Can we do it? Do we have what it takes to create a different world?

Posted May 26th, 2015 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Can we do it? Do we have what it takes to create a different world?

You know, friends, as I read through the news of the planet each day as part of my work, I am often astounded by this rather large insight: that, as bad as things are, collectively we appear unable to grasp the reality and engage it. We seem able to talk forever and ever about war and gun violence and climate change and species extinction, we go to marches or retreats or workshops, we read books and talk about them and on and on, but then we don’t change anything in our lives very much.

Like fish in the water, we just assume the water. We don’t even know we’re IN the water. We assume it to be there – the way the blood flows through our veins or the oxygen fills our lungs or the way the brain keeps working, allowing me to type these words – we just assume the water without thought, without even an awareness of the assumption.

And what is the assumption? That the blood will flow even when I don’t think about it, or the brain cells will keep firing as I write this. I don’t feel them, I assume them.

BP refinery in Whiting IN. Is this really necessary for a good life?

BP refinery in Whiting IN. Is this really necessary for a good life?

Or that the economic framework of our lives – available jobs, going to stores, getting in the car, buying Christmas presents, putting in granite countertops, making bigger rooms or bigger houses, a screen in every room, the next commercial development (which creates jobs, stores, Christmas presents, individual screens, etc.) – you know, the atmosphere of our lives, like the atmosphere of the planet – that this is somehow some permanent way of being.

That’s what living in this economy often feels like to me – it is our all-encompassing reality, the water in which we swim, even when we say it is an economy ruining the planet, the future, and a few billion lives all around the world. What we are learning now is that we can dramatically alter the physical atmosphere of our planet by how we humans live in it. We are also learning that humans can be terribly altered by the atmosphere when it undergoes changes to its chemical make-up because of how we’ve lived in it.

But just as the actual atmosphere can be altered, so can the ways we live. We make the one healthy by making the other healthy which makes the one healthy, and so forth.

There is this moment that often comes to people when confronted with terrible climate news or another environmental disaster, one I have seen over and over again with the groups I engage in my work, when people get that look in their eye, that sense of being flummoxed, scared, shocked by the reality. And then some insist that, if I am going to bring all this difficult news, I am duty bound to not leave them in it, to offer practical ways out (which often sounds to me like the need for psychological escape because the reality is so painful. I know what that feels like only too well).

Photo: Jeff Falk

Or this?   Photo: Jeff Falk

Thing is, if we are all attached in every part of our being to the global market economy for everything we need to live in this society, then to say we must end it, or, even worse, to make a presentation wherein the need to end it in order to save humans and the rest of life on the planet comes fully into consciousness – well , this can create a lot of anxiety, restlessness, sometimes hopelessness that this world can be changed. Inevitably what comes next is the challenge to me to show that it is possible to do that, to describe what a post-fossil-fueled world would look like.

And I can’t really. I am writing this from NY City where I’m visiting a family member and seeing how this town is preparing to receive 1-2 million more people, the dizzying speed of construction, and almost all of it for the wealthy. Walking along the High Line yesterday, we passed one of the newly constructed apartment buildings, not yet finished, with signs reading: 1-5 bedrooms, $2-$20 million.

I have no idea whether or how NYC can ever, ever become sustainable ecologically, especially with this kind of economy – extravagance of wealth and, on the subway last night, some signs of the worst kind of urban poverty. I am not a city planner or a steady state economist or expert in how to produce energy for a city like this without the use of fossil fuels, so I have to follow the research, go to the sources, some of whom have been working on these things for decades, but who can’t do much of anything to scale until the society makes it possible to begin the transition in earnest.

alberta tar sands

Or this?

But I can talk about what brought us here, and make the obvious point that what brought us here is what has to be changed fundamentally (isn’t that an obvious point?) and that it would be a serious error to trust those (including many environmentalists) who try to tell us that we can do this without disrupting our consumer ways of life, our “standards” of living (who decided these standards anyway? “Mad Men” had an answer to that question), our private nuclear family closed circles, our bigger houses in spread-out exurban developments, and (yes, this one is hard) all that global travel, all that business travel, all those energy consuming airplanes. Oh, war, too, by the way. The military industrial complex that is part of what drives the U.S. economy – lots of jobs involved, lots of big investors, vast mind-numbing destruction all over the planet.

