The Witness

Essays Published February 1, 2015 in Tricycle, February 2015

The greatest ecological crisis in the Earth’s history began with the emission of climate-changing gases by an organism that had spread widely across the planet, colonising many of its ecological niches. These gases &emdash; the waste products of its lifestyle &emdash; gradually accumulated in the atmosphere. For a long time nothing noticeably changed, but at some stage a tipping point was reached and the planet’s climate flipped rapidly from one state to another. The composition of the atmosphere changed, becoming poisonous to most life on Earth, and the planet’s mean temperature plunged, precipitating a global ice age. The resulting mass extinction killed perhaps 90% of all living things on Earth.

This was 2.3 billion years ago. The climate-changing organisms were bacteria, and the poisonous gas they emitted was oxygen. Without the planetary catastrophe they precipitated, you, and almost everything you know about the Earth you are part of, would never have come about at all.

All told, there have so far been at least five, and perhaps as many as twenty, ‘mass extinction events’ in the history of Earth. This first &emdash; known as the ‘great oxygen catastrophe’ &emdash; was the most far-reaching. The last, 66 million years ago, is the one we know best, because it is the most appealing to the human imagination: it wiped out the dinosaurs. Overall, it is estimated that around 98% of all organisms that have ever existed are now gone forever.

All created things perish, said Gautama Buddha. Whatever is subject to origination is subject to cessation. This, it turns out, is true of an individual, a species, an ecosystem or a planetary epoch. Whatever the Buddha saw under the Bodhi tree &emdash; whatever it was that showed him the ceaselessly changing nature of all things, and convinced him of the misery caused by attempting to cling to temporary states of apparent stability &emdash; has been more than borne out by consequent studies of the Earth’s geology, ecology and biology. The nature of this Earth is change. The nature of this Earth is endings. The nature of this earth is extinction.


As you read this, the Earth is currently experiencing the latest extinction event in its 4.6 billion year history. This one, known as the Holocene Extinction, is caused not by cyanobacteria or asteroid impacts, but by human beings. Arguably, it has been going on for at least 10,000 years, since the extinctions of the great megafauna &emdash; the mammoths, the ground sloths, the sabre toothed cats &emdash; which in all likelihood were pushed over the brink by human hunters. But it has accelerated greatly since the Industrial Revolution, and gone into overdrive in the last half century. The current extinction rate is estimated at anything between 100 and 10,000 times the expected rate of ‘background extinction’, and as the expansion of the human economy continues, with its associated resource extraction, soil depletion, fossil fuel combustion, human population increase and mass destruction of ecosystems, the Holocene Extinction is accelerating beyond our ability to even accurately measure it, let alone put any kind of brake on its progress.

What does this mean for us as individuals? If it is our generation’s burden to live through this latest collapse in global ecological diversity, the knowledge that we are all complicit increases that burden. Simply being human at this time in history &emdash; and particularly being a middle-class human in one of the world’s richer nations &emdash; makes you, and me, agents of extinction. Much of the Earth’s natural wealth and beauty is disappearing, as our species treats the planet like a giant quarry or factory floor. The Earth’s climate is changing once again. Tipping points are being reached. Much of nature as we know it is dying away in order that we might have access to smartphones, takeaway coffee, private cars, aeroplane flights and Facebook.

For nearly two decades, starting in the early 1990s I was involved in environmental activism. That is to say I worked, as did many others, to try and fend off the worst of the damage that humans are doing to the rest of life on Earth. Some of the campaigns I was involved in were successful, and others weren’t: this was always a hard battle, and mostly a losing one. But as time went on, the losing seemed to deepen. It became clear that green campaigners were being overwhelmed on all fronts. Such was the size and the momentum of the human economy, such was its need for growth simply to keep itself functioning, such was the level of denial and demand amongst most human beings &emdash; who, despite our qualms (if we have any) would probably not sacrifice most of the baubles and benefits that the economic machine gives us &emdash; that the chances of preventing the Holocene Extinction from rolling onward came to seem essentially non-existent.

Environmental campaigning, like any form of politics, is predicated on control. It is about preventing negative things from happening and trying to channel society towards what you regard as more positive values and systems. It took me a long time to admit to myself that the level of control I wanted and desired simply couldn’t exist. Governments had been promising to act on climate change for twenty years, and precisely nothing had happened. All of the trends, from extinction to soil erosion to ocean acidification to rainforest destruction, were going in the wrong direction, fast. We &emdash; the greens &emdash; knew what needed to be done, but had no power to make it happen. It wasn’t working. I looked around me, at the diminishing natural beauty and its accelerating destruction, and I despaired.


