I was active in the field of environmental awareness for about 10 years from 2003 as a founder member of Be the Change, eventually burning out from despair at the denial and inaction I experienced. In February last year, nudged by a friend, I signed up for the Climate Change & Consciousness 2019 conference at Findhorn 20-26 April. In the meantime, it seems the world suddenly ‘woke’. Like many I have been newly inspired by the straight talking, no-messing approach of the likes of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough and Jem Bendell - and the luminous, wonderful, late Polly Higgins. Then in April I took the slow sleeper up to Findhorn where I had the privilege of spending a week reflecting, listening, sharing, singing, grieving, dancing, being inspired, hugging, discussing ideas and generally having my heart torn open, along with 250+ participants from around the world.
Findhorn is the right place for such an extraordinary experience. Founded ‘unintentionally’ in 1962 among the sand dunes and pine woods near Forres on the North East coast of Scotland by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean, who had chosen to follow a spiritual path, an intentional community grew around them - drawn by the infamous ‘40 pound cabbages’ that they mysteriously grew in the inhospitable sandy ground. Findhorn is now a large and thriving community, a world-renowned eco-village, with flourishing vegetable and flower gardens, a full educational programme and host to conferences, seminars and workshops. It has become a premier example of its kind drawing people from all over to live here and learn from its methods and practices.
The hub of the conference was the Universal Hall, a purpose-built hexagonal wood building, lit with stained glass. There were plenary sessions and inspirational speakers, several, Bill McKibben, Jem Bendell and the young Mexican-Californian activist Xiuhtezcatl, beamed in by satellite, plus a moving interview with the late Polly Higgins recorded before her death on Easter Sunday. Vandana Shiva, Jonathan Porrit were informative, witty and inspiring. There were poets, musicians and artists, dancers and gardeners. There were a myriad different workshops; walks to the beach, meditations, Taizé singing in the Nature Sanctuary, noisy meals and a 100 chance encounters that lit fires and longer conversations that stoked them. We met in small home groups to share and digest our experiences. It was an immersive experience, often overwhelming, and of course game changing…
A significant and deliberate element of the conference was the presence of many indigenous leaders – from Senegal, Namibia, Nigeria, Aotearoa, South America, Brazil, Greenland and elsewhere. Each spoke, sharing their language and the story of their place. It was a privilege to have this opportunity to hear them. Every one of them provided a reminder, reinforced by the resonance of this evocative corner of Scotland, of the critical potency of place as the generative soil of love, action and intelligence. For me spending time listening to these elders and sharing time together was the greatest gift of the conference.
Angaangaq, an elder from Greenland, prowled the circular stage telling his story with a mesmerising mix of gentle ferocity and ironic humour. Designated a ‘Runner’ by his mother he carries the wisdom of the Eskimo people around the world. “Melt the ice in the hearts of people” his mother told him. Angaangaq talked of the importance of ceremony “When ceremony loses its meaning it becomes a ritual. The world is full of rituals. Ceremony comes from within, based on self-love, to celebrate life.” Greenland is the only land on Earth where there has never been war. “Imagine”, he urged, “living in this land of Mother Earth, compared to the USA where there has never been one day of peace.” “What must it be like” he asked “to be constantly energised by killing each other?”.
Angaangaq’s finale will stay with his audience forever. He told the story of two young hunters who noticed water flowing from the Big Ice in January 1963 and conveyed their message to the ‘Runners’ who took it to the UN and governments everywhere. “We told you the ice was melting. You did not listen” Angaangaq arraigned his Findhorn audience. He continued “You did not listen to indigenous people because you did not look on me as an equal. I look different, speak differently and come from far away…But I know how to treat the Earth with the gentlest feet so as not to disturb the Earth. You rape the Earth because you have lost your ceremony and your capacity to love people.” His censure was a heart-stopping moment; tears flowed, in the silence shock and shame were palpable. It is rare to have a mirror held up to our Western habits with such directness, such ferocity, yet at the same time such tenderness.
Angaangaq’s accusation and the generosity of his presence have stayed with me as one of the most significant points in that week. He pulled together some key themes of the conference. A sharp reminder that our Western narrative of separation from an Earth that is conceived as a resource to be exploited, is founded on a separation also from ourselves and from other people; couched as arrogant superiority it is in fact rooted in fear. Our loss of love for Earth is intimately connected, not just to the way we have glorified humans over planet, but to our loss of love for people, ourselves, our neighbours. Climate crisis is thus a psycho-spiritual crisis – a devastating deterioration in our capacity to feel the Earth as alive, abundant, beautiful and sacred – and to feel ourselves as part of this richness. This awareness was traditionally held and revitalised through ceremony – not necessarily, or just via the big religions, perhaps especially not these monotheistic, dominant faiths, but rather the lived experience of daily ceremonies that remind us of the sacred and the numinous, of being a part of the beauty of Earth. In our loss of ceremony and love affair with the mental gymnastics of Science and technology we have alienated ourselves from our full selves, and from our grounding in place, thus from our first love. Our infidelity has damaged our capacity to love in its most generous sense of compassion, delight and wonder.
