There is no denying it. Human-generated climate change is creating chaos. The seas are rising, the forests have been razed, the bees have disappeared, wildfires and droughts and hurricanes and bizarre weather patterns have wrecked havoc across the globe. The world is at a turning point. It is five minutes to midnight, and if we do not act now, the bell will toll and history will end.
I have been panic-stricken for the last several years. The problems seem insurmountable. What is there to do except wring one’s hands and declare the human species a cancer on the planet?
Then I read Ecomind by Frances Moore Lappé.
She made history in 1971 for her book Diet for a Small Planet—the book that revealed how much waste there is in the food system when everyone else was focusing on scarcity. She also championed a vegetarian diet for both ethical and ecological reasons.
Over forty years later, she is still on the scene. And Ecomind puts a new spin on our insurmountable problems so that we can see that the problem once more isn’t scarcity and lack but the way we are framing our problems.
Are you scared? I know I am. But I realize that’s not the real question. The real question is whether we each can move ahead creatively with our fear because we believe that, in this pivotal moment, we have it in us to make a planetwide turn toward life. I believe we do. But don’t get me wrong—I’m not an optimist. I am a staunch, hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool possibilist. I believe it is possible that we can turn today’s breakdown into a planetary breakthrough—on one condition: We can do it if we can break free of a set of dominant and misleading ideas that are taking us down.
We aren’t able to solve our environmental problems because “seeing isn’t believing, believing is seeing.”
Once we see through a certain lens, it’s hard to perceive things differently, be they the most mundane matters or the most momentous. Yet, the hard fact of human existence is that if our mental frame is flawed, we’ll fail no matter how hard and sincerely we struggle.
The central problem this book addresses is that, sadly, much of humanity today is stuck in precisely this “hard fact”—trapped in a mental map that defeats us because it is mal-aligned both with human nature and with the wider lens of nature. So the question is, Can we remake our mental map?
Can we see the same old questions in a new light?
So, the worldview we absorb everyday is driven by a fear of being without—without either the resources or human qualities we need to make this historic turnaround. Within this Western, mechanical worldview that we absorb unconsciously, we are each separate from one another, and reality consists of quantities of distinct, limited and fixed things. I think of it as the three S’s: separateness, scarcity, and stasis. That’s our world.
We must see a new path in order to leave the old.
An ecological lens.
Fortunately, there is another way of seeing now open to us and, through it, a new pathway. We can see the world and our place in it through the lens of ecology. Ecology is, after all, simply the relationships among organisms and their environment.
With this lens we leave behind any fixation on quantities of living things. We see that ours is not a finished, fixed world of distinct entities but an evolving and relational world. Through an ecological world view, we realize that everything, including ourselves, is co-created moment to moment in relation to all else. In the words of visionary German physicist Hans-Peter Durr, “There are no parts, only participants.”
We are like our mistaken predecessors, who believed that the world was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth.
An eco-mind thinks: less about quantities and more about qualities; less about fixed things and more about the ever-changing relationships that form them; less about limits and more about alignment; less about what and more about why; less about loss and more about possibility.
And here is the offer—like bread and water to a starving population—of hope:
Today, I believe the majority of us are experiencing psychic dislocation, or what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, that unsettling feeling that one’s world just doesn’t fit together anymore. Perhaps never in human history have such waves of shock, threat, and hope—from global climate disruption to financial collapse to democratic revolutions—arrived simultaneously for so many. So my hunch is that id there were ever a moment in which big, societywide change might be possible, this is it.
The stakes have been raised—but are we up to the challenge?
A moment of dissonance can be terrifying. But it can also be a great gift—a liberating whack. As long-held blinders fall away, we can see what in “normal” times was hidden. We can choose to freeze in fear and retreat. Or we can see ourselves and the world with fresh eyes. As we make big “leaps of thought,” we can move from disempowerment and despair into an upward spiral of empowerment and honest hope. With new clarity, suddenly we have real choice—maybe for the first time.
Lappe says most of us are cowards.
I mean that, yes, it’s true, many of us would rush into that burning building to save a stranger. Yet, precisely because we are so social by nature, so densely embedded in community ties, just about the scariest thing for most of us is to be different. We evolved in tribes, after all, and there we learned we were totally dependent on the group. Banishment meant death.
But today our tribe is taking us down. The hypertribe, the global culture of intimidating, centralized, corporate dominance driven by a myopic “one-rule” market failing to register real costs, is headed right over Victoria Falls. If we just cling to the canoe, we’re done for; if we don’t jump overboard or convince the crew to head rapidly to shore, we all die.
But breaking with the pack in this way is terrifying to humans. The fear response is of course supposed to help us survive. So here lies a startling question: Could we be the only species for which fear works against our survival?
