by Kathleen Dean Moore (Dec 28, 2012)
Our generation is witnessing the end of the old era and the start of a new one, when human culture will determine the future of the Earth.
Theologian Thomas Berry said, “My generation has done what no previous generation could do, because they lacked the technological power, and what no future generation will be able to do, because the Planet will never again be so beautiful or abundant.” He points out that the Cenozoic, the era we are leaving behind, was when the Earth was at its “most lyrical,” when songbirds, flowering plants, and the great families of mammals flourished. At this peak of beauty and richness came humankind. We’re now estimated to be responsible for the extinction of one out of every ten species that we know of and likely uncounted others that we haven’t even identified yet. And we’re about to change even the climate that sustains these lives and ours. [...]
Are we going to let it all slip away — all those billions of years it took to evolve the song in a frog’s throat or the stripe in a lily — because we’re too busy? To love someone is to have a sacred obligation to protect them. [...]
If the culture forces us to live in ways we don’t believe in, then we have to change the culture. Given the urgency of the question, we may need to start with conscientious objection. There are things we must refuse to do, and there are costs for that refusal.
Many of us were alive when people said, “Hell no,” to an unjust war in Vietnam. The question today is: Can we say, “Hell no,” to an unjust economic system? Can we reclaim our humanity from forces that would prefer us to be mindless consumers? Every decision that we make — about where we find information, where we get food, what we wear, how we make our living, how we invest our time and our wealth, how we travel or keep ourselves warm and sheltered — is an opportunity for us to express our values both by saying yes to what we believe in and by saying no to what we don’t believe in.
I love what Carl Safina, who writes about the ocean, says in Moral Ground: “We think we don’t want to sacrifice, but sacrifice is exactly what we are doing. . . . We’re sacrificing what is big and permanent to prolong what is small, temporary, and harmful. We’re sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness.” So many of us wake up in the morning and eat a breakfast of food we don’t believe in and then drive a car we don’t believe in to a job we don’t believe in. We do things that we know are wrong, day after day, just because that’s the way the system is set up, and we think we have no choice. It’s soul-devouring.
Deciding we won’t drive to that chain grocery store and buy that imported pineapple is a path of liberation. Deciding to walk to the farmers’ market and buy those fresh, local peas is like spitting in the eye of the industries that would control us. Every act of refusal is also an act of assent. Every time we say no to consumer culture, we say yes to something more beautiful and sustaining. Life is not something we go through or that happens to us; it’s something we create by our decisions. We can drift through our lives, or we can use our time, our money, and our strength to model behaviors we believe in, to say, “This is who I am.” [...]
When my colleagues and I host public events about environmental ethics, we gather people in small groups and ask, “What do you care about most? What would you be willing to spend your whole life taking care of? What would you die for?” Then we ask, “If you value this more than anything else, what should you do? How might you make that value evident in your life?” It’s an invitation to a respectful dialogue in which both sides listen and might even change their minds. In civil discourse you test your beliefs against experience — your own and others’ — and revise and improve them. [...]
People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable. Blind hope leads to moral complacency: things will get better, so why should I put myself out? Despair leads to moral abdication: things will get worse no matter what I do, so why should I put myself out? But between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity — a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what’s right because it’s right, not because you will gain from it.
There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And, ultimately, there is social change in that. That’s the way we respond to a lack of hope. A person could be at zero on the hope-o-meter and still do great, joyous work. Even — especially — in desperate times, we can make our lives into works of art that embody our deepest values. The ways of life that are most destructive to the world often turn out to be the ones that are also most destructive to the human spirit. So, although environmental emergencies call on us to change, they don’t call on us to give up what we value most. They encourage us to exercise our moral imagination and to invent new ways of living that lift the human spirit and help biological and cultural communities thrive.
Over the weekend I sat for an hour in a warm pond in beautiful sunshine with my one-year-old grandson on my lap, splashing and scooping. I’ve never seen a child so happy. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so happy. That type of immersion in the world is a lesson in responsible caring. We can find the ongoing strength to do this work if we keep in mind that it is powered by love.
–Kathleen Dean Moore in If Your House Is On Fire: On The Moral Urgency Of Climate Change