Now, however, Gaia, the Greek earth goddess, is offering us a chance. Gaia has brought us to the brink of crisis. Climate change, and all of its moving parts—from litter to light bulbs to deforestation—is more than a crisis of survival. It’s a crisis of significance, where we must grasp the essential connectedness of everything and reinvest in our source of meaning, or die.

Photos © Alex S. Maclean
Cul-de-sac housing under construction in Houston, 1999 (aerial photo, top). Leveling hills for a new housing development, Castro Valley, California, 1997 (aerial photo, above).

In the past 40 years—since the baby boomers came of age—Western society has shifted from wild postwar optimism to epidemic affluenza, obesity, and depression. Over the same period, our sacred architecture, eviscerated by populism, consumerism, and the collective solipsism that lets us remake God in our own, increasingly infantile image, has been systematically stripped of all that smacks of transcendence, poetry, or mystery. Anything, that is, that makes us feel small. The mega-church is just a barn with better lighting.

Instead of solipsism

And yet, I believe, if humanity, from its current predicament, were to invent a new religion, it would devise a morality that made the Earth’s survival an incentive. It would deify Gaia (or Mother Earth), make heavenly disciples of sun and rain, worshipful shrines of fertility and compost, and sacred objects of wind turbines and soil-enriching worm farms. The rules of eco-living would become scripture, with spring and harvest the holiest days in the calendar. The highest sacrament would be a ritual receiving of the rains, while the various categories of hubris and solipsism—waste and pollution—would be the new deadly sins, along with greed and gluttony, avarice, envy, and sloth.

Domination over nature would be reviled, while we would recast the “feminine” virtues of giving and receiving, empathy and service, as the highest goods. From these, it would be seen, spring other, secondary values of courage, imagination, beauty, and truth by which we could escape the prison of ego, and engage in nature’s great tapestry.

A leaner, greener survival

I was driven to write my book, Blubberland, by two mysterious facts. One was that, although most ordinary, sensible people now regard climate change as irrefutable and terrifying, we seem unable to change our ways, even to survive. The second was that, however I came at it—culturally, spiritually, aesthetically, medically, morally, environmentally, or even hedonistically—all the fingers seemed to point toward a leaner, greener, less-self-absorbed, less-ravenous way of living on the planet.

The Western world—but also, increasingly, the East—seems now addicted to desire. Even when confronting the environmental devastation that our insatiability causes, even as the cliff-edge looms, we seem incapable of either changing direction or reducing momentum. Even when we know having it all doesn’t make us happy, that blubber so easily becomes our trap.

Certainly, if reason has any sway, we won’t accept our present circumstances. We’ll see that burning our blubber to brighten the truth-and-beauty flame is a surer path to happiness than hoarding it. That to test ourselves, even at great risk, is something we occasionally need. That the seven lean years are as crucial as the seven fat ones. That connection creates meaning, and to give is actually to receive. And that enough is actually enough.