Jul 122011

The Rosa Parks of Sustainable Gardening?

Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to accommodate a white passenger. That act of civil disobedience resulted in her arrest, and quickly became one of the defining and most memorable acts of resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.

It might be a stretch to describe Julie Bass as “the Rosa Parks of sustainable gardening”… but not by much. Bass is no activist. She’s just a homeowner living in Oak Park, Michigan, who planted a vegetable garden in her front yard — like the one Michelle Obama planted on the front lawn of the White House, she notes — and who now faces arrest and jail time if she refuses to tear it down.

Why? Because of a city ordinance which reads, “All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material.” And a complaint from a neighbor to a city councilman that the front-yard garden looked like a “New Orleans cemetery.”

Since when is a vegetable garden not considered “live plant material”? The debate turns around the meaning of the word “suitable,” with city officials arguing that, “If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard.” Of course, the word “suitable” does not mean “common” (no, not even according to the dictionary), and Bass’ attorney Solomon Radner argues that the term is intentionally vague, allowing the city to enforce arbitrary policies, and therefore unconstitutional. Even if city officials were correct about the meaning of the word “suitable,” however, Radner points out that the ordinance itself also lists several exceptions, including vegetable gardens: “Exempted from the provisions of this article, inclusive, are flower gardens, plots of shrubbery, vegetable gardens and small grain plots.”

This confrontation over property aesthetics might have remained a local matter if it hadn’t been for Facebook, where multiple fan pages in support of Julie Bass’ cause have sprung up, spurring broad international criticism of the Michigan suburb’s position. City officials complain they’re being misunderstood. “We’re not against people having gardens,” said City Manager Rick Fox. “Just not in their front yards.” Sure, and it’s fine for African-Americans to ride the bus… as long as they sit in the back, right Rick?

Of course, that comparison’s a bit of hyperbole — but again, not by much.

This summer, the U.S. continues to face devastating floods, droughts and fires that threaten large swathes of midwest farmland and bring the consequences of human-caused climate change into inescapable focus. Political and cultural leaders all over the world acknowledge that environmental destruction has become so dire and so wide-spread, it is perhaps the single most difficult, most vital challenge we will face in our lifetimes, on which the continued existence of the human species itself might depend. If the rights of our fellow human beings to live freely and equally continues to be an issue of immense importance, how much more so the rights of the earth and its ecosystems on which we depend to live free from pollution, exploitation and destruction?

Yet cases like Julie Bass’ illustrate how unsustainable, un-”green” practices and lifestyles are not only culturally ubiquitous, but sometimes even dictated by law. It has long been known that expansive lawns of perfectly-manicured grass are not only exceedingly expensive to maintain in many areas of the country, but that monocultures of non-native plants are unhealthy for the local environment, depleting nutrients in the soil and disrupting the careful balance of local insect and wildlife populations leading to problems with disease and pest control. Environmentally-minded individuals might wonder, in such cases, if maybe we should take a long, hard look at what else the word “suitable” might mean (which the dictionary actually defines as “right, appropriate or fitting for a particular person, purpose, situation or place”).

Loving the Earth is a Political Act

All across the U.S., as well as internationally, people are beginning to do just that, and discovering that seemingly common-sense steps to make their homes and properties more eco-friendly often run up against antiquated property laws meant to enforce aesthetic values often based on underlying, unacknowledged classism, racism and industry profits. The result? A growing movement of eco-activists taking matters into their own hands through sensible, everyday acts of civil disobedience. Far from the “eco-terrorists” who blow up buildings or destroy property in protest of exploitation and pollution, many eco-activists today are ordinary citizens working on a local level to overturn outdated laws that keep them from living gently and respectfully with the earth.

