Responsibility + Three Kinds of Power

The ecological end times narratives sometimes have a gory, cinematic Book of Revelations feel to them – mass migrations, sea level rise, global desertification, war and upheaval. If we continue on our current course in burning fossil fuels, industrial animal agriculture, and deforestation, by 2100 global temperatures will rise by about 7° Fahrenheit – a change to which humans would be, in the dry language of the scientists, “unable to adapt.” Some strains of Christianity teach that, indeed, history will come to its climax any day now – a time of tribulation followed by the second coming of Christ, a final battle with the anti-Christ, and the advent of the Kingdom of God. From within this narrative, ecological collapse is a good thing; everything that’s happening now is just how it’s supposed to be.

Yet part of the pain that many of us feel when we hear the ecological end times narratives is that we know in our hearts that this is precisely not how it’s supposed to be; that something is going terribly, terribly wrong. Theologies of the religious counterculture don’t imagine history as something that ends in apocalypse, but rather, history as a flow of the life force – a complex interplay between us (animals with agency) and all the other living beings. We envision salvation coming, not as a force from outside, but as a global enlightened consciousness. We see this world, with all its kaleidoscopic, spectacular diversity of creatures of all kinds as miraculous and inherently worth preserving.

We are witnessing all of this beauty in jeopardy. We can feel it in our bones made of calcium from the earth – we feel it and we know it and the knowledge is making us sick. As our ecosystems erode, our collective mental health erodes too. There’s a growing recognition in the field of psychology that eco-anxiety is a thing. Even those who haven’t yet been directly affected by ecological collapse are experiencing what some call “pre-traumatic stress syndrome.” As we watch the impacts of climate change unfold, we are feeling a deep, existential unease. Some of us envision coastal communities destroyed and millions forced out of their homes. Some think of the music that would be lost – Mozart or Stevie Wonder – some of us think of Shakespeare or Hamilton never performed again, or elephants and lions or religious cultures and heritage that would perish in a state of global emergency. Some fear for our grandchildren.

It is said that stress is responsibility without power. If you are responsible for something and you have the power to take care of it, great. If you don’t have power over something but you’re not responsible for it either, that can feel fine too. But when you feel responsible for something but can’t do anything about it, that can be excruciating. This is where many of us find ourselves today when we think of climate change. It feels too big. It is a reality already spun so far out of control, so fast, we can’t even begin to fathom how to find our place in it. (I sometimes feel like a flea foolishly trying to solve the problems of the dog I’m riding on.) And so some of us don’t engage with the climate crisis at all and focus instead on issues that are drawn more to scale. Some of us feel resignation, fatalism, and despair and skip over the news stories when we see them because they’re just too depressing.

Others respond by denying that climate change is happening at all. The climate change deniers up to the highest levels of government are suffering from extreme eco-anxiety. They know. They know. Scott Pruitt knows. Rex Tillerson knows. Donald Trump definitely knows. They might not believe the science, but they know the way we know. Because we are all animals and the hair stands up on the backs of their necks, just like it does on ours when the storms are coming. They know by the gathering collective static electricity of scarcity and fear. They know by the missing forests they used to love as children. They know by the smell of the air; they know by the taste of the water; they know by the feel of the food in their mouths, that it comes from chemicals and creatures far flung and strangely assembled. They know.

And so when they try to roll back the efforts to heal the earth, like the Clean Power Plan, it’s a desperate denial. It’s a survival strategy. Because what if they let in the notion that these efforts might be important? What if they let in that they might be necessary? What if they let in that they might not be enough? What if they let in that even if we do these things and sacrifice so much, it might not work? And what if they fully let in that they have power and so it’s their responsibility? They might not be able to live with that knowledge.

On the other end of the continuum we find people like David Buckel who let it all the way in and could not live with the knowledge. He was a well-known Brooklyn attorney who, in recent years, had become deeply invested in the environmental movement. He became the compost coordinator at Redhook Community Farm and ran it entirely with renewable energy, processing 150 tons of compost a year. He created a model where low-income communities can grow and keep their organic produce. And then, on April 14, he committed suicide… by fire. He left a note: “My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves. …Our future needs more than what we’ve been doing.” Tragedy of the highest order that such a brilliant and loving person came to believe he was worth more dead than alive.

Stress is responsibility without power. Climate change deniers decide that they have no responsibility. David Buckel decided that he had no power. We’re all on a continuum, somewhere between the two, trying to relieve the stress of knowing what our animal selves know to be true. Truth be told, most of us are much closer to the deniers. Few of us are acting as we would act if we really let ourselves experience this as the crisis that it is. This is painful stuff. How do we help ourselves and each other off that treadmill of eco-anxiety?

First, we have to be honest: Stress is responsibility without power, so we are responsible? Yes. The responsibility is real. Today’s generations are going to determine the fate of human civilization and that of many other species. We didn’t ask to be alive at this critical moment in history – I sure as hell didn’t – but here we are. We have been handed a sacred responsibility. But do we have power? Yes! We have political power, we have personal power, and we have social power.

Political power: as voters and as activists we influence the policy decisions that can make short-term change. Every week, I post an action on Facebook we can take on the political level – a phone call to make, a letter to write, a pipeline to get out in front of. We can do this or something like it, always using the language of our faith and values. And of course, we can vote. That’s political power.

Personal power: We don’t have to wait for the next election to get anything done. Because really, this gnarly problem is not the government’s. It belongs to the people – which means that we exercise tremendous power when we change ourselves and our culture. No matter how much the EPA deregulates, if we don’t buy a product that’s desecrating our ecosystems, it’s not going to get made. The organization Greenfaith calls for people of faith and conscience to make three deep commitments to protect the planet:
• Significantly lessen your home energy use.
• Dramatically reduce your meat consumption.
• Conscientiously minimize your car and air travel.
That’s personal power.

Social power: Whatever spheres we already operate in – our work, our kid’s school, our congregation, our band, our book group, definitely our family – we can each find a way to make an impact on this issue. A high school English teacher decided to make damn sure that his students could tell the difference between real news and fake news, real science and fake science. He gives them example after example and drills them until he’s sure that they can do it. Psychotherapists are starting to address their clients’ eco-anxiety, helping them through the disempowerment of denial to a healthy, positive engagement. Whatever we already do, whatever we already care about, whatever gifts we already have are perfect to bring to this work. That’s social power.

Political power, personal power, social power. This moment in history is dense with meaning. We have enormous responsibility and enormous power. And the greatest hope of all is one found in religious teachings from across traditions: that all the powers that we bring to this work don’t come from us alone – they come from a cosmic current flowing toward healing and wholeness. God, the life force, the universe is not done with us yet. We are not alone in this struggle. We didn’t come this far as human beings in all our growth over the millennia just to vanish over one century in a furnace of our own making. That end time narrative is not ours. Our narrative evolves toward love for all the creatures of the earth.

The human project is just getting started. We’re just starting to learn how to live together with other people and in harmony with the land. When we make even the smallest act of faith bringing together our responsibility and our power, we have the entire force of the universe streaming through us. With reverence and awe, we open ourselves to that stream. And then we know in our bones that the promised land is right here, our enlightenment is just beginning, and our brightest days are still ahead.

18 thoughts on “Responsibility + Three Kinds of Power”

  1. Overall agree – although not with the idea that humans can “heal the earth.” The earth will be okay the issue that I have is that the direction of human action prevents our ability to fully thrive on earth in the medium term.

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