What Greta Means To Me

The tension between reason, reduction, technology and industry on the one hand, and feeling, holism, intuition, empathy, compassion and light-touch living on the other, has long haunted us. It continues to smoulder in the friction between environmental movements, such as Greta Thunberg’s Climate Strike, and the powers of business as usual. It became obvious once the ideas of the Franco-Scottish Enlightenment were absorbed, monetarised and weaponised by the English to create the Industrial Revolution. But one suspects that these very different ways of thinking have much deeper roots, since there is so clearly a tendency for simple, close-to-nature lifeways, with their shamanic beliefs and spiritual art-forms, to be ploughed under from time to time by more rational and better-armed cultures, who live to exploit and destroy everything that cannot be used.

One such model in Europe is the Ancient Roman Empire – a notably harsh and invasive cultural system that shaped so many of our values – but even here there is tension between this heritage and the non-Roman parts of Europe, notably that of the German peoples. This, based on federation among equal local societies, was later given expression through the (confusingly mis-named) ‘Holy Roman Empire’, the Reformation and the European Union. By contrast, the Roman model itself gave us the Roman Catholic Church and a tendency towards hierarchy and centralisation. But this is all wildly complex, as the various influences swirled and settled in different places, and then influenced one another. It may be decipherable one day, if we can ask the right questions and reconstruct enough social history and folklore, but meanwhile we are left with tensions between just-discernible tendencies and ways of doing things that seem to be associated with different local histories, languages, myths and political traditions.

Trying to make sense of some of this, in my 2008 book Water: Life in Every Drop, I built on the many lines of evidence that support the idea of humanity having both a fully terrestrial and a semi-aquatic heritage, and extended the idea from anatomy to behaviour. I observed that “humans seem equally adept at living in either of two alternative and contrasting models of society: one militaristic, controlling, male-dominated and hierarchical; the other peaceful, accepting and egalitarian. It seems we can do either, depending on circumstances.” So I argued that our minds must be inclined, and have the capacity to think, in two contradictory ways, which I called a ‘hard’ way, which I associated with the Confucian tradition in China: top-down, mechanistic, reductionist, the thinking of a terrestrial ape; and a ‘soft’ way, which I linked to Taoism: bottom-up, organic, holistic, the thinking of an aquatic ape. And I claimed that “Their different implications are expressed sometimes this way, sometimes that, in response to social context, lessons learned in upbringing, and the observations, reasoning and self-discipline of which people are capable during their long lives.”

Now, from Tim Flannery’s 2018 book Europe: The First 100 Million Years, we learn that the invention of truly spectacular cave art – at Lascaux in France and El Castillo in Spain – and the carving of works such as the Löwenmensch (Lion-man) figurine of Hohlenstein-Stadel – and the domestication of dogs, can all be dated to about 35,000 years ago, and may have resulted from hybridisation between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens in the Danube Corridor, which is known to have occurred at about the same time. Flannery argues that neither parent species showed much sign of artistic-religious creativity or the kind of empathy needed to domesticate animals before then, and that some kind of ‘hybrid vigour’ induced it. The hybrid element in our gene pool was later swamped by subsequent invasions of ‘unimproved’ humans from Asia, leaving the ‘neanderthal’ component as a tiny fraction among our genes.

There is very much still unknown about the flow of humanity across the world, the human-like species with which we interacted and interbred – including Homo denisova, whose genes are now so widespread in Australasia, and Homo erectus or its descendent species which persisted among the Indonesian islands until very recently – and the nature of the various actors and their habitats, so firm conclusions cannot yet be drawn. But the suspicion is there again in Flannery’s work that a tension exists in modern humanity between an artistic, creative, pacific side, and a mechanistic, analytical, warlike side, which may be traced to distinct and ancient heritages.

And we find a similar pattern in Wendell Berry’s 2002 essay ‘Two Minds’, in The World-Ending Fire. Here he nails the difference and tension between what he calls the ‘Rational Mind’ and the ‘Sympathetic Mind’. As Berry summarises it: “The Rational Mind is objective, analytical, and empirical; it makes itself up only by considering facts; it pursues truth by experimentation; it is uncorrupted by preconception, received authority, religious belief, or feeling. Its ideal products are the proven fact, the accurate prediction, and the ‘informed decision’. It is, you might say, the official mind of science, industry, and government. The Sympathetic Mind differs from the Rational Mind, not by being unreasonable, but by refusing to limit knowledge or reality to the scope of reason or factuality or experimentation, and by making reason the servant of things it considers precedent and higher. The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empirically or experimentally be proven to be a fact. The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out. The Rational Mind is exclusive; the Sympathetic Mind, however failingly, wishes to be inclusive.” (pages 181-182).

So what light, if any, does all this shed on the current environmental movement and the reaction of its participants to the eruption of Greta Thunberg onto the scene in 2018? To simplify slightly, let’s consider only the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Greta’s Climate Strike for the Future, which arose together in late 2018 (Greta spoke at the launch of XR in London on 31 October), and have been growing in global influence, in dialogue and in parallel, ever since.

