September 06, 2011

"This Addiction is Going to Kill Us in the End": Clark Strand's Twelve Step approach to our environmental crisis

What will it take to restore us to ecological sanity? In his "Green Bodhisattva" columns that have appeared in Tricycle, Clark Strand has attempted to answer this question by adapting the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to our environmental crisis. Step by step, one per issue, he has outlined the first third of the path over the last year. But because there is no time to waste on the matter, the remainder of the Twelve Steps will appear here on tricycle.com. Over the next twelve weeks, Strand will explain the path in its entirety. For those of you who might have missed the "Green Bodhisattva" columns in the magazine, we'll begin today with the first step.

Step one of our ecological recovery, Strand tells us, is to admit that we are powerless over our addiction. What, exactly, are we addicted to? Strand offers an answer in "The Path of Recovery," from the Winter 2010 issue of Tricycle.


We are headed for a fall as a species, and it seems that all we can do is watch. Some say our imaginations are not big enough to take in the full scope of the catastrophe—the extinction of up to one half of Earth’s plant and animal species by century’s end. Others claim that we can’t help ourselves. We’re sick, addicted to everything from petroleum products to that ubiquitous soporific we call “media.” They’re killing us. Still, we remain stuck to them like glue. Of the two explanations, addiction seems more apt. Our imaginations are better than ever. They tell us that we can invent our way out of this problem, that by digging the hole of human progress just a little deeper, somehow we will come out on top.

Humanity is drunk, blind drunk, and even now is in the process of spending all the money and burning down the house. It blacks out after its worst excesses and can’t remember a thing. Faced with the wreckage in the morning, it will sometimes admit to itself “I did this” and feel some remorse. What follows, invariably, is a feeling of shame and the desire to compensate in some way. But that only adds more human culture to the mix, which in turn further feeds our addiction. We write books or make movies; build faster computers or better phones; try to cure cancer, hunger, or poverty; and hold summits of various kinds—anything to deny the certain knowledge that lies like a dead weight at the bottom of everything we say or think or do: This addiction is going to kill us in the end.


Read the rest of "The Path of Recovery."

If you feel helpless in the face of environmental uncertainty, stay tuned for the remaining eleven steps.

Image: from Flickriver account of Wonderlane

 

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Sam Mowe's picture

You're a machine, Clark. Thanks for the response. So the first question is personal: Am I addicted to unsustainable levels of consumption, or not? We can all work toward living more sustainably—I know that I can—but let's say that you're doing a pretty good job, the best you can. You live locally, you revere the earth. What's next? It seems like there are many of us that are trapped in amber, flies in a culture of consumption.

What I mean to say is that, while it's easy to imagine approaching another individual and bonding over our addictions—and possibly even overcoming them together—it's hard, for me, to imagine that happening enough times so that the effect it has is reflected in collective planes, where decisions about massive oil pipelines get made.

I don't know how collective enlightenments happen, but my gut tells me that McKibben's organizing acts of mass civil disobedience is a step in the right direction.

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Sam. Re: your first comment, I am now reading "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto," by Jaron Lanier, which I recommend to anyone who uses social media a lot. That being said, thanks! I'm not a gadget, but I enjoy the online exchange of ideas and inspiration and am an avid participant for that reason.

Are you addicted? My first thought is that the term "addict" is only useful as a self-designation. Which is to say, although we often say, “He's an addict” or “She's an addict,” it never goes anywhere. When a person in 12-step recovery takes Step One ("We admitted we were powerless over our addiction--that our lives had become unmanageable"), he or she is stating a life-changing personal insight, essentially admitting, "I am an addict."

This admission becomes the starting point of a spiritual journey and the basis for all that follows: learning to rely upon a power greater than ourselves (even if that is merely the sangha or the planet and not some traditional notion of Higher Power), taking an honest moral inventory, righting wrongs done in the past and learning to acknowledge mistakes when they are made and correct them right away, developing a grounded and workable daily spiritual practice, and carrying the message to others who suffer. But without that self-admission, none of this can happen--or, at least, it can't happen in an optimal way.

The person who lives locally, reveres the Earth, and is doing the best he or she can--is that person an addict? Only he or she can say. But here are a few questions they might ask:

Do I routinely try to curb my consumption, only to find that I can't quite do it--or, if I can, that I slip back into old patterns of shopping and waste as soon as I relax my vigilance?

Do I take my cues about what is important in life from advertising or other forms of print, visual, or auditory media? Are my moods reactive to media rather than to my immediate needs for health and happiness?

