June 08, 2011

Environmental movement has spiritual dimension

As published in The Erin Advocate

As one who attends both church services and environmental events, I cannot help but notice some similarities between the two. The overlap is quite natural, of course, since both activities include a quest for knowledge, and guidance as to the proper ways to behave in the maze of moral choices people face every day.

There is safety and comfort in gathering with others of similar inclination, but preaching to the converted is never really sufficient. There is always the urge to evangelize, to spread the word to those who have not heard it, or who have not accepted it, yet. It is not a matter of coercion, but of leading by example. No one likes being told how to think and act, but everyone can be influenced.

Religious or not, many people share a core belief that the created world and the life forms that depend on it are essentially good. And in spite of the advances of science, there is a recognition that we are a part of something that remains beyond our understanding. We know that we cannot control all outcomes by our actions, but our actions are still important – we can make a difference.

The values promoted by faith communities and environmental associations tend towards the universal – when a group of people agree on something, there is an understanding that if only everyone believed the same things and acted in the appropriate ways, humanity would be a lot better off.

Environmental campaigns often focus on the identification of evildoers, mainly large corporations, who are accused of leading the innocent astray in order to improve profits. Who should we trust to guide our society? Elected politicians? Multinational corporations? Church leaders? Grassroots organizations? News organizations?

In these times, when personal choice and responsibility are considered paramount, it is difficult to herd the population into conformity of action, or a sense of social responsibility. Indeed, it should not be easy. Having a variety of viewpoints accepted in the pubic realm is our best defence against abuses of power. Still, people should look outside their personal world, see the need for building consensus, and recognize a shared responsibility for the future of the planet.

Most religious doctrines include respect and protection of the environment. And many people who wouldn't be caught dead in a church are informally practicing a form of spirituality that reveres the sacredness of all creation. Many also believe in the sacredness of work. You can view work as strictly earning money, or you can see its value in serving the needs of other people. We live in an unstable, unsustainable society, so the gap between people's hopes and their actual reality creates some powerful needs.

I was struck by this during a discussion of farming, during a recent workshop on biodiversity at Everdale Farm. A market garden farmer from Grey County (didn't catch his name) dropped into the group part-way through and had some interesting views about the marketing of organic food.

"A lot of people involved in agriculture right now do not have a background in agriculture," he said. "They are the ones who have twigged to this notion of fashion, using fashion to influence the marketplace. In ten years, food has become hot. If you look at the old families, it would not have occurred to them to present food to people in this way.

"We can spend a lot of energy trying to teach people, but you can also drain yourself. Especially adults, it's almost impossible to teach people anything. Not to be pessimistic, but if you recognize that, instead of trying to flog messages into them, the most efficient thing you can do is create an exciting environment, much as has been done here, where those who want to know, can do so easily. In a way sensitive to what they are really curious about.

"The work were doing here isn't really that materialistic. When people come out here from the city, they are responding to really a spiritual void. When we're out here working, we're not just growing food, we are participating directly in creation. Not to get too floaty on this, but that's really what we are doing. And we want to do this, not because we're making any money – at least we're probably not, especially if we're doing our job really well – but for the change that takes place in us.

"And when they come out here, they're coming out here because there's something off, there's something wrong, which is a byproduct of our industrial culture. They come out here and they are looking for peace. When they meet a farmer, they want a piece of that peace, and they're hoping that maybe he has it, and that they can take some of it in.

"So I think it's really important, although we can talk about marketing, but we have to recognize from our own natures, from the work we do and the way we feel about it that this isn't really a materialistic problem. The material ramifications are part and parcel, but that's really not where the impulse is coming from. People didn't come here because they were hungry, at least not for food."