In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama made a call to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. While I understand that this is a well-intentioned challenge to his fellow American citizens to get with it in a quickly changing world economy, I can’t help but wonder whether stepping on the proverbial gas (or electric) pedal and getting busier than we already are is going to have the desired result of a more ecologically-balanced and livable planet Earth.
There’s certainly a lot that can be done to make our industriousness more efficient and put it in service of lowering our human impact on the planet, but ultimately it is our constant racing around, both physically and mentally, and thirst for perpetual growth that has created all the environmental problems in the first place.
Last weekend I saw something that I feel deserves at least a place at the table with all the latest greatest high tech green clean innovations:
It was a rather strange sight among the hustle bustle of Valencia Street, but the very fact that it would be such a curiosity to encounter people in our daily lives who simply sit and calm their minds speaks to just how obsessed with and addicted to constant movement we’ve become.
I understand that we have to do a lot of work to create a world that is more sustainable. We cannot meditate food on the table or a roof over our heads. But just as we can cut a lot of waste from our budgets and landfills, we can reduce so much of our mental clutter by consciously sitting still every now and then.
To me, the concept of out-competing and out-performing each other to “save” the planet, even if it’s for the sake of clean energy and green technology, presents such a glaring contradiction that I have a hard time to brush over or resolve in my mind. Especially when linked to the tenets of American-style capitalism where success is measured by consumption and perpetual growth viewed as an indicator of economic health, I can’t see how the call to constant busyness is going to relieve the strain we’ve put on the planet.
What if instead of envisioning a million new electric cars in our streets the President had asked for only half a million electric cars, investing the money for the other half in redesigning our cities so that more people can live without cars and slow down their frantic lives? What if instead of pushing for a “race to the top” for our children we promoted a more cooperative, creative, and less pressure-filled way of learning?
Just as we cannot shop ourselves out of terrorist threats, I don’t think we can build ourselves out of the existential crisis facing our planet. Yes, we all have to work hard to transform this old, wasteful and destructive economic system of ours into a leaner, more energy-efficient modus operandi. Yes, we’ll have to be diligent and resourceful while shifting towards more local and sustainable economic models. But as long as our all-encompassing measure of success is of a predominantly monetary and material nature, we will not get to the root of why this planet’s ecosystem is under such stress.
I think we’re deluding ourselves by thinking we can live within the planet’s means by just going on with our lives as we know them, simply replacing old and wasteful technologies with new and “green” ones. What if the President had included in his challenge to reinvent ourselves the shift toward a gross national happiness (GNH) quality of life measure in which material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other? I know he understands this additional and very important non-material dimension that makes us and the earth we live on more whole, and eloquently addressed it in his Memorial Service speech in Tucson a couple of weeks ago:
We recognize our own mortality, and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.
Could we not somehow have this wonderful line integrated in our budgets, models, projections, and action plans? Instead of always thinking about building more and bigger things, could we not also come up with incentives for all of us to slow down and give our restless brains a break? Wouldn’t our minds be sharper and more focused on what’s important if they were allowed to be silently observed every now and then, to reflect rather than always react?
If we really want to heal what’s ailing our planet, it would help us to talk less and listen more, slow down, and take time to enjoy each precious moment we have. Sitting in windows or marveling at people sitting in windows is one small but important step along that path, and we need to look no further than our fellow Earth residents for inspiration.
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
This one time upon the earth,
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden strangeness.
The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.
What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.
If we weren’t unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,
if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.
Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I’ll go.
Thanks to the San Francisco Buddhist Center for inspiring me with their Live Softening Art Meditation Event and Pablo Neruda’s poem.
Update: Check out Suvarnaprabha’s account of what it was like from the other side of the window on her post, Softening: Live Meditation. Some of the quotes of walkers-by are truly priceless.