Sustainability is Mainly a Spiritual Crisis, Not a Material One
The more godlike he becomes, the less godly Homo economicus behaves.” – Andrew Nikiforuk
When I started out as a sustainability activist, I firmly believed that “sustainability” meant finding better, more efficient ways for humans to live within the means of our resources. I considered the problem of sustainability as a problem of materials and design: too many humans, not enough global resources to fulfill our aspirations. So, to fix this problem, we must design more efficient ways of fitting on the planet (a la Buckminster Fuller, of whose life work I was a faithful follower at the time.)
Over the course of four years, my definition of sustainability and subsequently, my life’s course, have been revolutionized many times. I continue to actively integrate many diverse perspectives on sustainability into my life. But perhaps the most significant thing I learned from my journey thus far is that our serious lack of sustainability is not strictly a materials problem. It is mainly a problem of how we interpret the world in which we live. Today we have very real material problems, such as ocean acidification and global warming, but these material manifestations are an effect of what is, at root, a spiritual crisis. A spiritual crisis exemplified by the persistent assumption that the nature of reality is fundamentally objective and material.
Many people still harbor the belief that human beings are not, at our most basic level, living beings–that we are more accurately defined by our intellectual, artistic and technological pursuits, and that one day we will transcend our earthly limitations and jet off throughout space as sheer consciousness, utterly free. Four years ago, I too believed that humans are vastly and uniquely more accomplished and intelligent than the rest of life–that we were “special,” and thus could play by our own rules. I believed that with the same gumption and elbow grease we used to build our modern society, we will easily overcome the environmental management problems facing us. In other words, I believed firmly in the supremacy of humankind.
Possibly the only reason I am not an evangelical “transhumanist” today is that I ended up putting my supremacist philosophies to the test, through embarking on an ambitious project to devise and then embody a universal formula (like a Theory of Everything) for 100% sustainable living, perfectly balancing the equation between Earth materials and human lives. The formula would be so perfect that if every human reorganized their customs and applied this formula to their lives, everywhere on Earth, we would achieve total global perpetual sustainability–i.e., a sustainability utopia.
Of course, my initiative fantastically failed.
But I didn’t. My consciousness (itself never short on gumption) rose from the ashes attempting to make sense of what all had happened to my grandiose project. Which proved–if nothing else–that I am not my aspirations. I am a living body who can survive–and indeed thrive–after the successes or failures of any of my projects.
We are–whether we deny it or not, whether we are consciously aware of it or not–living beings before we are anything else. As such, we require the health of the ecosystem in which we are embedded to secure our own survival. Our environment is made up of mostly living things: the atmospheric oxygen we require for life originated as a waste product of certain ubiquitous single-celled organisms; the food we consume is derived from pieces of the life cycles of plant and animal kingdoms, which rely on the soil to be healthy, which relies on predictable sun and water cycles, and so on and so forth. We are intertwined with the success of all living things, not only our own–we secure our own best terms through securing theirs.
There are many tools–often labeled “spiritual”–for tapping into awareness of our living natures. When we dwell in what some call “the moment,” we revisit our living, breathing, dynamic, and alive natures. We transcend rational thought and directly experience ourselves as temporary yet essential embodiments of living, creative processes. In these moments, the reality of our interconnected and inter-determinant natures percolates up to our consciousness, as clear as day.
Since the collapse of my “100% sustainable living” project, and as I began to realize that the entire project was based on frail, untested attitudes drilled into me by sociocultural norms, I chose to begin practicing a healthy doubt and distance with regard to my assumptions. This inadvertently lead me to discover the spiritual dimension of life, which manifested for me in experiences best described by Buddhism, two years ago. Since then, I practice cultivating a type of personal, self-delving practice defined not by the existence of external validation or “proof” of my beliefs, but rather by quality of observation and reflection.
Doing so has led me to ponder: why is it that all other living species manage to live and thrive according to the rules of their local ecosystems–yet certain widespread human behaviors cause a “hemorrhaging of life” in which we annihilate ourselves and other species through rapidly toxifying our environments? Why is it that life diversifies and opportunity and creativity increase because each species adds additional niches to their environment–but we, of all creatures, are reversing life’s diversification trend? We can put a man on the moon and multiple robots on Mars, but we cannot name even one-tenth of our planet’s inhabitants (of which at least 30% will be extinct in my lifetime due to human-caused environmental imbalances.) Since we tend to look so favorably upon our role on planet Earth (that we are God’s chosen creatures, that we have contributed vast benefit to the planet through our arts and technologies since the dawning of civilization), I cannot fathom why or how we got to the point of failing so spectacularly to fulfill our most basic and essential functions in our ecosystems. It’s like arrogantly believing we can pass the GRE’s before we even grasp the alphabet, or that we can design a rocketship before we even know how to count to two. It’s like believing we are exceptional geniuses when we are actually deluded psychopaths.