Though Julie Bass and her family might not consider themselves such activists, they’re part of that movement, too, in defending their right to grow their own vegetables on their property. The trend of growing sustainable, eco-friendly “Victory Gardens” has picked up steam among green-minded (and green-thumbed) Americans in recent years. Modeled after the wartime vegetable, fruit and herb gardens grown during the World Wars of the last century by private citizens trying reduce pressure on public food supplies, modern-day Victory Gardens combat climate change on several fronts. Using sustainable gardening techniques to grow local food means relying less on factory-farmed produce fertilized with petrochemicals and sprayed down with damaging pesticides that then must be shipped across country. Hands-on gardening helps to reconnect us with the local landscape, the local community and our own physical bodies. Michelle Obama sees her White House Victory Garden as a step in her campaign against childhood obesity, by encouraging healthier eating habits and a renewed enjoyment of fresh fruits and vegetables. As the interest in Victory Gardens increases, cities like Oak Park will face the task of re-evaluating ordinances which seek to protect property values by enforcing a specific value judgement about the aesthetic and practical concerns of landscaping and gardening.

Another way individuals are quietly embracing acts of civil disobedience is by line-drying their clothes. In many cities and towns all over the country, it is actually illegal to line-dry laundry, despite the obvious ecological and personal benefits of this age-old practice. Why? “Many homeowner associations seem to believe that the act of air drying clothing present their developments as being low-income,” saying that for some “clotheslines connote a landscape of poverty rather than flowering fields.” The advocacy group Project Laundry List works to overturn this classcist attitude by supporting a “Right to Dry” bill and helping to educate individuals about the benefits of line-drying.

Perhaps one of the neatest and most committed ways people are engaging in eco-civil disobedience is through the Small Living or Tiny House Movement. In the wake of the housing bubble and bust, people are turning their backs on the dream of a McMansion with private drive and in-ground pool, and are looking for homes with smaller ecological footprints — both figuratively, and literally! Tiny houses are small cottages or cabins built from sustainable, natural materials on trailer beds or permanent foundations ranging between 65 and 140 square feet. Not only does it take less energy to heat, cool, light and clean such a small residence, but folks who choose the tiny house lifestyle choose to live with fewer material possessions and a greater reliance on community spaces and public amenities. Some build tiny houses in gorgeous natural landscapes, trading spacious indoor rooms for amber fields, majestic mountains and spacious skies.

The problem is that the small size of tiny houses breaks many conventional building and zoning codes concerning the appropriate size of a single family permanent residence. Some cities have even gone so far as to make it illegal to camp in your own backyard, to prevent homeowners from setting up tiny houses as permanent “camps” for themselves or others. Such laws are in place for a variety of reasons — including concerns for safety, aesthetics, over-crowding and property value — though many of them were determined by the housing industry itself as a way of ensuring what Jay Shafer calls “mandatory consumption” of larger-than-necessary residences. Shafer, founder of the popular Tumbleweed Tiny House Company which designs and builds tiny houses, lists civil disobedience as one of his primary motivations for his and his company’s work, and is committed to proving that house size is not a requirement for safety, prosperity, or happiness.

The nonviolent, community-oriented principles of civil disobedience have been used effectively in some of the most profound cultural movements in the world, including the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements in the United States. And the idea of civil disobedience is not new. In 1849, the famed naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau published his essay “Civil Disobedience” encouraging individual citizens to act in good conscience as “a counter friction” or resistance against the institutional “machine” of any government that produced injustice. As the writer of Walden, a book of reflections on simple living in harmony with nature and a deeply influential text for the modern environmentalist movement, I like to think Thoreau would be particularly pleased at the role of civil disobedience has played in recent years in expressing our love of the natural world and our willingness to work to protect and care for it.

This post was originally published at No Unsacred Place.

Mar 022011


In the 17th century, the population of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) suddenly crashed — and, oddly enough, it does not appear to have been the fault of the Europeans. In 1600, the island’s population was about 15,000; by 1722, when Europeans arrived, it was probably no more than 3,000. No one is sure of the reason behind this 80% decline, but archaeological records of pollen count suggest an answer: deforestation.

When the Polynesians first arrived on the island, it was heavily forested, primarily with a rare kind of palm tree (now extinct). During the thousand years that Rapa Nui was inhabited before the Dutch arrived in 1722, the pollen count steadily dropped, probably due to a combination of factors — the clearing of land for agriculture, the fancy taken to the palm nuts by the rats the Polynesians brought with them, and the use of the palm logs to transport the mighty moai to their sentinel posts by the sea.

