What we can do to affect positive change for Earth and humanity
In Ken Burns’ documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a paradox was cited where Congress debated over whether or not the Grand Canyon should become a “national park” or remain a “national monument.” The former restricts a park against any human use other than tourism. I cite it here because it very well represents the distinction we made between “surface ecology” and “deep ecology” in a prior posting. At base, it points to aspects of human nature that often come in conflict—the urge to “use” the material world in order to build, create wealth and expand, and the urge to “appreciate” it toward lifting the spirit and enriching the soul. In essence, when it comes to the environment, we have and continue to oppose the physical and the spiritual (in the reverence sense, not the religious).
Historically, there are at least two primary reasons for this divide: the perception of God, other people and the world as other and separate, and the biblical injunction to subdue the Earth. In New Climate For Theology: God, the World and Global Warming, theologian Sallie McFague refers to the former as the deistic model. “It sees the world as totally secular, divorced from God—and from human beings, except as a ‘machine’ for our use. The relationship between God and the world as well as between human beings and the world is utilitarian: we and God are ‘subjects,’ whereas the world and all its other creatures are “objects. This utilitarianism (italics mine) is in large measure why we are presently in our global warming crisis.”
And it’s roots, says Charles Eisenstein in Climate: A New Story, “are in fundamentalism of all kinds, a disengagement from the complexity of the real world… that offers certainty, a lockdown of thought into a few prescribed pathways.” His reference is Genesis 1:28 of the Christian Bible that says: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.’” We’ve done that, and as a result, we’re racing toward global catastrophe.
If the cause of our crisis is the illusion of separation from God, the earth and each other, which allows for the use of the planet to fulfill human needs, wants and aspirations, then the cure requires a shift in perception—from the idea that we are separate, independent operators, to seeing ourselves as members of one species and one interdependent and interconnected living system. Systemically speaking, the health and well-being of each member depends on the health and well-being of the whole. And vice versa.
Perceptions are choices we make. We can shift out of necessity (the hard way), or the gentle way by acting with wisdom and foresight. With climate change and the sixth extinction already underway, leaders globally are choosing the hard way, preferring short-term gains, passing off consequences to the environment to future generations. In such a climate, what can we, everyday people, do to affect positive change?
What could change the direction of today’s civilization? It is my deep conviction that the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It is not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this Earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behavior and a new set of values for the planet.
Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic 1993-2003
When it comes time to vote, we can vote our conscience. Personally, I appreciate candidates who evidence the perception of the world as one, integrated and interdependent whole; individuals committed to sustaining, ideally enhancing, the health and well-being of all people, environments and animals; people with light in their eyes, not just dollar signs, people who put the needs of others above their own preferences and gratifications. Especially, we need leaders who demonstrate empathy, the capacity to vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experience of others—all others.
This is a tall order, so it’s no wonder that the modern era is experiencing a crisis in leadership. Nonetheless, the whole—family, community, nation, species, planet—can flourish when all its parts are secure and cared for. That’s the challenge of leadership. It’s why the business world trains executives in “servant leadership,” and why students of ecology are encouraged to think of themselves as “stewards” of the planet.
Closer to home, there are everyday things we can do to reduce our impact on the environment:
- Take shorter showers.
- Ask for paper rather than plastic cups in restaurants—and always tell the server why.
- Use paper straws—or none at all.
- Take reuseable bags to the grocery store.
- Reduce meat intake.
- Buy organic where possible.
- Wear a sweater rather than turn the heat up.
- Fly less. Use the phone or video conferencing for work meetings.
- Turn the lights off, except when necessary.
- Shop closer to home.
- Walk or ride a bike rather than drive short distances.
- Choose a low mileage vehicle.
- Ride the bus or carpool.
- Improve the energy efficiency of our houses.
- Recycle as much as possible.
- Turn electronic devices off overnight.
- As much as possible, wash only full loads of clothing.
- Avoid aerosols, pesticides and lawn chemicals (that kill worms and insects, etc.)
- Have tools repaired or sharpened rather than replacing them.
Making small changes to my personal consumption habits means my dollar will start putting pressure on companies that are wasteful, environmentally damaging or polluting. With more people shopping local, clean and ethical you can bet the lure of profits in greener consumer products, will inspire change on a large scale.
Amie Engerbretson, Professional Skier
Earth House Rules
If we care about the planet and all its creatures, we’ll think about the consequences of our actions and do the right thing—even if others are not and when no one is watching. In the source cited above, Sallie McFague, writes that “Earth is a home, not a hotel.” As such, she provides three simple guidelines that she calls “Earth’s House Rules.” Whenever I see people observing these practices, I am uplifted.
Take only your share. Since all creatures must have food in order to survive, distributive justice becomes a necessary and central human behavior. The whole, the planet, cannot flourish unless the parts are healthy. Hence, “Take only your share” is not a plea for charity to the disadvantaged; rather, it is a law of planetary well-being.
Clean up after yourself. This home is the only one we will ever have. We must reuse, not use up, everything on the planet. In a healthy ecosystem, everything is recycled: we need to structure our societies on that model. This will not be easy, for our consumer culture thrives on its exact opposite—throwing away.
Keep the house in good repair for others. The house is not ours; we do not own it. Rather, it is on loan to us for our lifetime, and we must sustain it for others.
Indigenous people around the world lived these rules naturally because they believed the world and everything it contains is alive. They understood interconnection and interdependence at every level. There was no division between the physical and the spiritual—in human beings or the world. Balance had to be maintained, otherwise, the life force would die and the world would end. Fortunately for all humankind, Congress saw fit to establish the Grand Canyon as a national park. Had they not, it might have been strip-mined with hotels and electronic billboards dotting the rim.
There is no “safe place” on earth where pollution, global warming, acid rain, and so on can’t find us—and the places we think are safe can turn out to be the most dangerous… One of the most important forces behind behavior change is the belief that things can be different, that what we do makes a difference. A common motto of many NGOs—“A different world is possible”—rests on this belief in the human ability to imagine alternative worlds and to work for their realization. We must begin to see ourselves as interrelated and interdependent with the animate and inanimate elements of our planet and begin to follow earth’s house rules of limited use, recycling, and long-term sustainability.
Sallie McFague, Author, Blessed Are The Consumers
Photography Monographs. The pages can be turned in each book.