Our Web of Meaning Is Still Ahead of Us

On April 22, 1970, over 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day. It was a big, proud series of events that precipitated, among other things, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Earth Day was also at least partially a reminder of our inclusion in and our responsibility to nature. I say reminder because for most of humankind’s history we lived in full awareness of our connection to the natural world. The idea that we have dominion over nature is a relic that emerged from Western philosophy and religion. We embraced it so tightly to justify our own ends that it became an “absolute”. Thanks largely to this view we lost the momentum of that first Earth Day, squandering half a century to right our way in favor of short-lived comfort and profits. It is why today we are living with the rising costs of climate change and facing a shrinking window of opportunity to do something huge before the worst is baked into our global ecosystem.

Some have tried to use psychology to explain our bizarre role in our own potential extinction. We can’t see the consequences of our actions, the thinking goes, so we don’t worry about them. That excuse can’t hold any longer, if it ever could. The droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, extinctions, and massive population displacements are happening now, not in hidden nooks but everywhere. Paul Salopek, who is walking around the world as part of a National Geographic project, wrote last year:

I am walking across the world. Over the past seven years I have retraced the footsteps of Homo sapiens, who roamed out of Africa in the Stone Age and explored the primordial world. En route, I gather stories. And nowhere on my foot journey – not in any other nation or continent – have I encountered an environmental reckoning on the scale of India’s looming water crisis. It is almost too daunting to contemplate.

Our ecosystems move toward failure, much of the world continues to suffer from the worst of Covid, yet the talk in North America today is about housing markets, surging demand, and GDP growth. Evidently our psychological problems run much deeper than denial; perhaps we’re sick with a neoliberal psychosis. It’s all very troubling.

And yet, there are indications that finally, decades after our first Earth Day reminder, we are fully reawakening to our relationship within nature and the real peril we’re in. The latest sign came just days ago when the International Energy Agency declared the best way to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius is to end investments in fossil fuels next year. This is a seismic shift, and a welcome and needed one given the challenges countries face if they’re to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

A huge part of our prospects ride on public policy, but on scales both large and small there is a place for hope of success. This spring I had the opportunity to explore the concept of ecological civilization, including what it could look like and how we might foster one. The four-week journey was hosted by Earth Literacies and led by Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct. Lent’s tour gave me and my fellow participants a 30,000-foot flyover of an ecological civilization, a view that did not hide the immense knowledge and thought at its foundation. Along the way we dug into the fundamentals of what makes us human, now, in the past, and in the future.

This was a challenging four weeks, for over this period much of what we “understand” about the global society today and what we assume about tomorrow was shaken loose and shown to be a facade. Among the highlights:

  • The assumption the world must operate the way it does, namely ruled by profit – and that it always has been – is demonstrably false.
  • Neither humans nor their genes are inherently selfish, though the myth still clings to life.
  • We are part of nature, though admittedly a unique part. Our problem today is not a failure to revert to our ancestors’ hunter/gatherer ways – Lent is especially not advocating that – but that we don’t recognize our place with and within nature. Specifically, most of us don’t understand our relationship with nature, nor that the core of this relationship is symbiotic. Nature demands diversity, reciprocity, and balance, and yet the gears of our current civilization work at destroying all those.
  • There is increasing overlap in the findings of scientists and the core tenets of ancient wisdom.
  • Though none of us should expect to see the complete results, we do today have an unmatched chance to direct the next major change in human civilization, and by major we’re talking about on the scale of the Agrarian and Scientific Revolutions. Unlike those previous sea changes in humanity’s development, however, this is one we can consciously choose to engage in and direct. This alone – the collective recognition that such a choice is available and within our capabilities – is a sizable step forward.
  • At the heart of The Patterning Instinct is Lent’s powerful supposition that culture shapes values, and values shape history. Though Lent didn’t explicate this directly, it’s clear from this premise that if you take culture as the sum of our inner lives made outer through language and our choices, then the future of humanity is riding on us changing our inner lives. Public policy, for instance, can only follow such a change, it can’t lead the way.
  • After moving quickly through loads of information that begs study and consideration, I didn’t see an obvious path to finding meaning in this worldview. But that path emerged, quickly and unexpectedly, and that proved to be the most pleasing and mind-blowing aspect of the four weeks together.

I’m doing Lent’s thinking and writing a disservice with this simplistic summary. I haven’t even touched on the practical aspects or steps of moving toward an ecological civilization. Like Lent pointed out himself, however, the idea is not to guide this forward, but to start the conversations that will manifest change on personal, community, and global levels. On that front, Lent has been a wild success, and he’s done it as a kind, deeply thoughtful, and incredibly knowledgeable guide. Just as importantly, he’s tackling these difficult subjects filled with hope – not hope as blind faith but hope as a comportment toward the future.

Thanks to Earth Literacies I was introduced to Lent’s work and had the privilege of talking through these concepts with him and the other participants. And because of this whole world of possibility that he’s opened – and to be clear he introduced us to loads of other writers and thinkers – I’m excited to dive into his new book called The Web of Meaning.

As I think about where we might be headed from here, I’m drawn again to this tenet of The Patterning Instinct – that culture shapes values and values shape history. It’s a tool, and if you want to see what we’ve valued over the years, look at our history. It is often a grim picture. And if you want to see what’s ahead, examine at our values today. A quick survey of the media landscape is disheartening but zoom in and there are gems shining through the muck, many of them getting stronger, highlighting that there are life-affirming values, some old and some new, taking shape. Lent’s contributions are surely among the brightest.