Reaping the Whirlwind and Looking for Hope

I quoted Theodore Roosevelt  back in the dim reaches of my “He Said/She Said” collection, but anybody can do that. Recently on Grantland, I read a piece on Don King, the once-dominant promoter in

Teddy was no saint, but I like his attitude.

professional boxing, in which he pulled the Man in the Arena passage that I love so well out of his well-worn pouch of salesmanship. (Heck, maybe he loves it like I do, but after all his flim-flams and showmanship and indictments, it’s hard to tell.) This isn’t about Don King, though he did get me thinking back to a November 2010 piece I wrote about wanting to be on the front lines of life, wanting to have that “face marred with dust and sweat and blood”, as Roosevelt put it in a 1910 speech, to be an embattled veteran of causes worthy and noble. At moments, sports have given me that taste. So have wild-eyed efforts as an educator. So has Shakespeare, and a growing mid-life consciousness of ecology.

Being in China helps, too, and not only when I’m bombarded by cultural noise that I still can’t get my head around, not to mention fireworks or the adrenaline rush of getting across a busy street. The Baha’i teachings I battle to live by find many responsive ears here, and its community-building processes are of blatantly obvious value. The response to both is routinely gratifying, yet given the frantic movement and

Can a threatened planet become a cliche? (This is OURS, btw.)

incredible size of this population, it’s all pretty darned humbling, too. I am surely not patient enough; for four years, China has done its best to teach me, but I am a slow learner. There’s a lot of that going around, as you may have noticed, particularly if you’re a climate watcher.

Recently, we’ve been thinking of the front lines of the climate wars. EnviroBride has taught me much about the crisis we’ve created in the global ecology, and the search for sustainable ways to live with and within it. We have avoided, it seems, a third World War, though Native American prophecies of the three “great shakings” that the world must undergo before the age of peace are an eerie warning. Many smart people are suggesting that the environmental/climate crisis might complete this destructive Triple Play. My wife, both professionally and personally, has been deeply engaged in work and thought and activism about climate change. She teaches environmental concepts in her English classes, and recently thought, in the wake of yet more failures of international will, How can I keep teaching this stuff when the game is over? We’ve blown it! Runaway climate change is inevitable now…

She didn’t just throw up her hands in rage or surrender. She didn’t send out a generic curse, saying as the Old Testament does, “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind…” but her dismay was deep enough that I’m sure she thought along that despairing line (it’s from Hosea 8:7). Instead, typically, she reached for friends. She wrote to Peter and Arthur, smart and committed Baha’is who are also deeply involved in this issue. Her question, boiled down, was this: What still gives you hope, in the face of humanity’s agonizing failure to respond to this looming global disaster? (I am not over-dramatizing: people who pay attention to the science and ethics of climate change are way beyond worry.) Peter Adriance focusses on sustainable development in his work for the Office of Public Affairs of the American Baha’i community, and his was the first email answer.

Don’t stop encouraging, Peter urged, noting the power of the generally hopeful vision that the Baha’i view of humanity’s future gives us, without downplaying the undoubted problems to come. (Ha! They are already here.) He wrote: “We know there will be impacts we are going to have to deal with. How do we tap the creative talents in a community to mobilize the necessary resources?” In other words, while humanity may have missed the chance to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we can (and must) still prepare to mitigate them.

“Our ability to address the challenges posed by climate change [and other] serious stressors…is extremely dependent on the level of social capital we have established in our communities…Communities with strong social ties are much more resilient than those without them. A recent piece in The New Yorker…related  how the social fabric in the community can literally mean the difference between life and death when it comes to the ability to deal with disaster. So it is extremely important that…we focus on building resilient societies and tapping the collective genius that lies within them….Of course this is very compatible with [the] Baha’i…emphasis on community building…The hope I feel is rooted in the realization that great difficulties can be overcome….We have to… strengthen the social fabric of our communities…and climate change is just one of the forces pushing us in that direction.”

They may be green, and they may be cute, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Arthur Dahl concurred. A long-time official in sustainable development issues with the United Nations, he is the President of the International Environment Forum, a Baha’i-inspired NGO based in Switzerland. He referred to Baha’u’llah’s familiar “carpet analogy” – a defective old system (that is, the current way of the world) which is to be “rolled up” and a new one laid out to replace it. He reminded us that “negative messages do not inspire people to action, but to denial or despair….The question is, how much environmental damage will be done in the rolling up that we shall have to fix afterwards, and how much human suffering will be caused in the process?” His hope is that this process, which has seemed so agonizingly slow to dedicated ecologists, will play out in short order: “This may be the critical decade to start the transition…” he wrote. His further comments are remarkable, combining clear-eyed awareness of the possible dimensions of catastrophe with a faith in activist, grassroots remedies.

