GTEC Reader Editor’s Introduction – Much of the writing about the climate crisis uses the language of science, technology and economics. In this provocative article, Scott addresses psychological issues associated with the climate crisis. He proposes the rites of passage analogy as a means of understanding the transformative change that is required to accept and respond to this crisis.
Welcome to the Threshold: A Provocation
“Deep change is something that is extremely uncomfortable, probably because it requires us to find other securities, other ways of being, other ways of feeling safe, other ways of feeling interwoven with the world and with each other. And that requires a lot of disinvestment in the current securities we have today.” – Vanessa Andreotti
The Canadian Press Association has declared that the climate crisis was “the story of the year”. COP25 just wrapped up in Madrid, Spain. This gathering has been roundly condemned for having accomplished next to nothing. Populations (read women and men and children) in many regions of the world are already dying from this crisis. Australia’s fire crisis continues to worsen. Those of us in Global North who are not yet dying nevertheless experience growing terror, grief, and rage at what is happening, yet seem to be powerless to do something about it.
What sense can we make of this moment of crisis? We know what is going on. As William Stafford put it, “I call it cruel and maybe that’s the root of all cruelty to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.” Reality is circular; there are beginnings followed by endings that are then followed by beginnings. This how it is, or how it has seemed to be for as long as I can remember. We find ourselves in a time of ending in which new beginnings seem unimaginable. Some imagine that new technological fixes or extra-terrestrial ventures might constitute “a new beginning” but I am afraid these visions are illusory, more of the same old, same old.
If we are ready to know that we face an ending, this knowing then opens paths that give birth to several types of pilgrims. There are those who believe that we have passed the point of no return, that we are hooped, defunct, and on the verge of extinction. Guy McPherson is only one of many whose writing exemplifies the apparent hopelessness of our predicament. As an example, McPherson recently raised several very troubling concerns; for example, the aerosol masking effect. This is a phenomenon through which a reduction in global industrial activity paradoxically leads to an increase in climate warming. His recent research also highlights effects of ocean acidification and oceanic methane gas releases, all of which, by his accounting, leads to a dire and deeply disturbing conclusion of imminent human extinction. He writes, “the projected rate of climate change based on IPCC-style gradualism outstrips the adaptive response of vertebrates by a factor of 10,000 times. Humans are vertebrate mammals. Homo sapiens, like all mammals, cannot evolve fast enough to escape the current extinction crisis. McPherson’s heartfelt and unyielding belief in human extinction places him in the forefront of those who some label “doomers”.
I find myself drawn, at this moment, to a more agnostic view. But that does not mean dispassionate or disengaged. Over 10 years ago, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine brought Dark Mountain into the world, marking its arrival with a manifesto entitled “Uncivilized.” The intent of the Dark Mountain project was to create a venue in which writers and artists, thinkers and doers, could respond adequately “to a world in which the climate itself was being changed by human activities; in which global ecosystems were dying back before the human advance; and in which the dominant economic and cultural assumptions of the West were clearly starting to crumble.” Dark Mountain set out “to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilization – and us – into perspective.” The editorial accompanying the current issue (Number 16) states, “for ten years the Dark Mountain project has been a refuge, a lookout point on a precipitous journey of descent…a platform where we can acknowledge that, even as mainstream culture still aspires upward, it is ‘time to look down.’”
While eschewing the cultural imperative of endless optimism (for sustainability and even growth) in the face of the relentless array of bad news, this position continues to resist despair and nihilism. In the words of Douglas Hine, “the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.” Similarly, it might be understood as “the end of one way of knowing the world.”
What then does it mean to be living in a time of ending? I find it extremely difficult to fully imagine, to realize that this is the case. It is not dissimilar from imaging my own death, though I like to think that of all the “Buddhist” practices with which I have been engaged these past 50 years, the contemplation on impermanence may have been most relevant and fruitful. Try walking the streets of your city or town holding in awareness its certain demise. Try holding that awareness for three or four hours, continuously. Now, imagine living with that certain knowledge for the rest of your days.
This brings us to the notion of initiation, the idea that what we are experiencing as a civilization is nothing less than a global rite-of-passage, what Joanna Macy has referred to as “the Great Turning.” Charles Eisenstein puts it succinctly: “Societies can also pass through an initiation. That is what climate change poses to the present global civilization. It is not a mere “problem” that we can solve from the currently dominant worldview and its solution-set but asks us to inhabit a new Story of the People and a new (and ancient) relationship to the rest of life.”
