‘Night and Sleep’ — Evelyn De Morgan
So you believe in something. Good for you. Makes life more manageable and gives you something to focus upon, and when necessary, argue about. Beliefs structure our culture and our world: political, religious, community, commercial.
Unfortunately, our beliefs, regardless of their context and foundations, are not ecological.
You read right. Our beliefs are not ecological. What does this even mean? Why is this even important, and what is the alternative to holding strong beliefs?
Beliefs are a way of thinking that by nature have very little if any room for movement. When I say: “I believe…”, I have drawn a line in the wet cement, and while the setting cement is ‘going off’, I build neurological structures to support the new belief making sure that it stays in place. The cement goes off, and unless there is a significant shift in the underlying foundations, the belief I have laboured over stays put. Swapping metaphors for a moment; a coastal forest, whipped by constant onshore winds, the belief will dig deeper. Extending its roots, bending to give a little whenever there is a conflicting force the forest will flex, not to change, but securing its future.
The most durable wood will often grow from the tree weathering the harshest winds. Excellent for trees and the cabinetmaker, and yet this is where the analogy ends.
I am living in a world that is changing fast. All around me, there are calamity and innovation, people scrambling to make sense and to make a difference, and all of them holding firm to their beliefs.
Climate change has to be the defining conversation of our time. Every day we are greeted with yet another ‘catastrophic’ event. As I am writing, I am alerted to the bush fires in New South Wales, Australia and the flooding in Venice, Italy. Venice, a beautiful and quite unfathomable city that only months earlier I had visited with my family. Nine years ago, New South Wales where fires now rage, our home for two years. The homes we once stayed in are now either underwater or threatened by the raging fire.
I feel concerned, so I tune in to the discussions. My Twitter feed alerts me to shifts in climate and possible solutions, and yet I notice division: division based primarily upon beliefs.
Beliefs are lazy. There, I said it! “I believe this…” is lazy. When I believe something, I can rest easy knowing that I am right and, believing in something means I am not open to the opposing viewpoint. Thinking that it is CO2 and ‘our fault’ for example, says I am not open to any opposite view or query. If you force your belief upon me, chances are I will dig deeper and strengthen my own resolve. I may also resort to belittling you for holding the alternative view — a standard part of life on social media.
Holding a belief is easy and requires next to no effort other than fighting for it when the opposition becomes fierce. We see this more and more. Hong Kong and the months of rioting. The global climate change marches in every major city. The constant and insufferable reminders of governmental corruption in the American political system. It goes on. Look in any direction and find examples of conflict solely based upon differences in belief.
Belief is not an ecological way of thinking because it is too inflexible. In a time when digging deep to find solutions has become vital to the future of a significant proportion of the world’s population, a lack of creative plasticity has no place.
I have watched the shift of liability. It’s a human need. We require a scapegoat, a place to lay the blame, a reason for the inconvenient alteration in our way of life. Unless we have a culprit, we cannot make the required changes; a solution becomes illusive. However, as soon as the culprit has been named, we build a story. We engage the help of science and develop a hypothesis. From there, we make a stronger belief and arguments in defence; any other contributing factors are moved to the side and considered superfluous.
We are talking about climate and climate change. Climate change is an ecological discussion. It’s about ecology, of which climate is a part. Global conversations are fierce, and they are based on belief, inflexible and robust belief. In this case, it’s CO2 that is the culprit, and CO2 levels are heavily influenced by human activity. But like any global debate, pick your side and dig deep.
On TED Talks, there is a story: ‘How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change’. A talk presented by scientist Allan Savory. It tells the story of his mistake. He thought that the desertification was caused by the large numbers of elephants roaming and foraging, so he had 40,000 elephants killed. The upshot: he was wrong. Desertification increased after the ‘scientific killing’ of thousands of elephants. It wasn’t the elephants after all. The elephants, it was realised later, were stopping the desertification from getting worse. But because the focus of blame had been laid, a strong belief generated, ecology suffered. If you have the time, watch the video, and you will notice how he describes his new theory. Watch his body language. It’s fascinating to note his shift to a new belief and how adamant he is about it.
Question: is it ecological to selectively charge an aspect of ecology with the sole responsibility for the health and wellbeing of that ecology?
And, how useful or ecological is it to hold a belief about the ongoing health of an environmental system when that system is ever-evolving?
What if belief, in the context being discussed, took the shape of that context, in this case, nature.? What if ‘belief’ was replaced by decision making predicated by our collective values — a much higher place of mutual connection to base decision making from? And what if this decision making strategy was structured in such a way that it considered other perspectives, not just our own?
Belief won’t do this. It is too limited, and it does not know how to tune itself to an ever-changing context. Decision making needs to more considered; taking into account the multilayered nature of the environment.
The challenge to this way of thinking is this: it’s too complicated. The complexities of a natural system tend to mean that making decisions about it and what to do when something appears to be going wrong, becomes insurmountable.
In chaos theory, there is a term known as ‘Sensitive Dependence’ or ‘The Butterfly Effect’. It essentially suggests that the smallest change in any given system can cause significant developments in the future, within that system. To choose one part of any ‘system’ to be the culprit or the fix of the entire system is a recipe for disaster. It is similar to suggesting: that to ensure our continued good health, simply put all your attention on the little toe on your right foot.
I recently visited Venice. Walked the alleyways and crossed the canals. Witnessed intense tourism and the massive floating cities being towed through the central channel. Locals are screaming for justice: “stop the boats!” Others are shouting: “build the barrier!” and more are chanting: “reduce carbon”, or “stop oil”, and more. I was amazed that this city still existed, considering it was built on a marshland primarily consisting of sand. Was that a good idea? Maybe at the time.
Where do we lay blame, and, who has a vested interest in where that blame is laid? Will the result be attainable when the focus of our outrage and concern is only a part of the complex system at play.
Why we won’t.
We won’t change the way we approach these problems, and it’s because we can’t. Not yet. We won’t do it because to do it, we would need to be a part of the system. We would need to be connected to it, know the language of communication that it uses. We would have to be fully aware of our own intrinsic place within it, as an essential part of the whole. We would have to hurt when it hurts — to feel and know it’s suffering. We do not.
Somewhere along the way, our language of identity shifted. We started to believe something about ourselves that separated us from the very world we once relied upon, and depended upon us. Maybe we began to think that we were better than it, or more intelligent than it, or more able to wield ‘control’ over it. Regardless, we separated from what many consider to be our mother.
Unlike a child, however, who leaves the embrace of home, we disowned that home — our mother. Over time we forgot our home and our mother. In that forgetting, our original home became either a threat or a pool of resources. Today, after who knows how many millennia, we still believe that we are separate. We cannot make ecological decisions about our home when the foundations of those decisions are beliefs which perpetuate separation.
Until we understand this as a ‘lived’ experience — removing the disconnect — we will always find ourselves lost for what to do.
To me, there is only one place to begin this re-connect: language.
How do we know ourselves within this place we call home, and how do we hold that conversation? It may be as simple as changing our language: the way we describe ourselves, and ourselves in this universe. Perhaps a new, emergent conversation is required.