This post, dissecting the spiritual disease underlying environmental decline — and the spiritual despair of an advocate — first appeared in 1997. It’s interesting how little has changed. But I affirm the hopeful conclusion. We have no choice but to believe — but only action redeems belief.
Sickness And Healing: The Spiritual Crisis Of An Environmentalist
“If our present global crisis is a crisis of civilization itself –the horrific fruition of longstanding trends toward increasing population density, urbanization, mechanization, alienation and centralization of control — then, to be helpful in this context, spirituality must resume the work it began over 2000 years ago — that of offering an effective brake to civilization. Now the stakes are higher but the work is essentially the same.”
— Richard Heinberg
A lobbyist fighting clean air standards proposed by the U.S. EPA recently brushed aside the argument they were needed to protect children suffering from breathing problems and asthma, saying, “Asthmatic kids need not go out and ride their bicycles.” Another argued that EPA’s cost-benefit analysis was rigged in favor of more rules because it treated the value of older person’s life — which is going to end soon anyway –the same as that of a younger person.
This winter, the Governor of Michigan skirmished with federal agencies who wanted the state to warn women of child-bearing age to limit their consumption of PCB-contaminated fish from the Great Lakes — to avoid risk to babies and infants and the reproductive health of the women. The Governor refused to join most other Great Lakes states in offering such a warning, saying he would not be “bullied” by the federal government.
Recently, a colleague of mine indicated she never wanted to testify in front of the state’s legislators on an environmental issue again. “Every time I go over to the Capitol,” she said, “it takes a piece out of my soul.”
“Environment” is a word with an assortment of meanings. In the jargon of everyday press coverage, it’s generally attached to an apparently narrow set of issues that rarely affects individuals immediately — air and water pollution, or the consumption of open space and sensitive lands.
But “environment” also means the place in which one lives or works — essentially, one’s habitat. As an employee of a Capitol-based nonprofit environmental coalition, I work in an environment which, as the 20th Century ends, invites the question of how far into the 21st Century we will last. A fantasy land in which lies are truth, the corporate interest is the public interest, and those charged by the people with defending the environment are systematically pillaging it, the political process that defines Lansing and Washington shows warning signs of terminal illness.
And that, in turn, raises the issue of whether some of us who care about the environment are themselves plagued by a disease. After more than 14 years of environmental issue activism, I have never before so questioned the meaning and value of the work. To continue — to persist — has required me to examine my conscience, and to consider whether as individuals or a collective, we have time to heal the earth.
Working within the political process necessarily clouds one’s vision. Spawned by a public outcry in the early 1970s, the modern environmental movement grew organically from communities up, rather than from the Capitol down. Today the greatest successes and environmental energy animate activists at home, not politicians in chambers. But distant politicians can either provide a foundation of support for citizen activism or snatch it away. In Lansing as well as Washington, they are hacking away at that foundation.
The policy defeats have been numerous and dangerous the past few years. Michigan’s national leadership on environmental matters has been mocked by a succession of changes — everything from a law sticking taxpayers instead of responsible companies with the bill for their pollution, to a secrecy law that gives corporations the same right to withhold information that was once afforded only to priests and penitents, physicians and patients, and attorneys and clients.
But there’s more. Something coarse and ugly has entered the debate. Instead of admitting they favor repealing environmental laws, politicians and their corporate sponsors cloak their daggers in the rhetoric of environmentalism. Instead of differing philosophically with the arguments of environmental organizations — and many other public interest groups — the power elite attacks motives, denies facts, and gushes out a smokescreen of conservation sentiment.
My reaction is anger and outrage. Furious at the betrayal of our heritage, and indignant about the deception employed by our political leaders to consummate that betrayal, I find myself condemning and denouncing. Watching public servants who think they are public masters belittle citizens who drive hundreds of miles and wait hours to speak for five minutes in defense of the environment, I clench my fists and feel the adrenaline run.
But wait. Isn’t the lesson of ecology that everything is interconnected? And if it is, how can I divide my tactics from my goal? Can an environmentalist heal anything if he or she employs the language, and embraces the ideology, of warfare? These questions vex me, almost as much as the runaway pace of global environmental degradation which our system seems powerless to stop.
