Sustainable Religion and a Society in Crisis

Note: “Sustainable Religion” is the last installment of my “On Sustainability” series, published in late 2014 and early 2015.  “A Society in Crisis” below is a current writing.  They are thematically intertwined.

Sustainable Religion (2-9-2015)

In writing about sustainable energy, agriculture, economy, and population, I have laid out some of the many ways in which our current ways of being are unsustainable and will lead to crisis, and I have attempted to suggest constructive choices that will bring us closer to sustainability.  So far, however, I have not attempted to address why it is that those choices are being ignored; why, that is, we collectively choose short term comfort and economic gains over longer-term survival and stability.  These choices arise from our sense of identity, and in particular from beliefs about who exactly we are as humans and what our purpose is on this planet.  As there are no definitive answers to these questions, we have left behind the realms of science and fact and entered the realm of religion.

Religion means many things to different people.  In its strictest sense, it refers to codified systems of spiritual belief and practice.  However, each person must inevitably come to a sense of identity, regardless of whether she subscribes to a formal “religion.”  For the purposes of this discussion, I will define “religion” as a system of beliefs or vision of reality that seeks to answer the following three questions:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. Why do bad things happen?

It is important here to note that a concept of “God”, or even a concept of a supernatural force, is not required to answer these questions.  It may seem strange that I choose to lump secular philosophies in with religion, but I hold that these philosophies ultimately serve the same purpose in terms of helping believers make sense of, and choose to interact with, the world we inhabit.

Ignoring a great many traditions that do not fit this mold, I find it useful to divide answers to these questions into three main groups:  Earth-based religions, major monotheistic religions (e.g. Islam, Judaism, Christianity), and beliefs rooted in modern technology.  I will call these groups, respectively, Earth, God, and Progress.

In examining the table above, keep in mind that sustainability refers to the ability of human beings on planet Earth to live in a way that can be sustained indefinitely.  Not surprisingly, sustainable societies tend to embrace religious beliefs that support such a lifestyle, while religions in unsustainable societies are compatible with unsustainable actions.  To clarify this, I need to add three concepts to the three religious categories and three questions.  These concepts are:

  1. The Shape of Time
  2. Deep Time
  3. The Domain of the Sacred

I realize that these sound like titles of a fantasy trilogy, but bear with me…

The Shape of Time

Modern industrial society views time as a linear thing.  We create timelines in our history books.  We see the past stretching behind us as a series of discrete events, and expect the same in the future.  Our own lives follow a line from birth through adolescence, adulthood, aging, and death.  Secular humanists view life as a one-time journey with no experience after death.  Those subscribing to monotheistic religions view life as a one-time journey beginning with the creation of our soul and ending with an eternal afterlife.  Those who believe in reincarnation often simply extend the line, with souls growing and evolving across multiple lifetimes to an ultimate state of wholeness or fulfillment.

The concept of circular time is almost foreign to us, yet it was quite common in preliterate societies.  In a circular view of time, the present moment will return again and again in the future, with the endless turning of moon cycles, seasons, natural patterns, generations, and human lives.  A mother with a newborn baby in a tipi next to a fire on a cold winter night imagines her daughter someday having the same experience, and her granddaughter, and so on down through the generations.  To someone accustomed to linear time, this can seem depressing, as if nothing ever changes, but to one accustomed to a circular view, each time around the cycles adds a level of richness, with each summer solstice bringing back memories and stories of previous summer solstices and adding one more memory, one more story to the experience of that particular time.

It may be the development of writing and literature that spurred the transition from time-as-circular to time-as-linear.  There is a tendency, when recording events, to record what is different rather than what is recurring.  Gradually we came to focus on these discrete events and all but ignore the recurring cycles.  In recent centuries, advancements in technology have made our lives much different from our parents’ lives and even further removed from older generations.  We cannot imagine technology moving backward, and this sense of progress overwhelms the experience of natural cycles.

Perceiving time as linear does not automatically lead to unsustainability, but it does tip the dice in that direction.  In circular time, cyclical rituals take on great importance.  If we follow ancestral traditions of honoring the summer solstice in an ancient grove, we will be loath to cut down trees in the grove, to accept climate change that might cause the trees to die, or to allow our population to grow such that cutting the trees becomes unavoidable.  In linear time, we are freed from the concern that a future time will be unable to replicate the present.  Instead, we can blindly project trends, accepting progress as a given and assuming that if our lives are easier than our parents’, our children’s lives will be even easier.  If a forest is lost, we can justify it by saying that a city was built.  In so doing, we fail to attribute significance to the loss and depletion of parts of the natural world that are essential to our long-term survival.  If we don’t have an answer now, well technology keeps improving so they’re bound to think of something…

Deep Time

I have heard it said that burning coal is sustainable because we have enough coal to last at least two centuries at current consumption rates.  Similar statements abound with regard to economic growth, nuclear waste, and topsoil loss, to name a few.  When we think beyond the moment, we think only of our own later years, our children’s lives, and at most our grandchildren’s lives.  The past fades away in a similar fashion; we know our parents’ world, we can imagine our grandparents’ world from stories, and beyond that history becomes purely academic.

