The Ecospiritual Challenge

A year ago (2010 Apr 27), I posted The Ecospiritual Imperative, which quickly became and remains the most viewed of all my blog posts. In it, I wrote of the imperative to develop ecospiritual awareness:
Our awareness of being bound in a relationship of responsibility with our planet is religious awareness. Acting responsibly within that relationship is religious practice. To ignore what is happening to our home – out of hubris or out of despair – is to break our connection to the holy whole, to break faith with the ground of our being.
I argued also for the imperative to build and grow institutional homes for the development and deepening of ecospirituality -- what Bron Taylor calls "dark green religion." We need places -- buildings and memberships -- where people gather to widen and deepen their understanding and to express and affirm the sacredness of nature. Increasingly, people are getting dollops of ecospirituality in books and movies and theme parks which educate them, touch their hearts, and fortify their spiritual connection to nature. That's wonderful. It's also insufficient. We need institutions if we are going to make it through the hard times that are coming. We need people organizing, committing to each other to be members together of a place that will be there for them week after week to support them in remembering what is divine, and in practicing it, and in worshipping (worth-shaping, giving shape to what is of worth) this blue-green home on which we live and breath and have our being. We need a place that calls us, over and over, to practice what we preach, because Gaia knows we are prone to forget and to lapse. We need a place that gives us experiences, like books and movies and theme parks do, and that also goes beyond dishing up transitory privately-consumed experiences to provide community support for a shared way of life.

We need, in short, an institution -- i.e., an ongoing pattern of being together. We need this institution to (a) awaken the spirit, and (b) encourage to action in line with our values -- and to do this in such a way that the spiritual reinforces the action, and the action reinforces the spiritual.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are, increasingly, that institution. Some Christian churches and Jewish and Moslem and Buddhist and Hindu congregations are also becoming such institutions.

Just over a year has passed now since I wrote and said and posted that. How are we doing? What's the state of the ecospiritual union today?

Those "hard times that are coming" are now here. This morning’s news tells us that authorities could open two more floodgates in the Mississippi River today. Attempting to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding, they will flood out rural areas rather than urban areas. Opening those floodgates will wipe out the homes of about 3900 Louisianans.

The planet that we knew, that our great-grandparents and their great-grandparents knew, is gone. Old Earth was great, but it is gone. Yes, the old Earth had occasional disasters, too. It’s the pace of them now that is the fact of life on our new planet. Average weather-related disasters per year between 1975 and 2005 was 10 times the average number of annual disasters, 1900 to 1975. What used to be measured as years-per-disaster is now measured in disasters-per-year.

350 is the important number. Bill McKibben has done a wonderful job getting that number into our consciousness. See his 350.org. 350 is the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that is the upper limit of what is safe. At 350 ppm, the planet survives. If we get above 350 for very long, or if we get very far above 350, then we will trigger tipping points and irreversible impacts.
In 2009 September the lead article in the journal Nature said that above 350 "we threaten the ecological life-support systems that have developed in the late Quaternary environment, and severly challenge the viability of contemporary human societies." (McKibben 16)
Carbon dioxide levels were 275 ppm for all of human history up until 200 years ago. By 1960, CO2 was up to 315 ppm, steadily climbing.

In 1960, we were blithely, blissfully oblivious to what rising CO2 would mean. When I was growing up, we worried about carbon monoxide, and were told that carbon dioxide was perfectly harmless. Which, for breathing, it basically is. But it traps heat in our atmosphere. We know that now. And what have we done?