The moai are the famous Easter Island statues. According to oral tradition, they were built as part of the Rapa Nui ancestry religion, and represented the guardianship of the ancestors over the island. The statues were placed around the coast, facing away from the sea towards the land, as the ancestors faced away from the spirit world towards their children.

Historians conjecture that as the population (of humans and rats) grew, and more moai were built, and trees died, the climate changed, becoming drier and hotter. The island’s precarious ecosystem eventually toppled, leading to the end of the power of the moai and their priests, and famine, and perhaps cannibalism.

Were the islanders foolish? After all, if things are getting bad, one should build more moai, not less, right? They were the protectors, right?… Perhaps they seem short-sighted to us today, but this kind of short-sightedness is not uncommon in human societies.

No doubt they had their blind spots — as do we.


There is no resource more critical to modern life than oil. It’s not just used to power trains, planes, cars, and trucks, but it’s an enabling technology — it’s used to make other things work. Coal and oil and other petrochemicals build our homes, pave our roads, generate our electric power, and serve as the basis for plastic and pharmaceuticals. Take away petrochemicals and just about everything else unravels.

So — are we likely to run out, like the Rapa Nui ran out of trees?

Actually, the answer is no. We have something going for us that the islanders did not: capitalism.

This four-minute video (“Are We Running Out Of Resources?”) explains the situation succinctly. The basic summary is simple: when we start to run low of something, the price starts to rise. This encourages people to (a) use less, (b) find more sources of it, and (c) find substitutes. The video talks about how this already happened with copper, and has been happening with oil for over a hundred years.

When whale oil got too expensive, we started getting oil out of the ground. When the gushers stopped flowing, we dug deeper. When that got too hard, we started digging out in the ocean. When that got more difficult, we started using chemical extraction processes on oil sands… and so on. In the meantime, we have slowly, slowly started using less by developing hybrid vehicles, using wind and solar power, and so on. (You don’t see much of this in the US, because oil is unusually cheap here, but in Europe they’ve been moving away from petrochemicals for decades.) And we’re finding substitutes, such as ethanol and artificially-produced petroleum (made of sun, water, and carbon dioxide).

So we’re extremely unlikely to ever reach Peak Oil — at least, in a way that anyone cares about. By the time we start really running low on oil (if we ever do), it will be so expensive that we’ll have already switched to other technologies.

But to my mind, this isn’t really about how great capitalism is, or how clever our little monkey brains are. This is really about the bounty of the Earth. Whether you consider the Earth a goddess, or the slowly mouldering carcass of Ymir, or a ball of moist rock smeared with a thin sheen of green life, there is no question of its generosity.

There are many kinds of teachers. Some teach with pain, others with pleasure. Some teach by example, others by lists of rules, others by poetry or by visions or by music. The Earth is a teacher primarily by generosity; and it teaches you how to deal with abundance. You have only to look at an apple tree in autumn, laden and bowing under the weight of its fruit. Please! it seems to be saying. Please, please help yourself!

So why are there so many people in want? Ironically enough, it’s because of capitalism, and our clever monkey brains.

Are You Buyer, Seller, or Product?

Many people in the world are suffering from malnutrition, sickness, and lack of basic necessities like water. This isn’t because the Earth isn’t giving us enough; it’s because its resources are unfairly distributed. Capitalism ensures that there will always be plenty of food and energy for those who can pay, but it also ensures that there will never be enough for those who can’t.

Not only that. The same capitalism that adjusts prices based on scarcity also provides incentives to overconsume and pollute. A corporation that digs up more and more oil has a huge incentive to advertise it, to market it, to sell it — as much as it can, as expensively as it can. This leads to overconsumption — using more than we need, wastefully. (As Jerry Mander famously said, if they have to advertise it, it means you probably don’t really need it.) And oil companies have no capitalist incentive at all to clean up after themselves, to safely dispose of the chemicals they use to extract the oil, or step carefully on the Earth’s fragile ecosystems.

Here’s the basic problem: capitalism inherently divides the world into buyer, seller, and product. The more of the world you can make “product”, the more money you can make. And while capitalism does great things for the buyer and seller, it treats the product like — well, like dirt. The product gets no respect, and has no value other than the money it’s bought with.

