If we’re to act in a way that observes the Earth’s limits and boundaries, then we must undergo a ‘metanoia’ – a deep spiritual transformation. This involves a radical turn-around in the way we think and live, which a practice like meditation can help to enable. So argues theologian and long-time meditator Dr Deborah Guess, who believes that making ‘greentech’ changes such as solar panels and electric cars is not going to be enough, and may even be part of the much wider problem that our economic system is geared towards producing and consuming more and more.
Metanoia is an idea that lies deeply within the Christian tradition. Literally, (from the Greek) the word means changing one’s mind, but it’s more fundamental than simply changing opinion, and is more to do with a radical turn-around, a wider, deeper and spiritual transformation, a moral change of heart and a different way of living.
It’s to do with repentance or conversion, with the whole transformation of life. Deeper than just doing just one thing differently, it is more about seeing things differently, withdrawing from one’s present understanding and way of living, and living the whole of one’s life differently.
To say that people face challenges or troubles in the world today would be, I think, a massive understatement. Even to say that humankind is living at a time of crisis hardly touches it. We may not feel we can solve them, but we know what those crises are: the threat of war and nuclear weapons, global power shifts, massive and increasing inequalities of wealth, not to mention rapidly moving technological, cultural and ethical changes and uncertainties.
As well, there’s the ecological crisis which for a long time has been demonstrating that the basic systems that maintain life on Earth are compromised, under pressure, and collapsing, shown in extreme weather events all over the world, massive pollution such as tiny bits of plastic now found in oceans and in the bodies of animals and people, the decimation of birdlife, the threat to food growing due to the decline of bees, and so on.
One basic question is, do we really need a radical turnaround in relation to the environment? Can’t we just separate our rubbish, put it into the right bin and maybe think about whether our next car will be an electric one? If that’s all that is needed, it’s not really radical or much of a turnaround at all because it doesn’t change our fundamental way of thinking or living, it just involves a few small behavioural changes.
This is the view that seems to predominate in much current conversation in the media and in politics: climate change is the only, or main, ecological problem we face, the others pose much less of a threat to the wellbeing of Earth and its inhabitants.
This view also seems to suggest that technological changes such as solar panels and electric vehicles are all that’s needed, that once there are enough solar panels and electric vehicles in place the rate of carbon emissions will slow and our lives of comfort and prosperity can then continue indefinitely. It sounds quite attractive. We only need to make technological changes and then get on with business as usual.
Of course, technological changes do have their place. Stopping the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and using renewable forms of energy is indeed a necessary step. But even if it were to happen quickly enough, it may not be sufficient.
I want to draw on the thought of a number of other people to suggest that the approach I’ve just described, which I am calling the ‘greentech’ solution, is not enough of a solution and may even be part of the problem.
The greentech solution ignores and powerfully underestimates the seriousness of climate change itself as well as all the other multiple and interrelated ecological problems in addition to climate change. It also doesn’t take into account the sobering, and profoundly depressing, possibility that we may face an unprecedented and life-threatening crisis, a future that has been described as one of ‘inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction’.
Writer and thinker George Monbiot notes that while things like a strong uptake of renewable energy and electric cars addresses one aspect of carbon emissions, at the same time:
The mining of the materials required for this massive deployment of batteries and electronics is already destroying communities, ripping down forests, polluting rivers, trashing fragile deserts and, in some cases, forcing people into near-slavery. Our [so called]“clean, green” transport revolution is being built with the help of blood cobalt, blood lithium and blood copper. Though the emissions of both carbon dioxide and local pollutants will undoubtedly fall, we are still left with a stupid, dysfunctional transport system that clogs the streets with one-tonne metal boxes in which single people travel. New roads will still carve up rainforests and other threatened places, catalysing new waves of destruction.
According to Monbiot, supported by others such as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, the greentech fix is nowhere near enough and can make some ecological questions even worse. Perhaps a much deeper social, economic, political and ethical change is needed. A change where people use significantly less energy, fewer resources, and produce and consume less of everything.