Sustainable societies, in general, look further back and ahead.  Some Native American tribes famously considered the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation.  Stories from the distant past teach valuable lessons, and any unsustainable decisions (and their consequences) are passed down in stories lest they be repeated.

Modern investigations in geology and evolution have opened our eyes to deep time, to ice ages experienced by prehistoric tribes, to the almost immeasurably long history of the planet before humans arrived.  This knowledge could be incorporated into religion: preparing future generations for a return to ice, seeking to maintain the human species across millions of years and Earth changes, creating stories of the distant past and future that play into our psyche.

So far, though, the opposite has happened.  As we have become aware of the true depth of time, our focus – the range of time that matters to our decision-making – has become ever shorter.  We see ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, about to make the next great leap into artificial intelligence, space travel, immortality, etc.  We forget about our continuing dependence on the natural cycles of our planet, and we do not look ahead to ensure that those cycles will continue to sustain us.

The Domain of the Sacred

When I was a child, I was not given a religious doctrine.  My parents believed in a loving Presence, Source, what some would call God, but we did not go to church or practice regular rituals.  Instead, I explored.  I found small creeks and rerouted the waters, creating falls, rapids, and sweeping curves.  I learned the plants of the rock outcrops, identified trees in all seasons, and observed the birds through their migrations by sight and song.  I climbed trees to watch the sun rise and set, stuck my nose deep in fresh moss to smell the first green of spring, and chased fireflies on warm summer evenings.  I looked forward each year to the call of the Whippoorwill, the night song of the Ovenbird, the midwinter mating hoot of the Great Horned Owl.

As I learned and explored, using my senses as my guide, I also began to feel places in the natural world.  Whenever I would return to an area, I would feel an amalgamation of my memories from previous experiences in that place and sometimes….something else.  Something outside myself.  The existence, I felt, of consciousness in trees, in hidden valleys, in towering cliffs.  It was never so clear that I could have a conversation, yet it felt unassailably real.  These places, to me, became sacred.

My early immersion in nature was my choice, but in older, simpler, less technological societies this level of immersion in nature was commonplace.   I am not at all surprised that humans came to honor sacred trees, sacred groves, and sacred mountains.  The domain of the sacred was largely or wholly of this world.  As societies become more “domesticated,” with people spending their lives on farms or in towns and cities, deep immersion in nature became rarer, and nature became in some regards an adversary to be conquered.  In these times and places, the dominant religions placed the domain of the sacred beyond Earth: God or Allah in heaven, angels and demons in a non-physical afterlife inhabited by immortal souls.  Modern secular movements question the existence of the sacred entirely, or define the domain of the sacred as confined to humanity.

I cannot reasonably make the claim that one of these views is correct, that there is or is not a God in heaven or a conscious awareness in the forest.  I will, however, make the claim that including the Earth within the domain of the sacred goes a long way toward motivating sustainable action.  We are much less likely to clearcut a sacred grove than a timber investment property, and we are saddened by the decline or extinction of species that played roles in our sacred experience.  To this end, I would encourage anyone to spend time in nature simply observing and experiencing.  Not walking trails for exercise or skiing challenging routes, but letting your senses be your guide, stopping to peer into ephemeral flowers, observing iridescent native bees, catching a scent on the breeze, feeling the texture of the oak bark, listening to the songs of the warblers and grosbeaks establishing territories.  Even more, I would encourage those of you with young children to take the kids outside.  They might be bored at first away from their digital games and TV stimulation, but they will discover an immeasurable richness.

The Religion of Progress

Within the last two centuries, in concert with the explosion of technological innovation, a set of beliefs has evolved that emphasizes linear time, short-sighted visions of the future, and an absence of anything sacred within the Earth.  This set of beliefs also provides alternate answers to the three core mysteries (see table above) that are, to many people, at least as satisfying as the answers provided by conventional religions.  Because no deity is invoked, its billions of believers would not call it a religion, but it occupies the same place within the psyche and guides our collective decisions with regard to sustainability, among other things.  With a tip of the hat to author and blogger John Michael Greer, I will call it the religion of Progress.