And, oddly enough, Easter Island again provides the perfect example. Slavery — which is nothing more than productizing human beings, treating humans as thing to be bought and sold — a slightly more extreme form of capitalism — slavery did more than a thousand years of deforestation. Before the Europeans arrived, deforestation reduced the population by 80%; but after the Europeans arrived, the slave trade and invasive sheep ranching reduced it by another 96%. In 1877, just 150 years after European contact, only 111 people remained on Rapa Nui.

Today most of the island is a World Heritage Site, and national park. It has a population of about 5,000 (about 60% native), and its largest industry is tourism. Sounds pretty good! But lest you think that we people today are wiser or better than the shepherds and slave traders of the 1800′s, or the moai-builders of the 1600′s, just imagine what would happen if major oil reserves were discovered there.

Just because you’re sitting at a feast does not mean it’s ok to eat until you’re sick. The Earth is generous — she will give and give, long past what she owes us, long past the point of satiety, long past the point of her death, and ours. We haven’t yet learned the Earth’s lesson.

Oct 032010

Over at the Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters writes about the recent violence and bullying directed towards young people in the GLBT community, and the culture of suicide and self-hate tolerated and perpetuated by many mainstream faiths often in subtle, unnoticed or unacknowledged ways.

In the end, it comes down to theology. Not, as Sanders points out, the easily defeated cartoon hatred of Westboro, but the more subtle belief systems that make even “accepted” GLBTQ individuals the “other”. A theology that, even if unspoken, privileges a certain kind of person over another. [...] While defenders of these theologies talk of tradition and incremental change, more die, and are harassed, every day. It is for this reason, among many others, that I think we not only have to reassure kids that “it gets better”, but we also have to reject theologies that empower hatreds of this kind and replace them with something else.

His point is well-taken, as is his observation that the Pagan movement is just one of many alternatives striving to offer that “something else,” engaged in the difficult work of challenging and dismantling traditions of systemic intolerance. The modern spiritual traditions that make up modern Paganism have drawn for many decades from the political and philosophical streams of feminism, environmentalism, civil rights, pacifism and social activism. All these movements seek, in different ways, to expand the conversation and complicate our understanding of “other” and “self,” demanding that we bring our attention and our care not only to those “like us” but to those we might otherwise overlook, dismiss or ignore.

However, I think it is a mistake to view this work as solely concerned with social hierarchy and the mechanisms of domination within the mainstream. As feminist philosophy notes, “The personal is political.” While we quite rightly find sympathy and solidarity with those who are marginalized or oppressed by the mainstream culture of today, I find myself disturbed by the frequency of arguments that declare: “We as Pagans should care about this cause because we, like the GLBT community [or other minority group], are also a minority and so what happens to them could happen to us.” Such an argument recognizes, sure enough, the themes of intolerance and hatred in the mainstream that unite us as a religious minority with other marginalized communities (whether they be racial, ethnic or sexual-preference minorities, women, the lower class and impoverished, or the other animals, plants and ecosystems who share this planet with us). Yet such reasoning encourages us to continue to care for and sympathize only with others “like us” — even if they are like us primarily in their socially-defined otherness. It implies that our responsibility to concern ourselves with the problems of the marginalized lasts only as long as we ourselves feel the threat of that marginalization. The ethic of privilege remains unchallenged; we’ve merely succeeded in exchanging one privileged group (the mainstream or majority, conceived as the Western (Christian) white male) for another.

The real challenge, I believe, is to continue to engage in social movements that reject and dismantle the hierarchical, patriarchal and hegemonic systems that give rise to intolerance and hatred towards “the Other,” while at the same time bringing this challenge home to ourselves in a very personal way. It is not enough to identify and care for those groups whom society has ignored, dismissed or overlooked. As individuals, we also have a responsibility to examine our own social and interpersonal relationships, in order to discover those communities and individuals that we ourselves are inclined to dismiss or marginalize.

