Making the turn…

Posted February 20th, 2012 in Blog, Featured Comments Off

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on culture and meaning:

I will be posting a bit less frequently while I work on my new book. Please stay tuned, and do share this website around your circles of friends, colleagues, communities. We need to cross-fertilize our hopes and dreams for the future, for the life we must begin to create right now. Sharing thoughts and dialogue on sites like these is one way to do that.

Exceeding the safe operating spaces for humanity. Source: Nature and Grist

As usual, so much on my mind. When I ponder the necessary “Great Turning,” the phrase made famous by Joanna Macy and then David Korten, I often imagine this enormous supertanker out in the ocean steaming ahead at full speed towards a major wreck. It takes hours and many miles to slow it down and then make the turn to avoid the crash. Like the Titanic, if the threat is perceived too late for the turning, the crash happens no matter how hard you press on the wheel.

Or a freight train zooming along at high speed, only to discover that there is a major obstacle on the track ahead. Again, it takes miles to slow down, and if the obstacle is discovered too late, well, BAM!

Life feels like that sometimes, no? We know we are headed for disaster, but we don’t know how to slow this freight train down. We aren’t even prepared yet to press hard on the wheel to begin to turn the giant techno-industrial supertanker around, and so it heads towards a logical outcome, given our planetary limits and the extent of our overreach and our levels of contamination of everything we need to live.

Right now, I am reading the book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery. I was terrified after the first chapter. How does he put it? “We are skinning the earth…,” literally scraping off the top layer of the magnificent soil that we need in order to grow food, in order to live. We began doing this with iron tools and plows, and now we do it with giant machines that plant and harvest our industrial so-called food. It takes centuries for the earth to build back soil once it has eroded or become salinated. Doesn’t matter to Monsanto or Conagra or ADM or the big corporate farms. Their short-term profits are humanity’s future starvation.

I read hopeful things, too, like the story of the 300,000 organic farmers who are suing Monsanto for the corporation’s

Organic vegetable cultivation

constant assaults on their right to grow healthy uncontaminated food, the constant threats of lawsuits to drive them out of business, the constant harassment motivated by the company’s destructive genetically modified seeds. We should all root for them if we care about having food in the future. These farmers, and others like the young farmers networking in the online community, The Greenhorns, are making the turn. We tug hard on that wheel when we support the food co-ops, Community-Supported Agriculture, and farmers’ markets that sell their produce, even when it costs more.

Okay, here’s another example of the problem, and it’s deeply embedded nature. My local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, just offered a major front-page  exposé on the financial ties among doctors and pharmaceutical companies that are fueling the breathtaking market for narcotic painkillers, a situation that has created a major addiction problem across the nation and a whole new kind of criminal activity. It’s a classic example of corporate and individual greed: a medicine made for a very specific purpose – short-term pain relief after surgery, or to treat pain from advanced cancer, for example – becomes ubiquitous by using it for all sorts of chronic pain. After all, there is just so much profit to be made from the truly sick.

This whole class of opioids, drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin, are becoming one of the nation’s major health threats, not what a lot of doctors expected when they started prescribing them. But as this report indicates, a lot of doctors have jumped on the bandwagon and are gaining personal wealth by pushing them on their patients.

So, my question back to this crazy culture – do you really want private corporations making our health decisions for us? Do we really want our doctors to be morally undermined by dangling wealth-generation motives in front of them as in this case? I frankly cannot believe that we put our health, our bodies, in the hands of corporations whose business it is to make profits for their shareholders! You simply cannot mesh together that motivation and health; they are so, so often in conflict with one another, as we have seen in the debate over health insurance.

Yet we can’t even have a national conversation about a public health system. We were made to feel this notion to be ridiculous, even as the US sinks in international ratings on health services outcomes. We have a terrible, terrible health system in this country, unless you are very wealthy.

And then there is the turn – so many alternative health services being provided at the grassroots level, community clinics, preventive health programs, a growing skill-base for alternative healing methods like acupuncture and therapeutic massage, yoga (unless taught as an exercise program, then it is not yoga), again the turn to organic foods, nutrition programs in schools and inner city churches, etc…

Bad air day in Milwaukee. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Occasionally we see movement even at the macro-level. Last week, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton announced that the US would join together with several other countries in an effort to reduce emissions of certain pollutants that contribute to health problems (like asthma, heart and various lung diseases) and to global warming. Frustrated with the slow pace of UN negotiations on addressing climate change, the group will focus not on carbon but rather pollutants such as soot, methane (a powerful greenhouse gas), and hydrofluorocarbons, which together are major sources of the emissions that are heating up the atmosphere.

When action fails in one space, make change in another – making the turn. As more hands pull hard on the wheel, the culture can begin to change; the ship begins to turn, ever so slowly.

We don’t give up because we can’t. We don’t give up because getting more hands on that wheel is about the most important thing we can do with our lives right now. Creating a new human presence on this battered planet is part of our essential mission, what gives life meaning.

See if going shopping this weekend at the mall, or buying unneeded stuff on amazon.com, can fulfill your life anywhere near what this work can do.

Making the turn – not knowing if we can do it in time to avoid the catastrophe, but doing it anyway. Because the other course would mean surrendering our lives and our future to the disaster.

How do we do this? As the above examples imply, by wresting our lives as much as we can from the industrial corporate machine. There is so much we have that we don’t need, and so much that we want in life that cannot be purchased. So the more we focus on the latter, the more we can free ourselves from the former.

We know what he needs to be happy. Photo by the dad

What the corporate world wants us to believe is that we need them in order to be happy. We need to break that spell, that lie. We need to wrest our lives from their power, re-create the business world as a sector that should be at the service of good life and well-being, rather than our being at the service of their profit-making and their corporate bottom line.

That would be a great turning, indeed, and it will take time. Best get started because the iceberg looms dead ahead. And then, if we do end up crashing, we will have one another, new communities, to go through the hard time together, a new life already created by what we begin now.

We make the turn together, or we do not make it at all.

Margaret Swedish

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