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Environmental Decline as a Spiritual Crisis

The modern ecology movement has made words like “green”, “environment” and “earth” part of our daily vocabulary and brought a new level of awareness about our responsibility to nature. Yet, despite decades of education, it is increasingly evident that our efforts to lessen our destructive impact on the natural systems which support us are failing in an alarming way.

Readers of this newsletter don’t need me to tell you that our planet is in trouble, and that we seem to be the main problem. You already understand something about our dire predicament and are doing what you can to help. You probably also sense the inadequacy of sorting your recyclables, driving less, composting your kitchen scraps, consuming fewer resources, or eating lower on the food chain. When mega-corporations are granted mega-exemptions in the name of economic growth and prosperity, so they can take what they want and leave what they don’t, the efforts of one person or family can seem ridiculously small and insignificant.

It should be clear to us by now that we cannot legislate our way out of this impossible situation. Neither common sense nor legal restrictions have been effective in curtailing our destructive behavior. We have shown ourselves to be creatures who foul their own nest. Even when our intentions are to do otherwise, most of us are locked into a pattern of consumption and reliance on mechanized industries that result in a net degradation of the planet’s eco-systems. We have found a way to accommodate environmentalism and justify our dysfunctional model of economic growth, just as we rationalize unhealthy eating habits or our addiction to petroleum.

When we look for the cause of our dilemma, some say that it is inherent in Western culture. Europeans have a history of aggression against nature and each other, and we seemed genetically destined to dominate and control, rather than to nurture and cooperate. This leads some of us to the awkward conclusion that humans are the problem, and life would be better off without us. While these assertions may have some truth in them, they can leave us in a hopeless dead-end where we see ourselves as merely a blight on the planet.

Instead of blaming others or becoming mired in self-loathing, however, we could honestly acknowledge that our human nature is at the root of the crisis and consider self-transformation as a possible solution. If our ingrained habits prevent us from taking responsibility for our natural environment, the answer might be changing ourselves from the inside.

The idea of changing our own nature seems impossible to many of us because Western civilization has focused primarily on changing the physical world to suit our needs, and this is what we know how to do. Indeed our habit of controlling our external circumstances is exactly the cause of the environmental crisis that looms before us. This crisis is demanding that we now focus inward and ask ourselves what we really want and what truly makes us happy, rather than trying to further manipulate our environment or other people.

Many of us who are educated and environmentally aware reject the idea of introspection because the only context that we have for this is psychotherapy or religion. Traditional western models of therapy can seem slow, ineffective, and self-indulgent, resulting in a lot of time and money spent with little results. And the religion that we are offered through traditional churches or temples is often defined by antiquated superstitions which bear little relevance to our life here and now.

Yet, hidden beneath the institution of religion and science of psychology is the simple truth that we humans long for personal transformation. It is our destiny to transform ourselves and that is why we are here. Just as other creatures like butterflies and frogs pass through a complete metamorphosis, we are engaged in a similar process of change.

Western science offers a context for species transformation in the theory of evolution. We normally do not associate evolution with the idea that we are currently undergoing radical changes now. The process seems to take so long and progress so slowly, and the only way that we have to measure evolutionary changes is through studying fossilized remains in hindsight. Yet the model of evolution clearly indicates that all life forms, including humans, are undergoing fundamental genetic shifts continuously.

Consider also that the foundation of many of our major religions is a person like Jesus, Buddha, or Mohamed, who transformed their basic human nature. The essence of the teachings of these spiritual leaders is that we each contain the seed of an entirely new being within us and this seed urges us continually toward growth, completion, and the discovery of truth.

The roots of our destructive nature lie in this undeniable impulse toward spiritual self-fulfillment which many of us disregard because we have no meaningful context for it. We require change and growth and long for a sense of completion. Our mistake is that we are looking for this outwardly in the physical world which we inhabit, and it cannot be found there. The change that we seek is an inward one, and when we deny this essential urge to complete ourselves spiritually, the result is anger and confusion which inevitably expresses itself in destruction to ourselves, our community, and our environment.

When I suggest that the solution to our dilemma lies in spiritual transformation, I am not advocating converting to a religion, adopting a new belief system, or merely having faith that an all powerful God will save us. Religion at best may provide a sense of direction for this inner exploration, however, it too often blinds us to our own hypocrisy and undermines our transformation by simplistically dividing our world into right and wrong. 

We cannot resolve our destructive tendencies by covering them over with morality or rules of good environmentalism. These attempts to suppress our natural impulses may limit some of the damage, but as we are seeing now, they are not nearly enough to avoid the total catastrophe of disabling the earth’s basic eco-systems. We are trying to change our behavior without addressing our underlying motivations, which means that we will never get to the root of the problem, despite our best intentions.

