Discover more from Money and Meaning
We are climate change, part 1
Climate demand and denial, and the prize of knowing the truth about yourself
And I said to myself: “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” —Antonio Machaco
In the last week, as I’ve been writing this, Portland endured 3 straight days of over 100F. In 2006, when I moved here, the city might get to 90F once or twice a year. Talking to people who grew up here, anything in the mid 80s was a hot day.
This summer, Phoenix AZ had over 100F for a record 31 consecutive days. The water temperature in Florida hit 101 degrees. Tropical storms swept across the Southwest and Texas. Maui burned. A heat dome sat atop the middle of the country. Canada has suffered all summer under wildfire smoke.
I’m reading the book The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. A work of “hard science fiction,” (i.e. based on scientific accuracy and logic) the book is set in the near future, where a international agency is established to act as an advocate for the world's future generations as if their rights are as valid as the present generations. The opening is set in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, where a heatwave gets to the biological point of the human body where, even unclothed and sitting in the shade, it cannot sweat. The result is death by hyperthermia. In the book, twenty million people die (for context: three Holocausts), setting off the plot.
The math is the math
In FF1, I often tell students that personal finance “is just math.” There’s (1) how much you earn, (2) how much you spend, and (3) the delta between the two, i.e. your savings, which you invest. I always tell students that:
Personal finance is simply your relationship with the future.
There is no good or bad, only consequences. Choices are made by present You, but the consequences are experienced by future You.
In the end, the math is the math. Avoidance is not a plan.
Similarly, The Ministry for the Future goes into the numbers.
Humans are burning about 40 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons) of fossil carbon per year. Scientists have calculated that we can burn about 500 more gigatons of fossil carbon before we push the average global temperature over 2 degrees Celsius higher than it was when the industrial revolution began; this is as high as we can push it, they calculate, before really dangerous effects will follow for most of Earth’s bioregions, meaning also food production for people.
Like personal finance, in climate, the math is the math. Avoidance is not a plan.
Who’s to blame?
It’s easy to point the blame fossil fuel producers. After all, they’re the “evil ones” pulling oil and coal out of the ground. We like to think of ourselves as the victims.
As anyone who reads this newsletter knows, I’m going to question that. What if we’re the perpetrators?
I work for a meditation and social change center that hopes to transform climate change via meditative action. We’ve been hosting talks from Bayo Akomolafe who presents a concept he coined as “post-activism,” in which conventional modes of change (aggressive binary arguments and the like) are somehow swapped out for something more zen. Meaning, how can I admit that I am the systems I hate, without succumbing to self-loathing and paralysis?
Kinda like when we’re stuck in traffic, it’s helpful to remember that we are the traffic.
As we’re experiencing climate change, it’s important to realize that we’re the reason for climate change. Why do these fossil fuel producers pull carbon out of the ground? We demand it. Literally no other reason. If you would only stop consuming so many products and experiences, they would have no reason to extract so much carbon out of the ground. The simplest lesson in economics: demand drives supply, not vice versa and we demand carbon. The destruction of the natural world is a symptom of our incessant demand for more, our ever-escalating and needless competition for status, and constant performance of individuality.
Climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas narrows carbon demand down, to us:
“[People[ earning over $38,000 a year makes up the top 10 per cent of income globally, and is responsible for half of the carbon pollution emitted by households. As you ascend the income scale to $109,000, you reach the global 1 per cent, whose individual climate pollution is 30 times above the sustainable limit for 2030. The majority of this climate pollution is created through frequent and long-distance travel by plane and car, followed by home energy use.”
But income isn’t the cause of climate demand, consumption is. Professor Nicholas is making the assumption that people spend up to their incomes, because that’s what most people do. But the whole point of FF is to have high income and low consumption. By doing that, you gain your liberation from capitalism while minimizing your impact on the earth.
Pushing away responsibility
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn The Gulag Archipelago
Are you part of the 10% that is responsible for half of carbon demand? Might your consumption is 30 times above the sustainable limit? If you truly accepted that were true, what would you do?
A lot of very well-educated, “good” people blame “corporations”for climate change, and then go to Paris, or Bali, or Hawaii on vacation. In essence, they are funding the evil corporation with their consumption. It’s a serious intellectual and spiritual disconnect to ignore that that “evil corporation” they complain about is United, Alaska, or American Airlines, the company they just paid money to.
