This Easter Sunday, I am sharing my ‘Letter to the Earth,’ which was included in a book of the same name. It is part of an ongoing project to invite people to express their love, grief, anxiety and intentions for all life.
You can hear co-director of the Letters to the Earth project, Kay Michael, discussing the project here. If would like to join in, then write your own Letter to the Earth by tonight (April 12th) to participate. You can stick them in your window and then share on social media via #LetterstotheEarth @CultureDeclares.
People contributing letters for the book include Yoko Ono, Mark Rylance, Kate Tempest, Dr. Gail Bradbrook, and Joanna Macy.
This Tuesday, 14th April, I will be discussing spirituality, collapse, covid19 and climate change with Sister Jayanti from the Brahma Kumaris. Members of the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum may join for free and ask questions.
By Jem Bendell
As a teen, I wore a T-shirt quoting Chief Seattle. ‘The Earth is our mother,’ it said. ‘Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’ Looking back, I can see how I turned away from the depth and clarity of that insight. I listened to other stories of my time – stories so commonplace that I did not even see them as stories.
I listened to the story that if I wasn’t pragmatic I would come to regret my choices. I worried that if I chose to live according to my truth then I might become poor or marginalised, and come to see such truth as a youthful naivety. I worried that I’d be too radical and so have no significant impact. These were powerful stories that carried me into a well-meaning, hard-working career.
Now looking back at these early choices, I can see that beneath it all there was something more primal. I was scared I’d lose someone that I loved. Not someone specific, but some- one I hadn’t even met yet. Someone that I thought I’d need to impress: with status, charisma, confidence, wealth, style and skills. Such things would need to be worked for, within our dominant culture and economy. I was lying to myself and to others because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to belong on my own terms.
Those insecurities meant I pushed away the implications of knowing that our society is based on a lie of the separation between humans, nature and spirit. For decades I compromised with that greatest of lies, and in so doing I was complicit with the ongoing destruction and oppression of you. It took the terrifying data on climate change to shake me out of those delusions. Awakening to the likely collapse of society triggered a collapse in my sense of self-worth. My stomach churned and heaved with the horror of realising how much I’d been imprisoned by fear. Falling to my hands and knees, my forehead on the soil, I cried and asked you, ‘Please forgive me.’
Your response was immediate.
I began to sense that because you are one life, you have no issue with death. We may feel guilt about destruction, yet the thousands of species going extinct are not a suffering for you. In that, perhaps I may find redemption from this pain.
‘We are part of the earth and it is part of us,’ wrote Chief Seattle. I am an aspect of you, a potentiality of you. As you produced me and everything that we are, when I experience that unity, I know we are all forgiven.
Thank you. As awareness of our climate emergency grows, you have begun to provide us with a global near-death experience. We can wake up to our mortality and our fear of it. Some of us will come to see the stories built upon that fear over the past millennia. With climate chaos, you invite us to return to you. You offer us an extinction redemption.
AFTERWORD DURING CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWNS
I wrote this Letter in August 2019. Feeling the full weight of the destruction humanity has caused, and sensing how it would continue, has brought me feelings of remorse for many years. Over time, my remorse increasingly included my previous, indeed ongoing, submission to the mainstream stories of respectability, success and progress that have been helping to drive that destruction. Over time, a number of factors and experiences came together to help me understand that we as humanity – and as individuals – already exist in a state of pre-forgiveness. That understanding came to me from reflecting within nature, plus from insights during non-ordinary states where I brought this pain into the process, and lessons from a number of spiritual traditions and their practices, particularly Buddhism.
The Earth, if conscious as one being, would not be experiencing pain or trauma at destruction by humanity. Yes, we are causing a mass extinction, but such extinctions are natural for the Earth. Moreover, we are a part of this Earth, not separate, and so we are Earth doing this mass extinction to itself. Although it can feel natural to many people to conceive of the Earth as one organism and thus having one coherent consciousness, there is no reason to think that the consciousness experienced outside of individual organisms is entirely restricted to any particular species, ecosystem, or planet. Rather, that consciousness is a universal one, aspects of which then express through moments of time and space, such as a planet, forest, species or individual. It is our human experience of consciousness which involves an awareness of – and concern for – our individual mortality. The consciousness beyond the individual is not one that dies when an individual dies and thus does not retain that concern for individual mortality.
As the Covid19 pandemic sweeps the world, some people are expressing a dualistic view of the Planet Earth as separate from humans, yet having human characteristics, so that it is somehow punishing humans. I do not see Planet Earth as separate in this way, nor do I see its forms of consciousness as able to be understood by humans, let alone for it to exhibit human behaviours like ‘sending a message’ or punishment. Other people who do not see the Earth and humanity as separate are suggesting that the fevers people are experiencing are parrallels to the fevers of the Earth, as it undergoes climate change. That places the Covid19 disease above the 200+ million people suffering Malaria every year, and the 100 million people suffering Dengue Fever every year, so it’s factually unfounded. That view also ignores how the our planet has been far hotter and far colder over its billions of years. It also suggests that the Earth is somehow traumatised by this mass extinction, which means it would have a consciousness like ours – something that doesn’t resonate with my understanding of greater consciousness.
When hearing such stories of our relationship to nature, it is helpful to notice if they are providing some quick escape from the pain of suffering. If so, then I invite you to be suspicious of them. When trying to make sense of what is happening, it can be useful to ask oneself: “How am I staying fully present to what is happening and being loving to all?” The same approach applies for more mainstream religious stories of what God is or is not doing to humanity either now or as future calamities unfold. Any story of punishment or correction is typically a means for the person thinking that to feel better for a moment. The result is rarely loving.
I just have criticised a couple of environment-focused stories that connect the current pandemic with what we are doing to our planet. That does not mean I reject the established science on the fact that coronavirus outbreaks are made more likely from environmental degradation. There is also growing evidence that climate change makes those outbreaks more likely, which I detailed here. That is hugely important to understand and bring attention to, because it means that pandemics are more likely in future. That means we need to change our way of life – in particular to ensure that no one is marginalised so much from society that they are vulnerable to infection, that there is latent capacity in our health systems, and that our lifestyles and livelihoods are not so dependent on a fragile global economic and financial system. Because of that, there is no normal to get back to after the lockdowns. Instead, an unthinking effort towards ‘normality’ will simply invite future pandemics to hit us as hard as this one is doing. Such discussions will not be helped by telling the kind of stories about nature that I described above. Whatever we do or don’t do, the outcome doesn’t matter as much as our openness to truth and love, which is the way that a greater consciousness is felt and understood in us.
My Letter to the Earth echoes an old Hawaiian practice of Ho’oponopono, which was introduced to me by Katie Carr and we use sometimes on retreats and courses.
Interested to know more? I write about forgiveness here, about the ‘deep adaptation’ approach to kind and wise responses to societal breakdown here, about the spiritual invitation of climate chaos here, and about a consciousness beyond either ourselves or planet Earth here (towards the end).