Facing the despair fully so that the real healing can begin

Posted April 2nd, 2012 in Blog, Featured 2 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning:

Last week’s essay on the latest setback regarding mountaintop removal coal mining,  ‘Unbearable Grief’, haunted me for days. Still does now that I call it up again. I think I am horrified not just by the blowing up of entire mountains, laying waste to natural beauty, to what the earth took millions of years to create; I am even more horrified that human beings actually plan these things, deliberate, think them through, and then do them. Some even salivate at the thought – really – can’t wait to place the blasts just so, can’t wait to sit in the bulldozers and crush whole forests. Makes you feel very powerful, I imagine.

In Alberta, the oil companies first literally scrape off the whole top of the earth – forests, all living things, the top layer of soil, to get to the tar sands that produce oil we burn in our cars and factories, or ship off to China and India for their private profit.

You have to wonder about the human psyche that is capable of doing this, that is so detached from nature and eco-systems, feels so little for other sentient and non-sentient beings, that it can do these things.

It’s why for all I preach about ecological hope, I am so filled with ecological grief – and fear. Because it seems to me more and more that unless we rediscover these connections and interrelationships – and do that with urgency, immediately – we face a grim future not in some distant time, but right ahead of us.

I know I was a bit of a naysayer, refusing to celebrate a victory, when Obama stopped the Keystone pipeline because of environmental concerns regarding the High Plains Aquifer, which provides water to 8 states, and the precious Nebraska Sand Hills, but it has been clear to me that he is not a big environmentalist and is very committed to domestic and North Am. energy production to fuel ‘economic growth.’ I know he actually supports tar sands oil production, that he and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton support the Alberta industry and see it as an issue of our ‘national security,’ and that ultimately he would find ways to get it done.

So when he came out in favor of expediting the building of the southern portion of the pipeline I was not surprised or even disappointed. It’s consistent with his policies to use every means of energy production available to advance our economy, with a few environmental protections thrown in (like regulations on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, or protecting the Sand Hills). True friends of the earth, those who would limit economic interests in favor of ecological health and survival, don’t get elected to the White House. Meanwhile, the Alberta industry is just finding other ways to get their oil to the Gulf of Mexico for refining and shipping over to China. Can’t go this way? We’ll go another.

Read this from Bloomberg about how they are doing it:

Enbridge’s system, once completed, “will allow Canadian oil-sands barrels to flow all the way to the Gulf Coast,” Jackie Forrest, senior director of global oil for IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an industry consultant, said.

You see in this film what the logic is. Really, I can hardly watch this film for the overwhelming grief – like that of blowing up several hundred Appalachian Mountains so that those car dealerships can have blazing lights across their vast lots all night long. But here is the logic – economic growth, energy security, jobs. That’s a mantra that gets you elected, not one that says, “Limit your consumption, ramp down your lifestyle, for the sake of the planet!”

How vast is our destruction of nature? For one thing, it goes back thousands of years, long before capitalism. What capitalism and socialist states and the global economy have done over the past 200 years is simply find the means to ramp up the destruction, the exploitation of ‘natural resources’ for the promotion of ‘Man,’ exponentially to scales that numb minds and hearts, that shock to the core of our beings if we bother to take a look. Our technological advances allowed population growth to take off and now we are trying to fit 7 billion people, with 2 billion more to come over the next 30-40 years, into this model of industrial growth, of environmental devastation so we can have more suburban developments and plasma screen TVs.

Here, take a look. See how the Age of Man will be remembered by future creatures on this planet:

Age of Man: from National Geographic

I’m depressing us again. Well, in the Christian world, it’s Holy Week, so we may as well focus on real passion and death these days, the martyrdom of the planet for the sake of the human ego, for the sake of what I think is the most grievous and dangerous flaw in the species Homo sapiens sapiens – our hubris, our belief that we stand alone at the pinnacle of creation, that the earth and its gifts are here for us to exploit for the glory of our human grandiosity.

Maybe the grief, maybe the shock and horror, can awaken us again to our place within nature, to experiencing again in our skin and blood and lungs all our interrelations with all our fellow creatures and the very air, food, soil, water, plants, and animals that we are contaminating and/or destroying.

Don't want to live like this anymore. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Last comment in the week we call holy because of salvific death and martyrdom at the hands of those with power and authority in the political and religious institutions of that time – the killing of God by political and religious institutions because God, it turns out, was a real threat. The headlines lasted about a day…

Climate Change Report: time to start preparing for the worst

But researchers have indicated that even if countries slammed the brakes on emissions today, the climate would continue to warm because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries. The gradual-but-relentless build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution is an indication that humans are pumping it into the air faster than natural processes can remove the excess.

