An Ecological Crisis is a Spiritual Crisis

Amelia Zimmerman
Jun 16, 2019 · 12 min read


I’m waiting on the street corner, leaning on a lamppost when Cristina finds me. She knows a cafe down the road so we head off. She knows the area — her Italian grandparents immigrated to Fitzroy in 1938, where her grandfather worked as the community’s resident barber for forty-five years. A few long-time businesses still stand in these streets, like Sila Espresso Bar, now run by the children of her grandparents’ neighbours, hardly changed in sixty years.

She never met her nonno and nonna, but she sleeps in their bedroom, wakes up to light from their bedroom window, and sees the city they saw. For them, it was a city of hope, of new life, of whirlwind change.

Before we walk down Brunswick Street with Liam and Cristina, let me backtrack to set the scene for today’s interview. Liam had called me earlier that morning. “The news,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “I know.” The liberal party won the Australian federal election. In the next four years Australia is slated to see Queensland’s Adani coal mine approved, which alone could lead to another eight coal mines to open and 27 billion tonnes of coal extracted (the emissions of which alone would send the global temperature rise over 2 degrees Celsius). Already, we’ve failed to deliver a national report on conservation progress and future plans for the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (Australia’s extinction records are among the worst in the world). And hitting our 2030 Paris climate targets seems like a pipe dream, particularly if Liberal Party’s pathetic plan to use carryover credits from the Kyoto protocol is thwarted.

Cristina cried in the shower this morning. She’s scared to check her phone to see how people are reacting online. She puts it away.

It’s sunny and abnormally warm. Liam is sweating, I’m in a t-shirt. Sandwiched amongst the current political climate, it’s practically creepy. It’s a bright day for a dark time. A beautiful day for the end of the world.

Cristina leads us to a cafe that’s part jungle, part coveted brunch spot. It’s colourful and crowded and absolute chaos. There’s babies in prams and dogs tied under tables and goldfish floating in an open iron tub. There’s humans milling like ants and plants climbing the walls and barely enough space to hold them. The whole world in a single cafe. There’s too many people and not enough seats so we wait for a table outside under the trees.

She settles in with a long black; they don’t have almond milk.

It started when she was eight. She woke up disturbed after an apocalyptic nightmare. It was the end of the world and it was up to her to save it. It was the day before the 2004 tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She saw trees destroyed, people devastated. The pain of the Earth was inside her.

The dreams might have triggered the environmentalist inside her, but it was the values instilled in her at the dinner table — ideas of love and compassion and kindness for all beings — that developed the philosophical edge to her mission.

She fundraised and volunteered through school, contributing in the small ways she knew how to the cause that was dominating her conscious and subconscious mind.

When university came around, her natural impulses were creative. She imagined enrolling into Fine Arts; she imagined the work she’d create. It all carried an environmental message, but she didn’t yet know what the message was. She didn’t know what she needed to say, what needed to be said.

So she enrolled into Melbourne University’s Bachelor of Environment, and majored in Environmental Geography. There’s one semester left in her degree, but she knows what she needs to say now.

With her she’s brought a green folded paper crane. She made it last night at her friend’s election party — when the verdict was clear. She watched the little “1” on the screen, the tiny stroke that symbolised the tally of seats won by the Greens party. She watched it, stared at it, waited for it to tick over to “2.” Then, eventually, she realised it wasn’t going to.

One. One seat in the nation’s entire House of Representatives. One in one hundred and fifty. That’s 0.66%. One page in a paperback. One day in a school year. She cried.

A paper crane is the paragon of Japanese origami: the ancient art of turning flat paper into something intricate and beautiful without glue or scissors or extra parts. It models the revered Japanese red-crowned crane, a bird the nation believed carried human souls up and away to paradise. There’s a Japanese legend that says that a thousand paper cranes are powerful enough to make one wish come true. A thousand cranes. One wish. What if it’s a big wish?

In 2017 she was idling. She knew she had to do something but there was something missing, some critical information she needed to find outside of a classroom. She turned up at public talks, events, workshops — anything to find the missing pieces of the puzzle she was trying to build. She applied for a bursary position to a local workshop at CERES on Spiritual Ecology. She got the bursary, she showed up for the workshop. And it kickstarted everything. “Spiritual Ecology means recognising that the ecological crisis of the earth is not just a scientific problem to be solved. It’s a human spiritual crisis, a disconnect from nature,” she says. Any technology we develop to combat the planetary crisis won’t take full effect until unless we address our own relationship to the Earth.