In the end…
…we have no choice about whether to change the world. We are changing it every day. The choice is only whether our acts contribute to the world we want…or not.
In her chapter about the myth that we must overcome our nasty, selfish human nature in order to save the planet, Lappé maps out “Six Human Traits We Can Count On.”
Here they are:
- Cooperation—we cooperate as a group in order to empathize and to imagine what others are thinking
- Empathy—our being able to see from another’s perspective
- Fairness—injustice destroys community, the bonds of trust on which our individual survival depends
- Efficacy—“as long as we feel like cogs in someone else’s machine, we can tell ourselves we’re not really responsible for the impact of what we do. But when people gain a sense of control over their lives, they’re able to acknowledge the implications of their actions and feel good about taking responsibility.”
- Meaning—our deeply human need to feel that our lives count for something big
- Imagination and Creativity—it is what enables us to envision and make the changes we must in order to draw forth the other five essential qualities
Then I came upon an interview with the “Eco-Buddhist” Joanna Macy in the January/February 2014 issue of the magazine Spirituality and Health…
The following is an excerpt:
Sam Mowe: In Active Hope you quote the deep ecology philosopher Arne Naess: “Unhappily, the extensive moralizing within the ecological movement has given the public a false impression that they were being asked to make a sacrifice—to show more responsibility, more concern and a nicer moral standard. But all of that would flow naturally and easily if the self were widened and deepened so that protection of nature was felt and perceived as protection of our very selves.”
Joanna Macy: We’re not going to save our world by sermonizing and preaching to each other. Nor will we save our world out of duty and grim determination, or by winning an argument and persuading other people that they’re wrong. We probably can only save our world by loving it enough.
Sam Mowe: You’ve said we become what we love. When we think in this way, we’re not acting on behalf of the earth because it’s the right thing to do, but rather the natural thing to do once we begin to expand ourselves. It’s like self-interest.
Joanna Macy: Yes, a collective self-interest. And what is remarkable about the present moment on earth, it seems to me, is that there are millions of people whose motivation extends beyond their separate, individual lives, who are devoting their efforts, dreams, and hopes to the survival of life on earth. It’s beautifully documented in Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest, this great expansion of the intention to serve earth. Hawken calls it the largest social movement in history, and I agree with that. Over the years I’ve been lucky to meet thousands of people whose deepest passion is for the survival of life on earth. I believe this heralds a basic shift in human awareness and motivation.
Sam Mowe: You’ve developed a series of workshops where people can build on that awareness.
Joanna Macy: If we want to give life a chance to continue, we’ve got to be able to voice our concerns. We’ve got to open our eyes and our mouths to what is actually going on. So the [workshops] started with providing people a safe place to speak from their hearts about what they feel and see and know is happening to our world.
It soon became apparent that people not only felt relief in the truth telling, but also a larger energy pouring through them. It was like a shift in identity, as if they were speaking not only on their own behalf but on behalf of the earth.
Sam Mowe: This work has less to do with coming up with hard solutions to the world’s problems than with developing the emotional clarity and stability to be part of the shift that needs to take place for life on earth to continue.
Joanna Macy: There are plenty of organizations to help us analyze the causes of the planetary crisis, and places where we can develop strategies to address them. The main focus of our work is to get mentally and emotionally free, clear, and present to our world.
Sam Mowe: The first thing that you emphasize in these trainings is gratitude. With all the reasons to despair about the state of things, why start there?
Joanna Macy: As our situation grows more perilous, it becomes ever easier to just shut down. So to counteract that, we get in touch with our basic gladness to be alive. That basic gladness, or thankfulness, is actually the first move in all major religions and earth wisdom traditions. The primal sense of wonder and excitement that you are here at all strengthens the psyche and brings you into fuller presence, so that you’re grounded enough to also look at the pain you feel for our world.
Gratitude is a habit you can grow. As it becomes more instinctive, you discover that it’s not dependent on external circumstances. You can turn at any moment to be thankful for what is sustaining your life, for the bits of beauty around you and the relationships that illuminate your life. We’re so fortunate in North America to have the example and teachings of indigenous peoples who, despite all the dispossession and humiliation visited upon them, have maintained a practice of thanksgiving. For the Haudenosaunee it begins every gathering, and they call it “the words that come before all else.”
Gratitude is also politically subversive. Our political economy persuades us that we’re needy and deficient unless we buy the latest this or that. So gratitude, with the sense of enoughness it brings, is liberating.
Macy and Lappé both emphasize our mental and emotional states. These women are saying that we already have the solutions…we just can’t frame them properly. We are all running scared and confused, angry and panicked…even if we are not openly acknowledging what is really going on.
