The book arrives at a time of great tension and unpredictability. Movements like the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion are, as Gillespie says, cutting through the fabric of disavowal that has obscured our global emergency – but the pushback is ferocious. It is a time when we are wondering what comes next, what the future and our part in it will be.
Drawing on her professional background as a Jungian psychotherapist, Gillespie sets out, in the first chapter of the book, the defining theme of myth and its influence on identity and values. Many threads emanate from this: ego-centric versus eco-centric worldviews; the grip of capitalism on the economic consciousness of rich societies; the place of science; the centrality in all cultures of story-telling; the dangers of the hero archetype; the transformative potential of dreams; and more.
Taking myth as a given of human life, she homes in on the denial and confusion which ensues when a prevailing social myth (aka a deeply ingrained perception of reality) is disrupted by the resulting events. The myth of infinite growth and consumption, with its accompanying waste, pollution and destruction, has a tenacity matched only by its harmfulness. It follows that the subsequent upheaval is both planetary and social. Do we navigate or resist the trauma of the collapsing myth? Are we condemned to increasing chaos and conflict, or can a uniting, stabilising narrative be found?
Given this backdrop of chaos and trauma, the author’s invitation
to witness and share many moments of vibrancy and enjoyment in the
journey of climate consciousness, seems paradoxical.
They inter-weave with despair, anger, grief and horror in the face of widespread ecocide. The paradox resonates with Gillespie’s position on hope, not synonymous with optimism, which is grounded in the thinking of Jonathan Lear (Radical Hope) and Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (Active Hope). It also calls to mind the title of Donna Haraway’s book, Staying with the trouble.
Brief examples of this vibrancy and freedom from binary thinking are: denial revealing “the fierceness with which we guard old myths”; the observation that “This is a chaotic time of global crisis and transformation” and “Even in the midst of my grief over ecological destructions, I feel a joy in this growing appreciation of the wonders of our planet”.
The book can be seen as serving three closely-linked aims. The first is a full and honest recognition of the mental and emotional cost of planetary consciousness. Second is the pressing need for us to take that path and accept the cost. But thirdly, this is not just a question of sacrificing a cocoon of illusory and deadly comfort. There are deep rewards as well as pain in growing our connection with the other-than-human world. It affords a greater aliveness, both in its own right and through relatedness with others who are struggling to re-build human culture around an eco-centric worldview.
A phrase used repeatedly by Gillespie is “facing into”. I wondered about this – why does “facing” need the added preposition, when the word on its own implies something difficult? One possible answer is that the task is greater than mere facing; it involves not just recognition but an entry, even an immersion. This is where rite of passage comes in. (A section in the final chapter is titled ‘Immersive stories’). Another answer could be found in the image of a boat facing into a storm, in order not to capsize and sink.
The craft in question is our very planet, on whose fabric we are utterly dependent, whilst treating it so destructively. But this brief departure from Gillespie’s text also leads back to another theme at the heart of the book. ‘We’ generalisations don’t get us very far and are in fact counter-productive, when the need is to consider our choices – critically, our choices when it comes to collective awareness and activity.
The second half of the book is rich with examples of climate and ecological groups, campaigns and movements across the globe. These initiatives have arisen in response to a host of needs – local or global, for regeneration and against destruction. Some, like Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya, have achieved huge environmental and social transformations.
From the great diversity of the situations and struggles she lists, Gillespie’s narrative draws out vital shared features: that grief shared leads to powerful bonds; that love and compassion must work in harness with anger at destruction and injustice; that recurrent feelings of helplessness can give way to agency and stronger identity when we locate ourselves within the collective.
Whether it is combatting an oil pipeline, restoring woodland or supporting people who fear for their children in a ravaged world – our struggle with opposition, our sense of responsibility, our grief and fear are too much for us to carry as individuals. We need to know we are part of a developing community and to realise that building collective consciousness is vital to our aims. The re-imagining involved asks so much of us – humility, passion, tolerance of discomfort and uncertainty. Chaos is the combined product of de-stabilised Earth systems and the slow collapse of the expansionist order – immanent realities that are stubbornly denied by others and by parts of ourselves.
Sally Gillespie’s book demonstrates and feeds an aware connection which is desperately needed for us to survive and navigate these dangerous times. Her involvement in the Climate Psychology Alliance is but one example of the sense of community at the heart of her message.
Review by Adrian Tait: Co-founder, Climate Psychology Alliance.