Beyond climate fundamentalism – Utne







“One day, Charles, you you’re going to have to decide if you want to be relevant.

That’s what a leading environmentalist told me after hearing me describe the various areas of my work and interests. What he meant was something like this:

The window for climate action is shrinking before irreversible feedback loops make human extinction inevitable. Therefore, the only relevant action you can take right now is to devote 100% of your efforts to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible by any means necessary. Your other interests are irrelevant. If we don’t implement a meaningful carbon tax soon, then healing the male-female relationship won’t matter. No more than saving the whales. Nor is the end of the school-to-prison pipeline. Social justice, education, psychic medicines, holistic medicine, scientific anomalies, parental attachment, community building, new economy, philosophy, history, cosmology, neo-Lamarckian biology, sacred medicinal plants, nonviolent communication, plant intelligence, endangered languages, indigenous sovereignty , pansubjective metaphysics – none of the issues you write about matter unless they have a direct, significant, short-term impact on greenhouse gases. Once we have won this fight, we can turn our attention to these other things. So, will you join the fight?

This pattern of thinking is called fundamentalism, and it closely parallels the dynamics of two defining institutions of our civilization: money and war. Fundamentalism reduces the complex to the simple and requires the sacrifice of the immediate, the human or the personal in the service of an ultimate objective which prevails over everything. Disciplined by the promise of heavenly rewards or hellish punishments, the extreme religious fundamentalist closes his humanity to serving what his religion says God wants.

Disciplined by economic exigency, millions of people sacrifice time, energy, family and what they really care about to earn money. Disciplined by an existential threat, a nation at war turns away from culture, recreation, civil liberties, and anything else that is of no use to the war effort.

Anyone wary of these institutions might also be wary of the standard climate change narrative, which lends itself to the same focus on a universal cause and the same mentality of sacrifice to an overriding end. If we agree that the survival of humanity is at stake, then all means are justified, and any other cause – for example reforming prisons, housing the homeless, caring for autism, rescuing abused animals or visiting your grandmother – becomes an unjustifiable distraction. the only important thing. Taken to its extreme, it demands that we harden our hearts to the needs before our faces. There’s no time to lose! Everything is at stake! It’s do or die! How similar to the logic of war. No wonder, as a community organizer just told me, that there is such hostility toward environmentalists among inner city and other poor populations. They are the ones whose needs are ignored and who are in fact the first sacrificed in the war effort.

Although this book focuses on the field of ecological healing, it eschews the rhetoric of “nothing else matters besides that”. It is the rhetoric that has alienated so many working class and minority people from environmentalism, because it carries a condescending message: “We know better than you what you should be concerned about. This invalidates their grievances. Because, really, what does racist policing and the criminalization of large segments of the population matter in the face of the collapse of civilization? What does illegal labor or carcinogens in the water supply matter, when climate change could make Earth inhospitable to human life? Your concerns are not important. If we hold this conviction, even without being impolitic enough to express it, we will radiate a crusading energy that attracts only our fundamentalist comrades.

If we want to foster a broad social consensus to protect and heal the planet, we must undo this logic at the source. The spirit that is imbued with Separation protests, “But it is true! None of these things are relevant if the atmosphere warms up by ten degrees. This belief depends on a history of the world that does not recognize the intimate interdependence of all things. If we see reality as a set of separate and causally dissociated phenomena, then of course it will seem that stopping gentrification in Brooklyn or sex trafficking in Haiti is frivolous in the face of climate change.

From the story of interbeing, we intuit different kinds of cause and effect. We are not surprised that in a prison society that locks up millions of its members, those outside prison also lose their freedom. We are not surprised that when a nation commits acts of violence in the world, no amount of security, surveillance, walls or fences can prevent violence from creeping in, such as domestic violence or self-destructive habits. And we are not surprised that environmental pollution and habitat degradation are reflected in bodily disease and the degradation of our interior landscapes. The illusion of separation makes us think that we could thrive on a toxic planet with the right air filters, water filters, EMF blockers, supplements, conditioners, antibiotics, antifungals, insect repellents, etc., replacing a world of nature with a world of technology. In interbeing we know that health for one is impossible to maintain without health for all.

If we want solidarity, we must understand that genocide and ecocide, human degradation and ecological degradation, are part of the same fabric, and that neither will change without the other changing. It is not that we should pay attention to racial or class injustice for the strategic purpose of bringing these people into environmental activism. It is recognizing that healing at all levels contributes to healing at all levels.

Because we are not used to thinking holistically, it seems counterintuitive that starting a social enterprise that employs homeless people helps stop climate change; the causal links are not obvious to our way of seeing. Our dominant system of producing knowledge (science) works by controlling variables, dividing wholes into parts, and establishing measurable and predictable causal mechanisms. So knowledge is culturally legitimate. But the causal links that link homelessness to ecological ruin are neither measurable nor predictable. Indeed, a cynic, channeling Ebenezer Scrooge, might argue that rehabilitating homeless people worsens climate change by turning them into consuming members of society.

Of course, it’s possible to construct an argument that housing the homeless helps the health of the biosphere, but that won’t fit easily into the language of climate policy, and it’s unlikely to convince Mr. Scrooge. However, when Scrooge undergoes a shift in consciousness and sees the world through the eyes of interbeing, he will expect the two phenomena to be linked. Believing in an omnipresent innate intelligence in all phenomena, he might assume that a society inhospitable to its vulnerable members will mirror a planet inhospitable to society. He will expect the deep roots of homelessness to be common with the deep roots of climate change. Instead of “fighting homelessness”, he will seek to understand the bed he came from. He will understand that it is acceptable to devote himself to what arouses his compassion the most, convinced that what he is doing is still “relevant” in the face of the global crisis. And he will no longer operate from the anxiety of self-preservation and survival, for he will understand that his well-being is inseparable from that of all in his expanding circle of love.


The question to be explored then is what induces a shift towards awareness of interbeing? Scrooge’s creator, Charles Dickens, knew this. It is through a confrontation with beauty, suffering and mortality. It is through a connection to what is real. You could call it an initiatory experience. Without it, the grip of self-preservation and survival anxiety never loosens. We might try to leverage those fears (through the threat of climate change) to motivate pro-environmental behavior, but invoking self-interest to solve a problem caused by blind self-interest only adds fuel on the fire. We need the opposite: to widen the circle of compassion to include every being on this earth.


Charles Eisenstein is a lecturer and writer specializing in the topics of civilization, consciousness, money, and human cultural evolution. His viral short films and online essays have established him as a gender-defying social philosopher and countercultural intellectual. From his new book, Climate: A New Story (North Atlantic Books, 2018).

Posted on December 10, 2018

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