On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I find myself filled with a renewed desire to see humanity make a monumental shift and learn to tend and protect our fragile planet once more. To see a vibrant movement emerge that harnesses the collective power of humanity to defend and restore the Earth.
I think we can get there. If we change how we do things. And first that means facing the truth of our current predicament.
The reality as I see it is that for all the hard work, passion, and innovation the environmental movement has fostered since the first Earth Day 40 years ago - and the victories it has won - in a fundamental way, it is failing. While we are winning battles here and there, overall, we are losing the war.
I am not the first to make this claim. In 2004, Sierra Club President Adam Werbach made major waves with his "Death of Environmentalism" critique, declaring he was "done pretending" that the environmental movement was succeeding. "The challenges we face are too serious," he said. "It is at moments like these that we need to take a hard look in the mirror," he argued.
Werbach wasn't bringing this up to depress anyone, and neither am I. As an environmental organizer and social activist, I always believed in the power of staying positive.
But false hope can be devastating. It keeps us engaged in activities and beliefs that make us feel as if we are getting somewhere, when really, we're not. Keeping faith in efforts that aren't working will inevitably lead to despair. "Look at all the good hard work we did. And even THAT didn't pay off. We're doomed!"
The best thing we might do now is pause, take stock and perhaps, shift direction. So that we can build a movement so powerful it will restore not only this glorious planet, but also our sense of purpose and connection as human beings.
A brief survey of a few key environmental indicators demonstrates the need to make this shift:
In 1970, global population - a major contributing factor to environmental destruction - was 3.7 billion. Despite efforts at population control, we are currently at 6.8 billion, nearing double that, and rising quickly.
Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, or INPE, reports we've lost 18% of that country's rainforest since the first Earth Day 40 years ago. Indonesia, which houses the most extensive rainforest in Asia, lost twice that percentage over the same period of time, and is losing what remains even faster than Brazil.
Despite passing the endangered Species Act here in the US three years after the first Earth Day - and conservation efforts worldwide - scientists estimate we are losing 30,000 species every year.
Despite higher fuel efficiency standards, a myriad of laws, global initiatives, and shifts in personal behaviors, atmospheric carbon - the main driver of global warming - increased from 325 parts per million in 1970 to 385 parts per million this year. And that trend shows no signs of abating.
For years, I'd hear activists focus on the problem and think, "This is not helping anything. This just makes people depressed. Everyone knows we're not in good shape. Let's focus on solutions."
On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, part of me feels like I should be saying, "Look at all we've done! Look at how many more people are eating organic, conserving energy and carpooling to work."
These are important efforts. And they make a difference. When I hear that my sister in New York City is reusing plastic bags, shopping at farmer's markets and looking for alternatives to plastics to safeguard the health of her newborn child, I am deeply moved.
But these individual actions, while important, are not doing the trick. And neither are the collective actions of hundreds of thousands of organizations.
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I am 32 years old, and I am deeply grateful for all the work that came before me. It all served a purpose and laid the groundwork for what is emerging now.
This is a new time. It's a time when I believe many of my generation have something new to contribute. Many of us are as disillusioned with fist-in-the-air-activism as we are with an increasingly inept and corrupt political process. While we recycle, we know deep inside that won't be enough. We feel torn between working on ourselves and working for the world.
And yet deep in our hearts we are filled with the desire to save this beautiful planet, for ourselves and for all beings, and for generations to come. But we don't want to come from anger, we don't want to compromise ourselves, and we don't want to sacrifice beauty for struggle.
And I don't think we need to. For me, a new way of activism would promote unity over division. It would bring all parts of ourselves to our work. It would fulfill us. It would come from love rather than fear. It would involve almost every human being, and integrate thousands of years of human wisdom into a new way of activism and a movement that embodies it.
I'm not the only one proposing a new way. Calls for new strategies are abounding. Werbach is now promoting what he calls Blue, "a lifestyle movement that asks people to create personal sustainability practices and translate them into the things they buy. BLUE encompasses green concerns and goes a step further by asking how ecological thinking can help people solve other problems in their lives, from quitting smoking to saving money to spending more time with their families."
These are noble goals. But they don't approach the scale of what is needed. I believe we need new strategies. More importantly, however, I believe we need a whole new way of relating to ourselves, to one another, and to the Earth. We need to foster and tap into a new way of being that underlies what we do.
I can see glimpses of this new way. I see a generation of people deeply in tune with their soul purpose, their reason for living on the planet. I see a generation that, regardless of its view of organized religion is deeply in tune with an underlying order and beauty to the Universe that we cannot see but that we know is there, and from which we gain profound strength.
I see a generation willing to take from the the best of humanity's wisdom. From conservationists and activists. From psychologists and political organizers. From artists, entrepreneurs and spiritual teacher. From native cultures and all cultures.
I see a generation communing deeply with nature, on forest walks or mountain climbs or ocean sits, understanding that our personal and collective salvation is fed by a deep connection to the Earth.
I see a generation honoring everything it does. Taking a moment to light a candle and reflect on the importance of our work before starting meetings. Singing songs. Dancing. Celebrating. Relying, deeply, on one another.
I imagine organizations where people feel vibrant and totally on purpose, knowing it matters deeply that they are there. Not stressed, not strapped to computers, not tied to a bottom-line of efficiency and productivity. Alive! Organizations that mirror the very values we are working for.
I see a generation that finds the sacred again in itself and all things. That transcends division and returns to a deep place of connection with ourselves, with each other, with the Earth, with all beings, with the Universe. That recovers and taps its deepest humanity to build a movement so powerful it fosters a leap in consciousness and relating that saves humanity and the planet.
Most of the pieces of this new movement are here. We need only bring them together. We might call this new way The Great Integration. Not a very sexy title, but it gets to the heart of it: how can we bring together all parts of our humanity, and a broad range of human wisdom, and ecological wisdom and spiritual wisdom to transform consciousness and change the world?
I don't know exactly what will happen if we act from this new place. I do know we will feel far more fulfilled in our work. And I have a hunch, somewhere deep inside, that it is shift is happening, and that we can and will change things in ways we only imagined.
So that 40 years from now, we won't say, "At least we tried." We will say, "At some point, we stopped, and made a big shift. We brought together all the parts of ourselves and our culture and 50,000 years of human wisdom, and we succeeded in saving and restoring one of the greatest miracles in this miracle of a universe. For ourselves and our children and every grove of trees that cannot act to save itself and for generations of species that will live and breathe 500 and 500,000 years from now."
Could we give ourselves to a greater cause or leave a greater legacy?