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Global Warming And Visions Of A Sustainable Planet - Page 3

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In States of Denial, Stanley Cohen writes about Germany and the denial of the Holocaust. He talked about a state of knowing and not knowing that arises in ongoing traumatic situations. This "willful ignorance" occurs when information can't be totally denied, but can't be processed either. That's the state I think we're in now when we try to deal with global climate change.

We live in a culture of denial. A Pew Research Center poll in September 2011 revealed that, in spite of increasing evidence, belief in climate change was at its lowest level since 1997. In fact, belief had decreased from 71 percent to 57 percent in the previous 18 months. Even the manner in which we discuss climate change is odd. We don't talk about "believing in" the laws of aerodynamics, the DNA code, or faraway galaxies. By now the evidence for global climate change is solid and the scientific community is united. So why do we speak of believing in it as if we were speaking of belief in extraterrestrials?

Partly these poll numbers reflect a well-funded and orchestrated misinformation campaign by the fossil-fuel industry. Robert Proctor at Stanford University coined another new word, agnotology, for the study of ignorance or doubt that's deliberately manufactured or politically generated.

The poll results also can be explained by what Renee Lertzman called "The Myth of Apathy." She interviewed people about global climate change and found that they actually care intensely about the environment, but that their emotions are so tangled up and they're so beset by internal conflicts that they can't act adaptively. They aren't apathetic, but rather shut down psychologically.

All cultures have rules about what can and can't be acknowledged. This reminds me of an old joke about the Soviet Union. Two KGB men were walking together down the street. One of them said to the other, "What do you think of this system?" "I don't know," said the other one. "I probably think about the same as you do." "In that case," said the first, "I'm going to have to arrest you."

Social and environmental studies professor Kari Norgaard writes, "The denial of global warming is socially constructed. In America it is almost as if relevant information about our climate crisis is classified. Our national policy towards the devastation we face is, 'Don't ask. Don't tell.'"

We all have a healthy and understandable desire to avoid feeling pain. We want to savor the occasional shrimp cocktail without thinking about the ruined mangroves or read a book about lions to children without wondering how many are left in the wild. Yet we cannot solve a problem we will not face.

Once we face the hard truths about our environmental collapse, we can begin a process of transformation that I call the "alchemy of healing." Despair is often a crucible for growth. As we expand ourselves to deal with our new normal, we can feel more vibrant and engaged with the world as it is.

We can be intentional when we're shopping, planning a trip, or working in our communities. We can be citizens of the world, rather than consumers, and we can vote every time we hand over our debit card.

We're all community educators whether we know it or not. Everything we say and do is potentially a teachable moment for someone. So appoint yourself a change agent, engage in participatory democracy, and help yourself, your country, and your world. Belief often follows action. The harder we work, the likelier we are to experience hope and to improve our situation.

Amazement is another antidote to despair. Author Hannah Tennant-Moore wrote, "It took me a long time to learn that being miserable does not alleviate the world's misery."

After a rough week, I felt compelled to drive to Spring Creek Prairie, about 30 minutes from my home. I joined a group of birders doing a winter bird count. It was a grand experience, with long lines of snow geese overhead, woodpeckers in the burr oaks, and a mink ice-skating in the little pond. However, at some point, I wanted to be away from people, even the birders I normally enjoy.

I walked alone to a sunny patch of prairie, lay on the ground, and looked at the sky through the waving big bluestem. I imbibed the prairie. I felt the warm earth beneath me. I smelled the moisture, the dirt, and the cereal-like aroma of the tall grasses. I looked up through the golden seed heads at the blue sky and the geese. I heard their calls and the wind rustling in the grasses. As I lay there, I thought, "I'm getting what I most needed today."

I'm lucky to have a prairie nearby, but we all have green space available to us. We all can look at the sky. As my friend Sherri said, "I've never seen an ugly sky."

Another day, Margie brought her dog over for a walk around the lake. When we returned to my house, Leo began rolling around in the grass. First, he rolled on his back; then he lolled about on his stomach, trying to have every possible inch of skin touching the grass. Margie said, "If you want to know the time, ask a dog. They always know, and they'll tell you the correct time, which is now, now, now."