During a recent presentation at Kitsilano Neighbourhood House in Vancouver, my wilderness rites of passage colleague Tara Souch and I pondered a question from GTEC’s Arden Henley regarding how the wilderness vigil work that we had described might be made more widely available. We had suggested that wilderness rites of passage work was one means by which a decolonizing shift from the story of Separation to that of an animist Interdependence might be cultivated. The wilderness work in which we are engaged originates with Steven Foster and Meredith Little from the School of Lost Borders, who in turn were indebted to understandings developed by Victor Turner. Turner posited (following van Gennep) that rites of passage embodied an invariant cross-cultural pattern of severance, threshold, and incorporation. Threshold refers to the space between the loss of one identity and the assumption of a new one. The uncertainty of this process is reflected in the term, ‘liminality’, which is sometimes also used in this context. Robert Moore, in Archetypes of Initiation, reframed this triad as “submission, ordeal, and enactment.”
Saying good-bye to identities, ways of beings, and treasured relationships is fraught with grief. Severance from the world that we have known consists of a dying and a letting go. Bringing this process into awareness via ritual is an act of love and courage. Traditionally, it has also been an act held within the container of a community. Those returning from the rite-of-passage in the forest are received and blessed by the friends, relatives, and elders of the village.
Can this model be helpful to us now? If so, it will take a considerable imaginative leap of scale. Dougald Hine recently proposed a process analogous to AA that would provide a worldwide network of spaces in which individuals could undertake their severance, and enter the threshold within community, holding in their hearts the dream of a transformed future that may or may not be ever realised. What role might music, art, cinema, and theatre play in this project? Sacred theatre, such as that undertaken from paleolithic caves to the Eleusinian Mysteries, may hold some promise. Burning Man as prototype? The number and range of communities now exploring wilderness rites of passage, ancestral healing, psychedelic sacraments, heliotropic explorations of consciousness, ecotherapy, and shamanic circles seem to be expanding exponentially. May these practices all be mindful of the importance of decolonizing, of respect for the indigenous people still maintaining their love and connection with their lands!
For this vision to settle into the flesh of the world, there are several conditions to be met. There will be grief and this will need to be held. As well, there will need be acceptance and surrender. In his writings, Charles Eisenstein suggests that when the environmental crisis is approached from the “old story”, the problem-solving ethos of technological society, we go astray. The energy of urgency is translated into the injunction, “Hurry.” We feel this energy, this demand, in the actions of youth climate strikers, and in the clamour for the discovery of technological fixes.
Instead, what we need most in this moment is a surrender into a not-knowing in which central questions can be asked without any certainty of response; knowing that the world in which we have been living is incapable of providing the answer: the question posed to Life itself – “how might I contribute to your being and beauty?” Can we sit with the knowledge that nothing we do might be enough? This requires the development of what Buddhists call “the Perfection of Patience”.
T.S. Eliot alludes to this capacity in East Coker:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
To hold the urgency with emergency at bay is a big ask. Certainly, action is called for! The priorities of saving what intact wild places remain, the restoration of places wounded and torn, a stop to poisoning the world, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, each demand political and social action. The streets will continue to be a theatre in which the awakened, oppressed, the marginalized, and formerly voiceless realize their commonality, resilience and power.
How to hold these two horses in harness together – how to surrender to the unknown and resist intemperate action and, at the same time, to act, to respond to what arises. Might the key to this lock be the experience and expression of grief? I don’t believe that grief and sorrow deprive us of the capacity to act. I think that if we hold grief and sorrow and let go of whatever we hang on to avoid falling down we will find that we are able to act in service to Life; the heron, the towhee, the hooded mergansers and all who dance in each niche and hallway of the neighbourhood.
Let us imagine that initiation enables us to become present to the world:
“If we can get to a point where we are present to the world, we are disarmed towards the world, and we are decentered, we are with the world, extremely attentive to what we are being called to do with others in order to shift our ontological reality and also operate within this reality with responsibility, then we are onto something else. And I’m not saying that this is going to be necessarily immediately better. I’m saying that this is going to open up other possibilities that are viable — but they are unthinkable or unimaginable at the moment.”
— Vanessa Andreotti
(Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change at University of British Columbia and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education)
In the “old story”, we no longer lived in our bodies but dreamt we were our floating thoughts. It is time to grow up and remember. We have been children for too long, impetuous infantile lords. We have been forgetting for too long and we grow weary of our amnesia. Above the signature of surrender, may we wake into service of life, resting in wonder, awaken into service of life, resting in wonder, awaiting return.
Scott Lawrance’s Bio
Scott Lawrance, Ed.D., R.C.C. – A retired member of the B.C. Teacher’s Federation, Scott has taught at all levels of public education from grade two to post-Secondary. His current professional interests include Buddhist approaches to eco-therapy. Scott and his Salish Sea Eco-retreats partner, Tara Souch offer annual eco-retreats for wilderness guides and interested professionals. He is the author of four books of poetry and has, in the past, edited two poetry magazines, “Raven” and “Circular Causation”.