Recently the Gallup Organization released its findings about public opinion on global warming. It’s not good news for activists. Fully 48% of respondents believe that the threat of climate change is exaggerated, up from 31% in 1999. In keeping with this wishful thinking, more Americans believe that scientists have greater doubts about climate change (not true) while fewer Americans think that the effects of global warming are already being felt. In sum, you can say that fewer Americans are worried about the environment when it really counts.

You can mark this down to crisis fatigue. We certainly are feeling that abut the Gulf oil spill, where a general sense of gloom prevails over viable calls to action. Is the whole planet going to be like that one day, a state of perpetual disaster? Or are we seeing ourselves in Nature’s mirror? If it is the latter — and I think it is — we don’t have to feel so paralyzed (or stick our heads in the sand, which is what the Gallup data comes down to).
For centuries human beings looked at Nature as basically a source of endless abundance. The Bible told the Judeo-Christian world that God had provided this outpouring out of love for his children. An ethical standard was built in, too. We were supposed to be the stewards of Nature, taking care of it as it provided for us. What did this say about human nature? That we were the favored species in Creation, that all other creatures were lesser, and that we had every reason to be optimistic about the future. Nature, like God, was infinite in its ability to sustain us.
Today all those beliefs have been seriously eroded. Few people seriously connect the ecology with a divine creation. The ecology is a vast system governed by finite laws. Rather than acting as stewards, we ruthlessly plunder the limited resources that remain. Even the threat of outright catastrophe doesn’t cause us to change our ways. Yet as we grab more and more from the feast table, people are not in a festive mood. They feel quite depressed and anxious about Nature. (In relation to the Gulf oil spill, for example, about half of Americans believe that the affected beaches will never return to their former clean state, while almost 60% believe that the damaged animal populations will never return to their old numbers.) Clearly, the present state of belief can’t be endured forever — neverending gloom can only lead to more numbness, denial, and helplessness.
The question, then, is whether a new set of beliefs about Nature can emerge? The old religious-based values are not going to return. The only answer is to look in the mirror again and see who we really are. If we don’t act like privileged children of God or helpless gluttons on a desperate feeding frenzy, human beings will always be creative. Creative enough to pursue the next great innovation. We are also capable of empathy, bonded at a basic level, gifted with foreknowledge of the future, and imbued with love of the natural world. Seeing those things in the mirror isn’t hard. But will these positive qualities amount to a new belief system?
Until that question is answered, halfway measures will prove futile. Recycling, alternative energy sources, and reduced carbon footprints are catching on, but gradually and generally only in the developed world. Even there, political resistance is firmly entrenched. There are too many corporations who won’t sacrifice today’s profits to save the planet in decades to come, and too many citizens with comfortable lifestyles they want to protect, whatever may happen to the next generation. With that in mind, many environmental scientists have privately decided that climate change is inevitable. Rather than trying to stop it and meeting with failure, it’s wiser, they believe, to start adapting to a more crowded, polluted, grossly imbalanced ecosystem.
Let’s accept this stark view if we must, using it not for defeatism but as motivation. Bad news has given rise to sudden leaps of creativity before. Our new belief system has to begin there. If we look into the mirror and see endless creativity, that gives rise to new optimism. But more than that, it gives us a reason to educate as much of the world’s population as possible. More brains means more chances of finding a solution. Instead of seeing China and India as rivals, we need to see them as a great source for new creative minds.
That adds the element of bonding. We are all in this together; therefore, wars and nationalism are luxuries we can no longer afford. The new belief system would then encourage us to put maximum funds into research and development to find technologies that can accomplish global results, such as removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and cleaning up the world’s oceans.
Some might say that such a belief system is already being born — I think they’re right — but that there’s not enough time left and not enough willpower to accomplish global tasks. If that’s true, it’s because the last element of the new belief system is lacking: a sense of the sacred. In the past, when human beings looked in the mirror of Nature, they saw God as sacred, or not, but never themselves as sacred. But there is no conception of the future that will sustain us until we realize that sacredness is either human or it is nonexistent.
I realize that this notion runs counter to what people now see in the mirror. They see the image of despoilers; they fear that humanity is a cancer spreading across the planet, endangering the existence of all other creatures. But at the same time we are masters of our own evolution. The essence of humanity lies there. We define ourselves, and since the fund of the world’s wisdom traditions is rich in experiences of higher evolution — by which I mean genuine experiences of God consciousness and unity with the divine –only by making an evolutionary leap can we sustain ourselves. The material aspect of climate change is secondary. Our perception of ourselves is primary. We must stop adding secular sins to our roster of bad deeds and start adding secular spirituality. It’s a funny phrase, but secular spirituality simply means being spiritual in oneself, without the need for external dogmas and organized faiths.
In the sacredness of the self is the redemption of the world, both as an ecosystem and as a home for human aspirations. There are many paths to achieve such a sense of the sacred. This space is too small for me to outline them. I only wanted to show that we aren’t living in an either/or situation. It’s not either God or giving up on ourselves. Finding God within ourselves offers a new way. Every step on that path reduces our destructive effect on Nature and brings us closer to loving union with her.
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