The oil hangover – the ecological crisis is a crisis of the mind
According to philosopher Tere Vadén, climate change raises questions that technology cannot answer. Theologian Pauliina Kainulainen distances herself from consumerist culture with the aid of Christian meditative traditions.
“What do we want? – Climate action!” At the end of September 2019, the message of young people striking for the climate took the form of a straight question and answer. On an otherwise normal weekday morning, between 5,000 and 6,000 protesters gathered in front of Parliament House in Helsinki. In the same week, millions of people demanded urgent action from decision makers in over a hundred countries.
“We know that if humanity continues on the present path there is no future. However, to me it seems that the scale and nature of the change that’s needed have so far dawned on only a small minority of people who understand the natural sciences,” says philosopher Tere Vadén of BIOS Research Unit in Helsinki.
Vadén thinks about the consequences of the ecological crisis for a living, and bases his thinking on the same results of climate research that the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg spoke of at the United States Congress and to world leaders gathered at a United Nations summit in September.
The danger of a serious climate crisis has been evident for at least 30 years. We know the main causes of ecological catastrophe: the use of fossil fuels, unsustainable use of land, global population growth and the increase in per capita consumption.
How is it possible that everything continues as before?
Vadén maintains that it is possible to accurately calculate a climate budget for states and individuals. We know how to build windmills and solar panels. We think critically about our own consumption habits.
OUR ERA WILL GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS A LAUGHABLY SHORT PERIOD IN WORLD HISTORY, COMPARABLE TO THE TIME OF THE VANDALS.
– PHILOSOPHER TERE VADÉN
Barring the way to change, however, are momentous questions to which we do not have answers. The philosopher focuses on the young people’s question, “What do we want?”
“What would I want from life in the future, if I were not a Western consumer but something that is as completely different from my own situation as life in the Soviet Union or Christian life in medieval times?”
Thinking about these questions is an urgent task, says Vadén.
“We now know that the technology-based culture that began in the mid-1800s will last two hundred years at most. By 2050 this will all end, one way or the other. Many human cultures have managed to survive millennia. Our era will go down in history as a laughably short world historical period, comparable to the time of the Vandals, an early Germanic people.”
Do we use oil or does it use us?
In recent years, Vadén has also thought about another momentous question: what has created the society we live in? Vadén develops an outline of the answer by imagining a representative of a civilisation that examines our culture from space.
This imaginary observer follows the path of oil all around the world, first through oil pipelines thousands of kilometres long and then across the oceans in massive tankers. Ultimately, fossil-based oil is the raw material for the plastics that are present everywhere, and for the fuels that power our vehicles and farm machinery.
About 80 per cent of the energy used in the world continues to be derived from fossil fuels.
“In practical terms, the transformation of oil into other things is at the core of Western business operations and production. In eating meat, we are in effect eating fossil fuels, since the production of one calorie of energy in the meat industry consumes tens of calories of fossil energy,” Vadén says.
“We continue to live on terms dictated by oil consumption, even though we know that using fossil fuels is leading to societal collapse. An imaginary outside observer might well ask whether we use oil, or oil uses us.”
As Vadén sees it, fossil oil is at once a wondrous and a treacherous thing. Thanks to it, we have a colossal amount of energy at our disposal. Because of oil, people in the Western world are living under the illusion that we can do anything we want.
Fossil-based energy has led to the breakdown of what some social philosophers call the control of continuity.
All cultures that live in harmony with nature have one thing in common, says Vadén. Those communities remain close to the cycle of matter and energy on which their existence depends. People in those communities deal directly with food production and waste.
Due to the use of fossil oil, people in western cultures have not needed to care about the material preconditions of their existence. According to Vadén, we live in a bubble that is frighteningly well described by the ancient philosophical concept of hubris. Like a gang of obnoxious youths, we are arrogant, foolishly proud and in the grip of an unfounded belief in our own power.
“We believe we are highly skilled, but our success is based on a random feature of natural history. In the face of climate change, our skills have proven to be very poor. This is a fact that hasn’t yet fully dawned on people.”
The roots of a new kind of lifestyle exist
According to the ancient philosophers, people in the grip of hubris can easily end up harming others by losing the ability to value them.
“The critiques presented by the indigenous peoples of the Americas and traditional cultures, for instance, or feminism, consider our culture to be humiliating and hurting of nature and arrogance,” Vadén argues.
In Vadén’s opinion, it is inevitable that Western culture will become deeply humbled. He believes that the roots of a new kind of lifestyle already exist. They are so marginalised, however, that they are hard to spot. As examples, Vadén mentions small communities that aim for self-sufficiency and non-Western traditional cultures.
