Thursday, May 25, 2017

It won't work unless we begin to think and work within the truth of interconnection, the healing of broken relationships

It was 47 years ago that the first "Earth Day" was marked in this country. It emerged out of a deep sense that our planet was moving into a crisis mode, that population growth and unlimited consumerism was not sustainable, that lethal smog in our cities, contamination of fresh water sources by dirty industries, toxic waste, and more were making people sick, shortening the lives of our children, posing long-term health threats.

John McConnell's Earth Day flag

We started to care about the quality of the food we ate, how it was raised, how it was sourced.

47 years! It seems that as a species, as supposedly smart educated westerners, as a culture here in this country, we have failed miserably at avoiding environmental catastrophe. One chief reason that remains almost impossible to talk about (even in a workshop with loads of graphs and scientific info and dramatic photos): we refuse to give up the economic aspirations of our capitalist consumer culture.

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Every movement, every social change group, every non-profit organization working to "better" the world has to stop now and then to rethink things. How are we doing? Is the work having an impact? Is the orientation of the work still appropriate for the moment? What has changed in the culture that needs attention, that may alter the work we do under our mission? Is the mission itself still relevant?

I've been doing a lot of reflecting on the work of these past 10 years to get a better sense of how that has evolved, how our roots in the intersection of ecology and spirituality have deepened but also been challenged. I've pondered this question, raised it among many friends and colleagues. It goes something like this: what is it about us that makes it so hard to let reality sink in to these resistant brains of ours, the resistance to seeing that we cannot go on like this? What is it about us that makes it so hard to break with our fantasy world to see what is happening to our planet and our future in it, to realize that the accelerating trajectories of our western lives and economic culture have already put us wildly past the Earth's carrying capacity?

We cannot be supported on this trajectory. That is not an opinion. That is as much established science as the fact of global heating, or evolution, or that the Earth is round and revolves around the sun!

Source: Global Footprint Network
Yet we go on. And each day the path out of crisis gets harder, because each day we take more from the planet than it can replenish, and put more waste into it than it can absorb. There is a fundamental truth of our age that we refuse to accept, it's the one in this graph, which I have shown over and over again for years now. It is clear, it is stark, it usually brings an intense quiet to the rooms where I show it - and it changes almost nothing. Maybe some people reflect on the need to do more recycling or buy a more energy efficient car. Almost no one wants to talk about an entire economic way of life that needs changing - and fast.

We don't want that. We don't vote for it. We don't live in the truth of it. We still think affluent consumer lives are a reward for our hard work and lifelong aspirations, and well-deserved, I might add, rather than a denial of reality itself.

Antarctic Dispatches - NY Times
It's wired into our brains. And our brains have trouble connecting the two things - the consumer lifestyle choices I make now and the melting of the ice sheets at the North and South poles that will inundate coastal cities around the world in the next century. I mean, we don't seem able to connect those choices with the regular high tide flooding in Miami Beach, the deaths of coral reefs around the world, the drowning of island nations in the Pacific, and the crumbling away of shores and villages in Alaska where our own fellow citizens live.

We refuse the connections in the face of obvious climate change signals in record droughts, monstrous storms, record wildfires, unstable weather patterns, and every year, the record global heating.

So, that's one part of this reflection. Why is this so? Has consumer culture so rewired our brains with its addictive pleasures that we are no longer able to discern threats to our own biological survival?

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The other part has to do with that interconnected theme of ecology and spirituality. Like many people in the past few decades, I have been powerfully moved by what is called "the new universe story," or "the new cosmology." It is a magnificent panorama of the creation story through both space and time that has come to us via breathtaking scientific discovery. It has collapsed a lot of old belief systems and shown us the possibility of breaking through religious divisions by offering us at long last a common creation story for all of humanity, the Earth, all her living creatures, and the cosmos.