Thought leader Charles Eisenstein echoed these themes. Bio-diversity loss is as much about the loss of different peoples, languages, practices and ways of being as it is about species loss. Further, we care about and take action to save that which we love – whether this be our corner of the planet or those nearest to us. While other speakers highlighted our technological brilliance – all the answers are already there, as Porritt reminded us – Eisenstein emphasised the need to shift our mindset, to regain our consciousness.
He spoke of sustainable growth as an oxymoron, addressing our ideology of ascent, of progress and the need to “make our decisions from a different place to just doing the carbon math.” “How do you calculate the carbon benefit of a whale?!” he challenged. Eisenstein urged, in his gentle style, that we need to learn to love complexity rather keep simplifying – a polarised thinking habit that leads to reductionism and simplistic answers unfit for a complex world. To honour complexity rather than reinforce the ‘war-thinking’ of “identifying and fighting the enemy”, Eisenstein’s call to action places priorities in a different order to the mainstream carbon reductionists:
1. Protect any eco-system under threat including its people – eg. the Amazon, the Congo “Gaia’s memory of health still exists here. There is hope for it to radiate out to the world.”
2. Regenerate, repair and heal eco-system damage. This is more important than climate scientists put it. “We will be out of topsoil in 60 years. This is the healthy body of the Earth – forest and soil are its organs.”
3. Stop dowsing the world in chemicals, waste and toxins. “We are poisoning the world at a tissue level.”
4. Stop emissions and fossil fuel extraction.
Eisenstein echoed the concept that our guiding narratives have lost ceremony. “Our words and stories are part of our covenant with the rest of life. Every action, every word can be a prayer, a declaration of who we are and what we want the world to be – in some way this affects the climate.”
In my home group, held in the optimistically named Sunshine Room, I shared concerns, confusions and delights with participants from Ireland, New Zealand, US, Canada, France, Germany, Senegal, Korea and the UK. It was an intimate and nourishing time. Ousmane, an ecologist from Senegal, spoke of his horror at how we treat our old in the West – he was visibly repelled as he retreated into the sofa. He recounted how his “wonderful grandmother”, visited every day by a member of the family, has lost nothing of her wicked sense of humour at 98 and is still consulted on all family affairs. His affection and delight were infectious, as was his account of the building of his eco-village. A French woman who worked in the film world had already pledged projectors to the centre. Suddenly, towards the end of our last meeting on the last day, a quiet-spoken man from Germany extracted his wallet and handed its contents to Ousmane. “This is to help build your community centre.” Shocked and embarrassed, Ousmane tried to return the cash. “Please” said the German “give me the gift of enabling me to do something immediate and practical.” A stunned moment and then we all followed suit. Within a few minutes we had raised £450.
Looking back, I see that this was a parallel shock to Angaangaq’s wake-up call – the bookends to my conference experience. Only this time we shocked ourselves by going beyond convention and fear of offence or cultural inappropriateness, to follow a generous impulse, which in turn has created an immediate impact. Regular updates from Ousmane tell us our funds have enabled a well to be dug without delay and the building of the community hall commenced – named the Sunshine Well and The Sunshine Community Hall in honour of that brief time we spent together at Findhorn.
So one legacy of that week is my continued delight at the magic of small but absurdly huge acts – I smile every time I see Ousmane’s updates in my inbox. And I am choked with emotion – gratitude perhaps – to realise that the connections we made across cultures and geographies in just a few meetings in the warmth of the Sunshine Room, generated such love-in-action.
It has taken me six weeks to get around to writing about this immersive and complex experience. Since then I have been digesting and absorbing. I still am. I have thought about it, not thought about it, got caught up with the busyness of life and work, swung from hope to fear and back again, been energised, exhausted, calm and clear and thoroughly muddled! But I have taken action: connecting with others to offer small-scale forums for reflecting together about this new phase in the spiral of consciousness and climate change; retrofitting our massively non-ecological Victorian terrace house; and facilitating a leadership programme for Leaders for Nature – and I am once again reading voraciously – Charles Eisenstein, Jem Bendell, Margaret Wheatley to nourish myself on this ongoing journey…
Because of course the big questions as Eisenstein and others point out are: “Who do we want to be? How do we want to live? And what do we want our relationship to the world to be?”