Karuna Teresa Foudriat’s speaks to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills Kingston, NY, September 21, 2014
Since I’m speaking to a UU congregation, I know I’m preaching to the choir when I point out that we live in uncertain and troubling times. Even as I speak, thousands of people, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, are converging in New York City to encourage world leaders to act responsibly on the issue of the climate change that is threatening to turn into climate chaos.
Some reports I’ve read, including the UN 2014 Intergovernmental Panel's report on Climate Change (IPCC), have forecast all sorts of troubling scenarios: massive migration to escape the rising oceans, drought and desertification; worsening and unpredictable weather events like Hurricanes Sandy and Irene; the acidification of the ocean and disappearance of the coral reefs by 2030; and the extinctions of 15-37% of the world’s mammal, bird and amphibian species in the next 15-50 years. In fact, some have labeled the current geological period the Great Anthropocentric Extinction. The recent Ebola outbreak in western Africa may be the first of a series of epidemics health officials have forecast. As easily accessed fossil fuel becomes scarcer and extraction methods like fracking and tar sand oil become more extreme and less productive than the oil we’ve nearly used up, experts and laypeople alike are predicting more armed conflict and civil unrest. Again, the current instability in the Middle East, despite 20+ years of American war and so-called nation building there to secure our oil supply, may well be a harbinger of the coming chaos. To add to the mix, there is worsening economic inequality, not only between the 1% of the wealthy and the rest of us Americans, but between the West and the developing world. The IPCC report I mentioned before points out that the effects of climate change will be disproportionately borne by the poorer countries, just as the poor people in the US now live in greater proximity to pollution and toxic waste sites than the wealthy and middle class people who benefit most from polluting activities. This injustice is also generational. Young people in this country, if they’re lucky enough to go to college, are often begin their working lives with crippling college debt, increasing job insecurity and few hopes for the leisured retirement their elders enjoy. I have two sons in their twenties and while I’m immensely proud of the productive ways they’re bringing their gifts to the world, it saddens me that they felt they had to enter the Air Force to succeed financially. Corporate globalization, rather than being the road to prosperity as it’s been touted, seems to have imperiled the land, the climate, and the economic stability of all but the wealthiest. As a species we human beings seem determined to foul our own nest and savage each other. Some of us, scientists and ordinary citizens alike, wonder if human beings will survive.
This is an extremely sketchy picture of a complex, interconnected set of circumstances, but the bottom line is that while there are many unknowns, change is coming. I personally believe that the fossil fuel technology at the heart of the way we Americans live now is heading for a long descent and that future generations will have to live very differently on a less diverse, less welcoming planet.
How in the world do we respond to all this depressing news? How do we hold this information and continue to function or better yet, change the way things are going? I ‘ve worked as a chaplain at Albany Medical Center and I ‘ve seen parallels between the way we’re responding to our times and some of the emotional states that terminally ill patients cycle through when they cope with the knowledge of their imminent deaths. In fact Zhiwa Woodbury, a hospice worker and environmental attorney has called ours an era of “planetary hospice.” He calls on those of us with spiritual practices like meditation or psychological skills to see ourselves as hospice workers and help our fellow humans accept and navigate all the transition ahead.
Most of us, most of the time are in a state of denial. We continue our business as usual, feeling disconnected from the coming changes because they’re happening far away. The ice caps melting, the oceans acidifying, the rainforests being cut down, species disappearing, the wars for scarce resources haven’t yet come to our backyards so we ignore the ominous symptoms.
Or perhaps we do live with some sort of awareness of the change and chaos ahead. In “The Truth Mandala” exercise from her book Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy helps participants identify, acknowledge, and experience the contracting fear, the numbing emptiness and depression, the deep sorrow, and the overwhelming anger that can overtake us when we contemplate the current planetary crisis. Even if we do recognize the difficult times ahead of us, these mind states can paralyze us, preventing us from moving to acceptance, which then allows us to do what we can to mitigate or prepare for the transition. One of the most important ways our spirituality and ecological understanding can interact is through our use of techniques like mindfulness or prayer. We can accept and hold all these challenging mind states and then help others navigate their distress.
