It seems fitting that the UN global climate change conference COP26 starts on 31 October.
A time to reflect on death. To remember the dead.
For isn’t that why we are here talking about this? Trying to avert our death, our children’s, the extinction of the human race? Scary stuff.
Whether you are attending the formal UN negotiations and assessment or will drop into the educational part of it all, or are a leader in an organisation or any sphere of life, this surely is a time of deliberate reflection for decisive action.
So as you would expect from a coach, I offer some questions and provocations to help with that.
Breath – you will need all the courage you can muster.
Death and decisions
“What I’m hearing is that, if I haven’t come to grips with my own anxiety about death and life, and presented with a reminder of that, I’m highly likely to make some tragic decisions for the community”.
So said Jeff Gibbs, director of the documentary The Planet of the Humans as he echoed back the view of social psychologist Sheldon Solomon. It could have been him echoing the Buddha or Joanna Macy or the tree at the end of your street.
The message, born from nature is consistent. Only by embracing death, can we truly embrace life.
To what extent have you consciously engaged with the ‘most important fact of your life’, your death? How do you allow death (and rebirth) as a natural cycle in your organisation? In what ways do you understand how death affects your decisions?
Death lodge time
Who knows, perhaps the opening ceremony of COP26 will be akin to a death lodge. A conscious practice I have learnt through rites of passage work with the School of Lost Borders. It is used in the earth-based wisdom cultures for those who literally are dying. And can also be a symbolic practice of committing to server from one’s “days and ways” and to “make good”. We step into this when, at some level, we know we are ready to do so.
Dying, as beautifully explored in Elle Harrison’s Wild Courage, is where all transformation starts. How it creates space for change in our individual and organisational lives.
Every day initiates us into living and dying, for we are in constant change. We can therefore symbolically renew our relationship with life and death and endings and beginnings within ourselves at any time. It is these “little deaths” and various “rebirths” we can take to call in the life we really want. As Charles Dubois wrote, ‘the important things is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become’. That sacrifice may be a belief, a habit, a fear, a fixed identity.
We have to regularly ask ourselves, what needs to die within us, in order to grow into what we can be?. I wonder to what extent, the question will be asked at COP26, or has been considered by any of the world leaders and thousands of negotiators, government representatives, citizens and businesses that will be gathering.
Perhaps we will see a death of those egos and logos, those partisan politics, those vested interests which keep us on a path of no-return by focusing on their own return. Or optimistically, we will finally see the death of refusing to protect natural areas. A death to the sense of entitlement we have towards the ‘commons’. And a death to ignoring science, indigenous voices and the whisperings of our own hearts.
Unhappy ghosts and ancestors
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”, so wrote William Faulkner. If we are talking Halloween, we have to talk about the ghosts that need to be put to rest. In your own life, organisation and at COP26, what are they for you? This is the 26th meeting after all – 26 years of talk and emissions are still on the rise as is the loss of biodiversity, habitats, species. And life.
Hopefully the ghosts of inaction will haunt every person on the planet, especially the ‘powers that be’. As Greta Thunberg the youth activist said to the Guardian (25 Sept), “the leaders will say we’ll do this and we’ll do this, and we will put our forces together and achieve this, and then they will do nothing. Maybe some symbolic things and creative accounting and things that don’t really have a big impact. We can have as many COPS as we want, but nothing real will come out of it.”
Past, present and future ancestors are always with us. Invite them into your consciousness. Talk to them about how it is at the moment. Seek their understanding and insight. Thank them for their contribution. Tell them you will break the ancestral pattern that does not serve yourself and the world.
And speaking of ghosts, if you see yourself as an interbeing, what does it mean to be using the fossils of our plant and animal ancestors?.
All of us are part of this system. It is the carbon lock-in after all. I own a car and I use it. Even if I use public transport, I am consuming fossil fuels. Plastic stuff is all around my house. I have even enjoyed working with leaders as a consultant to an Italian oil company and related industries.
And there are those who have and are playing a greater part in locking us in to the status quo. “You are evil”, climate activist Lauren MacDonald defiantly said as she looked directly into the eyes of Shell CEO Ben van Beurden at the recent TED Countdown Summit.
In Greek mythology the first patriarchal father figure Uranus was resentful of his wife’s, the Earth’s, Gaia’s generativity. And so hid their newborn children in her body and would not let them see the light of day. In this myth, Uranus’s violence against his children made it the initial evil. To what extent are we playing out this archetypal story?
