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Final Autumn: Climate Catastrophe And Its Spiritual Dimensions – Part 3

Betty J Dabney, Ph.D.

Summary of Climate Catastrophe

Global Warming / Climate Change / Climate Crisis / Climate Catastrophe is real, is largely due to humans’ burning of fossil fuels, and is occurring at a more rapid pace than scientists previously thought. It is affecting many if not all aspects of the lives of lower and higher animals and plants, including humans. We can expect to see unprecedented record heat waves, storms, encroachment on coastal areas by a rapidly rising sea level, rivers drying up, mass extinctions of species, spread of infectious diseases, and widespread food shortages. These effects will cause increased loss of property and life. Life as we know it will not be the same in as few as two generations. It is already changing now.

Different governments are taking different approaches to dealing with Climate Catastrophe. Originally some were in favor of mitigation, i.e. making our infrastructure less polluting. Some feel it is already too late for that because the earth is such a large and complex system that it would not react immediately to changes. Even if we could stop emissions of excess CO2 today, it would take the earth many years to normalize.

Now it is more common to see plans for adaptation rather than mitigation. This is a more pessimistic approach which assumes that humanity will not be able to stop Climate Catastrophe. Some large coastal cities are planning to erect giant sea walls to keep the rising ocean at bay. Others may need to move inland to higher elevations. Still others, such as the Maldives island nation, may be lost forever and will have to relocate to a higher area.

There is talk of geo-engineering. Some people believe that engineering solutions on a regional or global scale such as intentional introduction of smoke in the stratosphere to block some of the heat (and light) from the sun may be the answer. Unfortunately such largescale engineering projects cannot be fully tested in the laboratory before they are built, and their success may not be assured. The cost would also be ve ry great. Geo-engineering also provides little or no incentive for people to change their behaviors.

Governments are typically reactionary. They wait until something has become a crisis before acting. Governments also tend to perpetuate the status quo, especially when it is to the benefit of the current military-industrial complex. We can expect governments to proceed with business as usual until there is no other choice. And by then it will be much too late.

This liturgy of the current and expected effects of Climate Catastrophe has been rather impersonal. But the most important point, one which overshadows all the others, is if humanity destroys its own and only habitat this would be the greatest moral outrage in history. We cannot destroy other life without destroying ourselves and vice versa because all life is interrelated. We need the earth, but the earth does not need us. One could make a strong case that the planet would be better off without Homo sapiens. Humanity is acting as if the sapiens has disappeared from Homo.

The scenarios described in this article are not just speculation. Some of them are already happening. If we can’t depend on governments to react in time, then what is left? The answer is obvious – major changes in personal lifestyles that we as individuals have the power to make. There is strength in numbers. We as individuals have the power to change the world if we work together. The remainder of this article will discuss how we can change our lives to heal the earth and save ourselves.

What Does Climate Catastrophe Mean for Us? What Can We Do?

It is difficult to be motivated to change our practices because of Climate Catastrophe if it has not directly affected us yet. Most of us living in urban areas don’t see its effects because we are not directly in touch with nature. But some rural areas, especially the Arctic and sub-Equatorial Africa, have been so changed that the effects are already obvious and devastating. Entire towns in the Arctic are debating whether or not to relocate because the warming has melted the permafrost where their houses are built. Rotting carcasses of livestock dot the lifeless and cracked landscape in Africa where water has run out. For the people living in these places, Climate Catastrophe is ever so real.

But for the rest of us, we need to take actions now that will benefit the whole of humanity in the future. And the sooner, the better. Most importantly, each of us can gladly adopt changes in our own lives as part of our spiritual practice. Helping to mitigate or even reverse Climate Change can bring each of us in closer communion with ourselves, the earth and ultimately the Cosmos.

Most recommendations you will see in other reviews will be the same. These include the “Three R’s”: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Popularized by the US Environmental Protection Agency, these are directed toward reducing pollution from material goods. Buy less, use things longer and then dispose of them into recycling waste streams. Certainly these are good practices, but they are only the beginning and are not comprehensive by any means.

Perhaps the greatest impact we can have in our practice is by changing the way we eat. Keeping in mind how much water is required to produce meat vs. fruits and vegetables, we can have a major impact on water sustainability by consuming less or even no meat. According to National Geographic, a vegan saves approximately 600 gallons of water a day compared with a meat-eating person (http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/water-conservation-tips/).

We can be more mindful of how we use energy and work to conserve it. Take public transportation where it is available. More demand will produce better public transport and transportation-oriented development, where housing, offices and retail are built with access to public transportation in mind. This is already the case in many highly urbanized areas where people do not own automobiles.

