LIFE VEST!" or "HEAD TO HIGHER GROUND!"
Only one of these groups has a chance to survive the tsunami.
This is the most critical point we can make right now in response to climate chaos, and in relation to each other - especially in a time of great political polarization and paralysis. Shared responsibility for this existential crisis we are facing is the equivalent of positing that each and everyone of us is responsible only for what we have not done or are not doing. And with that pragmatic orientation, by considering and taking individual actions en masse, we gain the force of moral suasion in pointing out what our political leaders are not doing -- as with Gandi’s Salt March, or Cesar Chavez' lettuce boycott.
As Thompson characterizes this ethic of shared responsibility, each one of us assumes personal responsibility for the climate in a partial way:
“[T]he specific part that each [of us] plays in producing the outcome cannot be isolated and identified, and thus the responsibility is essentially shared.”
Leading not to the paralysis by analysis that seeks to minimize personal responsibility or assuage feelings of guilt, as with distributed responsibility, but rather to the kind of universal solidarity that is engendered by holding the question “what, then, shall we do?”
“Finding some to blame, it does not thereby exculpate others; people are guilty primarily for what they have not done… the moral status of background conditions (e.g. consumerism) is brought into question… Responsibility for the outcome does not belong strictly to some individuals or to some collectives: humans have a shared moral responsibility for global climate change.”
And then, what we choose to do is not so much measured by the intended result, as with say voting for Democrats or the Labor Party, but rather by the actual results measured over time.
Can hardened activists even begin to appreciate the crucial difference in these two ethical stances? It’s natural of course, from the standpoint of shared responsibility, to look first to our political process for solutions (which is why it is also referred to as political responsibility). But we’ve been doing that, and not much else, for decades now with no slowing of emissions. And so we should not feel like we’ve discharged our social and moral responsibilities to the global climate by the mere fact that we show up for marches, display catchy bumper stickers, and vote green/blue. That is just how we assuage our guilt in the blame game.
Rather, even if we've already changed our diets and switched to a hybrid vehicle, the question from a shared sense of responsibility remains the same: “What then shall we do?” Our sense of personal responsibility becomes just as relentless as the crisis itself, and we don't find time to blame others, since that is a rather fruitless endeavor. Instead, we interact with and influence others, seeking and spreading new ideas that are responsive to our shared sense crisis.
Since we’ve already accepted personal responsibility with our embrace of shared responsibility, we know that in addition to continuing to advocate for the necessary political, institutional, and structural changes, we are also compelled now, by the inactions of our political leaders and the resulting absence of easy solutions, to do all that we are able to do in our personal lives to conform our behaviors, in ways that are rationally responsive to what we already recognize to be an existential threat.
Because if we are not doing all we can do, then we don’t really believe that it is existential. And if we are doing all that we can do, then that is all we can do - that is self satisfying. And it builds resiliency, because we will no longer feel psychologically overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, especially if we begin to find the kind of solidarity in our local communities that can produce visible changes - like getting our socially conscientious grocers to stop using so much plastic, just to cite one example. These kinds of changes only appear to us to be small if we assume that our actions do not have nonlocal impacts.
With a sense of shared responsibility, everyone continues to feel personally responsible in their daily lives, taking numerous small ethical actions and sharing those ideas with the collective. Jane Goodall speaks to the heart of shared responsibility with her own vision of ecological consciousness:
“When there’s several million, and hopefully billions, of people making ethical choices in the impact they make every day, then we start moving towards a world that we can feel a little bit happier to leave to our children.”
This is in stark contrast to the individual’s role under a presumption of distributed responsibility, where everyone is waiting for top-down solutions, waiting to be told what to do by those in charge, or waiting for our peers to make the changes we know are necessary ourselves. It’s time for us to take charge of our own fate.
Plus, great psychic energy is released when we exit the blame game and, like the climate adults we now are, accept this kind of shared responsibility. Christina Feldman, author of Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World, sums this psychological benefit up:
“Rarely are words and acts of healing and reconciliation born of an agitated heart. One of the great arts in the cultivation of compassion is to ask if we can embrace anger without blame. Blame agitates our hearts, keeps them contracted, and ultimately leads to despair. To surrender blame is to maintain the discriminating wisdom that knows clearly what suffering is and what causes it. To surrender blame is to surrender the separation that makes compassion impossible.
Compassion is not a magical device that can instantly dispel all suffering. The path of compassion is altruistic but not idealistic. Walking this path we are not asked to lay down our life, find a solution for all of the struggles in this world, or immediately rescue all beings. We are asked [instead] to explore how we may transform our own hearts and minds in the moment. Can we understand the transparency of division and separation? Can we liberate our hearts from ill will, fear, and cruelty? Can we find the steadfastness, patience, generosity, and commitment not to abandon anyone or anything in this world? Can we learn how to listen deeply and discover the heart that trembles in the face of suffering?”
The Rise of Indigeneity: Embodying our Shared Responsibility for the Climate Crisis
“Native American societies have a lived sense of the unity of all living things, as expressed in the Native American phrase ‘all my relations,’ which has been called a prayer and a cosmology in one breath.”
Dr. Leslie Gray, Native American Psychologist,
founder of Woodfish Institute
According to the United Nations:
"Although Indigenous Peoples constitute less than 5% of the world’s population, they safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, thereby playing a key role in climate protection. Indigenous peoples often have a spiritual connection to nature, which ensures that they take the protection of their habitat seriously.
Such common values include Indigenous Peoples’ holistic view of and symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth – a relationship in which life thrives on the recognition of an inalienable interconnectedness and delicate balance."
My own decade-long journey into the heart of the climate crisis has been much more than a personal quest. From my own side, in fact, it has felt impersonal from the start, because it arose from the meditation cushion, where I’ve learned tried and true methods from well qualified dharma teachers to counteract ‘self.’ Once one finds quiescence, an open spaciousness free from thought, on the cushion, one is then free to listen to whatever bubbles up from beneath the incessant waves of self-consciousness. It is there, in that awareness that is other than my self, that the phrase ‘planetary hospice’ popped into my head; there that the affective force of climate trauma first hit me like a stab to the heart; and, it was on my morning cushion and on my more meditative nature walks that I slowly came to intuit that this larger, vastly more intelligent organism, the actual source of my small life and yours, was also the source of these fully formed ideas transmitted in the fertile silence of meditative absorption.
I’m not nearly smart enough to have come up with any of these ideas on my own - ideas like planetary hospice, repressed collective climate grief (the topic of my first book), climate trauma, and now this concluding idea of a 'postmodern holistic indigeneity' that has emerged in the writing of this last chapter. And, of course, we never come up with any ideas on our own. Instead, these kinds of ideas always arise non-locally. As soon as I had written “Planetary Hospice,” I discovered Guy McPherson (“Nature Bats Last”) and Carolyn Baker (“The Life Boat Hour”) were already using the term. Similarly, I learned after the fact that “climate trauma” was already a term in literature, and was probably coined a full decade earlier by social justice advocate Gillian Caldwell in the midst of her own personal climate crisis.
What I am, however, is open enough to be able to write about these kinds of critical and timely ideas, rather like a Gaian scribe, and due to a life-long love affair with mountains and rivers, animals and trees, I’m Earth-connected enough to advocate for Gaia’s health and well being. And I seem to be grounded enough in my good-enough meditative discipline to keep these chthonic lines of communication open - a task made easier by two experiences with the entheogen 5-MeO-DMT in July of 2019 and January of 2022.
Ultimately, I’ve come to understand that what I am is natural enough. That’s my only real qualification for writing a book on climate trauma, reconciliation and recovery. I’m an old-school transcendentalist in what has become a grotesquely individualistic age where people and personalities become more important than ideas they espouse. So it seems that as long as I keep listening to Gaia, she keeps talking!
And this is what is coming through now, as I conclude the arc of my decade-long climate crisis research and writing under smoky skies in the midst of a prolonged global pandemic: I am indigenous to Earth.
This is not the same thing as being Indigenous. That’s why I feel it is so important to capitalize the word when referring to First Peoples.
Nonetheless, I’ve come to understand through this long advocacy relationship with Earth that it is indigeneity I’ve always felt, though it is only now that I am beginning to name and identify with it. It’s important, of course, to point out how my indigeneity is different than being Indigenous. I am not rooted to a particular place where my ancestors are buried. In fact, because of my settler lineage, I still do not identify with any one place. I’m a poster-child for the post-world war 'nuclear family,’ having traveled 450 miles in vitro at 8 months from the place of my conception (PA) to the place of my birth (Chicago).
I grew up on rough-and-tumble city streets, not in nature, moved to a swanky Wisconsin suburb in my teens, attended college for eight years in the Shawnee National Forest of Southern Illinois, over 300 miles away from home, subsequently relocated to the high desert and alpine mountains of southern Idaho, and spent most of my career in the still wild Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Montana. After a stint in California, I now live on Puget Sound, on the ancestral lands of the Snohomish people. I’ve also spent months on end hiking in the New Zealand Alps and Kashmiri Himalaya, while circumnavigating the globe as a young man.
So I am rootless in a post-Beat kind of way, with the soul of a wandering mendicant, almost the opposite of what we associate with Indigenous. But I nonetheless find myself in a lifelong relationship with a living planet. It is long past time to acknowledge the nature of that relationship - and here I speak for the millions of settler stock like me who have broken free from our conditioning to establish close, embodied relationships with Nature.
Perhaps owing to settler guilt, and out of deep regard for my Indigenous elders, brothers and sisters, I’ve only slowly come to see this as my idiosyncratic path of indigeneity to Gaia - as opposed to a specific place - because somehow she hid the true nature of our relationship from me all these years!
