‘The Possible Path’ not ‘Build Back Better’

“The ship was at sea, far from the shore. It was not a good ship, but it was the ship folks knew. Some said for decades that the ship was unfit. Then came an epic storm & it became clearer how unfit the ship was. More storms are looming on the horizon. Time to go back to the land.” Tweet on 8 July by Nora Bateson

Everywhere you look now there are articles, events and campaigns to ensure we don’t return to the ‘old normal’, that we can ‘build back better’. But the framing of most of these calls are too small, as if peering through a tiny narrow-range telescope. So, let’s not talk about ‘building back after the virus’ but ‘pursuing the Possible Path’ in the face of the Earth crisis. This is just the beginning, and this Earth crisis will create more pandemics and more ‘unprecedented times’.

One of the issues is…too much separation of issues, and not seeing the whole system. For example, the ecological emergency can be neglected in situations when the focus is on the climate emergency. It helps if you see climate change and ecology/ecocide through a matrix with two axes; the axis of indirect harms and direct harms; and the axis of harms on humanity and harms on biodiversity. The impacts of conscious harm (e.g. for profit) knock into other impacts, and increase the indirect harms as they do so.

There’s extreme heat in the Arctic not predicted for decades, people are resisting racism and everyone is dealing with a pandemic caused by ecocidal ways. Also, there’s war and humanitarian crises in Yemen, Syria and beyond, which are not being spoken of. This whole thing is the Earth Crisis. It is not separate, another issue to add to the end of a list of more pressing issues.

A global and holistic perspective is always an essential starting point, but to focus in on the UK, we are suffering four sub-crises of the Earth crisis: Brexit; Covid-19; racism & inequality; climate breakdown. All arise from the big crisis caused by extractivism, its deep roots and its political power. Extractivism means taking by force from the Earth, or from places of belonging. Taking by force has happened to humans as well as other beings and materials, to enrich a few, mostly white people. Extractivism has also entered our minds, so that we have forgotten how to practice ecological compassion.

Brexit is mentioned as a shorthand for the process whereby extractive powers (corporations, lobbies, politicians) are taking over our democracy through manipulation of media and data, and removing regulations for environmental and social justice.

If we don’t face the deep degenerative roots and entanglements of this crisis, we will be forever forcing false balance between economy and society, or between nature and human need. The media, campaign groups and institutions will be obsessing on one sub-crisis after another — and pursuing token measures — ignoring the others. Moreover, they will be ignoring the causes and not being clear about where to stop the harm.

The Earth is sacred. The sacred purpose of human life is to steward the living planet and all its precious beings into health. In this crisis, that means, by making reparations for crimes against humanity and against all species of life, and by collaborating on many acts of radical restoration.

Too many people are disconnected from their ancestral and true purpose of stewardship — from their indigeneity — after being exploited, displaced or co-opted by the few who profit from extractivism, human labour and consumerism. Some of us, me included, are privileged within this, albeit living in ‘the wasteland’, where extractivism has become normal, where we consume without honour.

How do we find — or create — the path out of this wasteland into a world where sustained living is possible?

Living within limits: We can live to our true purpose by seeing Earth as our only home, the miracle of its proximity to the sun and its stable climate (until we messed with it), and seeing that we can only sustain biodiversity and create human equality if we live within Earth’s limits. It has to be possible, despite the fact that these limits are increasingly breached.

The power of culture: imagination has to be fired up so that we can reconnect, reinvent, renew and regenerate. The imagination we need is not an individualistic approach but is a collective process, one that collects people and other species together. The stories we need to tell are of regeneration and warning against human exceptionalism.

Ecological compassion: The pandemic is making us realise that we are biologically vulnerable, as all wild species and indigenous people have experienced increasingly as extractivism and its knock-on impacts overwhelmed the planet.

Working with law and politics: It means working for a law to end Ecocide and bolstering laws to protect Earth and human rights. It means exposing corruption and growing systems of participatory democracy.

Practical activism: It means prefiguring and enacting ecological and social innovations such as microsolidarity, rewilding, circular forms of production, and urban food growing.

So, rather than ‘Build Back Better’ we need to accept that we are already some way along a very different fragile and shifting path which cannot be built upon quite so easily. On this path there will need to be relinquishing of expectations and acknowledgement of loss and grief. But there is a positive way to see this. As Nora Bateson’s tweet suggests, perhaps we weren’t even on solid ground before. We were at sea. We have been so displaced, so disconnected, we need a wholesale shift back to a state of honouring and healing land. And perhaps we are already on that possible path.

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