For centuries—or perhaps even a few millennia*—humans have been on a path to separate ourselves from nature, to disregard Gaia’s limits, and delude ourselves with the complementary myths that having more stuff makes us happier and that we can keep growing forever. (*Lynn White, in his famous 1967 Science article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” argued that this separation from and domination over nature has its roots in the mythology of the Judeo-Christian traditions.)

To survive we must return to the fold of Gaia. Returning to the fold means “to begin participating in some group or activity that one left for a period of time.” In other words, we have stopped participating fully in the Gaian community, following Earth’s laws, and have been making up our own rules—arguably since the founding of agriculture or even the mass hunting of megafauna—but particularly in the past 300 years of industrialism and consumerism (the two sides of the same coin). No other species accumulates so much or channels so much of Earth’s resources and energy to produce goods that are so unnecessary (so unnecessary in fact that they need to be advertised to the tune of $620 billion a year to convince people to trade their freedom and time to buy more of or the latest versions of these things).

This departure from following Gaia’s way, while remarkable when White wrote his article fifty years ago, has accelerated so dramatically—with the world’s population having more than doubled and Gross World Product having grown eight-fold since then—that we’re nearing the precipice of global ecological collapse.

Indeed, we’re like the proverbial bacterial colony that would double every day filling a pond in 28 days. On day 27, the colony had filled just half the pond. Just like on the 27th day, for us, there still appears to be time to make a course correction, but in reality, we’re just hours away from our final doubling where we smash against the limits of our environment and our global population crashes. We have little time to bring people back into the fold and pull them away from the flickering promises of the consumer way of life.

Does This Way of Life Bring Me Joy?

A few weeks ago, curiosity got the better of me and I finally watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. My wife joined me, and I even showed a bit to my seven year old son, Ayhan. (After he had been subjected to folding and rolling all his clothes in his drawers, it made sense to show him what sparked this cleaning rampage.)

Screenshot from Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (Netflix)

Screenshot from Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (Netflix)

I showed him a clip of two children whose family had moved from a large home to a 2-bedroom apartment in LA and were now swimming in a mess of unorganized (and because of the amount,  unorganizable) stuff. Every time the teens tried to find a specific piece of clothing, they threw all their other clothes everywhere.

The mess was literally driving the mother to tears and the father to avoid entire rooms in the house. I then described to my son Marie Kondo’s mantra of taking something and asking ‘does this item spark joy’ and after I did, he went through all his toys and he got rid of about 75 percent of them. (Granted—one category, the Legos, being in a separate container, were never considered.) The purge was limited to all the random toys that people gave him (a little ball from the dentist, a remote controlled car received in a White Elephant gift trade, things that he played with only a few times and I wished they never entered our house in the first place, but I held my tongue to not offend the givers). Ayhan kept those toys that were personally significant to him, a bus from a friend, a puzzle box from our former librarian, and so on (falling as much in ‘sentimental items’ in Kondo’s categories as toys).

But I was amazed (and humbled actually) that he could, without hesitation, purge a large percentage of his stuff—more easily than I have. In fact, there were toys that I automatically said, ‘Really, are you sure you want to get rid of that?’ (foolishly undermining both his own autonomy and drive to simplify, so after the second time I did this, I stayed quiet).

How do I, who deeply understands that our consumer way of life is at the root of our unsustainability crisis, throw away this mindset of accumulating stuff, which at least in their acquisition and initial ownership brings novelty, and yes, even sparks a bit of joy? And at the same time, how much of this way of being can I ‘tidy up’ without becoming alienated from my extended family, my neighbors, and the broader society, who are happily embedded in the consumer reality?

Leaving One Fold for Another

Image by Russel Wills

Image by Russel Wills

Surprisingly—at least to me—the idiom ‘returning to the fold’ stems from Biblical times and refers to the stone enclosure that sheep would return to at night that would protect them from thieves and predators. We have to recognize that only by returning to the fold of Gaia—to the safe enclosure of obeying Gaia’s laws—will be safe. (Though not completely safe—death, and our return to Gaia, awaits us all in the end—but still far better off than outside the fold.)

But it is hard to return to Gaia’s fold, as to do so, we will probably be forced to leave the fold of our families and existing communities.

There is some powerful research by Dan Kahan at Yale Law School in which he finds that it is very difficult for conservative individuals to believe in climate change because the risks of climate change are relatively diffuse and far off, while the risks of acknowledging climate change—e.g. derision or ostracism from their community—are profound and immediate.

I can see the same thing happening as people attempt to extricate themselves from the consumer culture; it is incredibly difficult to tell one’s family they can’t fly to visit them any longer, that they don’t want to exchange store-bought gifts anymore, or the myriad other changes needed but directly at odds with the dominant consumer culture. As we make those shifts, our existing communities will be less able to understand us, and be confused by the rules we choose to live by, and even respond to that confusion with anger or avoidance.

All of which reinforces the need to build a Gaian fellowship that supports those who make this transition—a support structure (or fold if you will) that will provide a place to rest and live within our Gaian values. A fold which will allow for and support the return to the larger Fold of Gaia.

Creating these groupings has been done before, with ecovillages for example. However, these physical enclosures can be expensive and limiting, as many are in rural, hard-to-reach locales that take individuals completely out of the mainstream (and minimize their ability to spread this way of being—generally limiting their influence to those that seek them out). Early Christians did the opposite. They became shepherds in search of flocks, gathered them, supported them, and traveled to the next city to build another community. Ultimately, Gaians will need to do the same if we are to succeed in helping our brothers and sisters to return to Gaia’s fold. We’ll need to go firmly with our values in hand to different cities and call out with our shepherd’s voice and see if we can draw new flocks to ourselves and help protect them in the folds they help build. We’ll need to visit people’s homes with the same joy of cleaning up that Marie Kondo displays—and help support the broader conversion not just to tidier homes but to a Gaian way of life.