We are the systems we hate. We are the traffic. We are climate change. We are capitalism. I wrote in November 2022 about how, when I talk about this, people’s eyes glaze over, they shrug, and they say “Sure, but my individual consumption doesn’t matter so I might as well enjoy myself.” It’s a form of climate denialism, different than the Republican form, but just as toxic. It’s the hungry ghosts of addiction that Gabor Mate talks about.
Our ego implicitly believes that its needs and wants are more real than everyone else’s, including any future generation. But climate ethics, like personal finance, are simply your relationship with the future. Climate change isn’t done to us, but rather a manifestation of our own inner world, the things we deny: our empty materialism, our self-concern, and our lack of empathy.
“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” — Gus Speth, environmental activist
The solution to climate change was never going to be external. There is no technological solution that will lead to reducing carbon emissions in the time we have left.But even pretending for a moment there was some magical solution: carbon sequestration, or blocking the sun by increasing the cloud cover, or nuclear fission. Would it solve anything? Would it stop us from acidifying the ocean, consuming all the resources, and collapsing the ecosystem? The underlying spiritual issue would remain: we still want more.
Right now we use the resources of four planets (Westerners use a multiple of that). And instead of reducing demand, we continue increasing 3% a year. There is no way we will consume the resources of 8 planets in 25 years. Collapse will happen first.
Our internal never-enoughness drives collapse. Don’t look away. As I wrote about before, the disaster comes from within. Hungry ghosts.
The cost of blaming the world
“Victimhood is a form of blame-shifting. It allows the ego to remain intact, to blame the world, and in some cases to get validation perhaps from other aggrieved people.” — Dr. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist
One of the great humbling realizations in my life is that everything I had blamed on others, I had simply done to myself. The rejection, the avoidance of love, the wounded loneliness, were not done to me, but rather manifestations of my own inner world. In life, it’s easy to blame others; denial is the first ego-defense. It’s painful to realize this.
It’s painful to think that we, not someone “Other,” are responsible for the destruction of this planet. The ego wants to remain innocent, the hero to our own story. We want to remain a “good person.”
We refuse to see our shadow. We keep refusing to change our behaviors because someone else is the problem, not us. Denialism and addiction. We’ve spent so much of our lives overworking and overconsuming under a hidden agenda of trying to be loved. So much efforting, pleasing, and achieving to alleviate our self-doubt, or shore up our facade. The root cause of climate change isn’t carbon emissions. The root cause is that we keep seeking wholeness and satisfaction from the material world, believing in just a little more, when the only solutions are spiritual, just a little less.
If we are talking about addiction, the First Step in AA is to tell the truth. It’s the first step in any spiritual work, or personal work. Don’t look away (living is easy with eyes closed). Nothing can be done until you tell the truth. The cost of blaming the world is you never knowing the truth about yourself. For some people, that doesn’t bother them, living is easy with eyes closed. But for others, maybe readers of this newsletter, that’s not tolerable. There’s a longing for a greater intimacy with and gentleness for oneself that can never been assuaged by anything in the material world.
The famed Sufi mystic Rabia wrote:
I was born when all I once feared, I could love. — Rabia of Basra
This is the prize of all this work: being able to see and accept everything about you. Because self-hate is the underlying motivation for our denial and self-deception.That is why descent is necessary for rebirth. Only failure, darkness, and retreat lead to transformation. Until then, we continue to cling onto our false images of ourselves, our “success,” and our “growth.”
The second half of life
One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening become a lie. —C. G. Jung
Carl Jung first popularized the idea of “the two halves of life,” where the first half of life is spent building our sense of identity, importance, and security—what Richard Rohr calls the “false self” and Freud might have called the “ego self.” Jung emphasized the developmental importance of building a healthy ego structure for the first half of your life. But inevitably you discover, often through failure or a significant loss, that being “successful” or “healthy” no longer satisfies. Jung talked about the night sea journey “a kind of descensus ad inferos--a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world” where you discover everything you had left behind, ignored, and pushed away, in order to chase the demands of the outer world. The acceptance and embrace of your shadow. This terrifying mid-life transition is the discovery of your True Self, your soul.