This may be a difficult task for some Pagans to embrace. In more than a few modern Pagan traditions, an emphasis on local community and a reverence for the kindred and ancestors can too easily give way to a kind of tribalism that defines concepts such as honor and courage in terms of defense against the threat of “outsiders,” or asserts that care for “my” family and “my” in-group takes precedence over more universal social concerns. The joyful celebration of diversity can too quickly devolve into a rejection of anything that connects us or seems to obligate us to our fellow human beings — especially if those fellow human beings come from the “Judeo-Christian” mainstream.

Still, the traditions of modern Paganism also offer a unique opportunity to contribute meaningfully to this continuing conversation about acceptance and otherness. Unlike many social movements of today, the Pagan movement — precisely because it is a spiritual movement — speaks to deeply personal and intimate aspects of our relationships with the world and with each other. From a Pagan perspective, we can take this commitment to healthy community and thriving diversity not only as a socio-political philosophy but as a personal, spiritual imperative, enshrined in the heart of our earth-centered and/or polytheistic religious traditions.

Already we see this attitude at work in many aspects of various Pagan traditions. Our appreciation for history and heritage in a society of shrinking attention spans and an ever-growing obsession with the new-and-shiny not only informs our views on how communities can be organized and nurtured, but connects us with our ancestors and the dead in personal ways through rituals of honor, commemoration and conversation. Similarly, the common Pagan reverence for the natural world and the ecosystems of the earth shape our social and political lives, influencing everything from who we vote for to where we shop, to what we eat and wear; yet our personal relationship to nature is also fostered through meditative and ritual practices that put us in touch with the “spiritual side” of our animal, physical selves and challenge us to discover our own ways of relating to and living with(in) the natural world. While some of us engage in social activism and political protest in support of civil and gay rights, many also worship gods and goddesses who transcend, defy or redefine gender boundaries, who celebrate sexual intimacy as a sacred act, or who have their roots deep in the cultures of non-white, non-Western religious traditions of the past. By entering into relationship with these deities, we transform the cause of equality, diversity and mutual respect from a political platform into a intimately powerful expression of our being. In these ways, and in many others, modern Pagan traditions often bridge the gap between the personal and the political, the spiritual and the social.

I hope that one day Pagans will be just one more diverse and complex community in a manifold, thriving global society. But when that day comes, we will need to have a better ethical standard in place than “we should care about oppressed people because we are oppressed.” While I agree that silence in the face of bullying and violence is unacceptable, neither is it enough to stop with a critique of social trends and larger political patterns in the mainstream, venting frustration that “others” have done nothing to stem the tide of hatred and abuse. Pagan spirituality opens up for us the potential to bring our commitment to social justice, peace and diversity all the way home to the heart of our spiritual practice and our interpersonal relationships. Perhaps one day we can move from an ethic that privileges those who are “other-like-us” to an ethic that embraces and upholds the sacredness of relationship and connection in all its myriad forms. An ethic that says not “we should care because we, too, are different” but one that proclaims, “We should care because we are all, after all, in this together.”

May 132010

“The Gulf appears to be bleeding. Will we ever be able to stem the tide?”

John Wathan

A little more than thirty years ago, my parents drove their muck-green, diesel-fueled VW Rabbit down the east coast to visit the Everglades for the first time. They were young, in love, and just out of college with barely a penny to their name. They drove all day and all night, stopping once overnight in a seedy motel so dirty and full of cockroaches that it was cleaner to sleep in their sleeping bags on top of the bed sheets; when they finally reached the Florida Keys, they set up camp in the National Park, amidst the teeming wildlife and unique, delicate, sometimes deadly beauty of the wetlands. It was a story they would tell my brother and me many times throughout our childhood — the foolishness of the journey, the bare essentials packed in the trunk and only a few dollars to spare in their wallets, and the memory, most of all, of how beautiful it was, despite or perhaps because of all the insects, the lethal snakes, the alligators lurking below the surface of the shimmering waters.

