Catastrophic ecosystem degradation featuring wildfire damage and soil erosion. Photo by author.
Catastrophic ecosystem degradation featuring wildfire damage and soil erosion. Photo by author.
The war against nature. Catastrophic ecosystem destruction from a combination of industrial monocultures, land neglect, wildfires and soil erosion just a short distance from my home in Central Portugal. Photo by author.

Is the climate crisis fundamentally a crisis of human thinking?

What if the ultimate cause of our problems is our very conception of reality?

Wendy Howard
Dec 18, 2019 · 13 min read

We are at a time when our relationship to the Earth, our understanding of it, and our actions arising from that understanding have never mattered more.

here is a fundamental sense of urgency, grief and anger building. The expressions of it are becoming louder and more demonstrative. The words ‘existential crisis’ are being invoked to define our situation with a frequency that’s inversely correlated with any suspicion of hyperbole.

We have a dominant narrative claiming scientific consensus and citing an anthropogenic cause — increasing atmospheric CO₂ levels — as the primary driver of what’s variously been termed ‘global warming’, ‘climate change’ and now ‘the climate crisis’. Yet the narrative evidently lacks power to not only bring about meaningful changes at government level to avert a looming crisis, but also to fully capture the hearts and minds of the populations they serve.

If this narrative fails to engage the consensus claimed for it, then so too do other competing narratives. And there are plenty of them. Everyone with an opinion, ‘expert’ or no, has a personal cause to champion and a solution to propose. Positions range from the plausible to the eyebrow-raising. And everyone has a binary conclusion to reach: anthropogenic climate change is either real or not real. Then there’s the inevitable corollary that people who agree with a stated position are right and everyone else is unbelievably stupid.

For everyone advancing their personal theory and solution, there are 100 to pick every fault in it they can find. For every person who sticks their heads above the ramparts to call for action, there are 100 willing to shoot them down for being either wrong, a hypocrite, or a puppet of some agenda ranging from corporate greed right through to global domination. Debates rage: between proponents and denialists, between technologists and environmentalists, between vegans and meat eaters.

Caught between unbelievable stupidity and ranks of entrenched positions, the remainder without a strong opinion are silently confused and overwhelmed. Positions become ever more polarised, opportunists jump on the opportunities, and amidst all the noise any consensus slips quietly further from sight.

We are impotent.

Meanwhile the damage to the biosphere is massively accelerating, no less through the agency of Green New Dealers visibly salivating to make capital of the crisis, as through the more familiar channels of business-as-usual. We are truly at crisis point.

So what to make of this situation?

Over the six or so decades of my lifetime (a crazily short space of time), during which I’ve witnessed first hand, and with growing horror and heartbreak, the catastrophic destruction inflicted on this Earth — this achingly beautiful, incomprehensibly complex and impossibly intelligent living entity that sustains us — a few things have become apparent.

We can’t see the forest for the trees. Even after cutting most of them down.

Our lines of enquiry are hopelessly fragmented. This is not a problem of excess CO₂ in the atmosphere, of capitalism, of ecosystem destruction, of overpopulation, of overconsumption, of resource limits, of industrial pollution, of powerful and psychopathic elites, of human hubris and self-obsession … though it’s all of these things and more besides.

Nor is it the domain of atmospheric scientists or physicists or economists or biologists or ecologists or social scientists or historians or psychologists or even philosophers. It’s all of these and more.

6 billion blind men feeling up an elephant.

The biosphere is a vast living system in a state of constant change. It intelligently self-regulates to maintain a planetary homeostasis through complex interrelationships of interdependent feedback loops. To all intents and purposes, the number of these circular interrelationships is infinite. Discovering them all, let alone unravelling them all to separate cause from effect, is impossible.

We can only test our understanding with computer models which attempt to replicate the dynamics of historic and current trends at more general and global levels. For all the confidence displayed in them, our models are still only the sketchiest approximation of the reality under consideration. What’s more, we can only test discoveries and predictions at global level against those models, meaning that anything missing in the models — like, for instance, the role of an active intelligence — can potentially lead to highly unreliable conclusions.

The map is not the territory.

The excess-atmospheric-CO₂-equals-climate-change narrative

  • sidesteps the influence of other major contributory factors, such as the disrupted hydrological cycles caused by degradation and desertification of terrestrial ecosystems. (The Earth’s hydrological cycles are responsible for 95% of planetary heat dynamics, dwarfing any contribution from atmospheric carbon, even though at terrestrial level the carbon and hydrological cycles are inextricably interwoven.)
  • massively underestimates the role that biological systems play in climate and weather systems, something only now becoming clearer.
  • fails to engage with other symptoms of collapse such as catastrophic biodiversity loss (the Sixth Mass Extinction) which has much more to do with habitat destruction than it does climate change.

Even framing the problem as ‘the climate crisis’ is impossibly simplistic.

The notion of a ‘climate crisis’ latches onto just one of a multitude of symptoms of what is not only a systemic crisis of the entire biosphere but a crisis of the thinking which informs how we as a species interact with it.

