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In discussion with Stephan Harding

Resident Ecologist & Head of Holistic Science,
Schumacher College

An Ecological Enlightenment

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Ecobuddhism: The Arctic sea ice is at an all-time low as we speak (October 2012). It could be gone in summer within five years…creating a definitive climate tipping point. How do you respond to that?

Stephan Harding: In many different ways.  First of all it shows that the climate models are too conservative.  They show too much stability. There are reasonable guides to the future, but we have to admit they are conservative guides. That means probably that things will change much faster than we thought.

The other thing that amazes me about this situation is that it hasn’t been made much of in the media.  There should be alarm bells ringing around the planet. All of the media people should be raising the alarm in a concerted way. It’s covered in New Scientist and The Guardian in the UK, but this should be front page news all over the planet. The whole media circus should get together and agree to publicize this as much as possible.  It’s not alarming people because they aren’t hearing about it.

If they do hear about it, they are not responding for some strange psychological reason. Maybe they don’t want to understand the scale or importance of climate change, or they don’t want to know because the implications are so drastic. We are really seeing the ostrich head-in-the sand denial syndrome coming up in the midst of a major crisis. The same thing happened in England when Hitler was coming to power. We denied the fact that it was a dangerous situation, and things got really bad.  There is something like that going on. It leads one to be quite pessimistic about the future.

EB: Do you think there is any real point in optimism anymore?

SH: Yes, I do, because I think you have to live your life according to your deepest principles. If you feel that the whole of Nature is about something, that there is some mysterious purpose behind it, that the Cosmos is a great intelligence and that it is up to something, then you want to be part of its activity, to help it flourish, because human consciousness is somehow part of its process and activity, so we need to develop ecological awareness and a deep understanding of nature in our own lives. Those things are important in themselves, no matter what happens to the world. It could even be important for the Cosmos itself that a human style of consciousness develops somewhere: even if the civilization created by such a consciousness ends up collapsing and destroying its own planet because the bulk of the population don’t understand the importance of connecting to their world as a living being. That is what keeps me going: a more cosmic picture.

This view is connected to Rupert Sheldrake’s model of morphic resonance. The Cosmos is huge place. Multicellular life like ours is probably extremely rare. Nevertheless there probably are some other places where this experiment in consciousness is going on. Perhaps our efforts to live sanely within the limits of our planet will help similar efforts elsewhere in the Cosmos, even if the experiment fails on our planet. 

For me enlightenment is an ecological event. That’s why Buddha touched the Earth as his witness. Enlightenment, or awakening, is ecological, because in that state you understand and experience the interdependence of everything—of yourself with all living beings—and that naturally arouses compassion for all living beings. You sense the connections with the whole cosmos. If we work for an ecological enlightenment here, even if everything tumbles down around our ears, our good work our effort to live in enlightened ways could influence the whole Cosmos. It might help similar efforts in somewhere else in the Cosmos by morphic resonance. Perhaps nothing is wasted if the Cosmos is one great Mind. So by striving for ecological enlightenment we are improving that cosmic Mind.  Those sorts of ideas keep me going. They give me a broader perspective.

EB: Amit Goswami points out that it is 100 years since the discovery of quantum physics and the theoretical implications have been largely ignored. The technological fruits have been picked, made a lot of money and are widely used. But there has been no integration at all of the “paradoxical laws” of quantum physics. Ecology could be just as disruptive to Newtonian science as quantum physics. Is there a parallel here?

SH: Definitely. And I think the other place this discomfort is happening within science is in our studies of the human genome, which turns out to be so complex that even the concept of a gene disappears into the complexity of multiple different regulatory processes. You can’t talk about the gene as the unit of selection anymore. The DNA is more like a text. It’s a text that the organism carries with it, that it interprets in different ways. So the Newtonian worldview is falling apart, but there is huge resistance to accepting the implications. In ecology too, Gaia theory shows us that Earth is so complex that we cannot fully model or understand her. Again, we are humbled. Even the human economy presents us with a complexity barrier that defies Newtonian understanding. We mostly refuse to acknowledge that, of course.

EB: In terms of Iain McGilchrist’s work (on the divided brain), we could say the Newtonian is a left-hemisphere interpretation, whereas, the paradoxes of quantum physics make sense to the right hemisphere. Similarly, ecology or interdependence make sense to the right hemisphere, but threaten the left hemisphere’s worldview. If there is a profound inner conflict going on in our species, we might go extinct: in defense of the left hemisphere.