She told the workshop leader, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee about her idea for Terrain. He loved it, and invited her to California to work with his teams on Emergence Magazine, Go Project Films, the Global Oneness Project and the Spiritual Ecology Fellowship. She spent seven weeks in northern California and eventually applied to the University of California, Berkeley, so she could keep studying while learning from and working alongside her American team.

In January 2018, she was asked to design a virtual reality installation for Sanctuaries of Silence at SXSW in Austin, Texas in March. She and the team developed her design into an immersive and transportive experience with the intention of sparking an emotional connection to an environment many of us won’t get an opportunity to visit. Visitors walked into the installation, leaving their shoes at the door so they could “earth themselves” while watching the VR film set in Olympic National Park, one of the quietest places in North America. The walls were green and alive (thanks to the hands of a local botanist), the floor was covered in moss, and a wooden log acted as a seat. Retreating to nature for silence and space is a luxury commodity in many parts of today’s world. Sharing these stories of nature broadens perspectives and brings awareness to the true damage of climate damage — the damage we don’t often see with our own eyes. The emotional response the installation received gave her faith that this mode of experiential storytelling had the power to change minds.

Terrain uses technology and multimedia arts to build experiences that educate and create emotional connections between humans and the earth. People won’t take action if they don’t care. Terrain, at its loftiest, is about interconnectedness. Closing the loop. Becoming one. It’s not a question of us against nature or nature against us or even us and nature. We are nature. We humans are as much a part of nature as a tree in the Amazon or a butterfly in the Daintree.

And so Terrain is coming to life — though not without an unexpected amount of anxiety. Before our interview Cristina narrated a dream she’d had earlier that week. She was a mermaid — tail and everything — frolicking in ocean waves. But then the dream turned, the way midnight dreams and real-life nightmares sometimes do — and the waves became aggressive and unhappy and she knew she had to get to land. She reached the sand and blood spurted down her legs; the tail was gone. She was pregnant and the baby was coming — even though it was premature. She wasn’t ready, it wasn’t ready, but it had to come out. It would never be ready. It would never be perfect. But it was coming whether she liked it or not.

It’s terrifying, because everything about her story leads to this moment. Leads to Terrain. Leads to the fight.

First up is an animated virtual reality film about the conservation of the snow leopard. The snow leopard is an apex predator — and a dangerously threatened species across Central Asia. It’s an indicator species: where it thrives, it indicates a well-balanced ecosystem. Where it flounders, the entire network of life is in danger — and humans are no exception. Some organisations estimate that there are less than 4,000 snow leopards left on earth. “That’s the funny thing about apex species. They remind us how important each piece of the web is. Take one piece out of the web and there’s a ripple effect; everything is interconnected.”

The audience she wants to reach are the very audience most environmentalists fear. They’re the skeptics, the conservatives, the nothing-to-do-with-me’s. But the environmental message needs to spill over the lofty walls of the academic world and and progressive crowds if it’s ever to make significant progress. “The bubble is real, but part of the privilege of having access to those ideas is the responsibility to spread them.” It’s not about strengthening the bubble but expanding it, even bursting it, creating fairy-light-string of lightbulb moments in people of all places and personalities, a chance for everyone to experience the switch flicking on, for that life-changing flash of ‘aha’.

Liam gets up to photograph while she talks. She’s conscious of how she appears in our photos. It’s not vanity; it’s strategy. “If you post a photo and I look like a stereotype, then people will just think ‘she’s the greenie from Fitzroy.’” And she’s right. There’s no dreadlocks or flip flops. There were feathers, once — until her hairdresser asked her what on earth she was thinking. She almost slipped on a “grungy” shirt this morning, before she thought twice about it. Instead, she’s picked a white blouse and soft flared denim jeans. Her coffee-bean hair falls free around her face. On either side of her head, two Earths hang from her ears: flat golden hoops cut into continents with the water missing. She wants to get some green in the photos. She wants the world to fall back in love with nature.

