Written by Paris Williams
If you haven’t had the opportunity yet to take in the broad view and deeply contemplate the current status of human society, and our world more generally, please take a moment and consider that we are now entering a mass extinction event (likely only the 6th since complex life began on this planet, with this one caused by us!), while the climate and the living systems of the Earth are rapidly breaking down. The global food web, that which sustains us and all life, is heading for near-term collapse. As we face the rapid depletion of food, fresh water, habitable land, and other resources, tensions within human society are bound to dramatically escalate; and indeed, they already are–we find wealth inequality spiralling out of control while many of the world’s democratic institutions unravel. International conflicts and tensions are rapidly building, with the major superpowers teetering on war with 14,000 nuclear warheads (and counting) locked and loaded. To make the situation even worse, these and other related calamities are deeply entangled with each other, reinforcing the intensity of each as we witness the building of a perfect storm of epic proportions.
In other words, no matter which way you look at it, our current trajectory is taking us directly off a cliff, and our speed towards that cliff is rapidly accelerating. Even COVID’s impact in reducing industrial activity and greenhouse gas emissions resulted in little more than an almost imperceptible speed bump on our way to devastating biosphere breakdown. Without a radical and immediate change of our course, the best outcome we can hope for as we hurtle over that imminent precipice is a rapid and very painful reduction of human population and a forced de-complexification of our social systems (i.e., a return to simpler social systems such as tribes, chieftains, and/or possibly even a return to primal hunter/gatherer systems). And at worst, that precipice may drop us out of existence altogether, into the rapidly growing basket of extinct species.
For most of us, neither of these prospects is particularly appealing. So can there be another way? To answer this question, it’ll help if I back up a few decades in my long journey to, well, attempt to answer this question.
Although I’ve sensed the existence of this rapidly approaching precipice since as early as I can remember, in retrospect I’d say that the first time the reality of it really hit home was while reading the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn about 30 years ago. The question, “Is there another way?” has since consumed me and sent me on a lifelong journey that continues through the present day. I have lived in a state of nearly constant awe in the face of the tremendous beauty, complexity and harmony of this living world. And as my eyes have increasingly opened to the enormous and unbelievably rapid destruction that humankind has unleashed upon it, I have found myself grappling with many dark emotions—including grief, guilt, shame, anger, fear, and despair, each to different degrees at different times—and a few overwhelming trips into “dark night of the soul” territory.
This long journey has taken me through many years of poring over the literature on climate science, systems science, ecology and evolution, and of striving to understand human nature inside and out: objectively—by studying various fields of psychology, philosophy and spirituality, and by supporting many others through their own trials and tribulations in my work as a psychotherapist and psychologist; and subjectively—by inquiring deeply into the nature of my own mind with the assistance of altering my state of consciousness in myriad ways, participating in my own psychotherapy, and devoting a great deal of time to the practice of intensive mindfulness meditation.
So what exactly can I say I have learned so far from this very meandering, rocky journey in search of answers to the question, “Is there another way?”
Initially, I just kept stumbling upon more questions, with my train of thought going something like this: “There is clearly something a bit different about the human species—just look around at the enormous impact we’ve had on this place, both creative and destructive. Furthermore, we tend to have developed a hell of a superiority complex; yet this stands in stark contrast to the fact that we’re taking serious aim at being one of the shortest-lived species in the history of this planet. So what’s that about? In reference to the myth of Icarus, are we simply a species that just can’t resist the impulse to fly too close to the sun, even while having the capacity to know full well that our wings are bound to melt and we will likely perish?”
Another line of questioning that emerged for me during this journey has gone something like this: “Holy shit, we are such a violent and selfish bunch! Just look at how much harm we inflict upon each other, our fellow Earthlings and the Earth. We even have the intelligence and the self-awareness to know exactly how much harm and suffering we’re inflicting, and yet we continue to do it anyway. Are we just intrinsically evil? Could it be that the demise of our species is not such a bad thing after all?”
And when I looked inside for answers to these and similar questions, I found my own humanity staring right back at me: the instant-gratification-focused impulsivity; the egocentricity; the temptation to exploit or deceive others to gratify my own needs; the tendency to fear and even hate others at times, especially those whom I perceive to be a threat to me in some way. All of those qualities that I had judged in others as being bad, evil or broken in some way–it was only too apparent that they exist within me too. This has been one of the most difficult epiphanies I’ve encountered along the way, and it initially sent me into a serious tailspin, what I would describe as my most intense “dark night of the soul” (so far). I’ve found it to be very difficult to hold out hope for the emergence of an enlightened society when such ignoble qualities appear to be so intrinsic within us.
