The Religious Fervor of Extinction Rebellion

XR UK’s Red Rebel Brigade

Since the successful publication of my paper “Climate Trauma: Towards a New Taxonomy of Trauma” in the peer-reviewed journal Ecopsychology, which has been viewed on-line over 15,000 times in more than 100 countries and 360 universities since its publication in the Spring of 2019, I’ve been actively conspiring with Extinction Rebellion UK, and I took part in the first ever on-line Collective Trauma Summit — along with over 50,000 others from over 170 countries. So I was heartened when an open letter from over 1000 practitioner psychologists was issued recently calling attention to the global trauma attending the climate crisis, while at the same time expressing solidarity with XR and Civil Disobedience in general. As the psychologist point out:

We will see acute trauma on a global scale, in response to extreme weather events, forced migration and conflict. This would be in addition to the chronic trauma associated with long-term risks, such as the threat of danger to life. For children growing up in a landscape of ever-increasing danger and parental stress, we risk developmental trauma becoming a ‘normal’ part of childhood experience.

This is climate trauma.

All of this represents the culmination of the “field research” I’ve been doing with scientists, psychologists, activists and journalists since my original 2013 paper “Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth” went viral on Joanna Macy’s website. This seven-year integrated research project began with me walking away from a successful, decades-long legal career defending wildlife and wild places, determined to get to the root cause of our collective dis-ease with the natural world. 

Like Greta Thunberg – only much older – it made no sense to me back as far back as 2008 that we were clearly facing an existential collective threat to life as we know it on planet Earth, but nobody was really acting like it. Obama, who had promised to “turn back the tide” of climate change as a candidate, flat out ignored the frantic calls of Dr. James Hansen and the International Energy Agency once he moved into the White House.

Even in eco-activist circles I traveled in, nobody seemed to grasp how pointless our local battles were becoming in the face of an overwhelming threat. I couldn’t get past the feeling that I was fighting to save trees from chainsaws as the forest was burning to the ground. Holding placards, marching in the streets, locking ourselves to things — this is what we’d always done, and it hadn’t proven to be particularly effective. As David Wallace-Wells much more recently concluded, when it comes to the climate crisis, it seems like we’re all in denial.

Thus, conspiring with some of the intelligentsia of XR UK over the last several months, I hold great hope that 2020 will be the year XR arrives in, changes, and is changed by, America and the Sunrise Movement. But it cannot be in name only that XR comes to America, like another British import. 

As a life-long eco-activist, someone with the strength of conviction to have been arrested for my beliefs on multiple occasions, I am greatly concerned that XR could be co-opted here by the professional environmental movement — most of which has been, in my experience, co-opted by establishment politics. Thus, it is important to recognize and be cognizant of just what makes the phenomenon of XR, as it was birthed in UK last year, so different than American movements like Bill McKibben’s 350.org or even the Sunrise Movement.

But please do not take this as a critique of those organizations, which I whole-heartedly support. America is a diverse culture, and the American environmental movement exists along a spectrum, with those two organizations being outliers on the correct end of the spectrum, in my humble opinion, along with other dedicated grass-roots activist groups like Rainforest Action Network, Buffalo Field Campaign and, closer to my home now, the Orca Network. 

Instead, what I would like to suggest is that a seismic shift occurred in American environmentalism at Standing Rock (Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ) Indian Reservation which, apart from gifting the world AOC, we non-native eco-activists have yet to fully integrate. The climate equivalent of Water Protectors is Earth Protectors. And just as the water is sacred, so is the Earth. And this has nothing to do with cultural appropriation! There should be nothing unique or exclusive about this idea to Indigenous culture.

Come now, let us contemplate this deeply together. The Earth is a living organism. Just as with climate science, this is no longer really a matter of contention. What began as the “Gaia Hypothesis,” scientist James Lovelock’s reaction to seeing the first iconic photo of Earth rising over the Moon’s desolate landscape, is now accepted and referred to as the Gaia Theory. Just as we don’t refer to Einstein’s “Hypothesis” of relativity, so we should no longer refer to the Gaia Hypothesis.

She breathes.

She has a heartbeat:

She even sings!

So it naturally follows, does it not, that if there is anything in this world that we humans should have ‘religious feelings’ for, it should be our natural, vital connection to the world itself. This Living Organism!

