The 12 Steps and the Biosphere: A Meditation on Ecology, Repair and Spiritual Recovery
written on the 11th of October 2018. A version of this is available as a PDF here
On Monday I saw the headlines and today I followed it up.
The UN and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) have announced that the current target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (above pre-industrial levels) is not sufficient to avert climate chaos. They recommend that the limit is reset to 1.5 degrees.
The IPCC outline the impact half a degree makes and it does not look good.
While I celebrate that this international target is reset, the outcomes for 1.5 degrees are, to be blunt, still grim. The numbers presented for 1.5 degree outcomes are lower – a slightly smaller number of millions of people whose land will disappear under sea-level rises, percentage of coral reef dying etc.
But it’s still terrible.
10% of the coral reef surviving is definitely a lot better than it all completely dying off. But it still means that the overwhelming majority of breeding grounds for fish will disappear and the ocean ecosystems, as they have existed for millions of years, will collapse, or at best, hang on by a thread.
Millions and millions of people being displaced is still terrible, even if the number is smaller.
The IPCC is optimistic that avoiding climate catastrophe is theoretically possible, but admit that without political will, their warnings will fall on deaf ears. In this case we would seem to be sleep-walking into extinction or, like the coral reef, near extinction.
I used to be much more involved – I spent a long time loitering at the Schumacher College, a pioneering institution in sustainability studies and Holistic Science; volunteered in Permaculture projects; the Totnes Transition Town etc. I camped out in front of St. Paul’s during the Occupy protests.
While I have a lot of admiration and respect for all these projects, what really strikes me is that on such small scale, you can really barely scratch the surface.
Partly for this reason and partly because of the tendency to create isolated bubbles of people, cut off – ideologically, economically and psychologically – from the realities most people face in the industrialised and post-industrial world, I have found myself becoming increasingly disaffected and disillusioned by the movements surrounding these projects.
However much, deep down, I want to believe in the “green” movements, I see people exchanging one kind of ideology for another – one kind of denial for another. In truth, there is no real escape, no matter how sturdy your lifeboat. Whatever the outcome of the next chapter of human history, we are all affected. Utopia is not an option.
As an individual, if you go vegan, stop using motorised transport, stop buying plastic, live in an ecovillage and all the rest of it, your efforts will be noble but will do little to offset the damage being done on a mass scale.
Today, I wept. I shed tears. It is first time in a very long time I went beyond my numbness. As I wept, I realised I was probably not the only one.
In her book, Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy – activist and ecologist – asserts that to feel grief is a proper response.
I look around and I see that, despite years of warnings and small victories, we are trying to operate on a “business as usual” mentality. This means we are acting as if the biosphere of the planet is capable of absorbing the impact of our actions when it is clearly not.
In the wealthy “first world” we are still generally sheltered from seeing the effects of human activity on ecological systems and the impact that has back on us. It is still harder to supply your material needs in a non-polluting way, non fossil fuel dependent way.
It has often been commented that we are, societally, “addicted” to fossil fuels.
As you may have noticed, one of the things I am very interested in, is addictive behaviours and recovery.
Today I took some solace in the 12 steps, I found myself translating this to global climate catastrophe.
The 12 steps were originally written for Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most significant and influential parts of the history of psychology and one of the first truly peer led recovery group. Here I have adapted the steps, but only very slightly. They were written by Bob W., one of AAs founders, one night quickly before going to bed. He chose the number 12 because he was inspired by Christianity and Christ had 12 apostles.
The 12 steps are spiritual in nature but incredibly inclusive. Although influenced by Christian culture and language, they go far beyond it. The Dalai Lama is reputed to have said that the 12 steps is the biggest contribution the West has made to the world. Period.
The steps, and their anonymous fellowships, are inspired partly by Carl Jung’s assertion that the conditions to transform addiction are “A spiritual transformation and the presence of a supportive community.”
The 12 steps present a deep dialectic – how do we recover our agency whilst simultaneously admitting weakness and powerlessness.
Here are the adapted steps and my commentary preceded by the serenity prayer.
“God Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
1. We realised we are powerless over climate and ecological chaos and our lives had become unmanageable.
Acting as individuals, we are incapable of tackling such an immense and collective problem. Our individual efforts and will-power, however well intentioned, will not create sufficient leverage to change anything.
No matter how skilful the choices we make as individuals, we are effected by the collective choices made on a societal level, and this contributes to the unmanageability of our own lives.
2. Came to believe that only a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
If we are powerless as individuals, it is possible that we have a chance if we take our attention beyond the purely individual domain.