But if all other creatures know how to live on this planet, we do, too. We have, however, piled a bunch of psychic and experiential junk on top of such knowledge. Assume for a moment that living sustainably is actually intrinsic to every living thing. If we then trace the roots of how we learned to behave unsustainably, if we dig deeply into our own histories, we may find the answers to living sustainably are not far off, or lost in ancient times: they are right here with us. You might even say that redeeming this insight and relearning the way to best live and thrive on the planet is our birthright as living things. Living sustainably is likely to be a refinable art and technique that blossoms from its diversity of applications, but whose seed has already been planted long ago, in us, and we get to choose whether to cultivate it.
What will it take to unearth our built-in natures from beneath all the superfluous psychosocial baggage we continually wallow in like pigs in mud? It will take a lot of work and faith. It will seem overwhelming at times to have to face the fear, grief, shame, rage, and horror, to weather the cycle of hopes and hopes dashed, to keep on following the trail of the freedom and rejuvenation we feel that results from making holistic changes. Since this–not geo- or bio- or nano- or social engineering–is really the work we must do to bring about a sustainable world, we need to make room for sharing our emotional and spiritual stories. We need to make room for supporting one another, for practicing compassion, for practicing inclusiveness and dialog, for healing, for putting down our baggage without losing our minds. Once we tweak how we view reality, and alter what we believe the world around us means, our worlds and realities change. If humanity is indeed responsible for causing catastrophic environmental changes as they are now manifesting, this is but a material reality that has resulted from improper conduct as a living being. And as our experiences testify: we know we can give up our assumptions. What we may not give up is water, soil, air, and relationships.
Adjusting our interpretations of ourselves and the world–no matter how attached we are to such beliefs–will allow for less objectifying, more fulfilling relationships to our natural world. In such a culture, it will be customary to define the natural world as more than just its physical, material, measurable contents. This shift in how we interpret the world, from an “objective material” to a “multiplicitous relationships” perspective, is especially important if we wish to achieve sustainability. If we dwell in the material realities rather than how we perceive and relate to them, we will become quickly mired in hopelessness. How could we possibly survive an atmosphere this chock full of carbon? How dare we even dream of surviving the chemical toxification wrought by 200 years of industrialism? I’d venture to say that we simply cannot fairly or sustainably divide the world’s total (dwindling) resources by 7 billion humans (and counting). Let’s be real. We cannot make new air, trees, fresh water, or other such life support systems which are now desperately needed,without cooperating with nature’s intrinsic capacity to build such things.
Nuclear waste, plastics waste, toxic chemical byproducts of industrial processes, carbon emissions… one day, not too long ago, these issues were viewed as unfortunate but unimportant byproducts of humanity attaining its full potential. Society’s focus was on the fulfillment of human potential–which fruits past generations eagerly reaped, and since this objective was viewed as central and even “objective”, any “byproducts” resulting from this orientation were either “not a problem” or “someone else’s problem.”
“Someone else’s problem” has now become our problem. If it looks like we face a massive, intimidating complex of problems, that is because our problems are comprised of a constellation of subtler responsibilities deferred… to us. We may not like the position we are in, but after we fret and grieve, it’s time to grow up and rise to the challenges. In many indigenous cultures, initiation rites are used to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. As a culture, now is the time to take responsibility, to end the pattern of deferring our responsibilities. If we’re grown up enough to contemplate the existence of other Earth-like planets in distant galaxies, we’re grown up enough clean up our own messes now. If we seize this moment, and accept the task of these challenges, we may liberate positive change on scales and effects undreamed of.
And on a personal level, we can feel these changes. As the seed of how to live sustainably is embedded in each of us, it is as though we each have an internal compass, whose guiding accuracy only increases the more we use it. Answer your body’s call to do more meaningful work. Drink from all the information around you (online and off), but make sure you put aside time for digestion and reflection. Pursue the highest expression of yourself. Offer your gifts to the world with enthusiasm and abandon. Try to find the most perfect way to serve yourself while mutually serving others.
What does this have to do with sustainability?, you may ask. Everything. I say all this because I have a strong suspicion that if you focus your intentions on these personal-level, spiritually rewarding challenges, you will be participating in an overall sustainability surgewhether you consciously know it or not. When we discard the behaviors and assumptions that are not serving us, make space for reflection, and cultivate self-love, adaptation occurs, consciously or unconsciously (as the rest of Life can attest). When we make it our top priority to become whole again, the world does too.
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