Economic crisis: invitation to a new way of life

Posted October 5th, 2008 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Economic crisis: invitation to a new way of life

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

[WARNING:  this is a longish post, a meditation, if you will.  I welcome your comments.]

Can the economic crisis be perceived as an opportunity to change how we live?  Of course it can.  And whether one sees that as scary, or with relief, or with an “about time,” or with sadness or joy, depends upon what one values.

earth atmosphere from space

earth atmosphere from space

Humans are living in a way that is rapidly depleting the planet of all that we need to sustain rich and abundant life.  As we have noted before, to continue human consumption at current levels would take more than 1.3 Earths, and that’s only if we maintain the current population of 6.8 billion.  But we are not going to do that.  We are going to add 2-3 billion more humans over the next 4 decades.

Keep in mind that it took the 59 years that I’ve been on this planet for the population to get from 2.5 billion to 6.8.  It is no wonder that we are seeing and feeling the collapse or endangering of ecosystems everywhere.  It is no wonder that we are feeling a bit crowded.  It is no wonder that one local community after another is struggling with issues of water, sewage, energy, crowded transit, and more.

Graph of ecological overshoot 1960-2001

Graph of ecological overshoot 1960-2001

The predominant mode of development has been to take from the planet whatever we need to drive the engine of ‘growth.’  But the planet is finite and its resources and precious gifts limited.  If we are well beyond sustainability, much less the planet’s ability to evolve life with greater diversity and abundance, then sane minds might suggest that something pretty basic and profound needs to change — like the economic model.

Humans in general have a great reluctance, it seems, to accept this reality of our existence because it means changing how we think of ourselves and of the meaning of life.  If we think of ourselves as on top of the planet, floating on its surface, and not part of its ecosystems, its biosphere, then it is there for us to exploit for our benefit — though soon the fact that we have taken way too much means that those benefits are about to run out.

If we think of ourselves as deeply interwoven with those systems, part of the story of the evolution of life, then the situation we are in ought to raise alarm, and I mean, alarm.

What can bring about a new way of life that might salvage the human project within the evolutionary story?  One thing is to challenge our sense of identity as something outside the web of life and independent of natural forces.  While our technology has allowed us great ability to manipulate those natural forces, that has not put us outside them.  While we can put a roof over our heads to keep out the rain, that does not mean it is not raining. 

Bolivar Peninsula - National Weather Service

Bolivar Peninsula - National Weather Service

And while we build houses on stilts along the seashore, that does not mean that ocean surges will not simply wash them away in a storm.  That we can build fires to cook food does not make us less dependent on food.

However, buying packaged food and sticking it in the microwave can cut us off from an experience of our dependence on what grows out of the Earth.  It can keep us from experiencing that what we take in becomes part of us, part of our body’s ability to be healthy and strong, or not.  This alienation can keep us from realizing the threat we take in when we eat processed foods grown with chemicals in depleted soils with additives and artificial colors and flavoring.

Same with the air we breathe, the water we drink.

By the same token, our behavior can be toxic or benevolent for the planet, depending on what we put back into the soil, water, and air.

Gaia EarthOne living system.  All interconnected and interrelated.

The Blue Marble - NASA photo

The Blue Marble - NASA photo

In this project, we speak of spirituality (not religion, which is different – not irrelevant, obviously, but different), meaning in broad terms our meaning frameworks, our values, our inner motivations, our raison d’etre, our reason to get out of bed in the morning.  Right now, the ‘spirituality’ of economic growth has us entangled in a deeply dysfunctional way of life that has caused alienation from nature and in many ways within the human community.

What we know now is how bonded we all are in the ecological crisis that faces this planet.  I will write more about this in next month’s first issue of our online Zine.  Western society has tended to focus an global climate change as the preeminent ecological threat of our time.  I would argue that, even if we were not dangerously warming the planet, we face an unprecedented threat caused by our over-consumption of the natural goods of the Earth and the amount of waste we spew into its air, waters and soils which it can no longer absorb.  Global warming caused by our greenhouse gas emissions is only one aspect of that crisis.

Which is one reason why, sadly, we are and will be unprepared for the collapses to come.  I mean, even knowing what hurricanes can do, people still build houses on stilts on the beach, some still decide to ride out the storm, and then many can still be shocked by the destruction after.  This is how we tend to approach so many of these threats.  I suppose that people will be equally shocked out west when water no longer comes out of their taps — despite a generation of warnings about the depletion of water sources caused by overdevelopment and overuse.

The economic crisis that confronts us now can be, if we make it so, an invitation to change how we live.  The economics of consumption and waste on which our way of life in my generation has been built is crumbling for multiple reasons, including our own selfishness and addiction to shopping and possessing — on credit for the most part in recent decades.  Now the wealth of the rich and the jobs of the not-rich depend on this way of life, which means, we are wholly dependent on an unsustainable way of life for our mortgage payments, rents, tuitions, paychecks, life savings, home entertainment centers, and iPods.

That’s the world we created.  It seems to me the worst thing we could do right now is try to put all that back in place as corporations and government agencies use the bailout in an attempt to put some of these pieces back together.  Instead, we could use the moment to begin reimagining a new way to live, a way with justice and compassion at its core, and a renewed relationship with the natural world that holds us, in which we are embedded and from whose fate we cannot separate ourselves.

Maybe we can start paying down our debts, throw away the credit cards, spend more time with family and friends, spend more time caring for the needs of others, start cooking home dinners again, take the plugs out of ears and our brains, and start actually feeling and experiencing life again, the essential relationships of life, the vibrations of the planet, all that makes us human and alive instead of robotic and numb.

Crises can paralyze us with fear, or open a door to something new.  I am opting for the latter.


Photo credits:

Top of Atmosphere, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Graph of ecological overshoot 1960-2001, European Environment Agency

Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, after Hurricane Ike, National Weather Service

The Blue Marble, NASA, Earth Observatory


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