The water in which we swim

I’ve been hearing from friends and colleagues in various parts of London: With a bit of wonder and some real delight in their voices, they say something like “it’s so quiet” 

They are referring to the lack of the periodic roar of jet engines far overhead. And those are jet engines that burn immense quantities of fossil fuels. The jet engines that emit great quantities of carbon dioxide that contributes to global climate change. 

This Thursday is Earth Day – the 41st year that this event has been held. Is there some message or meaning in the fact that nature has chosen this time to blast a giant cloud of ash into the atmosphere – ash that prevents jet aircraft from flying and ash that – in sufficient quantity – tends to cool our overheating planet? 

I wonder if you remember the advertising campaign for Chiffon Margarine in the 1970s? An actress depicting Mother Nature with a garland of flowers and forest animals at her feet is tricked into thinking that Chiffon is actually butter and then stands up, turning from sweet and nurturing to angry and harsh and says “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” A flash of lightening and a thunderclap follow. 

Is that what’s going on? 

I think Mother Nature would be justified in having that reaction about now. 

After 40 previous Earth Days, the health of our planet has worsened in almost every way. There has been progress, to be certain. Regulations in many developed countries have reduced air and water pollution. The ozone layer has been restored to a significant extent. We can cause positive change when there is a will and a way. 

But the overall picture is not good. Global climate change is here and it is not going away. Biodiversity is decreasing rapidly, with something in excess of 25,000 species disappearing each year. The coral reefs are disappearing, the glaciers are melting, fossil fuels are being depleted, toxic waste is accumulating, the oceans’ fish are vanishing… 

Ordinarily, human beings have the ability to identify immediate threats and problems and do something about them. We saw this happen with the ozone layer. A range of chemicals was banned by international agreement and now the ozone layer is recovering significantly. The banning of DDT in the US led to some recovery in eagle population. Technical innovations at coal-burning plants have reduced the severity of acid rain in some places. We can be very good at addressing ordinary problems. 

The overall trend of environmental degradation does not seem to be an ordinary problem. It is not. It is bigger. It is a problem related to the ways in which we understand the world and our place in it. 

Two fish met in a stream. 
"How've you been?" asked one. 
"You won't believe what happened to me." replied the other. "I had a truly amazing experience. I saw a tasty tidbit floating overhead so I snapped it up. The next thing I know, I'm in this whole other world, a piece of hard, shiny stuff hooked in my mouth, hanging on a string, and I can't breathe! I'm suffocating! Then this giant something grabs me, takes the hard shiny thing out of my mouth, and throws me back in the water." 

"Water? What water? What are you talking about?" asks the first fish. 

The story points to the ways in which we understand the world around us – our world view. If you lived only in water, you might not understand the concept of water because it is pervasive – it is the way you understand your world – it is a concept built into everything you do and think. 

Environmental degradation is not an ordinary problem because it is intimately tied up with our world view. 

Sallie McFague wrote a book ten years ago called “Life Abundant” in which she speaks about her increasing understanding of humanity’s attitude toward and relation to the planet. 

The water in which we westerners swim today is, McFague says, a worldview in which we are, first and foremost, consumers. Max Oelschlaeger calls us “…Homo oeconomicus – the mass person, the consumer who lives amid unprecedented material splendour and the producer who bends the earth to virtually unrestrained human purpose.” 

The water is difficult to detect. It is a water shaped and coloured by the economic systems that dominate our lives. Those economic systems were in turn shaped by two crucial historical events: the enlightenment and the protestant reformation. These revolutionary shifts in human society were both important in our own religious history as well. 

The enlightenment freed the individual to exist and think for herself. The protestant reformation freed him to seek the divine in his own way – no longer strictly confined by the strictures of religious hierarchy. These were great innovations in the progress of humanity. They brought freedom and dignity to millions of lives. 

Even wonderful innovations have their shadow sides. Adam Smith and later economic theorists embraced this view of the individual in the development of modern economics – a system that is based on satisfying the needs of individuals. It is a system that focuses directly on the individual – understanding that when our individual needs come together in the marketplace, we will among us – through the relationship between price and supply and demand – find the best possible solution for the distribution of scarce resources. 

