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Let Us Not Talk About the Climate Crisis Any Longer (Part One)

Updated: May 24

"An absence of a sense of the sacred is the basic flaw in many of our efforts at ecologically or environmentally adjusting our human presence to the natural world. It has been said, 'We will not save what we do not love'. It is also true that we will neither love nor save what we do not experience as sacred. In the end, only our sense of the sacred will save us."

- Thomas Berry

Sunsrise over Bergsfjorden, island of Senja, North-Norway, February 2017. Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven

The audio version of this essay, read by me.

How so let us not talk about the climate crisis any longer?

Is it not the biggest existential problem facing humanity, the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads and those of our children and grandchildren, the stealthy killer that threatens all of our futures and could make our planet uninhabitable? Is it not what everyone should be constantly talking about?

Is it not what we should constantly be bringing to the attention of the media and the political world?

As the title of this text suggests, I am now inclined (along with quite a few others) to answer that this is not necessarily so. That the focus on "the climate crisis" is, in a sense, blinding us, and giving us a false picture of the situation we find ourselves in. And this for many reasons.

Certainly not because that problem would be any less dire than what science tells us, or than what the ever-increasing climate catastrophe around the world increasingly makes us realize. On the contrary, what we call 'the climate crisis' is even more serious than you may already realize, or allow yourself to realize.

But then again, the convergence of ecological crises we are experiencing is about so much more than just 'climate'.

By continuing to reduce the crisis of our planet to a question of 'climate', we are still keeping a very large part of the problem (and of the actual causes but also of the possible solutions to that problem) in the blind spot of our consciousness.

The order of magnitude of what is happening, and of what we have to do, does not yet sink in with the general public, and focusing by far the most attention on 'the climate' also makes it more difficult to consider the broader panorama of the convergence of ecological and other crises.

What is currently happening in our biosphere is far more far-reaching than ‘only’ an accumulation of greenhouse gases, serious though that issue is. And once we begin to see the broader picture, it also becomes clear that the changes that will be required will be far more profound than our institutions, our political representatives, our entrepreneurs and business communities, or even our green parties and environmental organizations now see or recognize.

This may seem difficult news to hear at first, but as always, there is good news: these profound social upheavals may make a much better world possible, and may force us to change many aspects of our societies that we now take for granted, and consider necessary and untouchable (although those aspects deemed necessary do not currently make us happy, or even 'more prosperous').

A better world. The cynic in us immediately protests. We are no longer very adept at imagining a better world. You could even say that we do not really have an image of the future anymore, and that many people already (largely unconsciously) assume that things will not turn out well for Homo Sapiens. I know few if any people who look to the future with confidence, and who assume that our children or grandchildren will have a better life than we do. I do not know anyone who ever muses about what life will be like for the descendants of our grandchildren, in two hundred years, or in two thousand years.

Not much remains of the progress-optimism of the 1950s and 1960s.

In this sense we are not being good ancestors: the fate of the generations that follow ours is not something that is at the center of our attention (where it belongs, however: we did not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we have it on loan from future generations).

It seems that we have actually relegated the future to a kind of taboo sphere: better not to think too much about it or talk too much about it. Putting forward the possibility of a better world, in the midst of all the crises, the suffering, the disasters that now seem to assail us from all sides, it soon smells to the average sober 'citizen' of naivety, otherworldliness, even foolishness.

But in order to see the possibilities for transition and change, we must first see clearly what is currently going on, and that is so much more than 'the climate crisis'.

Massive fish die-off in Louisiana due to intensive agriculture in surrounding areas and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010. Photo National Geographic.

Now follows a sample of what, apart from the 'climate crisis', is currently going on with our world, our biosphere which is our shared body (especially with regard to the state of life with which we share the planet).

Since the arrival of man, about half of all the forests on the planet have disappeared. The remaining rainforests are being cut down at the rate of forty soccer fields per minute. Since the 1970s, seventy percent of all animals have dissapeared, and eighty four percent of large land mammals have disappeared, as well as a similar percentage of marine mammals. Of the large fish species, ninety percent have disappeared worldwide. Losses of more than fifty percent were also observed in most other fish species. There is now a real possibility that the oceans and seas will be devoid of fish within a few decades.

