Seeing the Earth as Sentient as the Way to Solve Our Current Environmental Crisis

Urgent Action is Needed to Avert or Perhaps Cope with Environmental Collapse

That the Earth’s climate is changing rapidly due to human action is no longer in dispute (Center for International Environmental Law, 2013; Gills & Morgan, 2019; McKibben, 2019). We need immediate and intense collaboration among nations and cultures to cope with our current interrelated problems of climate change and justice for human communities (Center for International Environmental Law, 2013; Eriksen, 2016). How can we foment this level of cooperation? Here in the U.S. we are unable to cooperate on something as simple as wearing a mask in public. Although the number of people who view the climate crisis as an urgent issue has increased, still 16% of U.S. citizens do not view climate change as a threat at all (Fagan & Huang, 2019).

Strategies to Garner Consensus Have Not Worked

If agreement on what to do about climate change – if anything – is so difficult to garner within one society, let alone worldwide, what strategies exist for building consensus?

Consensus can often be reached through a slow, steady process. It took about two decades for scientists and governments to agree that climate change was truly happening and then about another decade to start discussing what to do about the situation (Linden, 2019). Unfortunately, we no longer have decades to spend educating, discussing, debating, and deciding (Gills & Morgan, 2019; McKibben, 2019).

Some blame the climate crisis on globalization and capitalism and suggest that we investigate how local communities are coping and adapting – or not – to yield a bank of action steps people could take to resist these twin corruptions (Eriksen, 2016). The problem is that viewpoints in a local space are unlikely to be homogenous because perspectives and concerns often derive from an individual’s position in the community, e.g. white or Black, wealthy or poor, male or female, indigenous or Western (Falcón, 2016; Haraway, 1988; Harding, 1993).

Faith In Technology Has Not Worked

Gills and Morgan call for nothing short of “…transformation of civilization…” (2019, p. 3) and urge faith in technology. But praying for solar panels and biodegradable plastic will not foment a transformation on the scale needed. As Steier notes in an interview with Khazaleh (2013), facts are irrelevant if people do not consider the data to be factual: All the factual and technical knowledge gathered over the last few decades has not spurred humanity to take the drastic measures needed.

Anthropocentrism Prevents Action on Climate Change

The problem as I see it is anthropocentrism (Willis et al., 2020). Humans are assumed to wield enormous power over the planet; are described as making the Earth sick; and are afforded the lofty status of chief influencer of planetary events (Gills & Morgan, 2019; McKibben, 2019; Mooney et al., 2020). Our ego-inflated idea that we have the right to utilize every last drop of Earth’s resources in the name of profit and comfort got us into this jam. We still think that our actions could get us out of it.

As established above, climate change is occurring and is caused by human activity, but does the Earth have no agency? Why do humans think the status of this planet’s health will be determined by us, as if the Earth has no capacity to make decisions? If the Earth is a system, feedback loops will indicate imbalance and the system will adjust to re-establish homeostasis. Ecopsi2, author of the EcoPsychology Now! blog, challenges us to become correctly humble as minor elements in a vast system that is as wide and complex as the whole universe (2020).

Consciousness does not leap out of the matter of our brains; rather, matter and energy arise from consciousness. If this is the case, then the Earth is potentially sentient. This hypothesis provides an immediate and liberating paradigm shift that could spark the immediate changes we need to the structures of our civilizations. Assuming the Earth is sentient, then when we hurt the Earth, the Earth feels pain. That alone should impact us emotionally enough to pause our actions and reflect on the harm we are causing.

If like facts, emotions can’t budge us, then the planet system will do whatever it needs to do to heal and whatever will befall humanity will transpire regardless of our agency.

Our runaway “global society system” of unlimited growth that demands constant plunging of finite resources has already sent feedback signals that the system is encountering limits. We may eschew heeding those limits, but the Earth will not.

This does not recuse us of our responsibility to be good stewards. But the Earth will cover our toxic cities with trees and moss faster than the United Nations can get 195 diverse countries to sign nonbinding voluntary treaties to cut greenhouse gases.

This realization – that our survival here on this third rock in a small solar system is not entirely up to us – is that very profound spiritual and affective shift that could shock us into changing. Or not. As Kingsnorth says so eloquently, “The planet is not dying; but our civilisation [sic] may be,” (2010). At risk of succumbing to another anthropomorphization but lacking another way of phrasing it, the Earth system will take care of itself, with or without us.

Special References:

Link to the EcoPsychology Blog Post I referenced above:

Link to the Kingsnorth article I referenced above:

Other references:

Center for International Environmental Law (2013). Annual Report.

Eriksen, T. H. (2016). The three crises of globalisation: An anthropological history of the early 21st century. European Commission: Brussels, Belgium.

Fagan, M. & Huang, C. (2019). A look at how people around the world view climate change. Policy Commons – Pew Research Center.

Falcón, S. M. (2016). Transnational feminism as a paradigm for decolonizing the practice of research: Identifying feminist principles and methodology
criteria for US-based scholars. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 37(1), 174-194.

Gills, B. & Morgan, J. (2019). Global climate emergency: After COP24, climate science, urgency, and the threat to humanity. Globalizations, 17(6), 885-902.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.

Harding, S. (1992). Rethinking standpoint epistemology: What is” strong objectivity?”. The Centennial Review, 36(3), 437-470.

Khazaleh, L. (2015, February 13). New perspectives instead of more facts: An interview with Fred Steier. University of Oslo Faculty of Social Sciences.

Linden, E. (2019, November 8). How scientists got climate change so wrong. New York Times.       

McKibben, B. (2019, April 23). To stop global catastrophe, we must believe in humans again. The Guardian.

Mooney, C., Dennis, B., & Muyskens, J. (2020, May 19). Global emissions have plunged an unprecedented 17% during coronavirus pandemic. The Washington Post.

Willis, D.B.; Four Arrows; Rogers, K.S.; & Fowler, H. (2020). Sustainability leadership and the problem of anthropocentrism. Unpublished manuscript.