Reconsidering, reassessing, seeing ahead

Posted October 23rd, 2012 in Blog, Featured 2 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

You’ve probably noticed I haven’t posted in a while. If you haven’t noticed, then something ain’t right here, because we would want you to miss these posts, no? I’ve been pondering the future of this project lately, feeling the need to engage more fiercely this notion of the need to begin creating new ways of living in a world in which the old paradigms that have held us for a few centuries now, and especially since World War II, are collapsing.

Wounded Earth – by Mary Southard, CSJ

We are in a time of enormous transition. Frameworks of meaning that have held us in place are cracking all around us, leaving us adrift, anxious, afraid. They are not able to contain what we know about the future, what we’ve done to the planet, what we know now about our place in this universe. We reach out to find something to hold onto to keep us steady, and each time we do that we find that ‘something’ is collapsing along with us; it is not rooted, not held firmly in the ground of reality anymore.

How, then, to proceed…

I am working very hard to finish the draft of my new book. It is exhausting in all sort of ways, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and it needs its time in order to get done. I hope it will contribute something meaningful and even important to the conversation we need to be having about how we are going to live in this world as conditions deteriorate and our future prospects look more challenging with every passing day.

A reminder of the changes underway. June 29 2012, record heat wave. Source: UNISYS

Sometimes with all I’m engaging, it’s hard to put words to the thoughts and feelings. Lately I have read articles about the hunger crisis that will hit our world next year, about tar sands and fracking and frac-sand mining, about the climate crisis that is not just in our future but in our present, socio-psychological essays about the roots of our denial, why it is that even as permanent change descends upon our world – ecologically, economically, scientifically, spiritually – we continue to hold no longer reasonable or realistic expectations about life and tend to entrench even more fiercely within old frameworks of meaning that have already collapsed and can therefore no longer help us figure out how to proceed.

And have we ever seen a more woeful political year when nothing of what is actually going to reshape our world and our lives fundamentally is being addressed!?

Sometimes when I pay attention to many really important issues taking up so much good energy – from Iran sanctions to gay marriage, from “changing unjust structures” to getting to the heart of our still unhealed racism plague, from arguments over our future energy needs and sources, from Citizens United to voter suppression, I find myself thinking – are we aware of what global warming is going to mean for this world over the next couple of decades, how all these issues will collapse into the chaos and suffering that our failure to adapt, much less mitigate, is going to mean for us?

Sunday and Monday I attended the Ground for Hope conference here in the Milwaukee area, with keynote speakers Winona LaDuke (always an inspiration) and Ken Leinbach from the Urban Ecology Center. It was a great gathering, one of many I have been to that always leaves me with the question: “Now what?” After all this troubling, scary, challenging input, what happens next – right here in this area? Are we all going to just go back to our lives now thinking we can change this with a little advocacy here and there, but without fundamental changes in how we live, how we think, what we believe?

At one workshop, we learned that by 2055 Wisconsin’s average temperature will have risen an average 0f 4-9 degrees F from 1980. In winter that average will be 8 degrees F, 5-11 degrees depending on which part of the state you live in.

This year our absurdly warm winter (esp March when we were in the 80s for a time) resulted in a 94% loss of our cherry crop and 68% of the maple crop. I posted about this some months ago – just as the maple sugar people stuck their taps in the tree, we hit 85 and that was the end of their season – mid-March!!

The heat and then the drought (still severe to extreme in southern parts of the state) hit dairy farmers esp hard. Corn and soy were hit hard, but then some of us wish these crops would mostly go away in any case so that our farmland would go back to raising actual food. Still, the hit to the state economy was huge.

Projected Change in Winter Average Temperature (°F) from 1980 to 2055
The warming is projected to be largest in winter, with projected increases of 5-11°F by the mid-21st century across Wisconsin, with the greatest warming across northwest Wisconsin. Source: Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts

Often when I hear presentations like this, I wonder to myself, “And after 2055?” I mean, warming doesn’t stop all of a sudden because it’s mid-century. In fact, we are committed now to warming right through the rest of this century, and that’s if we cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% before 2025. What happens to Wisconsin’s temperature rise then? One of the images the speaker showed us was where Wisconsin would be placed on a map of the country when we reach these temperatures if the map were based on the old climate. We would be somewhere around Arkansas.

That’s this century. That’s in a few decades. Impacts will be catastrophic for aspects of our state’s economy and culture, not least of which will be the disappearance of most of our snow, of ice-fishing and other winter sports. Lakes will recede in the warming from evaporation, water quality will suffer, pests will increase along with the diseases they carry, and agriculture will be dramatically altered, esp if the continuation of long episodes of drought continue as they have in recent years.

And you thought the Great Plains was the only region under threat from tar sands oil? Think again!

Water sources are being contaminated, the tar sands pipeline is planned now to cut across my state and through New England to coastal ports for shipping. Yes, it’s true, we are just getting a handle on this plan. Western counties are being ruined forever by frac-sand mining and silica dust, which is sickening children and blowing over the fields of farmers who are trying to hang on to their way of life while some of their neighbors and friends sell out to the fracking industry.

Because you can make more money selling a lease than farming. Because we need to create jobs. Because people need to make a living.

You can see where this is headed…

Meanwhile, the other thing that’s going on is all the good work we heard about over the two days, the inspiring projects, the conversion of so many who are learning the wisdom of the planet, in part because the crisis itself has become our teacher. We are starting to listen to other voices than the ones that brought about the crisis, the political, cultural, religious voices that scream in our heads trying to hold an old order, an old understanding, in place even as that order crumbles all around us.

And so we go step by step along this road of hope, knowing it is going to be very bad, but knowing that we must in any case continue to create life in the midst of these challenges and the suffering they will bring.

We will not know what hit us: that’s already what’s been happening in the face of historic floods, drought, dust storms, crop failures, the accelerating pace of financial collapses, and huge demographic shifts occurring, including massive migration and immigration, because so many millions of people can no longer survive where they live.

Opportunity for despair or opportunity for a great leap forward. Into the ashes or out of them. A dead human or a new human.

Exciting, isn’t it? Choices don’t get much more exhilarating than this. It’s going to bring the best or the worst out in us, or more likely both. Do we want to be part of the demise, of what is crumbling, or part of the New Creation now coming about in our midst?

Leap, and the net will appear, as the saying goes (attributed to naturalist John Burroughs).

Final word: don’t look to politics for the path forward. It is not there. I think you know where it begins. Voting is not an act that changes my life, important as it is (and it is, do vote!). What changes my life is the encounter with the real. The more fully I open myself to that, the more profound the change.

What changes my life is when the radical nature of the threats to our future translates into a radically new way of living my life each and every day, with others, in community. When that happens on a massive scale, the politics will also change.

So, my friends, if the path is made by walking it, we best get going…


The Center for New Creation is the aptly named non-profit that is sponsor of my project. It was founded in 1979 and has a long inspiring history of working for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation. The work I am doing is not easily funded in the old paradigm. We are working now to contribute to the effort here in the Milwaukee area and beyond to muster up the courage to start that walking. You can help by making your tax-deductible contribution to our work. And thank you!



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2 Responses

  1. MIchael Harris

    Thank you for this beautifully constructed commentary. You seem to have touched on all of the issues that I have for so long been trying to synthesize into a coherent story – acknowledging that there is no coherency in that being described.

    peace, strength of vision – follow the beauty,


  2. Margaret

    Yes, we live in the incoherency as well. But the ‘coherence’ of this civilization is what is breaking down in any case.

    You are working on the Earth Charter? That is a beautiful work and best wishes in it.