Love is the connection that can make a future possible
Dr Susan Murphy 2013
In Spiritual Evolution, his remarkable book on the positive
emotions, George Vaillant points out that the ancient Greek
philosophers left out a vital element of human love. They distinguished only
between universal unselfish love (agape) and instinctual sexual desire (eros). The former is
not selective; the latter is not enduring.
We humans are among the mammals whose primary positive emotion
is the selective, enduring and unselfish love of their young. It resonates in the
paleo-mammalian limbic core of our brain. Mothers have experienced it for
millennia, which is why the relationship of mother and baby is a perennial
symbol of human love. Maturity — and certain contemplative practices — can
allow us to generalize from that basis, and widen the circle of love to people
or beings different from ourselves.
Love, indeed, is the positive resonance at the heart of how
people enjoy the natural world. As Wordsworth wrote, “its presence disturbs me
with the joy of elevated thoughts.” When we recognize the multidimensional
beauty of this planet, the great being within which our species has evolved,
the positive emotions of awe and love are born in us. Nowadays especially, we
can no longer fail to embrace the Earth in every particularity. To become like
this is a recognition so deep that our own face appears in every detail of the
living world. Until we recover what it means to recognize the Earth as deeply
as this, we are living out a terminal, parasitical relationship towards her.
The Metta Sutta of Buddhism says we should cherish all living things,
“Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child.” The nature
of the Earth creates us in every detail, and we also now increasingly create
the nature of the Earth. Should we approach this as Frankenstein approached the
creation of his monster made of dead things? Or even as a mother protects with
her life, her only child? Our planet, our only planet.
systemic change or runaway climate warming?
The collective human relationship with the Earth is largely
dictated to governments by fossil fuel corporations. This is the most
delinquent example of what one recent Harvard Law School Forum termed “the corporate capture of the United States.” It persists even as the whole world
experiences unprecedented weather extremes and related agricultural disasters.
A fateful milestone (400 parts per million) was reached this year in the
atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. It is the highest level for some 3
million years — since long before the appearance of the modern human species,
some 250,000 years ago. It is also 50ppm too high for the planetary ecosystems
we have inherited, and upon which rain-fed human agriculture depends.
So what? Absent major systemic change in global society, we will
be unable to keep the increase in the average temperature of the planet (since
the industrial revolution) within a so-called “safe limit,” such as 2 degrees
centigrade. Some eminent climate scientists acknowledge the likelihood of an
increase of 3 to 5 degrees centigrade. Even establishment institutions such as
the IMF and World Bank are expressing urgent warnings.
Yet fossil fuel capitalism, still subsidized by
governments to the tune of $620B a year, shows no sign of abandoning its
relentless drive through “red lights” in the Earth’s climate system. The
nearest climate tipping point we face is the imminent loss of all summer sea
ice in the Arctic: massive systemic change in the biosphere will inevitably
follow from it. Our civilization is based on a pseudo-religious conviction in
the technological mastery of nature. That is reinforced everywhere on a daily
basis by mass media, advertising and consumerism — in a vast uncontrolled experiment
with cultural evolution. Neither scientific reason nor the religious traditions
can compete in this electronic marketplace of imagery and ideas. Only big money
counts. We have been left with the hardest possible way to learn what
ecological interdependence means. It would be naïve to expect a soft landing.
social tipping point for evolutionary responsibility
The global “triumph of propaganda” on climate is indeed the
saddest of facts, but is there any other reason why science and
environmentalism have not connectedwith the much larger constituency of people who
value the living world, and in so many ways? As Gandhi, King and Mandela
demonstrated, you have to movepeople if you want to ignite a movement on the scale
that creates a social tipping point. And you cannot just call on the strong but
negative emotion of fear. The American civil rights movement proved that people
could redress real grievances through confrontation, disobedience and
nonviolence. Of key significance, it had a dream that was told with the rich limbic
resonance of faith, joy, hope — and love. The climate crisis demands that we
discover and share an equally powerful positive emotional engagement — with our
own evolutionary survival, in a world worth living in.
The Earth is in trouble. To “become like this” in empathic love
right now is to admit to being in that same deep trouble. Actually, that’s
already an advance on being a parasite indifferent to the fate of its host.
Feeling the grief and pain, being profoundly troubled is the beginning of
sanity, and of compassion, just as singing the blues of deep pain and trouble
was the formation and proving of soul. It is an entry point not just into the
climate movement but into the undeniable climatemoment. Destructive climate change is already
happening and is already eloquently expressing the self-destructiveness of what
we have accepted way too long already as a workable human world. It is not
workable, nor can it remain profitable for more than the next few “geological
It is beginning to dawn that nothing short of a fundamental
socio-political, economic and personal transformation will get us out of this
life-threatening trouble. As Yotam Marom said recently, “We have to re-learn the
climate crisis as one that ties our struggles together and opens up potential
for the world we’re already busy fighting for.” The forces propelling climate
change are the same forces that the Occupy, Indignado and Idle No More
movements, and the push for recognition at law of the rights of the Earth are
refusing to tolerate any longer.
Love is the force that quite simply undoes the “logic” of the
ruthlessness that pervades our economic “order.” When we see the Earth and each
other clearly with the recognition that is love, and dissolve the apparent
boundaries that divide us, with the love born of feeling the suffering of the
other, the name of that love is compassion — “suffering with.”
Then, Thich Nhat Hanh says:
“You have the courage to speak out because you have compassion,
because compassion is a powerful energy. With compassion you can die for other
people, like the mother who can die for her child. You have the courage to say it
because you are not afraid of losing anything, because you know that
understanding and love is the foundation of happiness. But if you have fear of
losing your status, your position, you will not have the courage to do it.”
So we begin to discern the lineaments of a threat that brings an
awakening, one that is no longer individual in its scope but composed of all
who share a common love of this singular and sacred provenance that is the
Earth. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, the Buddha of our time may turn out to be
not an individual but a community. A true grassroots community saying an
unshakeable “no” to the forces that show such unholy indifference to life; one
that may be distributed and networked in space but is, like an eco-system,
rooted in the sacred fact of the Earth; non-violent and loving with a force as
implacable as the Earth; drawing on the strength of a persistence that cannot
die though it outlast even our species.
To love enough to meet the crisis we are facing is to become like this.