That's a big vision. And then there's the reality "on the ground" where the same divisions exist, the same violent conflicts, the same deep injustice that marks most of the world, the same racism, and, in this country, the same inability for those who descended from the Anglo-European invaders and/or later benefited from this history to see the oppression that is their legacy - in white supremacy, in racism, in degrading poverty that puts the lie every day to the supposed morality or promise of market capitalism, in certain mainstream religious institutions that from our founding days as a nation have provided justification for the ideology of "American exceptionalism."

Oh, and then there's all those wars, military interventions, and collaborations with some of the most brutal human rights violating regimes in the world (like Trump's recent trip to Saudi Arabia and the oil/gas/defense deals that were signed there), that is the way we defend that exceptionalism, the economic way of life that at least some majority of people in this country get to enjoy.

Yes, I have had need to ponder all of that, especially with the shifting vantage point of where this project locates itself now - in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the country, with the highest incarceration rates for black males, with some of the highest rates of poverty among African Americans, where discrimination is so much part of the DNA of the metro area that people hardly notice it - white people, that is.

Earth from inside Saturn's rings: NASA Cassini
The new cosmology has brought many to fall in love with the planet, to realize the miracle that is the Earth. I mean, if we are talking about "exception," then this is it, because we sure haven't been able to find another one like it. At the same time, the photos from space, from Earth orbit, from the moon, from the deep outer reaches of the solar system, have shown us how fragile we are indeed. As we wreck this jewel of a planet, at least some people are beginning to realize the magnitude of what could be lost.

So these days I have become more and more focused on what for me is the crucial place of interconnection, the nexus among ecology, social justice, culture, and spirituality. The interplay among these dynamisms, if you will, or energetic interactions, is the "place" or "space" where we must focus more of our attention, to see these interactions, to see how broken these connections are, and why, and what we must do to heal them. Because if we don't, all the grand cosmological visions in the world, whether based in science or spirituality or both, will not keep us from destroying the human future on Mother Earth, or at least making it a wretched one for a long, long time to come.

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To make the shift we need to make it at the scale required, we need to come closer to the planet where we live, to plant roots deep in her soil, to want to get to know her as we do a prospective lover - a being we want to touch, to listen to, to get know deeply, to probe, to learn, to see just how it is we were made for each other. We need to know the place where we are located, what grows here, what other sentient and non-sentient beings share the space with us, how they interact with us and we with them. We have to want to smell her breath, hear the beating of her heart, know what she needs, what gives her delight.

And when I write that, I don't just mean the flowers, the trees, the rivers, the birds - I mean the human community among whom we live. Who are they? What are their lives like? What connects us and what divides us, as we share this space where we live - our cities, our neighborhoods, our rural areas, our watersheds? What are the needs that must be met to support healthy, dignified life in the eco-communities in which we dwell?

This is not a top-down work. This is not led and coordinated by national organizations. This is an emergent work, grounded in the soil of our lives and our places. National groups can help serve that emergence, but it is not theirs; it is of, by, and for the roots that both take in and nurture the life energies that can begin to heal this industrial, economically unjust mess that our world has become.

Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock - video
This is why what happened at Standing Rock, at the Oceti Sakowin camp, mattered so much. This was an emergence, a coalition of people and water and land and history come together to witness not only the threat of a pipeline but something of what life ought to look like when ecology, justice, culture, and spirituality come together as a force for life that encompasses the whole by caring for the place of interconnection. It is because these points of connection are so broken that things are falling apart, in this case broken by genocidal conquest combined with settler greed that has continued to manifest itself in the violent rape of the land and threat to the water that is the Dakota Access Pipeline. The entire months-long action of the Water Protectors was done in ceremony - it was done in ritual, with profound discipline, and a sharing of labor and responsibilities that was evidence of a new kind of human community that just might emerge from these kinds of uprisings.