Now having journeyed whole-hearted through planetary hospice, having processed my own climate grief and epigenetic trauma, only to then find myself engulfed by our collective climate trauma, having found solace and healing thereafter in a vital, growing global community and, finally, having been nurtured all along by a quantum awareness that is umbilically connected to Gaian sentience - only now have I organically arrived at this psychophysical gnosis (though it appears to have been waiting for me the whole time!):
We non-indigenous, privileged human beings of Western Civilization, we who bear the lion’s share of responsibility for ongoing mass extinctions and the end of life as the world has always known it, are now being called upon, and compelled by Gaia’s trauma, to recover our own sense of indigeneity.
This, I have concluded, is what it really means to grow up and evolve in a time of existential chthonic threat: to become indigenous to Earth in the midst of ecological collapse.
What a glorious charge! What a sacred task. In the midst of chaos and trauma we are called to awakening and healing. Of course! And of course, this would precipitate a new kind of relationship. A higher order of relationship (though not in relation to Indigenous people themselves). How else to counteract the doomsayers, collapsarians and religious fanatics? How else can we break our addictions and reform our identities?
It won’t happen overnight, of course, but it is already happening. Like the Lakota notion of the “good red road,” amplifying our own indigeneity represents the most effective pathway for non-Indigenous people to come into proper relationship with all our relations. Which is precisely what it will take to restore any kind of ecological balance in the Anthropogenic Era. Climate Trauma arises in relationship, after all, and discovering our own indigeneity is a natural corrective for healing those damaged relationships, one that is responsive to both the existential crisis we face and the spiritual crisis that brought it about.
This postmodern take on indigeneity isn’t some new phenomenon so much as it is a new way of thinking about what we know is already working, and bringing into coherence the numerous strands of the reformation that are already emerging from those who hear the cries of the world. Not only are we being called by Gaia to this sacred task, Indigenous peoples themselves are calling us home, as evocatively and faithfully set forth by the Canadian writer/activist Peggi Eyers:
“All humans have the right to return home, and become indigenous to this earth, to become real human beings living their full potential as caretakers of life, to become people with big hearts living in cooperation with each other and with other forms of life.” Arkan Lashwala (Peru, Arawaka Ceremonial Center)... “As an immigrant culture, Americans must start to engage in their own process of becoming indigenous to this place and regain their roles as members of the ecological community.” Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi)”
(Exerpted from First Nations on Ancestral Connection, Stone Circle Press)
As my Dakota friend, scientist/activist, and spiritual teacher/healer Dallas Gudgell points out: "Embracing postmodern indigeneity while looking to and quietly following Indigenous leaders (the ones generationally connected to place) is the bridge to Unity" between Indigenous people and the rest of us. There is even a Native-led Indigeneity Program now from within the visionary Bioneer movement to help us develop our own indigeneity. From their web page:
“Indigeneity assumes a spiritual interconnectedness between all creations, their right to exist and the value of their contributions to the larger whole. At the core of Indigenous thinking is that coexistence relies on the ability of all peoples’ and living things’ voices be heard -- and heard equally.”
– LaDonna Harris, Founder and President of Americans for Indian Opportunity
For reasons that will become clear later in this chapter, this is the wave of the future for the climate movement. This is how we face the storm, no matter the difficulty, and re-learn to inhabit planet Earth. .
This resurrection of our Human Nature from the ashes of Industrial Civilization necessarily begins with the collective moral imperative of humility - no, make that RADICAL HUMILITY! - due to the vast scale of our accumulated mischiefs and the cascading mayhem that we’ve now unleashed. (Note: core indigenous values will be highlighted in this discussion, for ease of reference). As Thomas Hubl says, “humility is born of our strength to be vulnerable.” Our humble reorientation begins with shared empathy for the other-than-human world, whose severely depressed populations are suffering biologically in unprecedented ways short of extinction, owing directly to the ecological disruption and climate chaos perpetrated by non-Indignenous peoples.
Significantly, any indigenous reformation of Western Civilization must be anchored in a collective, sincere, and publicly expressed contrition over the ruthless genocide our progenitors have perpetrated on the inhabitants of the Americas. Indian Americans are still 4 million strong (50 million in Latin America), and we owe them a fair accounting for the broken treaties and the perpetuation of intolerable economic conditions on many Native American Reservations today.
The beauty of Rep. Barbara Lee’s Racial Justice Commission, set forth at the end of the chapter 4, is that it provides a public forum to begin righting the wrongs of slavery and the genocide perpetuated on the very people whose ecological wisdom and spiritual guidance we now need in order to survive climate disruption ourselves. Truth and contrition precede reconciliation, though we’re seemingly stuck at the truth stage here in the U.S. right now. As Fernando Pairicán, a Mapuche historian at the University of Santiago, states:
“For every act of genocide, there needs to be economic, political and social reparation. Only then can we move towards self-determination, equality and the restitution of lands to Indigenous peoples across the Americas.”
These kinds of truth and reconciliation processes are how we show younger generations that we are grownups capable of dealing with an existential crisis. It’s a kind of collective shadow work that remains to be done here, but is at least underway.
And, of course, it is in all of our interests to restore as much as possible Indigenous sovereignty over lands, as even in their dispossessed state Indigenous people remain responsible stewards for 80% of existing biodiversity. This idea of returning lands to tribes might seem impractical to some, but after a career of fighting the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management on behalf of wildlife, I can attest to the lousy job they’ve done in terms of conserving biodiversity. Logging and grazing has resulted in a paucity of important indicator species like sage grouse, fishers, pine marten, owls, goshawks, many kinds of woodpeckers, and beavers - to name just a few of what should be common species.
And while climate is certainly a major factor in the unnatural “wildfires” (actually, climate fires) that have become an annual spectacle, mismanagement of forests set the stage for these climate catastrophes; e.g., by thinning out forests through logging, in the name of reducing wildfire threat, the forests actually have become over-dry and susceptible to the higher winds that drive destructive fires. Turning our national forests and grasslands back over to the tribes, with an emphasis on managing for wildlife like beavers and bison, would have profound effects on the climate, as we will explore more fully later in this chapter. So there is both a scientific basis and self-interest in doing the right thing by returning lands to Indigenous people.
Without this kind of spiritual maturity as our moral foundation, along with liberating the repressed emotional energy through reconciliation, any attempts at cultivating Western indigeneity will be rightly viewed as inauthentic and, in all likelihood, would prove to be ineffective. But with that energy and on that firm ground, a new world and a universal solidarity is well within our reach. In this new world, which can only emerge from the detritus of the old, we can all feel empowered to become indigenous in new and meaningful ways that are supportive of climate and species recovery.
That is shared responsibility in action. As the U.N. clearly states:
“Recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) stress the urgent need for transformative change to reverse the impending ecological crisis. With only a limited window of time to bend the emissions curve, adapting to changing climate conditions, and halt the rapid decline in biodiversity, the values and wisdom of indigenous peoples can help societies achieve this transformation.”
By learning to see our Indigenous brothers and sisters as our spiritual elders on this relational path, by becoming their political and spiritual allies as they throw off the societal chains of colonialism and oppression, and by soliciting their assistance in seeking out Gaia as our ally, we can reconcile our shared traumas and direct the energy liberated in that collective healing process towards climate recovery. In a society and culture where we’ve become so disembodied and disconnected from the natural world and our own true nature, and at a critical time when so many are still reflexively dissociating from climate trauma, regenerating and cultivating a new kind of indigeneity - one that emerges naturally from our growing sense of shared responsibility for the climate, for our bioregions, and for our locally inhabited ecosystems - represents the missing piece, and the social glue, in the global puzzle of climate reconciliation and recovery.
Defining Postmodern Indigeneity
Out of regard for our 300 million or so Indigenous brothers and sisters around the world, who are rising up and shedding the shackles of oppression in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and mindful of the problems with cultural appropriation, I’m compelled to begin afresh with the commonly accepted definition of indigeneity:
/inˌdijəˈnēidē 1. originating or occurring naturally (in a country, region, etc); native. 2. innate (to); inherent (in).
[from Latin indigenus, from indi- in + gignere to beget]
So we can at least appreciate from this generic definition that indigeneity is not limited to Indigenous Peoples, who by definition originate from the land. For the rest of us, indigeneity is more a matter of “occurring naturally” on the land, wherever we happen to be living, and of striving consciously to become “innate to” the land - which means to become one with the essential character of our chosen habitat and the non-human beings we still share that habitat with or have displaced. As Kiowa elder N. Scott Momaday points out, “[s]omething of our relationship to the earth is determined by the particular place we stand at a given time.”
While indigeneity is traditionally rooted in a given place, we of settler stock are more nomadic by nature, and thus our indigeneity - which we can think of as “postmodern” - will always tend to be fixed less by the place of our birth than by a confluence of time and place in the context of our relationship with a region, the whole country or, increasingly, the entire planet. Indigeneity also traditionally arises from a relatively unchanging landscape, whereas postmodern indigeneity will necessarily be connected to rapidly changing landscapes, giving rise to an even more interactive dynamic than the traditional role of ‘tending to’ the natural world. As most of these landscapes have already been greatly altered and are now out of equilibrium, traditional Indigenous knowledge of pre-settlement conditions becomes even more relevant to our purposefully adaptive behaviors. In looking to become more indigenous ourselves during a time of great ecological unravelling, we must acknowledge an even greater responsibility for the landscapes we inhabit, owing to the deleterious impacts we, our ancestors, and our economically driven land management agencies have had on the land.
