Global Mash-up: The Next Enlightenment, Part I

12/05/2013 11:56 am ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014

"How do you teach 7 billion people to respect their relationship with the Earth -- soon -- now?" Chief Oren Lyons of the Iroquois Six Nations posed that question at the 2012 Bioneers conference. Why? "Because we're facing a crisis," he said.

He went on to tell this story, in the context of the imminent 2012 end of the Mayan calendar. "We have good relations with the Maya," Oren observed. "We've known them for a long time. So I asked one of the leaders: 'Well, what's happening in 2012?' And he said, 'Calendar's coming to an end.'"

"I asked, then what? He said, 'Well, we'll make another one. However,'" he added, 'There'll be a period of enlightenment.'" Oren continued his story. "I had been talking to some friends in Long Island, and I thought about that. Here is this businessman who works in New York, and it's a beautiful day, and he decides he's going to take his boat, go out and do some fishing -- instead of go to work.

"He's way out in Montauk, tip of Long Island, sitting out there fishing. Bright sun, hot day, so he jumps off the boat and swims around -- pretty big boat -- you need a ladder to get back up. The ladder's there, and he's floating around in the water. Beautiful. He drifts a little ways from the boat, but not far. He turns around, and he sees a gray fin coming directly toward him about three feet out of the water. 'Oh, shit,' he says. 'I shoulda went to work.'

"That's a period of enlightenment," Oren concluded.

We're experiencing a period of enlightenment.

This year the planet blasted through an unprecedented threshold: 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. It's the Big Gulp of carbon emissions. This super-size CO2 concentration hasn't existed on Earth for at least 3 million years. Earth was a hothouse. Horses and camels roamed Canada and the Arctic. The sea level was 50 to 80 feet higher. As Homo sapiens, we did not yet exist.

Our roughly 10,000 years of human civilization have evolved in the hospitable bubble of climatic stability called the Holocene Era. We've burst that bubble, and caused a new geologic epoch. We've named it the Anthropocene Era after ourselves. Not really an edifice you'd want to put your name on.

Climate change has crash-landed from the future into the present. Abnormal is the new normal. Weather extremes resemble a bipolar disorder, and they show up with the accelerating frequency and intensity of a collection agency.

2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the U.S. -- 34,008 record highs. The mayhem was worldwide, and 2012 placed second on the global Climate Extremes Index: record-shattering fires, droughts, floods, and all manner of mightily weird weather. Last year in the U.S., the government spent more money repairing the damage from extreme weather events than it did on education.

Some like it hot, but not the insurance industry. Their business model is built on historical data that permit reasonably reliable calculations of future risks. But past is no longer prologue. As far as the climate goes, we've reached the end of history. Expect insurance rates to keep rising with emissions.

For the military and CIA, climate chaos is the threat multiplier from hell. It can trigger just about all the other stressors that lead to that dreaded 3 a.m. phone call in the White House. Witness the Middle East where, besides oil, most of the upheavals are directly related to dwindling water, high food prices and resulting mass dislocations.

The Big Gulp may finally be causing us to gulp. As Paul Gilding observes in The Great Disruption, our normal human response is to be "late and fast." Although we can be a little slow on the uptake, we're not stupid. Once we become enlightened, we can mobilize at lightning speed and scale.

That object may be closer than it appears. As physical reality trumps denial and delay, big changes are gestating everywhere -- breakdown and breakthrough. Paradigms are dying and being born before our eyes. You can feel the baby kicking.

It's a revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart.

We could talk about the rapid adoption of biomimicry, and how green building and living architecture are already going mainstream.

We could talk about how we can scale renewable energy far faster than fossil fuels or nuclear power -- or how ecological farming practices and permaculture are proving we can feed the world and take care of the land.

We could talk about how big cities are future-proofing themselves by thinking resilience, adaptation, and reinvention -- or about the mycelial spread of the New Economy movement that's showing how we can democratize ownership and access to capital, and build community wealth.

We could talk about how localization movements are sweeping the world, and about how global popular movements and faith communities are driving change virtually everywhere -- challenging corporate domination and championing rights for nature.

We could talk about how women are redefining what leadership looks like when it's on behalf of the common good and future generations.

We could talk about the expanding numbers of white allies growing the circle of beloved community by standing with indigenous peoples and people of color, and straight allies standing with LGBT people.

We could talk about these and many, many more breakthrough innovations from the front lines of system change.

It's clear the solutions are largely present, or we know what directions to head in. We also know all the technical fixes in the world won't solve this crisis -- because it's a crisis of vision, values and relationship.

The word "crisis" comes from the Greek word krino, which means, "to decide." We need to decide what kind of future we want -- and act on it.