The labyrinth. Photo: Cheri Johnson
At Alice's Garden, the urban farm where I have a garden plot, spiritual caretakers have created a labyrinth out of herbs, have led rituals with chants from African ancestors and the pouring of libations. We are growing food there, but we are also growing culture and spirituality rooted in these two acres of soil in the midst of a city deeply troubled by poverty and segregation fueled by racism and structural injustice, and high levels of trauma and violent crime - the last point a result of all the others. In this "space" we not only reject those negative energies of our city's history, but we live differently, with a different sense of community. We consider it sanctuary, a sacred space, a way to heal some of the profound brokenness and distrust that is a result of that history.

What do the indigenous and the African American communities have in common that makes this so important? They are the human sacrifice offered up to the gods of conquest and racial superiority inflicted on this continent since Columbus first set foot on it. The land had to be cleared of its native nations, and enslaved people needed to be kidnapped, brutalized and sold here to create the labor force that built this nation. This is the only way that an economic empire like this one could be constructed, by oppressive modes of nation-building. Without these strategies of raw power, this nation would never have emerged as it did.

That violence was expressed also against the land itself - forests felled, rivers contaminated, land tamed for settler farmers, mines torn open for profit, animals hunted to near extinction, native life ripped to shreds to make way for human development. Surely it is time to take the blinders off and realize that all of this violence is also deeply interconnected. It has one source. It has roots in one basic orientation of the white western economic philosophy. And since this is the case, to think we can heal one aspect of it, like conserving forests and rivers, without healing the rest of it, like racism and poverty, is an illusion.

Which is why I believe it is crucial that we pay attention not only to "nature" and the cosmos as we try to heal the planet, but to the emergence of the peoples and cultures that bear witness as none of the beneficiaries of the economic structures of power and privilege can to the real brokenness of this world. There is an age of Anglo-European entitlement and arrogance that has played itself out. The Earth itself is screaming at us about the results of that arrogance - by way of changing climate, collapses of ecosystems, toxic contamination or manipulation of everything we need to live. Skyrocketing rates of cancer and neuro-diseases are not only practical outcomes of this way of life, but also perfect metaphors for it.

Nexus - the place of connections. This is where our work of healing needs to take place - not in isolated siloes of issues and causes, but in the places where they are interconnected. Ecology, justice, culture, and spirituality are all bound up in one another. Like time and space, where do you find the points where they are separated? In illusion, we separate them. In illusion, I can buy the smart phone and not harm the environment. In illusion, I have the mountain vacation house, and the beach house, and the SUV, and fly to Europe every year for vacation, and not keep pushing the planet beyond its many breaking points. In illusion, each member of my household can have multiple computers and smart phones and not bring harm to the places where the materials are mined, or to the villages in Africa or Asia where small children process our e-waste when we bother to recycle these things.

Only in illusion can big financial firms keep investing in the military-industrial complex and think we can stop war, save the climate, and finally get western control over everything to our satisfaction.

In a state of illusion, white people of some means can simply move out of a city like Milwaukee to the suburbs, taking their money and taxes with them, with no sense or care for the impacts this has on urban poverty and segregation practices, or on the land and waters where those developments were constructed and put under pavement. Development of suburbs and exurbs has an impact on people and places, on poverty and nature's living systems, but once they are built, who notices?

In so many ways, our western economic ways have caused us to lose our sense of just how it is that we are deeply interconnected within this nexus of life and community. Our cultural pathology is most evident in how we have tried to separate ourselves from that nexus, to live as isolated individuals unaware of the impact of our daily lives on everything around us. Coming back home to this awareness is the most essential journey of our time, because it is here that our work becomes part of what we call "new creation," where it begins to mimic nature itself. It is at the nexus of ecology, justice, culture, and spirituality - the point at which the mandate of social justice, an authentic earth spirituality, and a cosmological vision rooted in a common creation story come together as one organic whole.

There is no other way to live on this planet if our children and their children's children are to live on it at all.

~ Margaret Swedish 


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