Gaia Gaia Gaia!

But the self-aware Environmental Movement in America has always been afraid of being perceived as a religious movement. And I believe this is precisely what sets XR apart from the American Environmental Movement, which — like scientists — is largely not up to the task of transforming the way Americans think and feel about our climate in crisis. And this, too, is why the Ecopsychology Movement is critical of the mainstream psychology profession for not stepping out of their professional roles and being more of an advocacy force in society for sane relationships.

Let’s stick to the religious issue for now. What is religion, after all? The first definition to come up on Dictionary.com describes religion as being characterized as follows:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe…

(substitute “our world” for “the universe” here, since most religions believe our world to be unique in the universe)

…especially involving the concept of superhuman agency…

((Gaia is by definition super- (above) human. As she is a complex organism, we are mere cells in that body of life; and, she has agency, since it is her self-regulation processes that prompted science to recognize her as a living organism in the first place))

which often contains a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Ah — there’s the rub! As we have not yet woke to a generally accepted awareness of Gaia as living entity — unlike Indigenous/First Peoples everywhere around the globe, still honoring their connection to Mother Earth — we lack the requisite moral code that awareness would otherwise give rise to.

And that is the void which Extinction Rebellion has stepped into and filled.

Ex-Religious?

The first demand made by XR is to honor truth. That is the heart of the religious feeling. In the West, there is “logos,” or the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form. My own religion, Buddhism, is premised on the dharma, which translates directly as truth. The way things are.

Of course, as we see in America, truth is under a grave assault by entrenched patriarchal power structures precisely because of its causal relationship with reconciliation. Truth & Reconciliation is part and parcel of restructuring our moral relationship with the world we are part of, and achieving the requisite social justice for climate recovery, and it has always been closely associated itself with religious figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

And the vision of XR is very much in keeping with the idea of a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs:

“A world where we build thriving connections within our society and environment, bringing hope and enabling us to decide the direction of our lives and futures. An inclusive world, where we work consciously to ensure fair processes of collective decision-making, where creativity is prioritized, and where our diversity of gifts are recognized, celebrated and flourish.”

As for “religious fervor,” which if you think about it is the spirit of any successful rebellion, what I find striking about XR is that it was founded, and is fueled, by a core group of very successful professions from various fields of endeavor who have left their careers behind in order to devote their varied talents to the success of a necessary social movement. Scientists, lawyers, teachers, journalists, even doctors — and yes, some environmental professionals as well — coming together at great cost personally to do whatever they can to shake society awake to what is happening in the world right now and what the future holds for us if we do not undertake radical change in our lives, both personally and politically.

I’m still not seeing this component in the newly forming American chapters of XR, though it is still early, we have a fiery political campaign awaiting us after the impeachment trauma passes, and Sunrise Movement is actively planning mass actions for the Spring. With 2019 having been the year of our awakening to the climate crisis here in the U.S., and in the wake of the recent devastation down under, we may well be standing on the cusp of an ‘American Spring’ in 2020.

UK’s XR Vision

There is something even more religious underlying this fervor. XR is itself a rather direct result of religious feeling. Gail Bradbrook, one of XR’s founders, has been open and honest about the role of her experiences with entheogenic substances in prompting the formation of XR. It now widely recognized that “[p]sychedelics can unlock a newfound appreciation of nature, a profound sense of being part of a much larger whole and of a magnificent interconnected web of life — something that has been described again and again in experience reports, research surveys, experimental studies and historical accounts of early psychedelic experiences.”

The word “entheogen” — first coined in 1979 to distinguish a natural class of hallucinogens from the more popular synthetic psychedelic substances like LSD (a product of Sandos Labs not found in nature) — is heavy with religious significance. According to Wikipedia:

The adjective entheos translates to English as “full of the god, inspired, possessed”, and is the root of the English word “enthusiasm.” The Greeks used it as a term of praise for poets and other artists. Genesthai means “to come into being.” Thus, an entheogen is a drug that causes one to become inspired or to experience feelings of inspiration, often in a religious or “spiritual” manner.

