The climate crisis is a crisis of relationships
And we need inner transformation to address it. Reflections on my participation in the Mind & Life Summer Research Institute.
When I first heard about the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, my eyes sparkled with joy, my body filled with tingling energy. In the theme of the mind, the climate crisis, and the human-earth connection, this 6-day event brought together scientists, climate activists, and leading indigenous and Buddhist scholars, each person contributing their unique perspective on the different realities of climate change. This is precisely the kind of interdisciplinary, cosmopolitan approach we need to tackle a challenge of such magnitude and complexity.
In this piece, I reflect on my experience and the wisdom shared by panelists and participants. I will argue that the climate crisis is a crisis of relationships — what is needed is a transition in how we relate to ourselves, the people around us, and the more-than-human world. We have to change our human story from one of separation to one of interconnection. To get there, we must start considering the inner dimensions of climate change and sustainability.
Climate change is real and happening. The science is clear — CO2 levels are increasing rapidly, the ice caps are melting, oceans are warming, the climate is getting more extreme, and biodiversity is diminishing. While helpful in presenting an objectified, fact-based reality, science alone isn’t enough. To achieve the necessary transformative social change, we need a new human story. Or rather, we need to listen to the wisdom that resides in the stories we ignored, and hold space for those whose voices have been silenced.
Together we can create a shared human story, grounded in science and enlivened by the wisdom of our ancestors. A story in which everyone gets to participate; one that unites people around the shared purpose of saving our earthly home. The only home we have.
A different story of time and place
In his talk, Dr. Kyle Whyte, a member of the Potawatomi Citizen Nation and professor of Environment and Sustainability, made the case for another way of looking at the timing of climate change. In the West, climate change is often presented in linear time. It’s seen as a phenomenon that, over time, is either rising or falling. In the last century, the planet’s temperature has been rising quickly, and as climate scientists and activists alike have pointed out, the window to act is closing upon us; we need to act now. Indeed, every minute we continue business as usual has serious consequences on people and the planet.
Such urgency, however, often encourages us to take swift action. Focusing on quick technological solutions, that don’t consider their wider implications in time and place, runs the risk of further deepening environmental and social injustices. For example, the construction of a hydro dam commonly results in the displacement of indigenous communities. These communities are not only the soulful protectors of the natural world (80% of our planet’s biodiversity is protected by indigenous peoples, although they comprise less than 5% of the world’s population), their culture and stories, often relying entirely on the spoken word, are deeply bound to the local landscape; they are place-specific. Displacement of indigenous communities often results in the disintegration of their culture and identity, and the loss of place-based stories that manage and sustain harmonious relationships to the enveloping living world.
Indigenous peoples experience time and climate change differently, through a concept called kinship. These are relationships, or moral bonds, that exist between people and the more-than-human world which form the basis for shared responsibility and caregiving. Kinship is rooted in consent, trust, and reciprocity, and is exercised, strengthened, and sustained through coordinated social or political activities, such as rituals and ceremonies — for example, plant-honoring ceremonies or the celebration of a successful harvest. These activities are “exercises of responsibility”, and their frequency tells something about the present state of the enveloping landscape and the changes happening in it. In other words, time and change are not experienced in a linear fashion, but through changes in kinship relationships. It’s these very relationships, and the quality of them, that make society responsible for and responsive to environmental change.
Dr. Whyte urges us to look beyond our worldview which frames climate change as a purely technical problem occurring in linear time. To address climate change effectively, we must start acting on a different level of consciousness. As Albert Einstein famously said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
From a story of separation to a story of kinship
“The purpose of science is “to make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature” — Reneé Descartes
The narrative that’s been shaping Western culture sees mankind as existing separate from nature. In her talk, Dr. Vandana Shiva argued that Cartesian thinking (which considers the mind as separate from the body), colonialism, and late capitalism have disconnected us — first from our own bodies and the natural world around us, and then from each other through systems predicated on separation, exploitation, and extraction. This becomes apparent when we open our eyes to the racial injustices that have scarred the past and the present wounds still waiting to be healed. Or when we talk about ‘natural resources’ and ‘ecosystem services’, treating nature as an infinite resource entirely in service to our species.
This narrative contrasts starkly to that of many indigenous peoples, who don’t just see themselves as part of the earth, but also as children of mother earth or Pachamama. In essence, all living beings are part of one and the same earth family, created, in the words of Dr. Vandana Shiva, “through interconnectedness and bound by consciousness”. Birds enlivening the forests with their beautiful chants, monkeys deftly jumping from one densely covered treetop to the other, the mycelia underground whose nodes connect the vegetal world — we are all our brothers and sisters in an interconnected web of life. Each of us a unique thread, together entangled, we are and sustain existence. And just as the wind whose gentle touch stirs the whole web, so too our actions, however small, touch seemingly distant threads.