In the traditional presentation of the 12 steps, this is where God is introduced. Of course, there are many ways of conceiving of, and relating to, a higher power.
This may be on the level of spirit, but not necessarily. Whether your worldview is secular or religious, I don’t believe it is truely a massive leap to recognise that there is some kind of intelligence at work beyond your own self, or at least your own egoic nature.
Unless, of course, you are a narcissist. The second step is powerful because it is key in taking you beyond the narcissism which is a core component of addictive processes, even if that addiction is to fossil fuels.
3. Made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God/Gaia as we understood God/Gaia.
Gaia is the name for the Greek goddess of the Earth. In the 1980s, earth scientist James Lovelock proposed that the combination of the atmosphere, the biological ecosystems and various other elements form a system which can be described as a living system which self-regulates. This system, he named Gaia, after the Greek Goddess.
His theory is widely accepted amongst climate scientists and it also strikes a chord in a lot of people – there is some recognition of the intelligent nature of the planet itself. It is not an inert rock which we can just keep exploiting but a consciousness more nuanced and complex.
In making a conscious decision to turn your will and life over to the care of God as you understand God, is bold, because it implies a) that the wisdom you can receive from your higher power is wiser than what you can come up with for yourself and b) that your higher power has the best interests for you.
This second part, cuts through the nihilism that can arise in some activists: it is easy to draw the conclusion that it is best for us, as a specie, to just die off and let the rest of the ecosystem to recover.
I see the truth contained in this idea, but it is still a terrible conclusion to draw. We as a specie, as well as having and exercising great capacities for destruction, are also capable of greatness and beauty. In our incredibly homogenised world this is hard to see, but when you consider the great wonders of the world – the Nazca Lines, the Stone Circles, the Cave Paintings, Mozarts Symphonies, Pina Bausch’s choreographies – there is an incredible richness which human beings can also achieve.
We are a diverse specie – our ways of living range from insane and perverse to sublime and wonderful. To lose all of this, the full range, just because of the life-style and economics of the last 100 years is total insanity.
4. Took a fearless and moral inventory of ourselves.
We face ourselves – honestly. We take stock of all of our gifts and all of our poison. We give up all of our self-hatred and all of our denial.
Taking this ecologically, we face our society too. How does the society we are part of – locally, nationally or globally contribute to the preservation of the biosphere? How does it contribute to its destruction? How do you individually collude with, and support this destruction and how do you resist it?
This step is not easy. It is very liberating but it is not easy.
In taking stock honestly, we can do a carbon audit of ourselves, systemicatically or intuitively. We recognise the ways in which our ways of life are dependent on a fossil fuel economy.
Here is a clue: your bank account. How does your source of income depend on a fossil-fuel economy? How what you spent money on depend on a fossil fuel economy? Beyond the money you spend directly, what do you rely on which currently depend on fossil fuels – your rubbish gets taken away by a service which probably isn’t carbon neutral (although it might be).
Do you think your email account is run by a company which doesn’t use any fossil fuels. Even if a company you support is carbon neutral in their own activities do you think that their employees all drive electric cars, that all their suppliers are don’t use any plastics anywhere in any process?
You quickly see that everything you do, presuming you are part of a population that is reading this and not a member of an uncontacted tribe in Indonesia or Brazil – is interconnected with a whole globalised network of people and activities which are all dependant on each other and are all either directly or indirectly existing within a fossil fuel based economy.
Beyond a carbon audit, there is a psychological element too. Are you in denial, if not conceptually then emotionally? Do you pretend that what you do is totally clean? Do you pin your hopes, carelessly and ignorantly, on a green utopia appearing around the corner? Do you deny any responsibility for the problem and its solution?
The fact you are reading this, probably means that you also have some good values too, even if you don’t live up to the standards you might like to. You have probably fought some good fights and had some victories, big or small. Taking stock is about this too. Celebrate yourself. Be grateful.
These are difficult questions, but they are liberating.
5. Admitted to God, ourselves and another person the exact nature of our wrongs.
We come out of isolation. This process is no longer enough to be by ourselves. We build alliances, somehow, with others.
We build these alliances on the admission of our humanity and our humility – on our flaws as well as our gifts. When we are prepared to admit our wrongs, we allow others to break out of their denial and idealism and conduct their own self-inspection and confront their own difficult truths.
Imagine if our world leaders were able to do this:
“I have been burying my head in the sand about this.”
“I was an idealist but avoiding responsibility for anything”
“I willfully overlooked taking this decision sensibly because I could not stomach what it really meant.”