SH: The last chapter of Iain’s book, about what happens if the left hemisphere takes over, describes exactly what is happening  now. That’s all the more reason to cultivate the connection between the two hemispheres. We don’t want to throw out the left hemisphere but we need the right hemisphere, the intuitive mind, to be in charge so that it gets the rational mind to go and systematically and methodically explore things for it as its emissary. That would mean that we would all wake up to the reality of the global crisis and to our deep connection to the Earth. It would be an enlightenment experience. Then we’d conclude that we need to move rapidly to renewable energy, figure out how to grow crops in a sustainable way and stop the destruction of Earth’s biodiversity. Let’s get the rational mind to go and do all that. But for this to work  people would have to be in a much deeper, heartfelt, inexpressibly intimate connection with the Earth and with each other, all of which come from the right hemisphere.

EB: Traditional religion: do you see it as requiring a radical revision? What about something new that might be based on Gaia—a more shamanistic relationship with the Earth?

SH: Jung said our habitual patterns of thought – actually they are more than thought, but let’s call them thought – go very deep in the psyche. So to try and create a new way of thinking and seeing is very difficult . I’m not saying that some people shouldn’t try to create new religious forms, but I also think it’s also important to work with old religious grooves that have been worn deep into the human psyche over millenia such as Buddhism, Christianity and the other religions. We need to work with these ancient traditions and bring them up to speed with insights from modern ecology and science. Shamanism is also ancient, of course, so there might not actually need a new religion, but rather new expressions of these ancient grooves that have worn deep into the human psyche.

Buddhism is already ecological. It’s the religion most prepared to accept ecology. Something similar can be said of Taoism, and of Shamanism. Religion for me comes from the Latin “religare” which means to re-connect. So anything that reconnects you with the cosmos is ‘religious’ in the real sense. A new form of science could be religious too.

EB: Of course, one might also make the opposite statement. The thing that disconnects most is authoritarian hierarchical religion.

SH: That’s why the word ‘religion’ is rather problematic because there of the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion.  Perhaps, it is best instead to speak of spirituality or of a sense of the sacred. We need a sense of the sacred or the ineffable.

EB: Can we find anything ineffable about extinction?

SH: Well, it’s part of the mystery of existence. You’ve got to have creation and destruction working together. Those previous catastrophic mass extinctions, had we seen them from space, would have seemed appalling. But out of them have come new possibilities, new species, new refinements, new complexity. Extinction is part of the ineffable. By “ineffable”, I mean that the Cosmos is up to something that is hard for us to understand. Maybe if we destroy life on earth, which Jim Hansen thinks is possible, the Cosmos would have learnt something through that process.

EB: Do you see the ecological crisis as also a spiritual crisis?

SH: Absolutely. It is a spiritual crisis, or a crisis of worldview. The two are the same thing.

EB: Do you have the sense that Mother Earth is telling us to grow up or get out of the way?

SH: Grow up or rather grow into the body of the Earth, like mycorrhizal fungal tubes connecting intimately with plant roots. That’s what we need to do. Get our psychological tendrils into the Earth, receive nourishment from her, give nourishment back. That’s the microbial model. I think the fungi and bacteria give us an excellent model for cooperation.

EB: Consumer capitalism and techno-optimism provide the means for masses of people to migrate into cyberspace, which has nothing whatsoever to do with ecology or the Earth. Rather it is an ultimate abstraction by the left-hemisphere, or mere fantasies of escape.

SH: Probably as things get worse those virtual worlds will get richer and more seductive. More people will retreat into them. The servers that run them will have to be kept going until even they crash along with the other accoutrements of civilisation. 

EB: If it reached the worst case scenario, as Jim Hansen thinks possible, how long would it take to regain this level of biological complexity on Earth?

SH: Well, the sun is now very hot. There’s half a billion years left before it gets too bright and hot for life to cope with. That’s quite a long time from our point of view, but not a huge amount of time from Gaia’s perspective. If we lose multi-cellular life now it may never evolve again because the planet will be too hot. The fact that we have multi-cellular life is due to an extremely rare event that happened around 2.5 thousand million years ago involving the fusion of different bacteria and the integration of their metabolisms into a new kind of cell – cells like ours and those of plants and fungi that have a great deal of internal complexity. That’s extremely difficult fusion to pull off. There have been a few such hugely unlikely key steps in evolution that have allowed our kind of multicellular consciousness to arise. Bacterial life is probably fairly common in the Cosmos, but multicellular life almost certainly is not. That’s why I find it very interesting to think about the Buddhist idea of a “precious human birth”, because science shows that how unlikely it is that we are here at all. 

How strange it is that we are so destructive, after all the time and effort it has taken to produce us. This shows that the cosmos is a tragic place as well as a place full of humour, wonder and creativity. Somehow the tragedy of Gaia’s decimation by one of her greatest achievements – human consciousness - could be part of the way the cosmos is learning something. That’s the way I make some meaning out of the current crisis.

EB: Thomas Berry said there is a sacrificial aspect to the evolutionary process. Tragedy is a human manifestation of that. The failed experiments get sacrificed—in biological, cultural or personal evolution. In biological evolution it has happened on a grand scale.

