Advances in Sustainable Development
Directory of Sustainable Development Resources
Strategies for Solidarity and Sustainability
Best Practices for Solidarity and Sustainability
Fostering Gender Balance in Society
Fostering Gender Balance in Religion
Meditations on Man and Woman, Humanity and Nature
"Now in the people that were meant to be green there is no more life of any kind. There is only shrivelled barrenness. The winds are burdened by the utterly awful stink of evil, selfish goings-on. Thunderstorms menace. The air belches out the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples. The earth should not be injured! The earth must not be destroyed!"
Hildegard von Bingen (Twelfth century)
Whatever the original context of Hildegard’s anguished cry it certainly captures our current plight in an amazingly prescient way. The earth is now headed for the destruction of the environment required to support human life; we are unlikely to survive. The earth itself will go on, and life will eventually reassert itself, though this may take millions of years as it did in previous die-offs. So much has been written about our current crisis from so many different angles that I will restrict my comments in this chapter to the spirituality which underlies it.
Functionally, humanity’s domination of the earth would have begun with the Agrarian Revolution 12,000 years ago. As C.L. Flinders outlines in Rebalancing the World (2003) the shift from gathering/hunting to farming would have had immense implications for the attitudes and perceptions of the humans involved. She summarizes these in a table of two columns (p. 71), one headed "The Values of Belonging," reflecting the reality of hunter-gatherers, and the other headed "The Values of Enterprise," which was made possible by farming, with its immense food surpluses compared to gathering and hunting.
THE VALUES OF BELONGING|
Connection with land
Empathic relationship with animals
Affinity for alternative modes of knowing
Nonviolent conflict resolution
THE VALUES OF ENTERPRISE|
Control and ownership of land
Control and ownership of animals
Extravagance and exploitation
Recklessness and Speed
Momentum and High Risk
Aggressiveness and violence
The explosion of human population that abundant food made possible totally changed how people related to one another and to Nature. The need to control Nature, so that the harvest would be big enough to feed all the people who were born and survived because of the previous harvest, transforms the relationship into an adversarial one. Farmers would have seen their lives threatened by weather or pestilence, as indeed it was. From there, this attitude built into a need to exploit the mineral resources of the earth that are used to quantify the wealth accumulated by the farmers, or to make weapons to expand the amount of land controlled. The greater the wealth, the bigger the fear that it will be lost or that the power gained from it will be lost. From seemingly innocuous beginnings, all this has now spiralled out of control to the point where greed threatens our continued existence.
There were obvious advantages to the ability to generate a surplus and this has been celebrated, especially in entrepreneurial circles. But now, the natural limits inherent in living in the closed system of Planet Earth are beginning to constrict our room for survival, let alone expansion. This was inevitable even if there had continued to be some respect for Nature and the physical environment. The lack of respect for Nature has not only accelerated our nearing the limitations of that closed system but has also actively and intentionally promoted the poisoning of the environment, primarily for the pursuit of money. Think fracking.
To return to Robert Bellah’s excellent work, Religion in Human Evolution, there is a particularly interesting and relevant section (pp. 146–159) describing the spirituality of some Australian Aboriginal people from the interior of that continent. Anthropologists have discovered during their time with these people something of how human consciousness functioned when it was deeply rooted to place in the land. Here are some excerpts that give a flavour of that way of being:
[Their] understanding of being is oriented not so much to space (undifferentiated extension within which particular things occur) as to particular places, understood as conscious and alive—as living traces of ancestral beings. … [This mind frame] of rhythmic and abiding events occurring in particular places obviates the necessity of thinking about time and history. ... [T]he ancestral beings do not so much “create” the world … as form the world, for there is no idea of a beginning before creation, or even of creation. The forming activity of the ancestral beings is as much present as past. … Ubiety [thereness] so obliterates time that in the Dreaming, past, present, and future are not differentiated: there is only … “everywhen”.
This means that all their stories that concern the balance of life and death, right action and wrong action, were held by the land that they had lived in for tens of thousands of years. Without that land their understanding of life would collapse. Bellah goes on to cite other researchers who observe that this manner of being in reality is only possible for as long as their place on the land is not threatened. When it is, their story falls apart and they suddenly ‘fall into time and history … and the yearning for another time and another place begin’. When this displacement happened, with the arrival of Europeans and others, they began to use concepts like a ‘Supreme Being’ or a sky god, removed from any place.
One feature of Aboriginal life has struck many of its most careful observers: the almost complete lack of imperial ambition. There are almost no cases of war for territorial expansion throughout the whole continent. This does not … mean that the Aboriginals weren’t violent … for revenge, [etc.]. ... Ancestral Beings wandered all over the continent and their tracks could be traced through the territory of many groups. But the “owners” of sacred places were merely their custodians, and the places would not yield their fertility to those ignorant of the local ritual, so there was just no point in territorial expansion.
It is easy to see why this approach to spirituality would allow people to coexist and sustain themselves for the amount of time that humans had been around prior to the start of farming.
In terms of current eco-friendly spiritualities, it is still the approaches of native peoples that have the most to offer us. Even though they have also engaged in farming, they have not lost a sense of perspective. J. Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999), helps to explain why it happened this way. He demonstrates that unless a population density is generated to a certain level, a more disembodied understanding of how reality works does not evolve. People who are in touch with the reality of the land can see quite clearly that if they don’t actively work with Nature to keep the land and water pure, their own existence is at risk. They honour their ontological debt to Nature by respecting and working with the land. Because of this, it is Native Americans who have been at the forefront of opposing the construction of oil pipelines and fracking on their land.
