The Findhorn Foundation is hosting a major international conference on the theme of ‘Climate Change & Consciousness: Our Legacy for the Earth‘ from April 20-26 2019, and it promises to be an important and stimulating event. I’ll be participating fully in the conference, and last year I wrote a blog, ‘Canaries of the climate change coal mine‘ as part of the preparations for it. Now, with the conference less than two months away, here are my thoughts on its theme, and what the event may be able to achieve.
Like many people, I’ve been aware of the problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and the resultant massive disturbances to the composition of our planet’s atmosphere, for a long time. Indeed, in 1986 I was the main organiser for a large-scale conference that was held at the Findhorn Foundation, entitled ‘One Earth: A Call to Action’, which sought to address the negative effects that humans were having on the planet by stimulating practical action on both a personal and collective level.
That event was based on the recognition that we knew then, as we do today, what all the problems of the world are – they confront us daily, in newspapers, on television and when anyone walks around in the streets of our overpopulated and polluted cities. We also knew then (as now) what the solutions are. For example, we’ve known for decades how to get energy from renewable sources such as the sun and wind, and there’s enough food produced in the world to feed everyone, it’s just not distributed properly or fairly. The conference in 1986 was designed to address what was missing – the commitment to act on the solutions, and to implement them, both individually in our own lives and at a larger scale, by governments and by major corporations etc.
That conference culminated with a plenary session in which we invited any participant, who felt so moved, to make a personal commitment to carry out some positive action that would benefit the Earth. My own commitment was to launch a project to help restore the Caledonian Forest in the Highlands of Scotland. That was the key step for me in founding the charity, Trees for Life, which has gone on to become the only organisation specifically dedicated to the recovery of the forest, having planted over 1.5 million native trees to date and receiving a number of awards for its work.
I was inspired to make that commitment by having developed a deep personal connection with Nature, through working in one of the Findhorn Foundation’s gardens, and by spending time out in Glen Affric, which contains one of the best remnants of the Caledonian Forest. There, I felt as though the old trees were calling out for help; they were dying out without any younger ones growing to take their place, as all the seedlings that germinated were getting eaten by deer. Because I felt connected to the area and to the trees, I could really sense inside myself the loss that was occurring, and I knew I had to act, to help the forest recover and regenerate.
What I was discovering then was what I call my missing natural birthright, that I (like most people nowadays) was deprived of when I was growing up – intimate contact with wild Nature. For most of the time that humanity has existed on the planet, every person grew up immersed fully in their local ecosystem, knowledgeable about their place and all the species, ecological features and seasonal cycles there. It is only comparatively recently that we have lost that connection, and have grown up instead with the illusion that we are separate from (and somehow better than) the rest of Nature. I believe it is that shift in consciousness which is at the root of most of the problems in the world today, including climate change, and which the upcoming conference needs to address to be successful in its aims.
This quality of deep connectedness, or recognition of the oneness of all life, is at the heart of the Deva messages that were received in meditations by one of the Findhorn Community’s founders, Dorothy Maclean. She perceived those messages as coming from the archetypal intelligence or spirit of individual plant species, and many of them spoke of the urgent need for humanity to develop a new relationship with Nature, based on co-operation and co-creation, instead of exploitation and domination.
That understanding of the interconnectedness of all life is central to most (if not all) of the indigenous cultures on the planet, and is one of the key factors that differentiate their relationship with Nature from that of modern day mainstream society.
This knowledge was also an integral part of western cultures until relatively recently, when it has become buried, lost and forgotten by the rise of reductionist thinking and the materialistic lifestyles that isolate people from nature. It has been left to visionaries, mystics and those who spend quality time in Nature to keep this wisdom alive.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the developments in quantum physics resulted in a scientifically-based understanding of the fact that we are intimately connected with the entire world around us. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle led to the recognition that an observer affects the outcome of the phenomena being observed in quantum mechanics.
However, the implications and significance of this were not incorporated into mainstream thinking and culture. Instead, as the 20th century unfolded, materialism and consumerism took over, with the natural world being viewed as an endless ‘resource’ that could be exploited to the maximum in the pursuit of profit.
