May 2014: Living in a time of despair, hope, grief, joy, challenge, exhilaration, discovery, unraveling, intensity, creativity, stress, depression, anxiety, uncertainty, dread, fear, courage, transition, transformation – did I miss anything?
Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning
by Margaret Swedish
I’m sure you could add to the list. Is it any wonder we sometimes feel dizzy and overwhelmed? What a time to be alive!
I want to meld together a new monthly update on our work with a blog essay about what it means to live in such a time as this, when nothing that we thought was certain is certain any longer. What can you count on that a few decades ago you thought you could count on all your life? Financial security? Careers? Traditional marriage and family? Religious orthodoxy? Institutions? The weather? The woods where you played as a kid? The political system? A stable society? A future?
Maybe a majority white race population?
Maybe confidence that the people walking down your block or cutting you off on the freeway are not armed?
There are a lot of ways that human beings are responding to the huge changes underway in our world. Some of them are Cliven Bundy and the armed militias defending the white race, some are thugs in Ukraine itching for war, some are dealing with depression and/or anxiety that is at times debilitating, some are turning to fundamentalisms and orthodoxies to avoid the dread-filled questions, some are in denial. Others are really engaging. But what we all know is that change, profound change, inescapable change, is unfolding no matter what we do to try to escape its consequences.
Yesterday, Pensacola, Florida, had nearly two feet of rain in 24 hours. The whole area was inundated with rushing water. Before yesterday, the tornado count from the slow-moving line of severe weather across the South and Midwest had reached 128, a few of them reported to be more than a half-mile wide.
How quickly everything you thought was stable in your life can be gone, ripped apart, blown away, rubble, heaps of broken everything. From wildfires to floods to the aridification of much of the West, a lot of people in this country are experiencing exactly what it means to live in a world of impermanence – despite our best efforts to surround our lives with permanence and certainty.
If we need certainty to remain calm, to feel okay about ourselves, to not freak out, we will not do well in coming days.
It is always so moving to witness the aftermath of these upheavals. The first response is so honest, so full of grief and compassion, you wonder why we can’t make a culture out of those responses, let go the things that divide us. The only certainty we can count on will come from how we are with one another, and we ought to be about shaping that certainty around values of love and compassion, justice and deep respect, pulling together to get through hard times. Humans have done that before. We do know how to do that.
We also know this – the stronger the community, the better it does post-disaster.
So, with that introduction, what have we been up to?
You know, when I committed to the Athabasca River Pilgrimage last fall, I had no idea I would still be responding to invitations to speak about the tar sands all the way into this spring. As I have continued my quick learning curve on the oil and gas industry, that trip to the mountains, the forest, and the tar sands industrial region just keeps pulling me into what sometimes feels like an endless path of discovery, dark and terrifying, about what that industry really is and the threat it poses for all of us. By way of the transport network of pipelines and trains, refineries and ports, fracking wells and methane, CO2 emissions and environmental destruction, it seems none of us live anymore outside these toxic tentacles that stretch all across North America.
But besides presenting on this “key-to-everything-else-wrong-with-our-industrial/consumer economy,” I have also had and will have more opportunities this year to probe more deeply into the spirituality part of this work, sometimes presenting, sometimes working alongside communities asking these same questions, feeling these same upheavals.
What we also need, besides sharing the questions, is to articulate together the need for radically new ways of living in this deteriorating world, ways that offer hope that, no matter what happens and how difficult things get, we can live through them with equanimity, solidarity, a sense of adventure and exhilaration at the challenge, and real joy in the effort.
We need to find ways that are as diverse as Nature, fiercely local, where community is more-than-human, embracing the deep relationships with the sentient and non-sentient beings that are part of our watersheds and bioregions. We need to create lifestyles, ways of life, that reflect our values as well as our hopes for the future, including profound respect and deep reverence for all these interlocking relationships that keep Nature alive and vibrant while it goes through what is bound to be a tumultuous transition from an old dying era to something new – something we cannot yet see.
This past weekend, I led a program for The Well Spirituality Center, a project of the Congregation of St. Joseph in La Grange Park IL. I called it, Getting Down to Earth, a program/process that invites us to enter once again into the experience of these relationships from which the culture has caused us all to become alienated to the point where many don’t feel them at all anymore. It always feels like privilege to be part of these programs. People come with such heart, with desire to engage, to be challenged, to be opened. We do it together, each gathering unique in character and resonance with the uniqueness of the participants.
