Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Developers v Protectors

This is indeed one of the decisive struggles of our time because they represent powerfully divergent views of how humans view Nature, Mother Earth, Gaia.

Is the Earth a vast dead mass of resources that, by way of our human brilliance and ingenuity, we have figured out how to exploit to advance our industrial/technological/consumer economic way of life, with all the comfort, convenience and species privilege that comes with it? Or is it a living organism within which all the systems that make life possible are interconnected, including the human who is not over and above Nature but embedded within it, within the web that holds life and makes life possible?

If we believe it's the first one, we will continue to shred that web - to violently extract, produce, consume, and waste until the Earth is left irreversibly damaged, depleted, its living systems in various states of collapse - until some point where the weakened web can no longer hold us. We will continue to build high-end housing developments in farmland and rural areas, in deserts and mountain forests, on ocean beaches and lake shorelines, with no thought to the disruption of habitats that keep those places healthy, less prone to things like floods and wildfires, without thought to all the living creatures that dwell in these places in a balance of life carefully crafted over millions of years of evolution. We will continue to build oil and gas pipelines, dams and irrigation systems, as humans try to subdue Nature to their whims and desires.
Dakota Access Pipeline - ripping through Mother Earth

If we believe it's the second one, and realizing the damage already done and the serious threats to life from climate change, biodiversity loss, toxic contamination seeping through all of Nature (including our own bodies), we will start from this moment on to devote our lives to healing and protecting all that made our species' existence possible, all that gave us fullness of life, including beauty and awe and wonder and a sense of our "place" within the whole of creation.
Protectors in North Dakota. See:

Doesn't that conflict of views sound about right? The planet is showing significant signs that we are pushing it to a breaking point, as industrial civilization is in a kind of last desperate throes to extract what it can before minerals, fossil fuels, metals of all kinds needed for our consumer culture run out; as we open more giant wounds to extract gold, iron ore, copper, oil, and gas because most of what's left is buried deep in the earth; as struggles over access to water and arable land intensify around the world; as we reach frightening thresholds in our climate system and we sense in our bodies and psyches that the world in which most of us grew up has become profoundly unstable.

And that none of those things are "fixable" within the context of our lives, of what is known and familiar, including at the base level of our old paradigms and belief systems.

What a time to be alive! And how weighty our decisions about our lives have become!

Can we handle it? Can we handle being alive at so momentous a time as this? I hope so, because our lives have never had more significance than they do now. We can be part of a human project to bring down as gently, and justly, as possible this era of western economic civilization, while engaging at the same time in a project in which we learn again how to live here, to pull back from this era of "separation" from Nature (as if that was ever possible) and rediscover who we are as a species within the whole of creation.

Sounds momentous to me, a cure for boredom or feelings of meaninglessness, for gazing endlessly at screens by which we keep ourselves distracted from all the fears and anxieties that accompany changes of such magnitude.

So, let's look at just a few indicators of the changes upon us right now. As I have often done in the past, I want to just share links to some recent articles that reveal our predicament:
Scientists "too frightened" to tell truth on climate impacts
The World Passes 400 PPM Threshold. Permanently
No fracking, drilling or digging: it's the only way to save life on Earth, by George Monbiot
Human Consumption of Earth's Natural Resources Has Tripled in 40 Years
Timber Company Tells California Town, Go Find Your Own Water
The Extinction Crisis
Arctic methane gas emission 'significantly increased since 2014' - major new research
Depressed yet? And you know I could go on. Every day I take time in the morning to look at the news of the planet, and it is sobering reading. I ask myself why I do this and remind myself that I have chosen this work, that we need to look at this full on - because looking at it halfheartedly, or in fear of what it reveals to us, or because we don't want to get all depressed - well, that approach certainly isn't helping us deal with it. I think we need to believe in ourselves a little more, and we need to detach things like meaning and success and achievement and ego identity from these ways of life that are destroying the life-bearing systems and communities of our planet.

We need to stop "developing" the planet, imposing our western economic lifestyles over it as the Conquerors did over this continent, as we have never ceased doing, often with great violence and brutality, forcing submission. We have to stop seeing the meaning of life in our capacity to acquire possessions or in striving for certain standards of living or status, which requires a growth economy like this to support those strivings, because if that is how we define meaning, then meaning has written into it a looming ecocide.

