Earth system science has predicted several tipping points in the complex ecology of our planet that include ice sheet disintegration, ocean acidification, carbon dioxide induced temperature rise and rainforest die-back.
But the key point that needs tipping is our own thought. We no longer live in a stable geological age but our Western culture with its deterministic paradigms of planning and control has yet to get this. At least judging from our collective behaviour it looks like business as usual.
Where we are getting it is through very anxious feelings as a collective spasm of existential dread for our species gets spread through the underground human equivalent of mycelia. Our collective unconscious has got the message, we are in grave danger but as our cultural ego has stopped listening, basking instead in technological commodities and the fetish pleasures of selfies, our social engagement customs are in defensive vigilance and we yet to wake up to this real crisis.
Psychological services are being inundated with requests for help with eco-anxiety. Explanations for this grasp onto the apocalyptic media stories and the direct messages of Extinction Rebellion but as many of those suffering sleeplessness, helplessness and panic attacks are children it seems more accurate to talk of an outbreak of environmental awareness.
As historians of science have pointed out, it is the young of the discipline, who are not so caught by the old paradigm, can see its problems. Traditionally they often have to wait for the old scientists to retire or die. The school strikers know that we do not have time for that. The absurd admonishments from the old that they should not be missing out on lessons are typical of defensive rationalisations.
So we are at a cultural tipping point. Can we listen? Can we see the signs? As Wallace has written in the Uninhabitable Earth, they are written clearly enough in floods, storms, tsunamis, droughts and plagues.
Perhaps it is too scary to look, too traumatic to face into? Perhaps our risk-averse culture is in flight mode and doubling down into its escapist comforts of entertainment and drugs?
What makes it safe-enough to have a conversation about these troubling fears? Small gatherings in ‘climate cafes’ and other groups create conditions in which participants listen to each other and our social engagement is soothed. Thought leaders such as Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough give permission for new generative conversations that were previously thought impossible.
What we know from chaos theory is that tipping points happen at thresholds between different stable patterns where the current system is vulnerable to small shifts that can amplify into large changes. It is at these vulnerable thresholds that transformation can be the most potent. Portals to previously unthought possibilities open. The difficulty is to stay in the uncertain process rather than reach for the comfort of an early closure.
Like any existential crisis, our present ecological emergency offers an opportunity to re-think what it means to be human. Such a radical adaptation might include:
- relinquishing our cherished special, religiously sanctioned, position of dominion over other species
- feelings the existential shame for our betrayal of our instinctual inter-dependence
- taking responsibility for our violence and hate towards other beings
- restoring our sense of earth sentience and repairing our damaged relation reclaiming our capacity to give birth to a radical imagination
Those courageous enough to engage, despite their trepidation, often sense the import of doing something. They are present to the dilemma. They sense, or pre-sense, that something vital, huge is attempting to emerge. This sensing is not a clairvoyance but it is a implicit perception of our emergent future – what is probable amoung the multiple possibilities.
This pre-sensing is like an intuition of fate. The touch of another sense that we have forgotten or has become vestigial in our ego dominated consciousness. Although images are everywhere in our commoditised and media dominant world, austerity is not simply financial but reflects a poverty of imagination.
Understanding the poisoning of psyche through the dissociated and avoidant culture we inhabit requires a process of detoxifying. The capacity to imagine beyond clever scenario planning into an unknown future will require un-domesticating our imagination. A likely social collapse will bring with it a jagged disruption of our stable known world.
In these dangerous times, how can we both attend to the tragic and open to the powers that our human species seem to have forgotten or misused? It is at this juncture that we need help from the other-than-human to re-member our animal nature and our embedded participation within the natural world.
The Presence of the Future workshop (http://www.futurestory.org/4-idiots-presents.html) will support our asking for help from the other-than-human, our other nature to recover a lost attunement. It will involve both a letting go, through grieving the losses and a letting come through a midwifing of the imaginal. This letting come is a radical receptivity that can reconnect us with the elemental powers from which we are estranged. The potential for revival, reawakening, rebirth and resilience come through giving a place to the tragic; to retrieve our smile at the sweetness of life amidst the tragedy.