Turning from Peril to Possibility: Ecological Superhero Christiana Figueres on the Spirituality of Regeneration
By Maria Popova
Few things have maimed the spirit of Western civilization more than the myth of our expulsion from the Garden of Eden — a deeply damaging story about human nature, damning us and our relationship to nature. Unthinkingly, we have perpetuated this story in our present narrative about our ecological predicament: The realities of climate change are measurable and menacing, but each time our mainstream narrative elevates peril over possibility, we are doing our own damning. To invert the narrative is more than a countercultural act of courage and resistance — it is nothing less than a benediction.
That is what ecological superhero Christiana Figueres — a Rachel Carson for our own time, who made the landmark Paris Agreement possible — offers in her wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett.
Without diminishing the complexities of climate change and energy transition to which she has devoted her life, she considers the bigger picture. An epoch after Rachel Carson admonished in her parting advice to posterity — to us — that the then-dawning ecological crisis is challenging us to prove our mastery not of nature but of ourselves, Figueres reflects:
If you look at it from a little bit farther back, my sense is that climate change is the gym in which we as human beings are strengthening our muscle to be able to evolve to a much higher sense of awareness, consciousness, action, than we were before. And that the way that we understand that is measured in the way that we understand our relationship with nature.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Denise Levertov’s haunting poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” she considers what it would take to evolve this higher consciousness:
Once we get to the point where we really understand that it’s not like we are extracting from nature, which is what we used to do, or even living with nature, which is what most of us are trying to do now… we get to the point where we are living as nature… which we always were.
We divorced nature from ourselves. [Now] we’re coming full circle as we evolve. So it’s not a circle — it’s a spiral, because we’re coming around to be, again, part of nature as we always were, but from a much higher understanding — which was not lost, by the way, by most of the indigenous cultures of the world.
With an eye to all the research on how mindsets shape outcomes, she adds:
Our mindset… predetermines what our actions are going to be or what they’re not going to be… Whatever we think and say becomes the reality that we create out there. And how wonderful. How wonderful that we can understand that those two are actually in constant interaction with each other. What we think, what we feel, what we say, is in constant interaction with what we are co-creating out there.
This is a choice. It’s a choice of attitude. It’s a choice of mindset. It’s a choice of thought. It’s a choice of words and narratives and actions. It’s a choice. It’s a daily choice.
In a lovely affirmation of bell hooks’s insistence that “all awakening to love is spiritual awakening,” Figueres considers what it takes to choose a mindset that broadens the landscape of possibility and approaches climate action from a place of love rather than fear:
It really is about the quality of presence… Any experience, any interaction, anything can be mundane. And anything can be spiritual. The very same interaction, the very same experience can be either mundane or spiritual. The only difference between the two is how I live it. What quality of presence do I bring to it? And that is true about our experiences. It is also very true about our mindset, about our narrative and our action. [We must] understand that mindsets lead to narratives, lead to action, and above all, that every single action of ours carries our signature.
Mediating between the mundane and the spiritual is the recognition that presence is a form of love, perhaps the supreme form of love — something the great Zen teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who influenced Figueres’s ecological philosophy, captured in his timeless alchemy of turning fear into love: “The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence,” he wrote. The moment we surrender the damaging myth of our separation from the rest of nature, we come to see how impossible it is to love ourselves — which includes loving each other — without loving the rest of this improbable, fragile, tenacious world.
In her book The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis (public library), Figueres goes on to outline the three mindsets fundamental to giving “clearer, stronger direction to our lives and to our world” — a world we are continually co-creating with our actions — among which is the regenerative mindset:
A regenerative mindset is most effective if pursued intentionally and consistently. It is both a tough mental discipline and a gentleness of spirit that needs to be cultivated. It is about understanding that beyond getting what we want and need from our fellow human beings, we have the responsibility to replenish ourselves and to help others to restore themselves to levels of greater energy and insight. It is about understanding that beyond extracting and harvesting what we need from nature, it is our responsibility and in our enlightened self-interest to protect life on this planet, indeed even enhance the planet’s life-giving capacity. Personal and environmental goals are interlinked, mutually reinforcing, and they both need our attention… We can choose regeneration as the overarching design principle of our lives and our activities. We can restore the resilience of the land and our communities while healing our souls.
Complement with the story of the forgotten godmother of climate science and philosopher of science Melanie Challenger’s moving course-correction for our self-expatriation from nature, then revisit Rachel Carson on our spiritual bond with nature and wonder as an antidote to self-destruction.
Published November 12, 2023