The satirical, fake-news newspaper, The Onion occasionally has stories that seem true and sad and not very funny. For instance, they recently ran: "Report: Global Warming Issue from 2 or 3 Years Ago May Still Be a Problem"
According to a report released this week by the Center for Global Development, climate change, the popular mid-2000s issue that raised awareness of the fact that the earth's continuous rise in temperature will have catastrophic ecological effects, has apparently not been resolved, and may still be a problem.
While several years have passed since global warming was considered the most pressing issue facing mankind, recent studies from the Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Academy of Sciences, NASA, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and basically any scientific report available on the issue confirmed that it is not only still happening, but might also be worth stopping.
"Global warming, if you remember correctly, was the single greatest problem of our lifetime back in 2007 and the early part of 2008," CGD president Nancy Birdsall said.
"But then the debates over Social Security reform and the World Trade Center mosque came up, and the government had to shift its focus away from the dramatic rise in sea levels, the rapid spread of deadly infectious diseases, and the imminent destruction of our entire planet." . . .
According to the 300-page document, though global warming—and the worldwide homelessness and drought associated with it—was a desperate problem immediately following the release of the Academy Award–winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, China's undervalued currency, the midterm elections, and gay marriage have since monopolized lawmakers' time.
[The report] concludes that the likelihood of any of these matters flooding the entire Eastern Seaboard and leaving the state of Florida completely submerged is "very slim." . . .
"I was a bit surprised by our findings, because I, along with the rest of my colleagues, thought that the process of fixing climate change ended soon after [2007 rock concert] Live Earth," CGD assistant director George Oliver told reporters.
"But it turns out that the things needed to stop it, like substantive energy legislation, worldwide cooperation to reduce carbon emissions, and a massive cultural shift toward sustainable living actually didn't happen at all."
"We kind of just assumed that the threat of total annihilation spurred everyone into action back in '07 and that everything got better," Oliver added. . . .
Thus far, the study has gained unanimous favor in the scientific community, which was admittedly surprised in 2008 and 2009 at how quickly a defining issue that will undoubtedly affect everyone on the planet became so heavily politicized and took a backseat to health care reform, the housing bubble, and replacing Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.’

The new report claims we may see a return to the ominous days of 2007,
when terrible flooding and storming of unprecedented scale and intensity
were something mankind was concerned about.
© Copyright 2011, Onion, Inc.
Indeed, 2007 you’ll remember was the year that climate change was such a compelling issue that a slide show about it -- An Inconvenient Truth -- won the Best Documentary Academy Award and earned its creator, Al Gore, a Nobel Peace Prize. That’s pretty impressive for a slide show. And if you saw it, it was impressive. The film opened five years ago this month to critical acclaim and box-office success. Then what?

Those carbon dioxide parts-per-million that were 275 for several million years up until the 19th century, and reached 315 in 1960? By 2007, we had actually passed the 350 safety-line and were at 382 ppm. Then we all saw Al Gore's movie, and . . . ? Since then we have satirized ourselves and made The Onion's satirical news the truth. CO2 has kept climbing by around three ppm a year.

This, then, is the gist of my 2011 ecospiritual update:
Today CO2 is at 391 ppm. And the planet of our ancestors and of our youth is gone.

In fact, scientist Kevin Anderson projects that even if rich countries adopt draconian emissions reductions within a decade, it is improbable that we will be able to stop short of 650 ppm of CO2. As Bill McKibben notes,
Even if you erred on the side of insane optimism, the world in 2100 would have about 600 parts per million carbon dioxide. That is, we’d live if not in hell, then in some place with a very similar temperature.
The recent record tornadoes in Alabama and Mississippi – and the current and coming devastation from the flooding Mississippi River – have, for the moment, grabbed our attention again. This week – 2011 May 12 – New York Times article, "Scientists' Report Stresses Urgency of Limiting Greenhouse Gas Emissions," reported that
the nation’s scientific establishment issued a stark warning to the American public on Thursday: Not only is global warming real, but the effects are already becoming serious.
The report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences noted that already
sea level is rising in many American towns and the average United States air temperature has increased by two degrees in the last 50 years.
Even with drastic action, both flooding and droughts will continue to increase. An Oxfam report in 2009 July concluded that even if we now adopted “the smartest possible curbs” on carbon emissions
the prospects are vey bleak for hundreds of millions of people, most of them among the world’s poorest.
According to Mark Serreze of the National Sea Ice Data Center, the Arctic ice is in its death spiral. Within a decade or two, a summertime spacecraft pointing its camera at the North Pole would see nothing but open ocean.

The coral reef that was such a beautiful home to flourishing undersea life on old Earth is doomed.
The Zoological Society of London reported in 2009 July that "360 [ppm of atmospheric CO2] is now known to be the level at which coral reefs cease to be viable in long run." . . . At a conference in the spring of 2009, the American researcher Nancy Knowlton put it with refreshing bluntness: "Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050." (McKibben 16, 10)
Bill McKibben has noted that when we speak of this issue, it’s common to invoke grandchildren. "Preserve the planet for the sake of our grandchildren," we say. Or, "Let’s not let our grandchildren have to deal with the problem with which we should be dealing." McKibben writes,
Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents. (16)
* * *
I was recently at a gathering of Unitarian Universalists from various congregations. I was chatting with an amateur physicist. He keeps up with the latest work and regularly emails his ideas to some of the top academic physicists in the country – and they write back, and engage in long email discussions, and sometimes their work incorporates ideas from this guy. He's a very talented amateur.

