Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning
by Margaret Swedish
It’s pretty clear that something more needs to be done to address the underpinnings of our industrial/technological society. When I look at a pipeline map like this, when I consider the new proposal to ship crude oil in supertankers from the refineries in Superior WI through the Great Lakes, when I ponder the fact that Pres Obama has already helped enable southern parts of the Keystone Pipeline, I realize that he could well do the politically correct thing by way of environmental groups and oppose the Keystone extension across the High Plains, and still keep the crude flowing from the Alberta tar sands and the N. Dakota Bakken oil fields where fracking is going on at a dizzying pace.
Look, the world is not going to switch off the essential fuel of industrialization, which has brought to us air conditioning, world travel, vast highway networks for our cars with fabulous sound systems, Las Vegas, fancy hospital atriums, Marriott Marquis hotels with lobbies as high as the hotel itself, car dealerships glowing brilliantly under the disappeared night skies, multiplex movie theaters, and football field size servers for our internet use.
Nope, not gonna happen. And China, India, Brazil, and more are not going to sacrifice their share of that future so that we can continue living like this here in the affluent industrialized West.
So – what to do – and can you help us do it…
See, here’s another example of what we have in our future (as we already have had plenty of it in our present and recent past), another example of what is a healthy response of a human being to the destruction of the natural world with which one is in intimate, loving relationship. Here is a man who, because of eminent domain, has lost his battle to save the trees right at his front door from a pipeline. Read his story here. If you are a conscious living human being, you can’t help but feel the sound of the chainsaws like a knife tearing into the heart.
He weeps for his trees. Only those who are capable of weeping like this can save this world from itself. But it’s very painful, because it changes how one looks at the things one possesses, the lifestyles built on fossil fuels, the fact that deep in our hearts most of us know that this society will not sacrifice those lifestyles for the sake of his trees. We keep ramping up demand, and the economy depends on it – that is the world we have made.
What to do – and can you help us do it…
The weather is changing, and we are not changing, not nearly enough, and not nearly enough of us. Species are going extinct and habitats breaking down at an accelerating rate, and we are not changing, not nearly enough, and not nearly enough of us. Our future as a species is in grave jeopardy over the next century or two, and we are not changing, not nearly enough, and not nearly enough of us. We are losing the beauty and health of our natural surroundings, the very foundations of our experience of being alive and the spiritualities that give our lives meaning, and still we are not changing, not nearly enough, and not nearly enough of us.
In small pockets, some communities are changing, some initiatives are being taken – greening buildings, lowering consumption of goods, buying local, protesting things like the Keystone or the open pit mine proposal for the northwoods here in Wisconsin. Many worthy conservation measures struggle along – but it feels so often like one step forward, ten steps backward – because we are not changing, not nearly enough, and not nearly enough of us.
“All of this destruction, really, is by popular demand, and I am part of that demand.” Essential moment of honesty.
This year I will open my heart to the full reality of what is going on in the Alberta oil fields, and into the full reality of those communities most impacted by our way of life. I had the privilege of meeting via conference call yesterday a spokesperson for the Cree-Ojibwe people, a supposedly sovereign nation in Canada, who lives in the toxic shadows of the Alberta tar sands industrial development. When she was a child, she said, she used to fill buckets directly from the Athabasca River for drinking. Now the river is poisoned and they can drink only bottled water (bottles made with oil -how ironic is that!?). She said you can taste and smell the toxins in the air, that they take it into their lungs with every breath – and how many of their family and community members are dying of cancer.
“All of this destruction, really, is by popular demand, and I am part of that demand.”
That is part of my agenda for this year, to bear direct witness to this eco-human destruction. I will share more of these plans in the months ahead, and I will need your support in order to do this. Our witness to this destruction needs to become even more fierce, our voices even more raw and clear about what is going on.
Now all of this is bad enough, but the fact that we no longer have democratic government, government that represents the voices of the majority of us, threatens our futures even more.
