Earth Day Puts the Focus on the Wrong Subject

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It’s only a couple of days to Earth Day, 2010. There’s little reason to celebrate this year. More people than ever question the reality of global climate change or the need to do anything serious about it. But at the same time, people are more positive about the state of the environment, but don’t act to maintain its quality. Pretty confusing statistics—all from the Gallup organization that has been tracking theses trends for a long time.

The uptick in feelings comes with the Obama election. I wonder if this is an artifact reflecting a general change in confidence that came in 2009. Although the trend line showed an upward movement, the positive respondents are still less than half. Joel Makower has done a very nice piece analyzing these results. He highlights the evident selfishness in these data and other indicators of attitudes towards greening. My own sense of what’s happenings is close to his. People are acting in selfish ways driven in part by the cultural voice that tells them to worry first and even only about themselves. Fear drives people in that direction, and we live in a culture driven largely by fear.

Makower sees a shift from concern with the health of the planet to one focused on the self. I don’t think there has ever been much concern for the planet and all of its inhabitants, animate or not. The latest data are only a change at the margin. I also don’t think this has to be the case. What is often missed in discussions like this is recognition that the “self” is not a fixed machine that runs primarily to satisfy some mysterious inner needs. The self has been very different over historical time and in many indigenous cultures. There is no special magic in indigenous people. They alone provide evidence of alternate models of self that have become lost under the onslaught of modernity.

The great challenge of sustainability, as I have been writing, is to recover the mode of being often found in these cultures. Having, as Erich Fromm characterizes our way of living, focuses us strongly inwardly and so we satisfy our needs without being aware of or caring for the world outside the body. The press of technology exacerbates this tendency.

The lesson for Earthday, in a nutshell, is that the roots of the environmental problems we are trying to solve are not out there. The solution is not to be found in the myriad of green practices we are adopting. The heart of the problem is right inside each of us. The environmental problem or, more broadly the unsustainability problem is a human problem. As long as our society and each of us that constitutes it acts out of the having mode, we will continue to see our concerns fluctuate, driven by the vagaries of the economy and political outlook. Only a fundamental transformation of our conception of what it is to be human will be able to change our way of living and the way we respond to the unintentional consequences that always show up, even if we come from a paradigmatically different foundation.

Perhaps, we would make more progress on Earth Day, if instead of recommitting ourselves to care for the Planet, we took time out to look deep inside us and ask how can we discover the caring that goes with being human, but has gotten lost. Such an exercise, if it opens up a path to recovery, would be far more effective toward taking care of the Planet than all the pledges to recycle more this year.

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