Our basic nature tends to be competitive rather than cooperative and our primary instinct is for self -preservation. This is why so many industrialized countries that have tried communism seem to be failing, while those embracing capitalism seem to be thriving. Trying to override our self-serving nature simply results in denial and pretense as our ego finds subtler ways to manipulate and control situations for what we think are our own best interests.

The way out of this is to challenge our basic assumptions about what it means to serve ourselves. Instead of crushing our ego-based nature, we can simply re-direct it. This is not a matter of suppressing our survival instincts, teaching ourselves to be good, or trying to care about the whole. It involves a direct challenge to our ego in the recognition that this primary impulse toward greater individualization and personal power has run amuck and is blinding leading us over a cliff.

Clearly our individualized ego is no longer serving our best interests if the result is the destruction of the environment which supports us. Something about the basic premise of individuality itself is tragically flawed and ultimately self-destructive. This recognition, made painfully obvious by our environmental crisis, means that we have reached a limit in the way in which we view ourselves and our world, and the way forward is to question the very premise of who we think we are and why we are here.

Questioning our basic assumptions, without latching on to a set of pre-determined beliefs, is the pre-requisite of spiritual growth. Many of us are not comfortable with these big questions about the meaning and purpose of life because the answers seem so elusive. Yet, without asking these fundamental questions, we remain blind to the cause of our predicament.

Western civilization has lived primarily under the premise that each one of us has to look out for ourselves and the strongest and most able to compete are the ones who survive. While this assumption may have enabled us to fend for ourselves in a hostile wilderness, we have taken individualism to an extreme that it is now causing us enormous stress and anxiety.

Most of us feel isolated and are trying to cope with the discomfort of feeling alone and cut off from the world around us by constant stimulation and the accumulation of more material comfort and personal security. This in turn makes us even more isolated and compounds our problem. In our frantic efforts to drown out the insecurity inherent in our extreme individuality, we are chronically over-consuming and thereby depleting eco-systems which could sustain us indefinitely if we used them only to meet our basic needs.

We have been acting as though we are primarily individuals who have to compete with each other for survival. Our looming environmental crisis is demonstrating to us in no uncertain terms that this premise is false. If we continue to compete against each other for control of the earth’s resources, the very resources we are competing for will be destroyed. Our survival now depends on shifting our point of reference so that we see ourselves as individuals who are primarily part of a larger system of life on earth.

We now can recognize with resounding clarity that we live on a finite planet with a self-contained eco-system which every one of us is dependent upon. The nature of an eco-system, and the nature of earth itself, is that it must be shared and cared for by each of us if it is to thrive and continue to support us. The problem is that most of us cannot easily set aside our ego driven survival instincts and allow our fate to be cast with the rest of humanity. We want to care about the earth, but we are also afraid that our personal needs will not be met and we will be deprived.

Awareness of our endangered ecology is challenging us to grow spiritually and allow our individualized egos to reformulate into a more sustainable expression of life and self. The answer lies in admitting that we don’t know how to do this and that all of our efforts to contain our destructive nature are failing. This crisis is demanding that we stop for a moment and not do anything, allowing that which does not truly serve us to simply fall away. We have to allow our self-centered instincts to fade out so that we can recognize a more powerful urge which we each carry latent within us for belonging and connection to the whole.

In the new evolution of humanity, modeled for us by spiritual teachers such as the Buddha and Christ, it becomes evident that it serves us to serve the whole. If we relax our struggle to maintain our individual self for a moment, our personal consciousness can begin to expand to include all consciousness. This process of spiritual growth requires that we surrender our willfulness and allow our ego to be undone. As that crisp line between mine and yours begins to blur, we finally understand how intrinsically we are tied to everything around us. 

This new vision is not a belief or idea, but rather a revelation which dawns on us when we are no longer obsessed with our individual survival. The paradox is that we have to give up our perennial striving to protect ourselves, and face the possibility of our own personal annihilation, in order to recognize that we are inherently  connected to a larger whole which is so infinite that it can never be threatened.

In remembering our innate connection with all of life and inter-dependency with the natural systems of the earth, we miraculously resolve the chronic anxiety and isolation which drove us to consume the source of our nourishment to the point of depletion in the first place. Once we experience our connection to a greater whole, the persistent tension and stress of having to fight for ourselves in a hostile world relaxes, and we discover a contentment that enables us to appreciate the natural abundance of the earth and realize its sacredness. When we know that we are part of nature we will no longer see our environment as merely a resource for our personal use, but will recognize the world around us as an extension of ourselves.


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