It’s this kind of deliberation over details that keep her daily life aligned with a loftier, more abstract personal philosophy. Her life is dotted with the kinds of practical habits she calls “Sustainability 101:” she takes her coffee in a KeepCup, cycles for transport, stays low-waste, is six years into a pescatarian diet and even ordered a worm compost in the mail. But the biggest impact her beliefs make on her routine is her resolution to not stay silent. “These conversations aren’t just for when you’re watching the election; they should be daily conversations, conversations with your postman, your barista.” But it’s not small talk, and it’s exhausting at times — a constant reminder of the fight we’re up against. It takes a special kind of maturity and subtlety to encourage someone to explore their own relationship with nature, understand their inherent inseparability from the rest of the planet, without playing the ethics police. How do you talk calmly and empathetically to someone who likes shooting animals?

That’s something she’s nailed. This is a woman who is articulate and measured. But there’s anger blistering beneath. “I’m a complete extremist — but we live in a world where there are systems in place.” There’s a lot of blame directed to this vague scapegoat notion of the system. But Cristina believes the system is fine. We don’t need to change the system; just the individuals within it. But that might be even harder. “You can’t dictate to people, you can’t be extreme, but you can share another perspective in a story.”

She spins her little paper crane around by its tip; an earth on its axis. It’s fragile, and I wonder how long it will last under human fingertips.

Once her last semester of uni is behind her, she’ll push on with Terrain, and maybe work towards a PhD in post-humanism and more-than-human geographies. She wants to validate her voice; to be taken seriously. She’d like to focus her research on strengthening global earth jurisprudence: giving our natural environment its own set of rights. We’ve traditionally protected the environment indirectly through human rights: you’re held accountable for damage if the water you pollute or the soil you contaminate (and so on) directly affects human beings. But giving nature rights of its own is a giant leap for environmental protection. In New Zealand, the Whanganui river was recently granted the same rights as a human being, the first example (of, hopefully, many) of a natural resource being granted legal personhood status in a court of law. Still, the win comes after one hundred and forty years of negotiation by the Whanganui tribe who fought for the legal protection of their ‘ancestor’. In a recent Guardian article, Tim Winton writes that our leaders are failing to care for our natural environment to the point of criminal negligence.

Cristina cried on the couch last night and she cried in the shower this morning but behind the tears is a heart full of hope for our future. “Believing is seeing. Even though what I’m seeing is not what I believe, my belief that it will get better is what will eventually help make it better.” True faith is knowing something before it comes into being, believing in the absence of evidence.

Earlier this week she shared a viral video to her Facebook profile. She captioned it “How it feels to be a citizen of Australia and the Earth right now.” A tiny boy in karate clothes tries desperately to split the wood in his instructor’s hands to earn his next belt. He kicks and kicks but it won’t break. He cries. He’s about to give up. But then a little voice yells something. Phoenix. His name. Then more little voices yell it. Phoenix. Phoenix. Phoenix. Suddenly the room is chanting his name. The moment builds. He knows what to do. He kicks and fails but goes straight back for another one. He breaks the wood and the children pile onto him, screaming with joy.

Maybe one day the chants will be loud enough. Maybe one day we’ll rise from the ashes and break the wood, splinter social norms and bring our shared values back to Earth.

We’ve been talking for two and a half hours and she hasn’t checked her phone. She doesn’t have the strength to join in the discussion yet. But it’ll come. Sometimes we need to go back to go forward, go down to go up, break a heart to remember it’s still there.

The Eco Files

Climate change, conservation and sustainability have been…

Amelia Zimmerman

Written by

Freelance Writer & Editor

The Eco Files

Climate change, conservation and sustainability have been thrashed to death, dissected in every light from denial to doomsaying, but the conversation can’t stop here. Climate change is dangerous if ignored, and fatal if out of fashion. Here, the conversation continues.

Amelia Zimmerman

Written by

Freelance Writer & Editor

The Eco Files

Climate change, conservation and sustainability have been thrashed to death, dissected in every light from denial to doomsaying, but the conversation can’t stop here. Climate change is dangerous if ignored, and fatal if out of fashion. Here, the conversation continues.

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