Doom and dharma

XR street party
If we are to build a regenerative culture, ours is not to only jump at deadlines; we must cast out lifelines. 


I often feel challenged when asked to speak at climate change gatherings. Especially so, at events like the five-day Rebel Camp that Extinction Rebellion recently held outside the Scottish Parliament. 

Public campaigning works on simple messaging. Yet climate change has been described as a “wicked problem”. It’s riddled through with interacting systems, multi-layered conundrums and emergent properties.

Few proposed solutions are without unintended consequences. Against such realities, there are no easy remedies to salve our desperate itch for optimism.

Psychology and spirituality

I first wrestled with this tension between realities and optimism over a decade ago, when writing Hell and High Water (Birlinn, 2008). Gandhi once said that when faced with the overwhelming evils of our time, we have to dive deep into our hearts for inspiration and then share it with others. Only in this way did I arrive at the book’s subtitle: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition. 

Where might we find such hope that runs far deeper than mere optimism? What might be its life-giving qualities? How can it make a difference? Those are the questions that I’ll try to tackle here.

Although I have not been closely involved with XR, I have three times been asked to speak at their Scottish events. At the first, I could not attend in person so I sent a written text. Later published in The Ecologist, it tackled the psychology that drives the consumerism that, to a considerable extent, drives greenhouse gas emissions. 

The second time that XR invited me was at the winter solstice last December, outside the BBC HQ in Glasgow. This time, and again written up for The Ecologist, I tackled the spirituality that might help us. 

By the spiritual, I mean the interconnecting bedrock of being on which our lives are built. I spoke about the robin redbreast, its Hebridean folklore, and its totemic quality of courage with compassion that we need.

Three demands - TAP

On the most recent occasion with XR Scotland, the event outside the Scottish Parliament, I spoke with others about spiritual activismActivism that is resourced from depths within the psyche that can protect from cynicism, despair, and burn-out or sell-out.  

In so doing, I asked my hosts if I might raise some questions and some challenges as a critical friend. Generously, they said that they were a diverse movement, and that such would be welcome. 

XR has laid down three “demands”, though I should prefer to think of them as beseechments. We might sum these up as TAP: Truth – tell the truth; Action - act now, for decarbonisation by 2025; Politics – moving beyond politics, to alternative decision making.

To “tell the truth” is the only antidote to the day’s loud lying, to the fog of war and mirages of consumerism. It is a primary source of power. It brings us into our comportment, deportment and inner bearing such as can convey moral authority.

This kind of authority is both self-authored and authoritative. It is not to be confused with the hubris of authoritarianism that tends towards fascism. However, it is not only governments that must tell the truth. The same high calling must be heard by every one of us.

Tell the truth

I understand that the thought of Mahatma Gandhi has been very influential on XR. In order to speak about the power of truth, he came up with the term satyagraha. It draws on two Sanskrit elements. Satya meaning truth, being, essence, soul or God. And Graha meaning insistence, holding  or force. Therefore, Satyagraha or “truth force”, as the driver of ahimsa (“not-striking”) or nonviolence. 

Gandhi explained that "The world rests upon the bedrock of Satya or Truth. Asatya meaning untruth, also means non-existence: and Satya or Truth also means that which is. If untruth does not so much as exist, its victory is out of the question. And Truth, being that which is, can never be destroyed. This is the doctrine of Satyagraha in a nutshell."

Therefore, not to be in the truth is to be unreal. Even, to be injurious to the fabric of reality. These principles are both an inspiration and a challenge to how we think about nonviolent direct action.

For example, in Non-Violence in Peace and War (1942), Gandhi wrote that “sabotage is a form of violence.” He went on to explain that nonviolence is not just about avoiding physical violence against the person. It is also about building right relationships with adversaries.

That is why I would question the tactic, suggested by some XR groups, of flying drones over airports to force them “to safely close airspace”. This could only work if airspace safety is considered by the civil aviation authorities to be compromised. As such, it would rely implicitly on fear.

Direct action

Direct action must think through its messaging. Nonviolence seeks to soften, not to harden hearts. As another example, blockading the London Underground when folk are meant to be using public transport seemed to me to be at best mixed messaging.

In whatever our chosen paths of activism – of being actively engaged in this world - we must, as an old Highland saying has it, be “terrible strong for the truth.”

It is always tempting to overstate a case. We do it out of ignorance, or out of desperation as a wake-up call. It might be tempting, for example, to exaggerate the likelihood of near-term human extinction and ramp up panic.

But if we so indulge, are we not departing from the science? We mostly only know what we think we know about climate change thanks to the science. More than this, if we focus on the warning of generalised extinction we risk overlooking people in the Global South, who are already suffering the impacts of climate breakdown. 

In my view, the evidence-based approach of science to reality is the gold standard. The truth may be humble and uncertain. But to “tell the truth” can spare us from flirtation with the lie.

Act now

Just as we must seek, ourselves, to stand in truth, in satya, so we must beware of pushing others into asatya. Of pressuring them to step outside of their truth, to demand promises that exceed their legitimised agency for delivery. Here is another challenging example. 