But fortunately, just as I found myself pushed to the very edge of sanity while grappling with this dilemma, I discovered something that many other seekers have also discovered throughout our collective history. Yes, it is no doubt true that we all struggle to various degrees with the propensity to be overwhelmed by feelings of fear, greed, confusion and disconnection, which in turn often compels us to act in ways that can be very harmful to ourselves and others. But there’s a catch. It’s also true that we all have the intrinsic capacity to experience unconditional love, compassion, empathy, and deep peace, and that these qualities are even more essential to the core of who we are.
So why is it then that the former qualities appear to be so much more prominent within contemporary human society, as is evidenced by the tremendous conflict, violence, disconnection and greed that are rushing us off the feared precipice? Many spiritual traditions and schools of psychology and philosophy have grappled with this and related questions. But rather than try to summarize these here, I’d like to instead suggest that there is a relatively simple answer to this question that lines up fairly well with many (most?) of these traditions without getting bogged down in the controversial details that are so often a source of conflict among them.
As we have become increasingly disconnected from the source of our most essential aliveness—the living ecosystems, the biosphere and the very cosmos from which we have sprung—we have experienced a corresponding disconnection from our own essential self, our fellow humans, our fellow Earthlings and the Earth. This in turn deepens the delusion of our isolation, which in turn strengthens feelings of scarcity, greed and fear, and associated harmful behaviours. These harmful behaviours further increase (a) our disconnection from our essential self and from others, (b) an insatiable sense of scarcity and an unquenchable thirst for “more,” and (c) the projected fear that others will treat me in a similarly violent manner. In this way, we have become caught within a compelling and ultimately highly-destructive reinforcing feedback loop.
I imagine that many of you can at least intuitively resonate with this idea – that disconnection from self and others leads to a mindset of scarcity and fear, which in turn leads to behaviours that result in further disconnection, and round and round we go in a vicious circle of increasing violence and disconnection, a cycle that ultimately must self-terminate. At a personal level, this results in the breakdown of our individual wellbeing in different ways; and on a broader scale, the result is collapse of the broader living systems of which we are a part, collapse of human society, and ultimately the extinction of our species altogether.
So this once again brings us back to the question, “Is there another way?” I think that Albert Einstein’s well known quote can be very helpful here: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
So if the attitude that caused the problem is profound disconnection from self and others, then it follows that the attitude most likely to steer us towards a remedy to this problem is one that involves profound re-connection to our essential self and the other Earthlings with whom we share our home. But how do we achieve this? I suggest that, again, the answer is relatively simple (though not necessarily easy!), and it can be summed up in just two words: radical compassion.
So let’s flush this idea out a bit. What I’d like to suggest is that by cultivating a particular state of mind and associated behaviours (what I’m calling radical compassion), there may still be some possibility that we can break a link in the self-reinforcing chain of violence and self-terminating behaviour and have some chance of moving towards a truly sustainable way of living with each other and on this Earth. And to understand the concept of radical compassion more fully, there are two other concepts that we’ll need to explore – sovereignty and symbiosis – as well as the relationship between all three of these concepts.
There are a number of definitions and contexts for the term sovereignty, but I’m using it here to essentially mean “having the freedom to follow one’s intrinsic drives to survive and thrive.” To expand upon this, I’ll say a little about a concept I call the organismic process, a process that guides the experiences and behaviours of all living beings and living systems, and one that has been recognised and named in various ways in different fields of human inquiry for thousands of years.
No matter how relatively simple or complex the particular form of living organism or living system, we find at the very core of this life form a process that consists essentially of a perpetual loop involving 3 steps:
- Needs assessment – Information is gathered through some sensory gateway or another (perception), which is then interpreted and evaluated: “What’s happening?” and “How does this situation affect my needs?” (with needs referring to the particular “nutrients” this organism requires to survive and thrive).
- Desire – The organism then experiences a response to this assessment. If the assessment is made that one or more needs are being unmet or undermined in some way, an energetic charge builds into a desire/impulse to change the situation to one that’s more favourable. If the assessment is made that one or more needs are being met or supported, then an energetic charge builds into a desire/impulse to prolong or make best use of the situation.