Blood in the Water

Like others, I have been struggling for the past few weeks to write about the Gulf of Mexico oil leak — even the phrase “oil leak” seems too flimsy to capture the tragic power of gushing crude oil bubbling up 5,000 feet to the surface of the ocean and spreading fast, oozing its way towards the coastline. I cannot seem to wrap my mind around it, and pictures cannot do the tragedy justice: distant aerial shots of the spill can hardly capture the immense scale, while intimate photographs of birds soaked in poisonous black sludge, sea turtles washed up dead on shore, hard hats and human hands covered in the reddish oil like blood, can so easily be dismissed as isolated incidents. Besides which, they have become familiar to us, the same heart-wrenching images trotted out after every oil spill or accident. Meanwhile, graphs illustrating government projections of the leak’s impact, updated daily, seem bizarrely irrelevant with their amoeba-like pools of bright aquamarine shading and little, harmless-looking red blips scattered along the coast.

The timeline of government involvement and media coverage since the Deepwater Horizon off-shore oil rig exploded, killing eleven, on 20 April 2010 and began spewing deadly sludge into the sea, illustrate a fundamental reluctance by everyone involved to acknowledge the scope of the disaster and begin effective prevention and clean-up as soon as possible. Recent reports detail neglected, damaged, misused or useless safety measures while bemoaning the fundamental lack of government oversight and regulation, though the woeful inability of government agencies to regulate the very industries which provide them funding has been widely documented in the past. Meanwhile, even those clean-up measures being pursued at present are either wildly ineffective or unrealistically extreme, some potentially making the spill even worse. Workers in the industry have wondered if — as in the case of the disgustingly inadequate use of booming — such measures are in fact primarily “for show” for the sake of government officials and media outlets and, by extension, the poorly-informed public in general [warning: the above link about improper booming contains, in addition to crucial insights from an industry insider, a great deal of rage and foul language which some readers might find offensive].

Who exactly is to blame for the breakdown in safety measures and the explosion and collapse of the oil rig — leased by Transocean, the world’s largest off-shore drilling company, to BP who operated the rig but subcontracted out certain work to Halliburton, including the faulty cementing process undertaken just before the blowout — remains the subject of much accusation and finger-pointing. Who ultimately receives the blame, and who is forced to pay the price, however, are hardly related questions at this point, as tourism tanks, the fishing industry falters, hundreds of miles of fragile wetland come under threat, and Louisiana calls for government intervention to relieve BP of its bumbling efforts at the same time that the White House asks Congress for $10 million to fight oil-spill related litigation.

In light of all this noise, controversy and suffering, I was unable to withstand the sudden feeling of overwhelming hopelessness and depression when I read the other day that, despite the thousands of gallons of oil spewing every hour into the Gulf, six out of ten Americans still support off-shore drilling and consider its economic advantages to outweigh the potential environmental damage it could cause. This justification — weighing meager economic benefit against the devastating cost to life and health of millions of living creatures, human and nonhuman alike — seemed to reek of the worst kind of myopic consumerism and human exceptionalism. My trust in my fellow human beings to recognize needless suffering and dangerous gambling with the earth’s ecosystems, and to act appropriately or at least change their opinions in response, was deeply shaken.

Nature as Luxury

Over the weekend, I tried to express my sense of helplessness and despair to a coworker, in the face of our country’s apparent ignorance and apathy about the real cost of its energy-addiction. “Can you imagine,” I asked him, “a few years from now, if worse comes to worst and the oil spill spreads to the Gulf Stream? Beaches all up and down the east coast could be polluted, whole segments of the population that depend on clean oceans and the creatures that live in them could be in jeopardy. The Everglades might never recover. And that’s just from this one spill. Who knows how many other poorly-designed and dangerously-run rigs might collapse next year, next month, tomorrow?” His response, though full of concern, was simple, “When was the last time I was at the beach?”

At first, such an answer seems selfish. It is easy to feel angry at exactly that kind of socio-cultural narcissism that says if it doesn’t affect me directly, then what’s the big deal? But hearing not dismissal, but resignation in my coworker’s voice gave me pause. I believe a deeper problem lies at the root of this attitude of indifference: one of access and luxury. In other words, a problem of class.