When we surface mine for tar sands goo, when we fracture shale rock deep in the Earth to free up oil and gas creating earthquakes and contamination and methane gas releases, or open enormous wounds in the planet to mine the rare earth minerals for our smart phones and computers which corporate shareholders need you to replace every year or two, or for enormous houses (or two or 3) and world travel whenever we feel like it or have the means - when we surface mine or spew lethal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere for lives to which we feel entitled no matter the cost to the living organism in which all life here must live - we are still acting the roll of the Conqueror, still insisting on subjugation of life to our desires.

Tar sands wasteland - Alberta
Except now it is catching up with us. Now even the Conqueror is beginning to realize that he/she is destroying his/her own home.
Alberta's boreal forest before tar sands extraction

Tough stuff, all that. Tough input. Tough reality. We're not arguing a point of view here, or opinion, just what the science tells us, that font of knowledge, also part of our western intellectual history, but the part we conveniently ignore when we don't like what those gifted minds reveal to us about how Nature works.

This past weekend I was at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton WI on the other side of Lake Mendota from the state capitol of Madison. I was part of a planning committee that met for over a year to plan a retreat day: Ecology and Spirit- the Sacredness of Place. I was invited to do the keynote address and with that theme - I mean, this is right up my alley, as they say. The title for my powerpoint presentation was, A Spirituality of Place. Sounds lovely, but, given the need for reality-telling, I went into a deep reflection on how western economic thinking and practice is wrecking our "places" all over the world and how living a spirituality of place means engaging in the interrelationships we have with all that gives life to these places.

Forty students from nearby Edgewood College were among the participants. I prepare these programs with a sobering sense of the heaviness of some of the information for young people who are going to live through many of the traumatic changes underway now, but also with a sense of the importance of their lives to how this story is going to go, in which direction. I always try to take us to that place where we see the significance of our lives now, how important they are to the future, how they have the opportunity to offer their best talents and passions to the project of creating a new - and better - future, despite what humans will have to endure to get there.

And I am always moved by how they take up the challenge.

The monastery itself is a special example of what we mean by the sacredness of place and a spirituality that emerges out of place. These Benedictine Women of Madison have made the 150+ acres that belong to the community into an eco-wonder. They tore down the old, aging, energy inefficient school building and built in its place a new LEED-certified monastery building - platinum, no less. They also began a prairie restoration project, one that is so much part of who they are now that the prairie almost feels like another member of the community.

What a great site to talk about a "spirituality of place!" And what a great location to show people how it is that, in our places, we can begin the process of re-knitting the torn threads of that web of life.

Restored Wisconsin prairie
But here's where the title of this essay comes into play. Adjacent to their property, a developer has bought up hundreds of acres of farmland and plans to build hundreds of up-scale housing units. As you drive by this site, just before reaching the entrance to the monastery grounds, you see a sign that says, "Come live on the prairie!" - which we are about to compromise and shred (that part is not on the sign).

You can imagine the fear and mourning that has hit the heart of the community and all who participate in its life. Me, too, now that I have come to know and love it.

Developers v Protectors - who will love the land, our places, enough that we will stop the needless destruction and learn how to live in sync with, in community with, in respect for the places in which we live, to reverence the sacred right there where we are. Even in our urban environments, many are learning again how to do this - with community gardens and new food networks, with restoration of rivers and wetlands and lake shores, in residential areas where lawns are being replaced with native plants, in desires among millions of us for smaller dwellings and walkable neighborhoods, bike rentals, and fewer cars. It's happening all over the place, but this trend is still overwhelmed by consumer desires for bigger houses, more exurban development, more SUVs, more tech toys, and corporate-driven politics that insist on the need for "growth," that measures the health of the economy by how much stuff we're buying.

Alice's Garden, urban agriculture in Milwaukee - I garden there
So, we need to commit to doing all we can to turn that tide. We need to choose sides here. I use the term "developers" aware that not everyone doing "development" is badly intended. One could argue that the Benedictine women are also engaged in development. But their form is to allow Nature to heal and recover, and then get out of its way as much as possible. Humans need to learn once again how to enter into "places," and to learn to live with real humility and respect within them lest we continue to tear at the webs of life until they can no longer hold us.

We need to become the Earth's protectors, protectors of the communities of life in the places where we dwell.

~ Margaret Swedish

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