We’re not destroying the planet, we’re destroying ourselves

Posted August 10th, 2014 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on We’re not destroying the planet, we’re destroying ourselves

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

The Time to Act is Now, a Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change composed  by Zen teacher Dr David Loy and senior Theravadin teacher Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, has garnered considerable attention in the Buddhist world. The Dalai Lama was the first person to sign on. At the end, it makes this appeal:

We have a brief window of opportunity to take action, to preserve humanity from imminent disaster and to assist the survival of the many diverse and beautiful forms of life on Earth. Future generations, and the other species that share the biosphere with us, have no voice to ask for our compassion, wisdom, and leadership. We must listen to their silence. We must be their voice, too, and act on their behalf.

Which is sadly very, very true – the window of opportunity is very brief and getting briefer by the day.

Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, said the other day that the world has to take strong action by 2050, and when I read that I thought about all the other times when it was said that we had to do something by a certain year, many of them already long past. Thing is, it’s too late to avert climate change (it is changed and changing), and too late to save many of the species, forests, and waterways endangered or already dead or extinct. The oceans are acidifying and warming, ice sheets and glaciers are melting irretrievably now, people in Miami Beach are already wading through the streets, and if anyone thinks this world is prepared to stop business as usual to take the kind of drastic action  by 2050 (which involves overturning completely this whole industrial capitalist system, kind of like Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers), well, think again.

In Colorado, courts and legislators from both parties just stopped local communities from banning fracking or even putting the issue on the ballot. So much for democracy. We know who the politicians work for.

Even Buddhists sound like voices in the desert on this issue, which may be what can bring two critical spiritual/revolutionary threads together – those Christians who believe that revelation flows through the very course of creation itself and therefore to abuse it is to abuse the essence of life and meaning, and Buddhists who appreciate deeply that this whole pathological economic system is founded on ego, separation, clinging, possessing, and boatloads of fear. In both traditions, the heart of the matter is suffering and how to heal suffering by deeply penetrating the understanding of its causes and seeking to root them out. And in the best of both traditions (at least as far as I’m concerned), there is a call to take action on behalf of the world and one another – those others including all sentient and non-sentient beings that knit this world – life – together.

Last week I spent several days with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary to offer some reflections for one of their annual community days. I came ahead of time because I wanted to get to know the community a bit before speaking to and with them – not just the human community but the eco-community of which they are an integral part. This year they are celebrating 150 years on a piece of land in Western PA – 750 or so acres of organic farm, woods, wetlands, and more. From the moment I arrived I could feel the love these women – and those who work the land – have for this sacred place.

And this is what has also arrived on the border of their property and around their neighborhood – fracking wells. They started drilling this one on August 1.

Fracking well near the boundary of Villa Maria

Fracking well near the boundary of Villa Maria

HilCorp Energy Co., a giant in the fracking world, has played hardball with the sisters and others around them. They often won leases by telling something drastically less than the truth, and sometimes by outright lies (like telling their neighbors that the sisters had signed, and telling the sisters that neighbors had signed when this was not true, a common tactic among fracking companies).

For more info on HilCorp and fracking in Western PA, see:

Drilling company could force Pennsylvania landowners to allow fracking under their land

HilCorp Energy plans two wells…

Dangers of Fracking the Topic at Villa Maria

Ohio says fracking caused earthquakes, will require monitoring

The sisters live near the OH border and have felt some of these tremors in recent weeks.

So in many ways this was a profound meditation on the whole of the human dilemma right now – the confrontation between Earth as Gaia, One magnificent web of life, supportive of a creative process that made us possible and which many spiritual traditions down through the ages have seen as an unfolding wonder and mystery; and Earth as resource for industrial expansion to be used for human “advancement” as well as to gain power and wealth.


New well under construction – the opposite of NIMBY

It’s painful to see the fear among some of the people on the land as they realize that even with their strong commitment to never allow fracking on their property, they cannot control what will happen underneath them as the company drills down, fractures the shale (this is the Utica Shale play), and pours toxic water and sand into the wells to force up the gas. By the time I left, I felt an intense connection to the love of this place, the fear, the understanding that as wells are being constructed, permanent damage is already being done – wells sprouting out of the corn fields.

New well rising out of the corn field

New well rising out of the corn field

But if I had to put a bet on the future, I would bet on these women. For all the damage being done around them, they are committing even more deeply to the land, to their responsibility and legacy there, to deepening the relationship, and working with the larger community in PA to slow down and one day put an end to this destructive industry.

It’s this act of faith that I am learning to trust – this faith that even amidst the damage and the losses, some of them permanent, there are enough humans with strong spiritual bonds to the Earth as sacred and gracious and revelatory that we can be of service to the new life that the Earth will surely bring forth, even as an old evolutionary era ends by the deliberate actions of its most voracious species.

The headline for this post comes from a photo essay and interview on the One Earth Sangha website entitled, “Are We Willing to Look?” I invite you to visit the page, to read the interview slowly and with deep intention as you view the photos, and see what it leaves unsettled within you. It is from that place that we find the deepest motivation to work fast and radically to do our part in “The Great Turning” – the turning away from industrial culture to new ways of life and meaning that can allow this planet to heal itself.

As the photographer J. Henry Fair says:

I really don’t like this phrase, “Oh, we’re destroying the planet.” No, we’re destroying ourselves.

Yes. Whatever we do to the planet, it will move into a new evolutionary era. It’s life will not be over, but something new and unrecognizable will emerge and life will keep humming along. Earth doesn’t need us to go on with its evolution. Our decision is really about whether or not we want to be a part of it, to see what we ourselves might be capable of thanks to our gifts of consciousness, spirituality, thought, and culture (the search for meaning).

And I agree wholeheartedly that much of that decision will come down to whether or not we are willing to not buy that smart phone or eat that next hamburger, because a lot of people doing ecological work are far from realizing that those are the very actions that are consuming the planet we need for life. If we insist on those things, if we insist that in our case it’s okay, or that we can save the planet without a drastic reconstruction of how we will live here (resting deeply on simplicity, staying home and rooted, and giving up most of our consumer items), the Earth will dismiss us without any regret.

It’s not a decision about the Earth we face so much as a decision about ourselves – and those always come a whole lot harder.


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