Belief in Progress is widespread among atheists and traditional religious folk alike, and its alternative answers to the mysteries of our existence probably make it psychologically easier to abandon God-based or Earth-based religions now than in the past.  In general, devout Progress-ites believe the following:

  • The technological advancement of the past two centuries marks a permanent turning point in human history.
  • Technological improvement is the key to health and quality of life, and these things will continue to improve over time.
  • Impending crises (e.g. climate change, population growth, fossil fuel depletion) are not causes for concern but rather priorities for new technological solutions.  “They’ll think of something.”
  • Progress will continue indefinitely.  There is no “good enough” endpoint in sight.
  • Due to globalization and modern technology we are fundamentally different than past human civilizations and need not concern ourselves with the lessons of history.  “It’s different this time.”

Contrary to believers’ ideas, progress of any form is inevitably a temporary phenomenon, a transition from one stable state to another.  A new discovery spurs a wave of research, and a period of rapid change ensues until all of the useful applications of the discovery have been considered and adopted.  This has been going on throughout human history, from harnessing fire up through the information age.  Progress in this sense does not preclude sustainability, so long as necessary resources are sufficient to sustain to the new technologies indefinitely.

The problem is not so much with progress itself as with the religion of Progress which permeates so much of modern culture.  It is taboo to focus too much on the downsides of a new technology or to question whether adopting it is beneficial over the long term. It is tempting to extrapolate discoveries in a lab (e.g. algae producing fuel, bacteria producing hydrogen) to global scale solutions without asking important questions about feasibility, resource availability, energy balances, and environmental impacts.

Believers in Progress are not entirely unaware of the risks we face as we approach the planet’s carrying capacity and deplete essential resources.  There are two camps of Progress-ites: those who believe we will solve the most pressing problems  and spread out into the galaxy and those who believe we will crash and burn with a few survivors left to rebuild from the ashes.  We either keep moving up or we go off a cliff, fall to the bottom, and eventually start climbing again.

Level, Not Up!

There is a third option available to us, though it is rarely mentioned.  We can aim to sustain ourselves using the resources available to us, choosing to cut back rather than count on some new as-yet-undiscovered technology to save us from the resource shortages we have created.  To do this, we need to choose to stabilize or even use less despite the option of more.  This is anathema to the religion of Progress, and I think it is safe to say that the religion of Progress has outlived its time.  We are leaving the age of growth and entering the age of limits, and we have the option of understanding these limits (in energy, resources, and resilience) and living within them or ignoring the limits and either crashing when we hit them face-first or else finding a last-minute technological fix that only succeeds in raising the limit and postponing the crisis.  We need to let go of “more” and think instead of “enough.”  Enough food to be healthy.  Enough space to live our lives comfortably.  Enough stuff that we can pursue our passions without filling storage units and unused rooms with unneeded items.  Many of us need to accept that enough is less than we’re used to and may require some sacrifice.

If we are to let go of our need for more, we will need to once again find meaning in a world where change moves more slowly, where our grandchildren’s lives are not so different from our own.  I think it is wise to look to sustainable societies of the past, refocusing on the cycles of nature and the cycles of our lives, telling stories that connect us to deeper time, and exploring the planet with our senses until our very world, not something “out there,” feels sacred to us and worthy of our full energy.  There may be other, entirely different approaches to finding meaning in a world where more is not better, but this is my way.  I have hope.


A Society in Crisis (1-29-2017)

I never published my last installment – “Sustainable Religion” – two years ago, as it felt somehow unfinished.  Now, as I sit down to reflect on current events, the words reflect my sentiments.  Yet there is more to be added, in an attempt to understand current events through the lens of the religion of Progress and the universal longing for a sense of meaning and purpose.

First, some observations on the state of our nation, which I hold to be factual (though many would argue):

  • Since 2000, wage growth has been stagnant or negative for the lower 50% of earners and strongly positive for the upper 20% or so.
  • For those with stagnant or declining incomes, new technology (especially in the medical field) is increasingly unaffordable.
  • Fossil fuels continue to provide the vast majority of humankind’s energy needs.
  • Climate change is accelerating in response to continued growth in carbon emissions, leading to increased mitigation expenses and human migrations.
  • Levels of anger and frustration are increasing rapidly.
  • Hate crimes, scapegoating, stereotyping, and internet attacks are all on the rise, as outlets for this anger and frustration.

In short, two things are happening:

  1. Despite continued technological innovation, progress – as measured by standard of living, economic growth, and financial stability – is slowing as we approach the hard physical limits of Earth’s carrying capacity.
  2. As growth and progress slow globally, the upper classes are seeing historical gains continue while the middle and lower classes see stagnation and decline.