A few things saved me, eventually, from this despair. One of them was a geological, or even universal, perspective. We tend to look at the world through an anthropocentric lens: human concerns are foremost in our vision, bounded by our short lives and our everyday needs and desires. Among those desires is a concern that what we have always known as ‘nature’ should continue as we have always known it. But nature has taken many forms. For the vast majority of its existence, ‘nature’ here on Earth consisted only of single-celled organisms. The brief period of climatic stability in which human civilisations have evolved is just that: a brief period. It is not any kind of norm, for there is no norm. Had it not been for the great oxygen catastrophe or the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs or who knows how many other such episodes, none of us would be here to agonise about the latest turbulent episode in the history of this planet. Why should the state of the planet to which we have adapted survive forever? Nothing does. The Earth is a process as much as a thing: it is constantly changing. At this period in its history, we are the force tipping it into a new state. Now we are going to have to live with that state, whatever it brings &emdash; if we can.

All of which brings me, by a long and winding road, to Buddhism. Having skulked around on the edges of Buddhist thinking for many years, mostly unknowingly, it was only last year that I attended my first retreat. I didn’t have any expectations: there was just a draw. But something was opened up to me during that five days of silence and contemplation and self-questioning. I realised, as I had never realised before, that the world and my perception of the world were not the same thing.

As I write it down now, it seems embarrassingly obvious, but there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it at this deeper level. I look at a forest. You look at a forest. We see different things. Perhaps one of us sees planking or sawdust or biological diversity or spiritual retreat or silence or rare insect life or certain mosses or a quality of light. Yet none of what we see has any relevance to the forest itself, or any of the organisms that make up its whole. It is just what it is. It is just there.

What does this mean? What it has meant for me is that I am now able to begin &emdash; only to begin, mind &emdash; separating reality from my view of it, and to understand the emotional projections which I overlay on to the world I walk through. One of those projections is a sense of what ‘nature’ is and should be, and how I should be able to help maintain it in a certain state. Nature itself, meanwhile, has no sense of that state. It has no sense that it is ‘nature’ at all. ‘Nature’ is made up of a vast and detailed complex of living beings doing what they do. Our self-consciousness, and our needs, are part of that complex. But nature doesn’t need us, and ‘extinction’ as a concept is something that only humans worry about.

It is hard for us to take in the reality that Earth is an extinction machine, and it has been here before. It doesn’t need us, and we cannot control it. The ‘ecological crisis’ we hear so much about, and which I have written so much about and worked to stave off &emdash; well, who says it is a ‘crisis’? Humans do &emdash; and educated, socially-concerned humans at that. For the Earth itself, the Holocene Extinction is not a ‘crisis’ &emdash; it is just another shift. Who determined that the planet should remain in the state in which humans find it conducive? Is this not a form of clinging to mutable things, and one that is destined to make us unhappy? When we campaign to ‘save the Earth’ what are we really trying to save? And which Earth?

And yet. And yet, something I have come to understand slowly over my lifetime is that nature, Earth, the world &emdash; whatever you call it &emdash; is not simply something I am on but something I am. It is not outside of me, it is me, and I am it. There is no outside. ‘Nature’ as a concept has always been flawed. Many traditional societies had no word for ‘nature’ as something separate from humanity, because there was no obvious reason to separate humans from everything else that lived. There still isn’t. Felt experiences of deep connection with all life are a central part of virtually all spiritual traditions, and with good reason: nature is us, and we are nature. The poet Robinson Jeffers described one of these epiphanic experiences powerfully in his verse drama The Tower Beyond Tragedy:

… I entered the life of the brown forest
And the great life of the ancient peaks,
The patience of stone,
I felt the changes in the veins
In the throat of the mountain, and I was the streams
Draining the mountain woods;
and I the stag drinking,
and I was the stars boiling with light,
wandering alone, each one the lord of his own summit,
and I was the darkness
outside the stars I included them.
They were part of me …
How can I express the excellence I have found
That has no color but clearness;
No honey but ecstasy …

I can understand and be awed by the ever-changing nature of this ever-changing Earth. I can appreciate my own smallness and know the importance of not clinging to temporary states. I can sometimes chide myself for my arrogance in assuming that what I appreciate as ‘nature’ is some unchanging state that should be preserved for my benefit, or even that of my species. Every extinction, after all, is also an opportunity. If the dinosaurs had survived, there would have been no humans. Everything changes, and the changes are not always pretty. Who said they had to be pretty?

But when all this is said, and because I am part of this Earth and not outside of it, if I see an old-growth forest being logged I will want to lie down in front of the logging trucks. If I see a river being poisoned I will want to stop it from happening. I can’t abide factory farms or oil terminals or the destruction of clean air and open space. I have a sense of ecological justice that comes from something far deeper than mere principle. Because I am here, because I am nature, because I am Earth, these things, to me, are a violation of something sacred. And this sense of violation comes with a strong desire to try and prevent such wrongs from being enacted, even if the trying may in the end turn out to be futile.