In 1962, the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, ‘Silent Spring’, highlighted the fact that pesticides such as DDT that were being used against insects spread throughout ecosystems. Her research showed that they were accumulating in organisms higher up in food webs, causing the thinning of eggshells in birds and probably causing cancer in humans. Meanwhile the target insect species rapidly bred resistance to the pesticides, rendering them ineffective after 7-10 years.
Rachel Carson’s work played a key role in the formation of the modern environmental movement, and it was successful in getting some pesticides such as DDT banned in many countries. However, the deeper message, of the interconnectedness of all life, didn’t get picked up by mainstream society, although it has become a central concept in the field of ecology.
1962 was also significant in that it was the year in which the Findhorn Community was established, and the founders’ work with Nature, as exemplified through the Deva messages, began to spread the message of the oneness of all life to a new generation of spiritual seekers.
From the discoveries of quantum physics to Silent Spring, the work of the Findhorn Community and many other individuals and groups, the recognition of the interconnectedness of all life has steadily been growing in recent decades. Unfortunately, it has still not reached the critical mass that is required to create the major changes that are required in our overall culture and the large scale institutions – governments, multinational corporations, mainstream media etc – that maintain the status quo. Those bodies are in denial, with their heads in the sand as they unquestioningly pursue the insane agenda of never-ending economic growth on a finite planet.
So, despite the best efforts of many people, business as usual is continuing, and the majority of the world’s population is still sleep-walking towards the twin cliff edges of climate disaster and ecological collapse through the extinction of species and habitat loss. We’re at the 11th hour, and the rising tide of news about plastic pollution, the widespread massive declines of insect populations and the overexploitation of species, from sharks and tuna to pangolins and elephants, are the danger signals that we’re reaching a critical stage, a crisis point that will affect the future of all life on Earth.
The extinction of species, and the 6th mass extinction event in our planet’s history that we’re now causing, is the most serious threat to the Earth today. While climate breakdown will have much greater and more immediate impact on people, through for example flooding coastal cities, its overall impact on a large scale on Gaia, the living planet, will be much less than extinctions, because the latter is irreversible. The planet has gone through massive climatic variations in the past (eg the recent sequence of Ice Ages), and life has adjusted and continued.
However, after the last mass extinction event, when an asteroid hit the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico 66 million years ago, causing the extinction of 75% of all the planet’s species of plants and animals, it took life and evolution an estimated 5 million years to recover to a comparable level of biological diversity. That time frame is far beyond most people’s horizons, and the seriousness of what we’re facing therefore does not carry as much impact as it should. Instead, climate breakdown is garnering much more attention and concern, and in my view it is now the driver that will at last facilitate the widespread acceptance in our culture of the essential interconnectedness of all life on the planet. Extreme weather events such as record temperatures, floods and more powerful storms, are touching almost everyone directly, bringing home the message that our actions are having a major effect on the Earth.
This then is the consciousness that needs to be at the centre of everyone’s awareness, and to be at the heart of all decisions made by governments, corporations etc: all life is interdependent, and we each affect the whole with every choice we make. Those choices need to be aligned with the wellbeing of the planet and all life on it, including humans.
This was very eloquently expressed in one of the EarthSea books written by the American author, Ursula LeGuin. That trilogy (later expanded with other books) told the story of a young man who becomes an apprentice wizard, and the learning that he undergoes on his journey through life. The role of a wizard in EarthSea is to maintain the balance of the world, and is summarised in the following quote:
There is much wisdom in those words for our present situation. In the illusion of our separation from the rest of Nature, we’ve gone further and further out of balance, and now radical action is required to redress that. We have to learn anew what our ancestors millennia ago knew intuitively, and what the remaining indigenous peoples on the planet still hold central to their belief systems. We’ve also got to chart an entirely new course for humanity, in which, for the first time, we take active measures to repair the damage we’ve done to the Earth, and begin to restore degraded ecosystems.
The history of civilisation, or ‘western civilisation’ at least, is one of exploiting ecosystems to the point of collapse, and then moving on to previously untouched areas where the same process is repeated. It’s no accident that the places where ‘western civilisation’ first flourished thousands of years ago – the Fertile Crescent (present day Iraq etc), Persia (Iran today), Egypt, Carthage (modern day Tunisia) etc – are all largely desertified. Civilisations don’t spring up in harsh environments, where it’s a struggle to survive. Those ancient peoples picked the most abundant areas to settle in, but degraded them through overexploitation.