- Response/Action – Finally, the organism takes some action based directly upon the particular desire/impulse, attempting to avoid the perceived harm to one’s needs and/or approach/maximise the perceived benefit to one’s needs. The organism then learns from the outcome of the response to try to maximise the benefits of future responses.
This basic process guides the experience and behaviour of all living beings and living systems, from the tiniest bacteria to the most massive redwood tree, from a single goose to an entire gaggle of geese, from a collective herd of deer to an entire ecosystem. The particularities may vary tremendously, depending upon the complexity of the particular organism, but the basic process remains the same. When the particular needs are not met, the organism suffers. The greater the deprivation, the greater the suffering, with chronic deprivations eventually leading to various maladies and ultimately death.
Take a moment and reflect upon your own experience as it relates to this process. For example, when your need for companionship isn’t met (step 1), what kinds of feelings might you experience (step 2), and what kinds of actions might you take to try to meet this need (step 3)? Following is an abbreviated list of essential human needs. Take a moment and consider how you tend to respond to one or more of these needs being met or unmet.
Most essential human needs
Considering this, it’s easy to see that when a living being’s intrinsic ability to respond to the world is hindered, then so is their ability to meet their needs; and as a result, they suffer. The greater one’s intrinsic drives (one’s attempts to survive and thrive) are blocked, the greater the suffering. This is why imprisonment and slavery cause so much suffering!
So returning to the definition of sovereignty as “having the freedom to follow one’s intrinsic drives to survive and thrive,” it becomes clear that when sovereignty is restricted, one cannot meet their needs to maximum benefit. So the greater the restriction of sovereignty, the greater the suffering, eventually leading to various maladies and ultimately death.
Now let’s expand our horizon a bit to look at the relationships among multiple organisms. But in order to do this, we first have to rethink what we mean by “an individual.” In living systems, there actually really isn’t anything that we can call an individual. Take a human being, for example. I may contemplate my own body and say, “This is my individual self,” but is it really?
Sure, on one hand, when I reflect upon my experience, I can certainly say that I experience a kind of individuality, which we may say is synonymous with the organismic process as discussed above: I perceive and evaluate things, and I have feelings, desires and impulses that compel me to take actions to attempt to meet my needs.
But with a bit of scrutiny, we discover that this “individual self” is actually composed of a multiplicity of different organ systems, each of which has its own individuality—its own organismic process and a certain degree of autonomy. Going a bit more micro, we can see that each organ system is in turn composed of many individual cells. And again, each cell can be seen as an individual living being in its own right, being guided by the organismic process discussed above and with a certain amount of autonomy.
Yet each organ system and each cell must also cooperate with their fellow organ systems and cells in order to maintain their own existence and ultimately the existence of the entire collective (i.e., “me”).
Similarly, we can go more macro: my individual self must cooperate with other individual humans to form the broader living systems we call families, communities, and ultimately the entire human society. And going even more macro, the human species is merely one of many other individual species, with all of us being required to collaborate to maintain the life and health of the broader living systems we call ecosystems. Finally, all of these ecosystems on the Earth participate in this extraordinarily complex and wonderful dance required to maintain the health and existence of the biosphere, what NASA scientist James Lovelock so eloquently referred to as Gaia.
A holarchy as seen from the individual human perspective
So this is the essence of the term symbiosis as I’m using it here: A collective of living beings and living systems, each having its own individuality in the sense of being guided by its own intrinsic organismic process, while also necessarily cooperating with each other to maintain the life and wellbeing of the broader living systems of which they’re a part.
Gaia—A Marriage of Sovereignty and Symbiosis
So when looking at the sum total of life on this planet, we discover something truly extraordinary: What we call the biosphere is essentially a single living organism composed of a nested hierarchy of living systems and living beings—a profoundly interdependent network whose nature is both fractal and dialectic, consisting of individuality co-occurring with inextricable connectedness on every level.
In simpler terms, this living planet evolved over billions of years of co-evolution—individual life forms merging symbiotically to emerge into more complex forms of life, with this process of individuation and symbiosis repeating again and again until we’ve arrived at a living Gaian system that is complex beyond anything our individual minds can ever fully grasp.