Death of the myths
Will it be the death of the myths that have kept the fossil fuel industry alive and thriving while the world is dying?. In a fascinating paper Berns et al (2019) focused on the 3 European supermajors BP, Shell and Total (but it feels fitting for the industry as a whole) and explored how three myths have been constructed: techno-fix, Promethean oil man, and climate partnerships. Briefly:
- Techno-fix: an anthropogenic notion of “managing” the natural environment. And where the merits of engineering expertise are reinforced.
- Promethean oil man: they consider themselves noble upholders of modern civilization and poverty eradicators. A central theme in the construction of this myth is the risks they undertake to access “energy”, confront and “control” nature.
- Climate partnerships: by underscoring the role of external organisations as necessary to addressing climate change, the climate partnerships myth employs a projective defense mechanism. Here, responsibility to address climate change is relocated from the source of the problem—i.e., fossil fuels extracted from the ground—to external sources.
As the authors conclude, “what is considered “good” for society, what is considered harmful, and what group in society should benefit, is exclusively defined by their own teleological views. It almost solely benefits the utility of the supermajors. Not those of marginalized groups in society because, after all, less-advantaged members of society will likely be most burdened by climate change” (Ferns et.al 2019:214)
Which brings us to what myths are you upholding, as a leader of your organisation? What myths are you reinforcing to limit your climate change responsibilities as a corporate? What new life-affirming story can you co-create that brings every being along with it?
At some level, corporations can be born and die with ‘a stroke of a pen’. At another level there are real people, families and communities that rely on these collective institutions. And society can say when enough is enough.
One of the hashtags of the aforementioned TED Countdown talk and part of the bigger debate about the proposal for a new oil field to the west of Scotland, is #ShellMustFall. And in that aforementioned TED Countdown talk Shell CEO Ben van Beurden consistent with other industry leaders, emphasised the importance of legacy, of staying in business.
If you accept the natural cycles of life and death, why should these companies keep going? Yes there is a contribution to progress but the balance has tipped. Yes, they have a transferable skill set, are rich in resources and could transform into renewables. But even then, the DNA roots of an extractive nature, growth at all costs mentality pervades and inevitably creates the same imbalance. The dominant mindset is that nature is there for our disposal rather than seeing it as our partner, our co-creator. Ben van Beurden even referred to “nature as being in one’s “arsenal of solutions”. Without literally an energetic shift towards non-separation, any efforts made are likely to create the same dynamic.
Whatever industry you are in – what needs to die within it to be a ‘net positive’ contributor to the world?
Death brings re-birth
The courage to let things die to allow re-birth and transformation is at the heart of nature’s story and our own human story. May COP26 allow for that.
Internally, it is nothing less than a transformation
in the experience of being alive.
Externally, it is nothing less
than a transformation of
humanity’s role on planet Earth.
Notes and sources etc
- The Conference of the Parties (COP) is an annual event that brings governments together to discuss and review how climate change is being managed domestically and internationally.
- #earthconversepodcast – lots of conversations on death. Including an episode on The Planet of the Humans documentary. https://earthconverse.com/earthconversepodcast/
- From the #earthconverseleadershipblog, The Practice of Living and Dying Consciously https://earthconverse.com/the-practice-of-living-and-dying-consciously/
- From the #earthconverseleadershipblog, my questions to Bernard Looney, CEO of BP and the industry – a posting called: Outrage + Optimism and other questions. https://earthconverse.com/outrage-optimism-and-other-questions/
- Harrison, E. (2011) Wild Courage: A Journey of Transformation for You and Your Business, Watkins Publishing, UK https://www.amazon.com/Wild-Courage-Journey-Transformation-Business/dp/1907486917
- TED Staff October 14, 2021 at 7:05 pm EDT Countdown Summit Decarbonizing fossil fuels https://blog.ted.com/decarbonizing-fossil-fuels-an-unedited-discussion-from-ted-countdown-summit/
- Eisenstein, C (2013) The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, North Atlantic Books, https://charleseisenstein.org/books/the-more-beautiful-world-our-hearts-know-is-possible/
- Bolen, J.S. (1989) Gods in Everyman, Harper (US)
- Ferns, G. Amaeshi, K and Lamber, A (2019), Drilling their Own Graves: How the European Oil and Gas Supermajors Avoid Sustainability Tensions Through Mythmaking, Journal of Business Ethics, 158:2011-231 https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s10551-017-3733-x.pdf
- Thanks to photo by Sabina Music Rich on Unsplash