“The acceleration in climate change…and the simultaneous rush…to find ever more sources of fossil fuels to try to keep the consumer economy growing [gives] every reason for despair….The best insurance…will be strong community solidarity, and the core activities [of the Baha’i community] are…tools to build that, reaching far beyond what the Baha’is themselves can do while their numbers are still so limited. Community building is inherently very positive and rewarding, and produces visible results….

“The other positive approach is to learn detachment from the present system of materialism….We need to replace the superficial attractions of the consumer society by an alternative vision of a better future. If the ‘pull’ of the new vision is strong enough, the ‘push’ of a collapsing material civilization will pale into insignificance….There is an enormous challenge to steer [our] wasted human capacity in new and more constructive directions…at the community level…”

Mr. Dahl also showed a kind of optimism that can only come from someone who has achieved a level of detachment from things as they are, a recognition that business as usual just won’t work anymore. Are you ready for this? Arthur also wrote: “The one thing that still gives me hope that a climate catastrophe can be…at least diminished is the likelihood of a global financial collapse. This would seem to be the one thing (apart from a world civil war or a global pandemic) that could…keep global warming below [the critical level of] 3° or 4°…” How’s that for stubborn hope? How’s that for a bleak sort of optimism? It appears, as one of my favourite singers has it, that there ain’t no easy road. Maybe that’s what it means to live on the front lines of life.

I’m a teacher, and I love how the Baha’i paradigm puts education at the foundation of all genuine progress. There are no quick fixes, but only fundamental ones; this small band of a few millions is building from the ground up, with aims they’re not ashamed to think of as heavenly, and they’re far from alone in this work. It’s the spirit of the age, say I. For Peter, for Arthur, and for my own in-house sustainability coordinator, it is the same: while some despair, and more distract themselves madly with amusements or material comforts, the only thing to do is to embrace what the visionary builder Shoghi Effendi outlined in the long-gone year of 1941:

 “Ours [is] the duty, however confused the scene, however dismal the present outlook, however circumscribed [our] resources…, to labor serenely, confidently and unremittingly to lend our share of assistance…to the operation of the forces which…are leading humanity out of the valley of misery and shame…”

We aren’t in the midst of a World War – or maybe we are – but people are full of distraction and disillusion, denial and despair. My wife and I, and friends like Peter and Arthur, don’t think we can fix the world, but we insist that the small services we try to offer have value. It’s a great thing to believe, even if we’re wrong (though I don’t think that we are). The world is developing better tools for social transformation, and they are almost unfailingly local. As I tell my Chinese students, this country is huge, and has huge problems; can we imagine that mere governments are going to be able to solve them? Only “the uplifting of the whole people”, as a wise Canadian said, can marshal the kind of resources and build the kind of capacity that China, that the world, needs now, more than it ever has. Front lines, indeed.

It’s April 22 this year. What’re ya gonna do?

Comment (1)

  1. J. P. Mayer

    Hello Jay,
    I can fully understand your point-of-view since we both live within a kilometer of each other here in China.
    What I have found helpful when speaking to our students, any of them, when they are concerned about the environment or the state of corruption for example is to look at it from an unexpected point-of-view that encourages.
    About the environment: I come from Canada and Sudbury to be precise. Most people are quick to snicker at the thought that a Sudburian may have something to say about the environment given the perception common among the uninformed. In less than 50 years our city had transformed from the most polluted to one of the greenest city in Canada and was even recognized as such by the Earth Summit in Rio De Janiero in Brazil. My point is that I tell the Chinese students that when the political will is ripe (and it is coming) the Chinese will not take as long as 50 years to “clean it up” in their hometown and country.
    About corruption: It is akin to animal manure on a freshly planted farmer’s field where only the farmer understands that the reason he will have such a good crop is completely dependent on the amount of stinky fertilizer spread on the field. So why should we be worried about corruption at this time? It is like our friend, let it do its job and we should only focus on the welfare of the seeds.

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