Just a few examples: the vast majority of us (70-80%, depending on the exact question) favor strict gun control laws, but they won’t pass Congress or even come to a vote. Here in WI, by a margin of some 30 percentage points, Wisconsinites oppose the legislation, authored by a Florida coal mining company, that would allow for a 22-mile-long, 1,000 ft. deep, 4-miles wide open pit iron ore mine in our Northwoods. But it will pass our legislature anyway and be signed by our governor because Republican leaders all received campaign money from this company, Gogebic Taconite and their lobbyists (the battle is not over, though, since the current version of the law violates federal law and treaty rights). Most of us support gay marriage, a rise in the minimum wage, protection of social safety net programs, a single-payer publicly funded health care system – but these things never happen in the bodies of our elected rulers – because elections and districting are now fixed, and Congressional offices held by recipients of campaign funds from corporate interests.
What to do – and can you help us do it…
Too many of us are still afraid to tell the full truth of our predicament, and I am often told that I have to be careful not to leave people feeling hopeless. Two things about that: my message is full of hope, but not if that means assuring people that we can make the required changes without too much disruption in our lives. There will be disruption! What we can do together is show how it is that one can live in hope, and even have joy, while relinquishing, finding extraordinary meaning and fulfillment in the work of creating a viable future for our children and their descendents. It starts with the question, what kind of world do we want to leave them, and do we feel passionate and energized by the work of making that possible for them?
If we care more about our way of life and comforts, we may feel hopeless. If we think this an incredibly important journey of which to be a part, we will likely feel an enormous amount of energy, exhilaration – and hope!
Second, hope can only come from what is real, otherwise it is false and can leave people despairing and paralyzed. If nothing seems to be working, what is the point? Which is how a lot of this work feels when you are trying to save a planet without changing the fundamentals of what is bringing the planet to crisis. If our efforts to make change keep coming up short, doesn’t that lend itself more to hopelessness than facing the reality and then working for the changes that are commensurate with the scale of the crisis?
It is possible that Obama will decide against the TransCanada pipeline across the High Plains to the south. But while that battle is being fought in the streets of DC and elsewhere, plans are very far along for moving the tar sands crude with or without that section of pipeline (like across my state and all the way through New England – see map above). The focus of 350.org and other environmental groups has been significant in raising awareness of this earth-wasting project that originates in northern Alberta. But so much more is required because the industry is so good at maneuvering around these tactical initiatives.
What is required is to finally work the essential issue – the only thing that stops this is reversing the course of industrialization, away from extraction, consumption, and toxic waste, to a wholly new way of life that is in balance with the actual living reality of the planet. That will not happen in my lifetime, and it may not happen in time to save us from destroying the web of life that holds the human and the other sentient and non-sentient beings that made us possible. But there is no chance at all if we are not willing to work to the scale of the crisis – not me alone, that’s impossible, but me in community with a host of others all across the planet, as well as the generation coming up behind us that we still have a chance to influence and partner with.
We have to show them that it is possible to do this…
What a waste of evolution’s genius it would be – to create self-aware conscious beings capable of meditation, art, poetry, the Hubble Space Telescope, evolutionary biology, and deep spiritualities, but who, because of mistaking the mind for something superior to nature, and then getting all full of hubris and grandiosity, used that gift to destroy itself rather than bask in the wonder of the cosmic resonance.
So our work in this project is to deepen that last part – to be like the man in the film, so connected to creation, so aware of its resonance within and all around us, that we feel the damage as if it is personal and intimate (because it is), as if our most intimate loving relations are threatened and being destroyed (because they are).
Help us do that work here in Wisconsin and around the midwest and beyond. If you can, please send a tax-deductible donation to this project so that we can grow our work, create a greater impact, get out into more communities, spread the word about this living, breathing planet of which we are a part, in which we live, move, and have our being, without which we have no life, no being at all.
We need all of us. Help us be part of that “all” in a bigger, more effective way in 2013!