What do you say after a year like this one – Part Two

Posted January 7th, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on What do you say after a year like this one – Part Two

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

Here’s the thing: we are either going to grab hold of this greatest challenge in human evolution, or we are going to fail as a species. And that failure will come about in two possible ways: either through sudden collapses or catastrophes, or through a slower erosion of quality of life and ecological depletion until survival is no longer possible.

Either one of these “failure scenarios” is pretty horrifying to contemplate…

So, for one thing, it is stunning and even shocking to realize that we have arrived at such a crossroads – one brought about by our own industrial and technological development, along with our unsurpassed ability to breed, to reproduce and multiply, in part because of that human version of development.

14th Street in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. It’s not working…

That what has given us so much success as a species is also bringing about our collapse as a species is a pretty hard psychological and intellectual leap to make, and the resistance is very strong – the understandable tendency is to believe that what has worked for centuries will certainly continue to work, despite the growing evidence. The part we didn’t have to consider until the 1970s and 1980s is that we only did this, we were only able to build this industrial/technological civilization, by taking more and more of what we needed from the natural world in order to support this brilliant success at species adaptation, and, as it turns out, more than the planet could sustain indefinitely.

The crisis we face now is that we passed that moment of “long term” concern, that point where we might have had time to prepare, to change orientation, to shift the economy away from industrial growth and towards an ecological economy, and instead rushed headlong into a short-term, potentially fatal crisis.

The crisis of our survival on a healthy planet is no longer decades in front of us. It is now present and immediate. Beginning in the 1980s we passed the earth’s biocapacity – taking more from it than it can replace, putting more waste into it than it can absorb, while toxifying the atmosphere and biosphere, until the earth can no longer support our success as a species. 2012 was chock full of indicators of those limits and the resulting stresses they cause to the human psyche, to climate systems, to the global economy, to eco-systems, to outmoded nation-states, as we reach and surpass those limits.

It’s just really not working. Source: US Global Change Research Program

Now every single thing we do as humans has an impact that we must consider. One example from yesterday’s NY Times – what is happening to the price of corn, to extremes of poverty, to indigenous communities and local economies in Guatemala because of our ethanol industry-backed legislation that forces us to put ethanol into the gasoline we use to power our cars.

As Biofuel Demands Grow, So Do Guatemala’s Hunger Pangs

We don’t want to think about this when we put these fuels in our cars, nor does the powerful ethanol lobby want Congress to backtrack from the push to add even more ethanol to the gasoline mixture. Here in Wisconsin, and in my neighbor state of Illinois, ethanol has remade the agriculture economy. We aren’t growing food anymore, we’re growing fuel, and the result is the theft of well-being, and the most important spiritual and cultural symbol, for the Guatemalan people.

What to do…that keeps being the challenging question.

Watching the disarray in Washington and the determination to break the back of the “social contract” that has held this fractious nation together since the Great Depression and World War II, I have little hope in the political process. People who want to save the conditions for human life on this planet (which means saving conditions for millions of our fellow living species as well) simply do not have the influence to shift the politics at the federal level, except through movement-building, mass actions, and other forms of protest. The parties have failed us in regard to the planetary crisis. Even my young State Senator Chris Larson, who I thought had greener and bolder credentials regarding ecological realities, supports a version of a mining bill that would tear open a deep, miles-long wound in the North Woods, an open pit iron ore mine, which product will be sent to China for their industrial development – but with “environmental protections.”

1200-ft deep Empire Mine, Cliffs Michigan Operations, Palmer MI, what Gogebic Taconite wants to do in the WI North Woods. It’s not working…

Dear Sen. Larson – an open pit mine by definition destroys environment…

In the name of “job creation,” the best our politicians seem able to conjure up is a continuation of what they (we) know, the very kind of industrial economy that has brought us to the ecological precipice.

Two types of boldness required now

But while we work to create and develop movements, we must be bold in two areas: 1) in what we say – you know, that whole business of truth-telling without fearing the fear, denial, and anger it often elicits; and, 2) in what we create, the new networks, communities, extended families, and protected “spaces” in which the new way of life can gestate and come into existence.

In regard to the first area, one can hardly expect a politician who is a full-time campaign fundraiser to get out in front of his or her constituents to announce the ecological crisis. I mean, that is what is needed, but none of them are going to do it. Andrew Cuomo came dangerously close in regard to climate change when speaking in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But just like the period after the mass-shooting in Newtown CT when gun violence was being talked about for a little while in a more comprehensive way than we are used to, we actually do begin to get distracted yet again and go back to our lives – despite massacred children and completely destroyed ocean communities.

We are actually getting used to shocks and disasters. This is a downside of our adaptive capabilities – we get used to the danger signals to the point where we experience them as ordinary life rather than, well, danger signals. We adapt – and go on. Nothing changes except the scale of the crisis looming for us. The ecological overhang is getting pretty damned threatening, but who is taking time to glance up and have a look at it (especially if it means taking our eyes off all those little screens we’re staring into)?

While DC gets all in a tizzy about our fiscal deficit, the deficit that will eventually kill us all, or make life miserable beyond endurance, gets no mention at all – our ecological deficit.

Here in the Milwaukee area, a group of us are meeting to ponder opening a “space” for truth-telling, deep conversation, community-building, education and collective advocacy, that would bring together some of the best expressions already in existence here – among organizations, institutions, and individuals – in order to begin manifesting the new ecological culture that must, must emerge now – everywhere. We are pretty clear that we can’t save the world, we can’t save the planet (which doesn’t need saving, it will be fine with or without us until the sun begins its death and dying a few billion years from now), we can’t even save the nation. But we can look at the world, the planet, the nation in a deep way, in community, to learn all that we must learn in order to do “New Creation” in a manner that responds authentically to what we learn and know.


This might work…

It is from all these small expressions – and from the humility of our appreciation that we are, remain, and always will be one among millions of species on this magnificent planet striving for life – that we might find our future. As these communities grow, like seedlings in a forest, we may one day grow into the kind of movement that really does remake a world. We can put some real oxygen into the living systems of our human and eco-communities. It is time to go deep into personal, communal, and social transformation; and it is time to connect that with strong collective action in the defense of a human future within this planet.

There is no part of us, including our thinking minds and beautiful spirits, that is not part of Nature – emerging from out of it, evolving through it, going to a future we cannot and never will be able to see. We can only trust that there is meaning in it all, a reason for the journey.

One of my favorite icons: by Bro. Robert Lentz OFM. This really might work…

Multiple mythological, religious, and cultural ‘understandings’ about that meaning have come and gone in our human history. Too often they become impediments to the change necessary when reality, when what we come to learn from experience and knowledge, challenges old belief systems – from Keynesian or Marxist ideologies to religious orthodoxies based in cosmologies that no longer describe our world. We have to get passed all of that, too. We have to let go anything that does not serve us now in the search, in the urgency, to create this new way of life as the old breaks down.

This can sound awfully depressing and stressful – OR, it can sound like the greatest adventure ever put before the human community. Remember that we have evolved to this moment. The way we have proliferated as a species was ingenious and potentially fatal. The brilliance of the human is that we also evolved consciousness that is not only about technological prowess, but also about ethics, and meaning, and spirituality, and the search for something greater than ourselves. And it is that latter brilliance that is the well we must go to know for our survival.


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