“One should not look for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it…
The question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately he should not ask what the meaning of his life is but recognize that it is he who is being asked.”
The Meaning of Life, Viktor Frankl
Sometimes it just hurts so much. Seeing the depravity of our encounters with the living world that abuse it and leave it sick and dying tears at the heart on a level very, very deep; like jack-boots across a meadow of mountain flowers. I was watching a presentation about the ecological state of the oceans when the gulf opened up for me again. Then, right there in the midst of the horror, a clip was shown of six or eight massive humpback whales floating head down together, drifting slowly with the currents. ‘Scientists believe they are dreaming.’ When my mind grasped what it was witnessing by taking it in, visualizing it myself, sensing it actually happening – it was like a spark was ignited in that darkness. I want to try and talk about that spark.
It is easy to feel that the small, specific actions we take towards healing ourselves and the earth are unimportant in the big scheme of things. This is the age of the mass man where society does not recognize the worth of individuals except in so far as they play out roles that have been predetermined by the advertising and public relation narratives. By setting the sports stars and other celebrities on pedestals, the rest of us are put in our place. What do you think happens to a mind fed a non-stop diet of other people endlessly encountering larger than life adventures? What value do you think such a mind will put on a half dozen dreaming whales?
When we feel like the small things we are doing in our lives lack meaning we have fallen into the trap of abstractions. We are prone to letting our facility with language blind us to the value of that which is real enough to put in a wheelbarrow. Yet it is what’s in the wheelbarrow that will matter to our children. They will not ask what we thought we were doing; they will ask why we did what we did.
All that really exists in the unfolding of time are individual, specific acts. If you are able to turn your care and concern for the well being of the earth into any kind of concrete expression, you have participated in the dialog of our times. This dialog is not the one TV covers, full of lobbyists in meetings where the rich and powerful pound out trade rules for carbon pollution. The dialog I am interested in is the one that is shifting the ground on which all that is standing; the dialog between each person alive today and the biosphere from which they came, on which they depend, and to which they will return.
It is rare for ecological knowledge to remain a purely intellectual affair. Most people involved in conservation, biodiversity protection, organic farming and all the rest of it are passionate about what they do. This ability to act from one’s deepest values brings with it a spark of life; putting one’s hand to the plow, as it were, creates the path. What then of all of us who do not work in these fields or do not have these kinds of opportunities?
We are not called on to try and fix an abstraction. We cannot ‘save the earth’, nor does it need saving; it is a rather incoherent thought actually. We are called to do the very specific work of rebalancing our human ecological footprint with the well being of the earth. Real sustainability is found through simplicity, nowhere else. Our collective desires, which we feed and fertilize, ever encouraging them to grow as billions join the middle class, could not be met by the resources of four earths, let alone the one and only one we have. What no one wants to talk about is that there is plenty of earth to share if each human being lived simply and so used LESS; Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation.
I said last week we are not responsible for most of what we have inherited but we are for how we respond. The crux of the Limits to Growth analysis is that fossil fueled industrial civilization exceeds the long term carrying capacity of the environment on which it ultimately depends. It does so by exceeding the healthy functioning of what system science refers to as the environment’s sources and sinks. Sources are the places where the extraction of resources, which we call production, takes place. Sinks are the places where the used and discarded resource-remains are put as the garbage and poisons of our pollutions. In the real world of biosphere interdependence nothing just appears on the store shelves and nothing just disappears by throwing it in the trash can – this is why it is important to track the use of sources and sinks. Peak oil is an example of the depletion of a one time resource. Over fishing is an example of overshooting sustainability in what could be a renewable resource. These are illustrative examples of issues with sources. Climate change is a one time poisoning of the atmosphere which accompanied Peak Oil. Here the atmosphere’s ability to absorb pollutants and remain within its geologically historic temperature band was overwhelmed. Eutrophication of our rivers and the dead zones they create is an example of an ongoing overloading of what could be a renewable sink through industrial farming practices. These illustrative examples cover the landscape of our ethical choices.
What matters here is how we get our farm crops and how we get our fish. These are very concrete things, things you can put in a wheelbarrow. These are the things you can do something about and just the things that need to be done. What that will mean for you, only you can say. For one person it may mean paying more attention to where the fish they purchase come from, for another it might mean raising Tilapia in their bathtub. Chasing after abstractions only leaves you starved for joy and like a hungry ghost you will be driven to try and take nourishment through a needle-thin throat. Get your hands into the soil. We are meant to be the grounded among the ghosts.
We are so far lost in our consumer dreams it is almost inconceivable to choose to live more simply, to be poorer by choice. Just to learn to be content with second best is a challenge in our society where status and winning is everything. Even the small and symbolic steps which we are able to take away from all that have value. They have value not just for ourselves but potentially for whomever might happen to notice; who knows, perhaps they will be encouraged one day to ask the same questions that lead you to where you are today. In my case it took five, ten years before my life circumstances started to really reflect my ecological values to any degree. At least that is what it looked like on the outside. Inside I was taking whatever concrete steps I could, many of which were mostly symbolic. I mentioned choosing an urban target for guerrilla pollution removal. That sort of thing was how I started confronting the specific reality of my daily existence. Becoming a devotee of the hand-lens was more of the same.
There is not a problem with a ‘dying ocean.’ There is a pod of whales, dreaming in the deep, whose very presence on this earth is threatened because we cannot say no to an overabundance of plastic trinkets and techno-toys.
Dare to hold to the values by which your eye sees clearly even when, especially when, it hurts to know. Dare to do; there is a tree only you can plant. We should remember “…everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” No one can tell you what you need to do. You will need to ask the earth, our grandmothers and grandfathers, work it out with your inner guru. What we are involved in will play out over centuries and though the general trend towards simplicity is clear, the twists and turns along the way are unknowable. Bear this in mind when the little acts of caring and concern for the earth you are able to do seem too small and too little to be of any worth. Sometimes it is a feather that tips the scales of history, much like a butterfly’s wing might bring forth a storm.
All our acts today include some degree of the symbolic. We are all much too dependent on Homo Colossus for it to be otherwise. What helps is to understand the value of a symbolic act, however small, even when it has an audience of only one. An Acharya I know finding himself in a public restroom will use only a small part of a paper towel to dry his hands, keeping the rest to use later. Small acts of devotion offered in secret…
Many of us would gladly exchange our current lives for ones of much greater simplicity if in the exchange we were assured we would enjoy a healthy earth for ourselves and our children’s children. Well, there are no guarantees but there is no other equally viable alternative either. Though each of us is limited in the specifics of what we can do in making this exchange in our own lives, every step in this direction is influencing the probabilities of what is most likely to happen tomorrow. It seems to me our primary duty is to rejoice every day in the beauty of the earth. Certainly we can all do that and in doing so we renew our Yes and simultaneously renew our No. Just being clear about what we hold dear and what we do not approve of will serve us well. It is the only guide we really need to remake our lives closer to the image in our hearts.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and everyone of you for each and every act you have ever done with the hope of healing the rift between ourselves, and between ourselves and the earth. However small and however seemingly inconsequential they might have seemed, each one has added to the weight of the merit that opens the eyes of people like me. With tears of joy that come with the dawn after a long dark night, I offer each one of you, stewards of the earth, a heartfelt – thank you.