It is heartbreaking to read about all the plastic trash in the oceans and to hear about the birds and other animals that die of starvation with a belly full of the stuff. It is heartbreaking to read about Wen’an, China, a once vibrant land of peach orchards now a poisoned, deadened place from the recycling of plastic trash without even the most minimal health and environmental protections. It is deeply troubling to learn about the chemicals that leech out of plastics into the environment and into our food often harming the most vulnerable, the young of our and other species. I feel angry when I hear about the ways in which industry has distorted and covered up the truth about the health and environmental problems of these plastics in the name of greater profits.
The real problem with plastic is the same problem causing all our environmental problems, the modern western lifestyle of excess, of disposability, of living without time or energy to think about the big picture. This is not just a problem of too much stuff, but too much of everything — too much stuff, too much information, too much to do, and too many of us. By commission, omission or just ignorance we are all, by just being part of the modern industrial world, accomplices in the degradation of the biosphere, and it is going to take a collective sustained effort to change this trajectory.
As I struggle to follow Beth Terry’s lead and reduce my consumption of plastics, so many people tell me it won’t make a difference when so many other people use so much. I know this is true right now; I know that my abstinence alone isn’t statistically significant, but I still believe my actions make a difference. Even more profoundly, I believe living in a life-sustaining way is its own reward. I really like what Elizabeth Johnson says about environmental asceticism to her Christian audience in her book Ask the Beast: Darwin and the God of Love:
“The true purpose of asceticism has always been to make persons more fully alive to the movement of grace in their lives. It does so by sacrificial acts that remove what blocks sensitivity to the presence of the Spirit. Traditional forms of asceticism have come upon hard days due to their alliance with a philosophical dualism that prized spirit at the expense of matter. In light of ecological destruction, however, asceticism practiced with an eye for the good of other species acts with discipline precisely to protect physical life. A sensuous, earth-affirming asceticism leads people to live more simply not to make themselves suffer and not because they are anti-body, but to free themselves from enslavement to market practices that harm other living creatures.” (Johnson, page 283)
“A sensuous, earth-affirming asceticism”: That is what I am seeking for the good of myself and the whole Earth community. In seeking a simple life close to the Earth, I am seeking to be “more fully alive to the movement of grace” in my life. I believe that this is the same thing that Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls mindfulness, and it is this that is needed for the healing of the world. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Love Letter to the Earth:
“There is a revolution that needs to happen and it starts from inside each one of us. When we change the way we see the world, when we realize that we and the Earth are one and we begin to live with mindfulness, our own suffering will start to ease. When we’re no longer overwhelmed by our own suffering, we will have the compassion and understanding to treat the Earth with love and respect. Restoring balance to ourselves, we can begin the work of restoring balance to the Earth. There is no difference between concern for the planet and concern for ourselves and our own well-being. There is no difference between healing the planet and healing ourselves.” (Hanh, Kindle location 437-444).
Practicing this earth-centered celebratory path helps me to realize on a deep emotional level that “we and the Earth are one”. This Earth is not a dead place but a living, life-giving being worthy of our mindful attention. It is in those moments when I succeed in slowing down, in attending to the present that I feel most alive, and this fills me with a sense of gratitude for the beauty contained in even the most mundane moments.
Naturalistic Paganism is, in so many ways, about remembering and deepening our sense of interconnectedness with all of being – with the stars, the Earth, and each other. Living this belief of interconnectedness, of deep relatedness, requires that we live in a way that is life-sustaining and work to create a socially just life-sustaining society. I believe that it is only the religious spirit or something like it that will give us the power to change ourselves and the world. I feel this working in me. By practicing devotional acts of reverence to Nature, to Earth and Sun, to the never ending creative unfolding of it all, I feel my love for the world grow deeper and this motivates me to seek a way of living that strengthens the life creating power in myself and others.
What is really so magical about the religious spirit is that it helps me to face the immensity of the environmental and social problems we humans have thoughtlessly created without giving in to despair. As Joanna Macy said in an interview on the public radio show On Being:
“If we love our world, we’re able to see the scum of oil spreading across the Gulf; we’re able to see what it’s doing to the wetlands and the marshes, what it’s doing to the dolphins and the gulls. When you love something, your love doesn’t say, ”Well, too bad my kid has leukemia, so I won’t go near her.’ It’s just the opposite.”
It is this love for the world that allows us to feel the heartbreak of what is happening and not be broken by the weight of it, but rather to continue to struggle individually and together to create a life-sustaining world for all.