I come at the question of hope from the perspective that truly total devastation is possible and something close to that is where we are heading now — David Wallace-Wells 

by Caspar Henderson

On the edges of a world map made around 1300 and now kept in Hereford cathedral there are beasts, monsters, semi-humans, and humans with strange ways. The lynx sees through walls and grows a valuable carbuncle in its secret parts. The manticore has a triple row of teeth in a man’s face, a lion’s body, a scorpion’s tail and the voice of a siren. Semi-humans such as the Phanesii, a bat-like people with enormous drooping ears, live in Asia, as do the Spopodes, who have horses’ feet. The Gangines of India live on the scent of apples of the forest and die instantly if they perceive any other smell. The Arimaspians fight with griffins for diamonds. Fully human but utterly foreign, and terrifying, are the Scythians: they love war, drink the blood of their enemies from gushing wounds, and make cups from their skulls. The Hyperboreans, by contrast, are the happiest race of men: they live without quarrelling and without sickness for as long as they like, and only when they are tired of living do they throw themselves from a promontory into the sea.

I’ve recounted these details a number of times when presenting a book about wonder, imagination and change. But another detail on the map that I largely overlooked when writing the book has been coming to mind more often of late. Close to the centre of the map, on the island of Crete, is a representation of a labyrinth.

Labyrinths seem to have a hold on the human imagination across time and place. The earliest known representation, carved on a piece of mammoth ivory in a tomb in Siberia, is seven thousand years old. Others appear in cultures all over the world, from Mexico to India, and remain popular with artists and the public today. Their meanings are diverse. For the Hopi, a labyrinth-like symbol called ‘mother and child’ symbolises both the tribe’s emergence from mother Earth at the beginning of time as well as the everyday wonder of childbirth. In the ancient Mediterranean world, labyrinths were sometimes placed over doorways to turn away, confuse or trap evil spirits. The Cretan labyrinth of Greek myth, built by the master craftsman Daedalus, is the hiding place of the Minotaur, a monster half-human and half bull which threatens a terrible plague upon the people unless it is regularly fed youths and maidens —until, finally, the hero Theseus penetrates the labyrinth and kills it, retracing his path with a thread gifted him by Ariadne.

In the medieval Christian world, by contrast, labyrinths were sometimes associated with resurrection and salvation — more mandala than maze. A fine example some 13 metres across was set into the floor of Chartres cathedral about a hundred years before the Hereford map. It offered a path for clerics to dance along at Easter, and for pilgrims to trace their way in symbolic pilgrimage to the holy land. The labyrinth drawn on the Hereford map looks very like the one at Chartres, and does not show the Minotaur.


What, if anything, to make of these various associations and seemingly inconsistent meanings? In The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey, Paul Broks writes that

the universal fascination with the image of the labyrinth suggests some fundamental psychological significance, that perhaps it holds the power to captivate and transform the mind in some way. It’s been suggested, for example, that threading the spirals of a labyrinth works to loosen the grip of rational, analytical, ‘left-brain’ styles of thinking, thereby opening the mind to more intuitive, spiritual, ‘right-brain’ modes of experience and the imaginal reality of ghosts and gods.

And, Broks continues, the labyrinth may be linked to the sense of consciousness, or ‘soul.’ For Carl Jung it was an image of the psyche, its winding path symbolising the process of individuation towards psychological wholeness and authenticity. And yet there was a shadow side: beset with traps and terrors, the way might descend beneath the surface of conscious self to the secret chambers of the unconscious. If we are to achieve wholeness, Broks interprets Jung as saying, we must summon the courage to endure the darkness and dread of the Minotaur — the monster at the centre, requiring a blood sacrifice.

The meanings attributed to this ancient symbol, then, are complex and various. On the one hand regeneration, wholeness, selfhood; on the other, a trap or a lair for something with the power to destroy.