This is an act of repair, and it is very healing for those who speak as well as those who listen.
It is IMPOSSIBLE to address the problems facing humanity’s relationship with the biosphere without building effective alliances which are based on honest admission of real strengths and real weaknesses.
But a word of caution: Don’t cast pearls among swine. Save this for people who will supportively celebrate your admissions and your confessions. Avoid doing this with people who will ridicule you for weakness, or worse still, offer you false sympathy as a way of avoiding their own faults.
6. Became entirely willing for God to remove these defects of character.
I have a slight problem with some of the 12 step language here – defect of character – but it has a point. Remember this came from recovering alcoholics.
Having taken stock and been willing to be transparent, here is the point which is about being willing to let go of whatever dysfunctional ways of living you have maintained.
This is not the point of actually letting it go – that comes next – but being willing to let it go.
It’s about recognising: these are the ways in which I continually and consistently f*** up, and if I’m honest with myself, my life would be better, and probably those who have to live with me, if I stop f***ing up in these ways.
This is huge.
It is huge because, although it is worth it, it is a choice to take a path which requires more care, attentiveness and discipline than the lazy path.
This is a step the climate scientists are desperate for us to take.
Collectively there has been a lot done to take stock. Collectively there has been a recognition of where we are on the path to extinction or thriving. However, this doesn’t mean that people have taken this into a willingness for any change to actually take place.
In your own life, here are some difficult questions:
How willing would you be to adopt changes in your lifestyle if it became truly necessary or inevitable for the health of the biosphere.
This is tough – if all the world leaders turned round tomorrow and said; “we’re grounding all the flights, the meat industry is closing now etc.” How would that land in your life?
Maybe you would adapt to this pretty easily, but it is very possible that you wouldn’t.
The sixth step is tough because it comes with a grieving process. You must grieve the life you have been living, however dysfunctional.
7. Humbly asked God to remove these shortcomings.
We actually take the plunge into letting go.
Note here we ask for the help of our higher power. We do not try and do it all ourselves.
If we take the living intelligence of the Earth as our higher power, we are putting ourselves in direct contact with the forces of nature to help guide us in changing our choices.
We get outside – outside of the house, outside of the purely human-made environments – and observe. We let that provide us with the insights and the experiences which will reveal healthier choices.
We also follow the footsteps of others who have taken this path. Whether contemporary or indigenous wisdom, whether spiritually or scientifically based, we allow the world to work on us to change us for the better.
We actively let go of our individual and collective dysfunction and actively implement more effective and more holistic ways of meeting the needs we attempted to meet with our unhealthy and unsustainable choices.
We actively seek the support of our allies, a social higher power, to clarify and implement these changes.
We rely increasingly on our internal guidance, not what we mentally think but the wisdom which arises from within the body.
This takes discipline.
8. Made an inventory of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
In the traditional 12 steps, this is mostly focussed on other (human) people. In the context of the biosphere, perhaps we can extend this to other beings . In many indigenous, particularly animistic traditions, which contemporary society likes to dismiss as “primitive” and “unscientific”, there is a practice of referring to environments, plants, rocks and animals as people. If we listen to James Lovelock, perhaps we should include Gaia in this.
In this case then, we are honest about the harm we have actually done. How have we actually, already, acted in ways which are destructive to the earth?
If you’re used to thinking of yourself as a good and nice person (as I have), it is difficult to think of yourself who not only can do harm but has done and continues to do harm.
I once attended a talk with a Zen monk. He said that when you commit to saying “I vow not to harm any living beings” you do so not in order that you don’t harm living being but that you realise that you always can and will harm living beings. In committing, in this way, to the impossible you wake up to the real.
The 8th step, echoes the 4th, but here you get specific, not just about the tendencies or patterns but the real outcomes that have already happened.
Becoming willing to make amends is about being willing to repair the damage. It is not about having the means or the opportunity to do so. It’s about being prepared to be humble and do what you can.
9. Made direct amends to such persons where possible except when to do so would injure them or others.
So you get on with it. You actually set about with whatever acts of repair you can manage.
Note that its not just about saying sorry – although this can be helpful sometimes. An amend can take many forms. If the amend is to the Earth and the biosphere itself, then this is the domain of some very vibrant activism, courageous policy making and committed individual action.
The most effective amends are not just about offsetting damage, but ensuring it doesn’t happen again.
Note also that some amends are not worth making. Some attempts to set things straight do more harm than good.