It is no coincidence, then, that at a time we are facing an existential crisis threatening all life on the planet, a crisis that is grounded in our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world, suddenly there is a growing and widespread movement towards group experiences of entheogenic substances in sacred ceremony. The city of Oakland decriminalized entheogens after some of its members participated in an Ayahuasca ceremony, and many other smaller cities are following suit — the latest being Santa Cruz.

But even where it is not yet decriminalized, it is not difficult at all to find a safe community for such a life-altering experience. I myself, a life-long meditator and longtime tantric practitioner, had the most profound experience of my life recently after inhaling the vapor from 13 micrograms of 5-Me-O-DMT, the so-called “God molecule.” Yes, as almost anyone who has had such an experience will tell you, Gaia is real, and it is possible to communicate with her directly by ingesting certain of her plants. A traditional shaman would likely tell us that this is the very purpose of those plants — part of Gaia’s divine design. 

A realistic and important depiction of this can be found on Netflix with the Columbian series Frontera Verde (Green Frontier), which symbolically at least deals with the threats faced by Indigenous tribes from Western appropriation and exploitation, while at the same time artistically depicting the shamanic experience of Mother Nature.

Beyond this, nothing more really needs to be said, as words can never properly honor the nature of this experience. Suffice it to say that the love and truth and connectivity that we directly experience when we commune with Gaia through entheogenic channels is utterly beyond words — and utterly undeniable to anyone making the leap. (Ed. note: It helps if you are prepared to die).

One other quasi-religious aspect of XR that needs to be mentioned is the central role that music and dance, beauty and art play in XR’s public displays, as with the Red Rebel brigade, depicted above, or the Pink Boat employed to block intersections in downtown London at the beginning of XR’s campaign, or subsequently floating a house down the river Thames. These images tend to invoke the same kind of awe and wonder that we all feel in the thrall of Gaia’s loving embrace. It is important that these same deep feelings infuse our own actions, because in doing so we strike harmonious chords in the collective psyche that have the effect of waking sentiments in the public sphere that have for too long been repressed, suppressed, and oppressed.

It is just as important that we make room for Gaia’s presence in our planning, our affinity groups, and our actions. To fail to welcome her input should be seen as a matter of planetary appropriation in the same way we now think of cultural appropriation. She is demanding our attention and fealty.

 What is religion, after all, without the indefinite continuation of life on planet Earth? Is this, then, not the ultimate religious concern?

If there was ever any time in the human course of events that justified religious fervor, now is that time. As to any criticism that this is all too “woo-wee” and “new agey,” which is bound to be expressed with the cynicism that permeates American culture, I recommend that anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, pick up a copy of Pope Francis’ luminous encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home. The religious sentiment that this living organism we are part of is worthy of the kind of respect Western Civilization has never really accorded it cuts across all boundaries of religious belief.

A Final Word About Trauma

Because Gaia is by definition superhuman, her trauma is by definition a superordinate form of trauma, meaning that it is over and above, and constantly triggering, all other forms of trauma — cultural, generational (epigenetic), and individual. While it was important to me to first present this theory in a peer-reviewed academic journal, while I am heartened by its widespread acceptance and welcome its widespread appropriation, I have also come to see the importance of referring to this biospheric assault at every opportunity as Gaia’s trauma. 

The reason for this switch in terminology is that I have become convinced that until we come to grips with the reality of this superior organism, we will not be able to come into proper relationship with her — which is to say, with the natural world. Conversely, when we collectively accept that the climate crisis is rooted in this toxic relationship we have had with our mother, our life source, for far too long, then we will be in a position to solicit her aide in resolving her trauma (which, of course, is entwined with our own trauma).

And make no mistake — this is a trauma which wants to be resolved.

So what did Gaia say to me when I entered her realm, ready to feel the weight of her trauma? “I love you. Everything will be okay.”

Gaia loves you. I know it can be hard for us to see humanity as worthy of anything more than disdain from the natural world right now. But as an antidote to the dismay with the current state of human affairs, let’s try placing our faith in her, both individually and collectively. Remember that it is not human nature that is the problem here, but the crippling of human nature that results from greed, avarice, and childhood trauma. Human nature, unshackled and reunited with Mother Earth, with terra-collaborative initiatives like rewilding and regenerative aqua- and agriculture, is an important part of the cure for this crisis.

And viva la revolucion!

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