As we usher in the New Year a paradigm shift in the way we think about our society in relation to our environment seems timely. In reflecting on the chains of natural disasters and social upheaval that unfolded in 2012, the idea that our social and environmental crises cannot be understood in isolation makes perfect sense to me. As physicist Fritjof Capra suggests, our current problems are systemic and are by nature interconnected and interdependent. Capra has elaborated this core philosophy in his book The Web of Life where he argues most of the seemingly insurmountable problems stem from our fragmented way of seeing things, and ignoring the relationships between them:
"the behavior of a living organism as an integrated whole cannot be understood from the study of its parts alone."(The Web of Life, P. 25)
Dr. Bob Kull, a Royal Roads University teacher who I interviewed for my master's thesis echoes similar sentiments:
"Everything manifesting in our world is part of a process which is interconnected like the network of roots, whether its financial events social events ecological events, and there's a deep linkage between what's going on in our social system and the ecological systems."When we look at a tree in the forest it's not just a tree, it's interconnected with everything around it, and grows within an ecological context, so its roots are connected with all the other trees around it, and all the micro rhizomes in the soil.
This emerging worldview called "systems thinking", establishes deeper connections between everything, and recognizes the interdependence of all phenomena and the fact that as individuals and societies we are all embedded in and ultimately dependent on the cyclical process of nature.
"The new paradigm may be called a holistic worldview; seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts. It may also be called an ecological view, if the term 'ecological' is used in a much broader and deeper sense than usual."
The systems theorists sum up "systems thinking" succinctly: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts." Seeing the world through this "systems lens" could help us identify the deeper linkages between some of the social and ecological events that are still fresh in our memories, as this could provide more clarity in finding lasting solutions.
To put things into proper perspective, in 2012 we witnessed some of the most devastating tragedies, in our social and natural worlds. Violence spiraled out of control with two hate crimes and two shootings in America taking place in a matter of weeks. This past weekend a 31-year-old woman was charged with hate crime after she pushed a 46-year-old man on to the New York subway tracks (who later died), and confessed she hates, "Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the two towers I've been beating them up." The incident came just two weeks after a 30-year-old man admitted to pushing a 58-year-old man on to the Q train tracks at 49th Street in Midtown.
Turning to the two ruthless shootings starting with the one that took place on Christmas Eve, two US volunteer firefighters were shot dead and two more injured as they arrived to tackle a fire, which police suspected was a trap. The 62-year-old gunman, who had served a 17-year jail sentence after being convicted of killing his grandmother, was found dead at the scene, and appeared to have shot himself in the head.
Although these three senseless tragedies must have certainly devastated the victims' families, the Connecticut school massacre strikes at the heart of our social problems, as it involves the most vulnerable in our society -- 20 innocent six- and seven-year-old children. The devastation and sadness facing the families of these 20 children is simply unfathomable, and we will never be able to comprehend what compelled a 20-year-old young man to pull the trigger on his own mother, kill 25 more people and then shoot himself.
As it turns out the shooter may havesuffered from Aspberger's Syndrome, which left him absolutely void of any feelings and he often burned himself with a cigarette lighter to feel pain. So most pundits are questioning why he had not received the psychological help he deserved, and as they continue to analyze and criticize America's mental health care system, another group of people believe the obvious response should be "gun control."
Now, even as these debates continue, how about confronting the fact that the Newtown school shooting in Connecticut is one of the 20 worst mass shootings in the world in the last 50 years, 11 of them having occurred in America? No surprise, when we consider that America holds the world's highest gun ownership rate of 89 weapons per 100 people, according to a report entitled Estimating Civilian Owned Firearms conducted by Small Arms Survey.
So the deeper issue is this: in a progressive society like America, shouldn't people ideally feel safe and secure? However, the reality is, a total of 270 million weapons are currently being stored in American homes. So it begs the obvious question why are these guns allowed in homes in the first place? But some of the deeper questions may reveal a systemic problem that need to be rooted out. Why are people so paranoid? What are they scared of? Why are they feeling so isolated rather than a sense of belonging and connectedness with their communities?