If you are a city planner, you can create complete streets in which retail, housing, offices, trees and attractive public gathering places increase the appeal of urban living for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians alike. Cities are more energy-efficient than suburbs but often are less desirable as places to live because of pollution and crowding. These undesirable factors can be overcome to some extent by good design. As of 2007 more than half the world’s population lived in urban areas, and it is becoming more urbanized every day.

We can all help by planting trees if we have space to grow them. Trees and other vegetation remove air pollutants, release oxygen, and sequester CO2. They are one of the most valuable resources for reversing Climate Catastrophe. The rainforests are disappearing such an alarming rate that they will have disappeared completely by 2060 (www.rainforest.org). Rainforests are also a rich source of biodiversity. Biodiversity is important because it provides resilience against sudden or gradual environmental changes. And preserving biodiversity is important for ethical reasons because all living creatures, sentient or not, are important for nature’s balance.

We can still have trees even in a highly urban environment. In fact, the more urban the location, the more important it is to have trees and vegetation. Even high-rise buildings can have trees. One remarkable example of a creative way to provide access to trees and vegetation is the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Woods) in Milan, Italy. This award-winning design by Stefano Boeri and associates is different from many radical ideas in that it has actually been built. Figure 9 shows how it looks today. The façades of the twin towers incorporate 730 trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 11,000 perennials and groundcover of approximately fifty species, equivalent to a hectare of woodland. One example of its brilliant design is the use of deciduous trees which shade the interiors in the hottest months of the year and then provide access to sunlight and passive heating during the winter.

Bosco Verticale is just one example of how nature can be brought to urban dwellers to replace what has been lost. To carry the idea even farther, some people are using edible landscaping. We can’t all live in a luxury condominium like Bosco Verticale, but many of us have some space which can be used for growing plants, especially food. Vertical gardens require a minimum of space and can be surprisingly productive. They are also good projects for children and families to do together.

Growing some of our own food is a good way to keep us in touch with where our food comes from. It is also important to grow the food in a healthy way, in balance with nature. This is what organic farming does. Among other things, organic farming uses only natural materials such as compost and animal waste for fertilizer. It also encourages crop rotation to prevent depletion of nutrients in the soil. And it avoids the use of pesticides. Pesticides are weakening many species important for our plant including honeybees. Honeybees are suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder worldwide. Bees are necessary for many agricultural crops. Without honeybees, the agriculture industry itself would collapse.

If you want to grow some of your own food, we encourage you to adopt organic farming practices. The yields will be just as great, and the food will be better for you and the planet. The United Nations concluded in a recent report that small-scale organic farming is the only way to feed the world (www.technologywater.com/post/69995394390/unreport-says-small-scale-organic-farming-only).

If you are a farmer, you may be able to adopt micro-irrigation (drip irrigation) to use much less water. Figure 10 shows one on-line micro-irrigation design where water is delivered precisely to the plants that need it, thus saving up to 70 percent of the water needed to grow fruits and closely-spaced crops (www.kotharipipes.co.in). If you are an agricultural planner, please encourage farmers to use micro-irrigation. It can make a big difference in water consumption. Typically agriculture is the largest consumer of water worldwide; hence any improvements in water consumption for agricultural purposes on a global scale would have a large impact.

Agriculture does not have to be rural. Indeed, the more we can work together to bring agriculture to towns and cities, the more people will benefit from locally grown food. The town of Todmorden in West Yorkshire, UK uses edible landscaping in the village (www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk). All food is freely available to anyone who wants it. Figure 11 shows sweet corn and leafy greens growing on the sidewalk outside the police station! Now similar Incredible Edible Towns are cropping up all over the world, including Hong Kong (https://vimeo.com/36838823).

These practices are part of adopting a sustainable lifestyle. But how can personal sustainability be compatible with economic sustainability? Clearly the world cannot continue to measure economic health by consumption of goods manufactured from nonrenewable resources.

One idea is to adopt universal standards for manufactured goods, much like electrical standards. Such standards would allow electronic equipment, automobiles, major appliances and other goods to be made in modules. When someone wants to upgrade their cellular phone, they could slide out the old module and slide in a new one. Such a modular approach would also help to reduce electronic waste, the fastest-growing waste stream worldwide. If you are a manufacturing engineer, perhaps you can persuade your company to adopt modular manufacturing.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by all this bad news of Climate Catastrophe. It is simple to say, “I’m just one person; how can I make a difference?” Just remember, the earth is a collection of 7.3 billion people who are all “just one person”. If we could find a way to get all 7.3 billion people to work together to save the earth from Climate Catastrophe, how wonderful that would be. Governments can develop international treaties and policies, but those will not be enough. It will take large-scale individual action to make a real sustainable difference.

