In March this year the science journal Nature announced what many people already knew: that there are clear indications that the world's sixth "mass extinction" is already underway.
The last mass extinction came some 65 million years ago when a comet or asteroid slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula, in modern-day Mexico, causing firestorms whose dust cooled the planet, and an estimated 76 percent of species were killed, including the dinosaurs. The four previous mass extinction of species were due to gradual global warming and cooling, and happened on a scale of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. What is particular about our present mass extinction is that it has happened so quickly over a few centuries, and most significantly, it is man made.
We are slowly, and in some cases reluctantly, waking up to the global ecological disaster of climate change, extinction of species and pollution.
However, there is another dimension to this global predicament which we should not ignore. It is not just the outer environment that is at stake but our inner environment and the connection between the two.
While an indigenous culture and its shamans would look first to the inner in order to understand the outer, this is not a part of our Western heritage. And while Eastern spiritual traditions have helped us to understand that personal transformation depends upon inner change, the larger, macrocosmic dimension of these teachings have been mostly overlooked. Yet any holistic, spiritual understanding of our present global predicament vitally needs this perspective.
How can we then "face the facts" and take real responsibility for our outer situation if we do not know or acknowledge what is happening in our inner environment, in the inner world of our own soul and the soul of the world?
Firstly it should be understood that just as it is our physical acts that affect the outer world and have produced our ecological crisis, it is our consciousness that directly affects the inner world. The inner worlds are shaped by the consciousness of humanity more than we understand, which is why so many spiritual teachings stress the importance of our attitude, the values by which we live. As Mother Teresa said, "It is not what you do, but the love you put in the doing." Our attitude of consciousness is a determining factor in the inner world.
It has been suggested that our present ecological disaster comes from an attitude of separation. Our Western culture focused on individual, material welfare at the cost of our inter-relationship to the whole. We also separated the physical world from its roots in the sacred. This allowed humanity to abuse and pollute the world in a way that would be unthinkable for any indigenous culture that reveres the sacredness of creation.
For many years I have witnessed how our disregard and forgetfulness of the sacred has been very destructive to the inner world, to the individual soul and the soul of the world. In recent years the misuse of the imagination has been especially damaging. The imagination in spiritual traditions was long understood as a bridge between the worlds, connecting us to our soul, enabling access to the symbolic world that underlies the physical. It is this symbolic, archetypal world that often gives meaning and depth to our outer life.
However, recently we have discovered "the secret" of the "laws of attraction": how to use the imagination as way to attract the outer life or material objects that we want. By projecting our desires and illusions into the inner world we have prostituted its sacred use for personal gain. Spiritual teachings and stories have long warned us against this, but our disregard for anything except the desires of the ego mean that we have desecrated the inner world so that it can no longer so easily give meaning to our life. Through our greed we have polluted not just our rivers but also the sacred waters of the inner world.
But during the last year I have become aware of an even more disastrous change taking place. A change that is as radical and extreme as the mass extinction of species.
A light in the inner world that gave meaning and spiritual sustenance to our individual soul and to the whole world, has been going out. Something that for millennia was central to the inner life has gone, lost through our greed and arrogance, our ego-centered power dynamics and forgetfulness of the sacred. We are not just entering an external era of extinction, but the danger of an inner dark age. And what is more dangerous is that we do not appear to know it is happening.
According to spiritual understanding, each era has an inner, spiritual light that makes possible transformation and evolution, and enables humanity to fulfill the purpose of that era. In recent centuries this light has awakened us to the discoveries of science -- an understanding of the material world that has improved our physical well-being even as it has entranced us. Sadly these discoveries have had a shadow-side of greed and exploitation on a massive scale, and our focus on the physical world has resulted in a profound forgetfulness of the inner world and what is sacred.
At the end of each era the light that belongs to that era can transform into the light of the next era, or it can go out. We can see the seeds of the next era in a dawning global consciousness, in our remembrance of the inter-relationship and oneness of all of life, manifesting in certain technologies that support our inter-relationship, like the Internet. But the darkness of our collective greed, selfishness and forgetfulness of the sacred, has had a stronger pull. Like a dense cloud this darkness has covered us. And now, without us noticing it, this light has gone out. Without this light there can be no real change, no shift in consciousness, no evolution, whatever our apparent intentions or aspirations.
We have come to the end of an era and are destroying our own ecosystem. Because the light has gone out in the inner world we do not have the potential for any real change or transformation. This is our present condition, and our lack of awareness or understanding of the inner world makes it especially precarious. And we do not appear to notice what is happening, or what this change might mean.
Yet we sense in our souls what we can see in the ecosystem: that something is over, that the world will not return to what it was. And the collective, still caught in its dream of materialism, feels an anxiety, even anger, as it knows that this dream has passed its sell-by date, that its promises of prosperity are empty.
How long can this last? How long can the ignorance of our true predicament remain? How long can we collectively sustain the distractions that protect us from seeing what is really happening? And how long will humanity and the whole world remain in this darkness? Some people say that 2012 is the year when the new era will begin. Others think that our destruction of the planet will continue for decades, until the oil runs out or the sea levels rise.
What can we do? Collectively we are conditioned to want to find a solution, to "fix the problem." But spiritual teachings talk about the importance of witnessing, of watching without judgment or expectations. This is a time for real awareness of our present predicament, and action that can only come from such an awareness. But first there is a need to wake up to the reality of what we have done.
For the full version of this article, see www.ecobuddhism.org.