Review: Charles Eisenstein's Climate—A New Story

A book review of Charles Eisenstein’s Climate—A New Story (North Atlantic Books) written for the September-October 2018 issue of The Ecozoic Review.

[Note: This is a complex and multi-faceted book. For clarity, in addition to the full review, I want to also provide a one-sentence summary of my understanding of the book’s climate change thesis: Human’s are causing severe climate damage on Earth, but it may not always look the way we expect it to; it may have more to do with ecosystem damage than carbon emissions; and climate change should be only one part of a much larger conversation.]

It would be no exaggeration to say that climate change has become the defining narrative among those who sense the precariousness of civilization’s current juncture. Carbon accounting serves as a proxy for all matters ecological; the prevention of warming to catastrophic levels has become the cause that supersedes all else; and the carbon conversation now pervades every major debate about the future course of humankind. What if it’s a misguided conversation? What if our fixation on carbon emissions and rising temperatures is obscuring the deeper causes of our current crises—including climate instability—and perpetuating the same mindset that gave rise to them in the first place? What if the depth of transformation invited by our predicament goes far beyond the expected, into the territory of a true initiation?

These and other seemingly heretical questions take center stage in Climate—A New Story. With his uncanny ability for combining expansive perspective with piercing analysis, Charles Eisenstein articulates a paradigm-shifting understanding of our ecological crisis that challenges us to peer beneath prevailing logic and into the hidden foundations of our story of the world. In doing so, the endless maze of our situation begins to take on a different hue. Previously veiled passageways and patterns come into focus. New possibilities emerge. Eisenstein enlarges the conversation to include the inter-systemic and the ontological, all the while honoring the particular, the unique, and the small, inviting the understanding that the true opportunity of this crisis is to become intimate with life—the life that holds us in our locality.

Climate—A New Story proceeds through a series of interrelated, mutually supportive shifts in perspective that encompass everything from the scientific to the epistemological to the existential. The book takes a comprehensive approach to considering the relevant scientific literature. Here, Eisenstein draws upon a range of researchers as he delves into the complex relationships that exist between forests, soil, wetlands, marine ecosystems, and climate. One reads of the multiple lines of causality at play within and among ecosystems as seen, for instance, in the role of biogenic condensation nuclei in cloud formation; the evapotranspiration of water from soil and vegetation; and the variation that exists among types of clouds and their differing effects on temperature and water circulation. The effects of trees and forest fauna on ground porosity and underground aquifers are explored, as is the impact of forests on wind patterns. The analysis is extended to wetlands, grasslands, agricultural land, urban land, and deserts.

While it is suggested that the hydrological cycle plays a much larger role in climate stability than is generally appreciated, Eisenstein nonetheless goes on to pursue questions of ecological health and climate through the familiar lens of carbon, leading to somewhat unfamiliar understandings that become apparent only when ecosystems are considered in the wholeness of their complex relationships. Here, he cites research that points to gross underestimation of both the carbon sequestration capacity of intact ecosystems and of the release of carbon caused by the destruction of ecosystems. Venturing into the perilous territory of the “climate spectrum,” Eisenstein unreservedly throws himself into each of these distinct worlds of conviction and research, from climate change denial to climate catastrophism, yielding a dizzying tangle of methodological arguments and counterarguments that, ultimately, may reveal more about the underlying assumptions shared across the spectrum than they do about the future of the climate. A common theme throughout is the complex, nonlinear, and multifactorial relationships that underpin climate and ecological health and that defy reduction to a single solution such as reducing carbon emissions.

What emerges is a picture of Earth as “a complex living system whose homeostatic maintenance depends on the robust interaction of every living and nonliving subsystem.” The frame moves from the geomechanical view underlying dominant climate change logic to a Gaian view resonant with that articulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, bridging geology and biology with the understanding that “life creates the conditions for life.” Eisenstein argues that while it is possible that the prolonged ecological degradation endured by this complex living system over the past 5,000 years will produce a warming climate, one reads, it is more likely that such degradation will result in “climate derangement”—that is, a calamitous degree of instability caused not primarily by fossil fuel emissions, but by ecosystem destruction. Eisenstein argues that, “Whether we are looking through the lens of carbon or water, from the living systems perspective we see that climate health depends on the health of local ecosystems everywhere. The health of local ecosystems, in turn, depends on the health of the water cycle, and the health of the water cycle depends on the soil and the forests.” Within this expanded perspective, whether or not temperatures are rising, the living planet’s many interdependent ecosystems—the “organs of Gaia”—are dying. It is this ecocidal onslaught that undermines Earth’s ability to maintain the conditions for life, including a stable climate. Eisenstein wholeheartedly believes that human beings are causing severe damage to Earth’s climate, though he argues that the living systems narrative represents a fundamental challenge to the “Standard Narrative” of climate and its centrality.