Participants in the XR movement call for official truth-telling and declarations of climate and ecological emergency, urgent action against GHG emissions with an early goal of zero net carbon, and governance reforms built on citizens’ assemblies to provide leadership and participation at all levels of society. These participants are a very mixed bag of people, all of whom share a fear of impending climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction, and frustration over official denial and inaction over the decades since the dimensions of the crisis became known. The culture of the movement is determinedly non-violent, inclusive, egalitarian, tolerant, welcoming, transparent and regenerative through mutual support. It is also highly respectful of art – and wonderful art has been a hallmark from its beginning – spirit, healing and the ecological and climate sciences, and practitioners of all these traditions are highly valued. Everyone else is seen as persuadable through the logic of environmental truth, the feeling of shared nature and humanity, and the recognition that we are all equally terrified by reality but can help one another through ‘existential nausea’ to a better, more accepting and more determined frame of mind.

This is all both benign and electrifying. There are no great ideological tomes to read – if only because, as yet, there is no theory of governance to promote. There is only the manifest truth that all is very far from all right, that we have been lied to, and that it might be possible to build a better world if we can only summon enough spiritual energy and collective goodwill. There is, however, a deep and potent back-story: the history of life on Earth as told by palaentologists and planetary ecologists; the inexorable decline of the Arctic Ocean’s summer ice towards zero in about 2030, and what this means for runaway global heating; mass extinction at a level that may be as high as a million species annually; the processes of human separation from nature and the pretence of human ascendancy over the rules of ecology; and the consequences of that separation in broken societies and broken ecosystems. These consequences, it is understood, may soon include total breakdown: mass starvation, desperate migration, unconstrained war, and the wholesale end of the biosphere that we as a species have known for ever.

Since all this is well-founded in consilient knowledge (i.e. ‘science’), the question and frustration arises over why it has not been acted upon. Clearly, the science has been ignored, and it isn’t hard to make a list of reasons for this: it’s complicated, difficult, expensive to do anything, and it’s much easier to rationalise denial and delay, using whatever entitlement myths may be to hand – religious, racist, nationalist or neoconservative. From an English perspective we might cite two contributions by the folk hero Winston Churchill: the ‘ten year rule’ for not doing anything about a threat until it can no longer be pretended to be more than ten years away; and the aphorism that ‘scientists should be on tap – not on top’. These traditions of English conservatism can stand for a whole raft of reasons why the establishment is reluctant to respond to the urgings of science, and specifically ecological science whose practitioners have been pilloried as ‘tree-huggers’ since the 1960s when ecology first came to political prominence.

Well, that’s the problem – or part of it, since in addition to ecology there’s also the whole set of other things in XR, including the art, shamanism and anarchism, the purple-bearded men and the children and young mums with their naïve hand-made posters. Greta’s School Strike adds to the mix a million or two disobedient adolescents. This lot is virtually guaranteed to activate hostile feelings among more conventional thinkers, or Rational Minds, or Confucian officials. In this sense, as it has been since the ancestral environmental movements of the 1960s, ecology can be seen as a pseudo-scientific front for the anarchist left, easy to ’other’, easy to ignore and isolate, and, like the rest of the ‘hippies’ and ‘subversives’, if push comes to shove, easy to do away with. Which is frustrating for all concerned, and especially for ecologists.

But this brings us back to Greta Thunberg, and what her advent may mean. To me it is very clear. Greta activates a potent archetype: the virgin girl-child inspired by divinity, speaking truth to power, taking on the world. These figures are recognisable throughout history, and are powerful because they spark a deep response in our collective minds, summoning us to great out-pourings of spiritual energy which often have the effect of changing history. Since we need a great outpouring of spiritual energy to overcome resistance to change, and we need to change history very urgently, this is all as it should be. Whatever is going on in Greta’s mind, and for all I know in the mind of God in communion with her, it is necessary and welcome.

But the other thing here is that Greta’s message, essentially is: “Everyone and everything needs to change. Make the best available science the heart of politics and democracy. We must start today. We have no more excuses.” (from No One is Too Small to Make a Difference). The sailing yacht on which she is now crossing the Atlantic Ocean bears the slogan ‘Unite behind the science!’ on every boom and spar. The call is for policy and action on climate chaos to be based on scientific realism (i.e. what is needed) rather than political convenience (i.e. what is cheap and easy). That’s the message, and that is the green line that runs through the XR and Climate Strike movements, that holds them to the truth, that validates the knowledge we need for change, and that provides us with the indicators we need to measure real progress.

By uniting in one person deep respect for consilient knowledge, open-mindedness, creativity, compassion and social union, Greta symbolises everything important that we have been trying to say for decades, and quite possibly for millennia. As a girl-child/eco-warrior/hero-archetype she’s impressive and necessary enough, and one important thing is that she may summon our energies to change what needs to be changed, as a matter of deep and immediate urgency. But another important thing is that she may succeed finally in inspiring us to unify the divided mind of our species. This attempt seems to me utterly worthy of passionate engagement.

© Julian Caldecott