In cultivating and embodying our own indigeneity, we'd be wise to begin with the idea of honoring “all our relations.” This will serve as a powerful antidote for our habit of objectifying “all my things/properties,” along with centuries of objectification of women and black, brown and yellow lives as slaves. And of course, by starting from an explicitly relational foundation, we are already borrowing a key core value of the traditional Indigenous worldview. Mindful of the immutable stains of pervasive colonialism, we must vigilantly guard against appropriating Indigenous cultural traditions as our own - either without proper attribution or, for more sacred traditions, without permission.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we can not still find inspiration in traditional indigenous ways of being with, and relating to, the natural world. To the contrary, in cultivating our own sense of indigeneity it would seem disrespectful and foolish not to so honor Indigenous wisdom, and not be curious about the stories that inform their worldview. It’s a matter of learning from, not taking from. As Seminole (Ojibway) Elder, former Vice Presidential candidate, and Honor the Earth Executive Director Winona LaDuke advises us, “the presence of these traditions in the Native community provides a yardstick against which to measure your own values, your own way of life, and your own choices” — or in this case, our own indigeneity.
At the same time, in this process of generating postmodern indigeneity as a corrective to Western civilization’s lethal legacy, we reformed settlers can also avail ourselves of some uniquely adaptive advantages in naturalizing our relations at this particular time in our species’ story. We’ve accomplished a lot of good along the way of screwing things up. While our developing Western cultural indigeneity will clearly have much in common with traditional cultures’ indigeneity, being grounded in many of the same core values, it will also be marked by some very important differences.
We’ve already alluded to the different relationships settlers have with place and time. When First Peoples first generated indigeneity eons ago, it was in close relationship to their immediate natural environments — on the order of what we would now call an ecosystem or, if they were more nomadic, a bioregion. They were never required to think or act beyond those immediate horizons. We now embark on cultivating postmodern indigeneity already entangled with the entire planet - a relationship we intend to restore balance to - and we do so with the still-fresh and unfolding science of a living, largely self-regulating meta-organism which we are integrally enmeshed within. This scientific ‘discovery’ may be old news to Indigenous people, who intuited it long ago, but it is truly awe-inspiring for our modern psyches to confirm this ancient wisdom without it merely being a matter of spiritual belief.
This globalized worldview affords us the unprecedented and unique opportunity to regenerate a holistic indigeneity based on rationally knowing how we actually are interdependent with the whole Earth - not just as a matter of faith, mythology, or religion, but as a matter of proven scientific fact. We know with confidence that we are conscious agents operating within an intricate and awe-inspiring web of life that has its own intelligence and wisdom to impart to us, just as we wish to offer healing aspirations and regenerative intentions in return. In other words, the perspective of postmodern indigeneity begins by urgent necessity at the outer reaches of the enveloped world, and from an even more expansive perspective - that of the solar system - is oriented inwards, through successive holons like the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, etc., toward whatever bioregion and ecosystem we happen to inhabit. This contrasts with more traditional forms of indigeneity, which are oriented from where one’s people are buried, looking out towards the horizon, and has a different relationship with the skies based on that more grounded orientation.
This difference in orientation is critical to postmodern indigeneity, as it is our larger relationship with Gaia that is now closing in on all our other relations, compelling us to take in the global situation in order that we may know how to respond individually, to relate to Gaia locally, in our daily lives.
I realize that the idea of “local ecosystem” might sound foreign to someone who lives in a big city. But big cities, too, have birds and bees, flowers and trees, open spaces and squirrels. Rooftop gardens are a big part of the solution to global warming, and we all have the ability to connect to the natural world via the intimate relationships of our dietary choices. Most people have some capability for growing our own food, either vertically on their decks, in community gardens that are springing up everywhere, and by converting green spaces wherever we find them. For those with yards large or small, it is a radically indigenous act to kill your lawn, learn what plants happen to be native, and learn permaculture.
That kind of food sovereignty can an important first step in reclaiming our indigeneity, in solidarity with Gaia and Indigenous people everywhere. It's a way of beginning to assert a lifestyle that is not hold us hostage to consumer culture. I remember my surprise when I learned that Russians had one of the healthier diets on the planet. After the Soviet Union collapsed, people had no choice but to become as self-sufficient as possible, and that meant growing their own food - without the aid of pesticides, herbicides, or other poisons.
This is whole-Earth based indigeneity from the perspective of the very people who have traditionally viewed the world as ours to roam, map and claim. So in a sense, the uprooted characteristic of a postmodern, holistic indigeneity is ‘innate’ to us. We’re not incapable by birth of becoming indigenous to a place, since it is part of our evolved human nature, and there is no place indigeneity can not be cultivated. However, our sense of place today has become global in scope because of our one great accomplishment, viewing Earth from the moon, and is becoming more so because of our one great predicament, resolving biospheric trauma before we assure our own extinction. That said, each of us is free to define our indigeneity as broadly as we care to, so long as what we are including is Earth-friendly and regenerative of life. Intention is everything here.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a reliable elder and teacher of Indigenous ways to non-Indigenous people. She’s a classically trained scientist. and Professor of Environmental Biology at the State University of New York. Professor Kimmerer is a tribal member of the Potawatomi Nation, and serves as the Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She stakes out a clear marker for cultivating our own indigeneity:
“For all of us, becoming Indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.”
Dr. Kimmerer then goes on to counsel that the most important thing we can do in generating indigeneity is to “listen to the plants.” (!)
In the context of holistic indigeneity viewed as a natural remedy for climate trauma, let’s scale this advice up to encompass our listening more closely to the bioregions and ecosystems that we inhabit, and then scale it up again, taking it to include the need to listen to Gaia herself. Imagine the good that would flow from humans pondering what Gaia is trying to convey to us with this pandemic.
We can see the radical humility that is inherent in this kind of respectful attitude towards the natural world. It is tantamount to letting the world shape us in her image, rather than trying so hard to shape her in ours. It is the humility of acknowledging that no, we do not control the basic powers of the universe. We are, instead, subservient to the powers of Nature.
To be indigenous is to engage within an ecological community of subjects, as the naturalist Wendell Berry puts it, rather than to compete with, exploit and oppose a world of objects, as with our current 'natural resource' management paradigm. No matter how many times we activists tried to tell the Forest Service that “wildlife management” was an oxymoron, they just couldn’t see the living forest through the monetized trees. Instead of seeing wolves, for example, as a keystone species in riparian, montane ecosystems, they view them as a threat to privately owned cows grazed on public lands!
The same with the most sacred wildlife species on Turtle Island: buffalo and bear. The management agencies don’t manage our public forests and grasslands as natural wildlands. Instead, they act like zoo-keepers and robber barons, managing them on behalf of ranchers and hunters. Indigeneity involves a true, participatory stewardship orientation in stark opposition to the subjugating orientation of manifest destiny (management) and extraction of “natural” (i.e., commodified) resources (exploitation).
‘Listening to the plants’ can be taken in another important way, as well. Indigenous people have from time immemorial learned about their natural world in direct communion with Gaia by ceremonially ingesting entheogenic plants. Yes, Gaia has a voice. "Entheo-" refers to an internal, divine power of certain plants. We can think of this as ‘entheogeneity’ if we like.
At the same time that Gaia is in crisis, millions of people from all walks of life are feeling called to enter into sacred communion with her, mostly in supportive circles that form every night up and down the West coast here in the U.S., via sacred vines, mushrooms, and other medicinal plants whose knowledge has been gifted to us by the Indigenous cultures of the Americas. Let's face it, at this point we need all the divine intervention we can get! This sacred journeying has become so popular and respected that it is of no interest to the DEA or other law enforcement agencies, and is quickly following cannabis on the path of decriminalization and legalization.
THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE!
Because nearly everyone who journeys in this way, almost without exception, learns in an embodied, heart-centered way what Gaian intelligence really means, and comes away with a profoundly changed relationship towards the natural world. Given how much catching up we have to do relative to our Indigenous brothers and sisters when it comes to proper relationship with the natural world, and given that we are now in ecological emergency mode, these sacred circles need to be encouraged and acknowledged, if not honored, as a viable way of fomenting holistic indigeneity.
This significant trend of entheogenic journeying to the source is also supported by the success we are seeing in the mental health profession with entheogen-assisted psychotherapy for those afflicted with PTSD and/or drug addiction, as well as for people facing life’s final journey. And thanks to synthetic forms of entheogenic substances that cut right to the quick, such as the so-called "God molecule" 5-MeO-DMT, there is great promise for utilizing entheogens in a traditional therapeutic setting. How popular would psychiatrists be if they could induce mystical experiences as part of a regular course of treatment?
“Are you feeling disembodied or disconnected from Nature? Are you feeling dissociated from the climate movement? Maybe Huachuma from San Pedro’s cactus is right for you! In shamanic and micro-doses, Huachuma has been proven for eons to make you feel on with all that is alive. Talk to your psychotherapist today. See if entheogenic treatments are right for you.”
These are the kinds of medicines we actually need in a time of existential climate crisis - not those more popular and spirit-numbing antidepressants, opioids, and anxiety drugs pushed on a vulnerable public by Big Pharma. Or maybe what we need is Big Pharma to start mass producing empathogens (like MDMA) and entheogens, with their commercials on the evening news promoting the more compassionate, empathetic and harmonious society which would result from such a rational prescription for our true, underlying ailments.
Listen to the plants.
Biodiversity of plants and animals is clearly a core concept and should be considered the lodestone of any postmodern indigeneity. It is incumbent on all of us to become increasingly aware of our symbiotic relationships with forests, grasslands, savannas, mangroves, sagebrush, riparian habitats, and other types of ecosystems; the roles that keystone species play in shaping these landscapes; and, the importance of repairing our relationships with those focal species, turning to them as allies in our efforts to restore our local ecosystems.
