NASA’s 2023 Earth Day poster — part of a global event to raise Earth Consciousness
“Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” — Greta Thunberg
All social and political movements begin as ideas born of necessity, desire or a combination of the two. If those ideas capture peoples’ imaginations, they take root and eventually are expressed as actions. If those actions become a successful mass movement, the ideas that spurred them become the principles that guide society’s new policies and practices.
Such was the case with Christianity, which grew from a tiny nucleus of converts into a major world religion. Similarly, the modern concept of democracy, which took root as a discussion among intellectuals of the Enlightenment, flowered as the ideology underpinning many of the world’s governments.
Today, our global society faces a new challenge — that of the destruction of the planet itself. In response, people throughout the world have given birth to a set of ideas and beliefs that challenge the dominant economic paradigms of endless growth and consumption. Taken together, those developing concepts could be called “Earth Consciousness.”In a recent series of columns, available online, we considered the “bad,” or “business as usual” future for the planet. The premise of that series is that if current trends of economic development and population growth continue unabated, the planet will rapidly become increasingly unlivable, and civilization itself could collapse by the end of this century.
This is the beginning of a series of columns on a “good future” that explores what might happen if we turn things around and start treating the earth with the respect it deserves.
• The first step in that process is to understand how the biosphere, or “living layer of the earth’s surface” functions, and what we must do to keep it functioning well.
• The second step is to tune our global society’s philosophical thinking and spiritual sensibilities to the needs of the biosphere — that is, to raise the overall level of Earth Consciousness.
• Finally, we must translate Earth Consciousness into action wherein it instructs the dominant policies and “norms” governing global society.
The first step is well underway. Ever since the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word “Ecology” in 1866, the science has grown apace. Within a few decades, ecology evolved from being the study of organisms and their environments, defined as local ecosystems, to that of the biosphere, a super-environment wherein all lifeforms interact with each other and the planet’s non-living atmospheric, aqueous an terrestrial components.
The second step, the growth of Earth Consciousness, has also evolved quickly. Beginning with the Romantic literary movement of the early 1800s, which, reacting to the downside of the industrial revolution, glorified “nature” and soon found resonance among writers and environmentalists of all stripes, Earth Consciousness now has far more advocates and adherents than can be named here. Suffice it to say that the developing ideology has influenced global politics, in terms of environmental legislation, and even mainstream religion, as testified by Pope Francis’s recent major encyclical (position paper) urging us to preserve the planet.
What remains to be seen is whether the third step, the ascendency of Earth Conscious global government, will occur before our current economic and governance models degrade the biosphere irreversibly.
This is the defining struggle of our time, and, as discussed in our “bad future” series, the outcome can certainly appear bleak. But before we yield to defeatism, we should consider that it took Christianity a millennium to conquer Europe, and Enlightenment ideals two centuries to spawn the first modern democracy. But Greta Thunberg held her first solo “climate strike” at the Swedish Parliament Building in August 2018, and in September 2019 four million students, following her lead, partook in a Global Climate Strike.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.
This article is part of the series What’s Next for the Planet? Read the series introduction.