The Age of Consequences

Gaia in turmoil.

Kenneth Bok

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

Today, as Earth shivers into a fever – the planetary climate rapidly warming as oil-drunk civilization burns up millions of years of stored sunlight in the course of a few decades – clearly the felt temper of the atmosphere is shifting, becoming more extreme. As local weather patterns fluctuate and transform in every part of the globe, the excessive moodiness of the medium affects the mental climate in which creatures confront one another, lending its instability to human affairs as well. Our human exchanges – whether between persons or between nations – easily become more agitated and turbulent, apt to flare into storms of blame, anger and war as the disquietude in the land translates into a generalized fearfulness among the population, a trepidation, readiness to take offence or to lash out without clear cause.

Indeed the propensity for random violence becomes more pronounced whenever the sources of stress are unrecognized, whenever a tension is felt whose locus or source remains hidden. And as long as we deny the animate life of the Earth itself – as long as we arrogate all subjectivity to ourselves, forgetting the sentience in the air, and the manifold intelligence in the land – then we’ll remain oblivious to what’s really unfolding, unable to quell the agitation in ourselves because we’re blind to the deeper distress.

For the possibility of a human future, and for our own basic sanity, we need to acknowledge that we’re not the sole bearers of meaning in this world, that our species is not the only locus of feeling afoot in the real. To weather the changes now upon us, we must become ever more attentive to the more-than-human field of experience, consulting the creatures and the old local farmers, comparing notes with neighbors, learning the seasonal cycles of our terrain even as we notice new alterations in those cycles. Listening at once outward and inward, observing the shifts in the animate landscape while tracking the transformations unfolding within us – in this way we weave ourselves back into the fabric of our world.

The violence and disarray of the coming era, its social injustices and its wars will have their deepest source in systemic stresses already intensifying within the broader body of the biosphere. Yet such system-wide strains cannot be alleviated by scapegoating other persons, or by inflicting violence on other peoples. They can be eased only by strengthening the wild resilience of the Earth, preserving and replenishing whatever we can of the planet’s once-exuberant biotic diversity while bringing ourselves (and our communities) into greater alignment with the particular ecologies that we inhabit. Acknowledging that human awareness is sustained by the broader sentience of the Earth; noticing that each bioregion has its own style of sentience; observing the manner in which the collective mood of a terrain alters with every change in weather: such are a few of the ways whereby we can nudge ourselves toward such an alignment.

The era of human arrogance is at an end; the age of consequences is upon us. The presumption that mind was exclusively a human property exemplified the very arrogance that has now brought the current biosphere to the very brink of the abyss. It led us to take the atmosphere entirely for granted, treating what was once known as the most mysterious and sacred dimension of life (called Sila, the wind-mind of the world, by the Inuit; Nilch’i, or Holy Wind, by the Navajo; Ruach, or rushing-spirit, by the ancient Hebrews) as a conveniently invisible dumpsite for the toxic by-products of industrial civilization.

The resulting torsions within the planetary climate are at last forcing humankind out of its self-enclosed oblivion – a dynamic spoken of, in psychoanalysis, as “the return of the repressed.” Only through the extremity of the weather are we brought to notice the uncanny power and presence of the unseen medium, and so compelled to remember our thorough immersion within the life of this breathing planet. Only thus are we brought to realize that our vaunted human intelligence is as nothing unless it’s allied with the round intelligence of the animate Earth.

David Abram is a cultural ecologist and the author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (Pantheon Books, 2010). He lives in the foothills of the southern Rockies. This piece is excerpted from an essay that originally appeared in Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis.