Watching our planet’s natural life-support systems disintegrate is terrifying, but our climate and ecological crisis may be the catalyst for a global transformation beyond our imagining. It’s a fallacy to believe things will inevitably get better, but it’s also a fallacy to conclude radical change is unlikely. To find our situation somewhat exciting – as opposed to overwhelming or paralyzing – requires us to challenge our limited views about the capacities of humankind.



Quicklinks to Content:
The Climate and Ecological Crisis Is Terrifying
Reality Is Not What We Think It Is
Challenging Our Own Views and Certainty
Terrifying – and Exciting?


The Climate and Ecological Crisis Is Terrifying

Last month I was on sabbatical. I took the opportunity to go visit a dear friend, Debra Seido Martin, with whom I share a great deal – we’re both Zen teachers, and we’re both deeply concerned about the climate and ecological emergency and constantly exploring how to best respond to it. I featured a statement from Seido about her experience of the climate crisis on her organic farm in Episode 9 – We’re Not Destroying the Earth, We’re Destroying Ourselves.

On the two-hour drive to Seido’s farm, almost no insects hit my windshield. It’s easy for such a thing to escape your notice entirely, but when I reflect on it, I find it absolutely terrifying. I’m old enough to remember when road trips in any part of the country required regular stops at the gas station to wash your windshield clear with a big soapy squeegee. You really had to scrub hard to remove the debris from the dozens – if not hundreds – of insects that had met their demise on your windshield since it was last cleaned. You still find squeegees and soapy water at gas stations, but now they’re more a matter of aesthetics than necessity.

terrifyingTo contemplate the dramatic, worldwide decline in insects is to face some of the clearest evidence we have that something is seriously wrong in our biosphere. It’s funny because few of us personally miss insects. They’re usually just annoying. Of course, they’re also an essential foundation of any ecosystem – they maintain soil health, decrease the spread of disease by aiding decomposition, pollinate all flowering plants, and serve as the base of the food chain, among other benefits. We literally can’t live without insects. And yet a study published in the journal Biological Conservation in 2019 found “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.”[i] You know things have gotten bad when we don’t need fancy studies to verify the absence of insects, we can prove it to ourselves just by driving really fast for an hour or so.

Surrounded as we are by floods, droughts, storms, and wildfires that global heating has made more extreme, extensive, and frequent, it can feel like we’re in the middle of the ocean in a lifeboat that is disintegrating before our eyes. How do we avoid getting stuck in fear, denial, or despair? If that happens to enough of us, humanity is doomed.

Reality Is Not What We Think It Is

Fortunately, the world is not what we think it is. Whether you’re an optimist who figures everything will work out, an alarmist who believes we’re approaching a point of no return on our inexorable march toward extinction, or somewhere in between, reality is infinitely bigger than what’s contained in your mind. Of course we have to make judgment calls when we’re making decisions, but the individual human mind is notoriously ill-equipped for accurately assessing large-scale, complex situations.

Just becoming aware of the limits of my own mind helps give me hope that humanity will transform its relationship to nature over the coming years – and that our civilization will not just survive but be better for the transformations we’ll have had to make.

I’ve been humbled by the biases and limitation of my own views and opinions recently by reading the book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker. Pinker is sometimes reviled by progressives because they think his message amounts to saying, “Humans have made incredible progress along every measure of well-being over the last 200 years or so, so there’s no need to worry or take action because everything will work out fine.” Some people see Pinker as dismissive of current injustices and challenges in his efforts to point out how far we’ve come. However, I find myself wondering whether these critics have read Pinker’s work at all, because he repeatedly makes the point that we can’t take progress for granted.

Progress us not something that happens all by itself, it’s something human beings achieve through hard work, and by championing the values of reason, science, humanism, and progress. Humanism, to use Pinker’s words, “privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion.”[ii] In other words, he explains, it’s individual human beings who are sentient and feel pain or pleasure, not groups, and the lives, experiences, and well-being of individuals is important. Belief in progress means “with our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism, humanity [can] make intellectual and moral progress. It need not resign itself to the miseries and irrationalities of the present, nor try to turn back the clock to a lost golden age.”[iii]

In fact, the whole point of Pinker’s book is that we’re in danger of abandoning the enlightenment era values of reason, science, humanism, and progress if we conclude these values have failed to deliver. So, he goes about methodically cataloguing the incredible progress humans have made over the last 200 years or so with respect to a wide array of measures of human well-being: Longevity, health, sustenance, wealth, equality, civil rights, peace, safety, democracy, knowledge, and quality of life. He does this to combat our human tendency to conclude the world is going to hell in a handbasket. All kinds of mental biases and shortcuts lead us to focus on current misery and forget about how much better things have actually gotten. For example, we usually think we and our families are doing okay, but if you ask us about society, we get much more pessimistic.[iv] This is called the “Optimism Gap.” The Availability Bias means we draw conclusions based on the data we happen to encounter – such as what events a news program chooses to feature, or what anecdotes we hear about from friends – and thereby often end up wildly off-base.[v]