Recall that each living organism is guided in its perceptions, drives and behaviours by its own custom-evolved version of the organismic process. Because of the extraordinary complexity of Gaia, there is a profound wisdom found within the organismic process of each organism, with roots extending back literally billions of years and ultimately developing into the unique particular form required for each living organism to survive and thrive. And not only must each living organism meet its own individual needs in order to survive and thrive, but it must also play its role in meeting the needs of the broader living systems that sustain it.
So when we look at Gaia during any particular point in her history, what we find in that moment is a network of living beings and systems whose perceptions, drives and behaviours are uniquely suited to maintain the wellbeing of Gaia, of all life on Earth, as much as possible given the present conditions. And when a particular species falls out of harmony with the broader living systems, there are only two possible outcomes: that species must either find a way to regain a sustainable niche within the broader living communities, or it goes extinct, hopefully without inflicting too much harm to Gaia on the way out.
What this implies is that at any given point in time, the vast majority of species are effectively serving not only their own needs but the needs of the broader ecosystems and ultimately of Gaia. So for the vast majority of species in existence at any given point in time, their particular perceptions, drives and behaviours are not only harmonious with the functioning of Gaia, but play a vital role in Gaia’s wellbeing and continued existence.
This last point is so important, and so contrary to the mainstream Western reductionistic paradigm, that I’ll state it again: All species on this planet have evolved in such a way that their particular perceptions, drives and behaviours not only serve their own interests, but also play a vital role in the maintenance of all life on this planet.
Gaia on the Chopping Block
And this leads us to the key point of this essay: The single most destructive thing that can be done to Gaia, Earth’s living biosphere, is to interfere with the sovereignty of her many constituent parts—i.e., the living beings, species and systems of which she is composed. By the very nature of evolution, all species who are living sustainably within their niche have evolved to act in the best interest of the biosphere as a whole; and preventing, distorting or otherwise interfering with their intrinsic drives directly harms the wellbeing of Gaia as a whole.
To provide a different perspective on this same matter, let’s take a moment to look at the health of a human body (remember, the Earth’s living network is fractal, so we see very similar patterns occurring on many different levels, from the smallest living systems to the largest). In order for a human body to survive and thrive, all of its organ systems and cells must be free to follow the guidance of their own intrinsic wisdom, the roots of this wisdom extending back literally billions of years to the first living cells on Earth. When this capacity becomes hindered in any way—whether by the introduction of toxins, invasion by harmful bacteria or viruses, physical injury, or by some other means—not only may the individual cells or organ systems fail or die, but the wellbeing of the entire human body becomes compromised, and may even fall into serious illness or even death.
This is exactly the same situation with Gaia. When we reflect upon our understanding of the mass extinction events that have occurred in her long life, we see that they consisted of much more than just a collection of coincidental species extinctions. We see evidence that with each mass extinction event, Gaia herself took a significant hit, arguably coming close to her own death on at least one occasion. Fortunately, she was able to recover each time, although it typically took quite a long time for her to return to her former degree of wellness, diversity and robustness (typically within the order of millions of years).
Gaia is now experiencing another such major hit to her wellbeing, though this particular hit is entirely unprecedented for several reasons:
- the rate and extent of the destruction to wildlife (both terrestrial and aquatic), nourishing habitat, and the broader ecosystems appear to be occurring much faster than what Gaia has ever experienced before;
- the rate of increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases and associated climate change appears to be occurring much faster than anything Gaia has ever experienced before;
- …and finally, this appears to be the first time since the emergence of multicellular life over a billion years ago that a mass extinction event has been caused directly by the behaviour of one of her own species.
To add one more exceptional feature to this list, this particular species that is wreaking so much havoc has developed the intelligence and wherewithal to be fully aware of the harm it is causing, and that this harm could very well lead to its own demise, and yet it proceeds with this destruction anyway.
So now that we’ve flushed out these key concepts a bit—sovereignty and symbiosis, and their essential roles in creating and sustaining life on this planet—we can see that they provide us with a relatively simple framework for understanding how we’ve come to find ourselves hurtling towards this mass extinction event with such blinding speed (relative to the geological timescale). In short, this one species, our species, somehow managed to evolve its way right out of its own formerly sustainable niche within a complex ecosystem. But rather than go extinct at that point, as would typically occur, something extraordinary happened—rather than continuing to be constrained by the limits of mutual sovereignty and symbiosis, as had all other species up until that point, humankind found a crack in this evolutionary order. With our upright posture, opposable thumbs, and certain enhanced cognitive faculties, we found ourselves leaping directly to the top of the food chain, and not just the food chain of our original ecosystem but ultimately of virtually all ecosystems on this planet.