I think this ambiguity may be why the labyrinth on the Hereford map has been catching my eye of late. It is reminder that what sustains and connects us can also trap and destroy us. This would appear to be the case with social media in thrall to what Soshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism — under which, she argues, the individual’s right to a future tense and right to sanctuary are threatened (see The Attention Trap). It’s also the case with the factors behind the environmental crisis.

As noted in a recent post on Inside Out, news about the environment in any given week can be profoundly disturbing. To take a handful in recent days, it was reported that even if greenhouse gas emissions are cut sufficiently to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, a third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya range will melt by 2100, threatening the water supply for billions of people. (Already, there are indications that the 1.5ºC threshold will temporarily surpassed between now and 2023.) Meanwhile, Antarctic glaciers are melting more rapidly than previously thought, potentially adding to sea level rise. [1] A collapse in insect populations appears to be worldwide, with potentially huge knock-on consequences for the the web of life and for human food supply. A synthesis report concludes that damage to land, soil, air, water and animal populations alongside climate change is creating catastrophic global risk. [2] “No matter how quickly we take action, and no matter how aggressively, the goal of a stable climate is functionally out of reach by any conventional method.” writes David Wallace Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth, which is published this month (extract here).

And there appear to be many ways in which actions are moving in precisely the wrong direction. So while the world’s largest wind farm is planned for North Sea,  British taxpayers are offering generous relief to oil and gas companies. Meanwhile, BP has  more than doubled its profits, and fossil fuel production looks set to keep booming. A  ‘Green New Deal’ in the United States that would radically reduce emissions may look like sense to some — as Jedediah Britton-Purdy writes, this is what realistic environmental policy looks like —  but many facts on the ground point another way. “Even as concerns about global warming grow,” notes The Economist, “energy firms are planning to increase fossil-fuel production. None more than ExxonMobil.”

How to think and feel? What to do? Some gallows humour may be in order. There comes to mind a classic from The Onion: ‘The Time To Act Is Now,’ Says Yellowing Climate Change Report Sitting In University Archive.  The satire is hilarious and horrible — and feels horribly true if, like me, you were ‘there’ in however small a way in the early 1990s. But setting that sort of thing aside, the path forward does look likely be circuitous and full of delays, dangers and defeats.

A philosophical thread that some may find useful comes in Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky , which was published in October 2018 and was recently recommended by Annie Proulx. I am struck in particular by Zwicky’s contribution, ‘A Ship from Delos’. In this short essay, she reflects on how the Socratic virtues — more precisely ‘excellences’ — of awareness, courage, self-control, justice, compassion and contemplative practice can help shape one’s inner reflection and outward action.

In Zwicky’s telling, awareness — “knowing what’s what” — needs to be coupled with humility regarding what one knows. “We must,” she writes, “look at the world openly and see it, and one’s own actions, for what they are: gestures that vanish into the air like music. We must keep our reactions to this recognition — especially the reaction of fear — balanced by exercising the other virtues.” Hope is essential, she argues, and “however much destruction is coming ‘being’ will still be here; beauty will still be here…the Earth is prodigious.”

The importance of courage in the face of cataclysmic change is obvious, notes Zwicky, but she adds that “humility…is the foundation of courage as well as wisdom: it frees one to see the truth.” As for self-control — “a virtue we appear to severely lack” — she argues that joy and delight rather than a sense of deprivation can attend its genuine exercise. Self-control can be “not so much denial as melting away of the need for certain forms of comfort and distraction. It [can be] an embrace of simplicity.”

When it comes to justice, the key point for Zwicky is not so much John Rawl’s conception of fairness — the fair distribution of goods, fair legal procedure, and so on — vital though that is to decent human life. Rather, she argues, one should reflect upon Plato’s concept of justice as “interior harmony” or “right-ordering” of the soul, produced by “self-sustaining interdependence of awareness, humility, courage and self-control.” And this approach can have real bite, she says, because it is an attempt to respond to the common intuition that moral gestures matter even if they do not have a noticeable impact on the state of the world. “You know when you’re in the presence of someone who is acting from a direct perception of the good…There’s nothing rote, or cowed, or obsequious about it. Such action is overwhelmingly — breathtakingly, beautifully — free.”