This vision was predicated on human selfishness – another understanding of the protestant reformation. Economics could not rely on any sort of generosity given the sinful selfishness that was taken for granted by the protestant reformers. 

And finally, the key assumption that drives this whole system is growth. To be healthy, economies must continue to expand and grow indefinitely. 

It worked rather nicely for the developed world for quite a while. We have seen unprecedented improvements in health and in standard of living. 

But the “me, me, me” centred world view has run into some nasty realities: chief among them, the fact that there are not enough resources to go around. There is not enough energy, not enough capacity for food production, not enough minerals, not enough land on which to dump our waste, not enough atmosphere to absorb our greenhouse gases, and not enough ocean to dilute our pollution. 

Sallie McFague tells us, “for all the earth’s people to enjoy a western middle-class lifestyle, four more planets the size of the earth would be necessary as the resource base.” 

Our worldview then, the water we live in, tells us we are all separate individuals disconnected from each other and disconnected from the world around us. 

And this worldview leads us to expect we can consume more and more indefinitely, ignoring the finite nature of resources and the vast inequities we have created across our world and among our human family. 

Our identity as Homo oeconomicus is not a conscious one. And this makes it all the more powerful and dangerous. We can not begin to change what we do not recognise. 

But change it we must, for our assumptions are unrealistic, our distribution of resources unjust, and our way of life entirely unsustainable. 

I am not at all comfortable with the implications of this conclusion. I have never been an environmentalist. It always seemed to me that forgoing pesticides, changing a few light bulbs, and wearing hemp was not going to do very much except maybe make me feel a bit less guilty. 

In some ways, I regret that attitude. Clearly, there is much that is wrong and we must make a start wherever we can. 

In other ways, I stand by my reluctance to jump on the organic, green band-wagon. The small steps we are taking do not begin to address the underlying fantasy that is destroying our planetary home and creating such enormous injustice. 

We can not continue to believe that growth is inevitable or that we are separate from other humans. We can not continue to believe that we are separate from the living systems of the earth. 

This means that to live justly, we must live with less. To live sustainably, we must live with less. To live responsibly, we must live with less. 

To begin even to think in this way is a radical shift for most of western society. We are taught that we should increase continually – constantly bigger, better, and more. 

The illusion will have to end one day. The longer it persists, the worse will be the collapse to come. 

Where do we go from here? 

I am not going to go out today and get rid of all my stuff and move into a cave somewhere. That is not the answer. 

I believe that the most important role we can play is to help ourselves and others to recognise the water in which we swim – the consumerist water that surrounds us and makes us into Homo oeconomicus. 

There are other ways to live. An excerpt of a poem by David Wagoner: 


The Silence of the Stars

When Laurens van der Post one night In the Kalihari Desert told the Bushmen he couldn't hear the stars singing, 
they didn't believe him. 
They looked at him, half-smiling. 
They examined his face to see whether he was joking or deceiving them. 
Then two of those small men who plant nothing, 
who have almost nothing to hunt, 
who live on almost nothing, and with no one but themselves, 
led him away from the crackling thorn-scrub fire
And stood with him under the night sky and listened. 
One of them whispered, do you not hear them now? 
And van der Post listened, not wanting to disbelieve, 
but had to answer, no. 
They walked him slowly like a sick man to the small dim circle of firelight and told him
They were terribly sorry, 
And he felt even sorrier for himself and blamed his ancestors for their strange loss of hearing, 
Which was his loss now. 

The disconnected and fiercely individualistic way of our culture is not the only way. The isolation we feel does not have to be so. Happiness is not brought about by accumulating material things

We can help bring about the change that is needed by showing the birth of a different way right here within the distortion and illusion of these times. 

Let us find joy in connection, find satisfaction in love, and find meaning and purpose in our shared lives. So, we shall begin to create a foundation for the world to come. 

In the words of the Roberta Bard Ruby, writer of the hymns we sang earlier: 

“Bless the earth and all your children, one creation: make us whole, 
interwoven, all connected, planet wide and inmost soul. 
Holy mother, life bestowing, bid our waste and warfare cease. 
Fill us all with grace o’erflowing. Teach us how to live in peace.” 

May it be so