Six Degrees of Separation from Reality

When you are standing on the edge of a cliff, a step forward is not progress.
— Anonymous

Juliet Eilperin’s 9/25/09 Washington Post article “New Analysis Brings Dire Forecast of 6.3-Degree Temperature Increase” describes UN-sponsored research into what will happen “by the end of the century even if the world’s leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges.” It updates the 2007 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose 2005 scientific foundations have been significantly transcended by more recent research which suggests climate change is progressing faster than the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios. Grounded in new data on Arctic sea ice, glacial melting and movement, release of potent greenhouse gasses from the thawing tundra and undersea methane deposits, and other factors and feedback loops, this new analysis complements similar research done in the UK .

Clearly some more intense efforts are called for. There is a major global climate summit coming up in Copenhagen in early December, where agreements will be made that will make or break our climate future. Before, during, and after that gathering, we all need to deepen our understanding of the shifting realities we face and our commitment to shifting them in more sustainable, wise directions.

Scientists are clearly doing their part in this, as are activists like and many artists and performers. I hope many more activists and artists will see how this issue connects to whatever issues they are working on. I hope journalists and academics will recognize the supremacy of this issue and sustain public and official attention on it, for the benefit of the whole society — the whole world. I hope that dialogue and deliberation practitioners will ask themselves and each other, “What conversations can we convene or facilitate which would make the biggest difference in this issue, given our current skills and connections?” I hope systems thinkers will help more people understand how both climate change AND the various social forces that undermine our ability to address it are natural products of our current social systems — especially our economics and politics. I hope they help us see what changes could shift those systems into less self-destructive forms.

Above and beyond these hopes I see a pattern, an evolutionary dynamic at work. Evolution demands that we be aligned with reality as it really is. When any organism gets out of alignment — when it doesn’t fit, when its ways don’t work any more — reality steps in to correct the dissonance. Organisms, ideas, governments, businesses and technologies die or go extinct while new ones arise that are more in alignment with What Is.

There are many ways to view civilization in this dynamic. One of them is that civilization is an exercise in making us invulnerable to the efforts of reality to limit or correct our behaviors, ideas, and systems. We don’t let people die. We protect ourselves from weather and risk. We build bridges over rivers, cables under oceans, rockets through vast spaces. We create abstractions (like “powers of ten”) that carry us far beyond what we can sense and thus respond to — or religious, political, and scientific ideologies that deny whatever contradicts them, whatever lies outside them. We flush our “waste” “away” (although neither concept has any reality in natural systems). Whenever nature intervenes and says to us “Don’t Do That!”, we take that as a problem to be solved — and measure our cleverness by our ability to keep doing that thing that got us in trouble. We rebuild on the flood plane. We fasten our seat belts. We buy more insurance. The higher or lower the temperature goes, the more we use our energy-intensive heating and air conditioning systems, emitting more CO2 into a climbing climate. We just don’t stop.

We are geniuses at impacting the world while preventing impact on ourselves. As we solve our lives into greater and greater separation from the built-in learning mechanisms of evolution, nature has to stretch further and further to heal itself, to get us to pay attention, to stop treating feedback as a problem and see it as an increasingly urgent invitation — indeed a demand — to change. Yet still we go further and further out on the limb, brilliantly resisting nature’s limits and messages.

Our separation from nature — or should I say, our separation from reality as it really is, in all its fullness that is so hard for us to grasp — has now reached global proportions. Reality’s feedback is now coming in the form of increasingly extreme weather, emptying oceans and aquifers, cancers arising from an environmental chemical soup so complex we can no longer track the causal links any more, new diseases that won’t respond to antibiotics and can span continents and seas in hours on jets, and small groups and networks with increasingly powerful destructive technologies at their disposal.

We are rapidly moving into a realm where problem-solving becomes obsolete, if not downright dangerous — especially at the global level, especially when we are trying to preserve our systems, our habits, our identities, our protections and privileges. Because these challenges are not primarily problems to be solved. They are realities to engage with, to come to terms with, to learn something from about who we are in the world, to be humbled by and creatively joined. Yes, joined. Because inside the realities of today are profound lessons about who we need to be next, individually and collectively — about the cultures, technologies, stories, and social systems we need to create and move into. We won’t learn those lessons if we see these realities as merely problems to resist or resolve — or worse, to make another war on. We need to see them as embodying the precise information we most desperately need to take in right now.

Six degrees of temperature rise. Six degrees of separation from each other. Six degrees of separation from reality. We need to find our way back, to find ways to be distinctly ourselves without losing our communion with the larger whole of Life. We need to creatively weave ourselves back into the feedback loops reality provides to keep the whole of Life healthy. We need to create newer forms, higher forms of answerability to reality — to question the role of insurance, of “limited liability corporations”, of entertainment, of cost-benefit analyses, of efficiency, of everything that protects us from being with what’s real here and now, from the consequences of our actions and from awareness of our changing world — indeed, from everything that helps us act as if we’re separate.

Because we’re not.

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