Defending the planet is our most important task now

Posted November 1st, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Defending the planet is our most important task now

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

There’s no going back anymore. We will not re-create the post-war industrial Dream of the affluent American middle class. That era is over. The sooner we come to terms with that, the quicker we get about the business of saving the ecosystems of the planet for the sake of our survival and that of millions of other sentient and non-sentient beings.

We will not do that without justice and equity. We will not do that without shedding all remaining remnants of white supremacy. We will not do that without shedding Anglo-European-centrism and the last remaining shreds of our destructive mechanistic, dualistic, rationalism of the past several centuries.

We will not do that as long as we cling to a model of economic growth measured in GDP (growth domestic product), or as Vandana Shiva puts it in her usual straight-forward eloquence: “’growth measures the conversion of nature into cash, and commons into commodities.” [How Economic Growth Has Become Anti-Life] And if there is one thing we know now it is that THAT conversion is stripping and altering the planet into something unrecognizable, creating conditions in which this era of evolution will come to a quick end.

Economic growth in the oil sands of Alberta. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Economic growth in the oil sands of Alberta. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Humans and most creatures living today have never lived under conditions that we are creating for ourselves in this century. The faux belief that we can use technological and economic innovation to protect us from those conditions and go on living comfortable lives (for that small minority on the planet that is affluent enough to have comfortable, secure lives) is one of our greatest fantasies.

And so the title of this essay. Whatever else we think important in the work of our lives, whatever our vocations or sources of employment – from doctors to trash collectors, artists to community organizers, teachers to plumbers, engineers to daycare workers – we need to turn our attention in whatever it is we are doing towards this question: how does my work contribute towards the defense of the planet given us to sustain and nurture our lives?

I was thinking this morning about something Fr. Jon Sobrino S.J. once said in a talk he gave in Washington DC decades ago now. Sobrino is the director of the Centro Monseñor Romero at the Jesuit Central America University in El Salvador, a renowned theologian, and part of the community that was massacred by US-trained soldiers in 1989 – the murder of 6 priests and two women on the UCA campus (Sobrino survived only because he was out of the country at the time). At the time he spoke, El Salvador and much of Central America were in the throes of civil war after popular uprisings began challenging generations of dictatorship and government repression. Popular movements were being put down with savage brutality.

Martyrs of the UCA in El Salvador, Nov. 16, 1989

Martyrs of the UCA in El Salvador, Nov. 16, 1989

Liberation movements had sprung up across the region and indeed in much of Latin America and Jon was/is one of that era’s most brilliant liberation theologians. In this time of great urgency, someone asked him what we could do here in the U.S. to support what we often simply referred to as “the struggle.” He said we must all become liberationists. But he also said that did not mean a doctor should no longer be a doctor. “If you’re a doctor, be a liberation doctor. It you’re a teacher, be a liberation teacher.” And so on – if you are a plumber, be a liberation plumber. In other words, direct your work towards the journey of liberation, justice, and peace.

So here we are in a planetary crisis. Each week we find stories now that reflect the extreme nature of our situation. It’s hard reading. I have a tendency these days to surrender, both the good kind and the harsh kind. There is a surrender that means accepting what we can no longer change, what is unfolding and will unfold no matter what we do now. And there is a kind of surrender that invites me at times to throw up my hands and give up any hope we can learn to live differently.

Until I remember all those people that are already learning how to live differently.

Some things are happening to the planet now that can’t be stopped, though we can still decide how bad it’s going to get. I want to mention one of these happenings – a sort of really big one, you know, like, okay, wow. It’s one that has been predicted and worried about for many years, but because most of us live far away and don’t really notice it, because we can’t smell it or taste it or see it, we are not anticipating just how much we are going to feel it – and soon.

Unfolding Methane Catastrophe

Image source: GRID-Arendal, a centre collaborating with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Image source: GRID-Arendal, a centre collaborating with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Or from an article with less technical language: Climate Crisis Unfolding… 

“While we go about our day, working, taking care of our family and doing life, a crisis that many are unaware of is unfolding in the Arctic that has been, and will affect, every living thing on Earth, including us…Not only will the Arctic soon be ice-free, but something far worse and a symptom of climate change is happening in real-time: This methane, previously stored for millions of years in frozen clathrates deep below the ocean, is starting to be released at a staggering rate in October, alarming scientists and researchers worldwide.”

The fear? For a long time climate scientists have been trying to tell anyone who will pay attention that a sudden release of vast amounts of methane trapped for millions of years in the permafrost could be the trigger that sets off runaway global warming.

“Besides accelerating climate change and making the planet warm even faster, a catastrophic release of methane has also been thought to be the reason behind past mass extinctions.

“Throw in the fact that the oceans are dying, and it looks like we are indeed watching the unfolding of a major climate change crisis.”

Remember please, I’m just reporting here. Don’t blame me for this bleak news. If the world has not changed even when faced with the evidence that this was likely to occur this century, and if the human species, especially the dominant economic powers and major consumers, that brought on this crisis was not willing to change how it does its business here on the planet enough to avoid this occurrence, then this occurrence will, you know, occur, just as the science told us it would.