To illustrate this point, there was a time when beavers were honored by settlers as nature’s engineers, and it was even illegal to kill them in the new Territories. Then ranchers took over, eradicated them from most streams, and now we have widespread droughts and water shortages giving rise to ecological disruption and destruction. We all should learn to love beavers, and tell ranchers to knock it off!
Beavers support carbon sequestration. Blue carbon is a very hot topic right now and beaver dams and habitat are big stores of blue carbon. They’re fantastic pollution control agents. They’re basically creating these little settling ponds where nitrates, phosphorus, heavy metals and pesticides can settle out, and that’s actually guiding a lot of beaver-based restoration in the Chesapeake Bay watershed which is really impacted by agricultural inputs.
Another really big one that’s become increasingly exciting as some of the peer-reviewed research has come out to support it is the role of beavers during wildfires. They create these fantastic fire refugia and firebreaks on the landscape, these wet areas where the vegetation is really lush and thus doesn’t burn. This is something that beaver folks had always kind of anecdotally observed, but within the last year or two there has been some great research that proves that point. The notion that you could support safeguarding communities from wildfire by restoring beavers in the surrounding wildlands is suddenly something people are talking about, which is tremendously exciting.
Beavers are incredible agents of restoration and positive change on the landscape. They accomplish so much and prove that our efforts to restore nature are not futile, and that positive change really is possible. Beavers are a wonderful, hopeful species at a time when a lot of people need hope.
I could just have easily chosen bison, sea otters, whales or wolves to make this point. Ecologists tell us that restoring just 20 large mammal species to their historic habitats could revitalize ecosystems and boost biodiversity across almost one-quarter of the Earth’s land area. This speaks to the critical importance of a core indigenous value that actually protects biodiversity during a time of accelerating extinction: Biophilia ~ defined as:
“a love of life and the living world; the affinity of human beings for other life forms.”
As we learn to see these shifts in orientation as personal and collective expressions of our own indigeneity, other natural alliances will begin to take shape on the land and in our communities as well - think of the positive impacts farmers' markets have had on communities as a product of the "eat local" trend. In time, the moral impetus and natural solidarity of our allied efforts will organically gain synergistic force, building the momentum needed to regenerate more natural, balanced, and functional landscapes. This is the vision behind the One Earth climate proposal for restoring biodiversity and reversing climate change, which we’ll get to shortly. The point is that we need to involve rather than exclude humans from ecosystem recovery efforts, in sharp contrast to the management regime that views humans apart from nature instead of as a part of Nature.
With holistic indigeneity, humans are encouraged to learn better ways to live in community with their nonhuman relations. “Man against Nature” is the old, destructive paradigm. Human(e) Nature and holistic indigeneity are the new, regenerative constructs.
“How are we to ward off the immorality of ignorance and greed, the disease of indifference to Earth? Perhaps the answer lies in the expression of the Spirit, in words of a Sacred Nature.”
~ Kiowa Elder N. Scott Momaday
Significantly, as part of restoring all our relations, Robin Wall Kimmerer encourages us to consider the power of words in how we address Nature. Just as we’ve been learning to do in relation to shifting gender identities and intersectionality, we need to speak more mindfully of our natural environment in relational terms as we set about repairing that relationship in a natural way. Let us refrain from continuing to bad-mouth Nature as a collection of “its” and “things”!
Dr. Kimmerer sagely refers to this as the “grammar of animacy” ~ granting being-ness to what we have heretofore thought of as living “things.” Plants and animals, soils and forests, are no more things than we are:
“Saying it makes a living land into ‘natural resources.’ If a maple tree is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.”
Similarly, instead of saying “there is a mountain” or “here is a river,” a grammar of animacy would counsel “Mountain is there” and “River is here.” The way we use words really matters, and should reflect the way we are seeing the world afresh, as a living being. Acknowledging a natural presence for natural beings places us immediately in a relational context, like the tiny figures in a Chinese scroll painting, as opposed to seeing ourselves outside of the painting, deciding how the land suits us and what we can do to it.
As the Dalai Lama likes to say, the ‘self’ is a linguistic construct. And quantum physics teaches us that there are no things in the world after all ~ only relations. So Dr. Kimmerer’s grammar of animacy is a way of reconstructing our ‘self’ in holistic relationship with the natural world. Which is urgently needed at all levels right now. This animacy too, then, becomes a foundational component of postmodern indigeneity, building into it the necessary bridge with Indigenous cultures and thinking that will facilitate more fruitful dialogue and collaboration.
A postmodern indigenous person might have occasion to speak generically about the planet, inclusive of us, but would never again be heard to talk about “the earth.” That term creates a linguistic barrier by rendering her an object apart from us, as something that we have explored and conquered. Rather that we would speak respectfully, even reverently, in relation with her being-ness, as with referring to her as Gaia, Pachamama, Aluna, or Mother Earth.
To honor Gaia's sentience, we would even create an intentional silent space for her to fill in our discussions about the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, and in sharing our grief - not just inviting her to speak as a pretense, but actually listening for any intuitive echoes of her voice within the participants’ collective psyche. By speaking and listening in this way, we academics and scientists, we policy makers and activists alike, would thereby create a cognitive and linguistic bridge for communicating with and learning from our Indigenous brothers and sisters as well, because now we would be speaking in their mother tongue, metaphorically at least, with language that includes rather than excludes the other-than-human dimension, intentionally creating a positive feedback loop that is prescriptive and ecologically constructive, rather than divisive and destructive.
The relational worldview that underlies indigeneity finds modern support in Heisenberg’s startling discovery that mind and matter arise interdependently, such that physical reality and matter itself is responsive to mental intention, orientation, and interaction. Thus, quantum awareness, which substitutes a relational view of the world for our default of objectifying the world, provides a solid empirical foundation for the development of a postmodern, holistic indigeneity. This relational awareness is made manifest to us with quantum applications like the world wide web, drawing us all into a kind of virtual hive, an ever-present manifestation of global psyche, as well as with the global economy, by which what happens in a meat market in China or a rainforest in Indonesia ripples through every American strip mall and grocery store. At the same time we are developing this new non-localized and relational awareness, of course, we’re also experiencing the world as it has never existed before, due to accelerating climate chaos and biospheric trauma. So it becomes an adaptive behavior, which is natural to us.
Just as the whole world has become interconnected, in other words, and just at this time of existential threatened, we are awakening individually and collectively to a felt sense of the grievous wounding of climate trauma. It feels personal to us. It is precisely because of this growing sense of interconnectivity and interdependence that so many are striving so hard to drive us all apart. But as a matter of organic necessity, they will not succeed, for the organic response to a world coming apart at the seams is for all of us to come together in a new way, in the very midst of the maelstrom we've created. The new way in which we’re feeling biologically called, and being drawn together, is beginning to take root in this growing sense of holistic indigeneity, whose many seeds have been planted and well-tended by countless others for many decades now.
In truth, what I am naming here is being voiced by many others, though with different names that are subsumed by the idea of holistic indigeneity. It is Deep Ecology and the Work that Reconnects. It's the ecological consciousness that Australian ecopsychologist Glenn Albrecht posits will transform the Anthropocene into the Symbiocene. It’s Andy Fisher’s “Ecopsychology in the Service of Life” as well as the radical interdependence of David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous. It’s the re-enchantment of Nature evoked by Dr. Craig Chalquist’s Terrapsychology, and it’s the emerging, radical identity Sean Kelly predicts will initiate us into the Gaianthropocene. There are many other examples like this - it's XR and EF! - all wonderful epigenetic expressions of this emerging indigeneity blossoming in response to our collective spiritual crisis. Every effort, every movement that strives to bring us back into proper relationship with Mother Earth is a post-modern expression, renewal and resurrection of indigeneity. We need to own that, too.
So holistic indigeneity is both very new and very, very old. It’s human nature. Say what you will about the human race, but we are nothing if not adaptive, and we have a way of rising to the occasion when pressed.
Of course, remembering that the antidote to hubris is humility, it would be a grave misunderstanding to think that by labeling it ‘holistic,’ this postmodern indigeneity is somehow superior to traditional Indigenous wisdom. That would be a remnant of our colonialist attitude. At most, postmodern indigeneity is additive to and congruent with Indigenous psyche, which has been around for at least 30,000 years! We’re in the process of rediscovering, not reinventing, the wheel of indigeneity here, as there has always been something innately indigenous deep in our collective psyche, stretching all the way back to our common ancestors on the African savannah.
What postmodern indigeneity represents is not yet another assertion of superiority, but rather a sincere attempt to un-colonize our minds by adapting Indigenous ways of being in the world holistically to a world system that we ourselves have already broken. Holistic indigeneity represents a substitution of the kind of relational worldview Indigenous people have always held for our own outdated Western ways of thinking that developed along very different and ultimately flawed philosophical and psychological trajectories, and are no longer supported by our own sciences. We can think of it as a kind of re-Enlightenment that corrects for the philosophical errors of Descartes and Bacon.
If postmodern indigeneity is to emerge securely from a more ethical, renewed sense of shared responsibility for the climate and biosphere, it will need to be grounded in the moorings of our dominant Western civilization - like scientific (not materialist) thinking, logic, and evolution. As suggested by educator Dr. Brad Kirshner, a scholar who has given serious thought to these kinds of ideas:
“[T]he question for humanity is: how to facilitate our ongoing emergence and the increasing complexity of our social world in a way that enables right relationship between different perspectives and ways of being? …The integrated emergence of our future calls for an integrated indigeneity, a cosmopolitan indigeneity, an integrated nomadic cosmopolitanism…”
(I would note here that one definition of "cosmopolitanism," for those who might object to the term on its face, is "at home all over the world.")
Now, borrowing once again from Indigenous wisdom, and recognizing the urgency of the existential threats that we face, we must discuss the most vital characteristic of our emerging holistic, integrated indigeneity, which can be summed up in one loaded word: Reciprocity.