Fifty percent of the mangrove forests have disappeared. The total area of "wetlands" has declined by almost ninety percent around the world, and they are still disappearing three times faster than rainforests.

Kelp forests, the undersea equivalents of tropical rainforests, are disappearing from all the world's oceans. On the coast of California and Tasmania, for example, a decline of no less than ninety-five percent was observed. And with the kelp forests, countless other species that depend on that so rich and varied habitat are disappearing. The kelp forests are responsible for a greater share of biodiversity and carbon uptake than the Amazon forest. But they are thus dying - just like that Amazon forest, which has probably already reached an irreversible "tipping point" and will become a savannah.

Half of all coral reefs, which are also essential habitat for tens of thousands of species and play an important role in the ocean carbon cycle, have disappeared. The other half is seriously threatened and may disappear in the coming decades.

The number of birds in the European and American countryside has declined by one-third to one-half.

Animals living in the wild now make up about four percent of animals living on earth. Humans and their domesticated animals (cows, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, etc) represent the remaining 96 percent of all living animals.

The mass of plastic near the surface in some areas of our oceans now exceeds the remaining biomass of all that still lives near the surface in those oceans.

The total mass of man-made structures (buildings, roads, bridges, factories, etc) now weighs more than the biomass of all that still lives on Earth.

Of all insects, a decline of eighty to ninety percent has been observed globally. Sixty percent of flying insects have disappeared worldwide.

Insects are the basis of the food chain on land. They were the first creatures to colonize the land, and their disappearance should set off all the alarm bells we can think of. The disappearance of insects heralds the disappearance of life in our biosphere.

Every day, some two hundred species of plants, animals and insects are going extinct. You read that right: every day about two hundred species are disappearing forever from the fabric of life on Earth.

Some warn of a coming "sixth wave of extinction," but it has been going on for quite some time. In fact, this should rightly be front-page news every day.

A quick calculation tells me that since I began considering my new project some two years ago, some 146,000 species of plants, insects and animals have become extinct, gone forever from our planet. I still remember the first days and nights of pondering, soul-searching, mulling over my decision to stop painting, during the year 2019. So at the beginning of that period, only so recently, our biosphere was populated with a hundred and forty-six thousand more species of plants, insects and animals than today. Within two years or so, there will be that many less.

Since this ratio of extinction has been in place for several decades, we can say that more than one million species have disappeared from our biosphere since the year two thousand.

No less than another one million species are threatened with extinction in the near future (the next few decades).

I would ask you to reflect on this, to let these numbers sink in, keeping in mind that every species of life is unique and has evolved over millions or tens of millions of years to arrive at its present form and its present unique place in the fabric of life in our biosphere, in myriads of complex interactions with countless other species.

It is very difficult to grasp, to feel, to understand. The scale of this dying is overwhelming, and so we hold the awareness of it at bay.

This is the Great Dying, the great exodus. I don't think there is a composer who could come up with a “funeral march” that would do justice to this exodus.

Even an incomplete enumeration like the one above is extremely painful and alarming, but it is nevertheless necessary to let it sink in fully. Just as we need to hear a serious diagnosis of life-threatening illness in a friend or family member and need to let the pain and sorrow about that illness enter our consciousness and heart.

Who, upon learning that a loved one is seriously ill, would choose not to want to know? Who would choose to remain in "blissful ignorance" of a condition that could potentially be life threatening to your spouse, or one of your children?

No, we want to know, and no matter how terrible the news and how small the chance of survival may seem, we choose to know, and to go to great lengths to make recovery and healing possible.

Is not the same appropriate then when it comes to the health and life chances of all of our shared body, the being we are all inextricably linked to, our biosphere?

Are we not connected in love to the organism we are part of in the same way as we are to a beloved partner or children? Is not the reflex of 'not wanting to know' as miserably misplaced as it would be in the case of a situation that threatens the life of your loved one?

Image of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life which in Norse mythology connects all beings living on Earth not only to each other, but also to the various higher realms in the cosmos. Image: Wikipedia

The 'great dying' described above is what is usually meant by the term 'biodiversity crisis'. But this word is insufficient to do full justice to what is happening, and like the word 'climate crisis' is too mechanistic, too detached, too rational, too much dissociating from the essence of our connection with the object of that term.