That same process has continued to this day, with the frontiers of exploitation now being the last remaining relatively untouched ecosystems on the planet – the Amazon rainforest, New Guinea, the Congo Basin, the open oceans etc. There are no more pristine and abundant areas to move on to, although our culture still operates on that same myopic basis. The recent science fiction film, ‘Interstellar’, which depicted astronauts being sent out from an Earth ravaged by desertification and hunger in search of new habitable worlds to colonise and exploit, is an expression of that same mentality.
We need to finally take responsibility for the mess and destruction we’ve created, and instead of fleeing it to wreak the same biological holocaust elsewhere, we need to do something humanity has not attempted to do in any significant way before – assisting the natural process of the Earth in helping to recover from being wounded. The biosphere has a tremendous inherent ability for self-healing after major disturbances, such as forest fires, volcanic eruptions (and asteroid impacts), but in most instances today that process is inhibited or completely blocked by human exploitation.
In his Turner Tomorrow award-winning book, ‘Ishmael’, the author Daniel Quinn described humanity as falling into two distinct categories. He termed the hunter-gatherer peoples the ‘Leavers’, as they left the world more or less as they found it, with very little trace of their own impacts visible. He contrasted them with the ‘Takers’, who we became with the rise of settled agriculture and permanent settlements, as we began taking more and more of the Earth for ourselves, depriving other species of space to live, food, and even their lives. There is obviously no viable future for the ‘Taker’ culture now, but neither can we go back to being ‘Leavers’, as the planet cannot support 7.7 billion hunter-gatherers, even if people wanted to live that way again.
Instead I believe we have to become something new – the ‘Givers’. We’ll still obviously have to take some things – food to eat, fabric for clothes, energy to keep us warm and raw (or recycled) materials for essential products – but those impacts will be outweighed by what we give back to the Earth. By reducing our demands on the planet, choosing to live more simply, with fewer possessions but more quality to our lives, we can give back some of the planet as space for natural ecosystems and species to flourish again. By participating in ecological restoration or rewilding projects, we can give life back to degraded and depleted landscapes and ecosystems. Perhaps most importantly of all, by giving our love and care to the Earth, we can enhance and accelerate her natural healing process and rediscover a sacred relationship with the rest of Nature, centred around the recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life.
In doing so, we need, in my view, to become truly indigenous to Planet Earth. Nowadays, the few remaining indigenous peoples are struggling to survive in the face of the onslaught of our consumer culture and its insatiable demands for endless growth. Their values and principles are precisely what we need to re-discover for ourselves, to replace the hollow, empty and false promises of materialistic modern day society. We cannot go back to living the simple and basic lives that hunter-gatherer indigenous peoples did – the challenge ahead of us is to find a way to take the core values and principles of indigenous cultures and translate and incorporate them into our present day lives. There are no other habitable planets nearby to escape to – we have to learn to live as though we are indigenous to our planet, because that is what we are. Here’s a brief summary in my view of what some of those shifts in values look like:
This then is the new consciousness that I see awakening within many people on the planet today, and which I hope the conference at Findhorn will celebrate and help to disseminate widely throughout the world. We need to live our personal lives, and live collectively as a global society, as though all life matters and depends on each individual action, because it does.
I’ve spent much of my adult life seeking to become indigenous to the Highlands of Scotland (I was born in central Scotland). Over several decades I’ve got to deeply know the ecology of our local ecosystem, the Caledonian Forest, and the features of specific sites, such as Glen Affric, which contains one of the best remaining fragments of the original forest. While I’m not yet quite familiar with it like the proverbial back of my hand, I do know where the coldest frost pockets are in winter, where the rare pinewood tooth fungi grow and the rarer still twinflower clings on for survival, and where black grouse have their leks, or display territories.
