There is an emerging sentiment of crisis across the human planet that is calling into question: “What’s happening, and what are we going to do about it?” Around the world, world leaders down to teen grassroots environmentalists are in the wake of addressing the very real, very urgent question of our planet’s future.
Within the sea of questioning, economist, philosopher, and author Charles Eisenstein dives into the uncertainty of the environment’s future in his newest book Climate: A New Story. His work explores the role narrative plays in shaping our relationship with ourselves and the Living Planet at large: How can we reimagine the framing, tactics and goals to heal from ecological destruction?
After Eisenstein’s visit to The Assemblage John Street for a conversation on flipping the switch on climate change, we sat down to discuss human’s relationship to nature and the new story we ought to create.
Genevieve Kim: Let’s start here: what is the importance of story?
Charles Eisenstein: Stories define who we are and generate the meaning and roles that determine our lives. They also generate the systems that constrain our lives. [Take] for example the old story of ascent—the rise above nature conferred meaning to life by taming or conquering nature. Society has looked to science to engineer society and materiality believing that there’s no problem we can’t solve, and we’re going to live happily ever after. All that made sense within the story [of ascent].
But when there is a breakdown of that overarching story that the individual can no longer draw meaning from, the collective story transitions into a different story of self for a lot of people.
GK: What would you say is the greatest story that is happening in society right now?
CE: There is an emerging story that hasn’t really taken hold yet, but it wants to be born. It’s about the people who redefine the proper relationship between humans and nature. We are here to participate in the healing evolution of the planet, not to impose our will upon it. It’s an understanding that the planet itself is alive and has a purpose or an evolutionary destiny that we can partake in with each of our gifts.
On the personal level, the story of the separate individual who is driven to maximize self-interest is also becoming obsolete, and we’re understanding that we are interrelated, interconnected, interexistent. I use Thich Nacht Han’s term interbeing to explain these concepts.
GK: What does a world of interbeing look like?
CE: It’s a world where we understand that what happens to you, happens to me. We understand that what happens to the rainforest happens to us. That the wealth of soil is our wealth, too. That rich biodiversity enriches us. When this understanding is institutionalized, built into the economic, technological and social relations, we are living in a world of interbeing.
For example, manufacturing processes would consider ways to ensure that resulting byproducts are direct resources for something else. Manufacturing processes become a part of ecology. Interbeing would mean a money system that does not allow profit to come at the expense of destroying ecosystems. Today, the money system reinforces the story of separation so you can profit by exploiting others. It reifies the idea that what happens to you doesn’t affect me.
GK: How do you propose we create systems or institutionalize this principle of interbeing?
CE: If we accept that what we do to the world comes back to us then we can inquire whether our actions harm or benefit the world. So, if an industrial process produces toxic waste, our response then curiously explores its effects, instead of overlooking them]. In this scenario, we would take into consideration the effects of PCBs and incorporate questioning to address effects discovered. From that, maybe we discover mushrooms that can break down the PCBs. So we would include that [curiosity] in the industrial process.
GK: Have you seen a particular organism that embodies this principle of interbeing very well?
CE: All of them. In an ecosystem, all beings serve both themselves and the thriving of life. Take dandelions or weeds, for example. If the earth has been damaged by a fire or by bulldozers it exposes the soil to erosion, and dandelions and other fast growing weeds colonize the area quickly. They’re holding down the soil, allowing the next wave of plants and animals to come. The dandelions are doing more than just surviving at the expense of everybody else; they’re doing service to life. Every being performs a service [with their gifts]. Humans, too. It’s just a question of what that gift is in service of.
GK: Is the dandelion’s continued existence not a result of destruction?
CE: There is always destruction in nature: cataclysms, volcanoes, tsunamis. We don’t want to idealize and think that nature never has violence. [That’s why] there’s a role for healing plants just as there’s a role for human healers, like doctors. We’re not going to have a world without misfortune, so one of the gifts that’s necessary in the whole ecosystem is the gift of helping land heal from misfortune.
GK: If destruction, death and evolution is inevitable, why is it important that we prevent the biosphere from dying?
CE: It’s a matter of the world we want to live in. Why is anything important? Why is it important that you live or die?
GK: I don’t know.
I can’t say ‘here’s how you will benefit quantitatively by aligning with a living world rather than a dying world,’ but I would just trust your love of life and call on that love of life. And just present the choice.
The future is uncertain, and we may never fully understand why we are here. In nature, there is inevitable death and destruction, but there is also rejuvenation and growth. As we decide what steps to take next, Eisenstein encourages a curiosity in how our existence contributes to the greater ecosystem of the Living Planet. Ultimately, we have a choice in how we decide to participate, and that is a worthy and beautiful question: How will we use our gifts to build a new narrative for our living world?
To purchase Eisenstein’s new book Climate: A New Story, visit his website .