I’m dealing with massive cognitive dissonance right now. Multiple, contradictory beliefs and perceptions inhabit my mind, each compelling on its own terms. How do I choose?
I’ll share two of the most contradictory. Last weekend I spoke at a wonderful music festival near Asheville called Kinnection Campout. I’ve not yet been to a festival with such a positive, friendly, gentle atmosphere. The entrance booth staff were jovial; the security personnel solicitous, and I didn’t see any of the aggression, bad drug trips, or drinking that is often an undercurrent (though usually not dominant) at such festivals. It occurred to me that this event was a field generator for a “new normal” of compassion and sharing on earth. What fed my optimism the most, however, were the astonishing conversations I had with young people there about topics like subtle activism, social permaculture, regenerative politics, indigeneity, and so forth – conversations that basically did not exist when I was in my 20s. They embodied understandings that took me decades to develop and that I still inhabit most tenuously. What will they accomplish from this place that they are seemingly born into, or reach with just a single activating experience? Nor, to address the skeptics among you, were these people weekend philosophers who play with these ideas in between workweeks. They had little buy-in to the rewards and promises of the system, little ambition in the conventional sense. For them, the old story is finished. Even if they are yet a minority among their age cohort, they provide ample proof that the consciousness behind ecocide and injustice is changing.
My second input has come in the days since the festival as I’ve immersed myself in my book research. I’m looking at some of the most dire predictions of climate change which, in case you weren’t aware, basically entail the near-term extinction of most species on earth, humanity with them. Of course I’ve been aware of this narrative for a long time, but actually engaging the data about the various positive feedback loops is driving it deeper into me. Earth has already passed the tipping point into catastrophic climate change. Even if we eliminated all fossil fuels right now, that wouldn’t be enough to arrest runaway warming. The IPCC’s position is extremely conservative, and even its recommendations are politically infeasible. In the face of the facts, any optimism I might feel from the festival is a delusion.
Yet then I return to the still-vivid memory of those beautiful, alive faces, the clear eyes shining with the light of deep intelligence, and I know deep within my being that somehow, the logic of despair is a false logic. I cannot muster any convincing evidence of its falsity, but I know it nonetheless. Am I to trust that feeling I am calling “knowing”?
In fact, I can construct a rational narrative – highly implausible though it may strike the conventional mind – in which we can avert civilization-destroying ecological catastrophe. It comes from the understanding that the modern worldview, which is at the root of the ecological crisis, also generates our understanding of what is possible and how to effect change in the world. Stepping outside of it, as so many of those young people have done, opens up wider domains of the possible and the real. We can see the lineaments in everything we call holistic or alternative: technologies or modes of technology that produce impossible results. This will be of small comfort if you wholly embrace the modern worldview and dismiss everything that deviates from it. But if you have experienced what we’ve been told is impossible, then the impossibility of humanity making the transition is no longer so clear. If someone can recover from “incurable” stage 4 pancreatic cancer, what else is possible? What is the correlate of that on the level of politics or ecology? This is a question many of these young people are beginning to explore.
That is one thread of my narrative of optimism, tenuous though it may seem to you. I won’t go into the others, because my point is that the feeling I got from the festival is not wholly at odds with reason. Nor, however, does it constitute proof. Each of these two narratives stands in self-sufficient wholeness, a reality unto itself. Which, then, shall I believe?
There is a saying from the Bible: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Each of these beliefs bears different fruits in me; each corresponds to a state of being. I find the near-term extinction narrative to be paralyzing. It demotivates anything I might do to serve healing in the world on any level. What issue that I care about matters in the face of it?
The other narrative, which I’ll call “the evolution of consciousness that will save the world,” confers on me an enthusiasm to serve that evolution in all its manifestations and practical applications. This narrative is not without its pitfalls: self-righteousness, spiritual elitism, and escapism are among them, particularly when it is ignorant of the very real facts on the ground. The horror and suffering on this planet extend far beyond climate change. (In fact, I believe climate change is a symptom of a deeper illness that will continue to generate crises even if climate change turns out to be less of a threat than we think.) To bypass the planet’s hurts and perils and to deny their accompanying grief through spiritual bromides like “It’s all happening for a reason,” or “the shift in consciousness will save us,” is to divert the expanded creative and healing powers of the new story away from their necessary purpose.
The illness seeks the medicine. The multiple crises that we face are precisely commensurate with the capacities they will draw forth from us. That is why both narratives I have voiced above are necessary. We must apprehend the illness, or the medicine will remain inaccessible, stunted, an embarrassing secret in the cultural closet called “alternative.”
Gazing into the most hopeless and horrifying phenomena on the planet, our own hidden wounds and unprocessed grief surface for clearing, and we discover that each form of denial – the outer circumstances and the inner wounds – mirror each other. For our optimism to be genuine as well as effective, it must countenance what is actually so.
I am fond of saying that no optimism can be authentic that has not visited the depths of despair. But today I have realized a corollary: no despair is authentic that has not fully let in the joy. Festivals like Kinnection exercise a powerful practical function by obviating the logic of despair and bestowing enthusiasm and motivation to serve the birthing of a more beautiful world. It is not that an internal inconsistency in the logic is revealed; it simply becomes somehow less relevant, less dominating, and less captivating. Without, at first, reasonable cause for hope, we find we no longer need reasons. Experiences of play, joy, and communion insinuate an unreasonable knowledge of expanded possibilities. Without these, the gloom-monger is missing an important data point. Few will listen to him because they will intuit that his despair is a joy deficit disguised as objective reasoning. Whatever he is missing, the young people I met at Kinnection, and the event itself, seemed to radiate.
So if you want to be effective in spreading alarm, go to some festivals or other places of your greatest joy. And if you want to be effective in spreading joy, visit your places of greatest grief.
I am of course aware of the political critique of festivals like this one: that they are diversions for the privileged that make our unjust and ecocidal world a little more tolerable. But I hope I have shown that they are also the opposite: they make that world less tolerable. They give us a glimpse of the world as it could be, and they nourish us with the inner resources and outer connections to serve that world.
Photo by August J. Photography