It is the larger philosophical framework in which the living systems narrative exists, however, that is at the heart of the book’s contribution. For Eisenstein, climate change is “a symptomatic fever of a deeper disharmony, a disharmony that pervades all aspects of our civilization.” In his earlier philosophical work, The Ascent of Humanity, he meticulously traced the evolution of the “Story of Separation” through centuries of thought, technology, and culture as a means of articulating the dominant cultural narrative and its concomitant individual identity: the separate self in a world of other. Building on this foundation, he illumines the currents of “war thinking” inherent in “climate fundamentalism”—the belief that all other causes exist relative to the human survival imperative of responding to climate change—noting the tendencies of fundamentalism to reduce the complex to the simple and to demand the sacrifice of the immediate and the human for the sake of one great cause. He believes the current focus on a single, universal cause—climate change—is not surprising, given our current story of the world and our habitual predisposition toward addressing all problems as if they are rooted in linear causality and are manageable through force and control. “The fundamentalist wants to reduce every thing to one thing,” he writes. “That is convenient, if you would rather not look at everything.”

Rather than accepting narratives of human progress and control that are comfortably aligned with the status quo, Eisenstein instead invites the reader into the Story of Interbeing. The underlying condition of our crises, he writes, is the lack of recognition that all of life is alive, that existence is relational, that the health of every part impacts the health of the whole—and, indeed, of every other part. What we do to the seeming other, we do to ourselves. From this perspective, social healing and ecological healing are the same work, though even here, social healing is not understood in the usual sense of access or equity, but as something that “requires the massive overhaul, probably the total reformation, of our systems of medicine, education, birth, death, law, money, and government.” Within an interbeing framework, the experiences of unknowing, perplexity, and grief are welcomed as gateways into a larger knowing within which we can relate to various levels of a bigger picture of causality. And rather than relying on the climate change narrative to motivate or scare people into action, which amounts to “invoking self-interest to solve a problem caused by runaway, blind self-interest,” Eisenstein advocates tending to the restoration of humanity’s fullness of being, the recognition of our place within the whole of life, and the alignment of our cultural systems and institutions with these realizations.

Importantly, the fundamental shifts that Eisenstein advocates do not rest on an impoverished or restricted version of present industrial society; rather, they are presented in the context of a different kind of flourishing of humanity than is presently realized. In this sense, they offer something more compelling, and perhaps even more plausible, than narratives that focus only on self-limitation within the context of our current social and economic systems. This shift toward interbeing and into the recognition of the relational nature of all life encompasses the individual and the collective, the ontological and the practical. It is not enough to rely on individual restoration without addressing the systemic architecture that directs us toward separation, yet “when we restore the internal ecosystem, the fullness of our capacity to feel and to love, only then will there be hope of restoring the outer.” It is not enough to depend on adjustments to systemic incentives, such as the internalization of ecological externalities, the implementation of regenerative, localized agriculture, and the introduction of liquidity fees and a negative-interest financial system, yet these practical measures are explored in some detail as necessary components of a transition to an economic framework aligned with a human presence that is “an extension of, not an exception to, ecology.” While “it does require will, an active choice,” such choices are inseparable from “the need to change the conditions from which we are choosing.” Included in the book’s analysis and policy implications are discussions of energy, population, debt, geoengineering, agriculture, and the nature of science.

Notwithstanding the book’s many practical gems, the core of its message is found in the inquiry into what it means to be human. Chapter titles like “The Revolution is Love” and “An Affair of the Heart” offer a clue. For Eisenstein, “ecological deterioration is but one aspect of an initiation ordeal propelling civilization into a new story, a next mythology,” and the basis of this shift is the rediscovery of our inherent capacity for love, empathy, and felt connection with life. Inherent in the restoration of these fundamental dimensions of human beingness is the restoration of our numbed and narrowed capacity for listening. In naming our pervasive alienation from the subjectivity and aliveness of the natural world, he invokes the words of an elder from the Kogi tribe of the Colombian Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta: “If you knew she could feel, you would stop.”

Within the Story of Interbeing, the diminished vitality of life on the planet is a direct diminishment of our own fullness of being, a loss that can only exist in the presence of a traumatic numbing to ourselves. Eisenstein sees this and other traumas of deprivation manifested in addictive tendencies and substitutes that attempt to compensate for basic unmet needs, among them the qualitative dimensions of connection, community, beauty, sacredness, and intimacy. Love—the expansion of self to include another—and empathy are at the heart of the new and ancient mythology invoked: it is through these felt dimensions of interbeing that we are able to navigate our human role in the Earth community and sense into the realms of purpose and contribution underlying the human story. Thus, out of the rich complexity and multiple perspectives offered in the book emerges a simple distillation of the source of our crisis: “love benumbed.”

Climate—A New Story is a book worthy of deep consideration. It doesn’t shy away from challenging firmly held assumptions. With his characteristic openness and humility, Eisenstein willingly lays bare his own humanness and longing right alongside his incisive analysis. To let it speak to you it is to step into an expanded relationship with life in which the standard climate change narratives of blame, despair, and urgency dissolve into grief and a dawning recognition of what was, what is, and what may be.