“I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.”
When I was at university, I read a book called How we can save the planet. It totally convinced me that if we didn’t act urgently and drastically to curb carbon emissions, the world would become all but unlivable as a result of floods, droughts, sea-level rises and extreme weather. Once I accepted that, no other issue really seemed to matter. Why bother doing anything about homelessness, mental health or poverty, if the rug was going to be pulled out from everyone’s feet within decades anyway?
My girlfriend at the time went to Mexico to work in an orphanage in the summer holidays. Many people would see this as a very kind and compassionate thing to do, but I actually told her I thought it was a waste of time. She wasn’t getting to the root cause of why there were orphans in the first place, and so there was no point trying to help a small number of them. And anyway, climate change was a bigger issue than orphans. In my mind, if you weren’t solving the world’s biggest problem, it was pointless.
I cringe when I think about that conversation now.
I became a passionate and committed activist, stopped eating meat and flying, became president of the university environmental society, joined marches in London, and went to the UN climate negotiations twice. My nickname was Captain Planet!
My point of view made me incredibly judgmental. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t care as much about this issue as I did. Why were people standing around in the Students’ Union getting wasted on snakebite when the whole world was on the brink of collapse? Were they stupid? Heartless? Willfully ignorant? It was baffling and infuriating.
It made me angry when people didn’t turn off the lights or recycle. These people just annoyed me. Then, there were the people I hated: the oil and coal companies; countries like Saudi Arabia and the US, who were actively blocking an agreement on tackling climate change; and the so-called climate sceptics, who questioned the validity of the science that showed we needed to act and thereby delayed us in doing so.
It seemed everything was wrong with the world. Everything we bought, ate or drank; every time we got in a car or on a plane; every time we bought clothes, it was contributing to global warming.
I remember some friends did a geography project that involved being zero carbon for 24 hours. They just sat in a tent doing nothing and, eating a few apples that had fallen off a tree, because everything they could think of doing created CO2. It was actually quite comical.
But my views and actions isolated me. In my yearbook, a friend wrote ‘Andy, I admire your one-man mission to save the world.’ It wasn’t meant to be a one-man mission — everyone was supposed to be joining me, but they didn’t want to. I couldn’t understand it. Why was I so different to everyone else?
My turning point
After several years of being obsessed with the issue, and following the failure of the UN negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, I became disillusioned and despairing, feeling that nothing anyone was doing was making a difference. I decided to step away from being an activist, stop reading The Guardian’s environmental page and put everything to do with climate change out of my mind. I still thought it was the number one issue facing us as a human race, I had just run out of energy to do anything about it.
A few years later, I discovered mindfulness. For the first time, I was paying close attention to my own mind and body instead of focusing on what other people were doing. I soon realised that I was not as ‘fine’ as I always told people I was. I was deeply physically agitated, mentally distracted and out of touch with my emotions.
As I started to meditate, not only did I become more aware of these things, but they started to change and I had some really profound experiences. I started to feel more peaceful than I’d ever felt in my life, and more able to focus and be present. I even had experiences of bliss and euphoria, and felt far more connected to people than I ever had before.
Another thing I noticed was that ordinary moments took on a whole new significance. Somehow, having a friendly chat over a cup of tea with someone in the office felt deeply fulfilling to me, whereas, before, only saving the world mattered. And I felt like this most of the time — life in general had come alive to me and felt meaningful. I could sense that something dramatic had changed in my perspective on the world, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that was.
I felt like an activist again, campaigning for the cause of practising mindfulness. But there were a few big differences. Just helping someone in the moment was enough. I was encouraging people to do something that would make them feel good, whereas before it always felt like I was asking them to sacrifice what felt good.
I came to believe that my new attitude was striking at the heart of what needs to shift if we are to deal with climate change.
The root of all our problems
The way I understand it, at the root of not only the climate crisis, but mental illness, loneliness, homelessness, the burgeoning prison population, biodiversity loss, and just about every problem we face in the world today, is a story:a story of who we are, what is valuable, where we are heading and how we relate to each other.
It is a collective cultural story; a mythology — something every culture develops in an attempt to answer life’s basic questions, all the way down to ‘Who am I?’, ‘What does it mean to be a human being?’ and ‘What is reality?’ Philosopher Charles Eisenstein calls the dominant story, the Story of Separation.
But as we’ve grown up with it, we haven’t seen it as a mythology, we’ve seen it as the truth — just the way things are.
In the Story of Separation, you are a discrete, separate individual, competing in a world of other individuals for finite resources, in an external universe that is separate from you. Every field seemed to agree on this, for example:
Religion: you are a soul encased in flesh
Psychology: you are a mind encased in flesh
Biology: you are an expression of DNA seeking to maximise your reproductive self-interest
Economics: you are a homo economicus — an entity seeking to maximise your rational self-interest
This concept of self has poisoned our planet because Mother Nature has been treated as if she were an ‘other’ that we can limitlessly extract from and dump waste into, without it harming us.
In this story, we do not live in a kind universe; we live in a hostile one in which nature is something to be controlled, to protect ourselves from and to harness in order to enrich ourselves. All organisms are in competition with each other for survival.