“Millions of people already live outside the fossil fuel-based economy and do not aim for material comforts,” he says.
WHEN WE CONSIDER THE LIFESTYLE CHANGES DEMANDED BY THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS, WE ARE FACED WITH THE UNDERLYING QUESTION OF WHY WE ARE LIVING AND WHY WE ARE HERE.
– PHILOSOPHER TERE VADÉN
Vadén believes that the impending critical period is comparable to the collapse of the Roman empire, when new skills gradually spread to Europe from the farmlands of feudal lords and Christian monasteries. Eventually, a new form of order emerged that was entirely different from the centralised Roman order.
In the past, major social transformations have taken generations, but now we have only ten or twenty years.
“We need knowledge and understanding of the ecological state of the world, but successful change demands local solutions. In promoting new forms of living, we would do well to develop a network along the lines of the monastic network of the Middle Ages, where spirituality was combined with local, small-scale cultivation,” Vadén says.
Why are we here?
To Vadén, spirituality is important, because Western people living in a fossil oil-based culture have shrunken inside, while being unaware of it themselves. At the same time, we have ended up in a moral maze that it is not easy to find a way out of.
“Apart from a few exceptional people, we can’t make the change alone. We can’t escape by ourselves from the society we have grown up in – we need the support of the human community. On the other hand, ethical honesty demands that individuals are not relieved of their responsibility,” adds Vadén.
He believes that withdrawing from the use of fossil-based energy is comparable to a religious conversion or enlightenment that enables an addict to break their dependency.
Calculations of personal carbon budgets are not enough. The change also requires new models, myths and symbols that crystallise the direction in which we are headed. These can be found in religious traditions, Vadén believes.
“When we think about the changes required by the ecological crisis, the big question of why we are alive and why we are here lurks in the background. We live in a consumerist culture, because it gives our lives meaning. Now we need to be able to give up on it and live for something else. Religion and art play a much more decisive role in this regard than the natural sciences.”
A mechanistic worldview breaks the ties to nature
The ecological crisis, at its heart, is a crisis of the human mind. It is for that reason that a sufficient and fundamental change cannot be brought about by the development of green technology. There needs to be a change in the heart. This is the view of Pauliina Kainulainen, a priest in the Enonkoski monastic community and Doctor of Theology who examines the human relationship with nature in her book Suuren järven syvä hengitys, (The deep breath of a great lake) published in 2019.
“It seems likely that a serious ecological collapse is ahead of us, but we must continue the struggle to lessen its effects. Watching what is happening to nature from the side-lines is not an option, and it’s not sensible to attempt to tackle it alone,” Kainulainen says.
She searches for answers to the ecological crisis from two sources: the Christian meditative tradition, which contains a high level of thought about the human mind, and the old Finnish worldview.
WE CONTINUE TO DESTROY NATURE PARTLY BECAUSE WORKING LIFE HAS EXHAUSTED US, AND WE ARE NO LONGER ABLE TO FOCUS ON ANYTHING ELSE.
– THEOLOGIAN PAULIINA KAINULAINEN
According to Kainulainen, the Finnish relationship with nature broke down when the old Finno-Ugrian worldview fell by the wayside. The modern world replaced it with the mechanistic worldview that has dominated the Western world for almost 400 years. In that worldview, nature is understood as being essentially a machine, and is thought of as a resource.
“Our mental state is symptomatic of the fact that we have lost something. I believe that the high levels of addiction, violence and suicide in Finland are due to the breakdown in our relationship with nature,” she says.
Kainulainen came face to face with the problem in 2006, when international mining companies arrived in Kontiolahti and Eno in search of uranium. All of a sudden there was a threat to the groundwater and berry-filled forests that are essential to people in the area. If the uranium mine were to become a reality, the waste produced would remain active for thousands of years.
Colonialism: a plundering of the mind
Kainulainen joined the movement that opposed the opening of a uranium mine in North Karelia. The movement grew quickly, bringing together local farmers, people in theatre and the arts, people active in parish life and researchers and nature activists.
The uneven struggle continued until 2013. In the end, the mining company unexpectedly announced that it was withdrawing its plans due to a decrease in the price of uranium. One thing that stuck in Kainulainen’s mind was that state officials pressured municipal decision makers to support the mining plans.
“In other words, we were giving up the riches of our own land to international companies for short-term economic gain. The experience opened my eyes to what it is like to become a victim of colonialism.
Kainulainen has studied the liberation theology of Latin America and the thought of Christian theologians from indigenous cultures.
