On the third day of the yoga and meditation retreat, near the destroyed grandeur of Angkor Wat, we sprawled on cushions under a thatched roof, listening to Guru Joel. Guru Joel’s name wasn’t actually Guru Joel; it was just Joel. But he had a very long beard and strong guru energy, so ‘Guru Joel’ stuck.
He sat cross-legged, straight-backed, eyes closed, holding forth about “the silence of being”, cultivating “no-mind”, things like this. At the end of his half-hour dharma talk, Guru Joel reached into a scratched brass bowl where, throughout the day, people could leave anonymous handwritten questions for him to answer. These questions were a mix of generic (“How do I become better at sitting still?”) and crushingly self-indulgent (“What should I do if I hurt someone’s feelings without meaning to?”) Guru Joel dutifully answered them all.
Then he fished out my question: “What about climate change?”
A nervous laugh wobbled around the group. There were about 30 of us who had flown in from the US, from Europe, from Australia, from New Zealand. (This was early 2018, back when travelling was still a thing.) While I was loving the whole vegan, unplugged, shanti-shanti vibe of the retreat, I was also disturbed by what I saw as a lack of engagement with the wider world – starting just up the road with the desperately poor village of Prasat Bakong, then the picturesque, overrun tourist town of Siam Reap, then the rest of Cambodia, then the cascade of messed-up world events we were all doing our best to avoid. We were a bunch of spoiled brats in yoga pants doing downward dogs and ordering chia shakes, taking selfies in front of the remains of collapsed empires, fretting about the best place to go on holiday next.
So, to keep us honest, I asked the one question I couldn’t stop asking.
“Well . . .” Guru Joel intoned, “we’re in for a wild ride, there’s no doubt about that.”
He closed his eyes and breathed in. “But you know, in many traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, like this – there is this idea that the world goes through great cosmological cycles, of creation, growth, collapse, destruction . . .”
He talked about Kali Yuga – the Age of Strife. It could be that humanity had just entered a new epoch, he suggested. This wasn’t to say that we shouldn’t strive to live good lives. But there were much larger forces at play, forces we would never understand – unless we dedicated our lives to meditation and spiritual awakening . . .
At the time, I found Guru Joel’s answer thoroughly unsatisfactory: apolitical, defeatist, a cosmic cop-out of the highest order. But in the months and years since I left the meditation retreat, I keep returning to those words. Clinging to them, even.
Back in 1989, environmentalist Bill McKibben coined the phrase “the end of nature”. He defined this as the exhaustion of “a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it” – namely that even if we ruined certain chunks of the environment, there’d always be more nature for us to exploit. For McKibben, adjusting to this paradigm shift was set to be “filled with implications for our philosophy, our theology, our sense of self”, in ways we were only just starting to come to terms with.
In 2013, US war veteran Roy Scranton wrote an article for the New York Times, suggesting that “the question is no longer whether global warming exists or how we might stop it but how we are going to deal with it.”
And so what are the most appropriate emotions – the most productive emotions, even – to feel at this moment in time? How to balance the guilt, the fear, the anger, the desperate hope, the absurdity of it all? These are the questions of our age, the questions we will spend the rest of our lives wrestling with.
Ever since that yoga camp with Guru Joel, I’ve tried to take a deep-history-of-everything perspective. I remind myself that Angkor Wat used to be the centre of the world’s largest empire, while Aotearoa used to be covered with lush native forest. That humans used to travel by foot or maybe horse, living happily without cutlery or smartphones, and might do so once more. That species come and go. That everything changes, and we all die. In an effort to reassure other people (and, no doubt, myself), I make sweeping quasi-spiritual proclamations: “We’re all just specks of foam on the great wave of history . . . and maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll be in the right place, at the right time, to watch that wave break.”
This kind of thing works pretty well, most of the time. But not always.
I’m getting older. Despite our shaky future, people all around me are still having children. Kids who have never known and never will know a world without the ever-present, intensifying threat of climate change.
For me, the big story of 2019 was the rise of School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion, and their connection to adjacent social movements such as Black Lives Matter. Seemingly overnight, the language most people used to discuss climate change . . . changed. Colourless terms like “emissions trading” were replaced by livelier ones: “crisis”, “collapse”, “climate justice”. Suddenly, the media seemed willing to talk about worst-case scenarios (“extinction”). People seemed feisty, revolutionary. There was a buzz in the air. Progress seemed possible – or, at least, less impossible.
Now, with the Covid-19 crisis overshadowing the climate movement (and keeping protesters off the streets), the future can look bleaker than ever. But at the same time, the pandemic has shown how easily people, communities, societies and governments can change things up – stop flying; reorganise the economy; put the health of others front and centre – if we feel it’s important enough, or that we don’t have a choice.
Whatever we do from here, it won’t be enough to ‘stop’ or ‘fix’ climate change; the seas will keep rising, the forests will keep burning, people will keep dying. But we have to do everything we can anyway, because if we don’t, it’ll get so much worse. And we humans are lucky enough to contain multitudes: we can be specks of cosmic foam and hard-working environmentalists at the same time.
An edited extract from the introduction to Living with the Climate Crisis: Voices from Aotearoa, featuring essays by 12 writers, and edited by Tom Doig (Bridget Williams, $15), available in selected bookstores nationwide.