"You don't hit bottom," says an old 12-step adage, "until you stop digging." In other words: no bad experience, painful consequence or downright awful time of it in and of itself will lead people to change their behavior. When we are reckless, thoughtless, destructively selfish, or blind to the effects of our actions on ourselves and others -- and when all this leads in a Very Bad Direction, we can still hold on to the negative habits and damaging behavior. We can always close our eyes, turn our backs, and deny, deny, deny.
Hurricane Sandy -- a mega, super, Frankenstorm -- is a case in point. I would very much like it to be a cliché that such storms, predictably aspects of global climate change, are what our current use of fossil fuels is getting us; and an even more cliché that therefore our political, economic, technological, educational, and spiritual leaders are doing everything in their power to help us change our ways.
But the sad truth is that outside of the still comparatively limited environmental community, our leaders are pretty much ignoring reality. Oh Bill McKibben and 350.org, the Sierra Club and the odd religious leader are beating the band. Perhaps a few minor politicians here and there are doing their best. The odd editorial in the Times or upset piece in some local magazine, these are happening. But in the main -- no. Where, after all, is the outcry, the demand, the absolute shriek of assertion that now, and not sometime after the fabled future economic recovery, is the time to change. Where are the headlines in the press about the relation between human action and the size of these new storms? Or the headlines proclaiming "Presidential debates completely ignore most important issue of our time!!!!"
Where are heads of cabinet departments, speakers of the House and leaders of the Senate, presidents, would-be presidents, vice-presidents and joint chiefs of staff and all the other sworn to protect our country? Where is the inescapable din of critique when a politician dares, as Romney has, to distinguish the health of the planet from the wellbeing of "your family"?
Where are they? If you follow such things you know that for the most part they are Someplace Else.
As I asked last week about presidential politics, I'll ask again: is there a spiritual response to all this?
First of all, I'll suggest that it's not "wrong" or "unspiritual" to be angry, to be critical, to be willing to say -- in public and as loudly as you can to anyone who will listen -- "this is wrong, this is hurtful, this is not some abstraction called "global warming" or "environmental problems," this is people killed, lives shattered, precious home and property lost, beloved landscapes scarred, and our economy subject to a dreadful blow." There is nothing particularly spiritual about always being pleasant, calm and accepting. Even the Dalai Lama admitted that "impatience in the cause of world peace" could be a positive emotion. Speaking truth to power is certainly part of the spiritual style -- the authentic spiritual style, in any case. For more details, consult the writing -- or, even better, the lives -- of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Elie Wiesel, Joan Chittister, Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis or Agg Sang Suu Kyi.
Alongside the anger, however, there is the need to take it all in -- and recognize that this is simply, right now, the way things are. It makes little difference how right those of us who talk about environmental problems are, how much truth is on our side, and how far worse things than Sandy are in store for all us. Reality, unfortunately, rarely goes away because we get angry, even if right is on our side.
For comparison, we might think of the feminist thinkers of, say, the 1600s. There were a few, women inspired by the Reformation's emphasis on individual choice and conscience, visionaries who realized that women could be as godly as men, and have insights that deserved respect and recognition. History has confirmed the essential correctness of these women--but it sure took a long time for that to happen.
Environmentalists of today may face a comparable wait. It may be decades, even centuries, before it becomes commonly accepted that reckless development, wasteful consumption and the poisons that flow from nuclear plants and military hardware are all to be shunned; or that oil is a precious gift of our ancestors, and not to be so causally, cavalierly and wastefully consumed; or that animals are conscious beings, centers of experience and enjoyment even as people are. Ultimately, as humans have (for the most part!) learned that murder is wrong and slavery has no part in civilized life and people have rights, so we may learn the commonplaces of environmentalism: love of life, respect for ecosystems, modesty in consumption, great care in the implementation of technology, and that community and personal virtue are the sources of true well-being and consumerism is not.
It seems dreadfully clear that it will be a long time before these lessons become truisms, and that much suffering will unfold in the meantime. Is that a cause for anger -- and for grief? Surely. But life has a common tendency to proceed through suffering. More than 90 percent of all the species that ever existed are now extinct. Every living being lives only because it can consume the body of some other living being. We are all born, in the end, to die. Once we recognize that birth and death, existence and non-existence, pleasure and pain, are inextricably intertwined, we can be a little less heartbroken over all the suffering our country, culture, and civilization are creating.
But there is a long distance between not being paralyzed by the spectacle of death and devastation and calmly accepting it. If life has created Redwood trees, trout, and spectacular sunsets, it has also created people. If the eagles fly and the dolphins leap playfully through the waves, human beings can think -- and care. And reason. And work together to make things better.
It may be that too many years from now people will look back at the environmentalists of today as we look back a the feminists of the 17th century. "How brave and far-sighted they were," such people might say. "How ahead of their time. And how lonely and despairing they must have felt at times. Isn't it wonderful they did anything at all? They really are an inspiration."
Such may be our fate now, in 2012, in the aftermath of one of the early superstorms that climate change is sure to bring.
Let's make the most of it. Keep the faith, and let everyone within the sound of your voice, pen or Twitter account know that there is a better way to live.
We don't, we really don't, have to keep digging.
Roger S. Gottlieb is Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His new book, 'Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters,' will be out in month from Oxford University Press.