Some of the focus within COP26 has been about the use of fossil fuels. I can remember attending a conference in the mid-1990s where one of the speakers, Hermann Scheer, said something that I have never completely forgotten, but of which I have been reminded recently. (It is also only latterly that I have been made aware how influential Dr. Scheer was in the growth of solar power in Germany around the turn of the century).
When talking about how we humans generate energy, he made the suggestion that where we obtain energy from says something about our collective state. If we are using fossil fuels for this purpose, we are extracting something from underneath the ground and beneath our feet. As regards alternatives to this, at least wind and solar power (but perhaps especially solar) involve us looking upwards.
As I am interested in symbolism, I was particularly fascinated by how Dr. Scheer talked symbolically. He made a link between what is in the earth potentially linking with our more “earthbound” side and what is above it with a higher part of us.
The view he expressed, as I remember it, was that we were unlikely as a species to make major steps towards finding alternatives to fossil fuels unless we were also able to work on resisting the effects of the part of us which has the potential to drag us down. What I saw as significant in this idea is that it therefore makes many of the issues around climate change into a spiritual challenge.
Twenty-five years later I am still personally of the view that discussions on the environment can demonstrate the extent to which we as a whole race are motivated primarily by our own concerns or whether we are able to look beyond them. I don’t believe the latter is possible unless we resist our tendency to deny this aspect of the climate crisis.
Perhaps, in a strange way, the crisis we now face ecologically adds extra weight and urgency to the need for all of us as human beings to work on ourselves spiritually. It may be that we can only overcome this crisis by finding that which breaks through these spiritual blocks in ourselves.
Since being reminded of these issues, I’ve also been thinking about the extent to which one part of our spiritual challenge is in the realm of dealing with uncertainty. It sometimes feels to me as if, as a race, we prefer the certainty of increasing temperatures which are at least quantifiable (even if their effects are not necessarily totally so), rather than attempting to feel our way towards alternatives. That may be partly because of the size of the challenge of doing so on the scale needed to limit, let alone to reverse, the growth in emissions of greenhouse gases. This also raise more questions than we can currently answer about how we live, including in relation to how our economies are structured.
I was recently watching a BBC documentary called Growing Up Green about three people who grew up at the Findhorn Foundation. This is a fifty-year old spiritual community in north-east Scotland which has a strong emphasis on sustainability and has had for most of its life. These people talked about the influence that growing up in that location had had on aspects of their life as young adults. I was particularly struck by what one of them said about solutions to climate change. They used the phrase “not a one-size fits all” in relation to finding solutions and then went on to say that whilst technology could play a role there also needed to be room for community- or nature-based solutions. There seemed to be not only an acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers but also a sense of openness to a variety of responses to our situation, combined with the idea that if it is possible for us to find a (multi-faceted) way forward.
Intriguingly, I also caught a glimpse of the TV wildlife presenter, Liz Bonnin, on the BBC recently, when she was talking about the need to allow nature space and the opportunity (and perhaps even support) to resolve some of the issues that we are facing. That also brings me to ask, “If we are part of nature, what space do we need to be part of the solution?”
This reminds me once again of the approach of Iain McGilchrist. I have written about his sense in The Master and His Emissary that we need to move from a left-hemisphere way of thinking to more of a right-hemisphere one. He has published a new book, The Matter with Things, this week and I look forward to reading this. I can’t help feeling that it will have much to say which I at least will see as relevant to the dilemmas being discussed currently at COP26. As part of my own thoughts about this, I have returned to reflecting on images of wind or breath. My primary source for this is from within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. These images are often used in the Bible for representations of Spirit/the Holy Spirit. However, the Findhorn Foundation’s original wind turbine, erected in 1989, is named Moya after the Sesotho word for 'wind and spirit’. The inherent unpredictability of wind power, which may not always seem to be an advantage, can also point to this link with the potential in Spirit for something new and unexpected to be created. Perhaps one part of our way forward is becoming more comfortable with not knowing, something the right hemisphere seems to offer. Maybe at the same time as working concretely for clear solutions, we need to keep a space open for approaches to emerge which are currently not within our focus.
The right hemisphere also seems more able to cope with multiplicity. Part of my vision is that we need to weave in and out of a variety of ways of finding all the things we can do to help. Another issue mentioned by the young adults growing up at the Findhorn Foundation was holism. This can be about seeing the value of a whole multitude of contributions and realising that many different things can have a positive impact when it comes to working to reduce negative human impacts on our world. On a very basic level, that means that each person has something that they can contribute and we may need to remind ourselves that what may look like having a minimal effect could be a lot more powerful than we think. When we consider holism in the context of ecosystems, we often become aware that what looks like an insignificant aspect is a crucial part of the whole system. If we think of combatting climate change as a “whole system”, it may be that we can never be sure what the most crucial element is. That confounds much of the way we tend to think as human beings, not just our desire for certainty, but also our sense of creating hierarchical patterns. It may be that the way out of what looks a lot of the time like an impasse is something that we would tend quickly to dismiss. We may need as part of the solution to work on cultivating “radical openness” or, to put it another way, strange bedfellows may become a norm. Someone I know has been part of COP26 and maybe they will bring back from Glasgow a sense of some of the new partnerships which need to be forged.