The New Era of Ecological Civilization


Reflecting on the problems before him Albert Einstein once said, “The world we have made as a result of a level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them.” Perhaps this is even more true today when we face prominent issues like the faltering economy, the endless war in Iraq, and a $2 trillion health care crisis. While there is no doubt that these issues will challenge the very best and brightest that we elect to the White House, Bill McKibben reminds us of the only one that will be visible from outer space (First, Step Up.)

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Our planet is the only one we know that can support this beautiful abundance of life. This is a reality we often forget as we commute in our gas-powered cars, inhabit our climate-controlled homes, and watch the rest of the world from our television sets. Isolating ourselves from these modern conveniences and exploring the wilderness that surrounds us can often provide us with valuable insight on matters of greater magnitude, something I gained on a recent camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota.

My experience in the Boundary Waters evoked a new realm of sustainable thinking to my consciousness, a way of thinking that would be valuable to an international leader in a period when we are facing global issues like peak oil, climate change, the food crisis, and an increasing demand for fresh water. Out there, almost ten miles from any form of civilization, I realized how very little we need to be happy in life. The significance of this insight was that, in conserving our natural resources, we are capable of so much more. As we propose sustainable policies let us not forget that we are capable of preserving these finite resources by engaging in the most valuable resource of them all: the human intellect.

The problems we face today are the effects of a failed paradigm. It is a system of thinking that has resulted from our increasingly objective view of nature; we enjoy its aesthetic beauty in photographs, study its characteristics under a microscope, and conquer it with the latest technological innovations. As I paddled down the South Kawishiwi River, it became clear to me that many of us have lost the ability to understand the connection we have with nature. Humans have evolved as an integrated part of this ecological system and our failure to admit this could ultimately determine the fate of life on this pale blue dot. Only after we are able to understand this will we be able to truly propose policies that are “a gesture of responsibility and an acknowledgment of an essential condition of ethical action” as Elizabeth Kolbert put it in a commentary for The New Yorker (Hot and Cold.)

In his book One World: the Ethics of Globalization Peter Singer writes, “There can be no clearer illustration of the need for human beings to act globally than the issues raised by the impact of human activity on our atmospheres” (14.) Singer’s message reflects another lesson I brought home from the wild. A reflection of myself and the big sky above me in the sparkling waters of the Kawishiwi River allowed me to see myself as an interdependent member of the world that surrounds us. The United States can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines as other nation-states desperately discuss sustainable policies. It is our president’s obligation—as it is ours—to play an active role in this process. While we can only hope that our next president will have enough courage “to embark on a ‘controversial energy policy,’ to ask voters to make sacrifices and above all, to push America, the champion of globalization, our of posture of self-absorption and into a stance that is genuinely and sustainably global” as Paul Roberts suggests in the recent Mother Jones publication on our energy crisis, the rhetoric will be of no value unless we put it into practice (The Seven Myths….)

The most important insight that I gained during my three-day encounter near the border of Canada and Minnesota was that as members of our environment we are only able to survive through active participation. My survival was vitally dependent on my ability to adapt to the remote wilderness that surrounded me. Correspondingly, the success of the current president’s predecessor will largely depend on their ability to acknowledge the imminent challenges before us, join the international movement for sustainability, and initiate a transition from our post-industrial society into a new era of ecological civilization. As we await this new era perhaps the rest of us can act on the words of Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”