Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on culture and meaning
Are you enjoying the weather? We are going to be 35 degrees above normal today. Much of the country is experiencing record warmth. This is not one of those occasional Spring flings, a quick tease heralding the promise of warmer weather, followed by quick descent back to reality; this is a persistent pattern that has been keeping our temps above normal all winter long.
The other day we had a thunderstorm worthy of June, torrential downpours, hail, flooded streets. Warm air, holding lots of moisture, just exploded across the state. Spring downpours and floods are becoming a regular feature of our southern Wisconsin springs – except rarely this early.
Climate change? Well, of course it is. The fact that we keep dancing around that reality is a sign of a species in serious denial.
Now here’s a contrast in how this gets talked about within the culture. Today, the NY Times has a scary front page article on the threat that sea level rise poses to about 3.7 million people living too close (meaning, too disrespectfully) to the coast as predictions of a one-foot rise in the next few decades become more certain.
Note that the reality of global warming as the driver behind this is mentioned in the very first sentence:
“About 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades because of the sea level rise caused by global warming, according to new research.”
Of course, this matters in New York and New Jersey because those states are facing a very destructive and costly future. This is local news. And the NY Times does try to provide some very good journalism on climate change and the human-induced global warming that is a major factor in that change.
Now contrast this with today’s front page article on our unnerving March weather here in Milwaukee:
Read the descriptions here of all the ways in which nature, sentient and non-sentient beings, are responding to this craziness, birds returning weeks early, eggs being laid weeks early, flowers and trees blooming weeks early (last night, one weather forecaster noted that we are seeing record-early pollen counts), and on and on. See if you can find what is missing in this article. See if you can find anywhere a reference to global warming or climate change.
Nowhere in the local media has anyone pronounced a single downside to what we are experiencing. It’s all la la la la la la la la la – it’s all happy face joy at this burst of warm weather.
And so we remain, as a culture, uniquely unable to reflect from our own concrete, biological/physical experiences and relationships within our ecosystems on the trouble we are in, on the changes all around us.
This is incredible to me. I see no sign that this species understands at all the danger that looms in our future (except among the few hearty souls including scientists, conservationists, eco-spirituality communities, etc.). Instead, we are still debating how to grow the economy, how to do more drilling, fracking, and mining so that we can compete better in the global economy and ‘grow it’ – yes, grow it like Monsanto super-weeds and super-insects- or how to create more manufacturing jobs to make more stuff so we can buy more stuff to keep the engine of the economy churning along.
This is what scares me most about our species these days – our ability to adapt, our ability to keep absorbing shock after shock, mega-change after mega-change, and still largely go on as we are, to ignore completely the inescapable reality that this very path, this going on as we are, is exactly what is bringing about this crisis that will impact every aspect of our lives.
I have a frustration because we are still being too timid about articulating the crisis, and when we do articulate it, we still try to soften the message so that it won’t be too hard, too scary. This is not working; it is not working.
Right now, I’m reading the new book by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Authentic Hope, from Orbis Books, It’s the End of the World as We Know It, but Soft Landings Are Possible. At first, it almost felt like a response or companion book to mine, Living Beyond the ‘End of the World’ (see sidebar). I look for authentic hope all the time because to be authentic it must be steeped in reality.
I am a great admirer of Nelson-Pallmeyer’s work, and the book tells the truth about the trouble we’re in. But as I read the latter pages of chapter two, for example, where he presents the soft-landing possibilities, I found myself frustrated yet again. It’s not that the proposed possibilities are not, well, possible – they have in fact been written about over and over again for a long time – it’s that they are not going to happen because the nations and cultures of the world are not going to do them – certainly not at a scale commensurate with the crisis.
The problem is not that we don’t have proposed solutions that could help ease our way through what is now bound to be a tumultuous and painful transition on this planet, it is that we are not committed to making the cultural, economic, political turn that they require. I mean, you who are reading this – do you see that turn occurring at the scale required?
What I do see that gives me hope is that underneath that ‘dominant paradigm’, if you will (not one of my favorite terms), are small cultures growing up likes weeds through the cement cracks of the dying culture. This does not give me hope that the shift will happen in a way that ensures soft landings (though we ought to continue working to convince more and more people in that direction), but that when the harsh landings occur (for instance, those already written into the climate change scenario because we did not stop industrial society in time to avoid what is now occurring and will continue to unfold over the next couple centuries), these communities of weeds that have been nurtured all through the crises, will continue to grow and strengthen and be there to continue the human journey when this whole commodified techno-industrial civilization has crumbled.
When the foundations of the old civilization crumble to the point where the weight of it cannot hold and the whole thing collapses, when all that gives way, these new incipient communities will have the space to flourish, to renew life and its meaning, or I should say its many and diverse meanings – because we will have learned once again to cherish diversity as a foundation of ecological health and wholeness – and the next evolutionary step will have occurred.
But I no longer think it helpful to tell people there is a ‘soft’ way to do this. We have pushed the limits way too far, have crossed too many ecological boundaries. I don’t think ‘authentic’ hope rests in the soft landings; I think it rests in the courage to face what is coming, to be completely honest about how hard it will be, and then to go on building the new human communities in any case.
And I think we need to be honest about who ‘we’ are as a species. Yes, many humans are certainly wired to basic fairness, cooperation, and compassion. But we are a long ways yet from a world in which these are the predominant traits of our global economy or most of our societies. We are still generations away from that promise, which is held some place deep within our evolutionary consciousness. But our ecological communities do not have generations of human time available to hold them in balance.
And so we will have to learn how to live within, and beyond,the breakdowns of that balance. They are already occurring. As referenced in the NY Times article, you will know we are changing as a culture to something approaching the true dimensions of the crisis when the federal and state governments, with the support of our population, begin organizing a massive retreat from the coasts during this century. It will take decades to do this, so we ought to have begun some time ago. We rebuilt New Orleans instead. And for yet another brilliant example of what I mean, don’t miss this article:
Thing is, if we were to come to terms with the actual threats facing us, the ones that cannot be stopped no matter what we do now (we’re pretty much committed to at least a one-ft sea level rise, for example), we would have to come to terms with the way of life that created it.
So, you weedy communities, keep building in the cracks, keep emerging from the collapsing foundations, because you are necessary – not because the landings will be soft, but because they will be hard, and you will have shown there is a path through and beyond the collapses to new ways of life within a vastly altered world.
Need less, love more, make compassion the heart of everything, get radically simple, quiet down, breathe deeply, spend time with your family and friends, grow your own food or support those who do this locally, build your networks of support, do unto others as you would want done unto you. Make sharing what is needed for a good life the heart of the new human economy. On these things rests the future of our humanity.