Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning
If you are engaged in work around our planetary crisis, it’s hard not to despair when you read NY Times front page articles like this one from Thursday:
“In the ramshackle apartment blocks and sooty concrete homes that line the dusty roads of urban India, there is a new status symbol on proud display. An air-conditioner has become a sign of middle-class status in developing nations, a must-have dowry item…
“But as air-conditioners sprout from windows and storefronts across the world, scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed about the impact of the gases on which they run. All are potent agents of global warming.
Air-conditioning sales are growing 20 percent a year in China and India, as middle classes grow, units become more affordable and temperatures rise with climate change.”
If everyone living in hot, steamy urban areas of India and China decides to purchase 2-3 a.c. units, even the Alberta oil tar sands may pale in comparison when it comes to contributions to global warming.
One of my missions in recent days is to try not to be so despairing when it comes to how humans are avoiding dealing with the very real crises of climate change, toxic contamination and depletion of all the basics we need for life, wreckage of ecosystems as we drill, mine, and deforest. But my best efforts meet stories like these.
They meet the reality of a dense human population spread across the globe fed by industrial models of development and growth. It has a driving logic to it that appears unstoppable. Yet we know, and anyone who wants can check the research on this, that if everyone attempts to live at the comfort and convenience, the consumption and technology levels of the U.S., we will need five planets – and God even knows what those five planets would look like after we have plundered them to achieve this monumental human scale of extraction, production, consumption, and waste.
I also know this – how dare we say no to the people of Mumbai when we all live in our own artificial summer environments! We burn energy like crazy in the summer, as we all know, trying to protect our health and our mental functioning from heat waves like the one that has passed across the country this week. To make matters worse, all the energy usage increases global warming making us even more likely to use more a.c. systems, a fabulous positive feedback loop contributing to the demise of the atmosphere that has been favorable for human evolution over the past tens of thousands of years.
I know this, too. As we have become accustomed to a.c., we have lost a lot of natural resilience to dealing with the heat. Then we make things even worse by building housing and factories and office buildings that are completely dependent upon these artificial systems to be liveable. As the dependency deepens and as we lose our resilience for and tolerance of summer discomfort, we can no longer imagine living in a world without it.
I turned on my a.c. for two days of the brutal heat. I live in this tiny flat with low ceilings, so with a combination of keeping the thermostat at 78 and a fan blowing the air around, I can keep my energy usage to a minimum. But I am using it – that’s the point. But my other summer meditation has been this: houses on my street are built very close together, so the length of the space between my bedroom window and the upstairs bedroom window next door is about 20 feet. Sometime in May, whoever lives up there put in a room unit. This means a couple of things for my life, one being that it is too noisy for me to get sleep if my window is open, so at night I close it and use a fan that brings in air from the other rooms. That means using energy. But even worse, at some point that unit came on to stay. It runs 24/7. No matter if it is 55 or 95, it runs all the time. This amazes me. Why would one want to live with that noise on a beautiful cool night in June when the breezes are blowing off Lake Michigan?
The lack of connection between that unit and the reality of the world is one of my measures these days for the difficulty of the challenges we face getting this species to change how it lives.
Washington DC, where I worked for nearly 25 years, once existed without it and in summer government shut down, people left town or slowed down dramatically. Can’t have that in our contemporary, workaholic world in which ongoing economic activity and productivity is essential to the GDP!!! Imagine having leisurely, lazy summer days to read books, take walks, have time with the kids, and rejuvenate spiritually. But these are not commodities that can be bought and sold and therefore no longer have value for us.
Meanwhile, as the pattern of population growth now is into urban areas, the sheer density of the human community means cities will become islands of dense energy consumption. How that energy is produced and used will make all the difference in terms of our prospects for survival in the medium to long term.
The more we try to separate ourselves from the natural world, the more we believe ourselves able to always manipulate it towards our comfort levels, which more and more represent a mismatch with the natural world. What we now think we need in order to be “comfortable” is not sustainable and indeed will bring catastrophic results in which we will all be living in extreme, and for many people intolerable, discomfort when things break down.
Just think of one great power breakdown in one great city (or much of the northeast back in 2003) to appreciate what this will mean. Hundreds of people died in Chicago during the Great Heat Waves of 1988 and 1995 because they lived in buildings without a.c. in a city that in the summer is an intense heat island, and in which summers like these are going to become more common. The effort to put more a.c. in more buildings will only accelerate the warming that is the reason for the climate change that requires more a.c. and therefore more burning of fossil fuel energy and so forth.
And yet, who are we to tell the people of Mumbai they cannot go home at night and sleep in a nice cool bedroom? And who are we to tell the Chinese that they should stop making these particularly dangerous a.c. room units when this keeps some people working and able to buy food or buy a computer to hook up with the world through the internet?
I saved an article from the NYT from May 25 just for this one quote. It’s from an article about recent concerns that China’s economy is slowing down. Since China is a world leader in consumption of manufactured goods, in building and infrastructure construction, and so on, and since selling to China is a major driver of industrial growth (think GM cars made in Michigan being sold in China, or iron from U.S. iron ore mines, or Alberta tar sands oil), a severe slowdown in China’s consumption will threaten the global economy, including ours.
Here’s the quote from a Chinese wholesale dealer who sells home appliances:
“I don’t see a solution unless people start buying.”
And there you have it in a nutshell. And we don’t just get this message from Chinese businessmen. We hear it from Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, from Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, from George Will and CNN commentators.
So I’m doing some despair work again. That’s where all this leads me. I know that sounds depressing, but it is going on all over the world where people are tuned in to the reality of our predicament. Feels a lot like being on a supertanker where it can takes miles and miles and hours and hours to turn the darn thing around to get it going in another direction, but you don’t have miles and hours before the crash and, besides that, the crew hasn’t even figured out yet that it needs to start doing it!
Despair work is not about giving up or surrendering one’s commitment to another way of life; it’s about living with hope even when you know all of the above is the case. It means living with meaning, fiercely committed to meaning, even knowing that we have an exceedingly hard time ahead of us.
I’m not one taken in by big apocalyptic scenarios of human extinction this century in a monumental wave of planet-wide disaster. I believe we have a slower slog of breakdown and suffering ahead of us in the midst of which we will have to learn to live differently. The best scenarios for getting through this time will be if we learn how to live differently right now, gather our family, friends, and communities of support together right now, learn to share resources right now, learn to share skills and knowledge right now, begin to offer spiritual and psychological support for one another right now. It’s a “loaves and fishes” way of life, as I wrote in my book (see sidebar) – we see what we have available, bless it, break it into smaller pieces, and then share – only to discover that what looked like scarcity is actually abundance.
When we begin to see our natural world as it once was and could be again – not as scarcity to be exploited but as abundance to be shared – the new way of life will begin to take root. From there, we just might begin to see the path ahead, the one that moves through and out of the crisis (living beyond the ‘end of the world’) to a richer, more profound, more meaningful way of life than the one that has laid such waste to the planet and to the human community within it.