In a city whose soul is bleeding from the acts of terrorists, world leaders are meeting to discuss the fate of an Earth whose soul is also bleeding—bleeding from exploitation, from our civilization's relentless pursuit of materialism. These leaders will discuss carbon emissions and the global rise of temperature, but I doubt they will dare to discuss the deeper malaise of a civilization whose only goal seems to be economic progress.
Sadly, even the concept of "sustainability" has been co-opted by our culture. Sustainability no longer refers to upholding the viability of our ecosystem—its biodiversity and beauty, its wilderness and wonder—but to upholding the very materialistic culture that is destroying it. This attitude reveals that, above all, we want to sustain our energy-intensive, resource-depleting lifestyle, the very demands of which are damaging our planet. For many at the Paris gathering, "environmentalism is no longer about how to save the environment. It has instead become about how we in the developed world can save our lifestyle."
As we follow our consumerist dreams and our version of sustainability, the Earth suffers, and some of us, hearing the cry of the Earth, are responding to this deep wound. Those gathered in Paris know that we need to act "before it is too late." But, unless we ask the deeper questions, unless we consider the soul as well as the soil, how can we begin to bring the Earth back into balance? We can no longer afford to treat the Earth as something separate, just a physical environment—we are all part of the same living wholeness.
While there are those continuing the present nightmare of business as usual, there are others who have real "care for our common home," who hear the cry of the Earth and the pressing need to live from a place of unity. Maybe we have already passed the "tipping point" of unforeseen ecological consequences: temperatures rising, rivers and oceans polluted, and air made toxic. But as Pope Francis's encyclical spoke to so powerfully, religious and spiritual consciousness has a vital role to play.
Two years ago I published a collection of essays, Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, to help pioneer this emerging awareness of the need for a spiritual response to our ecological crisis—that it is a spiritual as well as a physical crisis. Many who read this book responded, "What should I do?" More specifically, the central question we should be asking is, how can we bring spiritual values, a sense of the sacred, into action to help heal and restore our dying world? I firmly believe that this is the calling for those who have the energy and passion to act from a place of service and love for the Earth, and especially important, are able to respond from a place of unity.
We are all part of the same living wholeness, and only from a place of unity can we transform what has been desecrated by centuries of thinking that we are separate from the Earth. The original instructions given to the First Peoples stressed that we "have to get along together." There are of course many different ways to work towards ecological wholeness, from forming a community of urban gardeners, to developing new economic models based upon generosity and sharing rather than acquisition, such as "pay it forward." And, while some global initiatives are vital, like reducing carbon emissions, I firmly believe that most initiatives should be created by small groups of people coming together in different ways—as is already happening. Governments and politicians are too bound to the idea of continued "economic growth" to commit to real change. Rather, the world needs to be regenerated in an organic, cellular way, the way life recreates itself—with different groups emerging as part of our new, living structure.
This is the challenge facing those of us who sense that life is something more than the accumulation of "stuff," who have heard the cry of the Earth and recognize that it is also the cry of our own soul. How can we help the world in this time of transition? How can we work together to break free from our pathological addiction to consumerism? How can we participate creatively in our lives and communities? The Earth is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. There is much work to be done, a work founded upon the principles of oneness and unity, a work that recognizes that all of life is sacred and whole. Life is calling to us and it desperately needs our attention; around us are what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "bells of mindfulness," which we need to hear and then respond to—hear with our hearts and respond with our hands.
And if I have learned anything from my own spiritual journey, it is that what matters most is love. Love is the most powerful force in creation, and it is our love for the Earth that will heal what we have desecrated, that will guide us through this wasteland and help us to bring light back into our darkening world. Love links us all together in the most mysterious ways, and love can guide our hearts and hands. And the central note of love is oneness. Love speaks the language of oneness, of unity rather than separation.
As the darkness of terrorism attacked Paris, the most moving response of some of those directly affected was their focus on love—that only love can conquer hate, that love is what really matters, that the final message in our life should be love. Now, this week in the same city, we should aspire to bring this message of love into the darkness of our global exploitation. We are one with the Earth and it needs actions based upon love and unity.
Small things with great love, learning to live and act with love and care, with the true attention of our minds and hearts—these are the signs of the sacred and the truest way to regenerate life, to help life to recreate itself. Yes, we have to relearn many of the sacred principles of life, the patterns of creation, to remember what our ancestors and all indigenous people know (what I have called the principles of Spiritual Ecology). What we need is to work to bring these principles into form, into action, into the myriad ways we can help the Earth to regenerate—ways that foster real sustainability. Then the future that is waiting can be born. It will not be easy. The forces of greed and exploitation are more entrenched than we realize, the environmental collapse accelerating. But this is the challenge for those whose hearts are strong, who care for the planet and for the souls of future generations.