The paleo-climate data that are coming out now are very disconcerting. An important paper in Nature Geoscience this year shows that our CO2 emissions are taking place ten times faster than at the last major global warming event, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). That was 56 million years ago when methane hydrates were released en masse from the oceans, raising the average temperature of the Earth by 5C (9F). It developed slowly over 20,000 years, while we are doing this in 200 years. The authors conclude that our present trajectory is heading towards one of the biggest warming / mass extinctions in the geological history of the Earth. Can we change course quickly enough to stop this process? Have we already gone past the tipping point?

SH: If anyone is going to change things, it may not be the western democracies, because we have elections, and you always have to do what the electorate wants, so it’s almost impossible for politicians to focus on issues that might be unpopular or inconvenient for the electorate .  If anyone is going to bring about serious change, perhaps it will be the Chinese dictatorship. They are beginning to understand the danger for themselves. They have re-forested vast areas of China because they realize the dangers of deforestation. I could almost believe China could provide the leverage for tipping us all into the beginnings of a less impactful way of life. They have their ancient culture, which is of course very ecological. The current regime is a brutal, but it is also major economic player. It would be an incredible irony, wouldn’t it – and things do often work in ironic ways – if one of the most repressive regimes on the planet turns around and forces everybody else to move in an ecological direction.  They can just create an edict and everybody in China must comply. And they are perhaps beginning to realize that to protect themselves, they have to work on a global level.

The old nation-state way of political organization is outdated. But of course there isn’t time to put an alternative in place. That’s not going to happen in the little time that’s left. Strangely enough, my hope is that China might lead the world into a more sustainable future rather than America. America is going in the wrong direction.

The science seems to suggest that there might be time to avert the worst impacts of climate change if we can extract some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via massive reforestation and other initiatives, but of course we are going in exactly the opposite direction.

EB: Recent assessments made independently by Australian and Dutch government agencies have compared World3 computer modelling (the latest iteration of Paul Ehrlich’s work) with recent trends; so-called “business-as-usual”. These studies conclude the economy cannot grow much further than 2015, due to the decline of non-renewable resources. They also find that population peaks at between 7 and 8 billion in 2030, and then declines. By the end of the century they point to a human population of about 4 billion, living in an environment of runaway global warming. Absent a very radical collective shift, this seems credible. So it is getting to that collective shift in time that is the real challenge.

Existential psychologists like Ernest Becker have talked a lot about our inability to cope with our own mortality. At some level, there seems to be a collective version of the same thing now. Consumerism becomes more manic, because at some cultural level we know something awful is happening. We simply can’t cope with it. And if you have enough corporate fossil fuel propaganda to raise doubts in people’s minds, it gives them the perfect excuse to say “Well if they can’t agree, I’m not going to worry about it” and bury themselves in their usual daily activities.


SH: More consumerism takes you away from reality and gives you a fantastic technological world, which leads you to destroy the Earth via more consumption. The whole syndrome is very clear.

EB: A last word on morphic resonance with respect to all this? What happens to the memory of how to evolve complex multi-cellular beings or consciousness?

SH: The idea is that there is memory in Nature so that if something major happens in the in the natural world, it is remembered. So it seems to me that if morphic resonance is a genuine phenomenon of nature (and there is hard evidence that this is the case) then any awakening or enlightenment  is remembered by the Cosmos, and so that memory could become available to  help awakening happen somewhere else, on another planet, in another solar system. Once complex multicellular life has evolved, that memory should be held somewhere, somehow, and make it more likely to happen again elsewhere.

EB: Does that make us more accepting of the tragic dimension of what is happening?

SH: We have to accept it. Even in one’s own life there is tragedy. We have to accept that too. Human life can be tragic.

My own view is that we need to develop a deeply heartfelt connection with the Earth. I encourage people to find what I call their “Gaia place”. It could be a window sill in a city, a tree in a park, or if people are lucky to live somewhere near the country, a place in the woods to which they can return again and again.  There are simple practices one can do in one’s Gaia place, such as carefully looking at leaves, at small insects. Even in a window box you will find small living beings. Spend time with them. Perhaps you could make sketches of them, write poems about them. Feel the life that is there. It sounds romantic, but it isn’t. It’s truly a meditative practice to cultivate a sense of connection with your Gaia place.

Meditate outside if you are a Buddhist, rather than in your room. Meditate with your eyes open. Touch, feel and sense Gaia and make that true meditation. Make nature your deepest, most profound guru.  Then of course, you will want take practical action, such as consuming fewer high impact products, joining the Transition Town movement, recycling, , building community. For me, the core of all of this activity is to really allow Nature to become animate – to know in your very bones that the Earth is alive. This is the first step to saving ourselves and the planet somewhat like it was when it gave birth to humanity.  This is the most important element of my daily practice.


Interview by John Stanley, Diane Stanley & David Loy for Ecobuddhism.org, October 2012.



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