“To many researchers, colonialism is fundamentally colonisation of the mind. This is why, in the struggles of indigenous peoples, the fundamental thing is becoming free from the feeling of cultural inferiority, which stems from the fact that people have been robbed of their lands, language, culture and spirituality.
Unlike many indigenous peoples, Finns have not been forced to give up their own language or land, for example. According to Kainulainen, however, Finns have lost sight of their age-old relationship with nature and the animal kingdom, and their sense of the sacredness of nature. She believes that this loss has opened the door to the unsustainable exploitation of nature.
A culture of moderation a generation away
In Kainulainen’s view, indigenous Finnish culture has contained important knowledge of the relationship between humans and nature. One example of this is the ideal of moderation that is at the core of the “moderation movement”, or Kohtuusliike, which is also important to Kainulainen.
The movement was established in the autumn of 2009, when the opponents of the plans for the uranium mine began to think about the root causes of environmental problems. These root causes are over-consumption and continual, unlimited economic growth.
“The generation before us knew how to live in harmony with nature and only took from nature what was needed to live. The rediscovery of this lifestyle would help us to escape from the throwaway culture,” Kainulainen says.
She finds in the same cultural undercurrent an equal and respectful relationship with animals.
The disappearance of the old relationship with nature can be seen in harsh clear-cutting of forests and in the suffering of animals on industrial farms.
According to Kainulainen, the roots of the indigenous culture go further back than the national romantic era of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the individual level, the return to the ways of a generation or two ago could be enough, Kainulainen reckons.
“The culture of moderation died out with the belief in progress of the 1960s and 1970s, but I believe it can still be restored. For example, in my childhood home food was never thrown out and we produced very little waste,” Kainulainen says.
A transformation of values
Pauliina Kainulainen believes that a deep change in lifestyle requires safeguarding our mental functioning. Our brains need time for calm and focusing on the essentials. This is expressed in the sub-title of Kainulainen’s book Suuren järven syvä hengitys: luontosuhde ja kokonainen mieli, the relationship with nature and the whole mind.
“We continue to destroy nature partly because working life has exhausted us, and we are no longer able to focus on anything else. Another thing that does harm to our minds is mobile technology, which has made the internet available everywhere and tires our brains with non-stop stimuli.”
GETTING AWAY FROM OUR FIXATION WITH COMPARISONS AND SOCIAL STATUS STRIKES DIRECTLY AT THE HEART OF THE CONSUMERIST CULTURE.
– THEOLOGIAN PAULIINA KAINULAINEN
Kainulainen protects her own mind by not having a smartphone and keeping her use of social media to a minimum. For the past 25 years, she has also developed her inner focus through meditation.
With the aid of meditative traditions based on the teachings of Jesus, Kainulainen has come up against two obstacles to ecological conversion: the desire for comfort, and fear.
“The goal of the meditative tradition is inner freedom and independence. Getting away from our fixation with belongings and social status strikes directly at the heart of the consumerist culture. Searching for spiritual freedom is demanding, but it involves encountering the power of the Holy Spirit and the richness of God’s kingdom.
Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a merchant in search of valuable pearls. When finding what he wanted, the merchant sold all he had and bought the pearl. Kainulainen also mentions Jesus’s teaching that letting go of one’s self can lead to the discovery of life: “Whoever loses their life will save it.”
“What Jesus taught remains relevant now. Those texts talk of deep transformation – that is, internal change. People unexpectedly discover such a valuable dimension that their life values are transformed.”
Fact: Evading climate catastrophe is urgent
The greenhouse gases produced by human actions so far have raised the average global temperature by about one degree.
At present, the planet is warming by 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade.
• Almost every country has committed to the Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep the global average temperature rise to below two degrees.
At the same time, efforts were promised to keep the increase in temperature below 1.5 degrees.
The reference point for global warming is the pre-industrial period, i.e. the period until 1850.
• The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that an increase in temperature of two degrees would significantly accelerate the extinction of species, and have a dramatic impact on world food production and the availability of clean water.
• According to many researchers, an increase of two degrees could lead to a chain reaction in which the planet’s self-regulating systems fail and global warming begins to accelerate, regardless of any emissions restrictions. Eventually there would be a collapse of the Earth’s capacity to sustain life.
• According to the IPCC, global warming can still be limited to 1.5 degrees. The target requires a drop in net emissions to zero by 2050. Reducing net emissions to zero would mean that people produce only the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that the seas, soils and forests are capable of binding.
• Settling for the commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions that have been made to date would increase the average global temperature by three degrees by 2100. The Finnish government has pledged that Finland will be carbon neutral by 2035. The Evangelical Lutheran church in Finland intends to be carbon neutral by 2030.
This article was first published in Finnish on 10 October 2019.
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