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Proud to Be a Human Being? Active Hope during COP26

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Cannas nan Geall. from walkhighlands.co.uk

We are on the verge of losing this most precious and beautiful of worlds, a miracle in all the universe, a home for the evolution of souls, a little paradise here in the richness of space, where we are meant to live and grow and be happy, but which we are day by day turning into a barren stone in space.

Ben Okri*

My left cheek is warming in the low November sun, while the right one feels the bite of a cold mountain breeze. I am resting on my waterproof coat, spread out on thick, spongy moss on top of a hill in Ardnamurchan, overlooking the northwest coast of Scotland. I’ve walked up here from a friend’s cottage, where I am staying for a solitary retreat. Sipping some water, I listen to the quiet—to the absence of any manmade sounds. Why do I always want to erase any signs of human presence from the landscape—not only engine sounds, but imagining the hills without the coloration betraying centuries of peat cutting, the seashore without the buoys indicating fish farms, and the sky without contrails? Maybe I would even prefer the space around me without my own thoughts?

Human beings have been thinking, inventing, and impacting the world for millennia, and right now COP26 is happening in Glasgow, trying to undo the harm we’ve done. While I am immersing myself in solitude for a week, world leaders are gathered in my home city to have another go at keeping the world from descending into climate chaos caused by the burning of fossil fuel. This year has seen the most severe weather events yet, and that’s at the current 1°C level of global warming since before industrialization. Staying below the recommended 1.5°C looks well out of reach, judging from the failure to fulfil agreements made at earlier conferences. The UK government has recently reduced taxes on short-haul flights that are already much cheaper than train journeys, to give just one example of continued behavior that can only be called crazy. What other mammal would deliberately jeopardize its own survival?

Close to where I am staying is a bay called Cannas nan Geall. It is a site of historic interest, with a chambered cairn dating to Neolithic times; a standing stone erected around 4,000 years ago, and various other remnant structures speaking of ancient human occupation, including by the Vikings. You can see why people would have favored this spot: the surrounding hills offer shelter and there is enough flat, fertile land to support a small village. In more recent times, due to the Highland Clearances,** buildings have fallen into ruin and now there are just a couple of green fields. As I survey the bay from the road, my eye is first caught not by any historic monuments, but by a wall of about 50 huge, plastic-wrapped bales, stacked two high and dominating the landscape. Wandering through the ruins, a sadness takes hold of me. Whatever periods of joy and sorrow have been lived out here, soon, within this century, this precious land including the burial grounds will be engulfed by the sea.

I wish I could feel prouder to be a human being; to trust that our presence on the Earth is generally a good thing. I wish we could have done better things with our gifts of intelligence and creativity. Many people’s lives are made acutely miserable through the immediate effects of war, poverty, political repression, famine, drought, and wildfires. But even just witnessing the ecocidal behavior of our race and the vast social inequalities resulting from unfair economic systems and colonial exploitation has an undermining effect on my, and others’ confidence. It is actually strangely liberating and fortifying, as well as sad, to put it like that—to admit that I lack pride in belonging to the human race. It is helpful as it makes allowances for the despondency that is around, for the feeling of powerlessness, and not to see it as a personal failure. It frees the mind to focus on what needs to be developed in order to thrive in these trying times and perhaps contribute to a better future for others. I can put my energy into areas where I have a degree of agency, i.e. my own mind, my creative and educational work, and the communities of which I am a part. I can try to do my best to stimulate a sense of meaning that encompasses changing myself and creating conditions for living more healthily and harmoniously. The Buddhist climate activist Joanna Macy calls this attitude “active hope.” It is very easy to lose heart, to believe that whatever we do isn’t enough or is ineffective, or that it is all too late. The answer to that is to widen the reach of who we think we are, to encompass much more than our scared, separate little self, to experience ourselves as part of a larger whole.

This week has been about personal nourishment through meditation, nature, and creative expression. I meditated in front of a shrine I created, partly with objects I found in my friend’s cottage, including the fossil of a big ammonite. On top of this ancient piece of the living world, I placed a figure of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  Her name means “she who hears the cries of the world.” Part of my practice is to open to an awareness of deep time, allowing consciousness to expand beyond the small self, tuning into a stream of compassionate presence composed of the many wise and kind beings throughout time and space. This helps me to stay grounded and open to the suffering of our times without being overwhelmed by despair. I have held in my mind the delegates in the big exhibition center by the River Clyde and some of my activist friends, particularly those who were using my home during my absence.

I also made some art, which I usually don’t find much time for. I used some local grasses and liquid latex to create layers of resistance to paint on paper, in a kind of printing process, with results that echo patterns of rock strata and reflections of light on water. I like working in an improvisatory way, leaving a lot to chance, not super-imposing my ideas on what wants to emerge. Like creating a messy garden that is a happy and fertile fusion of chaos and deliberate design. I believe that this receptive and respectful way of engaging is part of the change that is needed to live sustainably, a practice of letting the ego move out of the way as much as possible. The Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri writes: “We have to go right to the roots of what makes us such a devouring species, overly competitive, conquest-driven, hierarchical.” (The Guardian)

From theguardian.com

The day after my return to Glasgow, I join in with the biggest climate march ever: 150,000 people making their voices heard. There and in subsequent meetings and events of the alternative COP scene I enjoy the thrill of minds meeting in shared and emerging vision, take part in workshops that try out new ways of communicating and devising change. For a while, I stand at the gates to the conference center and bear witness: to delegates leaving, looking jaded and dejected; an activist being carried away by police, followed by a swarm of cameras; four women dressed in red, moving in slow motion; a row of meditators quietly being present amid the buzz of color and emotion.

One of the COP events is a dance performance by my friend Penny Chivas: Burnt Out. A piece of autobiographical dance-theatre, it incorporates the work of her father, an environmental geochemist, who in the sixties clearly presented the trajectory of global warming that we are now seeing play out. Penny tells us about being glued to the radio emergency warnings for the Australian bushfires and being unable to move. She lists a number of the country’s large coal mines. Sitting on the ground, dejected and alone, she quietly says: “A cycle of behaviour I felt, we felt . . . we just couldn’t change.”

 “We just couldn’t change.” I have been chewing this sentence over since I first saw this show a few weeks ago. Is that how it is? The Glasgow COP results seem to be bearing this out: despite a little more acknowledgement of the urgency of the climate situation and openness to further negotiations, there is still no commitment to phasing out coal, oil, or gas use. Rich nations are not prepared to give financial support to developing countries that would allow them to forego the exploitation of cheap fossil fuels.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I see lots of change happening in small communities. For example, COP26 seems to have galvanized the creation of an environmental group in my tenement block and I have just returned from our first meeting. The small part I can play is fueled by the experience of tangible personal change through my mindfulness and compassion practice, and my knowledge of effective communication based on connecting with needs. Whatever I do, I endeavor to do wholeheartedly, in a way that I can be proud of—some of it alone, some of it with others.

* Artists must write as if these are our last days on Earth (The Guardian)

** The Highland Clearances were the evictions of a significant number of tenants in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, mostly from 1750 to 1860.

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