I’d like to focus for a minute on anger, which initially might seem like the most productive of the responses, since anger can lead to action. In some people, anger has prompted a “prepper” or isolationist mentality, causing individuals or families to begin stockpiling food and firearms, grimly determined to protect what’s theirs from the evil federal government and/or the ravenous hoards. On the other side of the political spectrum there are certain political activists who blame the world crisis on a host of others: the “evil” companies like Monsanto and BP, the 1% of the wealthiest people, the corrupt US government that favors corporate interests over common folks like you and me. Although there’s some truth to both the viewpoints arising out of anger, they also share a major flaw. Both preppers and activists have a tendency to shift the responsibility onto others and ignore their own role in helping to create the situation. This “othering,” focusing on causes and conditions external to oneself, reminds me a bit of one of the stories about Mullah Nasrudin, the crafty wise fool and teaching figure of the Sufi tradition:
A friend found Nasrudin on his hands and knees in the road in front of his house under a streetlamp. “Mullah what are you doing?” he asked. “I’m searched for my keys” Nasrudin responds. The friend offers to help. And the two of them are soon joined by a whole bunch of people looking for the lost keys. Finally after much time had passed the friend asked, ”Mullah are you sure you lost your keys here?” “Well, actually I lost them in my house under the bed, but the light was better out here!”
If we want to account for the ecological and economic injustices of our time, as well take steps to mitigate them, perhaps metaphorically speaking we need to look first at home, at our own lives and even more closely at our own feelings and mind states. The problem with blaming entities like the oil companies for the global ecological crisis of our times is the deep complicity of nearly every American in supporting, and benefitting from these very “others” to sustain our comfortable way of life, to the detriment of the other beings, human and non-human, that inhabit the planet with us. If like me, you drove here in a car, bought some or all of your food at the grocery or even the health food store, flushed your waste down a toilet, or used electricity to power your computer recently then, like me, you are intrinsically embedded in the fossil fuel driven corporate systems that have caused the current crisis. To put it another way, we are all interconnected and dependent. We are not separate from any of the systems that sustain us, neither from our devastated planetary ecosystem, nor from the unsustainable large-scale technological and industrial systems that provide our food, clothing, and shelter, and fulfill a host of other needs and desires. In the Joanna Macy and John Seed passage I read earlier in the service, the notion that on the molecular, biological and even astronomical levels we are indeed “intersecting cycles of water, earth air and fire” conveys our current scientific understanding, which is echoed by the mystics of all ages and religions. I believe that our collective inability to both intellectually understand and deeply experience this interdependence is as much a part of the problem as our outward acts of polluting. When we fail to see the consequences of our actions upon the whole, our disconnection becomes the source of these actions. And on a practical level, we can control our own actions much more effectively than the actions of corporations, governments, or even other individuals.
Spirituality at its best promotes deep experiences of reconnection that can potentially unite with ecological awareness to help us heal ourselves and the earth As a seminary student, I’m so lucky to have encountered to the teachings and practices of theologians and spiritual leaders of all faith groups writing about of the ways their respective traditions support a healthy understanding of the relationship between human beings and the earth. For me, the ecological teaching of the Qur’an and the spiritual practices of Sufism have been some of the most life changing and inspiring, I’ve encountered. This may surprise you, given the incessantly bad press Islam has had since 9/11.
According to the Qur’an, one of the fundamental functions of the natural world is as revelation, providing messages or signs of the Creator’s beauty, power, wisdom and glory. Again and again we are asked to reflect on the marvels of Creation.
A form of the Arabic word “ayat, which means “sign” or “message” is used throughout the Qur’an to refer both to the created world and to the inner world of human beings. It’s used many times to describe creation; and the sun, the moon, and the planets. It points to the rhythm of night and day and to the cycle of the moon.
The rain, lightening, and thunder and wind are signs of Allah, as are the gifts of gardens, food crops, and livestock. The Qur’an compares signs “on the farthest horizon” to signs within the human soul and associates the wonders of nature with the marvels of human fetal development. By using the same concept for both human and natural wonders, the Qur’an suggests that we are both a microcosm of the universe and an intimate part of nature. The word ayat also refers to the teachings of earlier prophets as well as to sacred scriptures the Torah, the Gospels and even to the Qur’an itself. Many commentators believe the Qur’an is not limited to the text but includes the whole universe in a kind of ur-Qur’an known as “the mother of the Book.” Imagine how different our world would be if actually we saw every geological or meteorlogical feature, every plant, animal, human being or heavenly body spread out before us as sacred text . How reverently we would treat each other and the earth. That is the kind of consciousness the Qur’an points us towards, specifically commanding us in verses like 7:56 not to pollute the earth:
Verily S/He loves not those who transgress the bounds of what is right: hence do not spread corruption on earth after it has been so well ordered.
Closely related to the Qur’anic concept of the natural world as a sign of the Creator is the theme of the natural world in constant praise and gratitude.