Unlike the greentech approach, this much stronger response is grounded in one fundamental understanding that has become much clearer in the last fifty years: that Earth has boundaries or limits, that we live on a finite planet with finite resources and that the planet’s regulating systems cannot be exceeded beyond certain limits.
This differing point of view suggests that our present woes have come about not just because we have, by accident as it were, emitted a bit too much carbon, but because the whole economic and social basis of our society—a basis of economic growth and industrialisation — has itself created the ecological crisis and that consumerism, which so powerfully influences how Western society operates — exceeds the planet’s inbuilt boundaries by its very existence.
This point of view invites a true metanoia, a turn away from economic growth, industrialisation, and high levels of production and consumption and from the prioritising of economy over ecology. What if this view were taken seriously, what if we were to prioritise ecology over economy instead?
Such a metanoia would turn away from the commonly held assumption that consumerism or economic growth is good, or necessary, and move towards living within the limits set by life-sustaining Earth systems. Such a large scale transformation has been described as economic degrowth, a planned turn away from economic growth in favour of a frugal, simpler way of living as a means of reducing the human ‘footprint’ on Earth.
It is hard to know exactly what this new way of living would involve: perhaps people sharing items currently held individually or privately. Probably “low but sufficient material living standards”, with things like food, clothing and furniture grown or produced locally and resulting in “major degrowth to a zero-growth economy”.
Perhaps it would mean people working fewer hours for less pay but living more sustainably and more locally, buying less, growing more of their own food, being more reliant on themselves and their immediate community, perhaps sharing items like washing machines? It’s an idea that has plenty of scope for creative thinking.
The idea of living within boundaries, of degrowth, of making do with less, can be challenging because, although in some ways it echoes an older, more frugal style of living that some of us may even have memories of from childhood, it is also quite new or quite different to how we in the West now live and so may seem a bit fanciful.
It certainly runs counter to the expectation I’ve had all of my adult years of feeling entitled to own whatever I want (as long as I can afford to buy it, or perhaps even if I can’t), to go wherever I want, to do whatever I want, to live in a way that has a background reliance on high levels of production and consumption. The very idea of restricting the things I buy or do seems at times pretty strange, even frightening. A former environmentalist, Paul Kingsnorth speaks about how hard it can be to accept that we live on a planet that has limits and to accept that we now need to limit our behaviour accordingly:
… we cannot face it; even those of us who think we can … we have no idea what to do about the coming end of the brief age of abundance, and the reappearance, armed and dangerous, of what we could get away with denying for a few decades: limits.
So a question today is, can the Earth afford my/our former sense of entitlement? Can the Earth afford constant and inevitable economic growth?
It can be incredibly hard to turn our minds and our behaviour around in this regard, to learn to embrace limits because the economic system we live in works against limits or degrowth. My husband and I built an eco-home using low-impact and recycled materials, with passive-solar design principles, no air conditioning, and so on.
In some ways we had success, but we also failed. It’s not a very big house, but it could have been smaller. We tried to use all recycled materials, but we ended up using far more new material than would have been ideal because, strange as it seems, using recycled materials is actually more expensive: the materials often cost more due to economies of scale, and carpenters spend many more hours in retro-fitting.
We grow much of our own fruit and vegetables, and buy our milk from a local organic and biodynamic dairy, which might sound deserving of an ecological gold star, but we buy most of our other things from supermarkets, both because that’s how the system works and because we are not yet at a point of giving up luxuries that are grown overseas like chocolate and coffee. I often use public transport but for many trips I do still drive our car, just because sometimes it’s so much quicker and more convenient.
Like many people, I’m conflicted and struggle to move outside of the system which is a very powerful part of our culture. It seems that everything in our lives, the whole system that surrounds us, is designed with the aim of producing and consuming more. It’s part of our culture to do more, have more, be more, to go beyond limits, to be active, to go places, to ‘make a difference’.
A profound turnaround remains almost impossibly hard.
Almost impossibly hard. One thing that might make it a little more possible to embrace limitation, to at least begin to live a life of doing less, is the practice of meditation, of prayerful contemplation, of committing to silence and to times of doing nothing.