The planet isn’t going to hell in a hand-basket because people are eating meat or burning fossil fuels. The planet is going to hell in a hand-basket because humans are destabilising all the interconnected and interdependent feedback loops which maintain the entirety of Earth’s biological systems, ourselves included.

“Life creates conditions conducive to life.” (Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute)

We’re annihilating it.

Our way of thinking is fundamentally incoherent with the workings of natural systems and processes. It’s also frequently incoherent within its own terms.

  • We focus on superficialities — on ultimates and symptoms — failing to root out underlying causative dynamics or to perceive that often it’s all part of a chicken-and-egg feedback loop.
  • We think in straight lines, in a mechanistic logic that attempts to make every complex, multifactorial interrelationship reducible to as few factors and as singular a thread as possible — a kind of “there can be only one” supposition — shoehorning the nuances of 50 million shades of grey into binary black-and-white.
  • Our conclusions feed our fundamentally competitive and combative stance. If you’re not with me you’re against me, right?
  • We focus on objects and objectives, not processes. As a result, we confuse what we refer to as ‘resources’ with the (mis)management of those resources. By way of forming a conceptual understanding, we’re constantly freezing a moving target in time to aim at something which has ceased to exist the moment it’s grasped.
  • The logical steps we take in our narratives are often riddled with non-sequiturs, resulting in stories which seem plausible only because they follow a single thread, but which are simultaneously incongruous and irrational.
  • We still behave as if absolute objectivity, internal consistency, and deterministic predictability are cornerstones of the fundamental ‘reality’ under consideration nearly a hundred years after quantum theory demonstrated otherwise.
  • We proceed from the assumption we’re right rather than defaulting to the precautionary principle.
  • We fail to reassess our position when encountering resistance or failure to engage. We seem to think the answer is to keep repeating the same argument over and over again. If that fails, shout it more loudly or else turn it into a law that everyone must obey.
  • We compound our errors endlessly. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, how much more insane is it to still believe our actions are ‘right’ despite all evidence to the contrary?

In all of this, we massively fail in our ecological role. This is in no way successful biosphere stewardship.

We are a sorry excuse for a species calling itself Homo sapiens (or even Homo sapiens sapiens). What were we thinking?!

But it goes deeper yet.

In cognitive scientist Professor Don Hoffman’s view, a successful society’s culturally-mediated perception of its reality is predicated on evolutionary advantage — survival of the fittest — to a much greater extent than underlying truth. This tuning of perception to competitive advantage ensures such societies will dominate and eventually extinguish cultures whose view of reality is more truthful.

In other words, the world is not what we think. We see it not as it is but as it best serves us to see it.

I would go further yet and say this perception is itself predicated on a foundational cultural assumption of human exceptionalism and might is right. This goes back long long before Darwin ever voiced it in terms of a theory of evolution and survival of the fittest, and it’s reflexive, recursive — part of an inherently self-referential, self-maintaining conceptual feedback loop which functions in much the same way as any of the feedback loops which sustain life within the biosphere.

The Flammarion engraving, artist unknown. A man looks out of the known world into a reality beyond. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Flammarion engraving, artist unknown. A man looks out of the known world into a reality beyond. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The world is not what we think. We see it not as it is but as we are. We see it as a reflection of our own thinking and how we define and perceive ourselves — separate and superior to the rest of nature, the only lifeforms with sentience and intelligence in a perpetual ‘battle’ with a brute and brutal nature which we must win at all costs to ensure our survival. No wonder then that the planet looks like a battlefield …

The Scots-American naturalist John Muir wrote in 1867 — “No dogma taught by the present civilization seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in the way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains to wildness as that which regards the world as made especially for the uses of man. Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged.”

Quite how and why we developed this cultural perspective — in contrast to, say, that of the First Nations of the Americas — is lost in the mists of time but goes back to Biblical times at least. What’s certain is that its focus on competitive advantage has given us exactly that, but at the expense of truth and of much of the other life on the planet.

Carts and horses and chickens and eggs. What goes around comes around and the angular momentum of any given feedback system — whether physical or metaphysical — creates a kind of gravitational pull which is not so very easy to escape. Especially when it involves a cultural history that’s been thousands of years in the making and which constitutes a conditioned apprehension of reality which we inhabit as if it were true.

So pervasive is it that within the terms permitted by our accepted ‘reality’, we’ve only been able to reach the realms of truth by employing a different language altogether. One which isn’t so susceptible to perceptual distortion — mathematics.

As Professor Stephen Hawking said in his 1999 public lecture Does God Play Dice? “Although quantum mechanics has been around for nearly 70 years, it is still not generally understood or appreciated, even by those that use it to do calculations. Yet it should concern us all, because it is a completely different picture of the physical universe, and of reality itself.”

But the fundamental truth remains the fundamental truth, no matter how we perceive things. We are part of the whole whether we see ourselves that way or not.

We appear now to be confronting the endgame of this particular way of perceiving, of what our ‘reality’ has inflicted on the planet. And despite all our headless chickening about it, we cannot seem to reverse the program or do other than remain faithful to it.