There was an episode of Friends in which Joey made the argument to Phoebe that even being kind is selfish, because it makes you feel good. How depressing is that?
Just pause for a moment and ask yourself how this view of the world makes you feel. Is it uplifting, inspiring?
I find it depressing and nihilistic.
A new story of who we are
But there is another way of looking at things. Isn’t it amazing that it’s impossible to do something kind for someone without feeling good about yourself? In fact, it has a three-fold positive effect: you feel good, they feel good, and anyone who witnesses or hears about it feels good.
Eisenstein believes that our Story of Separation is becoming increasingly intolerable, and is actually breaking down. What is emerging in its place is what he calls the Story of Interbeing.In this story, what I do to you I do to myself, because everyone and everything is interdependent; part of a whole that cooperates in order to evolve and flourish.
When I was about 12, I remember hearing on Radio 1 Newsbeat how many football pitches of rainforest were being destroyed every day, and feeling hurt and angry about it. Logically, it didn’t affect me, my life or my friends, but a part of me felt the connection between me and that rainforest and wanted to protect it.
In the Story of Interbeing, it makes complete sense that I feel good when I’m being kind to you. A lot of people have had experiences that showed that we are not separate from each other, or from nature. And, intellectually, more and more people are agreeing with it.
People are reinterpreting the work of Charles Darwin and pointing out how much he wrote about cooperation as opposed to competition. One of the quotes from his 1871 book stated, ‘There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members, who […] were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes.’
Neuroscientists have discovered that both animals and humans have mirror neurons in their brains that give them an extraordinary ability to empathise, showing that we are hardwired to feel what those around us are feeling.
Last week I wrote about five science-based benefits of kindness that show that being good to others helps us to not only feel good, but even live longer, have healthier hearts, and feel less depressed, less anxious and more fulfilled.
Economists are increasingly questioning the myth of the Earth as an infinite resource. The American economist Kenneth Boulding said, ‘Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.’
Of course, some people have used religion for centuries to delineate ingroups and outgroups, and to justify acts of horrendous violence. But at the heart of every religion, you also find warmth and kindness.
When asked what the two most important commandments were, Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:30).
The Prophet Muhammad said ‘Allah is kind and He loves kindness in all matters.’ Sahih Muslim 2593, Grade: Sahih
When the Buddha was dying, his best friend Ananda said, ‘the Master is about to pass away from me — he who is so kind.’
What better way can a person be remembered than having been kind in their lifetime?
The coronavirus has thrown up plenty of evidence to support the story that people are really selfish and in competition with each other — for the last toilet roll, for example.
But there have also been many instances of generosity, kindness and mutual support, including Captain Tom Moore, the NHS volunteers and countless examples of neighbourly kindness.
I can’t prove to you that one of Eisenstein’s stories is true and the other false, but you can try them both on for size and see how life feels when you believe either one.
With a new story, come new solutions
I think the question of whether or not we live in a hostile universe is the most important thing we can ask ourselves, because the answer radically changes the solutions we adopt towards our biggest problems.
Historically, the cultural narrative has been that people do bad things because they are bad people. This myth is deeply ingrained in our psyche from many years of watching things like cartoons, superhero films, James Bond and Lord of the Rings.
And how do you deal with a baddie? You defeat them, kill them or lock them up.
Mass incarceration, the war on terrorism and the war on drugs make perfect sense in the Story of Separation. The problem is that none of these strategies seem to be working. Locking people up is not reforming criminals, bombing terrorists creates more terrorists, and anyone who’s seen Narcos knows that Pablo Escobar was replaced as soon as he was killed.
In the Story of Interbeing, we might ask ourselves: if I’d had the same life experiences as this person, might I have become a criminal, a terrorist or a drug dealer? What conditions need to change for people to stop doing these things? The starting point is empathy rather than condemnation alone.
In the Story of Interbeing, viruses can be understood as existing for the benefit of human health. This mutation was made more likely by habitat destruction that led to it being passed between species. The longer term solutions are therefore care-based: conservation and ecosystem regeneration rather than more and more separation and sterilisation.
In the Story of Separation, ‘fighting climate change’ is about overpowering the polluters, and using technology to create clean energy and suck carbon out of the air.
In the Story of Interbeing, there is a recognition that we won’t heal the Earth until we change our relationship with it and see it as a living thing that is part of us.
What can I do?
If we create our reality through the stories we tell, how do we perpetuate one based on kindness, rather than selfishness, greed and hate?
One way is to act as if it were true. Every kind act strengthens the Story of Interbeing, whether that’s through giving your mum the last white-chocolate ice cream or donating to a food bank.
Also, sharing stories that support it is very powerful and often moving. If you need your faith in humanity restored, watch this video:
What comes after Corona?
Humanity is at a crossroads. We could take the path of more and more fear and separation or a kinder, more connected, more community-minded world.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 67% of people think the UK will be a kinder place after the pandemic, so it seems we’re going in the right direction.
Personally, I’ve made it my life’s mission to live in this story. I hope you’ll join me.