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Why Do We (CES) Do What We Are Doing?

Excerpt from a recent letter by Herman Greene

I feel CES is needed because I don’t think people are thinking about the magnitude of change that would be needed to be sustainable. Sustainability must meet three criterion: (1) the human community lives within Earth’s carrying capacity—according to the Ecological Footprint Network we humans are now at 150% of the carrying capacity of Earth and rising. (2) Our future way of life must meet global criteria for equity and justice. There must be sufficiency for all humans and one part of the human community (both inside and outside developed countries) cannot unduly burden Earth. There is an unstoppable demand by the world’s people for inclusion and equity and without these there will not be peace. And (3) biodiversity must be protected and Earth’s life systems must be healthy.

Approaches to being green tend to be meliorism—doing something good or better, but not addressing the magnitude of changes actually needed for sustainability. Some purport to address this magnitude with a mental fudge factor of fantastic technological breakthroughs that will enable exponential growth in the world economy until all needs are met. Others address the magnitude by hypothesizing there will be an imminent and dramatic breakdown of the global economy that will lead to sustainable local economies. Some genuinely believe that smart conventional development and sustainability are mutually attainable. We call out the meliorism, and find the following three approaches unsatisfactory, though we find some merit in each of them.

I would like to say that CES has the answer, but we don’t. If we have a contribution to make it is in posing honest questions. This begins by situating the transition to sustainability historically in the way Thomas Berry did: For the first time, humans are experiencing a transition in geobiological eras. This is more than a disturbance in merely human affairs, it is a disturbance in the functioning of the planet; and it makes the present transition different from all others that have preceded it in human history. Further we take “Thomas Berry’s Key Ideas” as a starting point for understanding this transition and the needed responses to it.

There is a need for a great deal of realism in understanding the difficulty of the task that lies ahead. David Orr in Down to the Wire: Controlling Climate Collapse[1] called attention to the need to take a more radical assessment of what we are facing. He decried the tendency to see a temperature rise of 2oC as a safe target. He quoted an email to him from George Woodwell, founder of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts:

There is an unfortunate fiction abroad that if we can hold temperature rise to 2 or 3 degrees C we can accommodate the changes. The proposition is the worst of wishful thinking. At present temperatures, which would drift upward if the atmospheric burden were stabilized now [(which it isn’t)], we are watching the melting of glaciers, frozen soil, and the accelerated decay of large organic stores of carbon in soils but especially in high latitude solids and tundra peat. A 2 degree [C] average rise in temperature will be 4-6 degrees [C] or more in higher latitudes, enough to trigger the release of potentially massive additional quantities of carbon dioxide and methane [that] would push the issue of control well beyond human reach.

In other words, there are going to be massive consequences flowing from human activity to date, without even factoring in the projected accelerated emissions and other activities that are now occurring and will occur. No government or nation is prepared for what lies ahead.

Orr observes: “We are now in a close race between our capacity to change at a global scale and the forces that we have unleashed.”[2] He calls for a change in our perspective from the nearer to the longer term:

The news about climate, oceans, species, and all of the collateral human consequences will get a great deal worse for a long time before it gets better. The reasons for authentic hope are on a farther horizon, centuries ahead when we have managed to stabilize the carbon cycle and reduce carbon levels close to their preindustrial levels, stopped the hemorrhaging of life on Earth, restored the chemical balance of the oceans, and created governments and economies calibrated to the realities of the biosphere and to the diminished ecologies of the postcarbon world. The change in our perspective from the nearer to the longer term is, I think, the most difficult challenge we will face. We have become a culture predicated on fast results, quick payoffs, and instant gratification. But now we will have to summon the fortitude necessary to undertake a longer and more arduous journey. Rather like the builders of the great cathedrals of Europe, We will need stamina and faith to work knowing that we will not live to see the results.[3]

For Orr, a collective effort only possible through governmental action is needed:

There is a considerable movement to green corporations, and that is all to the good. But only governments have the power to set the rules for the economy, enforce the law, levy taxes, ensure the fair distribution of income, protect the poor and future generations, cooperate with other nations, negotiate treaties, defend the public interest, and protect the rights of posterity. Errant governments can wage unnecessary wars, squander the national treasure and reputation, make disastrous environmental choices, and deregulate banks and financial institutions, with catastrophic results. In other words, we will rise or fall by what governments do or fail to do. The long emergency ahead will be the ultimate challenge to our political creativity, acumen, skill, wisdom and foresight.[4]

In view of this, one of the important roles and purposes of CES is to hold up the magnitude of the changes involved and discern how this can be accomplished in this century and centuries to come. I do not see other organizations addressing this. We work with groups that take a bottom up/process/grassroots approach, but we also see the need to provide new top level understandings for the reinvention of civilization. Of course, there is much writing about such approaches, but the writings tend to be technical (i.e. technological) and policy (on the assumption the policies will be implemented). We are thinking about the changes that are needed and also the cultural dynamics of civilizational change. How do civilizations change? How can the globalized civilization change?