My father used to tell the story of a cabdriver he once met who said, “I read a book. It changed my mind. A book shouldn’t do that.” The story was absurd because of course books are supposed to change our minds.
But can books really change us? Can they make us better people?
The brilliant yet often exasperating literary critic Harold Bloom wrote in his 1994 classic The Western Canon:
Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight.
Yet, “Your Brain on Fiction”—a 2012 article in the New York Times—reported the results of a study that crossed literature with neuroscience:
The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.
How was the study conducted?
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals—in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of the mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.
The article concluded:
Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.
Then there was the October 2013 article “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov”:
Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out that you should read—but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.
That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence—skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.
Could literature really change people for the better? The article continued…
“Frankly, I agree with the study,” said Albert Wendland, who directs a master’s program in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University. “Reading sensitive and lengthy explorations of people’s lives, that kind of fiction is literally putting yourself in another person’s position—lives that could be more difficult, more complex, more than what you might be used to in popular fiction. It makes sense that they will find that, yeah, that can lead to more empathy and understanding of other lives.” He added: “Maybe popular fiction is a way of dealing with one’s own self, maybe, and one’s own wants, desires, needs.” In popular fiction, said Mr. Kidd, one of the researchers, “really the author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role.”
In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” he said. “Each character presents a difficult version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”
See the whole article in the New York Times.
If literature can change the way we view the world, can it give us a new perspective on how to save the planet?
Now we will return to Ecomind and Lappé’s “Six Essential Human Traits”:
- Cooperation—Literature improves our social skills
- Empathy—Literature allows us to see from another’s perspective and put ourselves into the shoes of the characters we read about
- Fairness—Literature helps us evolve as social creatures and envision a social context that elicits our best, since injustice destroys community
- Efficacy—Literature improves our problem-solving skills because it helps us to reframe the way we view our obstacles
- Meaning—Literature helps us to find value in life besides day-to-day survival.
- Imagination and Creativity—What is literature but the product of and stimulus for imagination and creativity?
This blog attests that
LITERATURE WILL SAVE THE PLANET!
LITERATURE CHANGES PEOPLE, AND PEOPLE CHANGE THE WORLD!
In this blog I will focus mostly on…
My Four Gods:
Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321): Major Italian poet of the Middle Ages and author of the Divine Comedy. Fell in love at first sight with a girl named Beatrice as a boy of twelve. After the age of eighteen, he would often cross paths with her, though they were never intimate. He wrote sonnets about her from afar. After Beatrice’s death in 1290, a heartbroken Dante depicts her as semi-divine in his poetry. The Divine Comedy shows his journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso)—first aided by the Roman poet Virgil and then by Beatrice, who has evolved from being the object of a childhood crush to being depicted as a saintly character in his poem of all poems. Often known as a “poet’s poet” and “the Father of the Italian language.”
William Shakespeare (1564-1616): Greatest dramatist in the world. All-around mysterious guy. We know he was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon and that he had three children with Anne Hathaway, whom he married at the age of eighteen. He had a successful career in London as an actor, writer, and part-owner of a theater company. He returned to Stratford at the age of forty-nine and died three years later. Author of sixteen comedies (such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream), ten histories (such as Henry V) and twelve tragedies (such as King Lear). He helped to create modern English, with expressions such as “with bated breath” and “a foregone conclusion.” His contribution to our knowledge of human psychology is beyond measure.
Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616): For some strange reason, Cervantes died on the same day as Shakespeare did (or so it is thought). Born in Castile in a city outside Madrid. Joined in many adventures and enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish navy. Took part in the Battle of Lepanto, in which he fought on board a ship and received three gunshot wounds—one of which took out his left arm. Spent five years as a slave in Algiers. Published the popular novel Don Quixote, about a nutty hero who believes himself to be the knight of La Mancha and his simple-headed sidekick, Sancho Panza. Just as Dante “invented” Italian and Shakespeare “invented” modern English, Cervantes had a good deal of influence on Spanish—which is often referred to as “la lengua de Cervantes” (“the language of Cervantes”).
Marcel Proust (1871-1922): Sickly French boy with a mother-fixation who grew up to write À la recherche du temps perdu (translated as both Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time)—a real doorstopper at 3,200 pages. As a young man, he frittered away a lot of time as a social climber. Literary discipline came late in life. He spent the last three years of his life in a cork-lined bedroom working through the nights to conclude what is called “the greatest novel of the 20th century.” And, boy, is it a good read!
And translation is at best an imperfect art, so I am including the original language with each author.
If this all sounds absurd, don’t worry. Just keep reading…