Up until this point, other top predators were constrained by the natural laws of mutual sovereignty (at least until the moment of taking a prey’s life) and symbiosis (i.e., wipe out too many of your prey, and succumb to starvation yourself). But humankind had found a way to bypass these natural laws, at least in the relatively short term—our species had made the evolutionary quantum leap from being required to maintain a “power with” relationship with our fellow Earthlings, as had been the case among all inter-species relationships up until that point, to a decidedly exploitative “power over” relationship with our fellow living beings and living systems.
For a relatively long time now—many tens of thousands of years—we have continued to capitalise on this escape from these natural constraints; and as a result, our population and global reach has increased exponentially. But with such power came a truly Faustian bargain—as we spread across the surface of the Earth, with ever-increasing degrees of violation to the heretofore life requisites of sovereignty and symbiosis, we caused increasing harm to the living beings and living systems of the world at a corresponding exponential rate.
And now, as we finally take a good look around at the consequences of this, what do we find? Once an abundant and thriving world composed of an extraordinary multiplicity of living beings, each standing (or swimming, flying, crawling, slithering, etc.) in their own sovereignty while contributing in their own unique way to the symbiosis necessary for the many ecosystems and the biosphere to thrive, we now find a world whose life support systems on virtually every level are unravelling at an unprecedented rate:
…96% of the world’s mammal biomass consists of just one species (us) along with the animals whose sovereignty we have stolen (“our” cattle, pigs, etc.)—their means to contribute symbiotically also having been eliminated, since the manner by which they are forced to live results in far more harm than benefit to the Earth’s ecosystems and biosphere;
…70% of all of the world’s birds alive today (i.e., “our” poultry) have been stripped of their sovereignty and their potential to contribute symbiotically to the world;
…only 23% of the world’s wilderness remains relatively unscathed by human exploitation;
…we have caused so much harm to the Amazon and other major rainforests of the world that they stand on the verge of a Gaia-sustaining tipping point in which they will begin to release more greenhouse gases than they sequester; and they are on track to disappear entirely within the next few decades;
…half of all of the world’s coral reefs have already disappeared and are on track to be entirely gone within the next few decades;
…75% of the world’s fisheries have been fully exploited or seriously depleted, with the oceans on track to be essentially fishless within the next few decades;
…by even the most conservative estimates, a few more decades of “business as usual” will trigger climate feedback loops that will at best radically reduce the amount of habitable land on Earth, and at worst, make the Earth as barren and lifeless as her close cousin Venus.
This habit of undermining sovereignty and its associated life-sustaining symbiosis has even become deeply entrenched within human society itself, with a very small handful of people hoarding the vast amount of the world’s resources (e.g., only 8 men own as much wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people), while the majority of the remaining people are imprisoned, enslaved or otherwise exploited.
In other words, what was once an intrinsic quality bestowed upon all living beings and systems—sovereignty—has become commodified and hoarded to the point that one species has essentially stolen the sovereignty of the majority of the world’s living beings and living systems to empower itself; with a similar dynamic playing out even within the human species on a number of different levels (among different classes, nations, races, ethnicities, genders, etc.).
And where has all this thieving and hoarding of sovereignty gotten us? Well, when we consider just the few facts above along with the fact that those struggles for sovereignty within human society could very well lead to a devastating nuclear war, we find ourselves back where we began this essay—looking at the precipice of our own demise, and possibly even the death of Gaia herself, accelerating towards us at an astonishing rate.
In other words, due to the direct behaviour of a species whose behaviour has become so far removed from the fundamental principles required to sustain life—sovereignty and symbiosis—a rapidly growing list of wonderful and unique living species and living systems are tragically disappearing. And we even find that this extraordinary living world itself—something that is clearly exceedingly rare and precious in this vast universe—has been placed on the chopping block – truly a tragedy to top all tragedies.
A Fork in the Road
So after this brief jaunt through the concepts of sovereignty and her closely related sibling symbiosis, we’re now ready to return to the original question, “Is there another way?”