He spoke to me about calculations of the chances of finding technologically advanced life on other planets. There are x many stars with planets, and y percent of those planets have plentiful hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen – because as far as we have been able to find so far, only molecules that form from those elements can acquire the right sort of shape to reproduce themselves – and z percent of those have the temperature range in which those molecules can form, and so on. His calculations took into account how long it would take, on average, for life to emerge, how long for life to evolve to become tool-using and language-using, and from there how long to develop the level of technology that we’ve had since, say, the steam engine. But then he had a very interesting assumption in his calculations. If we were going to find a planet like that, we’d have to locate it within its 300-year window.

"Its 300-year window?" I said.

"Any species with the ability and the desire to develop that level of technology," he said matter-of-factly, "will kill itself off with that technology – either blow itself up in conflicts or destroy its necessary habitat – in about 300 years. You know, on average. Give or take."

I don’t know if he’s right. I don’t know if he’s wrong either.

Even when we do get news about how, say, our energy depends on fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the air, which traps heat, which melts ice caps, which raises sea levels, and the warm air holds more moisture, so there are droughts, and then it dumps that moisture at once, so there are floods, and . . . it’s a bunch of causal chains that are longer than most of our attention spans. We have our lives to live, and environmental threats slip out of memory.

We as a species failed to adopt the Ecospiritual Imperative to connect spiritually to nature in a way that would have empowered us, in joy, to preserve the Earth we knew. As a result, now we face the Ecospiritual Challenge to fashion what life we can on the new Earth.

Faced with what we now know, some remain in denial, their fingers stuck firmly in their ears. Others, seeing the collapse coming, amass stockpiles of canned goods, bottled water, and they're down in the basement oiling their guns. The Ecospiritual Challenge is to walk the third way: the path of open-eyed and open-eared awareness, and also the path of connection to both nature and neighbor -- not afraid to face reality, not avoiding needed knowledge because it's "depressing." (No, it isn't depressing. It simply is. It's up to us whether our response will be to get depressed or to engage the reality that is.) And at the same time not bunkering protectively. The Ecospiritual Challenge is to choose neither despair nor defense, but new community. This is a spiritual challenge because the courage to face reality exactly as it is comes from spiritual discipline. Our capacity to hold our world in love, whatever may come -- and I do mean whatever may come -- is developed in spiritual practice and in spiritual community. And where love is, fear and sadness are not.

The new Earth will rely much more on local food, and on organic farming that doesn't use huge quantities of fossil fuel for its fertilizers, its pesticides, it’s machinery, or its product transportation. Food will cost more -- which is not a big problem since food has for many years now been ridiculously cheap, partly because of agriculture subsidies and fossil fuel industry subsidies (which also subsidize the type of agriculture that intensively relies on fossil fuels). The new Earth will rely more on locally-produced energy -- solar panels and solar water heating on your own house, and windmills in your yard -- because transmission across power lines loses efficiency over many miles. We'll also use the internet and connecting tools like Skype instead of flying and driving places.

To sustain us in the new Earth we need the very thing that sustained many of us on the old Earth: a spirituality of connectedness with this earth, of reclaiming a way of living lightly, carefully, gracefully on this delicate home, rituals and practices and ways of thinking that nurture attention, and calm delight in the simple beauties of life.

Wanting stuff makes us stressed, and being stressed makes it harder to step back from our desires for a larger perspective. We need some help to break out of that cycle, to prepare our hearts as well as minds for the new kind of life that will be required on our new planet. Ecotheologians can speak to our deepest needs for connection, harmony with our world, for the beauty of natural objects and natural terrain, and, by making ourselves clearer to ourselves, they fortify us to live by the values that we most yearn to live by but that keep getting buried under the daily demands of life.

Thomas Berry, and Sally McFague, and Annie Dillard are wonderful ecotheologians. Joanna Macy is another, and it is to her that I turn for one helpful schema as we discern the path forward.