Have you not considered that all that is between the heavens and the earth glorifies the One, even the birds as they spread their wings...(24:41)
For Sufi master Mevlana Rumi too the natural world is constantly worshipping. Using a favorite image, he writes that all the whole garden “Has only one function: to praise without tongue the water which quickens them.” In another poem, the rose, the violet, and the green leaf echo the standing, bowing and prostrating positions in Islamic ritual prayer. In fact the Islamic ritual prayer itself has been described by Sufis as a synthesis of the methods of prayer of all the beings in the universe. Each posture aligns Muslims with the kingdoms of nature: we stand upright with the trees and fellow humans, we bend horizontally with the animals, we kneel in stillness like the mountains, we bow low like the plants. As I’ve done salat over time, I recognize its potential to connect me to the universal worship going on around me in ever deepening ways.
This interconnection is most clearly expressed in the Sufi concept of Wahdat al-Wujud, the unity of existence or the Oneness of all Being. This view of the essential unity of the universe within the totality of Allah is supported by Qur’an 2:115:
To the One belongs the East and the West: wherever you turn, there is the Face of the Divine, All-Pervading, All-knowing. Qur’an 2:115
There are many ways our spirituality and our ecological awareness can enhance and support each other in helping to bring about more sustainable world. On my own personal journey, my deepening perception of our interconnection, of the Oneness of All Being has taken me to some unexpected places. For almost a year, I ‘ve been involved in a project called the Long Spoon Collective, the name based on the story I told the children. We’re a working group of the Saugerties branch of the Transition Towns movement, a network of towns all over the world trying to re-localize their systems of energy, food, transportation, and health care to prepare for the changes ahead. Although the Long Spoons are a loosely organized, diverse group, our core members deeply believe in our essential unity with the earth and that even our smallest acts have environmental consequences. One of the coolest things about the project is that the leaders and visionaries are mostly folks in their 20s who are actually leading sustainable lives most on a level us baby boomers in the group hadn’t thought possible. I mean, I drove a Prius and had a bank of solar panels. I was green, wasn’t I? For most of the people in my generation, living a sustainable life is a moral choice rather than a necessity. These young people believe that our fossil fuel lifestyle will end in their lifetime and are seriously preparing themselves for the transition.
We’re trying to radically transform ourselves and our lifestyles by building a local infrastructure that’s an alternative to our globalized, fossil fuel-based food, energy, economic and housing systems, all with the goal of minimizing our ecological impact. A big part of the Long Spoon mission is to encourage and inspire others to do the same. We are hoping that a large network of people who know how to grow their own food, and take care of their needs without fossil fuel will be the best insurance we have for meaningful, peaceful lives in the years ahead. Thus, two other Long Spoon goals are food self-sufficiency, and helping those who want to join us build tiny, low cost or free off–grid housing from either natural materials or those found in the waste stream. Our third challenge is to build the social connections for what we ultimately hope will be a moneyless economy. We’re educating ourselves to move away from the consumer-oriented, zero-sum paradigm of competition, scarcity, transactional exchange, and private profit to a producer-oriented economy of abundance, cooperation, mutual gain, and gift giving. Bottom line, we are trying to ask, "What can I give?" instead of "What can I get?"
What have we accomplished so far? Over the spring and summer the collective planted and fenced a 2-acre garden using a combination of bio-intensive, biodynamic and permaculture techniques. We have preserved much of it for the winter, built a root cellar, and given our surplus away at Long Spoon music, art and charity events or to a local food bank. We are setting up and strengthening a network of permaculture gardens on private land that we hope will someday provide animal as well as vegetable food sources for us to share. One of our sites has bees and chickens; another, chicken and meat rabbits, with goats and cows in the works. We have a functioning community cider press and are working on an oil press for the sunflowers we grew this year. So far we have three diverse livable tiny structures mostly completed, with several outbuildings started and a greenhouse heated by a rocket stove in the works. We’ve taken materials from 5 or 6 different demolition sites with the intention to use the materials to building new tiny houses and maintain the old ones. To preserve natural resources, we’ve developed rain catch water systems, composting toilets, high efficiency rocket stoves, solar cookers, cobb ovens, and hayboxes. All of our main sites compost food scraps and human waste. Other accomplishments are more intangible: love, joy, community, purpose, and interconnection. One of the metaphors we like to use for our relationships with each other is “social mycelium,” mycelium being the fungal connections that mushroom expert Paul Stametz calls the “neurological network of nature.”
Some have called the Long Spoon /Transition town idea utopian or idealistic and have said it won’t work. I have both a personal and a general response to that criticism. This is a project that has brought many of the threads of my life together: love of the land and the wish to heal it, the longing to create alternatives to the economic and ecological horrors of our time, the experience of work as spiritual practice. For me the process we’ve engaged in feels as important as any results. We don’t know whether this kind of alternate network building will succeed. It’s a grand experiment! To quote Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement, we do know that “If we wait for the governments, it'll be too little, too late. If we act as individuals, it'll be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.’