This is a recipe for mass discontent, even revolution, and I am concerned – to say the least – about the direction our nation and world are headed.  The Bush and Obama years were a time of pretense, of believing that growth was still happening, or a return to growth and progress was just around the corner once we got over a temporary hump – all of this occurring while well-connected institutions like higher education and health care continued double-digit price increases despite slow or stagnant wage growth.  Trump, despite all of his failings and inconsistencies, won the presidency by admitting that progress had stopped while his opponents kept up the pretense.  He assembled a coalition of those who had suffered the most in the past decade, squeezed by layoffs, pay cuts, and ever-rising costs.  He pledged to “make America great again.”  He has ushered in an era when truth itself is vulnerable to attack, when facts and “alternative facts” compete for airtime.

For believers in the religion of Progress – and I think it’s safe to say that includes the vast majority of Americans regardless of their declared beliefs – the notion of progress is closely tied to a sense of meaning and purpose.  We don’t, as societies of pagans and Native Americans, find meaning in the cycles of the seasons and human lives, celebrating solstices and harvests.  Nor do we, as devout farmers and factory workers of a century past, find meaning in a simple life well lived in the hope of a joyful hereafter.  Instead, we find meaning in the idea that our lives will improve, that we can send our children to top-rated colleges, own a house full of the latest technology, watch astronauts land on the moon and then Mars, track our investments as they gain value, retire to a comfortable life of travel and hobbies, and envision our children in a world where disease and perhaps even aging and death are relics of the past.  Our belief in this vision of the future is so strong that we feel entitled to it – and lost, angry, frustrated when reality deviates from our ideal.

This is the great cognitive dissonance of our time.  After a century of unchecked progress, we have come to believe in it, but our lives no longer reflect our belief.  Instead we see jobs disappearing, rows of empty houses, retirement savings emptied or nonexistent, credit cards maxed out, and new medical breakthroughs and drugs that offer survival at the cost of bankruptcy.  We are hesitant to blame the wealthy – the fact that the dream of progress is still real for them serves not to foment resentment but rather to chart a blueprint for the rest of society.  The fact that the game is zero-sum – that excess resources claimed by some must of necessity be taken from others – has not yet entered our collective consciousness; we still believe that if only we could bring back the economic growth of the 1980s and 1990s, the dream would return for everyone.

So far as I can tell, Trump’s mission – in addition to simply stoking his very large ego – is to revive economic growth and improve the lot of the lower and middle classes without any redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom.  Anything that stands in the way of short-term economic growth – including environmental regulations, climate change action, refugee resettlement – is suspect.  The anger and frustration of unfulfilled entitlement needs an outlet, and so he has painted targets on illegal immigrants, on environmental activists, on social safety nets.  Most objective analyses show that these issues are not actually dragging down our economy and that targeting them will only cause suffering both now and in the future, but we are dealing in the emotional realms of belief and meaning, where facts matter less than blind faith and assertions.

We need to survive Trump’s chaos – ideally as an intact nation – and to do so we need to collectively recognize two things:

  1. We are not entitled to indefinite progress.  So long as we remain members of the religion of Progress, we will experience increasing cognitive dissonance, anger, and frustration.  We need to open ourselves to finding meaning, purpose, and happiness in the world as it is – a world where we are born, grow old, and die; a world where we celebrate the cycles of time and renewal, a world where we think ahead to the seventh generation and imagine their lives more or less like our own.  That’s not to say we might not discover a warp drive at some point and pay a visit to Alpha Centauri, but our vision of a positive future need not depend on it.
  2. As progress slows, resource distribution is a zero-sum game.  If progress stops on a global scale, it must stop for everyone, not just the poor and the middle class.  At least some of the anger floating around this nation needs to be directed upward, to question the private jets, the yachts, the mansions, the second and third homes.   We cannot idolize the rich and demonize the poor and disenfranchised and hope to improve our lives.

How can we do these things?  The first is a matter of personal growth, of grieving a belief that no longer matches reality and finding – through community and exploration –worldviews that better match reality.  This will take time, but it will happen: no one can hold a belief in the face of contrary evidence forever.  The second will be more difficult.  Historically, wealth inequality has been addressed by revolution and war, but I am not a fighter nor do I wish to see this happen.  I prefer civil disobedience.  We can create equitable economies in the shadow of the old, growing them until the profit streams dry up and multinational corporations collapse under their own weight.  As HMOs and hospitals drive the cost of care and insurance out of reach, local doctors are opening private practices  – “direct primary care” – that cut out the middlemen and still support themselves while offering care at a fraction of the cost.  More food is beginning to move from local farms to local tables without passing through the chain of distributors of and supermarkets.  More solar panels are appearing on rooftops, bypassing coal mining, gas drilling, and electricity transmission.  The movement toward community-level economies is growing slowly, but I believe it will continue to gain steam as more and more essential services are priced out of reach.   I still have hope.

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