After•Word Charles Eisenstein’s Climate: A New Story (North Atlantic Books, 2018) and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (HarperCollins 2017)

Given the relentless display of bad behaviour on the part of our species in the past couple of centuries, the following passage from Charles Eisenstein’s bracing new book Climate: A New Story brought me up short:

“If we affirm that Gaia is a living being with a life cycle and a destiny, then we can only assume that humanity was born for an evolutionary purpose. Each species, each child of Gaia, has a role to play, and we are no exception…humanity was entrusted with gifts and bound by love to serve the evolution of planet Earth.”

The words ran up against a terrible hardness in me, akin to what I felt in Baja Mexico a year and a half ago when the blue whales came and our guide and the other women seemed to think they were coming for us and all I could think was why the fuck would they want to come to us? After what we’ve done to them? Done to the oceans.

Eisenstein has an uncanny knack for tapping into those hard places—the places where we’ve hardened our hearts, dared anything to soften them. “We are … entrusted with gifts and bound by love to serve the evolution of planet Earth.” WTF?!!!! But I could not deny that somewhere in my center the words felt right. Like the whales on that Baja trip—after ten days with them I had come to believe that yes, they had come for us, and yes, they did love us, in spite of everything—they awakened some deep knowing that had all but been rubbed out…Why after all would we be here for no reason??

Climate change, as Eisenstein sees it, and he’s certainly not the first to say this (Joanna Macy comes to mind) is not just the terrifying threat it is made out to be by our media, when it’s not being denied. It is an “initiatory ordeal” calling us to restoration of “our felt understanding of the living intelligences and interconnectedness of all things”—in other words to restoration of our evolutionary purpose as humans. It is the wake-up call we desperately need.

But also, Eisenstein argues, climate change is not the real problem. If we could somehow miraculously put a stop to it overnight we would still be in deep trouble—for the real threat is “not fossil fuel emissions but the loss of forests, soil, wetlands, and marine ecosystems.” And not only does “the fight against climate change” (as it’s so often framed) distract us from those losses, but what we do in the name of that battle, i.e. in the name of carbon reduction, is itself often devastating to local ecosystems. (I can personally attest to this, having been arrested for trying, unsuccessfully, to block construction of a megadam on the North Shore of Quebec, a dam that 1) harnessed one of the province’s last great free-flowing rivers 2) blocked a major caribou migration route 3) destroyed Innu hunting grounds and 4) released/is releasing tons of methane.) And yet it’s precisely in the regeneration of those local ecosystems that the real hope lies.

One of the hallmarks of Eisenstein as a thinker is his refusal of reductionist thinking, his insistence on tracing conditions back to their roots, which are always systemic. If climate change is a symptom of degraded ecosystems, that degradation is a symptom of our disconnection as humans from the world around us. That disconnection, in turn, is a symptom of the Story of Separation which has guided Western civilization—and its colonialist, imperialist mandate—from the start. And so the deep solution to the climate crisis is to replace the Story of Separation with the Story of Interbeing (a term borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh). What this means in specific terms is: to begin to see the earth as sacred, and alive.

Shrunk to a formula in this way the argument sounds pat. It sounds Pollyanna-ish. In fact the book is anything but. Eisenstein does not shy away from the bad news. “A great dying is indeed underway on this planet, and human activity is responsible for it. Most people and institutions have their heads in the sand and do not see it or allow themselves to feel it.” The reframing he is proposing is possibly the best chance we have to ward off the worst of what is coming at us. Climate change is for many human beings abstract and, in some parts of the earth, debatable. And a “low-carbon vision” of a “low-carbon future” (from a recent local climate change march) is not exactly an inspiring rallying cry. Instead, Eisenstein proposes, why not point to what we can see and feel? To what our bodies know: the losses in our physical world. Monarch butterflies. Coral reefs. Mangroves. Rainforests. Insects. We are all of us directly affected by these losses, whether we’re aware of it or not. “When a species goes extinct something dies in us too; we cannot escape the impoverishment of the world we live in.”

But if we need to feel the losses it is not just to mourn them—though the mourning is necessary. Because the very good news is—there is tremendous regenerative power in those forests we’ve been destroying, the soil we’ve been eroding, in the marine ecosystems we have allowed to degrade. And restoring those ecosystems would do more to stabilize the climate than all the carbon reduction scenarios currently on the table—this was an eye-opening claim for me, and Eisenstein, math scholar and policy wonk that he is, does a fabulous job of marshalling and presenting evidence to support it. But restoring those ecosystems means restoring our connection to them, and that entails nothing less than “reversing a relationship to land and sea that has been part of civilization for thousands of years.”

Eisenstein’s critique of metrics-based thinking in the “fight against climate change” is particularly useful. It isn’t only that “we can’t heal the biosphere with policies derived from quantitative models.” It’s that that thinking and those policies ignore some of the very modes of healing that serve to bring humans into alignment with earth, such as prayer, art, ceremony and listening to the ancestors of the land—all of them ancient, indigenous ways of knowing, and healing. When all is said and done, the “new story” Eisenstein is proposing here is really not very new at all.

