Living in Africa changed me such that the mention of the word always catches my attention.  In following the UN climate talks in Cancun on Twitter, a post from my friend Jane Boles (@janesfin) stood out, “Amazed at how underrepresented Africa is at #COP16.” (referring to civil society representation from Africa).  I fear that the inequities between the developed and so-called underdeveloped nations that inhibited any binding agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen have not progressed. Climate change is the hubris of industrial economic development.

I struggle with the very concept of “development” as seen through the purely modernistic lens as relating to big houses, excessive consumption, and cars that act as extensions of personal identity. This type of so-called development is exactly what is driving the climate crisis. It is also the protection of these things by affluent nations that inhibits breakthroughs in the negotiations. We need to approach global issues from a more evolved and progressive lens of development, that of personal development.  I witnessed stark contrasts on the Mother Continent, each of our genomic home – a term I prefer to the Dark Continent,  the colonialist expression that still lingers over Africa.  Living and working in Africa demonstrated most to me the profound inequities that exist in the world. What became undeniably clear to me in Africa was that our individual happiness is scarcely dependent on the stuff we have but more to do with our relationship with both ourselves and with the world. This relationship is what delegates are negotiating in Cancun.

There is a persistent divide between what nation states see as an “us” and a “them”. This is a very ethno-centric view having its place in a limited context to support social bonds, yet when we do not transcend these views to a more world-centric lens, we limit ourselves to stagnant levels of personal development and orders of complexity. Climate change is a wake up call for us to transform beyond this modernist view of contemporary economic imperialism. Africa and much of the Global South will be the first casualties of climate change and a binding recognition of this through an adaptation fund is a crucial component to a climate change agreement.

I relate this collective hubris of the modernist mindset to a story from the second edition of rapt in awe that I released this week in conjunction with the start of COP16. The story is about my personal hubris leading to a transcendent experience some years ago in Africa.

Excerpt from rapt in awe

“I was soloing, that is climbing alone and without a rope, a long ice-climbing route on Mt. Kenya known as the Diamond Couloir. The allure of climbing alpine ice so near the equator appealed to my sense of irony. I was living in South Africa at the time and climbing a fair bit of rock, but it had been awhile since I had been on ice. So it took some time to get in the rhythmic groove of swinging ice axes and kicking crampons, the spikes affixed onto my boots, into the ice. The crux section was near the top of the climb known as the Chouinard-Covington Headwall and I had intended originally to take a more conservative 80° ice ramp instead of the direct vertical headwall line. My mind started to entertain thoughts of doing the more aesthetic headwall line as I came closer to it, and I decided to follow a hunch and take the more challenging line. The headway was historically the crux of the climb but the first ice pitch turned out to be poorly formed so I had started on the climb on some very funky ice formations that were far harder than what rose ahead. This infamous climb, much like the Hemingway-famed snows of Kilimanjaro, had been ravaged by the early warming trends of climate change meaning that the first section of ice did not touch down on the glacier at the base of the mountain. Thus in February 1996 I was nearly one of the first casualties of climate change – well, rather a near casualty of my own ambition (ie. ego) really. I was enjoying the rhythmic repetition of thunk-thunk-thunk of throwing the pick of my ice tools and the points of my crampons into the ice flow, feeling merged with the medium, suspend nearly 1,000 metres above the base of Mt. Kenya. It was a spectacular procession of moments merging in an ebb and flow of breath. I maintained this mechanical meditation, reaching higher and higher. And then, quite suddenly a metallic ping pierced the harmony of thunk, and my left crampon swung loose from the strap around my ankle, broken. My heart rate spiked and my breath fell from its meditative cadence to a shallow wheeze as I looked down at the swinging crampon and the long ramp of ice that foreshortened below into a terrifying terminus. It is safe to say that I uttered a few profanities before I moved on to my little mantra bringing me back to a sense of calm enough to secure a piece of protection and plan my strategy. The moments felt long between the breaking of the crampon and the knowledge that I was beyond the imminent possibilities of a long, long fall. My pray by play philosophy, my mantra chant, and meditative breath work all contributed toward a profound transcendent moment for me, then and there, and that I survived to embrace the ethereal lesson of that beaded string of moments, embedding it into all the moments that have followed.

Finding calm amidst the frenzy of fear, I managed to climb through by removing the broken crampon and moving onto the rock adjacent to the ice. To get to the rock though I had to pull off some intense moves over vertical verglas – clear ice over rock – only a centimeter thick. This two meter section of verglas with both ice tools and just one crampon was the hardest climbing that I have ever pulled off. I just breathed deeply and let my little mantra tumbled through the echoing chamber of my mind. Climbing is a powerfully direct way to access flow and this was absolutely necessary for me in this instant. I could not conceptualize my way through and some transcendent state took over my awareness. In ice climbing the very literal act of loosely placing the pick of the ice axe on either rock or an ice pocket is called hooking. Survival drives took over my consciousness and made my body hook delicately across the two meters of verglas to get to a much more manageable rock outcropping. A friend had explained how he had felt the hand of God lift him on a similarly desperate climb a few years before, to which I shamefully mocked him due to my personal aversion to the word God. Karma caught up with me for being an asshole. I prefer other metaphors from divergent cosmological paths to describe the bizarre in my life. I surrendered myself to the situation and some transcendent process enabled me to claw my way to safety. I was able to climb the remaining rock next to the ice headwall, on top of which I tied the broken crampon onto my boot to walk up the glacier to the Gate of Mists.

This incident proved a definitive moment for me and became a catalyst for transformation toward more complex orders of consciousness. The most salient insight from that instant was that although we may not always see the way through with our conscious awareness, which is the same as the perennial challenge in each moment, but by surrendering ourselves to the broader cosmic consciousness we can transcend a perceived peril. So I stay afloat on the raft of optimism as the climate crisis gains momentum, the global economic system shows symptoms of collapse, and people bring harm to other people despite to the undeniable fact that we are one humanity.”

I was nearly a casualty of my own hubris back then, and I believe that together we can both recognize and transcend the collective hubris of industrial economic development that climate change and declining global markets represent.  This merely asks us to see beyond the appearance of some localized “us” and “them”, and see that these issues being negotiated in Cancun and beyond are about “all of us”.  The delegates from developed nations cling to the momentary satisfaction of GDP indicators to measure success, much like so many people in the developed world gauge their personal worth by the car they drive more than the genuine happiness they feel.