Global warming, pollution, carbon offsetting, wars, refugees, poverty etc etc blah blah blah…

We can hardly fail to have noticed that the planet and humankind is in a mess - being continually bombarded with dire warnings and preaching about the state of the earth and the condition of most of its inhabitants. 

We know the facts… so why do we still do so little about it?

Is it just an inconvenient truth (in the words of Al Gore) and is it really as simple as ‘we can’t be bothered to rectify the situation’? OR is it that in order to really do something about the environment and our fellow humans, we need to face a far bigger truth about ourselves: that eco and social meltdown is symptomatic of a mindset endemic to the developed world, and one that requires not just a change of habits to tackle, but a total re-assessment of values, worldviews and spiritual identities..? Confronted with this possibility, who wouldn’t just ignore the facts?

The easy answer to ‘why don’t we do anything’ is to say that people are busy; caught up in the hectic stresses of daily life and with competing demands on their time, energy emotions and money; an entirely understandable response. Living here in Greece, being eco-friendly or remotely charitable, in even a very small way requires a certain level of finances and a lot of time and effort. 

There is also a strong sense of futility or even nihilism taking the form of “Even if I do everything I can, millions of others won’t, so what difference does it make? Whatever I do, I’m just one person and however much I recycle, save water and save energy, someone will still dump toxic waste / build another great big oil pipeline / buy 5 new cars. Even if I donate to this appeal, people will kill each other anyway…”

The other easy answer is a lot less palatable - that we are selfish, lazy and greedy, however, this is also too glib and too obvious a response because it immediately begs the question, why? Even if we don’t give a stuff about plants and animals disappearing and even if we don’t give a second thought to the people on the other side of the world who are bearing the brunt of waste dumping, carbon-trading, demand for certain crops, petrol drilling and climate change (the UN High Commission for Refugees noted that 2006 has seen the acknowledgement into every day use of the phrase ‘environmental refugees’ - and yes, it is the poorest and most marginalised people of the planet who are disproportionately affected by anthropogenic environmental problems), surely we ought to care about ourselves and our offspring? Why are we so uncaring about the future generations?  Surely humans, like every animal, are hard-wired to care about the survival of their own genes…

I believe that the issue is one of a loss of spiritual meaning – both in an individual and a collective sense. Not ‘spiritual’ in terms of a religious dogma, but a personal and social motivation to respect life in all its forms and to live in harmony with it, as a part of our own identity. I feel that it is a loss of this security in one’s own identity that leads to the consumerism we see today: the notion that “I am more valuable and more worthy of respect if I have the latest handbag, car or i-pod”. This attitude is reflected by the fact that there are women in debt because they HAVE to buy the latest designer gear; by the fact that instead of just giving money to charity, we are encouraged to ‘buy this object and a certain % goes to charity’… and then you can get a little glittery badge or wristband to wear your philanthropy as a fashion statement.

Why can’t we just give to a charity without having to receive a trinket in return?

Why can’t we invite a homeless person to our house for a meal, rather than having to buy a magazine?

Why can’t the lipstick manufacturer just give some money to a charity without them having to make a profit? 

Why do we have to get a credit card that gives something to an AIDS charity – BUT only when we buy something on it?

Why is it that they only way in which we can be persuaded to be vaguely caring about others is BY BUYING MORE FOR OURSELVES?

Entire industries revolve around people producing more and more stuff that we don’t need, and then figuring out how to persuade us that we DO need it.

We are going to war and propping up some of the most insidious and vicious regimes on earth to ensure that our bigger, flashier cars keep moving faster; we are electing leaders based on how charismatic their campaigns are… the more expensive the campaign, the more votes; we are losing ourselves in the mindlessness of ‘best dressed’ lists and holding people up to be icons merely because they look a certain way.

The destruction of the environment is an indication of a much deeper malaise. The human race has lost its way in its search for meaning, and we are seeking it in the baubles of consumerism.

So what is the solution? We need to look beyond a ‘problem solving’ approach and consider the underlying assumptions and views which provide the basis for the dominant worldview of unrestrained consumption: a total shift in the current paradigm that values ‘what we have’ over and above ‘who we are, what we do, what we feel, how we behave’.

It requires a total overhaul of attitudes towards education and demands an approach that allows children to ask, wonder, investigate and take responsibility – not because someone has told them to, but because they are motivated to do so. Instead of designing a course about environmental protection that is ‘content based’ and tells kids what slogans to remember about picking up litter (while sat in a classroom) we need to let kids run around their own immediate environment; look at what is there, see how plants, humans, creatures interact and then ask ‘whose responsibility is it to care for this? Whose ought it to be?’ and from there go on to look at global issues… but from the starting point of allowing kids to put themselves into the situation, feel things, experience things and think for themselves, NOT just tell them what they ought to do.

All of the world’s major religions contain descriptions and discussion about man’s relation with nature. The monotheistic creation myths are clear about man’s duty as ‘guardians’ of nature. The Jewish dietary laws, couched in religious language in order to create rules and means of adherence, show clear evidence of a spiritual impetus towards respecting biodiversity.

Native American peoples’ stories contain a strong element of humans being a part of the natural systems, and some of the myths, while presented in spiritual language are proven scientific bases for the preservation of biodiversity.

In order to avert the disaster that we are hurtling towards at a breakneck pace, it is not just a few habits that need to be changed, it is humanity’s entire notion of what it needs to be happy, as opposed to what it wants to be happy. Accumulating more and more doesn’t give our internal lives any more meaning.

What we need is a total paradigm shift in educational, social and personal values. To recognise and respect our own and each others’ inherent worth as humans, rather than to value people for what they have. In desiring less and less ‘objects’ to make us feel like our lives have meaning, we can start to awaken ourselves to the world around us and start to feel like we want to respect the environment, not just that we are told that we ‘ought’ to.

So what about me, I hear you ask?  Who is this person preaching at us? Well, I’m not a saint and neither do I believe I have the right to tell anyone what to do… apart from to please think and feel for yourselves!!  Really, will a new pair of jeans transform your life?  - no, but the same amount of money given to the right cause will transform someone else’s.

No, I don’t recycle every single bottle or help every stray cat that I meet and neither do I feel OK about the fact that I can’t give money to every charity that crosses my path, but at least I feel like I can live with myself when I finish my job each day: I’m currently working for a small NGO that supports democracy and peace in the Balkans and am earning the grand sum of about £400 a month, which is crap, but at least I don’t feel like my worth is measured in designer shoes and the latest colour of eye-shadow.

I’ve resigned from a job on the spot when I discovered that the company’s clients included a weapons manufacturer, I have stood up to a Minister of Education in a country in the Balkans who thought that he had the right to burn a book I helped produce and I have worked with refugees and however crummy I feel about myself and my life, I can honestly say that I pity the Cosmo-reading-worrying-about-cellulite-am-I-trendy-enough-which-celebrity-is-in gang that seems to prevail. Get a life!

(c) Ruth Sutton 2007                                                                                        {Ref 1004}


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