Us, Them and the destruction of Life on Earth

In the late 1970’s my anti-establishment friends and i spent our winters on the magical Scottish Isle of Iona. In 1979 we had a visit from Mike Burns, my Irish teacher in Oriental Philosophy. He got stranded on the island by wild weather. To make the most of his time with us he generously exercised his remarkable story telling skills.

Upon being asked a question about the possibility of nuclear war he replied: “Yes, it is very possible that we will start one.” To which someone heatedly responded: “No, surely it is the Russains who will start one?”

To which Mike then responded: “Yes, we will be the ones to start it.” Again, this was met with heated resistance. Again Mike insisted that it would be us that would start it.

As this almost comic exchange continued i realised that Mike was agreeing, not disagreeing. But that in doing so he was making more than one point. First that it would be human beings, and so us, that would start it. Second that we all of us would be in it together, regardless of geography and nationality. Most important perhaps was the deeper point that human suffering is not only compounded but often even caused by our “us versus them” attitudes.

And here we are facing the only disaster more devastating than a nuclear war: global environmental destruction.

While many people have long been clear that we are already in the grip of this disaster, many are those who are not. More to the point, many and vocal are those who deny it. Nevertheless the facts are clear. Species are being wiped out, bees are in decline. Oceans are warming and rising and glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. Soil quality is eroding worldwide, while heatwaves, storms, tsumanis and tornadoes are increasing in both regularity and intensity.

It does not really matter what else is behind it. Of course human waste is a massive, if not the major, contributor. It does not matter where you live, where you were born. Anyone who has the technological, social, intellectual and financial affluence to be reading or hearing these words has, is and will continue to contribute to this destruction.

There is no us and them in a global meltdown.

In 2010 i was in Barcelona airport with my twelve year old daughter. We were waiting for her flight home to Ibiza. After which i would board my return to London.

From our shared silence she unexpectedly asked:
Dad, do you think I will get to live as long a life as you have?” 

I had never heard her speak on this topic before.

Although i have felt this dark shadow over me for more than forty years i did not want to invoke despair in my young child. Nevertheless i replied:
Well, there are those who consider themselves to be well informed who would cast doubt on the likelihood of that.”

Finally and quietly she broke our heavy silence:
“Why are they doing it?”

I asked:
Why is who doing what?’.

“Why are the people who are destroying the environment doing it?”.

I told her that nobody is deliberately destroying the environment. Rather that every day every person has to make decisions, the consequences of which may be destructive of the environment.

“But why do they make those choices?”

“We are making those choices” I replied.

She looked at me confused.

We live in different countries. To be able to see each other within the tight calendar of our different lives we fly in aeroplanes. We are not choosing to destroy the environment. We are choosing to honour and express our love for each other. These are the kinds of choices faced by millions every day. The consequences of which are, yes, destroying the environment.”

She looked at me with deep, sad eyes and without words told me that she understood.

Now she is a Rebel aginst Extinction, with first hand knowledge of the inside of a police cell. While her father lay down in front of bulldozers forty years ago. Both of us, nonentheless continue to take actions that contribute to the destruction of the environment.

My point is only this: we need to do away with our tribalisms.

We need to put aside our identity politics: whethere it is based on race, gender, ability, wealth or sexuality. We need to see clearly that this catatstrophe cannot be averted by a few. Not by a few million Rebels, not by a few NGOs or ‘Greening’ Corporations, nor even a few governments.

This is a crisis that must be met by all.

For this to be possible we need to not just think, but also feel differently. We need to feel not just sympathy, but empathy; not just threatened but supported; not a helpless individual, but a part of a powerful force.

That force is life itself.

We need to understand that life is in itself an unbroken whole, a seamless singularity with no us and them. We need not only to see that clearly, we also need to feel it.

We need to see that these geophysical and biological changes have been caused by how we feel. By our individual and collective sense of insecurity, inadequacy. From which we have pooled our intellectual and technological resources to ‘rise above’ the challenges and constraints of nature.

It is the very things we have developed to make our lives easier, safer, longer that are going to bring life itself to breaking point very soon.

We have been doing this, all of us, because we do not feel safe. We do not feel safe in the face of our biological vulnerability. We do not feel safe within our inability to reliably predict nature. We do not feel safe in a world so vast and complex. We do not feel safe in a world in which our community, our tribe, our way of being is a minority.

Our destructiveness is a direct expression of our insecurity. We destroy simply because we do not feel safe, and the actions we take to make ourselves feel safe are creating more real, much greater dangers. Dangers from  which we will soon be completley unable to escape.

That point may not have quite yet come.

We need to  learn to feel safe: safe with our neighbours, safe with our politicians, safe with out technologies. If we do not we will continue to act destructively, however constructive our ideologies and intentions may be.

Where there is a conflict between conscious intent and subconscious belief, the subconscious will always overcome the conscious.

This does not mean we need to vote in a better quality of politician, although that is true. Nor does it mean that we must develop more effective green technologies, although that also is true. It does not even mean that we need to learn the language and customs of our neighbours, although that would surely help.

It means that we all, we each, need to know ourselves better, much better.

We need to look within: deeply within. Deeper than our fears and anxieties. Deeper than our hopes and intentions. Deeper than our personal identity and history. Deeper than our sexuality, gender, race and age.

We need to look deeply enough to see what we all have in common. We need to look deeply enough to see the truth about human nature. We need to see that to be human is to be nature. Nature in a  very specific, very potent and potentially destructive, form.

We need to see deeper than that destructiveness, deeper than our unique human abilities. We need to see into the deep core of human nature.

A core that we share with all of nature.

Not only with dogs and cats, wolves and mice, eagles and whales, spiders and ants.  We need to become familiar with what we have in common also with jellyfish, amoebas, cabbages and carrots.

You can call it life. You can recognise its cellular presence as DNA. But this will not be enough. You need to go deeper than that. You need to find the very source and sustanence of life. Which is at the same time your own source, your own core, your own nature.

You need to become so deeply intimate with your own presence that this spontaneously generates a clear intimacy with your own nature. So that within that intimacy you find the generosity, inclusivity, sensitivity and compassion that expresses ‘natural morality’, your natural ‘humanity’.

This is not a matter of debate and argument. This is a matter of experience.

An experience you need to become deeply familar with if you are to feel safe enough to let go of your destructiveness. An experience without which you will never feel genuine solidarity with people who do not act, look, speak or think like you. An experience without which you will never truly care about other species, all other species, enough to dedicate your life to supporting them.

If you want to care for life, look within, to its roots. Let these roots nourish, inform and guide you. Intellectual analysis is not enough. The “road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Become intimate with your own presence. Feel the sensations that it generates. Follow the subtle, into the delight. Then you might become the love that you most deeply are. The love that life most deeply needs.