Climate Change, Civilizational Collapse — A Problem to be Solved or A Mystery to be Embraced?



My permaculture friend Shodo pointed me to a long interesting essay —

Why We Cannot Save the World

— that attempts to show why there is no sense trying to “save the world,” as if it can be done in the same way as we solve problems. That our scientific method, and the technology that it inspires does not and cannot “measure up” to the essential ignorance that we experience whenever we attempt to move deeply into the “causes” of climate change and civilizational collapse, and so on. As if, once we identify the causes, we can eliminate them, or correct them with some combination of technological fixes! Indeed, it may be that we are unconsciously steered in this impossible direction of seeking “solutions” due to the fact that we human beings use language, which essentially divides our inner “subjective” selves  from the outer “objective” world, and that world into categories by pointing, naming, and analyzing “things” as if they are separate substances rather than verbs continuously flowing into and out of the infinitely rich plenum of Being.

Even Chomsky, whose modern adaption of the Kantian proposal of deep innate linguistic structures that precede and pair with mutable surface structures made his name in academia, knows the limits of language and its associated constructs, whether theoretical or technological:

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The existential philosopher Gabriel Marcel is known for his distinction between problems and mysteries. Here’s one Buddhist elucidation of that distinction:

The Distinction Between Problem and Mystery (Marcel)

The Distinction between Problem and Mystery (from Existentialist Thought: Gabriel Marcel, by Ronald Grimsley, 1955, Cardiff 1967)

To raise the question of Being is to reveal the limitations of all pure ‘problems’. A problem is in some way outside us, something apart from our intimate experience and something towards which we adopt a merely impersonal attitude. Hence it can become an object of general knowledge and public inquiry. As ‘ob-jective’ a problem confronts me in the manner of an obstacle which has to be overcome. In scientific investigation it seems possible to make a clear-cut distinction between the subject which interrogates and the object which is being examined, between what is in me and what is before me. In this way a problem emerges as something definite and specific and of a fixed pattern. This is revealed through the way in which we believe that a given problem may be resolved in terms of a ‘solution’ which can be tested and verified in experience. There is a ‘universal reason’ or ‘thought in general’ capable of laying down certain conditions necessary for the acceptance of any particular solution as valid. When those conditions have been satisfactorily fulfilled, we say that the solution has been ‘verified’. It is normal to suppose that such verification is carried out by a mind of a ‘depersonalized subject’ and that one investigator ought to be able to reach exactly the same conclusion as another. This is an essential condition for the establishment of any kind of objective knowledge, the search for which always entails, says Gabriel Marcel, a certain form of concupiscence by which the world is brought to myself and compelled to submit to a set of techniques considered suitable for dominating it.

As soon as we begin to inquire about Being we are faced by a different situation. Whereas the objective problem is conveniently located in a region which is apart from us, questions about Being immediately make us realize that in some intimate and perhaps perplexing way we are implicated in it from the very outset. In fact I cannot separate the question: What is Being? from the further question: Who or what am I? Whenever I interrogate Being I also have to ask: Who am I who ask this question concerning Being? Since questions concerning the totality of Being always involve my own existence and since questions about myself also involve an interrogation of Being, we are forced to admit the insufficiency of the distinction between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ as it emerges in questions concerning limited aspects of the physical world and man in his natural aspects. The conventional distinction must be transcended. It is this general consideration which prevents Marcel from speaking of the ‘problem’ of Being. We are here dealing not with a problem but with a ‘mystery’.

The ‘mystery’ of Being brings us to the region of the ‘metaproblematical’ where it is necessary ‘to transcend the opposition of a subject which would affirm Being and of Being which is affirmed by this subject’. The very antithesis involved in the subject-object relationship is only possible, in the first place, through the existence of a ‘metaproblematical’ sphere which gives priority to Being over knowledge. A cognition is always enveloped by Being and therefore in some sense ‘within’ Being. A mere theory of knowledge and an epistemological distinction between subject and object can never account for the full depth of a mystery which springs directly from Being itself. A mystery is really a ‘problem which encroaches upon its own data’ – and therefore ‘transcends itself as problem’. In whichever way the polarity of the questioner and the object of his question be conceived in the case of a mystery, we are forced to recognize the existence of a kind of reciprocal penetration of the inquiring self and the ontological reality to which it is related. This interpenetration makes it quite impossible to reduce the question to the level of those usually treated in terms of rational categories.


So, in every endeavor in life, especially those which are way too big, too much, too deep, too infinite and complex for us to not only grasp, but to even begin to understand — for example climate change, and civilization collapse — let us ask:

Are You Facing A Problem Or A Mystery?


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In short, let us embrace the mysterious immensity of what is and what is becoming. Let us remember that we are here now, altogether, in a still-wondrous world that, by defying all our categories and fixes, nudges us into the heart’s open space for creation. 

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