Another important role and purpose of CES is to help people find their footing when they live in “two worlds.” We live in an urban, scientific, and secular world.[5] Our lives are controlled by global dynamics and forces. We know in our hearts a very different world is needed. We accept that we cannot reconcile these intuitions about the needed future and the way we live and work. We live in two worlds. CES embraces the moral ambiguity of participation in the structures of our present world while working to bring about a new world. Those who live out less impactful ways of living through the various forms of eco-communalism are pioneers of the ecological-cultural age. We learn from them and are indebted to them. Creating alternative futures, they live, as much as they can, outside the blooming, buzzing globalized world. We find our footing in both worlds. We are neither the disestablishment nor the establishment. We are the trans-establishment. If civilization is to change, ecozoics must become the new order, the new establishment.

A third important role is developing, nurturing, and disseminating ways of understanding the world that inspire ecological imagination and fire the human spirit. Somewhat strangely this begins for us with deep wisdom. It is wisdom about the nature of our times; it is philosophical wisdom about the nature of nature; it is wisdom about the planetary phase of human development; and it is some directions and guidelines for the future.

This wisdom is found in CES’s accumulated wisdom, most of which is synthesized from others. This wisdom is most clearly expressed in CES’s Foundational Statements and Essays, which are presently available on our website and will be available in print form in an issue of The Ecozoic that will be published in late 2016 or early 2017. Our primary source is Thomas Berry, and one cannot understand CES without having a working knowledge of his books The Dream of the Earth, The Universe Story, and The Great Work. Yet, we interpret Berry’s work in light of the other sources. I don’t think another group has put this together in the way that CES has. We have a body of knowledge that is unique and important.

A fourth role and purpose of CES is serving as a base and incubator for an association of people to work on developing and disseminating this body of knowledge and also to engage in their own actions supported in part by the work of CES. CES has been an adequate and necessary base for me to do my work over these past 16 years. Now I want it also to provide such a base for others who will engage this body of knowledge, further develop it, and disseminate it. I also want there to be a community of people who feel they are supported by the work of CES even though they themselves may not participate directly in the research and education parts of CES. I hope that CES will be a meaningful association for people whereby they can advance their ecozoic action in the world.

The fifth and final role of CES I will mention is working with and through art and action networks. Earlier I wrote that CES has mainly been influential through its effect on other networks. In discussing this conclusion with others, they have said I have not given enough credit to what CES has been itself and what CES itself has meant for others. Be that as it may, the work of CES needs to be improved and, also, with a stronger base, its work through networks needs to grow. This is another living-in-two-worlds situation. No one group can carry out the Great Work, so we must work through networks. Yet we only have something to offer if we ourselves are strong. With regard to networks, in the future this needs to be not only my networks, but the networks of those of our associates. We have from the beginning had an interest in supporting the work of artists and writers for the ecozoic, so networks of these people are important to us. Likely these networks will continue to be important to CES: the Berry community, the international process network (including ecological civilization networks), those groups working with the United Nations on sustainable development, and groups involved in religion (including spirituality and interspirituality) and ecology, and perhaps those working on ecology and law.

I’ll conclude by saying that CES is fundamentally about a set of ideas. By ideas I do not mean something cold and abstract. I mean ideas that inform, inspire, and guide. Imagine a person saying “I have an idea!” This means for that person something has become unblocked and he or she is going to take some action. The idea fills his or her whole body, and he or she becomes animated, stimulated, supported, fired up! CES’s deep-wisdom ideas may for some have the immediacy of “I have an idea” moments. We are pleased when this happens, but our primary intention, in any case, is that this deep wisdom will provide the slow-burning fires for lifetimes of engaging in the Great Work.

[1] David Orr, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Ibid., 7-8.

[5] Religion continues to be important and groups with strong religious affiliations (or groups making strong religious claims) are clearly evident and important today. The debate about secularization is an active one and will not be carried on here. This is a good general definition of the concept: “Secularization is the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance.” Wikipedia contributors, “Secularization,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Secularization&oldid=728839761 (accessed July 10, 2016).

Another important debate related to secularization concerns what kind of future religious or moral authorities will take on the roles played by historic religious institutions. Thomas Berry foresaw a “meta-religious mode” based on the universe story. His thinking overall on this was diverse and not settled. It is one of the key issues in the present period of civilizational change.