A New Year’s Reflection on the Ecological Crisis

As we enter the new year and pause for a moment to reflect, we may recognize that the ecological crisis is perhaps one of the biggest challenges humankind faces and that our current way of living is unsustainable. From the rapid increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide to extreme weather events, from lives lost to displacement, from conflicts to refugee crises, they arise from an industrial civilization that is self-destructing by wreaking havoc on the biosphere. Scientists warn us that we are already well into the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. At the current rate of human disruption, more than half of Earth’s advanced lifeforms, and possibly our civilization, will be extinct in 80 years or sooner.

How did we get into this predicament? Could all these be the consequences of seeing ourselves as separate from the natural world? And what is the solution? Could it necessitate not only economic and technological innovation but also another dimension that is seldom addressed?

How did we get into this mess?

If we look at ancient Chinese culture, humans are not only considered part of the cosmos, but we are the cosmos itself—a generative ground from which all things come into and go out of existence spontaneously and naturally, only to be transformed and re-emerge in a new form. Similarly, indigenous peoples have a very intimate relationship with nature. They consider the cosmos as alive, sensitive, and responsive to human actions. There is an inherent order of reciprocity, gratitude, and respect between humans, the environment, and other species, giving them a sense of responsibility and place in the natural world.

However, our social structures and beliefs have changed radically in the past centuries. Empirical rationality, secularism, and individualism have replaced these traditional worldviews with a mechanistic mindset that regards the cosmos as an impassive, complex machine. We learn that Homo sapiens result from evolution. We believe that we are products of accidental gene mutations. We deem things as occurring randomly with no particular significance or consequences to the universe. Although we enjoy much freedom and material comfort in modern societies, we have also lost a sense of connection, of our role in the cosmos, and of what it means to be human, which brings us a kind of anxiety, a feeling that something is missing.

How have we been coping with this sense of lack? It is manifested as our obsession with consumerism that drives our relentless pursuit of economic expansion and technological development. We attempt to fill this existential void, often unconsciously, by conquering nature and converting everything into a resource to consume, exploit, and remould according to the whim of our will, with callous indifference to our impact on the natural world.

Unfortunately, our thirst is unquenchable, and natural resources are finite. Economic growth and technological progress will never be enough because they cannot resolve the fundamental collective problem of what it means to be human. Of course, we need to find ways to decrease carbon emissions, develop renewable energy sources, and so forth. However, technological solution alone is insufficient and only aggravates the problem because it reinforces our sense of alienation from ourselves, others, and nature.

What could we do besides technological innovation?

The solution to the ecological crisis must therefore include a spiritual dimension. Spirituality refers to the way we seek and express meaning and purpose by connecting to the moment, ourselves, others, nature, and the significant or sacred. It does not necessarily involve religious beliefs, supernatural phenomena, or transcendental realms.

What does a spiritual solution look like? It must encompass the realization that we are an integral part of the natural world. We are not only part of nature; we are nature itself. Nature and we are not two. Just think about our bodies. We are made up of the same elements as the oceans, the mountains, and the trees. Not only is 70% of our body made up of water, but the salt concentration in our blood is also similar to that of the oceans, our original home. We are in a dynamic reciprocal relationship with nature, literally with our every breath—we breathe in the oxygen generated from the trees, and the trees, in turn, take in the carbon dioxide we breathe out for sustenance.

If we are part of the Earth, or more precisely, if we are the Earth, can we go further by saying that we are how the Earth becomes conscious? In that case, is it logical to consider ourselves as a species in transition rather than the pinnacle of evolution, perhaps not only biologically but also culturally, as a civilization? Is the ecological crisis a way for Mother Earth to tell us: wake up now or continue our untenable trajectory at our peril? Can we see that the Earth is not here for us to exploit, manipulate, or subjugate solely for human purposes? Can we learn from ancient wisdom traditions to realize that we are here as stewards to look after the Earth and partake in this wondrous web of life?

Not attaching to outcomes

The welfare of Mother Earth is not distinguishable from ours. We must embrace our responsibility for the well-being of the whole planet and all the species it nourishes by taking bold and immediate steps now. Despite the enormity of the task, we do our best to heal the wounds and abuses we have inflicted upon her. Of course, we hope that our efforts will bear fruit, and if they don’t, can we look at them as our unconditional gifts to Mother Earth, with no expectation of anything in return? We may not know what the fate of our planet will be. Still, we can take heart in recognizing that, ultimately, we are participants in unfolding the essential mysteriousness of the universe.

Posted on January 1, 2022