The final excellences on Zwicky’s list are compassion and contemplative practice. The matter of compassion is well addressed elsewhere. [3]  On contemplative practice, Zwicky writes that it occurs when

we attend to the real, physical world, its immense and intricate workings, its subtlety; its power, its harshness, and its enormous beauty. We attend to the miracle of it, that there is something — this here, now — rather than nothing….We attend to the world’s extraordinary surprise, its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together.

Zwicky focuses on the inner state, but she is not advocating quietism. I am sure I am far from alone in seeing the good and the free at work in young activists like Greta Thunberg and thousands of other children, as well as adults, supporting radical action, including a school strike on 15 February the day I post this, and again in March.

Facing up to and dealing with bad actors is vital, but it is not enough. As Charles Taylor, among others, identifies, righteous indignation can itself be a trap. [4]  The environmental crisis is a wicked problem, and most of us are implicated in it by the basic privileges our societies have afforded us. (For something more like a true outsider’s perspective, consider the viewpoint of the Ashaninca, who see white people as vampires who occasionally come up to their world to capture their women and children and extract the fat from their bodies, which we turn into a fine oil to run our machines and aeroplanes.) But it is not impossible that the appetite and ingenuity that have delivered so much well-being by means that are ultimately destructive can be turned to good ends. And this brings me back to the labyrinth.

Pablo Picasso once said, “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.” In his Minotauromachy of 1935, the Minotaur reaches his arm out to block the light from a little girl’s candle.  And in this etching (which contains, among other things, a strange fore-shadowing of Guernica just two years later) the girl is entirely unafraid; the monster, apparently, scared to be seen. But, notes Tim Laing-Smith, “he is also, as the viewer can hardly fail to notice, beautiful.”

Mino 2

To make a more beautiful human labyrinth in a larger non-human world we will need (among other things) to think about re-integration and what Rowan Williams calls “stories of lives that communicate a sense of what being at home in the environment looks like.” As Adam Nicolson has recently suggested, the challenge may not so much be one of re-wilding as ‘re-culturing’: a re-integration of human and natural richness. “We know, as well as we know anything, that human beings can grow and change for the better,” writes Jonathan Rowson. “And it’s no longer optional.” Perhaps, as David Wallace-Wells writes, “it’s not too late. In fact, it never will be.”

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva



[1]  There is room for caution and reasonable doubt about the rate of change. Tamsin Edwards writes:  we find that rapid collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet is much less likely than previously suggested. But, as one would expect from the words ‘collapse’ and ‘less likely’ being in the same sentence, it is not a simple story. It is one of caution, of weighing up the evidence, and of holding two apparently contradictory possible futures in mind: with collapse, or without. It is a story with layers of good and bad.”

[2] Again, room for caution. For example, Mark Lynas questions at least one claim in the IPPR report, that since 2005, the number of floods across the world has increased by 15 times, extreme temperature events by 20 times, and wildfires sevenfold: “This cannot possibly be right. Scientific literature does not support this at all.” he writes. But, he stresses, this is not to belittle the rest of the report, which I think it valuable. But these kinds of climate disaster figures are thrown around too often without good sourcing. Too easy then for climate sceptics to accuse us of crying wolf, undermining the rest of the conclusions.”

[3]  On compassion see, for instance, this perspective from Veronica Mary Rolf:

Will a contemplative practice transform the world? Not immediately. But it will transform us. Our love will go deeper, our patience will grow stronger, and our service will become more authentic and productive. We will be able to feel compassion for those who challenge us, and keep our balance in situations that threaten to undermine us.

[4]  …indignation comes to be fuelled by hatred for those who support and connive with [the] injustices; and this in turn is fed by our sense of superiority that we are not like these instruments and accomplices of evil. Soon we are blinded by the havoc we wreak around us. Our picture of the world has safely located all evil outside of us...” A Secular Age (2007)

Image of Minotauromachy via wikiart

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