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Understanding the Expanded Self

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on What Individuals Can Do

By Mat McDermott | September 23, 2011

CREDIT: Dana Robinson (CC).

To paraphrase an oft-quoted maxim, we're not going to solve our current problems with the same ways of thinking that created them. This applies to climate change as much as to all the other environmental pressures humanity faces now. They are just symptoms of one greater problem—of humanity living out of balance with Earth and its ecosystems.

Changing our technologies is necessary, and should be done as quickly as possible, but without also changing our metaphysical perspective of the planet and our relation to it, technological change will bring only superficial results.

A chance at a more lasting solution resides in moving beyond the reductionist, utilitarian views that dominate both the mainstream environmental movement and modern capitalist society, and towards a holistic way of thinking rooted in science but also firmly rooted in spirit and expansive emotion.

Central to this will be an expansion of our sense of self to include something much broader, beyond even our immediate and extended families. What can rightly be called our extended self includes our neighbors, our cities, our nations, and all the animals and plants with which we share the planet. The air, water, rocks, and soil can also be included. It is the relationships between these elements, not the parts themselves, that allow it all to exist. We must begin identifying with that whole.

The practical outcome of this way of being is that for any action, the effect on the group is of similar concern as the effect on the individual. Harm to one part is harm to the whole, to varying degrees.

New technologies will bring only superficial results if we don't also change our metaphysical relation with the planet.

From this perspective how could it be possible to continue burning fossil fuels, using polluting industrial processes, and destroying forests? (Accounting for the majority of all human sources of greenhouse gas emissions) How could it be possible to continue raising animals in cramped, cruel, confined spaces for food? (Accounting for pretty much the rest of emissions)

Only when these actions are judged by utilitarian benefits brought about in the short-term for humans, and even then a small portion of humans, are such destructive actions possible.

Compared to some of the other climate solutions presented by other authors here, I admit this is a slow one. Though even if we were to just address the technological concerns, the dismantling of a massively polluting industrial system wouldn't happen overnight. A transition in both technology and mind is required.

During this time of transition, even when we are committed to minimizing harm to the expansive self, it won't be possible to fully achieve it all the time. But by expanding our sense of self as broadly as possible we ensure that our actions are rooted in compassion and reverence, and hopefully thereby minimize harm.

Expanding our sense of self helps us act with love—love of self, both narrow and expanded, love of nature that includes all life, human and non-human alike. It allows us to act with ease, in a sense of wonder, gazing wide-eyed at the amazing dance of our global relationships.


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