This is the first in my series of reflections on the “c-o-s-m-o-s remedy” proposed in opposition to the “ideology of e-s-c-a-p-e” by Jem Bendell in Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos (UK/USA 2021).
In contrast to the habit of Entitlement in e-s-c-a-p-e ideology, which involves thinking ‘I expect more of what I like and to be helped to feel fine,’ Bendell proposes that Compassion, in this context, involves sensing that ‘I feel an active responsibility for any of my contribution to your suffering, without expecting to feel right, better or worse’ (p.146).
What is compassion?
In her book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience (USA 2021), American research professor Brené Brown defines compassion as “the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering” (p. 118). Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022) describes it simply in Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet (USA 2021, p. 109): “Compassion is a powerful energy that allows us to do anything we can to help reduce the suffering around us.”
Forgive me, Mother Gaia. I come before you with my head bent in shame. How could I ever believe that it was okay for humanity to destroy so much life and treat Earth’s oceans and atmosphere as dumping grounds? I have pondered our beliefs that have brought our species to a global climate and ecological catastrophe: entitlement, surety or certainty, control, autonomy, progress, and exceptionalism. Jem Bendell refers to these assumptions as humanity’s e-s-c-a-p-e ideology. Our great human enterprise stands on pillars of The Dead. I share in the plunder. I must also share the guilt.
I hear you, Mother Gaia. Your signs of distress are everywhere, even in my home state of California. I admit that my way of being is detrimental to the preservation of our planet’s web of life. I know that a shift of being is essential. Am I up to the task? Destructive practices and attitudes have become second nature to me. Beliefs have become sacrosanct.
I have begun the work of letting go of my sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. I acknowledge that I hold no divine right of dominion over the non-human lives with whom I share this planet. As you have made clear, Mother Gaia, my well-being depends upon their well-being. When I harm the condor, the Monarch butterfly, and the great forests, I harm myself.
Through my succulent and vegetable garden, I work at reconnecting with other threads in nature’s web of life. In our chaotic world of conflicting interests and desires, the flowering trees and plants, birds, and butterflies bring joy to each new day. Not so, the caterpillars that gorged on the leaves of my young cucumber plants. My inner conflict got intense: This year, I will not be planting cucumbers. Then, there is a wild cat that roams our apartment complex at night, leaving unwelcome mounds of poop in my garden beds. I know, Mother Gaia, you never promised it would be easy.
When it comes to my consumption of durable and disposal goods, I adhere to a simple and frugal lifestyle. With adult children, I no longer contend with pressure to buy the latest stuff that kids and teenagers crave. Plastic products remain a challenge. They are everywhere, cajoling me with their convenience, durability, and usefulness. I struggle, in vain, for control, Mother Gaia.
Our mistaken belief that humankind could control Nature and carve it into our own image has led us to existential crises. Extreme weather has become my new reality. Beginning on February 23rd, record-breaking severe winter storms struck our state. That afternoon shortly after 4:00 p.m., I was seated at my desk when I heard a strange pounding on the windowpane. Outside, hailstones the size of green peas littered the ground. I rushed outdoors to witness and record the rare event (see my photo below). Is this yet another sign of more extreme weather to come, Mother Gaia?
The storm brought destructive winds, much-needed rainfall, blizzards, and heavy snowfall, including low-elevation snow to areas unaccustomed to snow, like the Hollywood Sign on Mount Lee in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the City of Los Angeles. I give thanks that my garden suffered minor damage. The wind knocked over the potted Red Cactus and partly uprooted the Petra Croton plant from the ground. With warnings of another storm on the way, I secured both plants as best as I could (see photo below). Our apartment complex got off easy with just a little flooding. For how much longer will we escape Nature’s wrath, Mother Gaia?
Towns in the mountain regions have been hit hardest with record levels of up to ten feet deep of snowfall, trapping people in their homes. On March 1st, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in thirteen counties, including Los Angeles County. As temperatures have dropped by ten to twenty degrees Fahrenheit below normal for our area, I must be diligent in staying warm while still conserving on energy and gas usage. We have only ourselves to blame, Mother Gaia. We ignored your early warning signs of distress. We thought that we could keep on pumping our carbon waste into the atmosphere without adverse consequences.
Our destructive e-s-c-a-p-e narrative no longer works in favor of humankind, except for a tiny minority who profit from disaster and chaos. Until the day that they, too, will perish. We need a new narrative that recognizes our oneness with Nature’s web of life and with each other. Jem Bendell has proposed the c-o-s-m-o-s remedy: compassion, openness, serenity, mutuality, oneness, and solidarity. I will explore his proposed remedy over the next six months. I invite you to join me.
Jem Bendell uses the word “exceptionalism” in e-s-c-a-p-E ideology to describe two kinds of exceptionalism that cause him concern: firstly, that we and our kin are different and better, or at least more entitled than others and their kin; secondly, that humans are an exceptional species in natural history (Bendell, p. 135). He notes that, throughout history, we humans have acted as though our family, community, country, race, or religion are more important than others outside our sphere. These assumptions continue to create conflicts between us at home and worldwide. We rarely question our participation in systems of oppression and our complicity in the suffering they inflict on others. The degradation and destruction under colonialism of ‘ordinary’ humans and non-human lifeforms persist to this day.
Bendell observes that this exceptionalism also manifests in another detrimental way when people think that their difference as ‘exceptional’ beings will spare them from suffering the same fate as the rest of humanity. They act as though building bunkers, moving to New Zealand, buying farmlands, and such like, will give them an edge over the rest of us when catastrophe strikes. In this way, they lose opportunities for collaboration with ‘ordinary’ humans for solutions to our shared predicament.
