Seeing the future from the vantage point of the young

Posted April 9th, 2012 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Seeing the future from the vantage point of the young

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

I should know this by now. Whenever I get really down about our future, I should go talk to high school kids. I seem to always walk away moved and inspired. We made a mess of things, I tell them, and we’re leaving you a difficult future. So we need to partner with you in creating a different future from the one that seems most likely, given our current trajectory and  cultural denial of the seriousness of our predicament.

The Blue Planet - Earth Observatory: NASA

I show them our beautiful planet floating out there in the blackness of space. I show them the results of population growth just in my lifetime (2.5 billion to the current 7 billion in just six decades – after it took 12,000 years to go from 300 million to 2.5 billion). I show them the grievous wounds to the earth from energy extraction (mountaintop removal coal mining, oil tars sands production, fracking, etc.). I show them pollution from industrial farms, chemical factories, and our mountains of trash and floating plastic waste islands out in the ocean. I talk about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

I watch their faces and sometimes adjust the presentation to what I see and feel from them – is it too much? Am I presenting in a way that communicates challenge, not despair? Am I challenging (hopefully) cultural expectations for a what a ‘good life’ means on a stressed and severely damaged planet? Am I getting their hearts, not just their heads?

This time, on Good Friday morning, it was a presentation at St. Lawrence Seminary High School in Mt. Calvary WI, a small town in a rural farming area about 60 miles north of Milwaukee. It’s an all-male student body, and I presented to them and to the faculty and staff, just before their Good Friday liturgy and then their release to spring break. I wondered if I would have their attention at all. The school is run by Capuchin Friars, who obviously have something special going on there.

The kids were great, attentive, taking it all in. Towards the end, I asked them if they were scared, and many said, “Yes!” And so I told them it was possible to get through this, to live in a way that the earth can support us as we move into a new way of life – if we can give up some of our expectations as consumers and begin living within the planet’s biocapacity. I always end with favorite photos of the earth’s beauty, of how that beauty still remains, and that we can work with that to learn how to live once more.

The faint little dot just above the left edge of the bright rings - that's us. Photo: Cassini Solstice Mission, JPL, NASA

And then I show them a series of photos of the earth from space – from the space station, from the moon, from the Galileo mission on its way to Jupiter, and farther out from Cassini orbiting Saturn, all the way to the Pale Blue Dot photographed, thanks to Carl Sagan, from the very edges of our solar system by Voyager I.

The Pale Blue Dot. The tiny smudge in the middle of the reddish sun ray - that's us! Photo: Visible Earth/NASA

That last series never fails to inspire. It still inspires me and I have done this dozens of times – to see that tiny speck of light that, as Sagan recounts, holds all of human history, everything we know and love. It remains incredibly unlikely, this planet with all its teeming life, so wouldn’t it be a good idea to take batter care of it?

Okay, that said, here are some stories I want to mention this morning:

* The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that that oil and gas fracking is causing the multitude of earthquakes across a wide swath of the country’s mid-section experienced in the past couple of years, probably from the injection of huge amounts of waste water deep into the earth. We are really messing with Mother Earth here. She did not intend this, and we are managing to shift dynamic energies that are beginning to literally shake things up. The fracking industry continues its rapid rise all across the country.

* Think the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is over? Think again. It was never really cleaned up, and it is still leaking, fish and other creatures are still dying or being contaminated, dead zones still exist and are growing, while BP has put lots of money into TV ads claiming all is well and tourists should return.  This is a must-read from The Progressive to appreciate how a corporate giant like BP can get away with ecocide.

* Here’s another story, hard to share because it hurts so much. This is from Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet (see sidebar for more from this wonderful site), Sonar May Have Killed Thousands of Dolphin Off Peru. Fact is, we have seen so many beached dolphins and whales in recent years, and Navy sonar has been blamed for some off our US coasts. Of course, the Navy does denial very well. But for oil and gas drilling? Could there be a clearer example of our disdain for our fellow creatures for the sake of our wanton human ways than this one? Now, as you take in this story, think about the research that shows us that dolphins have conscious self-awareness, strong communities, and rudimentary language. It kind of puts this suffering and death in a whole different light, doesn’t it?

Will we stop drilling over this mass murder? Doesn’t look like it, does it? Obama is striving for ‘energy security,’ and Latin nations are very eager to exploit every source of fossil fuel they have on or off their shores to take advantage of the booming energy market made possible by this kind of technology.

Then I think of those boys, those young men, and their earnest expressions. They asked me some of the best questions I have ever received in response to a presentation – thoughtful, informed, impassioned. Local politics asserted themselves, and I could tell that some questioners came from households that doubt the science. But they asked, and we had exchanges, and a couple of the young men came to me afterwards because they wanted to talk more, even though they were supposed to go to chapel and then home.

I hope I left a little resonance to go with them. When they asked what they could do, I suggested starting right where they are – when you go home, talk about these things with families and friends and in your parishes. When you come back, learn your bioregion, start school discussions and projects. There is so much to learn, and so much more to learn when we do it together.

Our little treehugger

My two-and-a-half year old godchild is a treehugger – literally. When she plays outside in the yard, she will stop now and then and approach these two grand old trees. She balances her feet walking up one of the roots to the tree, puts her arms around it, and rests her face against the trunk. It is precious beyond belief. If more parents gave the gift of this kind of love to their kids, exposed them to this kind of love, I know we would have a different future. We will try to protect and defend what we love.

And then I also wonder – she is giving love to the tree, just imagine what that tree is passing on into her?

Today we remain on a rare, even unprecedented statewide fire watch because of the lack of snow this winter, dry conditions, and that crazy March heat wave (temps in the mid-80s, still hard to believe that happened). Farmers worry because blossoms opened early, before bees were out to pollinate them, and now are facing nighttime freezes. While the scientific studies continue, and scientists remain reluctant to consign any weather event to climate change, weather ‘weirding’ has become part of our reality on the planet now. We are in a grand experiment with our atmosphere, and we are ourselves the subjects of that experiment. Do we really want to continue to play this game?

Still, still – we go on as if none of this means anything to our way of life. We are creating earthquakes, killing off fellow creatures, creating dead zones, and altering the world’s climate – and today people got up and went back to their lives as if none of this was happening.

Our youth need us to partner with them. This is their future we are creating, or the conditions of their future. This culture best do some serious soul-searching, and fast.

As for me, I’m sticking with the treehugging toddlers and high school kids over the naysayers, deniers, politicians, and corporations. They simply do a better job of knowing and telling the truth.

by Margaret Swedish

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