Reciprocity as a Meta-Concept
I’m guessing that most people reading this will think of themselves as relatively humble - even the confident and assertive among us - and quite immunized from infection by the kind of hubris that views man as dominating nature or humans controlling the basic powers of the universe. Life in this world, after all, has a way of humbling us - even more so during an era of ecological breakdown. But if we in the dominant culture are to begin asserting our own indigeneity in a way that is both congruent with and different from that of Indigenous people, while at the same time recognizing that radical humility is a core value we share with our respected elders, then what can serve as a true and reliable measure of our (continuing) humility in relationship with the natural world? How do we guard, in other words, against the epigenetic and (engrained) cultural hubris that is the legacy we’ve inherited from our (mostly) European ancestors?
We carry that hubris in our genes, after all, and we’ve been conditioned our whole privileged lives by a competitive and repetitive consumer society. Just think of the "rugged individualist" cowboy myth that remains quite popular, when the reality of Western settlement was quite ruthless, racist, and inhumane. Or the very idea of American exceptionalism politicians seem obligated to assert, often to excuse the senseless slaughter of women and children. It’s why cultural appropriation is such a problem - we’re thoroughly conditioned in the capitalist world to see something new and foreign that we like, to take it, and then to claim it as our own. It’s the entire foundation of the consumer culture we’re immersed in.
We settlers are, in a word, takers. It’s what we do. It’s how we got to where we find ourselves now. Consider the very land that you’re standing on. Taken. And that engrained, encultured sense of white entitlement is the reason my Indigenous friends have a hard time imagining a world of reconciliation, reparations, and equality between the races. Who could blame them? It is up to us to prove them wrong, not for them to prove themselves as having been worthy all along.
This is where reciprocity comes in, because it isn’t just a correct political view, or even a core value, so much as it is a learned attitude that is reflective of a lived worldview. Native American psychologist and shamanic psychotherapist Leslie Gray poignantly sums up the importance of this reorientation in attitude:
“[T]o restore our personal and collective sanity we need an earth-based spirituality, to rediscover a universe of living beings intimately related: the biosphere as our family. This family has values: respect for life, harmony with nature’s cycles, gratitude, balance, and above all, reciprocity—don’t take anything without giving something back. This is the key.”
Reciprocity above all. To become indigenous, we must practice reciprocity. It’s a moral imperative that infuses spirit and reverence into our daily practice of relationship, with or without regard to religious belief. And I mean practice in its literal sense, because this emphasis on reciprocity isn’t really part of our culture or our social conditioning. In fact, it’s rather contrary to our conditioning.
By acknowledging ourselves as coming from a long line of takers, we change the dynamic with an ethical commitment to the holistic practice of taking-and-giving. We rarely think of giving when we take, and we take what is given (or not) constantly in our lives. And yet to be considered indigenous to a living planet and to find our place on that planet, giving must become just as strong a habit of mind as our reflexive taking has become.
Every time we receive a benefit, such as a delicious, nutritious meal, driving on a paved road, turning on the internet, or getting packages delivered during a pandemic, we express our indigeneity by pausing to consider where this food or this road or this service comes from. We silently thank all those who helped bring it into our lives, from the field workers who harvest our food to the hourly employees who lay blacktop in the heat of the sun, or the garment laborers who make our clothes in some distant land. These are all gifted to us in one way or another, as we clearly benefit from their efforts in ways we have learned to take for granted, as a matter of personal entitlement.
What psychology adds to this is that people who practice an attitude of gratitude are generally more happy. In fact, intentionally exercising our ‘gratitude muscles’ improves our overall physical health, raises our energy levels, and has even been shown to relieve pain and fatigue for people with neuromuscular disease. See, e.g.: Seligman, M. (2002).
And, of course, we acknowledge our connection to Gaia in the meals we partake of throughout day - the nutrients and rainfall, the plants and photosynthesis, the relatively stable climate in the growing regions. Just being more intentional in the way we give thanks for our food is a powerful way of reorienting ourselves towards reciprocity. It turns out be a relief for us to replace our hungry, often greedy attitudes with relational gratitude. As described by indigenous thinker Stephen Jenkinson, reciprocity is like recognizing that, from a holistic perspective, what we receive creates a hole somewhere in the universe, and we reciprocate by feeling obligated to fill that hole with our intentions, if not by the actual act of giving back. It helps to add some small ritual act, like making offerings of water or setting a tasty morsel aside to offer to our winged relations afterward.
A beautiful expression of indigenous reciprocity is embodied in Roshi Joan Halifax’s simple prayer for offering a meal:
Earth, water, fire, air, and space combine to make this food.
Numberless beings gave their lives and labor that we may eat.
May we be nourished that we may nourish life.
In this simple meal blessing, we can see earth, water, fire, air, and space.
There we see plants, soil, pollinating bees, insects, human labor,
and an infinite chain of relationships.
We, too, are made up of earth, water, fire, air and space.
All of us are interconnected with the sun, moon, wind, and rain,
and will someday return to the mother elements.
And all of us are also connected in the stream of basic goodness.
Let us see this food as medicine,
as our connection to Earth,
and enjoy it thoroughly!
We can see how adopting this more ethical way of thinking might, in time, begin to affect everything we do, exposing everything we’ve always taken for granted in the light of our awakening indigeneity. We begin to see with new eyes. And we can appreciate how integral reciprocity is to indigeneity. This is the shift in consciousness that is emerging, lotus like, from the muck of industrial civilization.
To our modern, conditioned sensibilities, this can perhaps sound trite, like a kind of virtue signaling. Do not be fooled by the simplicity of this gesture of giving back for everything we take — it’s actually quite a radical move for someone conditioned their whole lives to be a global consumer rather than a global citizen. What would it really mean for us not to take anything without the intention to give something back?
Think about the things we usually don’t think about, like filling up the gas tank, turning on a computer or home theatre, or even taking a glass of water from the tap after flicking on the kitchen light, and maybe peeking into the fridge. The first thing that becomes really clear is just how much we are taking from the world. In order to decide what and how to give back in return, we really begin to animate and give life to this idea of “all my relations” ~ we begin to perceive all the many intricate and even exquisite connections that give rise to an expansive feeling of familial relations.
We begin the process of relating to all our relations in our mind’s eye, re-animating our world with simple imagination, which helps dislodge the boring old mind that has been conditioned our whole lives to objectify everything. Again, listen to our wise elder Leslie Gray, who as a shamanic psychotherapist has a foot in both worlds, explaining why reciprocity is the most fundamental Native American value of all:
“[D]on’t take anything without giving something back. That may seem simple, but it isn’t. Had we included that value in the prevailing culture from the beginning, I dare say we would not be in the ecological mess we are in today. Reciprocity and gratitude are necessary values for us to have [in order] to be proper caretakers for this place and to use its resources well and replenish them to keep the cycle of life going… Native people have always tended the land, whether by controlled burning to avoid disastrous wildfires, or by burying fish beneath corn to regenerate the soil, or by rituals of gratitude toward Earth to reinforce behaviors of reciprocity. I believe these practices teach us about the healthiest way to be here, the healthiest attitude to have toward our home.”
Climate psychologist Merritt Juliano helpfully describes this idea of "Emerging Reciprocity" in relation to her practice of growing her own food, which is a direct form of indigeneity many of us who’ve sunk our fingers into the soil are already familiar with:
“Most of us in the modern world have either passively or actively participated in the destructive practice of industrial agriculture. The difference between my backyard husbandry and industrial agriculture, however, is one of relationship. Acknowledging this relationship and interdependency gives rise to overwhelming gratitude for all that I take from the other-than-human without permission, and all that we need as a species to endure… There is no longer a relationship between us and that which we depend on. This is in stark contrast to indigenous cultures who hold deep respect for the land they inhabit, as well as the plants and animals they consume… There is a felt experience of connection as I greet them in the mornings and hold space for reciprocity, exchanging what was once a dark and lonely one way path of consumption for a rich and lively two way pathway of gratitude and care.”
And here is a good place to challenge everyone who has the space to either start a garden or re-consecrate their existing garden plot as a “climate garden,” a place to daily and seasonally cultivate indigeneity in relation to the whole Earth. As we will see later in this chapter, this kind of indigenous cultivation and conscious relationship with our local ecosystems - up to and including agro-forestry and various forms of regenerative agriculture - will necessarily become the wave of the future, as it is a matter of shared responsibility for all of us to come back into relationship with the natural world in a way that collectively draws carbon down from the atmosphere. When it finally dawns on us collectively that this is the only way to actually turn this climate Titanic around, then we will see that there is a role for all of us to play in the cultivation of this neo-indigenous, ecological culture. In much the same spirit of the “Victory Gardens” that became so popular in support of the allied efforts to prevail in WWII, we should now popularize “Gaia Gardens” and "Climate Gardens" as individual expressions of our collective commitment to reorient ourselves towards Nature.
To cultivate indigeneity by sinking our fingers into the soil is a naturally humbling mindfulness practice. The word “human” is derived from the Latin word humus, “the dark organic material in the soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter [that is] essential to the fertility of the earth.” In stark contrast to the hubris of mowing a lawn of Kentucky bluegrass, when we are tending our gardens, we naturally give thanks for the nutrients in the soil which are taken up by the vegetables we grow, all due to the generosity of the sun, wind, and clouds, and then taken up in our own bodies in order that we may live.
The microbes we absorb by handling soil (don’t wear gloves!) are more effective anti-depressants than pharmaceuticals are. There must be a good reason for that! What is good for Gaia is good for us, and what is good for us is good for Gaia. Gaia holds the cure for our climate crisis.