Knowing that I cannot separate myself from what I hope to accomplish, that I must live by the standards I demand in our civil society, I must return to first principles. But even more, I must turn to my heart.
“Until people extend the circle of their compassion to all living things, they will not themselves find peace,” Albert Schweitzer said. And until I try to understand with compassion why individual humans –including myself — and the human collective fail to come to grips with the environmental crisis of our times, I will get nowhere.
Not so long ago — before becoming a professional environmental advocate — I dreamed of revolution. Not a war of armies conducted to the hellish rhythm of gunfire, not even the domination of one person or point of view by another. I dreamed rather of an individual revolution, the revolution from within.
My readings and my life taught that the most powerful lessons are neither legislated nor enforced at the tip of a bayonet, but won through the suffering and growth of the human spirit. As one of Dostoyevsky’s characters points out, life could be a paradise, any time, if only we awoke to it. There is no end to the majesty of the natural world and to the possibilities of the human creature, and in the end, to the healing power of love.
It’s been easy to stray from that dream. Again, if the lesson of ecology is that everything is interconnected, then it’s almost impossible to separate myself from the climate in which I work. As legislators repeal environmental protection while professing their love for it, I become cynical. Soon I lose my ability to imagine that things could be better. But they can, and I believe, they soon will.
Signs of hope are abundant, if I will only look. On the political front, I can find solace in polls that show whopping majorities of the American public favor even stronger environmental policies than we have observed in the last 25 years. And some of those policies have redeemed their promise; air and water pollution are not as desperate as they would have been without them.
But even more, I take heart from the rebound of spirituality. As more citizens of our nation and others turn to private or collective faiths, and to a belief in something surpassing material existence, I see at last evidence of the revolution of which I once dreamed.
Are restless Americans coming home at last as the frontier finally disappears? In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder quotes a Crow elder: “You know, I think if people stay somewhere long enough — even white people — the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”
An environmentalism — a way of life — built on connection rather than domination, on understanding rather than warring, may in fact be possible. Wandering a patch of state-owned land not far from where I live, I absorb the wonder of the tender sky above and the strength of the earth under my feet, and I muse — I feel — that the revolution is coming, just more gradually than I once expected.
How does that help me when I return to the political process? Do I murmur sweet words of peace to legislators? Not yet, anyway; but I begin to understand a little. Is it so difficult to fathom why in a time when our home, our earth, is screaming from the wounds inflicted on it, that we are screaming at each other? Is it so difficult to understand why in a culture still addicted to materialism that cannot fulfill, that our leaders crave more and more of the drug that provides a dwindling high? I suspect there is as much unconscious grief as conscious rage in the bitterness of some legislators fighting environmental protection.
And most importantly, having grown old enough to recognize my own frailties and flaws, my own mistreatment of fellow humans and the natural world, is it so difficult to understand the wounds inflicted by others? I have done to others more than I can forgive. I have more growing to do than I ever realized. The actions of those I challenge are different in degree, not in kind, from my own. There’s no escaping it; we’re all in this together. But I cannot gloss over the simple fact: there will be plenty of pain and division on the way to restoration of a safe and healthful global environment. While we cannot afford to practice the equivalent of warfare or even think in its language, those who care about the environment will make enemies. The most peaceful among us will arouse fierce opposition. Our challenge is not to shun conflict but to face it with full awareness, humility, unflinching determination, and compassion for those taking the opposite view.
A generation of citizens and leaders in the 1960s and 1970s, for all their mistakes, had the guts and the foresight to take the first steps down the road toward environmental healing. Brushing aside the objections of many of the powerful and mighty, they responded to the pollution crisis by clamoring for, and passing environmental laws. They set a standard for us in our time.
The crisis we face is more fundamental, more grave. We’ll be remembered by how we respond in the next several years, and then the next several decades.
Knowing that the laws we impose on ourselves, to which we willingly submit, are ultimately far more meaningful than the impermanent imperfect compromise creations of any legislature, I still point to a secular faith expressed in Michigan’s 1963 Constitution as a starting point as good as any:
The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people. The legislature shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment, and destruction.
Guided by that north star and by the lamps of our own soul and spirit, we can heal — we will heal — the earth, and in so doing, ourselves.