On that journey to becoming indigenous I’ve developed a deep love for the life of the forest and a continuously increasing knowledge about its diversity and the interconnections between species. I’ve written about some of these in my recent blogs, ‘Unseen biodiversity of Glen Affric’ – part 1 is available here, part 2 here, and part 3 is coming soon. I’ve developed a personal relationship with some of the special old trees that are a living link with the ancient forests that formerly covered most of the Highlands and were home to wolves, lynx and bears, amongst other now-extirpated species.
A new consciousness by itself is not enough though. Unless it is translated into action and implemented in practice, nothing significant will change on a physical level, and the planet will continue on its current trajectory towards ecological collapse. In fact, as I look at it, not much has changed in this regard since the 1986 conference that I worked on here at Findhorn, except that the stakes are higher than ever, and time is running out.
Many people are sensing the urgency of our times, and the need for action now. None more so than the youth of today, many of whom have been going on strike from school on Fridays to protest at inaction by governments to address the very real threats of climate breakdown. From a single 15 year old schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, protesting outside the Swedish Parliament last August, this has grown rapidly into an international movement that in my view is unstoppable in its drive to achieve meaningful change. On March 15th, two weeks from today, a coordinated global day of school strikes will take place, with at least 500 events planned in over 51 countries. This has all come about as a result of the actions of Greta Thunberg, and is a very powerful demonstration of the difference a single person can make.
Concurrently with the school strikes, the new grassroots environmental action group, Extinction Rebellion, has sprung up in the past 6 months, initially in the UK, but having rapidly spread to many other countries as well. Like the schoolchildren, the people involved in it recognise that the time for action is now – words alone are totally inadequate to tackle the challenges facing the planet.
Both of these movements give a tremendous sense of hope to me, and to many other people. I’m inspired that people are making their voices heard, and as more and more of us do so, governments, international institutions such as the World Bank, and corporations will be forced to take action. The tide has begun to turn, and the crystallised structures of ‘business as usual’ that have resisted change for so long will be unable to withstand the flow of new and positive energy that so many of us recognise must be expressed and embodied now.
In the late 1990s, when I’d already been working for the restoration of the Caledonian Forest for over a decade, and the first fruits of my labours were becoming visible in the successful growth of a new generation of young trees, I realised that in the larger context, the new forest I was helping to grow would have no future, if ‘business as usual’ continued depleting ecosystems and species all over the planet. Sooner or later that same insatiable pressure for endless economic growth and maximisation of profits would lead inevitably to the exploitation of any remaining forests. The issues, it seemed to me, had to be addressed on a much larger scale, so I developed a project that envisioned ecological restoration becoming the first shared goal of all humanity, and the over-riding task for all nations and peoples in the 21st century. It was a hugely ambitious idea, to have the 21st Century declared the Century of Restoring the Earth by the United Nations, to act as a focal point for this.
I wasn’t successful in getting that declaration made at the time, but we did hold a conference on the theme of Restoring the Earth here at Findhorn in 2002, and the conference finished with making the declaration ourselves. I’ve been quietly nurturing that idea and the vision for 20 years now, and just today, in response to an initiative from El Salvador (one of the most ecologically-depleted nations in Central America) the United Nations has declared that the years 2021-2030 will be the Decade of Ecological Restoration.
I can’t claim any direct responsibility for this achievement, and while it only covers a decade, not a century, it is nevertheless a hugely significant step in the right direction. Knowing as I do that everything is connected, I can’t help but believe that somehow, and on some level, my efforts (and those of colleagues here at Findhorn) have contributed towards this result.
One of the key messages from UN in their announcement about the declaration is that it offers an ‘unparalleled opportunity … for addressing climate change’. Here then is a mechanism and an overall context for the meaningful and radical action that is being demanded by so many. Indeed recent studies have shown that forest restoration can make a major contribution to reducing the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and thereby avoiding the worst effects of climate breakdown.
This provides a positive note to conclude by returning to the theme of the upcoming conference at Findhorn, ‘Climate Change & Consciousness: Our Legacy for the Earth‘. It has the potential to achieve similar results in terms of articulating a new expression of the consciousness of the Oneness of all life, and to act as a clarion call for the action that is urgently needed in the world today. With the contributions from a wide range of speakers and participants, I’m looking forward to an exciting and stimulating week.