Restoring Earthly ‘Kinship’

The new Netflix movie, Don’t Look Up, is a highly watched, provocative film whose plot centers on a massive, extinction-worthy comet barreling directly toward earth. Through its ample use of satire, the film illustrates how human distraction, indifference, denial, ignorance, incompetency, division, nationalism, and corporate opportunism unnecessarily complicate the world’s response. The film’s protagonists (two astronomers) warn that we have only six months to divert or destroy it. And of course… Spoiler Alert… we make a total mess of things. The comet is an unmistakable, if only thinly veiled, metaphor for our planet’s real-life and rapidly unfolding climate crisis besetting us now. Thankfully, unlike in the film, we have more than six months to mitigate earth’s climate damage. But time is of the utmost importance nonetheless, and we’re screwing it up.

The Same Old Dysfunction

The year 2021 was marked not by comets but, once again, by a parade of extreme climate events. Powerful hurricanes, destructive river flooding, hotter temperatures, prolonged droughts, deforestation, air/water pollution, and raging wildfires left countless numbers of people homeless, injured, sick, killed, or simply distraught. We’ve known for some time now that we’re largely responsible for this climate change (and its horrific impacts). It’s not a cyclical weather phenomenon that occurs naturally on our planet. No. Our continued obstinance is at the real root of the problem. And we’ll ultimately pay a huge price for it. Studies predict that, at our current pace of global climate change, up to 2 billion people around the world could be displaced from their homes, communities, and countries by the end of this century. Large swaths of our planet may become utterly uninhabitable.

In the lead-up to this potentially disastrous future, it’s estimated that fewer than 100 fossil fuel companies create up to 70% of the harmful emissions that are actively killing our planet. As concerned individuals, we dutifully recycle our home’s plastics, resist single use items, and drive more fuel-efficient cars. By contrast, global fossil fuel, chemical, and plastics industries brazenly flood the marketplace with ever more harmful products each year. These companies spend more money on denying, greenwashing, manipulating, deceiving, and guilting us than they do on substantive clean energy practices. We try to do more. Polluting companies and complicit governments continue to do less.

Public opinion fallout is clear. According to the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication, almost 60% of Americans are now either ‘Alarmed’ or ‘Concerned’ about global warming and its impacts. The study indicates that over a 5-year period from 2014-2019, the percentage of ‘Alarmed’ survey respondents almost tripled. And that alarm is having tangible downstream impacts. For example, a recent Morning Consult poll indicates that nearly a quarter (25%) of childless adults in the U.S. cite climate change as one important factor in not having children. While specific levels of concern (and resultant individual decision-making) do vary by geography, respondent age, political party affiliation, and other demographic considerations, the vast majority of people have real and sincerely held fears (with resultant downstream personal choices) stemming from climate change.

Why We’re Not Responding

Despite significant levels of individual worry and anxiety, it’s not entirely clear what we’re actually doing about this problem on a systematic, structural level across the globe. Day after day, we’re viscerally reminded of the ravages of our changing environment. Yet we lack the collective political, economic, and moral will to acknowledge and respond to the actual scope of the problem. Why? Behavioral scientists have written for years on typical human responses (or more specifically, a lack thereof) to significant risks, threats, challenges, and problems. Their research informs how people are currently reacting to climate change, as well. Sometimes, we don’t respond in rational ways because our human thinking is ‘close to home’ biased. We’re occupied with today’s immediate personal challenges. Things that might happen later are less pressing and less deserving of our attention. Further, things that happen to strangers are less important than what happens to ‘us’ and to our immediate families. We also discount risks that are less proximal to us in terms of geography. Hurricanes and flooding on another coast of our country don’t register significantly with us. Melting glaciers in the Arctic Circle aren’t flooding our street. So, no problem.

It’s not simply ‘closeness’ to the problem that’s an obstacle, though. History shows that sustained human sacrifice is a tough thing to request of people. If we’re asked to regularly recycle our cardboard, cans, and plastic bottles, that’s perfectly fine. But, for many, anything much larger is a bridge too far. For example, banning all single use plastic-based containers for groceries and other purchases would undoubtedly face strong corporate and consumer headwinds— especially if we needed to pay significantly more for these items or it made shopping/storage far more complicated. If that’s a problem, just imagine the even bigger public blowback if all vehicles on the road were required to be electric by 2025. In the end, our comfort and convenience needs do count for a lot in human behavior. Changes that create significant personal disruption or that result in higher consumer costs tend to cause sustained human behavioral resistance. Lastly, many of us feel utterly impotent as it regards climate change if we’re honest. We’re literally overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of terrible climate stories, terrible data, and terrible warnings about the coming Planetary Armageddon. If big government, big business, and big science aren’t going to take this seriously, why should we? If it’s too heavy for them, what can we possibly do as individuals? Pending doom is negative, depressing, and paralyzing. Time for us to change the subject…

