50 Shades of Gaia
by Andrew Gurevich
30th August, 2012
Earlier this week George Monbiot asked whether we are all guilty of some kind of reactive denial over the reality and impact of climate change? Here, professor of religion, Andrew Gurevich, suggests it’s more a kind of sadomasochistic ‘forgetting’
Partnership is replaced by ownership. Consumption trumps cooperation.
It is 121°F in Oklahoma. The soil is baking to death. Farmers watch helplessly as their future - our future - radiates from the dying grey earth like a desert mirage in a silent film. A new Dust Bowl is looming. Thousands of high temperature records have been shattered across the U.S. this year. Close to half of the counties in the entire nation have been declared environmental disaster areas. In D.C., the molten soup that used to be tarmac is literally swallowing airplane tires as they attempt to take off. We are in Dante’s Inferno. And yet the climate change “skeptics” seem more resolute in their obstinance. Doubling down on their denial, they flaunt their ignorance like new wealth. The cognitive dissonance never seems to rise above the surface of their manicured, plastic reality.
Category Five super storms are the new norm, and they come earlier in the season each year. And yet every single U.S. Congressperson elected during the “Tea Party Revolution” of 2010 denies the human agency in climate instability. There is almost unanimous scientific agreement that we are in the middle of the next great species extinction, and that this is happening because of human activity. However none of this matters to the deniers because, quite simply, this is not what they are denying.
A sensible person feels as if they’re suddenly in the Middle Ages after speaking about the record snowmelt in the Austrian Alps and receiving that “ten-mile blank stare” in return. One points out that phytoplankton (the foundation of the ocean’s food chain) are suddenly reproducing at a factor of 5X slower than normal due to increasing acidification, and the “skeptic” blinks in pathological detachment. You might as well have claimed to see a Yeti or a unicorn performing a Brahms concerto.
When we discuss roughly 40% of Greenland’s ice melting in just a few days, or the mega drought lurching across America’s farm belt, or the record-breaking wildfires in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico and other parts of the country, we are met with disdain, contempt, or even worse, indifference.
At a recent Congressional hearing on the current science in the climate “debate,” Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and James Inhofe (R-OKLA) claimed to be “offended” by the veritable consensus within the scientific community regarding the human causes of climate instability. When presented with a new peer-reviewed report that surveys 1,372 climate scientists and reaffirms the major findings of the IPCC regarding human activity and climate change, the Senators simply claimed the report was “irrelevant,” much to the exasperation of confused onlookers and testifying scientists. To understand the level of scientific consensus on the issue (and thus the full frame of what the “deniers” are actually denying), one recent study examined every peer-reviewed article on climate change published in scientific journals over 10 years. Of the 928 articles reviewed, not one of them disagreed with the consensus position that climate change is both real and anthropogenic. These findings differ drastically from the popular media's reporting on global warming however. Another study analyzed coverage in four major American newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The LA Times and The Wall Street Journal) over 14 years. Alarmingly, it found that over half of the articles gave equal weight to the scientifically discredited views of the deniers. Much has been written about the economic forces behind the climate change denial movement. Greg Pallast, Bill McKibben and many others have chronicled with great accuracy which multinationals are funding this propaganda, junk science and yellow journalism. To embrace the science is to limit profits. The future of the entire planet takes a back seat to the multi-trillion-dollar, sociopathic orgy of oil, coal and gas futures. The zero-sum paradigm of rampant capitalism, with its institutionalized ownership class, is simply too tempted by the wealth and power to change course. Their sadistic drive is fuelled by the desire to be even more exclusive, even more powerful. So the impulse to drill and pillage our diminishing natural resources only grows exponentially as those resources become increasingly scarce. It is a race to the bottom. Understood. Some corporations are putting profits ahead of people. And in doing so are becoming increasingly guilty of crimes against humanity, crimes against all the living. As noted above, many in the environmental movement have been investigating this crippling, cannibalistic greed of the ownership class. But less has been written about why there is such willingness among the populace to believe these lies and reject the truth with such unwavering consistency.
We know why ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and the Koch Brothers fund projects to undermine the legitimate research on climate change, but why does it work so well with the target audience? It seems there is no level of factual coherence that will satisfy the climate change deniers. Why the willing societal masochism on the part of the losers of this pathological corporate paradigm? Perhaps this is because their fundamental problem is not one of denying, but forgetting.
Their rejection is not so much of the scientific data but of the entire notion of Gaian (inter)connectivity itself. Epigenetically coded to forget their true mythological origins, they dismiss the idea out of hand. So to get at the root of the psychological resistance to the science of climate change, we need discover the source of this collective cultural “forgetting.”
What foundational cultural and mythological principles are climate change deniers forgetting and how exactly did they come to forget them?