Probably no word is really adequate to represent what is happening, and in this sense the current convergence of crises is also a crisis in our language, and our culture: we don't really have language that can communicate this. Except maybe the language of the heart, and of art: poetry.

So if we look even a little bit beyond what is happening through greenhouse gas emissions, it quickly becomes clear that the whole fabric of life on this planet is severely threatened, and that there is a mass extinction going on that is worse than any before.

There have been five mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth. The largest so far was not the one in which the dinosaurs disappeared some 65 million years ago, but one that took place much longer ago: the Permian Mass Extinction, when two hundred and fifty million years ago some ninety-five percent of all life on Earth disappeared.

The cause of that extinction wave, called "The Great Dying," is not known. Possibly a combination of factors such as temperature fluctuations, a change in the composition of the atmosphere due to centuries of underground burning of coal seams.

Science already foresees that this current extinction wave could go even further than that 'Great Dying'. So there is an extinction event without precedent taking place right now, and it threatens all of life in our shared body, the biosphere.

And the cause of this great dying that is now taking place? It is tempting to immediately point the finger of blame at 'mankind’. Indeed, this extinction wave is caused by human activity, by what Homo Sapiens does and leaves on this planet. But at the same time, a nuance needs to be added: it is not so much the presence of humans (or even the number of humans) as such, but a well-defined part of the activity of a well-defined part of those humans that constitutes the problem.

Pointing to, say, overpopulation as the main culprit is a way of ending the conversation, and of not having to think about it any further. After all, we are not going to reduce the number of people by a few billion in the next few years. If we point to overpopulation as the cause of the problem, we don't need to look at the real causes of the ‘Great Dying’. It is a way of not letting the problem get into our system, our awareness and our hearts: it is, after all, the ‘others’, and especially the excess of others, in countries that are far away, that are the cause of the problems.

The causes of the convergence of ecological crises are complex, and the total number of people certainly plays a role. But much more than the total number, it is about what a relatively small portion of those people are doing. And that, again, deserves a nuance: not everyone in that relatively small portion of humanity bears equal responsibility, and rather than pointing to the individual behavior of all those people as the main culprit (although that individual behavior certainly is important) it is the systems that an even much smaller portion of those people have built in the domain of activity we call "economics," and the seemingly magical means we have used for millennia to represent value within that domain: money. These systems have grown into unstoppably expanding dynamics that by their very nature cannot help but devour our biosphere alive and mercilessly grind all that lives into money, while most people (including those in what we call the 'rich countries') derive absolutely no benefit from this process.

More about that and the causes of this extinction wave in future blog posts, but for now it is important to know that this is not quite the same phenomenon as what we call "the climate crisis," although it shares many causes with it and is of course intertwined with it. Both are processes that result from what we do and don't do in our biosphere, and both are a symptom of a crisis that is broader than ‘climate’ or ‘biodiversity’.

The Great Dying is also about much more than percentages, numbers, statistics. That 'counting' in itself is also part of our habit of quantifying everything, a habit that also does not always put us on the right track. This crisis is about more than carbon taxes or emission rights, it is about the actual suffering and death of a living organism, and that story cannot be entirely summarized in tables and figures. If even our language is already in some sense failing us when it comes to describing the current crisis, how can we think that numbers and tables can do it justice?

If we consider the Earth as a living being, and consider all the forms of life in our biosphere (ourselves included) as the organs and tissues of this living being (the image that is more and more used in the latest findings of biology, systems ecology, and biogeochemistry), then we can state that this being is very sick.

One by one, the essential connective tissues, the cellular cohesion, the synergies and processes that support and sustain the life of this being are weakening. All the elements in this tissue matter. More and more it is becoming clear how everything is connected to everything else in our biosphere, and how seemingly insignificant insects, small and large mammals, plants on land and in the sea, fish, plankton, and even bacteria and viruses all play an important role in the metabolism and respiration (and yes, temperature regulation too) of this living being.

What we call "the climate" is part of and an expression of this creature's metabolism, and the rising average temperature is certainly a signal and a symptom: it is a fever. But reducing the condition to just a matter of fever leaves out much of the actual disease of this living entity.