In a sense of course we know that we cannot actually turn our lives around, it is God who does the turning around. But we can open ourselves to the possibility of metanoia, we can be willing to do our daily practice and allow God, through the stillness and silence, to bring about that interior transformation which might even lead to social transformation.
Stillness and silence in themselves mitigate against the urge to act, move, think, feel, imagine and so on. Meditation can gradually, almost imperceptibly, help to form in us the habit of making do with less, to become used to simplicity, to a greater realisation and acceptance of what we are and of what is around us.
Meditation can lead us away from the controlling impulse to change things, to do and have more things. As they say, it helps us to be human beings rather than human doings. Prayer of the heart facilitates deep change within us because it connects us to the deep reality which is the presence of Christ within us.
We know that the practice of Christian meditation has ancient roots. The desert tradition of the third and fourth century was not concerned with abstract issues of philosophy or theology but with how to live in the present time and place and how to live with very little. Some of those men and women who chose a monastic life in Egypt and Syria left behind them lives of comfort (by the standards of the time) to embrace a life of denial and limit, which they saw as essential to their journey with Christ. They lived lives of frugality and simplicity.
Simplicity is the core here. If it’s hard for all people today to even think about living in a way of simplicity that turns away from the comfort, pleasures and freedom to which we have become accustomed, maybe it is just that slightest bit more possible for those who practise Christian meditation. Maybe.
*Dr Deborah Guess is a long-time meditator and member of the World Community for Christian Meditation. She is also an Honorary Research Associate at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. Her main research and teaching area is ecological theology. Deborah also practises permaculture and sustainable living at her home in the Yarra Ranges to the east of Melbourne. Among current projects, Deborah is writing a book about the ecological theology of place.
This article is a based on a talk Dr Guess gave in Melbourne on 18 February 2023 to local members of the World Community for Christian Meditation.
Alexander, Samuel. Beyond Capitalist Realism: The Politics, Energetics, and Aesthetics of Degrowth. Melbourne: The Simplicity Institute, 2021.
Bendell, Jem. “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” IFLAS Occasional Paper, no. 2 (2018 revised second edition 2020): 1-35.
Garnaut, Ross. Super-Power: Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity. Melbourne: La Trobe University Press, 2019.
Hawken, Paul, ed. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Roll Back Global Warming. New York: Penguin, 2017.
Jackson, Wes, and Robert Jensen. An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2022.
Kingsnorth, Paul. “The Fourth Revolution.” In The Abbey of Misrule, 2022.
Meadows, Donella H, Dennis L Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W III Behrens. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York, NY: Universe Books, 1972.
Monbiot, George. “After the Failure of Cop26, There’s Only One Last Hope for Our Survival.” The Guardian, 15 November 2021.
Schumacher, E F. Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered. Reading: Abacus, 1974.
For me, this is the main takeaway message in books such as: Paul Hawken, ed. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Roll Back Global Warming (New York: Penguin, 2017); Ross Garnaut, Super-Power: Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity (Melbourne: La Trobe University Press, 2019).
Jem Bendell, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy,” IFLAS Occasional Paper, no. 2 (2018 revised second edition 2020), 19-21.
George Monbiot, “After the Failure of Cop26, There’s Only One Last Hope for Our Survival,” The Guardian, 15 November 2021.
Samuel Alexander, Beyond Capitalist Realism: The Politics, Energetics, and Aesthetics of Degrowth (Melbourne: The Simplicity Institute, 2021). See alsoWes Jackson and Robert Jensen, An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2022).
Donella H Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (New York, NY: Universe Books, 1972); E F Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered (Reading: Abacus, 1974); Alexander, Beyond Capitalist Realism.
Jackson and Jensen, An Inconvenient Apocalypse, 21.
 Samuel Alexander notes the extent to which, in common with neoliberal conservatives, most of the ‘progressive’ green-left are entrenched in the growth paradigm and cannot envisage an alternative. Alexander, Beyond Capitalist Realism, 1.
Alexander, Beyond Capitalist Realism, 11.
Paul Kingsnorth to The Abbey of Misrule, 3 November, 2022, https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/the-fourth-revolution/
Tags: Climate change goes deeper than fossil fuels