The grandest exceptionalismis our story of humanity being separate, and completely different, from the natural world (Bendell, p. 137). This assumption is evident in some religions and in secular cultures. When we believe this to be true, we open the door to the destruction of non-human lifeforms and the natural world. Bendell invites us to answer the question ‘Why did humanity destroy so much life on earth?’
Jem Bendell uses the word “progress” in e-s-c-a-P-e ideology to describe the assumption that material progress is possible and good for the advancement of human civilization. This assumption or narrative of progress, he argues, means that new technologies and ideas are given the benefit of the doubt, and the hidden or unforeseen costs of those ideas tend to be downplayed or fixed with even less tested ideas (Bendell, pp. 134-135). In prioritizing our drive for progress, we humans push ahead to use technologies that disrupt Earth’s natural systems and unravel the Web of Life upon which human societies depend. The Men of Progress reject any alternative way of organizing society that does not guarantee them material or financial gains. Capital accumulation reigns.
Without a doubt, I have benefited from humanity’s technological progress. Thanks to this progress, I enjoy a comfortable life with all my needs met for energy, food, shelter, and water. With just a click, I can connect with others worldwide. Motor vehicles, trains, and planes make getting together with loved ones so much easier and less time-consuming. Advances in medicine lengthen my lifespan. What is there not to love about human progress?
Jem Bendell uses the word “autonomy” in e-s-c-A-p-e ideology to describe the idea among the modern dominant culture that each of us is the separate autonomous origin of our awareness, values and decisions, and that it is good to become more autonomous (Bendell, p. 133). He asserts that this assumption is false. Instead, our ability to conceptualize, communicate, and perceive stimuli are built on social constructs and conditioning of our culture and upbringing. Even our free will is socially conditioned. We also cannot ignore the influence of human physiology in defining our nature of being.
I am one of those individuals who believe that I have the right to personal autonomy or self-determination, as I prefer to call it. Over the years, I have discovered that achieving self-determination has its limitations based not only on where one lives on this planet, but also on one’s gender, religion, race, income, and social status.
Earlier this year, millions of American women of childbearing age have lost their right to decide when to start a family, the spacing and size of their family, or not to have children at all. More recently in September, Iranian women took to the streets to protest morality police enforcement of hijab rules that endanger the lives of women who dare to expose their hair in public spaces.
Autonomy based on developing one’s own individual self is a more complex concept that I have yet to fully grasp. This emphasis on individualism goes against my own view of our interdependence as a species within the web of life and dependence upon the contributions of others within society. On the other hand, I have learned from living within three distinct cultures—Guyanese (British Caribbean), Brazilian, and American—that social constructs and conditioning of our culture and upbringing do, indeed, influence our self-awareness and vision of the world.
Jem Bendell uses the word “control” in e-s-C-a-p-e ideology to describe the idea among modern cultures in the West and worldwide that it is possible for the human, both individually and collectively, to control the environment and others, and that it is good to do so (Bendell, p. 131). As evident in the vast urban centers worldwide, we humans have succeeded in transforming our natural world to fit our needs. Yet, given global ecological collapse underway and the frequency of extreme global climate events as our planet grows hotter, it should also be evident that we are not in control of our natural world upon which our lives depend.
When the dangerous Category 4 Hurricane Ian struck the west coast of Florida on September 28, 2022, with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles (249 kilometers) per hour and a storm surge of 12 to 18 feet (3.6 to 5.5 meters), the people in its path had to get out of its way or hunker down, hoping for the best. Not everyone who sheltered in place survived Nature’s fury. Others returned home to find their neighborhood trashed beyond recognition. Faced with such a life-altering event, we realize that our control is lost in the rubble.
Jem Bendell uses the word “surety” to describe the threefold human assumption that we can be certain of reality,that it is good to be certain,andthat there is a universal standard through which we can all agree what reality is and how to know it (Bendell, p. 127). For centuries now, humankind have used the rational scientific method, free from individual subjective bias, to determine and expand our knowledge of the nature of reality. We have made enormous strides in such fields as medicine and engineering.
Those who hold fast only to reality derived from the rational scientific method disagree with the subjective bias of faith-based religious belief systems. The gods, prophets, and saints who respond to our pleas for help are not real, they argue. They are only a figment of our imagination to alleviate our pain and bring certainty to our lives. They also reject individual spiritual experiences as an integral part of our reality as human beings.
Human nature itself has also come under the microscope. Are humankind essentially good or bad? The human capacity for both heroism and barbarism is evident across time and space. No people, no society, no country is exempt. We are complex beings with limited senses and cognitive abilities.
The word “entitlement” did not enter my vocabulary until I arrived here in the United States. In Guyana, we used the word “spoilt/spoiled” to describe other kids and youth our age who believed that they deserved the biggest and the best of everything, and that the rules of good conduct did not apply to them. In Brazil, the Portuguese equivalent of entitlement translates as “to have the right of or as deserving of.” In Brazilian vernacular, the spoiled or entitled rich kid earns the label of “daddy’s son or daughter.” Entitlement takes on additional manifestations among white, rich, and male humans in the advanced rich economies: the right to the pursuit of happiness; the right not to feel emotional pain and suffering; the right to have one’s feelings heard and validated; and the right to have one’s basic needs met (Jem Bendell, pp. 125-127).
It would be great if we could all have our basic needs met and have a voice in issues that affect and govern our lives. Instead, the entitled few among us take a far greater share of Earth’s natural resources and offer little return for our collective human production. They also hold the power to silence our voices when we cry out against the extreme inequality and injustice. While the entitled rich and powerful get away with major crimes—including our current threat of omnicide—minority and poor populations face draconian punishment, even death, for simple infractions of the law.