As fitness guru Aubrey Marcus reminds us:
“You are comprised of: 84 minerals, 23 Elements, and 8 gallons of water spread across 38 trillion cells. You have been built up from nothing by the spare parts of the Earth you have consumed… You are recycled butterflies, plants, rocks, streams, firewood, wolf fur, and shark teeth, broken down to their smallest parts and rebuilt into our planet’s most complex living thing. You are not living on Earth. You are Earth."
That is holistic indigeneity in a nutshell!
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!
Contemporary philosopher Cynthia Kaufman asks:
“Is it possible to build a society where people have enough to live well and also feel that they have enough? Or are we doomed as a species to stay on the hedonic treadmill that keeps us wanting more consumer goods, even as we destroy the natural world to get those things? Are we doomed to make ourselves miserable trying to make ourselves happy?”
Reciprocity, radical humility, and simplicity could be called the holy trinity of postmodern indigeneity. A key component of reciprocity is to take only what we need - a rather foreign and dangerous idea in a consumer society! Of course, from a place of shared responsibility, each of us is responsible for distinguishing wants from needs, and conspicuous consumption from wise use. But what is obvious is that we’ve become accustomed to living quite beyond our means, and a refined sense of shared responsibility should give rise, mindfully, to a moral obligation to downsize our lives.
Simplifying our lives should not be viewed as a deprivation, either. The truth we all should’ve learned by now is that things don’t make us any more happy than clutter, complications, endless distractions, or the pressure to earn enough money to support all of our unnecessary entanglements with them. Quite the contrary, in fact. Ask anyone who has voluntarily downsized their lives if they are not happier with their simpler lives.
This is not a new revelation. When the Buddha was asked to tutor a king, one of the simpler truths he imparted was that the greatest wealth of all is to be content. The corollary is that the more we have, the less content we become. It's also been proven that the more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with our choice. In my own personal experience, I have never really known a rich person who I would trade places with. In other words, the consumer society is built on a lie.
What is desperately needed is competition and peer pressure in the process of simplification, to elevate the value of simple living, motivated both by a desire to reduce our carbon footprint during a time of climate emergency and to become more happy and content with our lives. Even as the world at large continues to unravel, there will still be contentment in knowing that we are doing our part. With the advent of unnatural weather, wildfires, and flooding, we’re all becoming much more aware of the long-term consequences of our relatively extravagant lifestyles. How is it possible, then, to be happy and content in our conspicuous excess knowing that the cumulative result is widespread death, extinction, and misery?!?
As consumers, we have the power individually and collectively to demand less, not more. To demand products that last, not those that are built to be replaced every year or two. And, of course, at the systemic level we must advocate for more equality. The obscene wealth gap, in the U.S. especially, has made a mockery of the American Dream, and produces nothing but toil and trouble for all concerned. Even the wealthy become increasingly unhappy with increases in the wealth gap, as we see most plainly with a celebrity culture and plutocratic government.
Does Donald Trump seem like a happy human being to you?
So what would enlightened selfishness look like? Consider the logic of “Consumerism, Inequality and the Climate Crisis” from Dr. Kaufman:
“Having important social decisions be driven by insatiability and profit is leading to environmental devastation, poverty, and low levels of happiness. Making a shift toward a society that works for people and the rest of nature involves freeing people from the pulls that tie them to a need for more.”
So of course downsizing our home is the way to go. Of course going solar, and replacing our lawns with Gaia Gardens that produce food for our families and friends, flowers for the bees, milkweed for butterflies, bird baths and squirrel feeders will make us happier. And of course every neighborhood without yards should have a community garden, even if on the roofs of tenement houses. Of course trading in our gas guzzlers for EVs, bikes, using (improved) public transport, curtailing our time on social media, reading real books again, learning permaculture and educating ourselves about the ecosystems we inhabit, working fewer hours, freeing ourselves from the crushing weight of consumer debt… of course these and related efforts will increase our happiness quotient and improve the quality of our lives in the short term. And collectively, they will improve the quality of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives in the long term.
Again, what is stopping us? A lack of shared responsibility for the shared consequences of our shared lifestyle on a planet we share with all other beings.
It’s obscene, really. Shameless. We can do so much better.
So in the short term, a program of indigeneity based on simplicity, humility and reciprocity will make us more happy - or at the very least, less unhappy. Less depressed and demoralized (an apt term). And in the long term, such a course of action makes sense in terms of what social scientist Jem Bendell calls “positive deep adaptation.” Simplifying our lives is an appropriate response to the dislocation we know is coming from climate chaos. When we begin to downsize and simplify our lives, finding pleasure once again in the simple things of life (like making a salad from ingredients we’ve grown ourselves), we have the deep consolation of knowing that we are coming back into proper relationship with Gaia during her time of crisis.
That is the heart of indigeneity. And especially as we build or become part of existing communities of people who are reforming their lives in similar ways, there is some peace of mind that comes from knowing that the connections we are building are sturdy, time-tested and resilient, and that our chances of being sustained and supported, even as the situation in the world at large continues to deteriorate, are improving. We feel a little less vulnerable. We’re not triggered as easily as we were before we embraced a simpler life. We learn to self-regulate in ways that are coherent with Gaia’s own self-regulating rhythms.
Indigeneity is the natural remedy and spiritual elixir for climate trauma. It permits the kind of universal solidarity that easily translates into political actions. This is how we can come back into proper relationship with the natural world.
Systemically. In community. Mindfully, with Gaian awareness. With integrity. Sadly, it will not happen in time to save all the species that need to be saved. But this shift is already happening. As we will see after a brief summation of the core values we have explored here.
A Shared Ethical Commitment to Holistic Indigeneity
So in summation, here are the core values of the postmodern, holistic indigeneity that will, in time, regenerate the world in the Symbiocene or Gaianthropocene era:
for the global climate;
for our bioregions; and,
for our locally inhabited ecosystems.
Shared empathy for the other-than-human world;
Contrition over genocide of First Peoples;
Reparations for broken treaties, stolen lands, colonial injustices.
All our/my relations;
Symbiotic/empathic human nature.
Integral beings of Gaia’s biosphere;
Inward orientation from space vs. outward orientation of place;
Communion of subjects vs. competition among objects.
“a love of life and the living world”
“the affinity of human beings for other life forms”
Symbiotic relationship with biosphere;
Promotion of keystone species as reparations for biodiversity crisis.
Communing with Gaia via sacred plants;
Participating in Sacred Circles;
Increasing psychotherapeutic applications.
Animacy and literacy
granting being-ness to what we have heretofore thought of as living things;
Natural Life Source vs. natural resources;
Acknowledging the presence of natural beings with our words.
No taking without giving;
Asking forgiveness (for giveness from beings);
Adopting an attitude of gratitude.
take only what we need;
A lifestyle choice;
All of us are indigenous members of Earth Community equally - there is no higher placement of a master over another - and it is high time for all of us to become Indigenous again.”
~ Vendana Shiva
Indigenous Earth:::The One Earth Climate Proposal
In this chapter, I have repeatedly contended that we effectively have no choice now but to become indigenous if we are to resolve our collective climate trauma in a way that reconciles us with Nature and plots a path of climate recovery. This is not mere speculation on my part. It's actually sound science.
It is already too late to presume that by replacing fossil fuels with clean energy sources we can stop global warming. As George Monbiot put it in his eulogy to COP26:
The end of fossil fuels will not, by itself, prevent the extinction crisis, the deforestation crisis, the soils crisis, the freshwater crisis, the consumption crisis, the waste crisis; the crisis of smashing and grabbing, accumulating and discarding that will destroy our prospects and much of the rest of life on Earth.
Even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow or in 2030, the climate would continue to warm. And of course, as we all know, we are not going to stop burning fossil fuels in 2030. It will reasonably take us until 2050 of longer to convert the world’s energy system to some combination of solar, wind, hydroelectric and nuclear power (I abhor nuclear power as presently constituted, but am cognizant of recent advances in clean nuclear fusion).
The reason this will not be enough is a matter of physics and land use. There is simply too much carbon in the atmosphere already, and Gaia’s natural ability to absorb carbon has been dramatically crippled by the anthropogenic changes we’ve made to the landscapes, beginning with conversion of forests to mono-crops that depend on fertilizers and pesticides to sustain yields. This wholesale destruction and degradation of habitats and soils has given rise to the other existential crisis - the biodiversity crisis. And because Nature is Nature, the only way we can resolve the climate crisis is by solving the biodiversity crisis.
The good news is that we know how to do this. The takeaway is that whether we do this now or later will determine what does and what does not survive the Anthropocene. And the only way the solution to the biodiversity crisis has a chance to succeed sooner rather than later is if parochial attitudes change to reflect the core values of indigeneity outlined above. It is a matter of when, not if. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will become.
A new kind of rational political movement is emerging with the ascendence of Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, AOC and Greta Thunberg, one that is being led by women - and especially BIPOC women - ascending to power who are determined to take the radical steps that are called for by the nature of this crisis. As if in response to the call of wise women in politics, professionals in the streets, and children on strike, some revolutionary scientific thinking, decades in the making, is also emerging right now, in the run-up to the adoption of new international biodiversity conventions. Leading scientists are proposing an exciting new strategy that could compensate for the inadequacies of the Paris Accords.
This new science makes it astonishingly clear that our greatest potential ally in reversing climate change is Gaia herself. Rather than having to geo-engineer our way out of this crisis with a Pandora’s box of hubristic and unproven technologies, which are guaranteed to have unintended consequences, all we actually need to do is to work with the natural world to unleash her unlimited potential to capture and recycle carbon from the atmosphere. The bonus for doing so is that, if we follow the leaders of this new ecological and regenerative approach, we ourselves will become healthier in the transition, and most other species will benefit as well, potentially even halting the Sixth Great Extinction in its tracks.