Transcendence can come from work, bliss, or an expanding moral imagination. I define the moral imagination as the ability to understand how the world looks and feels to another person. It involves motivation, heart, and imagination. My respect for the moral imagination leads to a simple value system--good is that which increases it and evil is that which decreases it.

I believe that the purpose of life is to expand our own moral imagination and to help others expand theirs, so that our circle of caring, which begins with our families, eventually includes all living beings.

One day, I played my grandchildren a song called "Hey Little Ant" by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. This song is a conversation between an ant and a boy on a playground with his friends watching. He wants to squish the ant just for fun. But the ant sings that he has a home and a family, too. He sings to show the boy that his life is as precious to his ant family as the boy's life is to his human family. The song ends with a question for the listener to ponder: "Should the ant get squished? Should the ant go free? / It's up to the kid, not up to me. / We'll leave that kid with the raised-up shoe. / Now what do you think that boy should do?"

When 9-year-old Kate heard it, she said, "Nonna, I'll never squish an ant again." Aidan, who was 7, also promised to let all ants run free. But 5-year-old Claire said, "Nonna, I still like to squish ants, but I won't kill any talking ants." Sigh. She'll have a growth spurt soon enough.

Poet Pablo Neruda wrote, "We are each one leaf on the great human tree." I hope we can extend that to include all living beings.

Dealing with our global crisis is essentially an ethics problem. If we don't expand our moral imaginations, we'll destroy ourselves. Healing will involve reweaving the most primal of connections to this sacred web.

Interconnection can be seen as a spiritual belief, especially in Buddhism. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "we inter-are." But it's also a scientific fact. Economist Jeremy Rifkin writes, "We are learning that the earth functions like an invisible organism. We are the various cells of one living being. Those who work to save the earth are its antibodies." At its core, interconnection is a survival strategy. Gregory Bateson said it best, "The unit of survival is the organism and his environment."

The next great rights battle will be a fight to rescue our beleaguered planet. It'll be about air, plants, animals, water, energy, and dirt. We have a right to a sustainable planet and a future for our grandchildren. And the meadowlark, the fox, the bull snake, the mosquito, and the cottonwood also have this right.

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  • Comment Link Wednesday, 24 October 2012 11:18 posted by Mary Ann C. Holtz

    Dear editor:
    Six years ago after extensive study of the environmental and economic crises facing our earth community, I experienced my version of the “waking up” Mary Pipher refers to in “Global Warming and Visions of a Sustainable Planet “. I have been a psychotherapist in practice for 27 years, as well as a social justice and peace educator. Facing the converging crises of our planet raised serious ethical issues for me, which have not been addressed in the mainstream of our profession's literature. Many of us who read Psychotherapy Networker would likely say that part of the focus of our work is helping change patterns toward healthy relationships for current and future generations. Yet all of us are and/or will be affected within this generation's lifetime by challenges which our professional training has not prepared us to deal with.
    In search of “best practices” and a “standard of care” for working with my clients in light of these crises, in May, 2009 I convened and continue to facilitate a monthly gathering of psychotherapists in Tampa Bay, Florida. We continue to share resources for study, and to offer each other deep support in the ongoing “waking up” process. We have shared clinical applications we are developing and we have offered continuing education workshops to other therapists.
    Any readers who would like more information about our study materials and/or starting a group like ours in your area are welcome to contact me via email at
    For those who are looking for one book offering a very clear overview, I strongly recommend the same book that Pipher was affected by: Eaarth by Bill McKibben.

    Mary Ann C. Holtz
    St. Petersburg, FL

  • Comment Link Sunday, 21 October 2012 18:08 posted by Brian Page

    Humans have an amazing capacity to rationalize away their behavior, hell even the completely insane can usually pull this off. It should be fairly obvious that opinions, ours or others, are not the best way of acquiring knowledge about the world, evidence is. In science opinions are known as hypotheses and only when a hypothesis passes a test against empirical evidence, called an experiment, is it considered to be valid. At it's heart science is the end result of a historical quest for knowledge. It has proven itself a better method than campfire anecdotes and the myths that evolved into our philosophies and religious beliefs. A set of valid hypotheses that is consistent with the preponderance of evidence is collected into what science calls a theory. Parts of a theory that appear irrefutable and stand the test of time are called laws. These are not theories and laws as we know them in a social context, they are based on a continual process of evidence-based refinement known as the scientific method.