After taking such a bird’s eye journey of the evolution of life on Earth, it becomes evident that what has caused so much destruction to the Earth and what is likely to lead to our own demise is our species’ radical departure from the script for healthy life that has existed for billions of years: All living beings and living systems must be allowed to exist in sovereignty and in symbiotic relationship with other living beings and living systems. And when any species or system falls out of line with this for whatever reason, they are forced to find another sustainable niche or face extinction.
At first glance, it may seem like the human species has found a way to violate these basic principles and not only avoid extinction, but to actually greatly thrive as a result. But upon closer inspection, we discover that we have only managed to extend the lifespan of our violation by repeatedly doubling down on it while rapidly expanding to cover the entire surface of the Earth. In other words, by exploiting and dominating other life forms, our population grew in sync with the depletion of the living systems that sustain us; and this forced us into ever more extreme exploitation and domination, along with further population growth and the further depletion of our life-sustaining living systems.
And ultimately, we come to find ourselves at the same point where all other species who’ve “gotten out of line” have ended up—either being forced to find a new sustainable niche, as just one species of many living within the framework of mutual sovereignty and symbiosis, or face extinction. The only difference is that we’ve managed to make it so far before arriving at this final choice point that should we continue down the path towards extinction rather than mutuality, then we will be taking a whole lot of other species and living systems down with us. And indeed this is what has already been occurring.
So now we can finally answer the question to “Is there another way?” In short, we find ourselves facing a surprisingly clear fork in the road: “Do we choose to continue violating the principles of sovereignty and symbiosis—down the path of domination, exploitation, the delusion of human superiority, and ultimately extinction? Or do we seek to return to a truly sustainable way of living on this planet that embodies mutual sovereignty and symbiosis—towards the path of recognising the equal worth of all living species and living beings; of permitting all living beings and systems to live a sovereign existence; of relinquishing our attempts to “manage” species and ecosystems and to trust that the symbiosis emerging from such mutual sovereignty is the only way that true sustainability can ever be achieved and maintained, even if we’re personally uncomfortable with some of the outcomes; and to recognise that we must find a way to re-establish our own symbiotic role within our living systems—restraining our population and consumption habits to only what can be sustained and mutually supportive to the living systems of which we’re a part.
Radical Compassion—Our Existential Imperative
So if we do make the conscious choice to follow the latter fork in our path—returning to embody the principles of mutual sovereignty and symbiosis—what does this actually look like in practical terms? Considering Einstein’s belief that we cannot solve a problem with the same mind state that caused it, we can see that the mind state that caused our existential dilemma consists essentially of the belief that humans are superior to and fundamentally separate from the living beings and systems of this world. And we have sadly seen where this has gotten us.
So what alternative mind state, then, might be able to counter the harm done with the former mind state, and provide us with some possibility of saving ourselves and many of our fellow Earthlings? Well, let’s consider that we could call the problem-causing mind state “radical disconnection”— as in the fact that in the big picture, our species has undergone a kind of radical departure from our formerly sustainable niche, and instead turned to the cultivation of certain mind states such as greed, hatred and dissociation, and to certain delusional beliefs such as human superiority and human separateness from the natural world.
So we can say that the antithesis of this would be something like “radical re-connection”—which consists of recognising the need to return to a sustainable niche, to remember the truths of our inseparability from the natural world and our equal worth in relation to all other species and living beings. Emotionally, we experience this as equanimity (the deep peace and security of being part of a truly sustainable living system), unconditional love (feeling a heartfelt connection with all other living beings), and compassion (the desire for all beings to live a rich, enjoyable and free/sovereign existence). And as we come out of the experience of feeling disconnected from the value and the sentience of other beings, and shift towards experiencing intrinsic love, compassion and gratitude towards our fellow Earthlings, and the Earth more generally, our behaviour naturally changes from that shaped by a desire to exploit and dominate others, to that shaped by a desire to co-exist, collaborate and support the sovereignty of all of our fellow Earthlings.
So to hone into the essence of such a state of mind and heart, I like the term radical compassion as I believe that the term compassion captures the essence of the qualities and associated behaviours we need to cultivate if we want to choose the path away from extinction and towards true sustainability. When we experience compassion for another, we naturally experience a desire for them to be free from suffering, which necessarily requires that they live a life of maximum sovereignty and minimal unnecessary pain. And when considering our explorations here, we find that sovereignty is key not only to minimising suffering, but ultimately to the sustenance of thriving ecosystems and of all life on Earth.