If much of this is sounding familiar to those of you who have read through the Village Medicine section of this issue, that’s because, well, I think Village Medicine is exactly what Eisenstein is talking about here. And, as with Village Medicine, in writing about ecosystems that need restoring Eisenstein is referring also to our human networks, our villages. “A world in which the last white rhinos are aging in zoos is also, necessarily, a world of incarceration, war, racism, poverty, and ecocide… All are part of the same unholy matrix.” Ecological healing cannot happen without personal and social healing, Eisenstein is emphatic about this. And vice versa.

One thing I missed in this book was some acknowledgement of the thinkers on whose shoulders Eisenstein is standing here, beginning with Joanna Macy (most especially her Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy) and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, whose Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change I wrote about in Issue #4 . Paul Kingsnorth, who’s written powerfully about the folly of our obsession with carbon reduction (e.g. in “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”), should have been cited somewhere. It’s entirely possible of course that Eisenstein read none of these writers, that the ideas circulating among them are simply in the air now—but if he didn’t, I can’t help feeling he should have. All that said, Climate: A New Story is a tremendously generous and useful work of synthesis, provocation, and heart.

I was utterly possessed by Lydia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan when I first read it summer before last and have been wanting to write about it ever since. As a work of fiction by one of the most daring and bad-ass writers alive today it may seem like an odd pairing with Eisenstein. But at their core I believe the books are deeply kinned, and I liked the sparks that flew when I put them together.

The Book of Joan depicts a world in which The Story of Separation has run its course and resulted in the ultimate division—of humans from earth, and from our own bodies. The survivors of a geocatastrophe that wiped out most life on earth –most of them members of an elite class—now inhabit a satellite called Ciel tethered to earth via Skylines which siphon up what’s left of the earth’s resources. The book is a fictional enactment of a hypothesis posited (and ultimately rejected) by Eisenstein: “that the world might die and we might live.” There are no animals on Ciel, and human bodies are white, waxen, hairless and without genitalia. They do not bleed or sweat or piss or shit.

Great science fiction is about seeing deeply into the present, and The Book of Joan is great science fiction. Ciel is ruled by “rage-mouthed Empire leader Jean de Men.” De Men’s has been “a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshipped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger… We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.” (Note: the book was completed before the 2016 elections.)

Yuknavitch’s Joan is the redeeming hero of this novel, a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc for these times. Except this story’s hero is Joan of Dirt. One of Joan’s early conversion experiences happens in a forest when she’s still a child and, as part of a game, her brother ties her to a tree. Late at night, when she still hasn’t come home, he goes looking for her. The forest lights up with fire, then a sound arises from the ground, “a hum like a thousand children hitting the same low note.” Then wetness descends, and blue light and coolness and in that light he sees his sister walking towards him, naked. “Listen to me,” she says. “Something has happened. Don’t be afraid. The earth…she’s alive.”

Joan becomes a conduit for the energies of the earth, and the cosmos. The blue light stays with her, and the sound; “there are strings to existence,” she discovers in science class, “and harmonies—cosmic harmonies—born of the strings.” Over time she becomes legendary for superhuman feats of both destruction and regeneration. On Ciel, De Men, threatened by her powers, has her ceremoniously burned at the stake.

Joan’s story is brought to us by Christine, who spends her time on Ciel as a skin grafter carving stories into skin: “making art of what was left of our own dumb flesh.” Longing for her, Christine burns Joan’s story into her skin: “I want her story back; I want to use my body to get it.” In a testament to the power of art, Joan materializes. It turns out the ceremonial execution-by-fire was all special effects and she has been on Earth all this time, burrowing in caves, in the company of ribbon eels and rabbit bats. Joan will be spirited up to Ciel again now, this time on the ultimate life-and-death mission: to regenerate a dead planet. There is no end to what is possible when “the collective human will is brought into alignment with Earth’s capacity to heal,” Eisenstein suggests, and in The Book of Joan that possibility is made viscerally real.

That is not to say that the novel is at bottom a story of hope. If Eisenstein’s writing seems aimed to soften the heart, The Book of Joan insists on breaking it, again and again. On Ciel, sexual bodies, like the earth, persist as phantoms and their loss is felt on every page: hair, sweat, cum, breasts. Desire blooms between ravaged bodies. The book is anchored by two passionate loves, Christine’s for Trinculo and Joan’s for Leone, neither of which is ever consummated. The most astonishing thing about The Book of Joan is how in depicting a world bereft of physicality it cultivates in the reader the most intense longing for and appreciation of the carnal, of embodiment itself—the very thing our civilization seems hellbent on dispensing with. This the greatest heartbreak of all.

Death and loss prevail in the last chapters of the book, made just bearable by the promise they carry. “It seems true that everything from this moment on will be a new language,” says Joan as the hour of her own death nears. Seems true. There is the tenderest wistfulness here, at the edge: what we, our species, could have been. Could still be?

“To be human,” Joan muses. “What if being human did not mean to discover, to conquer. What if it meant rejoining everything we are made from…”

How’s that for a new/old story?

“The song in my head pulses in a single ear-shattering note, then silence.”

About the Author

Lise Weil, editor of Dark Matter Women Witnessing, was founder and editor of the US feminist review Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982-1991) and co-founder of its online offshoot Trivia: Voices of Feminism, which she edited through 2011 and which is now published by an editorial collective at the U of Arizona ( Her memoir, In Search of Pure Lust, appeared in June with She Writes Press in the U.S. and Inanna Press in Canada. She lives in Montreal and teaches in Goddard College’s Graduate Institute, where she recently helped found a concentration in Embodiment Studies.

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