BY Jim Harding
Pride is almost always a source of delusion and species-pride is no different. Being members of a big-brain, two-legged species with such social and technological savvy does not make us superior to other creatures. Nor do male humans have some god-given right to oppress women, the other half of the species. And though some humans may have the power, none of us should have a right to extract resources in such a way that eco-systems that support the web of life are degraded. And yet this is happening on an ever-more grand scale.
Why is there such a disconnect between the imperatives of ecological stewardship and escalating harms to the environment? Is it simply because human societies, especially those with corporate-scale economies, are still allowed to do such harm? Is it because the quest for human betterment is still attached to unsustainable, unfettered economic growth?
FIFTH MEDITATION: ABOUT RELIGION
However we frame the environmental crisis we are clearly suffering from both a social and spiritual deficit. Social and economic change to protect the environment is moving at a snail’s pace. Can faith-based groups have any significant role to play in healing the wounds being caused to the planet? Can religion help move us towards sustainability?
What exactly have any of us really learned about the evolution and interconnectedness of life, from our religious upbringing? Some Christian denominations are reframing “dominion over the earth” into a stewardship ethic. While the updating of perspective is worthwhile, this can still be done to rationalize doctrine. It’s always tempting to convince ourselves that a new insight was implied in earlier narratives within our belief tradition.
The simplistic myth of all-knowingness will always get us in trouble. If we are both humble and truthful we’ll admit that there wasn’t any complex notion of “environment”, as we now understand it ecologically, in early religious texts. There wasn’t any need for an “environment” in Judeo-Christian text; the priority was always on uniting and regulating tribal communities under one god. Look closely at the Ten Commandments.
This religious tradition is inherently communitarian. Its anthropocentric text was shaped by its pastoral cultural context, located between the wilderness and the city-state during Roman times. Spiritual reflection from this historical location would never be able to develop a comprehensive view of larger creation. The “big picture” was revealed within a particular lens with a lot of projections. It took many centuries after these first monotheistic inclinations for humans to begin to map the oceans and continents and start to understand their ecological place.
Thankfully some religious traditions at least saw “divinity” within all creatures, which is something to build upon. But today’s ecological awakening presents a big challenge to many religious beliefs. And there are different ways to face the challenge. One is to embrace it and reformulate our understanding; another is to become more rigid and to dismiss the new awakening.
There are many examples of how this works. As we grapple with the climate crisis, we learn more about temperature fluctuations on the planet. There is strong evidence that over the last 10,000 years, since the last great ice age, global temperature increased around 5 degrees C. Yet in just the last 100 years it has risen over 1 degree, and if we stay on our present course of dumping carbon into the biosphere it will rise even further and faster. We are just beginning to experience what “extreme weather” means.
So, we are on the verge of a remarkable shift, one that will make evolutionary adaption quite challenging, especially for the already very vulnerable mammals, of which we are but one. And it is cumulative human impacts that are mostly responsible for compounding environmental degradation. We now call this geological age the Anthropocene, where the collective impact of one species, us, is altering the planet’s chemical makeup. Some call it the sixth great extinction, which adds to a collective sense of gloom and doom.
There is hope if we can quickly reframe how we see ourselves on this planet and in the expanding universe. On my last walk up the coulee trail I encountered a large grouse, which I think was a sage grouse. We now think that birds are a distant relative of a type of dinosaur, all of which we thought went extinct 65 million years ago. We share the planet with sharks that have been around for much longer than us, or, for that matter, the dinosaurs or birds; probably 450 million years. The resilient and transformative nature of life is heartening and reassuring, but human activities are now even endangering the sharks. Some prairie grouse populations have already gone extinct or, like the sage grouse, are on the endangered list.
We must become a more self-regulating and preservationist species; this will involve revolutionary changes in how we conduct our lives. “Protecting creation” will come to have new meanings, which will remain deeply spiritual. But it won’t be premised on notions of species supremacy or “end time”. Views that emphasize some groups being chosen to go to a special afterlife don’t help us meet our urgent challenge to care for the biosphere. Nor will the greediness and inequality allowed in the unregulated global market take us on a sustainable path. These views and activities all contribute to the degradation of the planet and of life itself.
SIXTH MEDIATION: ABOUT DOUBT
We know that beliefs can be a powerful force; we see this every day on the news. It is possible to simply deny our more scientifically-based knowledge about environment. Some deny the existence of earth going back 10,000 years, let alone the billions of years it took to develop a biosphere and the complex web of life of which we are an aspect. However, when people hold to beliefs regardless of evidence and logic and polarize religion and science in a regressive type of politics, then the capacity for human development begins to wane. Social integration can itself deteriorate, as we’ve seen in Canada, especially over the last decade.
Flexible faith cannot come from rigid belief which requires selecting views and information that are self-reinforcing. Such rigidity requires denial and denial cannot harbour meaningful hope. Furthermore, the appeal for more “hope” as a panacea for stopping the degradation of the environment can even become delusional. And yet we cannot live without affirming hope.
Hope, however, can mean very different things, and hope as an antidote to fear and despair may not be very viable. Might some feelings of fear and hope actually form a unity, or at least a connected tension, where one can morph into the other?
Are there other views and practices to draw upon? What about the Zen notion of “great faith, great doubt and great perseverance”.
Doubt does not have to be an impediment to engagement. It can create emotional space within which faith can re-emerge. Such a faith is developmental and arises from all our connections with life, as it is and is becoming. A deepening curiosity about where we are in the universe and a questioning of inherited beliefs can provide a flexible basis for renewed faith and hope.
But such faith won’t just happen, it requires some perseverance; to “begin again”, no matter where we’ve gone astray and what doubts we may harbour. If we are in touch with our more open, spacious being, doubts can move through us, setting the stage for more positive, connecting action and more grounded hope. And reconnecting with the elemental natural systems that give us life has become a prerequisite for our survival.
This isn’t abstract. I have great doubt each time I begin to write this column or enter any community or environmental project. But I also have great faith that if I persevere, respectfully, more clarity and connection will emerge.
The environmental crisis will not go away. Neither fear nor hope can make that happen. It is going to require more and more of us getting involved, where we are, no matter whether it is working to protect water, air, food, health, dignity, habitat…whatever. An unshakable faith and a more realistic form of hope will both grow with our activism because our relationship to natural systems, larger creation and others who care about this will continue to deepen. This can be endlessly transformative if we can always “begin again”.
In spite of all the baggage we have brought with us, we are increasingly aware of our evolutionary journey. This spiritual awareness can become a powerful force in our ongoing development but we must now make it a priority to protect our ecological home.
Now I will head back up the coulee trail.