As for the term radical, we have already gone so far down the path of life destruction and imminent extinction (radical disconnection) that many of us feel that nothing less than a truly radical departure from this path can save us, if it’s not already too late. Or in other words, we can say that a radical phase shift in our evolution radically ejected us from our sustainable niche within the web of life; and now at this late stage, only another radical evolutionary phase shift will allow us to return to a sustainable role within this web. And I believe that this concept of radical compassion captures the essence of such a shift.
So what does cultivating, embodying and practising radical compassion look like in practical terms?
Our behaviour and our state of heart/mind are so interlinked that one tends to greatly reinforce the other. Our collective dynamic within contemporary society so far has been a vicious circle of a generally disconnected and dominating attitude leading to exploitative and even violent behaviour towards others, which in turn reinforces our attitude of disconnection and domination, ultimately taking our species off the precipice of extinction.
But we can take advantage of this same principle to shift our course towards a more wholesome and life-affirming path—by changing our behaviour to be in line with the compassionate consideration of and support for the sovereignty of all living beings, our attitude will naturally change towards one that is more loving, compassionate, egalitarian and symbiotic, which in turn further reinforces such behaviour, ultimately leading our species back towards living harmoniously in this web of life, back towards finding our sustainable niche, and away from the precipice of extinction.
In the charity I’m involved with – The Centre for Nonviolence and Conscious Living (cncl.info) – we’ve developed the Conscious Living Resolution, which offers a list of suggested commitments in our behaviour that we feel can guide us in personally and collectively fostering radical compassion and returning to a truly nourishing and sustainable existence. While all of the items on this list can be effective strategies for this, I am convinced that transitioning to a vegan diet and lifestyle is the hands-down winner as the single most powerful strategy for fostering radical compassion while leading to the most profound positive changes within every living system of our world – fostering wellbeing for our personal health, within human society, for our fellow Earthlings, and for the Earth. Furthermore, this strategy is particularly empowering in that it is one that nearly all of us can choose to embody. Here is a page I designed that provides much more information about the many ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of going vegan.
In addition to these more general behaviours that we can incorporate into our lives, I firmly believe that each of us has a unique gift that we can draw upon to serve the wellbeing of human society and the world at large. Recall that by the very nature of the evolution of sustainable life on this planet, all living species have evolved in such a way that they have unique attributes that contribute in some way to the entire web of life, to the survival and thriving of Gaia. We can extend this principle to recognise that each living being, including each one of us, is a manifestation of Gaia, a constituent part of her, and therefore carries certain unique qualities that have the potential to contribute to the collective wellbeing of this web of life. This is that place where our individual sovereignty meets symbiosis. And in order to help us to connect with the unique attributes that exist within each of us, I have found that contemplating upon the following question can be very helpful: “Where does my passion meet the world’s needs?” I encourage you to spend some time with this question, using your heart and gut as well as your mind, and see where it takes you.
Can radical compassion (or anything) really save us? I don’t enjoy ending an article on a negative note, but I feel that this is a very relevant question that needs to be addressed. When you consider the general condition of the biosphere today, it’s only too clear that we’ve already gone very far down the path to extinction. And there are many feedback loops already set in motion that will likely carry us deeper into the realms of climate crisis and biosphere breakdown regardless of what we do now. So the reality as I see it is that while the world is far too complex to know with any certainty exactly how this will all play out, the forecast is decidedly grim.
What does this mean for striving to change our behaviour and shift to a mind/heart state of radical compassion? If it’s already too late, why bother? I believe that there is a 2-fold response to this dilemma:
(1) If there is still a chance to shift our course away from the precipice of extinction—to save ourselves and as many of our fellow Earthlings as possible—then I believe that a rapid and mass collective embrace of radical compassion is our one and only shot at it;
and (2) if it really is too late, then the embrace of radical compassion provides us with the best chance to make the most of whatever time we do have left. What more enjoyable and life-affirming way can we live than by cultivating love, compassion and nourishing connection for ourselves and our fellow inhabitants of this remarkably wonderful and precious planet. And let’s face it, we’re all going to die anyway regardless of the particular global outcome—wouldn’t it be nice to face this great unknown with a heart full of love and the sense that we have lived our life to the fullest?