Paganism and the Planet
by Elizabeth Barrette
We are a part of the Earth, and the Earth is part of us. We are not cogs in some cosmic clock; we are cells in a body, our lives bound up inextricably with that of the whole biosphere. We can survive outside it to about the extent that our blood cells can survive outside our bodies: briefly.
Right now the chief difference between Paganism and most other religions is that we remember this, while a majority of other religions have forgotten it. Some people really like that cogin-clock metaphor. They like the idea that the world is mechanical: regular, reliable, meticulous. They like the idea that no individual person, animal, plant, or species is unique and irreplaceable. If it wears out or dies out, no problem; you can just throw it out and get a new one. Except the world doesn’t actually work that way.
Evolution is a deucedly lazy mechanic. When a piece of the biosphere goes missing, it takes a very long time for something else to evolve to replace it — and in the meantime, everything else that relied on that piece either dies for lack of it or limps along at reduced efficiency. It makes more sense to keep the system running smoothly in the first place, and that’s where it helps to remember how bad things will get if it doesn’t.
So here we are looking at a bunch of situations where big important parts are wobbling and threatening to fall clean off the clock … where many of the Earth’s vital organs are showing stress and signs of imminent collapse. The waterways, the Earth’s blood, are polluted; they carry more poisons and fewer nutrients all the time. The forests, the Earth’s lungs, are so reduced in mass that the wheezing climate can hardly blow the rains where they belong or turn carbon dioxide into oxygen we ourselves can breathe. And deep down in the Earth, like a layer of rich fat, lie the fossil fuels that hold ancient energy locked in storage.
Just as a body can’t sustain indefinitely a lifestyle that burns more calories than it takes in, the Earth can’t sustain indefinitely our lifestyle when it uses up more energy than is currently being renewed.
This is all fairly obvious, or at least it should be. But humans are masters of denying the obvious, or reframing it in less obvious ways, or otherwise convincing themselves that the clock is not about to stop and the horse they’re beating is not about to drop dead underneath them. Global warming, peak oil, and a host of related issues are all unpalatable and unpopular because — if true, if even partly true — they will force changes that most people simply don’t want to live with. So they choose a different metaphor, or a different myth, and they tell themselves that things really aren’t that bad.
They might not be. Then again, they might. We won’t know until it happens, and then it will be much too late. Certainly, we won’t know unless we take a good hard look at the incoming data, and keep updating our observations as time passes.
How accurate are the predictions? Well … remember that “global warming isn’t real” and “Peak Oil is a leftist exaggeration” are brought to you by some of the same people who think that stock market prices or housing prices can keep going up forever, and always seem to be caught painfully off-guard when the inevitable crash comes. So consider the source.
Paganism tells us a lot about how the Earth works and how life works, because it’s not a revela-tory religion but an experiential one. Its rules are mapped out in the world around us. It tells us that everything is connected, and so we realize that when carbon fuels burn, they don’t “go away” but rather go into the air which then goes into us. It tells us that everything is cyclical, and so energy must be renewed as well as used — the way the Earth grows in the summer and rests in the winter, burning summer’s fuel to survive while preparing for the next green season. It tells us that what goes up must come down, and so we know to prepare for that. It tells us that “as above, so below,” the large is reflected and manifested in the small; so if the Earth is poisoned and ravaged of energy, it should be no surprise that more and more humans are finding their bodies damaged by environmental toxins and chronically exhausted.
But even as the Earth warns us what is not possible, it shows us what is possible. Renewable fuel sources exist: wood and water, wind and sun, probably some other things we haven’t figured out how to use yet. The hydrosphere flows over the whole Earth, endlessly moving, eternally renewed, and full of tremendous energy. A forest is a fantastically intricate combination of plants, animals, soil and water and air. Its organisms feed on each other’s waste products in a dynamic balance.
People are just starting to experiment with vehicles that run on waste, such as used frying oil; or factories that group together so that one manufacturer’s waste heat provides the boiling water that the next manufacturer needs to create its product.
Now take that quote this editorial started with, and turn it around: if we save the Earth, the Earth will save us. After all, when you run for safety, you don’t leave your ass behind, even if it is an ass. It’s part of you, and you’re going to need it later. So too, we are part of the Earth. By devoting our efforts to preserving its resources and repairing the damage done, we can improve our life security and quality.
We’re apes … but we’re smart apes. There is not much that human ingenuity can’t figure out, given time and tools. The important thing is that we actually bend our minds to the task. In this case it means learning what’s going wrong with the climate so we can help it relocate its balance, and devising other ways of moving things around — or not needing to move so much, so far — than by burning fossil fuels. And for those of us in the Pagan field, it means figuring out ways to convince other folks that our planet is not a clock, but a living creature … in words that don’t make them want to reach for a gas can and a torch.
On that note, our theme this issue is “Science, Spirit, and Planetary Change.” In our cover interview, I’m speaking with John Michael Greer to find out his thoughts on what the future has in store for us. He has also written a sidebar to that piece, “John Michael Greer on Peak Oil, Industrial Collapse, and What Pagans Can Do About It.”
Supporting articles expand on the same core concepts. “After the House of Straw: Pagan Perspectives on Peak Oil” by Burdock looks into the dangers of building a society on an unsustainable foundation, and what Paganism can do to help bail out that situation.
In “When the Wheel Wobbles: A Witch’s View of Climate Change,” Treesong examines one of the repercussions of fossil fuel use and other environmentally unfriendly policies. Finally, there is a counterpoint perspective analyzing peak oil in the context of religious hysteria: “Why We Love the Apocalypse: Religious Roots of Peak Oil Doomerism” by Toby Hemenway.
On the brighter side, we have several pieces that take a more positive view, envisioning that humanity survives to visit the stars … and bring our religion with us. C.S. MacCath draws on heathen history to explore what could happen when an Asatru proselytizes to aliens, in her poem “Bringing Woden to the Little Green Men”. Peter Charron shares a story of a shaman who helps a human colony make peace with ghosts in “Exoshaman.”
Additional poems this issue include “Son of Cronos” by Anthony Bernstein, “The God at Winter” by Katherine Clark, and “Segue” by Connie Werner Reichert. Wrapping up with our departments, we have “The Magician” by Caroline Ailanthus in “Point of View,” an examination of a favorite archetype; and “Does Paganism discriminate against men?” in “Toe to Toe.” Got something to say about those? Write to us and you may see your letter appear in “Feedback Loop!”
— This issue is Elizabeth Barrette last as Managing Editor of PanGaia.
» Originally appeared in PanGaia #48 - Facing the Future
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