Only through such appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life do we come to view mankind not as the autocratic ruler existing separate from nature, but as the careful guardian of existence; the steward of yet fragile futures.
“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” ― Robin Wall Kimmerer
As the world dies around us, so does the world within us
What, then, are the implications when we come to view the world as anima mundi, the intricate connection between all life on earth? If we really are part of one and the same earth family, how do we respond to the perpetual loss of our earthly relatives?
Earlier, I talked about the effects of climate change on our mental health. The SRI further explored how our minds are affected by climate change and the moral suffering we may experience when the natural world around us is dying. Environmental Strategist Dekila Chungyalpa, renowned for her conservational work with WWF, talked about eco-anxiety, the psychological distress people may experience from environmental change and the degradation of life our planet houses. With increased climate awareness and action, eco-anxiety is increasing, too.
Roshi Joan Halifax, Zen Buddhist teacher and anthropologist, taught us how climate change and biodiversity loss implicate our integrity as human beings. When we no longer see ourselves as separate from and superior to nature, we come to realize that when the world dies around us, so does the world within us. For when we see the world in terms of kinship or moral bonds, we can also experience moral suffering when those bonds are being transgressed; when the actions we take as individuals and as a society compromise our integrity. Roshi Joan Halifax suggests that to restore and maintain our integrity, we need to nurture our capacity for moral discernment, which is our ability to evaluate which actions are morally justifiable. This takes insight, motivation based on compassion, and an unwavering commitment to our deepest values. We must start looking inside us, and develop the life-giving qualities of mind and heart.
The way forward starts within us
“The universe shivers with wonder in the depths of the human” — Brian Swimme
Dr. Christine Wamsler, Professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University, made the case for inner transformation as a fundamental aspect of sustainability — an aspect often overlooked in popular climate change discourse. As discussed, many of today’s climate change solutions tend to focus predominantly on external dimensions, such as technological solutions. Dr. Warmsler argued that to overcome external crises, we must also reconnect to and foster our inner dimensions such as self-awareness, pro-social core values, including kindness and compassion, and human-nature connectedness — an argument frequently invoked throughout the conference. Nurturing these inner dimensions can give rise to inner transformation or a change in consciousness — a change in how we relate to ourselves, others, and the natural world around us.
One of the ways by which we can cultivate our inner dimensions is through mindfulness, which also increases psychological resilience. Evidence suggests that mindfulness is associated with ecologically responsible behavior oriented to the common good, increased subjective wellbeing, and activation of non-materialistic core values. Furthermore, mindfulness has a positive influence on consumption and sustainable behavior, social activism (ibid), and human-nature connection. Mindfulness practice can also help those of us dealing with eco-anxiety, as it helps us become grounded in the present moment, and draws our attention to bodily sensations and away from mental chatter.
Inner transformation isn’t bound to the individual. A change in consciousness can bring about far-reaching systemic change. Just as a drop of water creates a ripple effect, a change in how we view and relate to ourselves and the world can ripple through to systems, causing a change in the political and economic structures, organizations, and institutions that make up our reality. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”
The Mind & Life SRI has been a transformative experience for me. Being exposed to novel ideas and ways of being, participating in guided meditations and contemplative practices, and being part of a passionate community awakened in me a newfound sense of hope and joy.
I learned that to really address climate change, we need to transform our way of being in this world. We, too, must see each other and nature as kin, and work towards establishing moral bonds with the world around us, and sustain these bonds through social activities. This doesn’t mean the mindless adoption of rituals and ceremonies that feel alien or uncomfortable to us. It means repairing relationships to the natural world through community initiatives rooted in direct experience and mutual exchange, such as community gardening or local reforestation projects. It means teaching children about the interrelationship between all life on earth; and between human health and planetary health. It’s about cultivating (self-)awareness and inner qualities of care, compassion, and interbeing, which form the seedbed from which sustainable, reciprocal relationships emerge.
As an impact investment fund, we must continue to deepen our understanding of the interconnectedness of all life and the issues we aim to address. We must take a step back. pause. breathe in. breathe out. before jumping to hasty solutions. We must work toward a world that recognizes the importance of inner transformation in addressing climate change. We must invest in communities, for power and hope resides within them. And we must tap into the wisdom that is preserved in the stories of indigenous people and contemplative traditions.
It’s the least we can do, and the best to heal ourselves and the planet.
I would love to express deep gratitude to the Mind & Life team who made this wonderful event possible, and to all the speakers and participants involved for sharing their energy and wisdom, and their work in making the world a better place.
Niels is an Analyst & Content Strategist at Masawa. Having a background in both International Entrepreneurship and fine art photography, he continuously explores the intersection between art and social entrepreneurship.