The single most shocking thing that has happened to me on my journey to a full understanding of the World Problematique has been a thunderbolt recognition and acceptance of my own spirituality.
I'm 56 years old, the son of scientists. I'm a lifelong "strong atheist" in a family full of them - in fact my family boasts four unbroken generations of strong atheists, from my maternal grandparents down to my nieces. I have called myself a "hard-assed rationalist/reductionist", and all my life would have no truck nor trade with "spiritual" ideas.
About six months ago I truly understood the calamity facing the world, in all its grim glory. Peak Oil, fish depletion, soil fertility depletion, fresh water depletion, Global Warming, ocean acidification, pervasive chemical pollution, the fragility and brittleness of the global economic system - and especially the genetic underpinnings of human behaviour that make it utterly impossible for us to respond to the crisis appropriately as a civilization or species. My conclusion is that humanity is facing an imminent, inevitable and irrevocable collapse, incorporating both a severe population dieoff and the loss of most of our technological civilization. This process has already started in various places and will be complete before the end of this century. The journey from here to there is going to be harder than any of us can imagine. This frankly apocalyptic conclusion is disputed by many and accepted by few. Nevertheless, in the face of the evidence I have been convinced of its truth.
As I travelled on my journey of investigation into the Problematique and the likely outcome, I realized I was going through the five stages of grieving as defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. In a semi-satirical article about Peak Oil I defined the stages as follows:
- Denial (This isn't happening to me!) - "Those Peak Oil/Global Warming bozos are a bunch of alarmist idiots. Ignore their ravings, everything's just fine!"
- Anger (Why is this happening to me?) - "Those bastard Arabs are selling our oil to our enemies and using the proceeds to attack us. Let's get 'em, boys!"
- Bargaining (I promise I'll be a better person if...) - "I've put in compact fluorescents, switched to biodiesel and I bought a bike!"
- Depression (I don't care anymore) - "Crap, the scale of the problem and the intransigence of human behaviour mean we're screwed after all. Pass the bong."
- Acceptance (I'm ready for whatever comes) - "The nature of complex adaptive systems and Resilience Theory means were not all screwed, just most of us. I'm probably screwed, but my legacy will be to put in place what I can to help those who do survive."
It goes without saying that this is a very bleak perception. Notwithstanding the occasional rays of hope provided by the theories of resilience and adaptive cycles, it is enough to throw a Pope into despair. That was where I was stuck for many months. I had traversed Kubler-Ross' five stages and arrived at "acceptance". I asked myself "Now what?" but found no answer.
Very recently that all changed. I'm still not sure exactly why or how, but I realized that what was missing from my understanding of the universe, nature and humanity was reverence. I have always felt a sense of abstract scientific wonder when contemplating the size and complexity of the universe, but had actively rejected any notion of reverence or worship - probably due to the associations with Abrahamic religions and their fundamentally anti-human, anti-nature dogmas. Of course it's one thing to feel wonder and to recognize a need for reverence, but another thing entirely to shake off the conditioning of decades and actually feel reverent. Many difficult questions needed to be answered. Toward what do I feel reverent? What is the significance of that feeling of reverence, both to me and to the object of my reverence? Am I betraying a fundamental tenet of my life, that there is nothing supernatural in the universe? Might my reverence be erroneously interpreted as a belief that there is something supernatural in the universe?
As is so often the case, the spiritual transformation preceded my intellectual comprehension of it. All those questions above were answered, but more or less after the fact. I quickly realized that I was probably feeling a pantheistic sensation. When I went searching to confirm my suspicions, I found this description, which suited me perfectly:
Pantheism is above all a profoundly emotional response to Nature and the wider Universe. It accepts that these are the only reality that we can truly know, the only reality that truly matters, the only reality we have to relate to. They are the place we arose, the place we belong, the context of our daily lives. We are at home here.
That emotional response has two primary elements. One is a sense of awe, wonder, reverence and acceptance of the natural universe, based on its power and beauty and mystery. This sense is the basis for some pantheists' use of words such as "god" and "divine," though these words are never used in their traditional Western theistic sense. However, many pantheists prefer to avoid theistic words because of the ambiguity they give rise to.
The other is a sense of belonging, of community with the starry skies, with all living beings and with our own bodies. This sense is the basis for statements about the unity of all things, and about the unity of the individual with the whole. It is the basis on which pantheists can talk about and experience union with the whole, similar to the ecstatic experiences of mystics in all spiritual traditions.
I also found this definition:
The word pantheism derives from the Greek words pan ('all') and theos ('God'). Thus pantheism means 'All is God'. Pantheism is the religious belief that Nature is divine (God) and we humans are part of the One, interconnected whole. It is in realising our connection to the One Universe (Nature, God, Brahman, Tao, Space) that we find truth, spiritual fulfillment and solace.
Pantheists usually deny the existence of a personal God (theism) and creationism (a separate God who created the world from nothing).
Further research revealed that I was in the pantheistic company of such luminaries as David Suzuki, James Lovelock, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Oscar Wilde, Mikhail Gorbachev, Sitting Bull, Henry David Thoreau, Carl Sagan, Albert Schweitzer, Georgia O'Keefe, Rachel Carson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Giordano Bruno. With company like that, it's hard to feel marginal. The attraction of pantheism for environmentalists and ecologists like many reading this article is obvious.
Based on my experience, what may help a person fully come to terms with the looming cataclysm is for them to complete a three-level journey of understanding. First you need to accept intellectually that the crisis is real and in many ways final for humanity and many of our fellow species of plants and animals. Then you need to accept emotionally that the situation is irrevocable. Finally you need to come to a spiritual acceptance of our fate and the fate of the Earth Mother's other children, along with our role in creating that fate.
As soon as I realized that I needed to feel reverence for nature and was able to summon a sense of the sacred in the earth and all its constituents, my lingering, intractable despair suddenly vanished. What is, simply is. We have injured our Earth Mother grievously through our intentional but unaware actions. The best we can do now is to tell her (or perhaps we are just telling ourselves) that we know we hurt her, are sorry for the hurt, will do as much as we can to put it right, and will do everything in our power to ensure that it never happens again. This acknowledgment can reinforce a sense of our accountability and focus us on our responsibility to act.
I now understand that I have always been some sort of pantheist. The Gods and Goddesses of other pagan paths are still foreign to my thinking, but I suspect I will use them as metaphorical focal points or levers in my journey to a spiritual understanding of the situation. I suspect (and fervently hope) that there is about to be an enormous surge in spiritual awakening as the shape of the iceberg clarifies through the mists of fragmentary data, denial and deliberate obscurantism by vested interests. Such spiritual growth is a great boon, and should be encouraged and nurtured wherever we notice its seeds. If you notice those seeds within yourself, give them some sunshine, a little water and good compost; the fruit of that plant is extraordinarily rare and valuable beyond measure.