A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability
Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2013|
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
Climbing the Ladder of Awareness
This article was originally published in
Approaching the Limits to Growth, 19 October 2012
Reprinted with Permission
Excerpt from Approaching the Limits to Growth:
"Population growth, climate change, global corporatism, chemical pollution, resource
depletion, species extinctions, ocean overfishing and acidification,
global financial instability, mounting social disparities and
injustices are all merely symptoms of a system that has been out of
control for centuries (despite our earnest attempts to convince
ourselves otherwise). We have no choice left - or perhaps we never really had any other choice - but to ride the dragon until the human overshoot corrects itself, as overshoots always do.
"The silver lining I see is that all the pressures coming from this process
of correction can be useful goads toward personal self-development. "In
all matters, strive to do the right thing." What does this mean
to each of us? What does mindful living in the midst of the whirlwind
entail, what does it require of us in terms of personal growth, in the
development of wisdom and self-awareness? How might each of us resolve
our alienation - from each other, from our societies, from nature, from
our own place in the universe? How may we find the re-connections
that are essential if we are to emerge from this tumultuous, careless
human adolescence into individual and collective adulthood? These are
deep questions for dark times." Paul Chefurka
When it comes to our understanding of the unfolding global crisis, each
of us seems to fit somewhere along a continuum of awareness that can be
roughly divided into five stages:
For those who arrive at Stage 5 there is a real risk that depression
set in. After all, we've learned throughout our lives that our hope for
tomorrow lies in our ability to solve problems today. When
of human cleverness appears able to solve our predicament the
possibility of hope can vanish like a the light of a candle flame, to
be replaced by the suffocating darkness of despair.
- Dead asleep. At this
stage there seem to be no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings
in human organization, behaviour and morality that can be fixed with
the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage tend to live
their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around
election times or the quarterly corporate earnings seasons.
- Awareness of one
Whether it's Climate Change, overpopulation, Peak Oil, chemical
pollution, oceanic over-fishing, biodiversity loss, corporatism,
economic instability or sociopolitical injustice, one problem seems to
engage the attention completely. People at this stage tend to become
ardent activists for their chosen cause. They tend to be very vocal
about their personal issue, and blind to any others.
- Awareness of many problems.
As people let in more evidence from different domains, the awareness of
complexity begins to grow. At this point a person worries about
prioritization of problems in terms of their immediacy and degree of
impact. People at this stage may become reluctant to acknowledge new
problems - for example, someone who is committed to fighting for social
justice and against climate change may not recognize the problem of
resource depletion. They may feel that the problem space is
complex enough, and the addition of any new concerns will only dilute
the effort that needs to be focused on solving the "highest priority"
- Awareness of the
interconnections between the many problems.
The realization that a solution in one domain may worsen a problem in
another marks the beginning of large-scale system-level thinking. It
also marks the transition from thinking of the situation in terms of a set of problems to thinking of it
in terms of a predicament. At
this point the possibility that there may not be a solution begins to
raise its head.
People who arrive at this stage tend to withdraw into tight circles of
like-minded individuals in order to trade insights and deepen their
understanding of what's going on. These circles are necessarily small,
both because personal dialogue is essential for this depth of
exploration, and because there just aren't very many people who have
arrived at this level of understanding.
- Awareness that the
predicament encompasses all aspects of life.
This includes everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with
each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and
the physical planet. With this realization, the floodgates open, and no
problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept of
a "Solution" is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort.
How people cope with despair is of course deeply personal, but it seems
to me there are two general routes people take to reconcile themselves
with the situation. These are not mutually exclusive, and most of
will operate out of some mix of the two. I identify them here as
general tendencies, because people seem to be drawn more to one or the
other. I call them the outer
path and the inner path.
If one is inclined to choose the outer
path, concerns about adaptation and local resilience move into
the foreground, as exemplified by the Transition Network
To those on the outer path, community-building and local sustainability
initiatives will have great appeal. Organized party politics
be less attractive to people at this stage, however. Perhaps
is seen as part of the problem, or perhaps it's just seen as a waste of
effort when the real action will take place at the local level.
If one is disinclined to choose the outer path either because of
temperament or circumstance, the inner path offers its own set of
Choosing the inner path
involves re-framing the whole thing in terms of consciousness,
self-awareness and/or some form of transcendent perception. For
someone on this path it is seen as an attempt to manifest Gandhi's
message, "Become the change you wish
to see in the world," on the most profoundly personal
level. This message is similarly expressed in the ancient
Hermetic saying, "As above, so
below." Or in plain language, "In order to heal the world, first begin
by healing yourself."
However, the inner path does not
imply a "retreat into religion". Most of the people I've met who have
chosen an inner path have as little use for traditional religion as
their counterparts on the outer path have for traditional
Organized religion is usually seen as part of the predicament rather
than a valid response to it. Those who have arrived at this point have
no interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth, rather they
wish to create a coherent personal context for it. Personal
spirituality of one sort or another often works for this, but organized
religion rarely does.
worth mentioning that there is also the possibility of a serious
personal difficulty at this point. If someone cannot choose an
path for whatever reasons, and is also resistant to the idea of inner
growth or spirituality as a response the the crisis of an entire
planet, then they are truly in a bind. There are few other doorways out
of this depth of despair. If one remains stuck here for an
period of time, life can begin to seem awfully bleak, and violence
against either the world or oneself may begin begin to seem like a
reasonable option. Please keep a watchful eye on your own
progress, and if
you encounter someone else who may be in this state, please offer them
a supportive ear.
From my observations, each successive stage contains roughly a tenth of
the number people as the one before it. So while perhaps 90% of
humanity is in Stage 1, less than one person in ten thousand will be at
Stage 5 (and none of them are likely to be politicians). The
those who have chosen the inner path in Stage 5 also seems to be an
order of magnitude smaller than the number who are on the outer path.
I happen to have chosen an inner path as my response to a Stage 5
awareness. It works well for me, but navigating this imminent
(transition, shift, metamorphosis - call it what you will), will
require all of us - no matter what our chosen paths - to cooperate on
making wise decisions in difficult times.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Chefurka is a Computer Scientist with a lifelong interest in environmental issues. He has spent over twenty years working in Research and Development in the Ottawa telecommunications industry, and is currently Project Manager at Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. His personal web site, Approaching the Limits provides open access to his writings and is a valuable resource for study and reflection on many dimensions of the impending ecological crisis. He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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