Such action will undoubtedly involve social media, and specifically cell-phone applications. Even in developing countries the vast majority of people have cell phones. We don’t need a new technology to save us; it is already here. Cell phone applications and social media can bring people together who are working on common problems to develop solutions.

To start the ball rolling, I have created a Facebook site called Healing the Earth, Saving Ourselves (www.facebook.com/HealingEarthSavingOurselves?fref=ts). It is based on the idea that the earth is dying before our very eyes, but if humanity could set aside its religious, political and other differences and work together to reverse Climate Catastrophe, it would save itself in doing so. I encourage you to join this site; it is a good source of information on innovative ideas for sustainable living.

This is what it all boils down to. We all drink the same water. We all breathe the same air. We all eat food grown on the same earth. These simple yet profound truths transcend any individual differences we might have. So let us use these truths to be the basis of how we can work together. And in so doing, humanity will be transformed into HumanKind. It will discover through practice that kindness, respect and compassion are the key to saving ourselves.

As you think about how you can incorporate these ideas into your own personal spiritual practice, here are some suggestions to help you on your way:

    • Always live mindfully. Being in the present moment will keep you connected to the rest of the planet and your inner being. Be aware of how you as an individual depend on so many other things and people for your existence, and be grateful for this every day.
    • Tread gently on the earth, literally and metaphorically, being respectful of all life on it both sentient and non-sentient. Who are we to know that any life form may be non-sentient? It is best to treat all life with compassion and respect as if it were sentient. Live intentionally in a way to minimize or even eliminate trash and garbage. Make compost from your waste if you have the space. Encourage your government to have curbside recycling of paper, metal, plastic, glass and compostables.
    • Practice lovingkindness in your meditations and in your life. Reflect on your love for all life on earth and for all other beings on earth. Bless those in your immediate existence who make your life possible, from the food you eat to the people in your family and the house you live in. Then bless those who made your family, your food and your house possible. Feel your blessing and your love for all things spread to the ends of the earth.
    • Visualize a world where all humanKind works together through mutual compassion and respect to help each other and to heal the world, a world which itself has the fundamental right not to be violated by the people who depend on it for their very existence.

ore salient effects of Climate Catastrophe. All these effects – Global Warming, melting of glacial ice, rising sea level, more frequent and intense storms, droughts, food shortages, mega-fires, and others – will change life as we know it. And there are undoubtedly other effects not so obvious happening now and in the future. The known effects are occurring much more rapidly than previously thought. What’s more, it is not clear at this point if all species critical to our own survival will survive. If that occurs, the very future of humanity is at stake.

Because the earth reacts slowly to changes in its energy input, it is absolutely critical that these changes occur as soon as possible. The major countries of the world now realize this and have submitted climate action plans to the UN International Climate Change Committee in preparation for negotiating a global treaty in Paris this December.

The broad policies outlined in these countries’ plans cannot be implemented without programs and people. Governments will translate the policies into programs such as quotas on burning fossil fuels that may enforce involuntary compliance. Beyond this, there is much that we as individuals can do voluntarily.

So let us begin now.


References for Further Reading

    • Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 21stSession (COP21/CMP11) “Paris 2015” November 30th to December 11th. http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/en Accessed 18 August 2015.
    • Pope Francis: Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ of the Holy Father Francis on the Care of Our Common Home. Vatican City: 24 May 2015. Connect to website. Accessed 25 June 2015.
    • Hansen, J., Sato, M., Hearty, P., Ruedy, R., Kelley, M., Masson-Delmotte, V., Russell, G., Tselioudis, G., Cao, J., Rignot, E., Velicogna, I., Kandiano, E., von Schuckmann, K., Kharecha, P., Legrande, A. N., Bauer, M., and Lo, K.-W. 2015. Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 °C Global Warming is highly dangerous, Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., 15, 20059-20179, doi:10.5194/ acpd-15-20059-2015.
    • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Fifth Assessment Report. Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2013 The Physical Science Basis: Climate Change 2014 Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Climate Change 2014 Mitigation of Climate Change.
    • Klein, Naomi: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
    • Kolbert, Elizabeth: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Macmillan Picador, 2015.
    • Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. 2010. The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 48, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands, p 28.


Betty J Dabney, PhD has worked in industry, government and consulting. She has been on the faculties of Texas A&M University Health Sciences Center School of Rural Public Health and the University of Maryland School of Public Health, where she was founding Acting Chair of the Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health. Since retirement she has taught health planning at The University of Texas at San Antonio and has also been involved in sustainability issues involving water. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas with two very spoiled dogs and one cat.