The Ghosts of Climate Change: Ancestors and the Global Ecosystem
Climate change is profoundly related to the troubled dead and the growing number of troubled ghosts now on Earth.
Once Oya, a Yoruba goddess of storms, transformation, and the ancestors, told this to me during ritual, I was in shock. I’ve related consciously with my own ancestors and guided others in ancestral healing work for over ten years, but I had never thought of a direct connection of climate change and work with the dead. The implications are still getting clearer, but here’s what I have so far:
Environmental issues come from human behaviour issues. Human-driven climate change, mass extinctions, and pollution of the world’s waters: these are all measurable results of ignorant and willfully selfish human choices. Particularly, a lot of people now hold the view that they are separate or in some way above the rest of the natural world. Others still see themselves as inseparable from “the environment” and, as a result, are less likely to disregard the ecological consequences of their actions, less likely to behave in ways that profoundly compromise the health of natural systems. Confusion about our role in global ecosystems directly underwrites damaging habits of dependence on climate-altering fossil fuels, and mending the illusory split between humans and the rest of the Earth is imperative for lasting policy and lifestyle changes.
Human behavior problems find their origin in ancestral problems. Ancestors are the unseen mirror of living human beings, the deep spiritual roots of family and culture here on Earth, and the medium by which culture is transmitted over many generations. Ecological degradation is the physical consequence of confusion in the human psyche about our spot in the bigger community of beings. This confusion among the living is often a breakdown in the intergenerational transmission of healthy culture, a disturbance with the ancestors. Disturbance in soil quality translates sooner or later into an issue among the leaves and flowers; when the ancestors are not well, the living suffer in turn.
Ancestral issues often take the shape of troubled ghosts. For those in the habit of intentionally relating with the unseen, ghosts are pretty real. And due to a lack of respect for ancestors in modern cultures and the rapidly expanding population, there are more troubled ghosts on Earth currently than at any other time in history. Ancestral healing often involves assisting these not-yet-well souls to join the healthy and elevated ancestors. When this happens, the psychic energy of a troubled ghost or “earth-bound spirit” makes a fundamental transition to become a bright and supportive ancestor; disturbance between our world and the realm of the dead heals at the source. This often has a positive influence on the living and on locations previously associated with the ghost-turned-ancestor.
It’s precisely this leverage point, the wish for transitioning the troubled dead, that Oya was pointing out. Paganism, ceremonial magic, shamanism, and other earth-honoring ways often teach practitioners to relate skillfully with the unseen, including with the human dead. For those with the skills and the willingness, she’s sounding the alarm, asking us to help mend the unseen roots of human confusion by working on the ghost problem. In taking this call to heart, I’ve noticed that many techniques for ancestral healing also apply with respect to earth or nature-focused ritual work.
Grief is a natural and ritually effective response to loss. Conventional rituals to elevate the recent dead often point out the benefits of grieving, including for the spirit of the deceased. Heart-felt grief, especially when expressed in the vessel of community, supports necessary closure and also provides soul-level momentum for the transitioning dead to reach the realm of the ancestors. The species that step into extinction daily on Earth, the tremendous habitat destruction, the overall decrease in ecological vitality: these are also irreversible losses, also beloved dead to be grieved and occasions for feeling the full implications of our relatedness.
Elder spiritual forces guide the ritual repairs. When I guide others in assisting their beloved dead to join the ancestors, the first thing is to help them start the relationship with the already-well elder ancestors. These ancestral guides and teachers then step forward to receive the transitioning dead and welcome them in their new role. With ecological symptoms like human-driven climate change, this same principle calls for staying in dialogue with the elder Earth powers who will ultimately weather whatever we dish out, to contextualize the current troubles against the larger backdrop of Gaia as a resilient and intelligent deity and living system. On the level of practice, this means approaching healing rituals (for the human dead, the land, or both) as a partnership with elder powers already positioned to guide the work.
Transforming destructive stories requires participation in new stories. Repair work with family ancestors often includes healing and forgiveness with both the living and the recent dead. By coming into relationship with the well ancestors, we claim our place in the lineage and increase our ability to be a force for a good within the larger family. Likewise with earth healing, until we become the Earth, until we see ourselves as embedded within global ecosystems, we forfeit much of our already modest leverage on future outcomes. Living the story of a future where we transform ecologically destructive habits starts by claiming our place in family, in lineage, and as intrinsic players in the ecology of this planet.
Ecologically destructive confusion that eats at the soul of humanity will continue until the troubled dead assume their place among the well ancestors. Taking a cue from Oya, I invite all those with the skills and inclination to consider complementing necessary lifestyle and policy activism on climate change with ritual work to assist the souls of the dead who are not yet at peace. Begin by tending your remembered family ancestors and work out from there. Help a ghost; it’s good for the Earth.
This article was originally published in a 2014 Patheos series on Climate Change.