A Better Way to Engage: Kinship

But what if we changed not the subject but how we talked about this subject? And looked not to the present or future, but to our past as a guide? A past rooted in practices dating back thousands of years to more ancient times. For some context, let’s turn to Dr. Enrique Salmón, Chair of the American Indians Studies Program at Cal State University, East Bay. Salmón’s ethnic origin is Rarámuri (Tarahumara), an indigenous people from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. He’s formulated the concept of ‘Kincentric Ecology’, signifying a longstanding sacred connection between people and the environment around them. For Salmón (and for many others in diverse indigenous cultures) there’s no word for the concept of ‘Wild’ in their native languages. That’s because they believe that nature is inseparable from humanity. We’re all related. Part of the same thing. We’re ‘Kin’ with a common ecological ancestry. Plants and animals are given names in many indigenous cultures to signify this very kinship— interestingly enough, the same kinds of names given to humans. These names are terms on heartfelt endearment. Part and parcel of being within one interconnected family. In this spirit, they see nature not as a separate thing, location, or landscape. But, instead, as a fellow ‘being’ within a shared ecosystem.

In his recent article in The Atlantic Magazine, Alan Lightman builds on this theme of Kinship. Lightman reminds us that for most of human history, people were immediately and integrally linked with nature. We lived close to it or in it. We worked in it. We harvested sustainably from it. We played in it. As a human species, our survival depended on our ability to understand and relate to it intimately each day. We’ve witnessed big changes in this regard over the past two hundred years or so: rapid industrialization, major technology innovations, heightened urbanization, and the concurrent separation of people from nature. Lightman says that we’ve now created two distinctly separate environments in which we currently exist: a ‘natural’ one and a ‘natureless’ one. As a human species, our ancestry is grounded in a natural place. But we spend most of our time these days in the natureless realm. Behavioral research and common sense have consistently connected our human wellbeing to time spent outside in nature. We’re happier, healthier, and far less anxious when we make nature a big part of our daily lives. But we’re increasingly disconnected from it. We’re literally at war with ourselves (and our inner beings), somehow becoming less ‘human’ in the process. And, in turn, we’re at war with nature as something we feel unnaturally separated from. To reverse this, we must restore our ancestral connection with nature in profoundly spiritual and practical ways. We must rekindle Kinship with our shared planet.

Wanted: Higher Functioning ‘Family’ Members

But feeling Kinship, in and of itself, isn’t enough. For, if Kinship is akin to living within a family, that family must be a healthy one. We can borrow from Bowen’s Family Systems Theory to give this idea some life. Bowen posited that human families operate as an ecological system of sorts. A healthy family balances the opposites of ‘closeness’ and ‘distance’ in its member’s relationships together. And family members therein institute patterns of behaviors that successfully manage the inevitable anxieties that naturally develop within the family unit. In other words, they achieve differentiated, healthy selves while simultaneously exhibiting harmony, empathy, and proper daily functioning with each other.

Let’s apply this to the notion of Kinship with nature. Like a human family unit, our planet is a familial ecosystem. If we’re in authentic kinship with earth (as I have argued here), we need to view the totality of our earth as a single ‘family’ system. This means that the air we breathe is, in some ways, part of our family. The water we drink is, in some ways, part of our family. The animals that reside alongside us are, in some sense, part of our family. So are the plants that give us sustenance, shade, and beauty. Yet, in practice, how are we treating this extended family of ours on planet earth? The answer is as clear as it is distressing: we’re dramatically under-functioning in our relationships with everything environmentally around us. We’ve distanced ourselves from nature’s longstanding cries for our help. We’ve ignored its many ‘voices’. We’ve recklessly and selfishly treated it as ‘disposable’. In fact, we’ve actively abused it. We’d treat a stranger on the street with more loving kindness than we’ve extended to our earth. It constitutes cruel emotional cut-off at its basest level.

Healing earth’s sacred family system starts by looking at nature much differently than most of us have… then honestly assessing our demonstrable under-functioning through the years. We should acknowledge our shortcomings not to instill self-guilt, shame, or despair. But rather to create a renewed sense of urgency, focus, commitment, courage, and energy in order to address the enormous climate challenges before us now. Challenges that we created. Granted, unhealthy over-functioning can occur in any family unit. But we’re at no risk whatsoever for this as it regards our fellow kin member Earth. In fact, radical over-functioning is exactly what we need for a change.

We would do anything and everything in our power to save a spouse, partner, child, grandchild, parent, sibling, or even a best friend if they were in serious trouble. We’d spare nothing whatsoever. We’d act with unparalleled focus and urgency. Isn’t it high time to do the same thing for nature’s ‘earthly’ family members of ours? They’re all on life support right now. They’re in critical condition and trending down. In turn, we are too. That’s because we’re all in this together. We’re inextricably linked. It’s truly personal. The very survival of earth’s Family System demands that we restore genuine, heartfelt Kinship with our planet as our highest priority. Now. With everything we have.

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