The Metaphysics of Climate Change
by Ben-Zion Weiss PhD
6 – 10 – 2015
“…continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself…” James Hansen (2011)
The above quote by the distinguished NASA climate scientist needs to be taken very seriously. This is not a quote from a crazy greeny, trying to undermine the mining industries of this land, a comment I recently heard from a highly educated Australian man with a PhD in mathematics – this is a quote from a highly reputable scientist who brought the world’s attention to global warming in the 1980s when he testified before the US Congress.
In this article I argue that as well as the reality of climate change as a physical phenomenon, we need to consider the metaphysical causes that play such a critical role in human behaviour. As Al Gore says we know the facts but lack the political will to act upon them. What I am proposing here is that there are reasons for that lack of political will that we need to address. As the saying goes we get the politicians we deserve: we vote them in and we allow them to act in ways that may not always be helpful to the greater good of humanity and the planet that supports us all.
My own background as an applied scientist, with an honours degree in Chemical Engineering, has allowed me to examine the science of climate change with some authority. Ever since I saw Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” and read his book by the same name, I was convinced that anthropogenic climate change is real. Some 97% of scientists publically agree with this finding. This should in itself be a very convincing argument, when we consider how cautious scientists are in regard to drawing any definite conclusions about any phenomenon.
My own disillusionment with the way science was being used in the contemporary world occurred when as a graduate chemical engineer I worked as a development engineer for a large international chemical company. It was situated on Botany Bay, which has become the most polluted water way in Australia, as a result of the heavy industry that lines its shores.
Today I consider myself to be a social ecologist and it is from that perspective that I want to approach this piece of writing. I embarked on my PhD in social ecology, as I was so deeply concerned with the deteriorating ecological state of the planet. While researching the area of ecology I came across the work of Murray Bookchin, who proposed that the problem was not actually with the ecology itself, but with the hierarchical social structures that we humans have created, which allowed us to dominate nature, in the way we dominated each other. As a fellow libertarian I resonated with his conclusion. According to scholars like Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves men began to dominate women some 3000 years ago. According to the Goddess scholar, Marija Gimbutas, it was even earlier that this patriarchal social process began.
In my own growing up in the Jewish tradition I became aware of this male domination in Orthodox Judaism, to the extent that I no longer felt I wanted to belong to this religion. As well, as a student of science, I began to question the anachronistic practices and beliefs of the orthodox Jewish community. I became a secular Jew for many years as a result. It was only after discovering the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah in my later years, that I began to revise this position, as I felt quite moved by this Jewish spiritual teaching that resonated with my studies in and practice of Yoga, Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism and Shamanism. It is the influence of these studies that inspired this piece of writing.
Generally, when I name myself as a social ecologist, the next question is: ‘What’s that?’ My answer varies according to the person asking the question. It is the study of the way we humans relate to nature; or, a discipline based on systems theory; or, a new area of interdisciplinary study that includes psychology, sociology, ecology and spirituality. When we teach social ecology, we begin with ourselves – physically and psychologically and spiritually – and then widen the study to consider the social and cultural context that this self inhabits, as well as the ecological context and finally even the cosmological context. It is an holistic discipline that can include sense of place research, social activism as well as indigenous and cultural studies.
Now that I’ve established my terms of reference I’ll begin to explore the topic itself. By metaphysics I mean that which is behind the physics: the thoughts and feelings and worldview that underlies the current climate change. One argument I’ve heard against the anthropogenic nature of climate change is that the climate has always been changing over millions of years, and we humans aren’t powerful enough to be the cause of such a massive phenomenon. In part I agree with this position, after all the ice ages were times of extreme climate change, as were the post-glacial periods when so much human evolution seemed to take place. Was that because without that evolution we would not have survived these ice ages? Of course ice ages also occurred long before our ancestors came onto the planet.
However when we consider the state of the planet ecologically – with the massive species extinction going on that is now considered the 6th mass extinction, and the extensive destruction of the forests of the world with the creation of some 5 billion hectares of humanly created deserts called cities, and the level of pollution of the atmosphere and the oceans due to industrial manufacturing – this could cause us some concern? We could go into a state of despair or become psychically numbed by the enormity and severity of the situation that humanity finds itself in today.
This brings me to the psychology of climate change. As we become aware of the situation it could seriously impact our behaviour and our sense of hope for the future. It could induce states of anxiety and even depression when we hear scientists say things like ‘we are running out of time’ or that ‘the timetable is shorter than we thought.’
The Social Ecology of Climate Change
The concerning headline of one of the news stories on the ABC today reads: “’Godzilla El Nino’ intensifying: Drought, heatwaves and heightened bushfire risk expected this summer.” Todays television news already featured several severe fires in a number of states of Australia, with a comment by a Victorian fire officer saying: “ This is the worst heat and wind condition we’ve experienced since the establishment of the State of Victoria” or words to that effect. It’s so easy to go into despair for me when I hear these news stories. This was the reason I questioned the idea of having children at this time on the planet, when back in the 80s we were considering the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. What changed my mind was doing the work with Joanna Macy in despair and empowerment in the nuclear age, and then being trained as a facilitator of the work myself. Two years later my daughter was born as I moved beyond despair to a state of hope in humanity, that we could somehow find a way through this mess. Joanna told the story of the Shambhala warriors, a prophecy that is given in several indigenous traditions, as well as the Buddhist one she was influenced by.
The socio-cultural dimension of climate change links into the fossil fuel industry and their domination of both our society and of the natural world through activities of mining, processing and distributing fossil fuel products like oil, coal and gas. These corporate giants have been known to spend millions of dollars on employing lobbyists to argue their case with the politicians. I remember in a meeting with Labor’s Jeanette McHugh, in Bondi Junction in the early 90s, on environmental issues as we approached the next election. She picked up a massive file and said, ‘This is what the forestry industry lobby gives us, what can you give us to challenge these reports on the benefits of this industry?’ Of course we didn’t have access to the kind of research that large corporations can support. One only has to consider the tobacco companies and how they managed to obscure the link between smoking and lung cancer for many years. There is a similar situation here with the mining companies and climate science.
The ecological dimension involves the melting of the polar ice caps and glaciers, the changing weather patterns due to changes in air and ocean temperature. The rising of the oceans will lead to islands in the Pacific and other parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable. Of course this will impact social and cultural conditions on these islands and create climate refugees. Something missing from the debate on global warming is the psychological impact on these islanders who will have their sense of belonging challenged through a loss of their sense of place. A further impact of such migrations will be spiritual, as the spirituality of indigenous cultures is deeply embedded in their ecology. An example of this cultural and ecological connection is the Mihi in Maori cultures. Here the person introduces themselves in relation to their family, their place of residence, their tribal group, their canoe, the totem animal, their mountain, their river and other such ecological phenomena.
This can finally lead to a crisis in cosmology. This occurred to a group of Aboriginal women in South Australia, when a bridge was built to an island that they considered sacred. The bridge was built in a way that destroyed the sacred site itself. Here the social, ecological and the spiritual are involved as much as the psychological trauma that these indigenous women were likely to experience by being treated with such disrespect by the government and other male members of their own community.
The domination by male Australians of British descent impacts negatively on women in general, and indigenous women even more so, as well as on the land itself which is constantly being degraded by so called development for economic gain of the few, at the expense of the many and the ecology. This male domination of nature can be traced back to the English philosopher Francis Bacon, who argued that scientists had to torture the secrets out of nature. Nature for him was there to be exploited and dominated for the benefit of man, and I mean man! The result several centuries later is the industrial revolution based on the burning of coal. And then the use of oil and gas as fuel sources for transport and industry and heating of houses.
These are all examples of the use of what in the Tao is called the yang principle of expansion that the elements of fire and air represent. The industrial world treats nature as a resource to be exploited. Thus the yin principle becomes submissive to the yang principle. The yin elements of earth and water are dominated by the yang elements of fire and air. Indeed it is this imbalance that I argue, has created global warming. This makes global warming a dis-ease of Mother Earth, through the excess of yang over the yin. Cancer is also such a dis-ease where uncontrolled growth takes over and the balance is lost. All the mystical traditions have the need for this kind of balance. In Yoga it is the balance of Sun and Moon energies, of Ida and Pingala, of Shiva and Shakti – in Kabbalah of the pillar of Hochma, wisdom and expansion and the pillar of Bina, understanding and contraction. When these are in true balance we can have Da’at or knowledge in the pillar of balance of wisdom and understanding. In the Sufi tradition, it’s the balance of jelal (power), and jemal (beauty) in Kemal (equipoise). In Shamanic traditions it is the balance of the Sky Father with the Earth Mother, along with the 4 directions of space and the 7th direction of self that is needed to create harmony in our lives. For Native Americans, all our relations need to be included in this balance – the two legged, the four legged, the one legged (trees and plants), the winged and the finned.
In order to heal this dis-ease we need to rebalance these two principles to strengthen the feminine principle in the world. As the Kogi, the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada of Colombia said at the Uplift Festival in 2014, we need to listen to the voice of women and take care of the Earth our Mother. In a recent Citizens Climate Lobby conference in Canberra, the same was presented as Regenerative Agriculture – the importance of carbon draw-down by Walter Jehne. This is a healing of Mother Earth by farmers through agricultural practices that regenerate the land.
The importance of this finding is that it is not enough to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate gases like nitrous oxide and methane. While it is vital we begin to do this by using renewable energy of sun, wind, tides, and geothermal, we also need to grow more plants, especially in the cities and urban areas to stop them being ‘man made deserts’ MMDs. Planting trees, making community gardens, growing plants on median strips and footpaths, using permaculture principles and the work of Transition Towns are all examples of this healing process. The excessive yang energy is balanced by a focus of the yin energies, and the feminine principle is once again celebrated as the Great Mother or the Goddess. Where creative activities, hand crafts and arts are pursued in preference to factory made products and we begin to play music and sing and dance and tell stories ourselves instead of this being only the domain of the superstar – like Hollywood actors or rock’n’roll musicians with all their electronics and technological way of making music.
In conclusion, we can see that there is a need to balance the metaphysical aspects of climate change with the physical aspects, the yin and the yang principles, the male and the female aspects of life, if we want humanity to survive this current climate crisis.
References and Links
ABC News story: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-05/extreme-el-nino-system-intensifying3a-drought-and-heightened-f/6828772 accessed 5/10/15
Citizens Climate Lobby: http://citizensclimatelobby.org accessed 5/10/15
Citizens Climate Lobby Australia: http://au.citizensclimatelobby.org accessed 5/10/15
Climate Wellbeing Network: http://www.climatewellbeingnetwork.com.au accessed 5/10/15
Gore, A., 2006, An Inconvenient Truth, the planetary emergence of global warming and what we can do about it, London: Bloomsbury
Hansen, J., 2011, Storms of our Children, The Truth about the coming Climate Catastrophe and our last Chance to Save Humanity, London: Bloomsbury
James Hansen TED Talk, 2012: https://www.ted.com/talks/james_hansen_why_i_must_speak_out_about_climate_change?language=en accessed 5/10/15
Macy,J.M.,1983, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, Philadelphia: New Society Publishers
Social Ecology Sydney: https://www.socialecologysydney.net.au accessed 5/10/15
Wright, D., Camden-Pratt, C., & Hill, S. (eds.), 2011, Social Ecology, Applying
Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet, Stroud, U.K.: Hawthorn