How to square this circle, if it is a circle at all? It was one of the questions I asked the teacher at that retreat last year. The world may be ever-changing, I said, and my perception of it may not relate in any way to its reality. Yet when I look through the window at this wild landscape, I know that I would want to protect it if it were threatened. I feel a sense of what nature needs and what my duty is. What is the reality of this? Is it an illusion I should try not to cling to &emdash; and if it is, does a Buddhist response demand passivity in the face of destruction because clinging causes pain? Can this be right? How could it be right?

And the teacher, who was from the Chan/Zen tradition, said simply: sit with it. Sit with what is, and what you are, and watch it. If you are concerned about the forest, go to the forest, sit with the forest &emdash; and pay attention. And then you may know what to do.

I have always remembered this response. It reminded me of the deep sanity of the Buddhist worldview &emdash; the connected coolness beyond both emotion and reason which attracted me, I think, to begin with. Sit with the forest. Sitting with the forest is what I have been doing all my life. I have long felt that there is a language we civilised humans have forgotten how to speak. The spiritual writer and thinker Thomas Berry called this the ‘great conversation’, and he was clear about its significance:

‘We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual “autism”’.

Any worldview that makes sense, I think now, must orbit around compassion. This is the other great lesson that Buddhism has taught me. Compassion comes, when it comes, from sitting with things, from slowing down, and paying attention to them and their needs. That applies, I would say, as much to non-human life as it does to our relationships with other people. Sitting with other beings, sitting with other people until you are beyond your mere self and can begin to contemplate theirs &emdash; this seems to me to be the still point of the turning world. It is not the end of the matter &emdash; it may be only the beginning. But it is a beginning.


There is one story about the life of the Buddha that has always fascinated me. Gautama is seated beneath the Bodhi tree, having attained his enlightenment. Mara, the personification of demonic temptation, demands that Gautama produce a witness to confirm his Buddhahood. Gautama simply reaches down and touches the soil he sits on. The Earth is my witness, he says. Mara vanishes.

What does this mean? I’m no scholar, but I can say what it means to me: it means that if you make nature your witness, and if you act as a witness for nature too, there is a truth to be found. It even means, perhaps, that the ultimate truth &emdash; the ultimate witness to who we are &emdash; comes from the Earth itself. When you sit with the Earth, when you make it your witness and when you act as witness for it &emdash; what do you see? What are you compelled to do? These are questions that take us beyond political stances, beyond principles, beyond arguments about engagement or detachment. They are questions, it seems to me, that can never be answered in any way other than the strictly personal. Sitting or acting; engagement or retreat; perhaps there need be no contradiction.

A great change is underway, across the Earth. We cannot prevent it now, and its outcomes are not going to be pretty for much of humanity. The nature of nature has always been change, which means that death &emdash; and rebirth &emdash; will always be with us, and that rebirth may take forms we do not recognise and did not expect. You are part of this process, and so am I, and this time around we are the cause of it too. The future offers chaos, uncertainty, loss. To deny this is to deny reality. To pretend we have more control than we have, and to cling to glib ‘solutions’ as if the world were a maths puzzle we could solve with the right equations is a similar form of denial. There is an abyss opening up before us. It challenges everything we thought we knew about our culture and about nature. We need to look into it and concentrate on what we can see.

‘Sit with it’, the teacher said. It is a common Zen response, and though some may choose to see it as a kind of shoulder-shrugging, to me it looks like the opposite. What it really says is: pay attention. Our culture is hopeless at paying attention. It glorifies action and belittles contemplation. Responses to the ecocide currently unfurling around us are usually couched in aggressive demands for immediate ‘action’ &emdash; any action, it seems, however ineffective, is better than none. But it doesn’t work like that.

My years in green activism showed me that false hope is worse than no hope, and that ineffective action leads only to despair, particularly if frantic movement is a substitute for facing up to the realities of our limited powers. Sooner or later, that dam will burst. Before you can act on anything with effectiveness, you have to understand it &emdash; and that is where the sitting comes in. That is where the attention matters. That is when the stripping back of your self before the indifference of nature will come to serve you.

What happens if you sit with the Earth? If you reach down and touch it, if you call it as your witness? What happens if you let your own needs and demands fall away, and see the world outside you for what it is? I would suggest that, with the right quality of attention, we may come to know what is right for us as individuals, and what we can usefully do. This doesn’t mean that all will be well. All will not be well. It doesn’t mean we will necessarily end up any less confused or conflicted, either. It doesn’t mean we will never again experience the despair of knowing what we have done and what we are still doing and of all the things we are losing and can never bring back.

But it does mean, or it could, that we are able to hold those feelings within us, to understand them and maybe reconcile them. It does mean that we can be done with denial and projection and false hope and false hopelessness. If we sit with the Earth, with the trees and the soil and the wind and the mist, and pay attention, we may know what to do and how to begin doing it, whatever burden we carry with us as we walk.

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