Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning
by Margaret Swedish
Thick fog envelopes my part of the world today. It settled in last night while the northern part of my state gets buried in snow. And while I love the snow, this fog feels sort of apt for the moment – for the culture, for the state of our world, for this project, for this crucial work of awakening the human community to the ecological crisis into which we are rapidly falling.
It’s hard to see the path very far out in a thick fog, and the cultural fog is indeed thick about now. We know everything is changing. We have the sense of things kind of falling apart. But in that fog – some of which is spread around us intentionally so that we cannot see clearly what is being done to our world – we are having a hard time seeing with clarity the path that could save us from an extremely harsh, painful future.
The cultural fog gets fed by the fog of denial that seems a special talent of the human species. “It’s not going to be that bad, right? I don’t have to change that much, do I?”
What we try to do here is clear away some of that fog. For me, dealing with reality fully and honestly seems the only way we can penetrate it in order to attain the kind of clarity we need about how to proceed.
News: from 2013
This turned out to be a remarkable year. My trip to Alberta, the Athabasca River Pilgrimage in September, was one of those watershed moments that shifts the direction of the flow. I had been sharing the story of the Alberta oil sands for a long time, but nothing can replace that visceral experience of descent into one of the places in the world where you can witness the enormity of the human industrial footprint on the planet.
In those two weeks, we pilgrims witnessed the rapid acceleration of the impacts of global warming on changing landscapes, experienced record heat, saw the disappearing glaciers. We witnessed the voracious, insane, attack of the human industrial project on a vast swath of forest and river at a scale that was breathtaking and terrifying to experience at ground level, along with the resulting pollution of our atmosphere and biosphere. And we witnessed again the great dichotomy opening within the human community between those who really believe the Earth’s “resources” are here for the pleasure and profit of this species, to use as we will, and those who SEE the ecological wholeness in which we live and who appreciate that we are only one small part of that whole without which we are not – at all.
The months preparing created a larger network of friends and colleagues around this project. The trip itself was supported by a few Catholic religious congregations, the sangha where I share a dharma practice, and many individual donors. Since the trip, I have been able to write about, speak about, present about the trip and the many incredible stories that emerged from it, and to make the connections between what is going on in Alberta to threats to our own Upper Midwest by way of pipelines, tanker car trains, proposed barges in the Great Lakes, and our own consumer culture.
I was part of a wave of awareness that is growing ’round these parts. That I was able to make this important contribution to that wave is because of the donors to this project. I have more talks scheduled for Jan-April and hope to keep filling dates. One of the best parts of this work is connecting with so many new grassroots groups and all around wonderful human beings because of the Alberta experience. Getting even better connected and in sync is on the agenda now as we try to raise the profile of those who see the urgency of moving away from oil sands and fracking as fast as we can while learning what it means, what it entails, to start creating the post-carbon future right where we live.
Of course, we did many other things in 2013, including keeping up this blog/website. But we have also discovered the limits of this platform and are prepared to move to a more active website that can be a greater service to the communities engaged in changing the fossil-fueled corporate culture – to do the New Creation that is the name of the non-profit that sponsors SEH.
What comes next: 2014
Those seeds are now planted. How do we nurture them?
I have a bit of a dream list to share here, hopes for how this work could make an even more significant contribution to building ecological hope in a time of growing ecological crisis:
- from the trip to Alberta, I have put together photos and video to create a powerful visual presentation of the journey along the Athabasca River. It is one easily adjusted for different audiences and different kinds of programs. I have added to the Alberta photos images of the vast network of oil infrastructure already existing, or in the planning, to ship Alberta tar sands oil and oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota across much of our country to deep ports for export, mostly to Asia. The steady reports of oil spills, pipeline leaks, train derailments and explosions are part of the story of why this industry is so dangerous to the future of our states. This is a story that needs telling. I hope to do many more presentations in 2014, while I continue to follow the latest developments in the industry and the attempts to slow it down or shut it down.
- the oil sands are part of the Big Back Story that shapes our work. It reveals the nature of a broken relationship between the human and the rest of Nature, one that is leading us toward an ecological hell-on-Earth. How do we begin to SEE that relationship more clearly, what went wrong, what kind of culture created it and why? When we see that clearly, we are also able to see that it was made by choice, that it was not and is still not inevitable, not fate – and that we can, therefore, make other choices. We look forward to creating more opportunities to work with communities to explore that relationship, who we are in it, and then who we want to become if we are to restore a balanced and sustainable way of life.
- in our work of this past year, it has been a real boost to the morale to see so many grassroots groups emerge in “defense of place.” We have seen this in the frac-sand mining zones of Western Wisconsin, in the many incipient and impassioned groups around the Upper Midwest, Nebraska, and elsewhere responding to the encroachment of the tar sands industry in our communities. Most of us are small organizations working with few resources but a lot of heart. Yet if we could come together to start sharing stories, experiences, and some collaboration, the potential for having a greater impact on the culture grows exponentially. I would like to be able to devote time and SEH resources to getting around this mid-section of the country to visit some of these groups – the kind of thing we did in Alberta – connect, witness, share the stories and the wisdom, play a role in our getting to know one another better.
- Finally, we need to build a new and better website, one which could be put to use not only for the sake of our own project, but also a place where we could create opportunities for interaction among groups, sharing stories, profiles, strategies, and building support for and collaboration with one another.
Okay, yes, to approach a program with this kind of scope will take greater resources than we have had up to this point. It is not just the SEH project that we hope to develop, but also the 501(c)(3), the Center for New Creation. We want to build that institution so that it is stronger and more able to support and sustain a project like this one.
So we are feeling a bit ambitious at the moment. I think we really see now, after being around these past several years, what makes this project unique and the niche we might be able to help fill as we build this “new creation” in the midst of a deteriorating ecological culture. As I have said often, we use the word “ecological” for a reason. We are not an environmental group. We don’t think humans live in “environments.” Ecology is about all the connections that make up the whole and all the ways they interact – from Nature to culture to societies, religious beliefs, economics, politics and more. Our ecological crisis is a manifestation of many broken relationships throughout the fabric of civilization right now, reflection of attitudes that shape our societies. If society is broken, if our democracy is crumbling, if income inequality is growing, if racism and intolerance are making comebacks within the culture – then how in the world do we expect to have a healthy relationship with the soil, the water, the air we breathe, the forests, glaciers, the animals and other creatures with whom we share this planet?
We can’t, and that’s why it is crucial not only to work to save ecosystems or to protect certain “environments” or species, but to change human culture – to help bring about that new community that sees its place within the whole, honors and respects that whole, and learns again how to live humbly and healthily – and with joy – within it.
Which is why we ask for your support. We hope you will help us empower this work. The potential is right there in front of us. Now we need to set it free.
In this time of expectant hopes and dreams, of looking to the light that shines amidst darkness (both being essential to each other), may more of us find the dream of the Earth rising within us, knowing that the living out of that dream is now in our hands. This is the generation that will determine which direction we take.
In peace and gratitude,