Charles Eisenstein: “If we want to heal the planet, we radically need to change the story.”

How can we mitigate the consequences of the ecological damage we’ve inflicted and start effectively healing the planet? According to philosopher and writer Charles Eisenstein, the answer to this question is straightforward: we need a new story. A story in which we’re no longer separated from each other and the natural world around us, but in which we inter-are with planet Earth and all its inhabitants.

From climate change and landscape degradation to biodiversity loss and the plastic soup: in order to create solutions for the issues at hand, even the brightest minds of the world turn to technology, policy making and innovative business models. And whilst all these things can definitely contribute to a more sustainable and just world, according to Charles Eisenstein we’re forgetting to address the root cause of these issues. “We’ve come to believe that we’re separated beings. That – instead of being part of nature – we stand above it. That – instead of being able to enrich each other’s life – we’re competing individuals in a world where less for you means more for me. All the ecological and humanitarian crises of today’s time, rest upon this story of separation.”

Endless competition 

Eisenstein elaborates: “Over hundreds of years, the story of separation has thought us that we’re separated individuals amongst other competing individuals in a world that’s separate from us. Therefore, our wellbeing depends on overcoming the competitors. In addition, we feel like we need to dominate and overcome the natural world. Because in this story, the Earth is a bunch of natural forces that doesn’t care about us. Human progress equals conquering nature and harnessing its forces under our command to bring order to the chaos. Because of this, we’ve come to see the world as ‘here for us’. A thing, not a being in its own right worthy of reference, respect and love.”

Time for a new narrative

As the world is falling apart, more people begin to realise that the old narrative isn’t working anymore. “The technological utopia and social engineering to eliminate all suffering didn’t bring the promised results. In fact, things only seem to be getting worse”, Eisenstein explains. “As we destroy the beauty of nature and the livingness of the world around us, something seems to die inside ourselves too. We feel hopeless, become depressed and are lonely, even in a crowd.”

The story of inter-being

According to Eisenstein, this collective crisis of the mind and soul is pushing us towards a different story: the story of inter-being. In this story, the world doesn’t exist of separated individuals, but of interconnected beings. A world in which there is an intimate connection between the inner and the outer. Eisenstein: “You are a reflection of all your relationships. Each and every one of us is a mirror of the entire world. Whatever happens to the world, is happening to you. If the Amazon dies, something in you dies as well. If there’s poverty in the world, you’re poor. And if there’s violence in the world, somehow the world becomes violent to you and you no longer feel at home there.”

Confusion

As the old story breaks down and the new narrative starts to gain shape, feelings of confusion are inevitable. Eisenstein explains: “Things that we’ve accepted as permanent and as ‘just the way things are’ suddenly become questionable. As a society, we’re facing an identity crisis. But this not knowing is a good thing. It opens up the space to ask ourselves: ‘Why are we here?’ And I think the answer to that question is obvious. We are here to participate in the healing of the planet and the healing of society.”

New ways of problem-solving

So how do we do this? First and foremost, it’s essential that in our quest for solutions we don’t fall back into polarising thought structures trying to blame the guilty ones. Eisenstein: “More and more societies are dividing in two warring camps. Each side thinks the other is ignorant, stupid, immoral and inexcusable. And that if we could only defeat the bad side, everything would be better. This pattern of problem solving is part of the old story. I call it ‘Find the bad guy’. Because the problem with this line of thinking is that you assume some people are bad. And that is inherently untrue.”

According to Eisenstein, the problems aren’t caused by bad people: they are caused by bad systems. These systems create roles that make people feel disconnected, meaningless and hopeless. And in turn, that creates the behaviour that makes people look bad. In other words: we blame the person and ignore the social context that they are in.

Compassion

The antidote to this problem is compassion. Eisenstein: “As soon as you understand that you’re not a separate individual, but that we all are the totality of our relationships, you’re able to say to yourself: ‘Instead of blaming you, I should ask about your social context. Where are you in life? What is it like to be you? And what is my participation in your condition?’ Then, instead of having to fight and defeat you in order to get my way, I have another alternative, which is to change the conditions that create the role you’re occupying.”

This new approach to problem-solving is especially useful when you’re fighting someone or something that’s more powerful than you. “What if the police state, military industrial complex, media and big money are all in the bad guy camp? Are you going to win? Probably not”, Eisenstein says. “But if you understand: actually, this person is doing the same as I would in their circumstances, and you think about how you can change those circumstances, then there is hope.”

A need for unity

Eisenstein is convinced that on some level, everyone wants the same thing: to be of service to life. “We all want to serve something greater than ourselves. To contribute to a more beautiful world. But the only way we can encourage people to reconnect with that deeper desire, is by reaching out to them. If you’re self-righteous, people react defensively. If you’re casting them in the role of the enemy, the result is endless war. As long as human beings spend 99 percent of their collective energy on conflict, we’re not going to have the unity that’s required to change course.” 

The only way we can create a just and sustainable future for all the inhabitants of planet Earth, is by creating a common vision. Eisenstein: “To change the direction of civilisation, we need everybody to pull at the oars. We need coherence and a common story that aligns us for the big job ahead. I believe the story of inter-being could do just that. So let’s write it, together.”


Exercise:

As Eisenstein firmly believes compassion is the only way to effectively heal both the planet and society, it’s time to give it a go:

  1. Think of a societal issue that you have a very clear opinion about. So come up with something you’re extremely in favour of or extremely against. Write this down. 
  2. Now try to imagine the position of ‘the other side’. Why would people feel differently about the issue? What could their circumstances be? Ask yourself what it would be like to be ‘them’. What type of childhood and education might they have had? What books would they read? What political preferences might they have? And what types of values would they live by? Write all these things down as well. 
  3. Engage in a dialogue with someone else about these two stands. Together, try to figure out ‘a third way’. Is there a different way of looking at the issue that’s less polarized and more compassionate towards both points of view? Are there things that could possibly unite the different parties? Something that they might have in common? Capture your findings on a short video message and share it with us via info@purposeminds.org

ABOUT CHARLES EISENSTEIN

Charles Eisenstein (1967) is a philosopher, public speaker, gift economy advocate and the author of several books including The Ascent of Humanity (2007), Sacred Economics (2011), The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible (2013) and Climate – A New Story (2018). Because Eisenstein firmly believes that giving makes us happy, all his books are available for free online.