The answers may be found by going back into our mythological past to the point when our culture severed itself from the sacred feminine and from the natural world that is its manifestation. Here we will find the origins of the perpetual ideological blind spot within the climate denial movement. Here, our descent into the self-consuming madness begins. “Once upon a time, six or seven thousand years ago, there was a universal creation myth with versions known in every part of the then civilized world,” claims author and cultural mythologist Barbara Walker. Fragments of this universal myth still appear in the wisdom traditions of Egypt, Greece, India, the Middle East, China and Japan. “By putting together the common features of various versions of this creation myth,” Walker argues, “we can reconstruct some of the thought patterns of our earliest ancestors, which gave rise to many systems of representation, comprehension, and theories of symbolism.”
In the universal creation myth, Walker continues, “the world began in the womb of the Great Mother during her formless phase, before she differentiated anything from anything else.” In this phase she assumed no shape or physical boundary even for herself. This chaotic, undifferentiated darkness possessed the power that would result in the first act of creation and cosmic birth giving. Within the Great Mother’s mythic womb, the elements would separate, appear, and begin to combine in various ways to produce all the phenomena of the living world. As newly agricultural societies, it makes sense that these early civilizations revered the feminine principle. All life was experienced as being born from within the mysterious, primal darkness of Mother Earth. From Her sacred heart-rhythm and “magical blood” all life came into existence. But it wasn’t long before the transition into our current sadomasochistic and patriarchal paradigm began. Along with a reverence for nature inherited from the previous systems, the agricultural paradigm also introduced a desire to manipulate, control and ultimately consume it. This can be seen clearly in the first creation story ever written down: the Babylonian The Seven Tablets of Creation. The Seven Tablets replaced previous creation myths around 1700 B.C. and was recited in Babylon every spring for over a thousand years. In this poem, the Goddess Tiamet is brutally murdered by her son Marduk when she is about to give birth to the universe. Marduk, jealous of his mother’s creative power, slaughters her and then creates the universe by dismembering her body and scattering it across the Cosmos. Tiamat’s buttocks became the mountains and her breasts the foothills. Marduk pierced her eyes with his spear, and her tears formed the two great rivers: the Tigris and the Euphrates. In a final act of indignity he used Tiamat’s pubic mound to support the sky. Marduk then blamed the murder on his innocent brother, Kingu. In a bloody ritual witnessed by all, Marduk sacrificed Kingu for the crime he did not commit. He ordered Ea (his Father) to knead the flesh and blood of his scapegoat to make mankind. Marduk condemned these new creatures to crawl across the surface of Tiamat’s dismembered corpse and spend their brief lives toiling to provide food and wine for the gods. Babylonians embracing this myth would forever be burdened by masochistic, misogynistic guilt. They weaved their very existence to the martyrdom of a god, Kingu, who suffered and died for the sins of others. Namely, his murderous brother and complicit father: Marduk and Ea. Furthermore, the people became mythological participants in the first murder: the “original sin” of killing the Great Mother and stealing her creative powers. The split would eventually produce an entire culture (ours) of raping, pilfering and dismembering the “sacred mother” at will. As inheritors of this paradigm, we have added the horrors of Industrialism to this ongoing sacrificial violence.
From this point forward, devotees of the murderous sky god would define themselves as possessing the moral authority to subdue the earth and use its resources as they saw fit. Partnership is replaced by ownership. Consumption trumps cooperation. Instead of living within the cycles of the natural world, as a contingent part of the web of life, mankind sets itself apart from and above it. Our authority is now codified through the subjugation of the sacred feminine. In “The Goddess Versus the Alphabet,” author Leonard Shlain suggests that virtually all societies “invent creation stories to explain the presence of the physical universe, the puzzle of human existence, and the reasons for death and evil.” Because of the obvious association between beginnings and births, Shlain contends, the vast majority of them revolve around the union of male and female deities. But in the Babylonian version “an allegory of death has replaced the metaphor of birth.” This is the story of a rebellion against a mother by her male children. In the Freudian view, sons are supposed to wrestle power from their fathers - not their mothers. Unless the mother originally held the power Shlain argues. Alongside the thousands of creation myths from other cultures, The Seven Tablets of Creation stands starkly alone. Three features distinguish it. First, in the field of comparative religion, there does not exist a more misogynist and macabre story. Second, this is the first creation myth to appear in written form. And third, this myth originated in a proto-Western culture. Although different in many aspects from the Babylonian creation myth, our Judeo-Christian creation story retains two key aspects of its Babylonian predecessor: 1) the misogynistic aspect of a male deity stepping forward as the sole Creator of all life; and, 2) the masochistic dynamic of establishing a relationship of punishment and reward between mankind and this murderous male deity. Furthermore, both narratives establish a negative association between the living, embodied world and the feminine principle. We serve God in this model by imprisoning the sacred feminine, making “Her” indefinitely submissive to male authority, coercion, use and abuse. We do this simply by turning her gardens into prisons, her cycles into shackles. She is ours to consume. In his book Violence and the Sacred, Dr. Rene Girard explores the origins of Western philosophy and culture from among the earlier partnership societies. Girard concludes that all of our systems of thought are rooted in what he calls an original symbolic act of “collective murder.” This first mythological “murder” has remained shrouded in mystery, according to Girard, but is fundamental to understanding our deepest human emotional states as well as our earliest mythological systems. It is also essential to understanding the pathology expressed through the attitude many in the climate change denial movement have towards the scientific data. The primary objection is philosophical, not scientific. The thought of releasing their sadistic grip on the natural world is more terrifying than destroying it entirely. To acknowledge human agency in climate change is to acknowledge not only our mammalian fragility but also our true cultural and mythological roots.
