This is part V, the final installment, in a series of posts that come from thinking on how we often use the word “we.” In particular, it came from many readings of Derrick Jensen’s essay “Beyond Hope” in Orion Magazine and wondering, “Who are we? How do we find meaning?” Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
V. Living into meaning
Meaning in our lives emerges from recognizing our middle place on this world. As Dale Jamieson writes in his most recent book, Reason in a Dark Time, we have already passed a dangerous climate threshold. Now we must live for meaning, for good lives together on this impermanent earth.
There is a lot of discussion in the environmental, sustainability and resilience movements about happiness. But there is a lack of faith in the resilience of people. We all know someone who caterwauls about fossil fuel companies (like me!). “Where is their vision for a sustained and prosperous recalibration of our societies and economies?” we ask. “They’re stuck and they’re ruining lives in the process.” Like Bjorn Lomborg and the cornucopians, the fossil fuel jingoists think we can tinker with the status quo of technological progress and save the planet with carbon sequestration or, worse yet, geoengineering. Maybe we can invent some kind of super-machine that will shoot the silver bullet that kills the werewolf of ecological crisis. Unlikely. But there’s something in that techno-optimism that we need: a sense in the indomitable imagination and persistence.
Of course the cornucopians believe in these things: They have created the world their forebears wanted to create. They have both precedent and antecedent, something to build on and something to build for that’s exciting and powerful.
Now it’s time to turn it on its head and create a more convivial world. We have to do that.
In the movie HOME, Yann Arthus-Bertrand takes the viewer is taken on a tour of the sustainability crisis. For the first 70 minutes we are overwhelmed with sequence after sequence of alternating scenes of natural beauty and artificial ugliness on our home, Earth. One moment we see hot springs, the Amazon basin, or migrating megafauna on Africa’s savannah. Next we see petroleum refineries belching plumes skyward or the way that such arrangements push people into living as human garbage in Llagos, Nigeria. The stark comparisons make you furrow your brown, cringe, and catch your breath.
At movies’ end, the narrator urges us to consider a new economy and society, one built on “Moderation. Intelligence. Cooperation.” Such a society, we are to suspect, would be more sustainable than the one that has initiated and perpetuated climate change, soil erosion, and massive inequality. Such a society would pose problems as much as it tried to solve them and approach them with wisdom at least as much as it did cleverness. Such an economy would be more appropriate because it would develop, deploy, and use cleaner and human-scale technologies. Such a society would reinterpret its purposes and redesign government, schools, medicine, agriculture and transportation to create harmony. Imagine a world where we electricity wasn’t power, but harmony.
In many ways, I think this is happening all around us today. From the regeneration of American small-scale diversified organic farms and the work of land trusts, from the Clean Power Plan to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, from the work to undam rivers to regenerate salmon runs to the planting of trees by the Green Belt movement in Africa, and more harmonious solar installations in India and community solar development in Germany and the United State there are people all over the world who know, feel, and act with imagination and persistence. They are doing this at every scale. In the process they create meaning, happiness, and they increase our health.
They are not alone. You are not alone. We are a real we.
I am too limited a person to make a grand statement or a dire prediction. I can only observe the evidence set before me and know about the things I have come to love, respect, admire, and revere. They include my family, my communities, the forest ridges on which I hike and bike and the streams that flow from them. Some of us humans who evolved in middle world are doing the great work.