Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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The Great Derangement: Spirituality as an Excuse for Avoiding Climate Change


The longer we pretend that changes in supply chain and resource management will set everything right with the climate, the more we’re going to suffer.

Last November, I posted an aside on Instagram about too many people inhabiting the planet. Though most commenters focused on the main content, a few pointed out that the overpopulation myth is rooted in racism and xenophobia. They linked to articles about fitting all eight billion of us on a small patch of land and still having enough resources to survive. In an ideal world, such an existence might very well be possible.

We don’t live in an ideal world. 

The longer we pretend that changes in supply chain and resource management will set everything right—changes that sound great on the screen but are logistical nightmares handcuffed by capitalist strongholds that require legislation—the more we’re going to suffer.

Overpopulation, in terms of how we actually live on this planet, isn’t a myth. Without checks and balances, every animal will overpopulate and destroy their surroundings if given the opportunity. Right now, that animal just happens to be us.

Our journey as a middle-of-the-food chain animal persisted for a few million years (some 350k with roughly the same cognitive architecture as now) before we reached a population of one billion. Two hundred years later and we’re approaching eight billion. Our brains can’t process such numbers, so instead, we ignore them. To believe the world can handle such strain is to confuse this relatively peaceful moment in our long existence with the arduous path it took to arrive here. 

The Great Derangement

Humans are dreamers, not realists. This is often an honorable quality—our imagination propels societies forward. Yet dreaming increasingly seems to be a convenient way of avoiding the reality of our situation. 

In his lecture-turned-book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh details a number of uneasy truths. They’re not easy to read or contemplate, but there’s no value in avoiding them.

Near the beginning of his talk, Ghosh puts the uniqueness of this moment in history into perspective.  

“The humans of the future will surely understand, knowing what they presumably will know about the history of their forebears on Earth, that only in one, very brief era, lasting less than three centuries, did a significant number of their kind believe that planets and asteroids are inert.”

Inertia isn’t the sentiment I experienced for decades inside of yoga studios or read about on wellness blogs. The American spiritual community is too ambitious. If anything, these closed environments produced even stranger rhetoric: the notion that the planet is beneficent, that the “universe” is ready to bestow abundance on us if only we seek it properly—with humility, in earnestness, with prayer and mantra and by rolling beads 108 times around our anxious fingers.

Image courtesy José Martín Ramírez Carrasco on Unsplash

The problem is that’s not who we are outside of those spaces. We act like the friend who drops in and raids the fridge while refusing to wash the dishes and pretend that the cupboards will always be filled. We don’t seem capable of recognizing that this short period of excess is coming to an end. Instead we mercilessly exploit the moment and continue to demand more: the endless stream of Amazon packages, the cars that transport us to grocery stores, jetsetting on a bohemian lifestyle lived out on Instagram with the promise that everyone can tax the environment without paying a toll. 

We imagine ourselves in commune with nature—on ayahuasca retreats, in our neighborhood garden, on the Playa. When the sun sets and the playground closes, we return to our climate-controlled homes and purchase what we can’t grow. Those RVs take a hell of a lot of gas to power for a week of “radical inclusion.” 

As Ghosh notes, the climate crisis isn’t only a crisis of culture, but also of imagination, and our imaginations are out of control. 

Family Affair

None of this is to chastise you; I’m part of it, too. The environment doesn’t care about belief systems, only actions. Even then, “care” is too strong a word. The world will merely react to our behaviors, as we’re witnessing in real-time. As little an impact as each of us believes to make, Ghosh reminds us this isn’t an individual endeavor. It’s collective action.  

“Every human being who has ever lived has played a part in making us the dominant species on this planet, and in this sense every human being, past and present, has contributed to the present cycle of climate change.”

Becoming an apex predator has consequences. We think we kill 80 billion land animals for food every year; sea life numbers in the hundreds of billions. We think this because we cannot really imagine such an extraordinary number, just as we can’t comprehend the millions of years when we couldn’t send meaningless thoughts to a satellite and have them returned to millions of phones around the world—phones being one of the most non-renewable devices we’ve created. 

Image courtesy Artem Kovalev on Unsplash

The overpopulation myth might be rooted in racism, but the reality of overpopulation is destroying every ecosystem in existence. That’s the price we pay for modernity. We think our time and era are unique, and indeed it is, though not in the manner we think. In fact, Ghosh only finds one feature truly distinctive, our “enormous intellectual commitment to the promotion of our supposed singularity.”


And, I know, we want to blame corporations and the politicians they purchase. They deserve to be called out. But as Ghosh writes, any individual who believes they can make an impact is merely perpetuating a neoliberal fallacy. The only way climate change is addressed is through legislation, which requires the will to write those bills, and our will to vote for people who will write those bills and put them into law—a reality one party has no interest in engaging

Sure, we’re going to look back at the billionaire class with disdain for their extravagant jaunts into orbit. Ghosh holds artists and writers equally culpable—the role of creatives is to imagine a better future, and so little of our art addresses the environment, and so much feeds the pleasure machine of the ego. 

Nature is Dirty

We don’t crave nature; we crave the appearance of being natural. You simply can’t get your hands dirty when you’re living “clean.” You can’t be weighed down by a pound of flesh when you’re meditating on your place in eternity. 

Near the end of his career, Carl Jung wrote a slim book called Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, in which he posited UFOs as collective mandalas we “see” as symbols of transcendence. Today, dick rockets are launched into space while mediums promise an eternal soul caravaning through the cosmos all while the world burns, and floods, and is exhausted because we’re an exhausting creature to deal with. 

Here again, Ghosh nails it: 

“Freedom came to be seen as a way of ‘transcending’ the constraints of material life—of exploring new regions of the human mind, spirit, emotion, consciousness, interiority: freedom became a quantity that resided entirely in the minds, bodies, and desires of human beings.” 

I’m currently reading Begin Again by Eddie Glaude Jr, an incredible book that investigates the life and writing of James Baldwin through the lens of Donald Trump as a response to Barack Obama and a resurgence of white nationalism. America endured a Civil War only to be followed by Jim Crow. Strike one. Civil Rights were trailed by Nixon’s War on Drugs and Reagan’s institutionalized racism. Strike two. Glaude doesn’t want to call a third strike just yet—Black Lives Matter and the emergence of Critical Race Theory are powerful responses to the Trump era. Instead, he holds out hope for institutional change. 

Image courtesy Brian Garrity on Unsplash

I too want to hold out hope that our environment doesn’t kill us—as hard as that is as an Angeleno, knowing where our water supply comes from. In reality, many people are working on amazing climate-focused projects, GOP be damned. Technology will not bring about utopia but it can impact part of the damage we’ve caused. In order for it to work, however, we have to sacrifice a lot, including this notion that we’re transcendent angels temporarily bogged down in meat bodies navigating a heaven on earth. We’re really a bunch of chimps that grew the neurons needed to fire an imagination and the ability to work together to manipulate the environment in such a manner that provided a brief period of comfort and success. 

If we want that to continue, we’ll have to keep collective action at the forefront of our imagination and tamp down the incessant desire for more that ravages the environment we claim to be blessed by.

As Ghosh concludes, change is harder than we think—but always possible. 

“Climate change is often described as a ‘wicked problem.’ One of its wickedest aspects is that it may require us to abandon some of our most treasured ideas about political virtue: for example, ‘be the change you want to see.’ What we need instead is to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped.”

Related: Roots of Conspirituality Part 2: Glorious Ascension and the End of the World


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