Most of the Eurasian religions that came into being after the Agrarian Revolution have fallen into a dualism that sees material reality as either opposed to or less than spirit, or at the very least an illusion. This has meant that the material world has no inherent positive value within those spiritual systems. Yet without the material world we would not be able to live. Further, when matter is rejected by religious authorities, they give up any role in, or guidance of, its use. Those who know very clearly that control of natural resources gives them immense power are then free to do as they like with them. I would suggest that it has also led scientists, when they realized that religious leaders were incredibly ignorant about the material world, to champion it at the expense of realities that are different to the material world.
The absolutizing of the perceived world by science has directly contributed to the credibility of materialism. As previously outlined, however, quantum physics has demonstrated in a number of ways that the perceived world is a function of our psyches and the limitations of our biological organs of perception. The obvious disaster of a materialist approach to life is clear to anyone who doesn’t hold that point of view, just as the pathology of Christianity is clear to atheists. But the adherents of both groups can’t see that all points of view are arbitrary. There is no Holy Land of absolute truth. What each person needs is a story that supports them in a psychologically healthy way of life. We can’t be healthy if we are destroying our environment any more than we can be healthy if we feel judged and threatened with eternal suffering.
Although Flinders opposes spirituality and materialism, I would continue to propose that materialism is a spirituality because it provides meaning to those whose life is shaped by the pursuit of wealth. Only if this is the case can materialism be seen to be the arbitrary position that it is. And as with any other spirituality it needs to be assessed on its ability to sustain psychologically healthy human beings. Then debates over which approach is true can be abandoned.
In the imagination of modern humans, 12,000 years seems like a long time, but in the larger picture, it is a very short period of time. Human beings have been around for at least half a million years. However, when decisions are made based on what’s good for this quarter’s profits, the larger picture doesn’t enter the decision-making process in any shape or form. The progression into materialism is itself a product of humanity’s need to control their reality, because since the Agrarian Revolution expansion has been seen as the only thing that matters. There has been no reflection on the impact or cost of a materialist approach to living: it must be the right way because it is the way we have gone, the way that is winning.
Even with an awareness of the pathology of the current economic system, it is very difficult for people to begin to shift their day-to-day lives to a more sustainable way of relating to Nature. Most of us would be very hard-pressed to grow a significant portion of the food we need to survive for a year. Most non-agribusiness farmers specialize in only one or two areas of food production and most of those have to work outside the farm to bring in the cash necessary to purchase the goods and services required for modern living.
Even though time is very short in terms of the tipping point of climate change, there are options currently available which would begin to pull us back from the edge. But those who control the media are those who are profiting from the use of fossil fuels. Their commitment to business as usual blinds them to the plight of the planet. It remains to be seen whether the increase in the number of people waking up to the problem, due to its immediate impact on their lives, will be fast enough to override the message of the mainstream media. Fracking and extreme energy extraction have made a big contribution to the raising of awareness around the world. That, combined with the crisis of social injustice, may help rouse enough people to make a difference.
There are lots of movements currently underway, as can be found on the Popular Resistance website (popularresistance.org); becoming involved with them is one way to make a difference. There are those who feel that climate change is the most crucial focus, while others opt for social justice, economic reform, or political revolution. But it would be important to also consider the hidden assumptions in your way of life, or even simply the huge gaps in your awareness of Nature. When I was young there were those lamenting the distancing from Nature as more and more people were urbanized or suburbanized. Become aware of the phases of the moon as they are happening, celebrate the solstices and equinoxes as we circle the sun, or be aware of where your water comes from (wells, reservoirs, rivers). These are all ways that you can become more familiar with the details of your physical world and how you depend on it.
How do you relate to the land? Is it a subject or an object for you? Do you see it merely as an opportunity for making money or does it have something crucial to do with your community’s history or even your survival on the planet?
Explore with an open mind some of the beliefs and customs of native peoples of your continent. Don’t just assume that they were/are ignorant savages. They sustained their way of life for thousands of years longer than modern humans. How do you relate to insects, or rodents, or microbes? Many people have learned to fear these creatures. Overcoming such fears may require professional help, but at least getting to know more about them and their place and role in the world would be a step in the right direction. Places like Perelandra, a Nature research centre in Virginia, or Findhorn in Scotland can help to provide a different picture of how we can relate to Nature.
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do is to begin to resist the brainwashing that is advertising. This can’t be done head on, so to speak, but requires the interruptive approach. It has been demonstrated that even those who pride themselves most on not being affected by advertising are, in fact, undermined by it. Therefore try things like putting the mute button on for all TV ads, getting an ad blocker on your web browser, or simply cultivating the closing or averting of your eyes whenever an ad is about to come into view. Advertising is a very effective technique for making you want things you don’t need, yet also making you feel inadequate if you don’t have them. Supporting any and all efforts to forbid the use of advertising would be another angle on this crucial battle for your mind.
Note: Spirituality: A User’s Guide is available through local bookstores via IngramSpark, or at Amazon.com, where you can “Look Inside”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Therese F. Hicks graduated from Villanova University with a BA in theology and went on to do an MA in that subject at St. Michael's in Toronto. After that she joined an Irish missionary community and spent 6 years in West Africa - Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana. After returning to the USA, she earned an MA in Counselling Psychology in Boston (1991) and has worked as a psychotherapist in both Boston and the greater Dublin area. Her search for a satisfactory spirituality has informed her life, and Spirituality: A User’s Guide is the story of what she has found and how she got there. She is also researching the history and psychology of Christianity as well as the more recent stories people use to make sense of living and dying.