I think you have to grow up twice. The first time happens automatically. Everyone passes from childhood to adulthood, and this transition is marked as much by the moment when the weight of the world overshadows the wonder of the world as it is by the passage of years. Usually you don’t get to choose when it happens. But if this triumph of weight over wonder marks the first passage into adulthood, the second is a rediscovery of that wonder despite sickness, evil, fear, sadness, suffering—despite everything. — Nate Staniforth
Climate change, ecosystem collapse, ocean acidification are simply our descent into Hades. These outer changes are simply a call to open our eyes and perceive our addictions to our inner selfishness, greed, and apathy and to embrace the truths we’ve denied about ourselves. We’re going to have to move from this first half of life through to the second, as individuals, and as society. And our addiction is so great that I don’t think we’re going to get there without hitting rock bottom.
How can we do this with love, patience, and understanding, for each other, and ourselves?
For us to transform as a society, we have to allow ourselves to be transformed as individuals. And for us to be transformed as individuals, we have to allow for the incompleteness of any of our truths and a real forgiveness for the complexity of human beings. — Rev. angel Kyodo Williams
What we get from this world is very little substance. No wonder we are still hungry. But if you can, admit that you are hungry, hungry for something that capitalism and the material world cannot provide. If you do that, and go through the inevitable internal darkness of seeing yourself as you really are, then maybe you’ll rediscover the wonder of this world. In other words, grace.
You’ll be reborn when all you feared you could love. You’ll discover, as this earth heats up and things fall apart, a gratitude and a grief far beyond your control.
What you seek is already coming to you, there is no need to keep striving. You are already in a place of beauty and you always have been. All this time. All you had to do was let go.
Ah, like lost bewildered children,
we seek outside the God
who waits to be found
in the small deeps
of the human heart. — Edwina Gately, 1996
Postscript: the math is the math
Living is easy with eyes closed. Numbers have a funny way of telling the truth. Obviously that’s why to do anything in personal finance you need to have a budget, something the large majority of Americans do not have. I write about the importance of budgeting and self-honesty here.
Are you part of the 10% that is responsible for half of carbon demand? Might your consumption is 30 times above the sustainable limit? If you truly accepted that were true, what would you do? Here’s UC Berkeley’s Cool Climate carbon footprint calculator, the best one I know of. I invite you to learn the truth about yourself. For context, the “sustainable” carbon footprint is about 4 tons a person (the average American is over 20 tons).
The math is the math. Don’t look away.
The nineteen largest organizations doing this will be, in order of size from biggest to smallest: Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Gazprom, ExxonMobil, National Iranian Oil Company, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Pemex, Petróleos de Venezuela, PetroChina, Peabody Energy, ConocoPhillips, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Kuwait Petroleum Corporation, Iraq National Oil Company, Total SA, Sonatrach, BHP Billiton, and Petrobras. 75% of this are nation states. Source: The Ministry for the Future.
From The Ministry for the Future: “The current rate of extinctions compared to the geological norm is now several thousandfold faster, making this the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, and thus the start of the Anthropocene in its clearest demarcation, which is to say, we are in a biosphere catastrophe that will be obvious in the fossil record for as long as the Earth lasts… Ocean acidification and deoxygenation are other examples of things done by humans that we can’t undo, and the relation between this ocean acidification/ deoxygenation and the extinction event may soon become profound, in that the former may stupendously accelerate the latter…. Evolution itself will of course eventually refill all these emptied ecological niches with new species. The pre-existing plenitude of speciation will be restored in less than twenty million years.”
You can see this incredible self-loathing in Donald Trump, but this shadow is in all of us.
See also: In the Hindu four stages of life, a person spends the first 25 years learning to be in the world. In their next 25 years, one produces food and wealth that sustains people in other stages of life, as well as children. This stage also involves “the most intense physical, sexual, emotional, occupational, social and material attachments.” By the third stage of life, starting at around age 50, begins a gradual withdrawal from the world and a lessening attachment from wealth, security, pleasure and desires, until the fourth stage, which one loses interest in the material world and focuses on spiritual liberation.
Similarly, in Theravada Buddhism, the goal is to fulfill your earthly duties in order to renunciate material belongings and desire. This allows a person to free themself from the endless cycle of craving worldly possessions and sensual pleasures leads to unsatisfactoriness and suffering.