The Green New Deal is just a prototype or legislative vehicle for climate solutions that are already emerging from the ground-up. The youth-led Sunrise Movement may have changed politics forever by storming Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November of 2018, demanding - along with their fearless new leader-elect from Standing Rock, the Notorious AOC - that Congress enact a Green New Deal. As Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts remarked when he introduced a GND resolution with AOC during the following session of Congress, it seemed appropriate that the Sunrise Movement’s “national tour is beginning right here in Boston  because we are the city of revolutions.” As I write, many of the core provisions of the GND had been proposed in the Democrats’ $3.5T reconciliation package, though it now appears it will require more gains in the 2022 midterms before it becomes law.
While still nascent, the beauty of the Green New Deal in America and Extinction Rebellion in Europe lies in the utter simplicity and unambiguous morality of their demands: tell the truth; keep it in the ground; take action to decarbonize our economy now; go beyond politics; and, end economic inequality. It is a framework, in other words, for rebuilding society to meet the demands of the climate crisis itself, thus proving itself worthy of the “New Deal” moniker. One of the Five Freedoms that underpin this global framework for climate justice is the “freedom to live” based on the premise that “[t]here is enough on our Earth for people everywhere to have what they need to live well.”
Again, from the perspective of a shared responsibility ethic, we can appreciate the importance of cultivating holistic indigeneity - and in particular, the practice of reciprocity - by which the more privileged citizens of the world learn to only take what we need in every area of our life. The adage never grows old: to live simply, so that others may simply live. That is the compassionate heart of indigeneity .
This may seem like an absurd prospect to those who’ve been brainwashed by the corporate culture of capitalism, which favors instead an “every man for himself” mentality - with women and children last. But to see the truth in the assertion of a fundamental freedom to live, we need only consider that we could feed the entire world population 7X over if we just grew crops for people instead of cows. In other words, we’d be able to return vast croplands to habitats in areas that retain high ecological potential, reversing the trend towards extinction and re-watering landscapes in the process. Becoming vegetarian or vegan, or at least avoiding factory farmed meats (e.g., hunting), is thus one of the most radical expressions of holistic indegeneity available to us, and increasingly popular with younger people especially.
This would also free up lands for reparations in the Land-back Movement. While many people reduce the climate and biodiversity crises down to overpopulation, the truth is that, as a matter of science, it isn’t 8-10 billion people that is too much for Earth to support. Rather, it’s the 70 billion factory-farmed animals that are slaughtered each year, with half the planet’s arable land required to support them, that have wiped out over 80% of all wildlife and half of all vegetation in my lifetime.
It is against these emerging demands for truth and life that two truly revolutionary scientific movements are co-emerging: the “rules of life” and the “planetary diet” movements. Taken together with the Paris Accords, and incorporated into the framework of a flourishing climate justice movement, we can quickly arrive at a Global Green New Deal - beginning with the reformulation of the U.N.’s (expired) Biodiversity Conventions. To distinguish a Global Green New Deal from the American version, let’s just call it a “Natural New Deal” here. The logic of this label will become quite clear by considering how closely these two new scientific developments are linked, as will the crucial roles to be played by cultivating a sense of shared responsibility and holistic indigeneity .
As already stated, it is because of our unconscionable delay in responding to the climate crisis that simply phasing out fossil fuels will not be enough for civilization to continue. And when it comes to drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere, ecology trumps technology:
“The cheapest, most effective way to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere is to rely on nature. Nature does this for free. Trees, coral reefs and the ocean itself are much better vehicles for removing greenhouse gases than anything engineers have ever invented. And it doesn’t cost us anything, except to protect it.“
This according to no less an expert than Eric Dinerstein, one of the architects of the ambitious Global Deal for Nature first announced in the journal Science Advances in 2019 by an international team of scientists. As Newsweek’s science reporter Aristros Georgiou summarizes it, their proposal “aims to help ensure that climate targets are met while also conserving the Earth’s species.”
To fully appreciate the compelling force of this Natural New Deal, it is crucial to appreciate the fruit of a related decades-long effort by scientists from various disciplines trying to understand the rules for life here on planet Earth. In a 2019 documentary based on the book The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters (2017), we learn that the most effective way to reverse humankind’s heavy handprints on the natural world, and to heal entire ecosystems in a relatively brief span, is to simply identify the keystone species for any given ecosystem, recover their populations, and permit them to recolonize as much of their range as possible. By taking this kind of local action on a global scale, we can help reverse climate trends as well.
Even with a plant-eating keystone species like the wildebeest, this kind of targeted population recovery has a cascading effect on all life throughout the ecosystem that happens to include revegetation – otherwise known as “carbon capture” or “climate drawdown,” because plants suck up CO2 and turn it into carbon and oxygen. This keystone carbon effect is as true for riverine ecosystems in Yellowstone – where an unanticipated boon on the reintroduction of wolves was that stream side vegetation rebounded with elk afraid to linger in easy predation zones, greatly benefiting birds and fish – and for kelp forests along the Pacific coast (which disappear when otters are removed) as it is for the broad savanna of the Serengeti. Similarly, as already indicated, beavers can become the solution to an increasingly arid Western U.S., creating new habitats for many other species while dramatically increasing the moisture retention of vast landscapes.
Recent discoveries have found that whales could be a YUGE ally in climate recovery as well. One study suggests that every year, sperm whales help sequester as much carbon as 694 acres of U.S. forests do. Who needs a trillion trees when a million whales could do the trick? Or six million bison across the vast grasslands of the Midwest?
Bison, a proxy for Indian genocide but now our national mammal, once numbered 60 million. Thundering herds spanned the North America's Central Grasslands across what are today tribal lands, public lands and private ranches, stretching from Canada to Mexico, including the Buffalo Commons of the Great Plains states. There are still approximately 500 million acres of these degraded grasslands which, if restored ecologically, could draw down twice as much carbon annually as currently emitted by the U.S., the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer.
How dramatic is that? And that’s just one keystone species - though perhaps the most charismatic here on Turtle Island. And since the heroic, Indigenous inspired and led Buffalo Field Campaign succeeded in forcing public lands agencies to allow bison back onto their Spring migration and calving grounds west of Yellowstone National Park in Montana, private home owners have been more than happy to cohabit residential areas with these gentle giants. The cascading ecological benefits of having bison recolonize their former range would include restored sage grouse populations - sagebrush being the "mother of all habitats" in North America from a biodiversity standpoint - along with prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, and a host of other species and plant biomes. BFC's co-founder (along with Rosalie Little Thunder) and long time coordinator Mike Mease has been telling people for years that bison up and down the front range of the Rockies would create a new Serengeti -- if we only would let them.
As The Serengeti Rules of life reveal, the slow recovery of wildebeest populations over the last several decades, following the removal of a livestock pathogen that had drastically reduced their numbers, has benefited all other species, both predators and prey, and counter-intuitively (as they are herbivores) resulted in a dramatic increase of forests and grasslands that had become relatively scarce and more arid in the absence of robust wildebeest populations. Prior to this discovery, it was always presumed that top predators were the keystone species. But in the Serengeti the wildebeest populations turned out to control top predators populations, not the other way around.
The Global Deal for Nature represents a comprehensive approach to the climate and biodiversity crises. Based upon an idea that originated with E.O. Wilson’s “half-Earth proposal,” the Global Deal superimposes 840 eco-regions on the globe, proposing full protection of the 30% of the planet that is still biologically intact by 2030, thus providing a kind of seed-source of terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats , and thereafter designating another 20% that will become the focus of climate stabilization efforts to reduce land-based climate impacts. Getting from 30% to 50% is crucial to offsetting the carbon overload that is resulting from the delayed implementation of the Paris Accords, as is illustrated in the graphic above.
As already indicated, the 30% reserves require only formal recognition and protection of existing, intact (though under assault) eco-regions, both marine and terrestrial, and many countries are already taking actions along those lines. This is a realistic, feasible first step. The other 20% will apply to already developed areas, creating climate stabilization zones where the rules of life learned from the Serengeti, Yellowstone, and subsequently many other areas of the world can guide ecological recovery and the anticipated CO2 drawdown.
Efforts are already underway that would support such transitions. For example, ecologists are already identifying grassland areas that could be recovered with the addition of bison to the lands, working with local tribal interests to help restore the kind of symbiotic relationship between humans and buffalo that existed for tens of thousands of years before the Indian Wars of the late 19th Century.
While the idea of humans supporting keystone species may seem attractive on paper, anyone who has lived in the West for long knows that the parochial attitudes that resulted in the near complete extermination of bison, wolves, prairie dogs, beavers and other wildlife species that were so abundant when Lewis & Clark first floated up the Missouri River to Montana still persist. Those attitudes are what prompted a former boss and hero of mine, Jon Marvel, to persistently point out that what ranchers defend as their ‘way of life’ is, in honest truth, a ‘way of death' by which they mercilessly eliminate any critter they can’t monetize, or that competes somehow with those they can (e.g., prairie dog holes and beaver dams present hazards to cows and pasture).
This is the whole point of asserting that a new kind of indigeneity that relates to nature more holistically will be required for our civilization to survive increasing levels of climate chaos. Fortunately, however, attitudes are slowly changing, and there is now even a plan in place to accelerate this sea change in how we relate to our local ecosystems and the species that are meant to inhabit them along with us. The G20 recently agreed to fund and implement a “UNESCO Earth Network” initiative that is breathtaking in scope. Beginning with World Heritage Sites, this global training and education initiative will establish a “network of experts [who] will support capacity for ecosystem management and restoration in UNESCO sites, adaptation of ecosystems to the effects of climate change and support for youth and local communities,” all in support of attaining the 30/30 goal, at least at the outset.
A “World Heritage Site,” of which there are currently 1154, is an area of unique ecological (or cultural) significance accorded legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). There are 24 such sites in the U.S., including jewels like Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite National Parks. Reaching out and educating the youth in these areas is a great strategy for beginning to change parochial attitudes and, thus, the way we relate to our local ecosystems. But this initiative is not limited to the UNESCO sites - that’s just the starting point. The intention is:
“to sensitize and train 100% of the world’s population to environmental challenges, so that each individual is able to become a guardian of our Earth.”
Yes, you read that right! The intent is to make us all Earth guardians!
According to UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, in her 2021 message to the G20 Summit :
“We have a unique opportunity to draw inspiration from the Network of sites designated by UNESCO to rethink our relationship with nature. Supporting and training youth in ecosystem restoration and conservation, in the transmission of a living natural and cultural heritage, is essential.”
And when thekids show real promise, they will be supported with scholarships and other opportunities to take leadership roles in their communities.
Brilliant! That’s how you change parochial attitudes over time.
I’m guessing you’re probably hearing of this for the first time, as it was not picked up by our pandemic-obsessed media, and it is not clickbait like “end of the world” stories and “eco-anxiety” tropes. In spite of that lack of notoriety, this is a truly revolutionary initiative, and it’s well suited to addressing the existential crisis we are facing. There have already been plenty of successful pilot projects, as well, so this is something that can be scaled up as quickly as funding permits.
This just happens to be the most encouraging political news I’ve come across in all my time researching and following the climate crisis, beginning in the 1980s. And it is being put into place in advance of the adoption of the new biodiversity conventions. So when the world finally gets around to adopting the One Earth Climate Proposal, or something along those lines, and when everyone commits to the 30/30 and 50/50 benchmarks, concerned scientists will already have a running start.
When I say this is the most encouraging political initiative that I’ve seen to date, it’s because this is the first global initiative that actually addresses the social disease that is afflicting us - our dysfunctional relationship with Gaia - rather than just endlessly addressing the proliferating symptoms of our malady. And we live in a youth-obsessed culture. So if you want to change the culture of dissociation from Nature, a culture that wants to sacrifice every wild creature on the altar of animal husbandry, what better way to begin than by reaching out to, educating and empowering our young people about the ecosystems they inhabit?
Another major obstacle to the kind of stabilization and recovery effort that will be required to offset the slow pace of transforming our energy system is our existing, outdated industrial agriculture regime. Our pervasive crops-for-cows monoculture, which relies on harmful levels of fertilizer, and our soil-killing chemicals have managed to crowd out wildlife on half the planet’s arable lands in a relatively short span of time. About a third of the topsoil has already been degraded worldwide, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Office, if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s topsoil could be gone by 2075.
Fortunately, thanks to the compassionate genius of Vendana Shiva’s “Soil not Oil” campaign, as well as her leadership in founding the visionary NGO Regeneration International, there is a growing grassroots transition towards agro-ecology and other soil and climate friendly solutions to our existential crisis. Unfortunately, they are forced to do battle with the giant agribusiness conglomerates who, like fossil fuel companies, have long had a stranglehold on politicians and political agencies. They need more than our help. They need us to become allies, which is yet another way of expressing our holistic indigeneity.
As Dr. Brad Kirshner puts it:
As we innovate to integrate our indigenous humanity, we must tap into our agricultural roots to foster a sustainable future: decentralized, small scale, sustainable organic farming, prioritized toward the health of soil and water is imperative. But as individuals we also have much more to do. We can’t all be farmers, and we don’t have to be. We need a vision and path for growth that is rooted in land and community, yet fluid, decentralized, and changing over time.
The "freedom to live" is relevant here, too. It's up to climate-conscious consumers to demand a healthy, earth-nurturing food supply, favoring local farmers markets and organic produce in everything we buy - which is easier now than it has ever been. We must be indigenous in the way we shop and eat, as food is our umbilical connection to Mother Nature. Already, millions of us are choosing every year to change our diets in response to the everyday trauma we feel in our gut. And plant-based meats are now being made that taste very much like meat, thanks to the breakthrough with the blood of beets!
This is a big deal, because I’ve learned the hard way that eating meat in this culture is a religiously engrained sentiment. Most Americans will react more emotionally and self-righteously to having their meat-eating habits questioned than they will if you question their belief in God! And I find this to be true across the political spectrum. When you consider that most of the world’s major religions started out as rules about animal sacrifices and ways of preparing meat, or strictures against eating certain kinds of meat, these religious attitudes are maybe not that surprising.
It’s really encouraging that young people are much more amenable to these kinds of healthy lifestyle changes, but there are a whole lot of baby boomers out there who are still quite attached to the diet they’ve grown up with. Listen, Boomers: according to one estimate, a single hamburger patty requires 14.6 gallons of water, 13.5 pounds of feed, and 64.5 square feet of land to produce, and contributes 4 pounds of carbon dioxide and 0.13 pounds of methane to the atmosphere. Researchers at the World Bank Group estimate that intensive livestock production is the largest single contributing factor to the climate crisis. So kudos to Burger King and other fast food giants for introducing meatless alternatives, and I’m all in favor of laboratory grown meat as well. This is not a religious issue for me or for most of the younger generations - it’s a survival issue.
According to a report from an international commission of experts published in the medical journal Lancet, we can feed every human being on the planet today a healthy diet without having a negative impact on the environment. But to do so “a global transformation of the food system is urgently needed.” So a critical point to make here is that we can and should multiply the benefits of climate-responsive dietary choices by appealing to the more selfish interests of those who are not motivated to change their diets in order to save the planet. At the very least, we need to persuade them to eat meat-substitutes. It shouldn’t be that hard.
Healthwise, meat-based diets turn out to be a bigger killer than tobacco, which probably has more to do with the way meat is produced than anything else. Even so-called “grass fed” cows end up at factory farms getting pumped up with chemicals before they are slaughtered (never mind the ecological damage they wreak on public lands). If we all changed our diets to a more healthy, plant-based, whole foods cornucopia, we would prevent 20% of adult deaths per year, saving over 10 million lives annually.
Oh, is that all? Averting more than a Holocaust’s worth of dietary carnage every year?
“A global shift to a plant-based diet is a win-win for both human health and the environment,” Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, told ABC News. “Animal products are not only major drivers of our planet’s top killers — like heart disease and obesity — but they’re also major drivers of what’s killing the planet itself: climate change, land use, water use, and air and water pollution.” Looking at the vast potential contained within this problem, Elizabeth Kuchinich, the policy director for the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC (and wife of former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kuchinich), points out that “recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that [regenerative organic agriculture] could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions.”
So there you have it – the solution to the climate crisis is staring at us right in the mirror!
Armed with this knowledge, why wouldn’t we change the way we feed our families? Put all of this together, and you get a:
Natural New Deal for Planet Earth:
Tell the Truth: It is Climate Trauma, not 'change,' and we are in a state of emergency more pressing than world war;
End subsidies for fossil fuels, industrialized agriculture, and industrial fishing, while encouraging healthy, whole-foods diets with tobacco-like ad campaigns;
Keep it in the ground – a global ban on fossil fuels exploration and extraction is long overdue;
Subsidize alternative energy sources and research;
Adopt the Global Deal for Nature into the Convention on Biological Diversity, and tether compliance of the Convention to the Paris Accords;
Boycott factory farm meat (over 90% of all meat), demand that fast food restaurants phase out meats with plant-based burgers and lab-grown meats;,
Bring pressure on governments to aggressively convert industrial/chemical agriculture to regenerative organic agriculture;
Ban industrial fishing with a view towards reviving small, sustainable fishing operations, and begin removing plastics from the oceans as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary;
Observe the Serengeti Rules of Life by reintroducing and/or reviving keystone species around the world with local support and expertise (e.g., for my ecoregion, that means bringing back bison on grasslands to restore the vast prairie lands where industrial monoculture farms now dominate, while restoring small farmers with regenerative programs);
Upscale the Earth Guardian UNESCO ecosystem education and outreach program as quickly as feasible.
Make it so! We have all the solutions we need not only to survive the coming ecopalypse, but to reverse global warming, end the 6th Great Extinction, and thrive in a new, ecological global culture. To accomplish this, we must all become indigenous to Earth.
This ecological consciousness, which reconnects our idea of what it means to be human to our home planet, our local eco-region, and Indigenous (earth-based) wisdom, and which builds universal solidarity in a spiritual way, without regard to religious differences, is at the heart of the quantum shift that is now occurring in response to our collective crisis. All that is required, really, is for enough of us "Earth Guardians" to see this natural healing potential, to learn to view the world in terms of relations and not things, to express this natural worldview in compassionate ways in our communities and in our culture, and to demand this from our political leaders as our natural birthright. This kind of quantum climate activism, as expressed in our own unique development of global indigeneity, is something each of us can do right now that will resonate non-locally around the world.
At 7-going-on-8 Billion, we humans are now meant to become Earth’s uber-keystone species in this, the Gaianthropocene epoch. As activist David Suzuki says, “In a world of more than seven billion people, each of us is a drop in the bucket. But with enough drops, we can fill any bucket.” By accepting shared responsibility for the terminal state of our home planet, and by elevating our human nature over our warring nature, in time we can all thrive and so can all life. It’s the only humane alternative. By continuing to avoid the moral imperatives of the climate crisis, by contrast, we will surely perish.
Fifty years ago, humankind witnessed Earth rising over the moon’s barren horizon. In that moment, we realized she is alive. Now it is time for us to rise up and meet her on her own terms.
She is calling us home.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope. In such an event, courage is the authentic form taken by love” (Thomas Merton).