Hurricane Sandy and the Living Planet

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Suddenly we all know Sandy, the superstorm that whacked New York City, left 55 people dead across the East Coast — and about that many in Haiti as well — knocked out power to millions and caused some $20 billion worth of property damage.

What I find fascinating is that the storm has a name.

Sandy failed to bring climate change into the presidential election season — though the warmer waters of the Atlantic and rising sea levels, resulting from human activity, aggravated the storm’s intensity — but “she” claimed quasi-celebrity status as a killer mega-storm, thus manifesting a deeply pre-scientific human need to personalize nature, indeed, to be one with nature, as so many indigenous people still are.

The naming of tropical storms may seem trivial, but I’m thinking maybe it’s anything but. Climate change denial rests on the assumption that nature is inert and the planet on which we have evolved is a dead rock. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what we do to it.

Indigenous wisdom, on the other hand, begins with the assumption — or recognition — that the planet is alive and that our relationship to it is one of living complexity. Last year, for instance, Bolivian legislation establishing legal rights for the natural world, declared: “Mother Earth is a living, dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”

An undivided community of living beings? A living planet? Believing this changes everything. What do the controlling interests of the technologically advanced, politically dominant “First World” believe that’s superior to this?

As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently at TomDispatch, speaking of climate change: “Why have we done almost nothing over the past 25 years about what was then a terrifying threat and is now a present catastrophe? Because it was bad for quarterly returns and fossil-fuel portfolios. When posterity indicts our era, this will be the feeble answer for why we did so little — that the rich and powerful with ties to the carbon-emitting industries have done everything in their power to prevent action on, or even recognition of, the problem.

“In this country in particular,” she added, “they spent a fortune sowing doubt about the science of climate change and punishing politicians who brought the subject up. In this way have we gone through four ‘debates’ and nearly a full election cycle with climate change unmentioned and unmentionable.”

As long as climate change is sheerly a scientific phenomenon and fact-based assertion, it can be debated endlessly, denied with as much ferocity as Hurricane Sandy and relegated to the social and economic margins of contemporary society, as we continue to pollute the biosphere with CO2 emissions and pursue a recklessly unsustainable way of life.

I don’t think doing so is the national, let alone the global, consensus, but so far we have been unable to mobilize society to convert to clean energy.

“It’s simple math,” according to Bill McKibben’s website, “We can burn 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. The only problem? Fossil fuel corporations now have 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. And they’re planning to burn it all — unless we rise up to stop them.”

I think we need more than outrage to stop these corporate interests. I think we need a global reconnection with the living planet, which is to say, a spiritual reawakening — a religious reassertion of the sacredness of nature. The West has reduced nature, much as it has reduced indigenous culture, to the status of a museum curiosity.

For instance, I was at a Chicago park the other day in which a portion had been replanted with indigenous prairie vegetation. This was beautiful, but a sign at the entrance to this section said, “No dogs allowed in nature area.” I understand the need to keep dogs out, but the words struck a discordant note, managing to reinforce the idea that “nature” is something disconnected from ordinary life, like fine china or expensive art. It’s a precious and scarce commodity we can look at only under controlled conditions, rather than that which permeates and sustains us.

Isn’t this the real problem and the root of climate change? We’ve hit an evolutionary paradox. If we keep going along with the same consciousness that allowed us to achieve “dominance” over the natural world, continuing to grow in power and alienation, we will, I believe, gradually lose all that we value. We will (or already have) become toxic to our own environment.

The dilemma we face is spiritual rather than technical. We need to begin developing clean energy, but first we need to respect, understand and love the planet we still call Mother Earth.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.