The pig-headed cognitive dissonance becomes a defence mechanism meant to protect the “skeptic” from having to rethink their basic cosmological assumptions: namely, the erroneous belief that the Earth is our possession to treat as we wish.
The spiritual sadism of this patriarchy seeks to control the sacred feminine through subduing Her primary manifestation: the natural world. Once we shifted from a Goddess-orientation to one of a murderous God, the systems of thought that we had devised to help us understand our place in the Cosmos now began to obscure and separate us from it. According to Girard, this plays a significant role in shifting our awareness away from the mythological womb of prehistory and towards a dominator model of isolation, violence and environmental destruction. This question becomes pressing, Girard adds, “if there is a rupture between nature and culture.” The Babylonian creation story and its Biblical counterpart have hurled us into a state of perpetual aggression and ego-driven assertion. A left-hemisphere dominant hallucination which, when cut us off from its mythic home, amounts to a collective “cancer” on the body of our actual home. Instead of celebrating and preserving sacred space, we find ourselves destroying, defiling and disregarding it. Rather than developing sustainable and responsible models for human habitation, our sociopolitical institutions have become ensnared in a counter-intuitive struggle to condemn and choke off those very models. The Earth has become the scapegoat for our multi-generational, insatiable greed. Our primary transgression: forgetting our connection and responsibility to it. By institutionalising the perpetual rape of this planet, our dominator culture has continued a legacy of subjugation that extends back to this first mythological murder. When we wrestled the life-giving power away from the sacred feminine, our species hurled itself into an existential void. No longer connected to the cycles of nature, we became unhinged from our mythological womb. The collective PTSD from this choice, to subdue nature rather than revere it, has left us bruised and assaulted as a species. The massive societal “forgetting” is a part of this generational mimetic psychosis. Ironically, with the mythological (and historical) choice to subjugate the sacred feminine we have relinquished any control we may have once had over the material and spiritual worlds, even as we sought to master them. By violently dismembering the mythological goddess, we have resigned ourselves to live consistently in the sadomasochistic paradigm we have created. We must play the role of the Oppressor. The “Dom.” As Orwell once wrote about the British occupation of India, “When the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys.” In the earlier models, the condition was one of partnership, of cooperation. To live within the Great Mystery was to live fully, to live dynamically. Life was not seen as banishment from Paradise but rather immersion in it. In the beginning, the world was God. And we worshipped accordingly. Seen through this lens, the rape of the Earth represents some original, unspeakable act of violence in the “mind” of Western patriarchies. Collectively, our subconscious minds turn back to that first matricide. The “miracle” the masculine deity was able to accomplish by stealing the life-giving power of the Cosmic Mother. To bring this realization into consciousness, however, is to do nothing short of challenging the mythological foundations of Western Civilization itself. Therefore nature, the feminized image of the embodied world, must be controlled, contained and condemned in order to keep the “crime” covered up. The “facts” are selected and arranged to perpetually distort the scene of the crime. Diversionary tactics meant to keep the truth from ever penetrating their carefully constructed religious delusion. And meant also to keep honest people paralyzed in disbelief at the self-destructive arrogance of those who would chose their wallets or their dogma over our fragile, dying planet. Climate change deniers are the priests of this murderous regime. The ritualized destruction of the planet becomes a sacrament. And their denial is rooted in faith, not honest inquiry. This is why the more evidence presented to the climate change “skeptic,” the more resolute they become in resisting the inevitable. The birth of the modern world lies in the mechanism of what Girard calls the surrogate victim. “Today the reign of violence is made manifest,” Girard claims, “through the slow but steady progress of knowledge toward an understanding of the surrogate victim and of the violent origins of all human culture.”
Time is running out for us to heal this ideological rift and restructure our human societies around the partnership models of prehistory. Gaian connectivity was the first religion and our participation in its glorious manifestation is the ground of all human knowledge, wisdom and experience. Contingency, compassion and interdependence are becoming the ideological pillars of a new holistic, earth-based global consciousness but the old guard will not give up power willingly. Our true inheritance as a species is the living world which we inhabit and our responsibility is to care for it and treat it as we would our own mother, our own home. Simply because it is. The beginning of the story desperately needs to be rewritten because the last chapter, for us at least, quickly approaches.
Andrew Gurevich is Professor of Religion, Philosophy & Literature based in Portland, OR.
I can say with some confidence that we're losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
--Philip K. Dick
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