Must we now spin out at ever increasing velocity in ever widening circles until what anchors it at the centre falls apart? It’s tempting to invoke W B Yeats and the first verse of The Second Coming (1919) …

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Is this the path we’re destined to tread?

Or can we sidestep the apparently inevitable mutually assured destruction (because the nature we’re at war with is ourselves) by breaking out of this entire conceptual feedback loop to inhabit one closer to the truth? As Einstein is reputed to have said (though didn’t, even if he spoke along similar lines), “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

  • What if our raison d’être transforms from competitive advantage into cooperation with the rest of existence?
  • What if we see ourselves as only one small part of a complex interdependent system with a role to play in a global team of billions, instead of masters of all we survey to exploit as we choose?
  • What if we move not just from linear reductionism to whole-systems thinking, but to a wholly different conception of cause and effect and space and time and of the material and immaterial realms?
  • What if this happens soon, even while recognising that time itself is not as we perceive it?

What if we do all of these things? Will it be enough to save ourselves and the Earth?

Ecologist Dr John Todd writes in the first paragraph of his recent book, Healing Earth: An Ecologist’s Journey of Innovation and Environmental Stewardship, “I am writing this book based on the belief that humanity will soon become involved in a deep and abiding worldwide partnership with nature. Millions of us will commit ourselves to reversing the long legacy of environmental degradation that threatens to destabilize the climate as well as the great ecologies that sustain life on Earth. We must develop a vast stewardship initiative, which will become the great work of our time. Fortunately, there are as many ways to serve the Earth as there are people willing to engage in this vast restoration project. It includes nothing less than stabilizing the planet’s climate as well as saving ourselves.”

Is this an impossible task, given that we’ve got it so badly wrong all this time and so much has already been lost? How can we work with what we’ve barely even begun to understand from within a conceptual framework which hasn’t yet fallen apart?

It’s all hiding in plain sight. For starters, we can observe and imitate without having to know how and why. Or we can go in humility to sit at the feet of those few remaining First Nation peoples we haven’t yet exterminated whose worldview and wisdom is far more coherent than our own.

As we let go of the cultural and personal illusions we’ve carried for so long and open ourselves to the possibilities offered by a cooperative and interconnected worldview, the feedback loop starts to kick in. We ourselves become more cooperative and connected. And what is connection and cooperation if not what we call love?

To fall in love with the Earth is to invite the intelligence of the whole system to in-form us and our actions. Then what needs to be done will be done.

It’s already underway. Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, in a 2016 interview, points out “Wherever I go with workshops, I find the readiness to experience a collective awakening. I’m astonished by how explicit this is. It’s a sense of wanting to belong to the Earth, aching for reverence for the Earth. Again and again, I believe that people would be ready to die for our world, to save the life process. There is something pressing within the heart-mind that is just huge. It’s happening very fast.”

This “something pressing within the heart-mind that is just huge” is nothing less than the intelligence of the whole.

Even from within our distorted worldview, it seems clear that to restore the biosphere to health, we have to learn to work with natural processes, not against them.

But here we confront a glaring paradox. On a more fundamental level — being, as we are, part of the natural world — we are incapable of doing otherwise.

As Niels Bohr, one of the foundational contributors to quantum theory, said, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress”.

This then begs the question: is the transformation we are now undergoing all just part and parcel of the robust self-correcting mechanisms of an unimaginably powerful and elegant self-maintaining system which has itself never been in real danger of total destruction from its constituent parts? That the impending annihilation we‘re confronting is merely the annihilation of our perceived reality, constructed as it is out of our hubristic, self-centred worldview?

Perhaps ...

Or perhaps not ...

Life at the edges is always more vibrant, rich, intense and diverse. Ecologists call such areas ecotones: where two different ecosystems meet in a state of tension. Essentially this state of tension applies to any context where a boundary exists: between cells, between beliefs, between states of matter, between neighbouring individuals or collectives, between life and death.

What could be edgier than taking the whole of life on this planet to the edge of annihilation? With all bets off.

Yet something deep inside surges in excitement at John Todd’s words. The same something deep inside which I trust implicitly after a lifetime of learning the hard way not to ignore its patient but insistent voice. The same something deep inside which brought forth a vision and a promise to these burnt and tortured hillsides that I would live to see them covered in native forest again, running with sweet waters and noisy with birds. That something deep inside is yelling “Yes!”.

We are on the threshold of something miraculous even while standing on the edge of the abyss. We are in a state of liminality, of transition. This is a major rite of passage and our destructive culture is headed inexorably for transformation and redemption through it with no guarantee of what’s on the other side.

What a magnificent and magical undertaking!

Mata da Margaraça, a small native forest reserve in Central Portugal. Photo by author
Mata da Margaraça, a small native forest reserve in Central Portugal. Photo by author
The Mata da Margaraça, a small native forest reserve the same short distance from my home as the image at the beginning of this article. Photo by author.

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Wendy Howard

Written by

Ecologist, biologist, permaculture practitioner and educator diving deep into the philosophical realms of our place within the natural world.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Wendy Howard

Written by

Ecologist, biologist, permaculture practitioner and educator diving deep into the philosophical realms of our place within the natural world.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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