There are some people who have upset me so much I would rather never see again rather than they contact me and apologise. There are some forms of activism which are misguided, ineffective and counterproductive. There are some solutions to climate change which have been proposed – such as massive geo-engineering projects – which may well upset the balance more than they rectify it.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
This is correcting your course whilst navigating.
That said, even if it obvious, it is not neccesarily easy. In my activist days I was prone to belligerence (and still am sometimes). It could take me years to recognise that I was off track with my beliefs about, assessments of or responses to certain situations.
When we take action, which at the time looks like the best course, we must be willing to observe and see if we actually did make the best decision. We must be ready to be humble.
I saw this a lot amongst activists. People would get very attached to certain decisions and hold on and hold on to them and exclude any possibility that there was a different, better solution than their own.
This is understandable and very human, but it is also stupid and ultimately divisive.
Being able to promptly admit you screwed up (again) is a very useful and practical. It allows a lot of fluidity and sanity into your life.
11. Sought daily through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out.
What does the earth REALLY want from you? Is that the same as what you think? Are you prepared to stop and listen.
This sounds all nice and fluffy but it requires discipline and great courage.
This always reminds me of the Prayer of Saint Francis, which begins “Make me an instrument of your peace”.
You can see this taken to an awe inspiring level with people like Mother Theresa who sacrifice their lives (in the sense of having normal, day to day lives) to be “an instrument of peace”. This is not an easy path.
And it also requires giving up pre-conceptions. When I started to doing The Work That Reconnects (the body of work developed by Joanna Macy, mentioned above) in 2009 I found that instead of wanted to build eco-villages I found myself being drawn to examine my self-care. Was I eating enough, resting enough, socialising enough? I was so prepared to give up my own wellbeing for the sake of a “cause” that this was actually defective.
Doing this was a blessing and allowed me to be surprised.
You don’t have to be mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi to follow this step, both of whom were canonised as saints. This is about the regular, every day, bread and butter of real practice – in 12 step culture it is about taking recovery “one day at a time”.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps we tried to carry this message to others who still suffer and practice these principles in all our affairs.
To me this is more about embodiment that evangelising, although evangelising may has its place.
People suffer in regard to these massive issues I am talking about.
In the minority world – the “1st” world – we suffer because we feel guilt for colluding with those in power, and yet we see our impotence to change anything. I would argue even, perhaps especially, that one of the most profound forms of suffering is avoidance and denial.
In the majority world – the “3rd” world – the suffering probably takes a different quality, which I can’t talk from experience about. It is clear, however, that at the bottom of the capitalist economic hierarchy people are incredibly vulnerable to the hurricanes, floods, sea-level rises, ecological destruction, loss of indigenous lands, identity and culture etc. which are becoming increasingly common in the 21st century.
The UN/IPCC report is pretty blunt about this.
What is clear is that no-one is immune to the suffering.
Until it is clear that we have arrived at a point where we have repaired and averted the damage which could spell an end to our species, and a great deal of life on earth, we will simply live with this, in one way or another. And yet, while we may suffer, perhaps we don’t have to be defined by it.
It possible, perhaps, to live with a kind of “Active Hope”(as Macy calls it). A state of prayer, whatever that means, that we will somehow, unimaginably and miraculously, see it through to the other side of this.
In doing so, we bring others in. While our individual will power is insufficient to change anything, we can still inspire and embody the changes we need to face.
As the famous, nearly cliche, words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi go: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
The great irony is that it is not enough, yet it is all you can do.
We face, as Buckminster Fuller put it, the final exam. We are being faced with incredible fragmentation every day.
We live with the most social isolation that has ever occurred in history. And yet we are faced with the biggest challenge ever to pull together, beyond our individual egos, our individual preoccupations and lives, our tribal identities, our political allegiances and nation states and the rest of it; to finally grow the hell up, collectively, and take care of our mess.
“We are still learning to live on this earth” – Wendell Berry
When you look into history you can see that what we are doing now is following through the change in civilisation that occured during the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago. Our capacities, over the centuries, to screw up were limited by our technologies. This kept us in check for about almost all of that time, but not now.
So what we are called upon to do now is vast and unbelievably necessary – to rewrite the “operating system” for civilisation.
If this seems to much to ask, I’d like to finish with some words by Rebecca Solnit:
“Apocalypse is always easier to imagine than the strange and circuitous routes to what actually happens next.”
Alcoholics Anonymous; 2002, AA World Service Office. Known as “The Big Book”
Active Hope – How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy; Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, 2012; New World Library.
Coming Back to Life – Practices to Reconnect our lives, our world; Joanna Macy, 1998; New Society Publishers