First, she begins with the crucial question:
In the face of what is happening, how do we avoid feeling overwhelmed and just giving up, turning to the many diversions and demands of our consumer societies?
Yes, that’s something I need some help with. Like a lot of you, and unlike a lot of our fellow Americans, I don’t crave a bigger house or a bigger car, and will never jump up and down in giddy excitement over stuff the way that game show contestants do. But demands and diversions, I have aplenty. Tearing myself away to go down to the Farmer’s market can seem like too much. Consider, then, what the options, spiritually speaking, have been. The various religious traditions have offered us ways we relate to our Earth. Macy lays out four ways.

View number 1, The World as Battlefield. Good and evil are pitted against each other, and the forces of light battle the forces of darkness. The Zoroastrians and the Manicheans developed that story line. With this story as the context for making meaning of our lives, we will be oriented toward
courage, summoning up the blood, using the fiery energies of anger, aversion, and militancy.
It’s good for building confidence – it’s a story line that reassures you that you are on the right side, and your side will eventually win.

A variation is the model of the world as a proving ground, a kind of moral gymnasium for showing your strength and virtue at the snares and temptations of the world. You are only here so that the mettle of your immortal soul may be tested prior to admittance to some other realm.

View number 2, The World as Trap. Our spiritual objective
is not to engage in struggle and vanquish a foe, but to disentangle ourselves and escape from this messy world . . . to extricate ourselves and ascend to a higher, supra-phenomenal plane.
Not in some future life, but in this life, to live with contempt for the material plane, prizing only the rarefied life of mind and spirit, aloof from the world of strife and desire. This view engenders a love-hate relationship with matter – for aversion inflames craving, and the craving inflames aversion. Wherever we see people vigorously denouncing something and then being caught at doing that very thing – whether it’s extramarital relationships, or eating fatty foods – we are seeing the playing out of a love-hate relationship that comes from seeing the world as a trap.

I have seen people be attracted to Buddhism out of a feeling that the world is a trap, and a hope meditation will take them to a place removed from worldly entanglements. I tell them that the Buddha taught detachment from ego, not detachment from the world. And that even with ego, he taught being present to it, seeing it clearly for what it is, not suppressing it or ignoring it.

For people who see the world as a trap, social justice may still be a concern, but their approach is a strict linear sequence. "First I must get enlightened, then I can engage with helping others."
Presupposing that world and self are essentially separate, they imagine they can heal one before healing the other.
View number 3, The World as Lover, beholds the world as an intimate and gratifying partner. This view, with training, can bring to every phenomenon the beauty and sweetness of primal erotic play. Since lovers are impelled toward union and oneness, this view can then segue into:

View number 4, The World as Self. In the Western tradition there is more talk of merging self with God rather than with the world, but the import is about the same. When Hildegard of Bingen experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience these words:
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green….I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don’t want it to and can’t control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by). Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind.

Says Joanna Macy:
We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness.
We can come home again – and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before in our infancy.
If we as a species grow out of infancy, we may outlast that 300-year window that is now closing. We may make for ourselves a materially sparer, spiritually fuller life on our tough new planet.

If we don’t grow out of infancy, we will stay in denial for as long as we can, and when we can't anymore we'll go straight into (much bigger) resource wars between nations, followed by fighting off the neighbors for our bottled water. If we don't grow out of infancy . . . well, then, this, from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
Some little talk there was awhile of me and thee
And then no more of thee and me.

* * *

An earlier version was preached
at the UU Fellowship of Gainesville, 2011 May 15
Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, 2010.
Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self, 1991.


  1. A terminally important message I would say. And one that cannot be spoken once to have effect, but many times to keep us from falling back to sleep yet again.

    To quote you: "I argued also for the imperative to build and grow institutional homes for the development and deepening of ecospirituality... We need places -- buildings and memberships -- where people gather to widen and deepen their understanding and to express and affirm the sacredness of nature... We need, in short, an institution -- i.e., an ongoing pattern of being together... Unitarian Universalist congregations are, increasingly, that institution."

    Wouldn't it be great if your own congregation could be that institutional home. I know there are several, perhaps many who would help w/ this. The only lack is the organizational leadership spark to set the cause aflame.

  2. Hi, "Buckshot." Thanks for your comment! I understand UUFG to be such an institutional home, but we could certainly be better at it. Email me about this: mgarmon [at] uuma [dot] org. Look forward to hearing from you! -Meredith