At this time of the year when we focus a lot on death and diminishment, on ghosts and goblins, on the spirit world and our own mortality, I ask myself – how is it we know that all things die, all things end, all things face diminishment, all life comes to death in order for there to be more life – how is it that we know this, but still believe that our way of life, or industrial society, or economic growth models, are any exception to this law of the universe? Why do we think that we somehow escape the Second Law of Thermodynamics? [check the link and be sure to read both parts one and two of this paper – and, yes, this is written by my brother, a mechanical engineer and expert on energy, a great resource to have available for my work!]

“Here’s the problem. As we utilize exergy, useful energy, we degrade that energy until very little of it is useful. This is serious business. There is a finite amount of concentrated exergy, and a finite rate at which exergy arrives from the sun. But there’s more. According to the First Law, the degraded energy is still around. This is essentially ‘junk.’ Whether it is CO2, rusting cars, or old cell phones, the leftovers keep accumulating as long as we keep doing things.

“Natural systems, over time, balance all of these processes. Right now, they are out of balance. We are doing too many things, and doing them too inefficiently. We are using up tens of millions of years worth of accumulated exergy, and dumping the waste. The earth will reach a balance point again, a new equilibrium. Where will we fit into this balance?”

That question deeply troubles me. It should trouble us all.

So what I want to write today and offer for your weekend reflection is this: the most important work that is being done in this world right now is wherever people are working in defense of the planet, in defense of its living systems and ecological communities. From local groups fighting pipelines to organic farmers reclaiming the land, to Transition initiatives, to anti-poverty workers, to those fighting Monsanto’s and Nestle’s efforts to control access to food and water, to those struggling to end corporate personhood, to people developing new energy sources that free us from fossil fuels, from people resisting fracking and frac sand mining to restaurants buying local-sourced organic food, to neighborhoods coming together to share resources, to schools daring to teach earth science against the anti-science zealots, and on and on – these are the people doing the essential work of our time.

So also those who are really thinking about what it will mean to live in climate crisis, and those shedding the trappings of consumer society to live simply within the bounds of what they need for a “good life,” or a life of goodness, people who are rebelling against the GDP, seeing it now as a measure of destruction rather than economic “progress.”

Shiva’s example:

“Water available as a commons shared freely and protected by all provides for all. However, it does not create growth. But when Coca-Cola sets up a plant, mines the water and fills plastic bottles with it, the economy grows. But this growth is based on creating poverty – both for nature and local communities.”

And this:

“In the same vein, evolution has gifted us the seed. Farmers have selected, bred, and diversified it – it is the basis of food production. A seed that renews itself and multiplies produces seeds for the next season, as well as food. However, farmer-bred and farmer-saved seeds are not seen as contributing to growth. It creates and renews life, but it doesn’t lead to profits. Growth begins when seeds are modified, patented and genetically locked, leading to farmers being forced to buy more every season.”

And one of my favorite examples. Why is it in the interest of our economy for people to get cancer from all the chemical inputs that have invaded our bodies, our water, our homes, our food, our air (which has been declared carcinogenic by the World Health Organization), every part of our consumer lives? Because every cancer case, every person treated in our for-profit health system for cancer, contributes to GDP!! Right now, our health system is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy, generating millions of jobs and billions in profits for hospitals, health insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry, and all those cancer research institutions. And allowing the chemical industry to grow also means more jobs, more billions in profits, more sickness, and thus more GDP growth.

Take out the chemicals and prevent cancer, and what happens to the GDP? Stop Monsanto from patenting genes and destroying farmers ability to save their own seeds for the next growing season, and what happens to the GDP?

Well, you get my point. If we decide to stop destroying the Earth, GDP will crash. And that, my friends, is what faces us with this decisive moment in human evolution. This is why politicians, corporate leaders, and Wall Street don’t want to talk about the planetary crisis too much, or acknowledge its seriousness. They don’t really know what to do to resolve this Great Contradiction, and certainly not in a way that keeps the engines of the global economy churning along.

Industrial civilization and the dedication to growth as our model for life on the planet has brought us to this moment when we either decide to get off that path in a hurry, or face the Great Unraveling. And if we are still placing our hopes and expectations on preserving for ourselves and providing for our children and their children this “nice” life that few on the planet get to actually live, what we will really be passing on to them is something most of us don’t really want to think about.

Way back in 1968, Robert Kennedy Jr. attempted to address this crisis of meaning in the way in which we measure the health of our economy. Just another among the din of the many significant voices of that era that tried to suggest steering ourselves in a different direction than the one that led us to exactly the place so many hoped we might avoid:

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Still works, doesn’t it?

So, echoing Jon Sobrino, and insisting on the headline of this essay, in whatever we do, in the work of our lives, in our lifestyles, in the ways we raise our families or live in community, we all need to become part of this most important mission of the human right now. Defending the planet is our most important task, a great adventure that calls out the best and most creative in each of us. Be artists and writers for the planet, plumbers and carpenters in defense of the planet, teachers and health workers in defense of the planet – eaters of food and consumers of energy, all in defense of the planet or in ways that defend her living systems.

We have no other place to live but here. We need to take much better care of this home so that it can continue to shelter, feed, and nurture us.



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