Civilization in Transition
The Call for Ecological Transformation
by Philip Clayton
It’s not a great time for climate watchers. Last week we read that the increase in greenhouse gas will be 2.7% for 2018, compared with 1.6% for 2017, and no increase the three years before that. The particles in these emissions, such as CO2, are miniscule, and yet the combined weight of this year’s emissions adds up to more than 100,000 times the weight of Empire State Building. The models indicate that, at this rate of increase, some rather dire consequences that were expected for the decade beginning in 2040 will now arrive in the 2030s. That’s 12 years away.
The responses from people in power are equally as staggering. After 13 agencies of the US federal government outlined some of the impending consequences, the president of my country simply responded, “I don’t believe it.” The Foreign Minister of Brazil canceled the climate summit scheduled for his nation in 2019, assuring us that the idea of a climate crisis was invented by Marxists.
Our most precious resource going forward is hope. Hopelessness threatens to tighten its long fingers around our throats, cutting off the will to act. But where does hope come from? Not from climate science, not from the actions of global leaders, and not from the lifestyles of the rich. Hope comes only if we can carry out actions in the present that begin to build a sustainable world ― only if we can begin now to live a new paradigm.
Religion’s Transformative Responsibility
The religions of the world know something about beginning to live out new paradigms. To submit to Allah, practice compassion meditation, overcome illusion, or be reborn in Christ — all of these imply a radically different way of living in this world. Leave the old and turn toward the new is a common call heard across many traditions. The interfaith movement in particular is familiar with the importance of creating a global movement of partnership and, along with it, the need to find some common language of values and practice.
Today the religious call for transformation must include the way we live on this planet. Let ecology be our theology, Christian environmentalists are saying. Or, in the beautiful words of Ellen Bernstein, “Let the Earth Teach You Torah.” Similarly, Pope Francis calls for an “integral ecology,” an ecology that incorporates theological traditions as well.
Many of us are calling it the transition toward an “ecological civilization.” Over and over again, since human civilization began, humans have transitioned to a new way of understanding themselves, each other, and the world as a whole, and began to live these out in new ways, birthing a new kind of civilization. Often the changes were driven by drought, famine, and war ― the kinds of factors we also face today. If the institutions and lifestyles of the next global paradigm are not ecological and sustainable, there will be no new civilization. The current one, it appears, is not long for this world.
The idea of transitioning toward an ecological civilization began to play a significant role in China around 2007 and by 2012 had become part of that nation’s official platform. Three years later the visionary theologian John Cobb organized a conference in Claremont, California with the title “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization.” Some 1500 people divided into 80 working groups over four days to lay the foundations for this transition. The Institute for Ecological Civilization (EcoCiv)has carried on the same work since that time.
The task may be hard, but the idea is simple: Begin to think what a sustainable society will have to look like and use that goal to orient your actions in the present. Take sectors in the contemporary world – food and agriculture practices, energy and transportation, cities and the surrounding rural areas, even the arts and religion. Begin to describe what it will take to transition those sectors into a new paradigm altogether. Think of it as a roadmap for ecological transformation. And finally, begin to put into practice as much of this radically new paradigm as possible. The more of us who do this, the closer we come to a sustainable society.
We saw the power of this approach at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto in November. EcoCiv organized a number of sessions about what will be required of a sustainable society. The results, developed through dialogues with experts from around the globe, brought clarity about the goals that humanity must set for itself.
Dozens of sessions then took place that worked out the practices that correspond to these global goals – spiritual practices, but also sustainability practices that are fully secular. In a three-hour Justice assembly, we put the two sides together. The result is powerful; the call to action is clear … and one walks away with a sense of hope.
EcoCiv saw the same thing in Washington DC a few months earlier when we assembled heads of nonprofits to talk about food justice. Leaders talked of details: women’s education, better technologies, the economic stranglehold of the global North on poverty-stricken communities. But they also talked about the big picture, the transition from this civilization to the next and the essential role of inner transformation and communities of value to undergird and facilitate this transition.
The bottom line is clear: We live in an unsustainable and unjust global system. Many of the parts don’t fit together, and when they do the outcomes are often devastating. But at a deeper level, we realize that all the parts are interrelated. Buddhists call this “co-dependent origination.”
The greatest imperative of our day is to step back and see the whole picture so that we can work across all sectors of society. There are no solutions that do not require bringing interdependence to the surface: of human to human, of human to non-human, of humans to the more-than-human world, and of inner self to outer self and action. To reimagine and reformulate the system, we must interlink all the parts.
It's not just about what we do on the outside. Our inner dispositions towards nature and others drive much of our action. This is one of the reasons that the global interfaith movement is so important. Humanity won’t make the radical transformations that are necessary unless we can learn from our religious and spiritual traditions. They play an indispensable role in helping to propel the movement of transformation forward.
Photo: Max Pixel