When tragedy strikes like lightning out of a threatening sky and the Tower comes crashing down on our heads, we routinely understand the experience as shattering to the ego, forcing a recognition of our arrogance and a fundamental reevaluation of our priorities. If we happen to be lucky enough, that is, to live in the Tower. Such was the effect I expected the oil leak to have on the energy politics in this country, hoping for at least some good to come of the seemingly unstoppable monster rising from the deep and creeping towards land. But increasingly, a large segment of the population in this country live cut-off both from the natural world and from the benefits of exploiting its resources, while the rest of us have come to treat nature as a luxury, which we can feel free to enjoy or ignore according to personal taste.

Only thirty years ago, my parents could make the trip, although young and almost broke, to experience the Everglades in person. Now, both financial instability and changing cultural expectations have turned such a journey into little more than a pipe-dream for many of my coworkers and others of the working class. People work harder and for longer hours than they did only a few decades ago, while technological innovations like computers, cell phones and video games have quickly come to dominate our concept of “recreation” or down-time. Though the neighborhood I live and work in is wedged between the two largest parks in the city, those I see there most often during my hikes have driven in to ride their thousand-dollar bikes or walk their pure-bred dogs, while my coworkers head for the bar or the casino, or stay home to watch television. This is a class division that exists not only because of financial resources, but because our cultural norms have transformed these pockets of nature — whether they are city parks, national wildlife preserves, or the vast stretches of ocean spanning between continents beyond country borders — into luxuries. And when nature is a luxury, you can take it, or leave it.

Loving the Earth

As a Pagan, the natural world rests at the heart of my spiritual practice, but as a pacifist I feel compelled to turn a critical eye on my own relationship with the earth and its ecosystems to ensure I have not come to rest comfortably with the notion of nature as a luxury item, a religious accessory. To treat the natural world as a commodity or convenience, even if a soul-nourishing one, would be to demean or reduce it, to deny its power, to dishonor it in all of its gory, glorious complexity. In other words, to view the natural world as a luxury is to commit a particular kind of violence against it. We have seen the very real ramifications of this subtle violence in the past few weeks. Few of us today live in a world where we must face the harsh obstacles of untamed wilderness, though many of us are daily confronted with the burdens and injustices of civilization. It can be as hard to care about the tragedies affecting fish and birds a thousand miles away, as it is difficult to appreciate nature in our own backyards for more than its aesthetic and therapeutic qualities.

Yet it is my conviction that in order to remedy our abusive, exploitative relationship with the very earth that sustains us, we must learn again how to live as part of the natural world with awe, with reverence, and with love. It is easy to feel a tug of pity as I watch the pathetically struggling gull gasping in slime, or to feel sentimental regret over the thought that my partner and I might never be able to follow in my parents’ footsteps and see the Everglades as they once were. But there is real sorrow, and rage, when I think on the human species as an animal of nature in its own right, capable of selfishness, ignorance and destruction on such a scale. Confronted with this reality, and the reality of the natural world as itself bloated with strife and death, I swing between despair, and the ugly wish that Mama Earth rid herself of us once and for all and get on with her life. The only thing that can resolve this for me — the only way I can make peace with this reality of the natural world — is through love.

To seek the beauty and balance in the cycles of creation and destruction, life and death, to acknowledge a joy that permeates and lifts up these moments of desperation and depression — this is not a simple task. There is something disingenuous, even dishonest, about those who would criticize a view of the natural world as beautiful and awe-inspiring because it is “superficial” or naïve. Without a capacity to see the beauty within destruction, to seek the spirit and meaning by which we might better live our lives, it becomes all too easy for us to shrug our shoulders at our own acts of violence and dismiss them as “only natural.” But we do not love the natural world because it is lovable. We love the world because we have a bone-deep need of it, a longing to be whole.

This need gives the lie to all issues of energy politics, luxury and class. How capable are we of sustaining or excusing the activities of organizations like Halliburton or BP in the face of this need? How can we dispassionately weigh the luxuries of a few more years of cheap energy against it? How can we deny it in ourselves and in others, expecting high-definition televisions and three-dimensional fantasy worlds to be adequate substitutes? It is in accepting, bearing witness to and celebrating this need, this love, I believe, that we might take the first step towards redressing the abuses our culture has so long practiced and restoring ourselves to sanity as animals of nature.