XR’s second demand is for governments to “act now” to achieve net zero greenhouse gas by 2025. But consider. That is just slightly more than a single term of a UK parliament. Six years in which to legislate, to crank up the industrial capacity to replace fossil fuel heating systems in most folks’ homes, and to bring about other revolutionary changes in travel, diet, manufacturing and the whole shebang of fossil-fuel driven society.

Even with the UK’s 2050 targets, or Scotland’s renewable energy rich 2045, there will be massive global knock-on consequences. 

The Natural History Museum points out that for the UK alone to electrify its vehicle fleet, it would need to import, each year, the entire current European annual consumption of cobalt. And that’s not mentioning such challenges to the mining industry as sourcing Rare Earth elements, nor impacts on frontline communities perhaps being displaced, polluted and violently threatened by the mining industry. 

I well understand that XR bases its 2025 demand on what the science says the planet needs. But here’s the rub. In a democracy, politicians can lead only so far ahead of the electorate. Get too far ahead, and they’ll leave the pack behind and lose the vote. 

Beyond politics

There’s our stark conundrum. The 2025 demand might have been a useful stalking horse. It helped to draw the political lions back into the arena of climate science.

But might not persistence in trying to force it as a “demand” risk pressing our political servants into asatya? Into making pledges that depart from truth and are politically unhinged? Like the hubris of an eco five-year Soviet plan?

For politicians to be held in satya, for satyagraha to guide our common paths ahead, pledges and targets must be matched to credible pathways. These must be politically achievable, technically possible and financially resourced as well as ecologically imperative. 

That might sound hard, but consider. If we insist on pledges without workable pathways, what might we be inviting? History has names for movements that get ahead of democracy.

Our part – the satyagrahi’s path - is to be authored and authoritative, not authoritarian. Were we to play hardball out of panic, what might we be legitimising? Other groups, with very different objectives, might gladly take the cue and play that hand more forcefully than we.

Doom and dharma

But I sense my reader’s frustration. Is this not dithering at the doors of doom? No less a spiritual figure that Thomas Merton remarked: “If nothing is left of nature, there is nothing for grace to build on.”

Sometimes in such an existential conundrum we must dive deep into the heart as Gandhi said, then come back round upon a higher gyre. Dad’s Army was an iconic BBC TV sitcom from the 1960s. Private Frazer was the dour Scot who, from out of the jaws of every disaster, proclaimed “We’re a’ doomed”. 

Few have ever realised the depth of truth he spoke! But not as a counsel of despair. Bear with me.

Many English words have roots in a lost language, proto-Indo-European (PIE). Sanskrit is its closest survivor. The Sanskrit dharma is very close to satya. So close, that in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, “Dharma is the Truth (satya). Both are one.” 

Dharma is the unfolding of reality through time. At a personal level, it is walking in the path of truth that leads to life. The linguistic root is dher-, pronounced with an initial dh- from out of the pit of the belly and meaning “that which sustains”. As that which sustains the innate ordering of reality it also gets translated, somewhat restrictively, as “the law”.

Double meaning

Now – and I did ask for forbearance - being a particularly dour Scot and therefore, a scholar, Private Frazer would unquestionably have understood another PIE root, dhe-, which shares the same initial dh- sound and has similar meanings, specifically, “to set in place”, and thus also, “law”. It is the probable origin of such words as deem, Duma (the Russian legislative assembly) and, indeed, the very doom to which the good Private said we’re all consigned.

In Govan, the part of Glasgow where I live today, there used to be a Doomster Hill beside the ancient churchyard. A doomster was a law-giver. From here the tribal ways - the patterns and examples of what XR calls a regenerative culture - would have been hammered out.

To be “all doomed” is thus the wake-up to our fate as doom as dharma. It is to face unflinchingly the truth as sata, and from there, to satyagraha. 

Far from being the end of everything, such doom (if I might play a double meaning) is the end of everything. It is a basic call to consciousness. It is the base of grace from which to build the human qualities required to care for nature. 

Common vision

Here is what Paulo Freire of Brazil saw as full “humanisation … the vocation of becoming more fully human.” That prophetic vision, “in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.” 

Here is what the Norwegian philosopher of deep ecology, Arne Naess, saw as self-realisation of “the ecological Self”. Through this, “a higher realism” can invigorate the ecological movement, because the sense of who we are is “widened and deepened, so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves.”

The “common vision”, says Starhawk, in the closing words of her life-giving book Dreaming the Dark (1982), is of community with all beings – “human, plant, and animal”. From such a base derives “a power no one can wield alone – the power to reshape our common lives, the power to change reality.”

I accept, at one level, that such a long-wave approach of tackling the human condition leaves it all “too late”. We’re told “we’ve only got eleven years left.” But when, in the past five hundred years of the industrial revolution and imperialism, has anything not been “too late”? 

We have to dig from where we stand amidst the ruins. If we are to build a regenerative culture, ours is not to only jump at deadlines. We must cast out lifelines. 

This Author 

Alastair McIntosh is the author of books including Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (2001), Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service (2015) and Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (2016).  

A speech given by Claudia Goncalves at XR Scotland’s Rebel Camp in Edinburgh will be forthcoming in Resurgence and Ecologist magazine. 

Image: Tomm Morton.

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