Only hard evidence – that is, relying on science and reason – allows us to gain an accurate sense of reality. For example, although we may dwell on our losses to cancer and heart attacks, and modern medicine seems to fall short in many instances, Pinker puts this into perspective with a chart listing the estimated millions and millions of lives saved by innovations including water chlorination, vaccines, penicillin, and angioplasty. Sometimes you don’t even need charts and numbers to get the point – you just need to be reminded of what you’ve been overlooking. For example, Pinker comments on the progress we’ve made in human health by describing the state of affairs in recent history:

“Before the 20th century, cities were piled high in excrement, their rivers and lakes viscous with waste, and their residents drinking and washing their clothes in putrid brown liquid. Epidemics were blamed on miasmas—foul-smelling air—until John Snow (1813–1858), the first epidemiologist, determined that cholera-stricken Londoners got their water from an intake pipe that was downstream from an outflow of sewage. Doctors themselves used to be a major health hazard as they went from autopsy to examining room in black coats encrusted with dried blood and pus, probed their patients’ wounds with unwashed hands, and sewed them up with sutures they kept in their buttonholes, until Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865) and Joseph Lister (1827–1912) got them to sterilize their hands and equipment. Antisepsis, anesthesia, and blood transfusions allowed surgery to cure rather than torture and mutilate, and antibiotics, antitoxins, and countless other medical advances further beat back the assault of pestilence.”[vi]

Challenging Our Own Views and Certainty

While absorbing the evidence Pinker offers that human society is, indeed, capable of significant and transformative progress, I was embarrassed – and surprised – to realize what a negative and pessimistic view I often have of humankind. It’s difficult not to conclude we’re hopeless when insects are disappearing and working people are struggling to make ends meet while fossil fuel companies rake in record-breaking profits.[vii] It’s difficult not to conclude that greed runs the world, and the juggernaut of consumption will drive us right over the cliff of climate catastrophe. I find myself thinking radical change is impossible. That there’s nothing we can do. Pinker calls such viewpoints “progressophobia,” an unwillingness to conclude that significant progress is probable, even though historical evidence strongly suggests that it is. Pinker notes that progressives and intellectuals tend strongly toward this attitude.

Letting the truth of the history of human progress wash over my brain dislodged some of my limiting views and assumptions – views and assumptions, after all, I have based on my extremely limited experience and knowledge, influenced by the optimism gap and the availability bias and tribal thinking and all kinds of human foibles Pinker outlines.

The truth is I don’t know what’s going to happen, and neither do you. This “not knowing,” however, isn’t a befuddled, paralyzed, ignorant, irresponsible state. It’s a state full of a sense of possibility and potential. It even includes some – dare I say it? – excitement, because we need to rise to task of negotiating risks, meeting challenges, innovating solutions, and re-envisioning our future. Humankind is at the point where it has to adapt or die, so our climate and ecological crisis is likely to be the catalyst for global transformation we can barely imagine at this point.

I’m always wary of optimism that leads to passivity, so I appreciate Pinker’s words: “We don’t have a catchy name for a constructive agenda that reconciles long-term gains with short-term setbacks, historical currents with human agency. ‘Optimism’ is not quite right, because a belief that things will always get better is no more rational than the belief that things will always get worse.”[viii]

I feel my mind and heart stretching, trying to make sense of things, trying to find a way forward as we watch earth’s natural life-support systems breaking down. Certainty feels good – when I know what’s happening, or I know what needs to happen – but is certainty the most helpful attitude right now? And more important, does it reflect reality?

Terrifying – and Exciting?

My friend Seido helped stretch my heart and mind even further with our recent conversation about the climate and ecological crisis. I’m going close this episode by sharing some thoughts that came out of our conversation. Most of these ideas came from Seido so credit should go to her, but I can’t remember her exact words and I’m sure what I remember is biased by my own thoughts on the matter. With that disclaimer, here’s my offering:

“Those of us who are deeply concerned about the climate crisis keep hoping we’ll figure out what to do and be able to rest in satisfaction that we’re doing the right thing, that we’re living the right way. But that’s just not going to happen. Ever. So, we might as well let go of that hope and get used to this being a moving target.

“The sense of individual responsibility can be empowering but is also very limiting. We are part of an unimaginably large, living system that is undergoing rapid change. Many positive changes are going to happen more or less naturally as humankind responds to and adapts to our environment out of necessity, and as we learn painful lessons about how live sustainably on this planet. We are active participants in this sometimes-terrifying adventure, but we are also along for the ride. Chances are very good that ten years from now we will look back at this time and shake our heads, marveling at how much has changed, and how we never could have imagined it all.”



[i] Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris A.G.Wyckhuys. Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers.

[ii] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 10). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 11). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 40). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[v] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 48). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[vi] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (p. 63). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


[viii] Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now (pp. 344-345). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Photo Credit

Image by Heiko Stein from Pixabay

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