Spirituality and Sustainability

Originally posted on the California Student Sustainability Coalition’s website on June 6th, 2012. 

A question that has been lingering on my mind this semester: is spirituality a necessary component of sustainability?

At the California Student Sustainability Coalition Convergence in Cal Poly SLO, Larry Lansburg spoke to us about the Achuar people of the Amazon – “Dream people.” He spoke of their dedication to the health of their land. He described their remarkable ability to combat oil companies in order to maintain cultural and natural integrity. The Achuar people are deeply spiritual. Shamanism plays a strong role in their lifestyle, as does the belief known as “Amazonian perspectivism,” in which plants and animals are thought to have human souls. The Achuar embark on “soul journeys” to find self awareness, and interpret dreams as integral and foretelling. Through their relationships with each other and the earth, the Achuar have formed a sustainable society that has lasted for centuries.

Here in the United States, however, many environmentalists and scientists steer clear from any association with the spiritual. The Oxford Dictionary defines “spiritual” as “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things”. A vague and circular definition, indeed. Perhaps we shy from the term because we don’t know what it means, and assume that it does not apply to us.

At the convergence, I attended the “Awakening the Dreamer” workshop put on by Generation Waking Up. We explored the need to shift the collective dream in the United States away from materialistic consumption and toward a way of life that values relationships, empathy, collective power, diversity, common ground. We have more than just a collection of environmental problems on our hands. The world and humankind are in trouble beyond just poor air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and oil spills. Those are symptoms, rather than the illness itself. Clearly our economic system needs repair. Social injustice, wealth inequality, and various forms of prejudice plague even the most progressive streets. These problems are all related. Technological and legislative solutions alone cannot dismantle this interconnected network of crises.

It may be beyond the scope of individuals, corporations, even governments to fathom the entirety of the problem. It is system-wide on the universal scale. Our social, economic, and ecological crises are interrelated in such a complex way that it’s impossible to see it all at once. We are too small. And yet if we break the system down into pieces in order to solve bite-sized problems, and ignore the ecosystem of connections between them, we set ourselves up for failure. I see a lot of environmental management around the world working in this piece-meal fashion, and sometimes it seems like the efforts are not even making a dent.

I worry about the sustainability of sustainability. As in, can the ethic of living sustainably last? Those of us who are part of organizations are familiar with the term “activist burn-out.” Problems pile up and we feel as though we have to solve them all in order to get anywhere.

The problem is massive. We as a culture evolved to think and behave the way we do now – overly-consumptive and competitive (at least, here in the western, developed world). So environmental values are working against decades, even centuries, of development. I worry about how the current, surface-level understanding of “sustainability” is often associated with other now-empty terms like “green” and “eco.” These terms, along with the ethics that go with them, might just blow away in the wind without any roots to hold them down.

Maybe sustainability is not sustainable until a new “spirituality” is found and embraced. Call it an ethic, a dream, a cosmology… it’s a new collective consciousness for our generation. Like the mentioned definition, I would define spirituality as a way of thinking that transcends the physical. That means a focus on the dream that connects our individual souls together into a larger body. I may be wrong. Maybe such a connection does not exist. But at the CSSC convergence, I could see before my eyes a future of joy. Love for one another, passion in our work (play), music in our voices when they came and sung together. As Zen Trenholm of the CSSC often says about the organization, “We’re building a culture.” It’s bigger and deeper than a structure of campaigns, projects, and events. And that depth is what I’m talking about.

Mainstream rhetoric regarding environmentalism steers away from all this. There is the notion that if we make the arguments as secular, purely science-based, and emotionless as possible, we will bring a broader range of supporters to our side. The spiritual side seems to be too polarizing and too emotional. But has the secular rhetoric been able to create unity and clear-headedness? Certainly not. The debate over climate change is deeply ideological regardless of intentions, and full of heated passion. Environmentalists constantly argue that science backs them up 100% – so why are republicans still pitted against democrats? Why are there such deep divisions? The ideological undercurrent flows on, and there’s no use ignoring it – it’s not going away.

So why suppress the spiritual? Besides – the world’s young people are and will be solving the world’s problems – and we are a generation waking up. I believe in our ability to study past cultures who have lived far more sustainably than we have, and see that they lived intensely spiritual lives. Somehow, we must find a way to integrate a modern manifestation of that spirituality into the generation of the new millenium. Maybe it comes from spending time in nature with friends. Maybe it means starting a communal farm or living cooperatively. Maybe it comes from religion. Maybe it means making music or painting murals or building cob benches. However it happens, it happens through joy. Through tuning in to a common drumbeat, forever in the background of our individual songs. Until the dream shifts, political, technological, and economic solutions will just float around in space, not connected, not rooted in any way to our consciousness.

To make sustainability sustainable, we’ve got to transform the dream.

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