You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.
~The Book of Joel~
We are the transformers of Earth. Our whole being, and the flights and falls of our love, enable us to undertake this task.
~Rainer Maria Rilke~
For the past six years I have been writing profusely about the challenges the earth community is encountering in the face of energy depletion, climate change, and burgeoning economic calamity worldwide. Throughout my exploration of these topics, I have used the word “collapse” to depict what I believe is the termination of a paradigm out of which industrial civilization was fashioned. The use of “collapse” has been intentional as I believe that the entire construct of the paradigm is in such unequivocal disarray that its demise is assured. And furthermore, in my opinion, this is entirely appropriate given the corner into which industrial civilization has painted itself in the past three hundred years.
Many individuals prefer to avoid the term “collapse” and name the changes through which we are passing as “transitions,” “awakenings,” or as Joanna Macy and David Korten have done, refer to them as “The Great Turning.” Certainly these synonyms are not inaccurate, yet such descriptions of our predicament fall short of comprehending its implications because they suggest that we might seamlessly transport ourselves into a more enlightened milieu, subtly and almost without noticing that we have done so. The use of such terms lends itself to the celebration of “new beginnings,” but does not provide space for the recognition of myriad endings. For me, the acknowledgement that a plethora of aspects of our industrially civilized way of life are reaching a conclusion is crucial if we are to genuinely cherish new beginnings. Otherwise, it is not possible to authentically transform our consciousness and create a new culture that is substantially different from this one.
In the procession of life on earth, it is just as important to honor endings as to celebrate new beginnings. Unfortunately, civilized humans are much more challenged by acknowledging deaths than births, yet both are inherent in the human experience. Moreover, endings and beginnings are not binary experiences because both interdependently “need” each other and cannot be neatly separated. Where there is a beginning, a death is inherent. The moment an infant emerges from the womb, it begins to die, and with few exceptions, people of faith believe that death is but the beginning of a new existence in some form in another time and space.
Thus, I believe we must acknowledge that the economic model which gave birth to industrial civilization is disintegrating before our eyes as the concept of “infinite growth” rapidly recedes into the dustbin of history. Or as author Clive Thompson asks in his June, 2010 Mother Jones article, “Nothing Grows Forever: Why Do We Keep Thinking The Economy Will?” What is more, infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible, or as economist Herman Daly stated, he would accept the possibility of infinite growth in the economy on the day that one of his economist colleagues could demonstrate that Earth itself could grow at a commensurate rate.
Runaway climate change is presenting a daunting, and what could be, the final challenge to the entire earth community. In 2013 our planet crossed a tragic milestone---measurements of atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide passed 400 parts per million, the highest in millions of years. Some scientists assert that just two more degrees centigrade of warming will cause our planet to become uninhabitable and that humans are likely to engender those two degrees or more by the middle of this century. I am not a scientist, and therefore, I am not qualified to defend this assertion, but evidence from a number of sources increasingly underscores the dire climate situation in which we are now ensnared.
In terms of energy our species appears to be confronting the no-win dilemma of accepting unprecedented fossil fuel depletion or choosing the untenable alternative of frantically engaging in hydraulic fracturing for the acquisition of natural gas both in the United States and in Europe. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as it has come to be known, is attended by myriad health hazards in terms of water and air pollution and requires massive amounts of water which, in the face of an impending global water shortage, is a profligate utilization of this precious resource. Furthermore, the fracking process invariably releases significant quantities of methane into the air---a reality that further exacerbates the climate change hazard.
While the earth community faces countless challenges, most are related in some way with the “Three E’s” I have just articulated: economics, environment, and energy. The extent of our predicament appears to intensify with each day, confronting us with the reality that this planet cannot support 7 billion (let alone 9 or 10 billion) people, many of whom are engaged in the lifestyle of industrial civilization.
Thus, modern humans are now encountering a moral dilemma: If we continue to live as we are now living, the annihilation of the earth community is certain, and the sustained habitability of our planet becomes increasingly unlikely.
The Role Of Faith Communities
If what I have written above sounds “apocalyptic,” on one level, it is. However, I define the word apocalypse according to its original meaning in the Greek which simply means “the unveiling.” This is a time of “revelation” in which we have the opportunity to “lift the veil” and discover what has and hasn’t nurtured the earth community. Incalculable losses need to be consciously grieved so that we feel in our bodies an unprecedented intimacy with life. In this way, our own tears organically connect us with the tears of the world. And rather than deadening our life force, grieving actually revitalizes it and paradoxically enhances our capacity to experience joy.
Little in this culture supports conscious grieving, but in faith communities, we can create opportunities to verbalize and feel with trusted others our grief for the world. Grief work is sacred work because it opens our hearts and infuses the soul with vitality. “Where there is sorrow,” said Oscar Wilde, “there is holy ground.”
In addition to conscious grieving which serves to acknowledge and mark the ending of an old paradigm, we can begin creating a new one in a variety of ways.
**Faith communities must begin focusing on our fundamental sustenance through the growing and consumption of local food. We must move beyond the imperative to “feed the hungry,” and explore more deeply how to do this in a manner that intimately connects us with the surrounding community. Is it really enough to bring a can of food to a place of worship once a week and deposit it in a basket for a food pantry?
How much better if we create a community garden and feed the hungry with local, organic food. Not only does a community garden help feed the hungry, it feeds the souls of everyone involved by connecting them more intimately with the earth. When a faith community creates a garden, something inexplicably magical happens in a neighborhood, and clergy and parishioners invariably notice that people become curious and engage in conversations about the garden and even offer to work in it.