    The prime directive of the scientific method is to reveal the weaknesses of seemingly valid hypotheses, theories and laws. Experiment, the process of acquiring evidence, is the tool for invalidating what has previously been considered proven. Strict control of all relevant variables and the ability to be replicated are basic constraints imposed by the scientific method. To be accepted, experimental results must withstand careful scrutiny by experts in the field after which they are published for all to review and critique. This is how science works, how it avoids falling prey to the tyranny of opinion. Because nature doesn't really care about opinions, it is what it is, and to be understood must be dealt with in an objective and reasoned way. Few claim to deny science, but it's the failure to understand the scientific method that leads to the type of willful ignorance and rationalizations that produce the inappropriate denial of scientific results.

    Those espousing opinions that run contrary to established science usually can't sustain their cognitive dissonance forever in the face continually antithetical scientific evidence. When confronted with facts opposed to a preconceived opinion, a choice between modifying those opinions to accommodate new evidence or simply ignoring any such inconvenient data must be made. Science is perpetually malleable in this way, facts drive opinions, humans are not. What humans are good at is rationalizing away such behavior when it finally becomes evident that they were wrong. There is usually not much harm in this, it is an evolutionary survival strategy after all. However, sometimes willful ignorance has tragic consequences that can't be hidden. It is far more difficult to convince others of the validity of ones rationalizations than it is to convince oneself. So when your children and grandchildren ask you in 10 or 20 years what you did to help prevent the environmental catastrophe that they will be forced to live in, you might want to consider whether they understand the concept of willful ignorance before you frame your response. When will you have your epiphany?

  • Comment Link Thursday, 11 October 2012 14:17 posted by Richard Pauli

    Thank you for this wise article.

    The grinding gears of panic and anxiety was exhausting. Then my despair turned to anger. Now, my anger to disappointment - I think I can work with that. Now is the time for questions and re-engagement with the ruthless scientific laws that govern our world.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 29 September 2012 12:10 posted by Laura Olley

    Mary Pipher's article came to me as I was (and still am) in the midst of panic about the issue of global warming. I could barely read it I am so upset, but I am desperate for community on this topic and to not feel so alone. I am a new mother and I am so angry that the joy I feel about motherhood is mitigated by this sense of terror in regard to the grim future we all face. I believe that I have "pre-traumatic-stress disorder" and find myself considering a return to SSRI's and benzodiazapenes to get through it. But what I really need is community and the strength to take action. I am giving every last penny to groups like Oil Change International and the Environmental Defense Fund. We need a major movement and a call to action on a grand scale. I am distraught. Thanks to May Pipher for helping me not feel so alone.

  • Comment Link Monday, 24 September 2012 12:43 posted by Jennifer Thompson

    Thank you - This is right up my alley. This summer I observed vast landscape changes on the Continental Divide Trail in Montana - having been on a section of that trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness 15 years ago. Returning to these same places this summer and observing vast change in Alpine environments, the color of the Alpine Lakes, the vegetation, animal habitat, ETC! I had a visceral experience of Global Warming. IT IS HERE. Plus just last night photographing 4 fracking platforms along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana. Global Warming and a continuance of the abuse and destruction of the environment by companies. What to do? Lay on the Earth, forgive each other and ask forgiveness to the Earth, write a poem, get together with others for support. These are the things I am doing to survive. Every act of active compassion is necessary now. Thank you so much for this writing which validates my visceral experience of Global Warming and confirms my need for personal response.

  • Comment Link Monday, 17 September 2012 17:56 posted by Lee Salmon

    Mary's article is one of the best I've ready that addresses how we avoid issues that seem overwhelming yet must be confronted for the surety of our own future and that of others we love. We must step out of our discomfort to address the overarching issue of global climate change which threatens life on this planet as we know it. Nothing else is really that important.

    How do we elevate this to an issue that needs to be front and center in this looming Presidential election and debates? Is there really anything more important?