Yeah, in every part of our more affluent lives (compared with the vast majority of the world, so let’s also stop talking only about the 1%), fundamental changes will have to be made, expectations lowered, lives simplified, things re-purposed rather than replaced, and then not falling for the latest gadgets or advertising gimmicks.

We will need to build community again – not just friends we like or choose, but community, where we learn again how to share resources, to help out with one another’s needs (including the need for joy, laughter, deep relationship), to re-learn something that went away not all that long ago – living simply in locally based economies of scale (small) and finding meaning in the richness of life and love instead of material possessions and empty entertainment.

A colleague here in Wisconsin made note recently that if Governor Scott Walker had not sent back to the federal government $810,000,000 dollars (already banked by his predecessor) for high speed rail from Milwaukee-Madison, and adding trains with new cars to the Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha route, those trains would be running by now taking tens of thousands of cars off the roads.

Or this?

Or this?

Getting out of cars – even fuel-efficient ones, which still require huge amounts of fossil fuels and destructive mining to manufacture and ship to your local car dealer – is one of those enormous changes in lifestyle bitterly resisted by those fully mesmerized by the “freedom” of individual car-ownership, even when that freedom means sitting in commuter traffic every working day of their lives.

Or they could be reading a good book on the commuter train…

And when people tell me that jobs will be lost and that hurts families, too, I say, the issue is not whether people have jobs to support their families, but what kind of jobs will be created (high-speed rail would have created hundreds of jobs here since Talgo established a factory in Milwaukee, but pulled out when Walker ended their business future in the city).

The real question is what kind of jobs in what kind of economy and with what kind of expectations for lifestyles? If we assume that the post-carbon world must continue this way of life here in the U.S. (which for most people is deteriorating anyway), then we are missing the point. That way of life, this standard of living, this way of consuming and going about our daily lives is what has to change in very fundamental ways.

Now I can’t lay out a plan for us; that’s work we have to do together. This is not going to be easy, but we could make it a lot more fun and meaningful than the anxiety and fear would make us believe.

It’s not as if no one has been doing serious thinking about that. And it’s not as if we didn’t have the time and a lot of creative thinking to have started long before now. If we had started in the 70s when the looming crises became apparent, we might be living in a different world now. But the corporate world waged a fierce battle against the truth of those predictions, and so now we come to the moment of truth profoundly unprepared.

A colleague sent me this article, telling me that this was the one that shifted his thinking, and then his life’s work, completely. It was written in 2000, when the evidence of the crises was even clearer – Beware Apocalypse, by Adrian Hastings. So that was 15 years ago, 15 years in which some big economic actors in the world could have paid heed. It would not have saved us from big bad consequences in this century because even 2000 was very late, but even then taking action would have mitigated some of the worst of what’s coming (for example, this horrifying story from India, and this one from Texas where a local sheriff described the flooding as of biblical proportions).

And so we will need to learn again how to live as a human species on the planet while in the crisis, while in the midst of the collapses. We will have no choice but to change. The context will be harsh, of course, but the meaning we will find in our lives as we work for new creation will be unlike any we have ever known.

"The Children Area Asking" - art by Mary Southard, CSJ

Maybe this instead!!  “The Children Area Asking” – art by Mary Southard, CSJ


So this still sounds the note of despair, right? Yes, and I fully own mine – not at the price of hope, though, but in the need to keep hope in perspective, to not get all romantic about what it is. Hope is the Garden of Gethsemene when you know they’re going to come kill you but you stay faithful to your journey anyway, or Oscar Romero continuing to be the great prophetic voice of the Salvadoran people even though at any moment a death squad was going to shoot him dead – which happened, of course – or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi, or the four US churchwomen who could have left El Salvador any time but chose to stay with the people – until they, too, were abducted, tortured and killed.

Okay, I’m not saying that we need to brave assassination and torture to save the planet, obviously not, though some prophetic voices are going to be attacked, arrested, will bear witness before some powerful people to force them to hear the Cry of the Earth (the “kayactivists” in the Port of Seattle before the Shell drilling rig, for example). In some countries, these Earth warriors have indeed been assassinated, or imprisoned. Things like that may or may not ever happen here. But I will say that this transition cannot be done pain-free, without some wrenching letting-go, without some real sacrifice as we learn new ways of living together – not just humans living together, but all sentient and non-sentient beings living together, sharing this one planet.

Credit: Marcus Donner, Greenpeace

Credit: Marcus Donner, Greenpeace

I want to go into the vision part of this in our next post. So, stay tuned.

Margaret Swedish

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