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Love Is the Connection That Can Make a Future Possible

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When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection -- love is born. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one... You would do anything for the benefit of the Earth, and the Earth will do anything for your well-being. -- Thich Nhat Hanh

'I wonder your Reverence, what is it that you love?' a student asked Zen Master Daopi. The Master replied, 'I already have become like this'. -- Transmission of the Light, case 41

Love is connection

In Spiritual Evolution, his remarkable book on the positive emotions, George Vaillant points out that the ancient Greek philosophers left out a vital element of human love. They distinguished only between universal unselfish love (agape) and instinctual sexual desire (eros). The former is not selective; the latter is not enduring.

We humans are among the mammals whose primary positive emotion is the selective, enduring and unselfish love of their young. It resonates in the paleo-mammalian limbic core of our brain. Mothers have experienced it for millennia, which is why the relationship of mother and baby is a perennial symbol of human love. Maturity -- and certain contemplative practices -- can allow us to generalize from that basis, and widen the circle of love to people or beings different from ourselves.

Love, indeed, is the positive resonance at the heart of how people enjoy the natural world. As Wordsworth wrote, "its presence disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts." When we recognize the multidimensional beauty of this planet, the great being within which our species has evolved, the positive emotions of awe and love are born in us. Nowadays especially, we can no longer fail to embrace the Earth in every particularity. To become like this is a recognition so deep that our own face appears in every detail of the living world. Until we recover what it means to recognize the Earth as deeply as this, we are living out a terminal, parasitical relationship towards her.

The Metta Sutta of Buddhism says we should cherish all living things, "Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child." The nature of the Earth creates us in every detail, and we also now increasingly create the nature of the Earth. Should we approach this as Frankenstein approached the creation of his monster made of dead things? Or even as a mother protects with her life, her only child? Our planet, our only planet.

Major systemic change or runaway climate warming?

The collective human relationship with the Earth is largely dictated to governments by fossil fuel corporations. This is the most delinquent example of what one recent Harvard Law School Forum termed "the corporate capture of the United States." It persists even as the whole world experiences unprecedented weather extremes and related agricultural disasters. A fateful milestone (400 parts per million) was reached this year in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. It is the highest level for some 3 million years -- since long before the appearance of the modern human species, some 250,000 years ago. It is also 50ppm too high for the planetary ecosystems we have inherited, and upon which rain-fed human agriculture depends.

So what? Absent major systemic change in global society, we will be unable to keep the increase in the average temperature of the planet (since the industrial revolution) within a so-called "safe limit," such as 2 degrees centigrade. Some eminent climate scientists acknowledge the likelihood of an increase of 3 to 5 degrees centigrade. Even establishment institutions such as the IMF and World Bank are expressing urgent warnings.

Yet fossil fuel capitalism, still subsidized by governments to the tune of $620B a year, shows no sign of abandoning its relentless drive through "red lights" in the Earth's climate system. The nearest climate tipping point we face is the imminent loss of all summer sea ice in the Arctic: massive systemic change in the biosphere will inevitably follow from it. Our civilization is based on a pseudo-religious conviction in the technological mastery of nature. That is reinforced everywhere on a daily basis by mass media, advertising and consumerism -- in a vast uncontrolled experiment with cultural evolution. Neither scientific reason nor the religious traditions can compete in this electronic marketplace of imagery and ideas. Only big money counts. We have been left with the hardest possible way to learn what ecological interdependence means. It would be naïve to expect a soft landing.

A social tipping point for evolutionary responsibility

The global "triumph of propaganda" on climate is indeed the saddest of facts, but is there any other reason why science and environmentalism have not connected with the much larger constituency of people who value the living world, and in so many ways? As Gandhi, King and Mandela demonstrated, you have to move people if you want to ignite a movement on the scale that creates a social tipping point. And you cannot just call on the strong but negative emotion of fear. The American civil rights movement proved that people could redress real grievances through confrontation, disobedience and nonviolence. Of key significance, it had a dream that was told with the rich limbic resonance of faith, joy, hope -- and love. The climate crisis demands that we discover and share an equally powerful positive emotional engagement -- with our own evolutionary survival, in a world worth living in.

The Earth is in trouble. To "become like this" in empathic love right now is to admit to being in that same deep trouble. Actually, that's already an advance on being a parasite indifferent to the fate of its host. Feeling the grief and pain, being profoundly troubled is the beginning of sanity, and of compassion, just as singing the blues of deep pain and trouble was the formation and proving of soul. It is an entry point not just into the climate movement but into the undeniable climate moment. Destructive climate change is already happening and is already eloquently expressing the self-destructiveness of what we have accepted way too long already as a workable human world. It is not workable, nor can it remain profitable for more than the next few "geological seconds."

It is beginning to dawn that nothing short of a fundamental socio-political, economic and personal transformation will get us out of this life-threatening trouble. As Yotam Marom said recently, "We have to re-learn the climate crisis as one that ties our struggles together and opens up potential for the world we're already busy fighting for." The forces propelling climate change are the same forces that the Occupy, Indignado and Idle No More movements, and the push for recognition at law of the rights of the Earth are refusing to tolerate any longer.

Love is the force that quite simply undoes the "logic" of the ruthlessness that pervades our economic "order." When we see the Earth and each other clearly with the recognition that is love, and dissolve the apparent boundaries that divide us, with the love born of feeling the suffering of the other, the name of that love is compassion -- "suffering with."

Then, Thich Nhat Hanh says:

"You have the courage to speak out because you have compassion, because compassion is a powerful energy. With compassion you can die for other people, like the mother who can die for her child. You have the courage to say it because you are not afraid of losing anything, because you know that understanding and love is the foundation of happiness. But if you have fear of losing your status, your position, you will not have the courage to do it."

So we begin to discern the lineaments of a threat that brings an awakening, one that is no longer individual in its scope but composed of all who share a common love of this singular and sacred provenance that is the Earth. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, the Buddha of our time may turn out to be not an individual but a community. A true grassroots community saying an unshakeable "no" to the forces that show such unholy indifference to life; one that may be distributed and networked in space but is, like an eco-system, rooted in the sacred fact of the Earth; non-violent and loving with a force as implacable as the Earth; drawing on the strength of a persistence that cannot die though it outlast even our species.

To love enough to meet the crisis we are facing is to become like this.

Susan Murphy is a Zen roshi, writer & fim director. John Stanley is a scientist who directs the Ecobuddhism project.