Stephanie Kaza argues that environmentalism must be about more than the personal actions we take or the public policies we support. To be truly transformative, it must change the way we see ourselves, our world, and the relationship between the two. In short, it must be a spiritual path.
At times it can seem like we are making little progress on environmental problems. Over and over I hear these questions: What can one person do? What should I do?
My answers have come a long way from the early eco-enthusiasm of the 1960s. We felt sure we could save everything if people only knew how much was at stake. Today we face environmental concerns with more awareness, recognizing the political, economic, and social constraints that limit our actions. The more we understand ecosystem complexities and human inequities, the more we realize how much effort it will take to turn the ship toward a sustainable future.
Truthfully, we can’t even begin to realize how much effort it will take. In the last few years there has been a deluge of books on the market and Internet websites offering “easy steps” to being green. People everywhere are wanting to do the right thing; there is a hunger for information and guidance. Most often the focus at this first stage of response is personal: What can I do to create a green lifestyle? How can I live in a more eco-friendly manner? The guidebooks point out ways to save energy, make wise food choices, and consider green products. These are important steps in the right direction; they offer a way to begin living with the Earth’s health in mind. But we will need to take this conversation much further if we are to truly address the state of the world today.
The green path is, by and large, a secular practice, open to all who feel the call.
As I have spoken to audiences around the country, I have been struck by what could be called “green zeal,” an almost fervent sense of engagement with environmental concerns. People feel passionately about protecting rain forests and whales; they want everyone to know that polar bears and penguins are threatened. Behind the passion is a deeply felt need to do something right, to find a way to correct our past environmental errors. Almost no point on the globe is free of human influence now; we have left our mark in virtually all the world’s ecosystems. People today feel the sorrow of these thoughtless actions in the past—the once-expansive forests so diminished, the native peoples decimated. There is a great well of shame and grief wanting relief from the painful consequences of our own shortsighted actions. This manifests as a need for healing, for making life changes that will take us in a kinder direction, one that can sustain our own lives as well as the rest of life on Earth.
Our anxiety over an uncertain future has become particularly acute with the new understanding that climate change will affect us all. We have the sense that global support systems are lurching out of control, that things have gone too far that we may already be in serious danger. Climate advocates are urging government leaders to invest in a green vision for a more hopeful future. Businesses are making energy and waste audits to cut costs and improve long-term economic viability. Voters are calling for a “green jobs” economy to help us make the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Green zeal is necessary to change our ways quickly, to meet environmental goals that would be impossible without global cooperation.
In the midst of so much greening activity, many people are making significant changes to their lives, taking up what I’ve come to call the “green practice path.” They are changing their lightbulbs, taking the bus, insulating their homes, serving on community boards, and passing along green values to their children. From what I’ve observed, these efforts are based in much deeper motivation than home improvement. People are thinking deeply about what matters to them and taking their actions seriously. I believe they are bringing their best ethical and spiritual attention to environmental concerns and trying to match their actions to their moral principles.
People come to green practice from many walks of life and are taking initiative in many different arenas. Green zeal is turning up in every corner of the Earth. Thousands of people are living their own inspiring stories as they find a way to share their green ethics on behalf of a more peaceful and genuinely happy world. There is no single green path; the path is determined by individual experience, local needs, and personal motivation. The green path is, by and large, a secular practice, open to all who feel the call. It seems to me to reflect what the Dalai Lama calls an “ethics for the new millennium,” an ethics built on compassion, restraint, and acceptance of universal responsibility for the well-being of the Earth.