When President Obama called for a change in gun legislation just days after the shooting, a state of panic and paranoia gripped the pro-gun lobbyists, as a defiant National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre hit back, claiming that the media and politicians had "exploited" the tragedy in Newtown, and he took aim at laws designating schools as gun-free zones. Justifying the need to own guns he said, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Doesn't this sound so familiar? The same kind of justification, denial and entitlement is being adopted by the fossil fuel industry lobbyists, as they continue to confuse the public by countering scientific evidence and ignoring the natural catastrophes that substantiate the existence of climate change.
Speaking of natural catastrophes, undoubtedly 2012 will go down the history books as a year that experienced record-breaking extreme weather events. Eery as it may seem, Superstorm Sandy (bearing the same name as the Connecticut school) unleashed its fury in the USA, killed 125 people and caused approximately $62 billion in damages, and drew the same kind of outpouring as the Sandy Hook School shooting; 69 tornadoes, mostly in the mid-western parts of the USA, nine of them killer that caused 40 deaths in 12 states; 2012 also saw the worst drought in 50 years caused by record high temperatures which turned into a tinder box and sparked fires across communities in Colorado.
Canada had its own share of troubles to content with, and although Sandy was catastrophic for the United States, according to Environment Canada, the hurricane was a nasty fall storm in Canada with a $100-million price tag! Oddly 2012 was the third consecutive year that 19 tropical storms developed in the Atlantic basin -- nearly double the norm.
Hot temperatures also dominated the list of major weather stories last year, as Canada experienced extreme heat in its 16th year in a row. Nationally, it was the fourth warmest on record and for millions of people in Ontario and Quebec it was the warmest year ever. With melting comes flooding and 2012 was no exception. In British Columbia, the snowpack was among the deepest measured in years. Soaking rains and violent thunderstorms escalated the flood risk, fought on several fronts along at least a dozen rivers from one end of the province to the other.
Amid these events, a significant discovery from the climate science community linked extreme weather to climate change (in June 2012) for the first time since its origins in the 19th century (in a study conducted by one of the most credible climate scientists, Dr. James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City). It has also long been established that the greenhouse gas emissions are caused by human activities, mainly from fossil fuel.
So overall 2012 has indeed been a significant year in relation to our natural and social systems, but the irony is, none of these events seem to have made a dent in the minds of climate skeptics or gun lobbyists, as they continue to cling on to the same archaic paradigms. So what is the deeper problem? What is the systemic issue?
At the root of our current crises is the Cartesian worldview, entrenched in reductionist, mechanistic thinking -- the idea that there exists an objective reality, and it is therefore possible to come to absolute conclusions about this reality. This world view, so eloquently espoused by Descartes, separated the world into subject and object, saying they are independent from each other, creating a sense of separation and divisiveness, while blinding us from seeing the interconnectedness between occurrences -- natural and social.
Given that the Cartesian worldview has fractured our society, perhaps it may be time to look at other holistic perspectives that will create a sense of unity. It seems what worked during the Cartesian era is dysfunctional for a world with seven billion of us, adding to the complexities of an already complex system. Capra says:
"Ultimately these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world."
Eckhart Tolle provides a bolder perspective on our current social and environmental crises. He says:
"The pollution of the planet is only an outward reflection of an inert psychic pollution: millions of unconscious individuals not taking responsibility for their inner space."(A New Earth, P.78).
Tolle also draws parallels between all forms of violence -- violence against each other, violence against other living beings and the earth itself. He says the unprecedented violence is the collective dysfunction of the human mind inflicted on other life forms and the planet itself,
"Destruction of oxygen producing forests and other plant and animal life; ill treatment of animals in factory farms; and poisoning of rivers, oceans and air. Driven by greed, ignorant of their connectedness to the whole, humans persist in behavior that if continued unchecked, can only result in their own destruction."(A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle, P.11).
So the million-dollar question is how do we shake off the stubborn worldviews that are inflicting so much destruction, and transition towards a new paradigm?
No matter what we do, one thing is clear -- we can no longer dress up our social and ecological crises with band aid solutions, we need to use our intelligence and our ability to think, and discern the root causes of our problems. Although this may seem time consuming and demand more resources, this is what is required to produce lasting results.