It’s a lot like the way Nature works. And just like Nature in all that ferment and diversity, new life emerges; or, in those spaces (our hearts and spirits), we rediscover it.
The alienation from our experience of these relationships, the places or points of connection between our bodies and spirits and the living community all around us, is one of the sad products or our consumer/technological overly busy/frenetic culture. Who has time to stop at a park each day to listen to the bird song, watch the chicks being fed in their nests, seeing what little critters are scampering about, what flowers and other plants grow wild and native, the variety of trees – and the quality of life in these places? If you never see your loved ones, if you never spend time with friends and family, how can you know them or what they need or what you have to offer each other for richer life? And yet we are completely dependent for our own lives on these very life forms and the ways they interact with one another to create a bio-community within which we live. That’s what “ecology” means.
So we did some of that work on Saturday with readings and videos and lots of conversation and some meditation woven in. As usual, I left with as much received as given. I always learn from the community. I always walk away with more to ponder, new ways to see things.
The other part of this work of recent weeks involves network-building. These programs, for one thing, always mean making more connections, expanding our links and contacts. The Alberta trip has involved finding many other groups doing amazing work against all odds and with few resources. We’ve made connections via Facebook and other social media, by connecting in various ways over the internet (just yesterday, for example, by way of the seminar broadcast on the internet around the release of Worldwatch Institute’s new State of the World 2014 report, Governing for Sustainability, we made new connections). I am intrigued by the organic nature of these expanding networks, how they come about, and how they, too, often reflect the way Nature works. One of the reasons I don’t give up hope is because of these growing connections among the heartfelt, the committed, those engaged in what Joanna Macy calls, The Great Turning. We keep finding more and more of us “out there.”
What this project seeks to do is find a “space” in which many different expressions of the work of “new creation” can be seen in the way we see Nature – interlocking manifestations of the deeply human response to the ecological crisis created by the industrial way of life that is consuming the planet. We seek to put these expressions into their beautiful context within the whole of a biological process within Nature itself as it responds to that crisis. Nature is full of energy in every part of its existence. It is in every aspect and diverse ways “aware” of the impacts and shows that to us in the melting glaciers, wrecked watersheds, polluted air and water, volatile weather systems, the heating atmosphere, the great extinction event already underway – and in its search through these many upheavals for a new equilibrium.
Whether or not we become part of the new equilibrium is the decision we still need to make as a species. So in ways as concrete as the Alberta tar sands and Bakken oil field, and as deeply intuitive and subjective as the spiritual search for meaning, what we hope to do more of out of this project is to bring those two aspects together – to address: 1) the concrete ways we are living and what is involved in dismantling those destructive industrial systems so that we can keep on living at all; and, 2) the spiritual search for meaning and purpose that can carry us out of that old and destructive paradigm to a new one that is resonant with the planet itself, with Gaia, the one Mother Organism of which we are a part.
These are two aspects of the one path to which we are urgently called now. The industrial/consumer culture has tried to keep us addicted to it by replacing meaning with its content of consumption of goods for our comfort and pleasure, or as status symbols, or by making us believe that our security lies there and anything else is really scary. And that’s why relinquishing this way of life, which can feel terrifying for many people, requires that strong core of spirit and community, that deeper sense of purpose and meaning as we come to realize that the most terrifying thing is to believe that this consumer world of ours is all there is to the meaning of life.
So we will be doing some more exploring in these weeks of May. I hope to get out to the frac sand mining communities in western Wisconsin with my voice recorder and camcorder to bear witness to what is happening there and share the stories of those affected and those who are working against great odds to protect their communities from this new invasive industry. I also hope to get down to the East Chicago area where BP is expanding its refinery and becoming a major eco-threat to Lake Michigan and to neighborhoods nearby as it expands production to include processing of Alberta tar sands oil. We intend to do more to shed light on the whole picture of the oil and gas industry here in this country so that more and more communities become aware and active in the work to bring an end to our fossil fueled economy.
And we will continue the workshops, retreats, group facilitation, and collaboration in the exploration of the spiritual meaning of the crisis, because it is there that we really discover the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of this industrial/techno/consumer world and the restlessness and deep disquiet within ourselves that longs for something “more.”
In this work of ecological healing, of letting go, of facing the challenge, we will begin to really find that “more,” that greater purpose for our lives that is the longing of the human heart.
Video – We Are All One