Some faith communities also create farmers markets or engage in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) by building alliances with local farmers in which people can subscribe to a share of a particular farmer’s harvest and pick up food weekly or monthly from the harvest. Usually the food is boxed and includes vegetables, fruit, and possibly other products such as eggs, raw milk, honey, or meat. CSA’s are an ideal way to support one’s local farmers and obtain local, unprocessed food through an alternative economic model that serves both the consumer and the farmer.
I recently spoke with Rev. Peter Rood of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in the Los Angeles suburb of Westchester which decided in 2008 to create a community garden. He told me that he and other parish leaders were at first anxious about making such a move. They didn’t know how the garden would be received by the neighborhood and perhaps even parishioners. It turns out, however, that the garden has been wildly successful and was received enthusiastically by neighbors and parishioners. Not only is the food grown in the garden harvested and delivered weekly to the local food pantry, but the garden has become an educational resource for local organic gardening practices. Moreover, Holy Nativity’s community garden inspired the creation of another larger and magnificent community garden in the neighborhood in a corner lot behind a middle school.
Additionally, the creation of a community garden at Holy Nativity set in motion an entirely new consciousness about food overall. Macrobiotic cooking classes are now held at the church as well as classes on the benefits of eating raw foods. The church has no official policy on diet or nutrition, but the presence of the community garden seems to have set in motion a burgeoning consciousness around food and healthy eating. In this regard Rev. Rood has raised awareness in the parish with respect to genetically modified foods and GMO labeling.
**Faith communities can educate members in the impact of climate change on food production and strengthen local foodsheds.
Climate change and global water scarcity is severely impacting food production according to a 2009 report from the Overseas Development Institute. That same year, a Scientific American article entitled “Farmed Out: How Will Climate Change Impact World Food Supplies” underscored the ODI article by emphasizing that local communities must quickly take action in order to resiliently adapt their food and water supplies in the wake of climate change by fortifying their foodsheds.
A foodshed is defined as the territory between where a food is produced and where it is consumed, including the land where it is grown, the routes it travels, the markets through which it passes, and the tables it finally graces. It is vital that faith communities understand their local foodsheds and network with local food producers and consumers to support all aspects of local food production. An excellent resource for researching and strengthening the local foodshed is Philip Ackerman-Leist’s book Rebuilding The Foodshed: How To Create Local, Sustainable, And Secure Food Systems. Additional resources can be found in a recent video in which Ackerman-Leist articulates the tools needed to transform local food and energy systems.
**Faith communities can educate themselves in the “Three E’s.” As well as intellectually understanding these daunting challenges, faith communities can intentionally prepare their members for navigating the emotional and spiritual impact of our very uncertain and unprecedented future. This includes not only supporting people in feeling their grief about the myriad losses of our time, but also encouraging them to talk about other emotions that may arise and very importantly, how both the losses and the emotions related to them may be calling us to fine-tune our life purpose in order to more consciously and courageously offer our personal gifts to the world.
In 2009, after having researched the state of our planet for several years, I was inspired to write Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path Of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. To my surprise, the book was very well-received, and in 2011, I was additionally inspired to take the material in Sacred Demise even further by providing a workbook of tools for emotional and spiritual preparation entitled Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition. Ideally suited for a study group format, either or both books have been useful in many venues for providing a starting point in faith and other communities for discussion of how we can meet our uncertain future with inspiration and intention.
**Faith communities can and must become beacons of caring for neighborhoods and regions in the wake of natural disasters and the disintegration of the larger systems of our society that no longer provide services for their citizens.
Throughout the world, economic austerity rules the day, and in this country, Congressional gridlock in the form of “sequestration” is increasingly tightening its cold, iron hand around the lives of the most vulnerable among us. Massive unemployment and underemployment, myriad economic downturns, and the fading of the American dream and the infinite growth paradigm challenge faith communities as never in recent memory to creatively construct a variety of safety nets that do not exist elsewhere.
I believe that it is the responsibility of faith communities to educate those in their care regarding the economic realities of our time, helping to dispel illusions about the return of the old paradigm and inspiring people to open to the challenge, and yes, perhaps even the joy, of living simply and sustainably.
Faith communities may well consider the model adopted by lodges and other associations of earlier times for promoting the public good and taking care of their own. In his 2013 article “In A Time Of Limits,” John Michael Greer, author of Not The Future We Ordered, notes:
In the time of limits ahead of us, no country on earth will be able to afford a welfare state of the kind that was common in industrial societies over the last century or so. That’s one of the harsh realities of our predicament. National economies powered by diffuse renewable energy sources, bound by strict ecological limits, and forced to cope with the cascading instabilities of a damaged planetary biosphere, simply won’t be able to produce the surplus wealth needed to make that a possibility. Methods of providing for urgent social needs that worked in the days before the economy of abundance are another matter, and for this reason it makes sense to suggest a revival of the old American custom of forming voluntary associations to fund and manage public amenities.
Whatever our tradition---Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or indigenous, we are now being called to participate in the “unveiling” and pierce the veil of old paradigms. We are being compelled to live and love in new and unfamiliar ways that stretch the heart, perhaps even to the breaking point. This end/beginning invites us to move beyond sectarian labels and elevated piety into the territory of becoming not only a more compassionate human being, but members of a new species of human that fully experiences and lives its divinity.
The mystical Sufi poet, Hafiz says it best:
So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim
A Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of itself
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel
Or even pure
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.