My local newspaper had an A.P. story on this on page 2 last Thursday. Nothing since. I don’t know, call me crazy, but this story seems worthy of some ongoing reporting and reflection, don’t you think? Is the primary here in Wisconsin really more important than this? Only if the human species is way off its center would that be the case.

Here’s how the Washington Post reported this story:

Scientists are increasingly confident that the uptick in heat waves and heavier rainfall is linked to human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions, posing a heightened risk to the world’s population, according to two reports issued in the past week.

So there it is – a big story with no impact here within this culture. Our politics, media, much of our evangelical religiosity, and la la la la land approach to life will simply not allow it.

So how do we live with our ecological grief, despair, depression, hopelessness – especially from a project proclaiming ecological hope? Well, one thing is that we need to be completely honest about our predicament. If we do not fully embrace what is happening, our responses will continue to come up short. If we continue to hold back the essence of this reality, as if by protecting people from their fears and discomforts we can somehow get them to commit to saving the planet, our discourse and actions will not be commensurate with the scale of the crisis – and will continue to come up short.

In her important book, World as Lover, World as Self, Buddhist and deep ecologist Joanna Macy uses a quote at the beginning of her chapter, ‘Despair Work:’

The moon knows that if you deny the dark,
you make a mockery of the light.  ~  Marilyn Krysl

In this chapter, she makes the argument for why it is essential to go fully into the despair, the grief, the fear we feel over the future of our world:

Pain for the world is not only natural, it is a necessary component of our healing. As in all organisms, pain has a purpose; it is a warning signal, designed to trigger remedial action. It is not to be banished by injections of optimism or sermons on ‘positive thinking.’ It is to be named and validated as a healthy, normal human response to the situation we find ourselves in. Faced and experienced, its power can be used. As the frozen defenses of the psyche thaw, new energies and intelligence are released.

And about this culture she has this to say: “For Americans to get in touch with their pain for the world, a dark night of the soul may be hard to avoid.” Seems we’d rather do just about anything than face that dark night.

But we must, and one of the reasons is exactly what she writes in this book – because the energy that would be freed up when we release our defenses, go fully into the pain, grief, and despair, is precisely the energy we need if we are to find a way to live through this most difficult era we are entering, and, in living through it, rediscover our basic humanity embedded within nature. From there we can begin the from-the-bottom-up healing process that is no longer a nice thing to do, but necessary for our survival.

I want to live on THIS planet. Big Sur coast. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Thomas Berry called this ‘the Great Work.’ Joanna Macy calls this ‘the Great Turning.’ What I find is a lot of people resonating with the message, saying ‘YES!’ to it, reading more, doing more advocacy – but what is needed is something much more profound: a wholesale change in the way we live our lives, a new culture of ecological non-harming and healing. We will know the great turning has begun, and the great work has been engaged, when we see this happening throughout the fabric of our diverse human cultures.

There, only there, do I see the cure for ecological grief and despair – and a future for the human.




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2 Responses

  1. Jake

    I agree with your view on human beings and how we unfortunately destroy our ecosystem instead of figuring out ways to live in it and with it. But I have to say that giving into all the fear and grief that you discuss in the blog might not be the best way to handle it. The earth is going to be here long after humans either evolve or die. Living a life of fear will not change anything or anybody’s mind. I know its cheesy but really its true-all you need is love. Love will help people to understand that we need to live with the earth and love will help people see that polluting the earth for profit is not our best option. <3

  2. Margaret

    I am not talking about giving in to fear and grief; I am talking about acknowledging them and facing them fully. There is a false hope that says we can get through this hard time without major disruption and chaos. Fear is real and I encounter it all the time in the spaces where people feel safe expressing it. The whole point of facing it fully is so that we don’t have to live in it, but rather live through it, create life anew in spite of it. When we bury it, it becomes something else, repressed, volatile. Anger gets nurtured there. We need to face our fears so that we can see the truth and live in the truth. I have seen people change because of fear, as long as they find the support, the community, they need to face it, see what it has to teach them, to reveal to them.

    Love is one part of a very complex set of human responses to life. It is only one part of the human experience. Love, truth, fear, courage, compassion all come out of the same source. If I had not seen fear open people’s eyes when that fear is expressed in the context of community and solidarity, love, if you will, I would not go down this path. But I have seen it, over and over again.

    Anyway, I don’t call for living a life of fear; I call for facing the truth of our predicament, acknowledging the fear and grief that evokes, and then working to create life anew. That actually works.