This living entity, so skillful in maintaining the proper conditions for life on this planet through so many biofeedback loops and finely tuned processes in symbiosis with the life forms it provides a home for, and for which scientist James Lovelock coined the term "Gaia" in 1972 (at the suggestion of his good friend the writer Willam Golding), this living entity is actually in a condition that could be fatal. Too many organs have been weakened, too many life functions disrupted. At some point, which is not far off in the future, this life is going to sink and come to a halt because of massive damage.

Video from NASA Scientific Visualization Studio, depicting a seven-day period in 2005 with increased 3D rendering of moving cloud cover.

It is not yet too late to save this life, and bring it back to a state of healthy balance (homeostasis) through intensive treatment. But for this we must first clearly perceive what the actual situation is, what the steps are that must be taken to support the vital organs and bring them back to life, and what must change to energize and balance the essential connection between all organs.

When we talk about "the climate crisis," we are usually talking about only one aspect of that situation: the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through the use of fossil fuels.

But by focusing all our attention on that aspect of greenhouse gas effect, energy use, and the "temperature crisis," we miss a lot. We still often seem to think that if only we solve the energy issue we can continue as before, and that we can go back on the path of endless economic growth. That we can continue our lifestyles and habits unchanged, as long as we switch to "renewable energy" and we drive electric cars.

It seems a bit as if we are only trying to treat a symptom (the patient's fever), and are still disregarding the other symptoms of the disease. Actually, we don't want to know how sick the patient really is. We believe that as long as we get the patient's fever temperature down, everything will be fine. This picture, of course, fits our need for mechanical simplicity and rational control, which are part of our worldview. But the situation is more complex, and the state of health of the sick person, the living being (our biosphere) hooked to the ventilator in the ICU , is more comprehensive and in more critical condition than we realize.

All these processes seem to be moving faster and faster toward a kind of tipping point, where we will have a choice: what kind of world do we really want? And do we actually still want to choose life?

I would like to refer to the great work by author and ‘climate thinker’ Charles Eisenstein, in which he elaborates this same thesis in broader scope end greater depth: ‘Climate, A New Story’. It is a wonderful piece of writing, and, like his other books, a key part in the development of his ‘theory of everything’, which names ‘Separation’ as the root of our problems and the main cause of our current predicament. His other works include ‘The Ascent of Humanity’, ‘Sacred Economics’ and ‘The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible’.

So the word "climate crisis" is, I feel, too narrow, limiting our perception and our thinking and feeling. It is a word that is too mechanistic, and keeps too much distance between our feeling and what we think we perceive. It is a word that also warps our thinking about 'solutions': it keeps our possible answers too much in the mode of the technological, the economically desirable, the quantifiable and controllable, the mechanical and merely rational.

That is why I suggest replacing the word 'climate crisis' with another term.

A word that would do more (but still not enough) justice to the all-encompassing nature of the various crises that now threaten our shared body.

In itself, using a different label is not a step that seems to make a whole lot of difference. But it may be a small step in this ongoing process of shifting consciousness. It will take many steps, but in terms of our perception of the problem, switching to a different term may already help initiate a different view.

I myself am going to call this crisis the ‘biosphere crisis’ rather than the climate crisis. A word that at least indicates that there is more going on than what we usually suspect, and that all the processes we observe now are part of an evolution in a living organism that is one and indivisible, our biosphere.

Granted, it is also just a word, and even this word cannot do justice to the magnitude of the problems in which we find ourselves, or to the magnitude of the Great Dying. Nor can this word by itself bring about the change in our perception and our experience, nor will it be able to open our hearts to the pain that we must feel if we are really to see what is happening to the being of which we are a part, to our 'shared body'.

But words and terminology do have their importance, and determine how we perceive the world, how we create meaning in the world.

Perhaps a better term than 'biosphere crisis' can be found, and if I find another word that summarizes it all even better, I will certainly write about that. Because ultimately it is one aspect of an even broader problem and challenge.

Peel one layer of the onion, and you invariably encounter another layer.

But this whole issue is not only about 'crises' and problems: ultimately it is about life itself, and about how we can live bétter, in harmony with our shared body.

And ultimately it is also about the intrinsic value we attribute to the world, to life, and to ourselves. About the question whether we can still see the world and ourselves as something sacred.

For as the quote at the beginning of this essay indicated, we will not likely love or save what we do not see as sacred.

To be continued in part two of this text.

All the best to you,


Clouds above Zeeland, The Netherlands. Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven


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