Do I ever feel trapped by the culture I live in, frustrated by the ecological compromises that I must make in the effort just to live a normal life?

Do I feel overwhelmed by the amount of information out there about products--which are safe for me, safe for the environment, and safe for the people who make them--and worried that I won't be able to make reasonable choices because I'm overloaded already with such information, and there's more of it every day?

Do I worry about where the world is headed ecologically but feel small or powerless in the face of so big a problem?

Honestly, Sam, I think it's better for most of us living in an addicted society simply to ask the question, Is this working for me? If we are really honest about that question, and ask it deeply enough, the answer is usually no. That being said, acts of massive civil disobedience are helpful. But it is more helpful simply to become a person again (rather than a gadget, as Internet pioneer Jarod Lanier puts it). That mostly means recovering a sense of one's own life "from the ground up," as it were, taking our bearings off Nature (i.e., the planetary ecology as it reveals itself immediately in our personal, local life-sphere). After that. we can take a good hard look at our lives and begin to ask some serious questions about them.

Sam Mowe's picture

Clark, I'd guess that you've been following the work of 350.org to stop the Tar Sands project. What do you think of civil disobedience as a course of action?

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Sam. Bill McKibben and I have a close mutual friend, and so I follow the 350.org movement from inside and out. McKibben has become even more radicalized over the past few years as the simple facts about climate change have begun to sink in (i.e., the escalation of every timeline for global warming and the disappointing response of elected officials to this information). His role in organizing acts of mass civil disobedience is a part of that radicalization.

Even so, the 350.org movement's conversation with the prevailing culture remains fixated on a model that alcoholics in recovery sometimes humorously refer to as "an experiment with controlled drinking." If the experiment works, you're not an alcoholic. If it doesn't, you are.

Human beings are conducting that experiment with fossil fuels all over the planet right now, with some countries taking the effort pretty seriously, and some making almost no effort at all to control their oil guzzling. The U.S. and China fall into the latter category. The real question, as I see it, is whether or not the addiction model is really at play here. If what I suspect is true, we will see more and more catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as fuel companies engage in riskier and riskier efforts on our behalf to feed our global habit. Hydrofracking is only one example. It's a little like the heroin addict who begins by stealing money from his parents to buy junk, only to end up robbing a convenience store a year or two later. We are likely to become more reckless as a culture if that is true, not less, our occasional protests serving primarily to soothe our anxiety and satisfy our need "to do something--anything!" about a situation that has already gone completely out of control.

If this happens, as I believe it will, the real questions become, "Who and what is really worth protesting?" "Morally speaking, is it any safer inside of a jail?" "With the human presence on the planet so far beyond its solar carrying capacity (the number of human beings it can support in the absence of an already rapidly depleting fossil fuel supply), is any aspect of modern human life really sustainable?"

Really, the question is, "Am I addicted to unsustainable levels of consumption, or not?"...or even "Am I trapped like a fly in amber inside of a culture so addicted?" If the answer is yes, then only a change of heart will have a positive long-term effect, in the absence of which no amount of trying to change the world around us will make a lasting difference. Like the alcoholic in denial, trying his best to manage the unmanagable and willing to try eveything but not drinking, we will deceive ourselves at every single turn.

I know enough about McKibben to think that his eyes are open and that, in taking the stances he does, he's pointing the double finger--the one that points at the self and at the other, both at once. It's a very useful thing, that double-finger. It's what allows an alcoholic in recovery to approach another alcoholic and say, "I can see how much you're suffering, because I have exactly the same problem as you." It's amazing what a profound impression a confession like that can make.

matthewoconnell's picture

I have a solution: Ship the Tea party & American political right off to the Antartic along with all the lobbiest working for the oil industry. Not very Buddhist I know, but I that can be remidied by providing them with what they really want; a nice wild west style wilderness, wooden homestead style accommadation, simple paid amenities, a big church and an extremely small & unobstrusive government with extremely low taxes. The problem is political in the US. This needs to be admitted. Just as it should be recognised that Buddhists (like myself) need to engage politically.

ClarkStrand's picture

I understand the frustration, believe me. And I appreciate the humor and art of your delivery, which made me laugh. For my part, however, I have learned not to make others responsible for this problem, which is much older than the Tea Party and much bigger than politics. The Tea Party is a symptom of a diseased way of thinking that afflicts society as a whole, but it is not the diseased organ itself or one than can simply be shipped off or cut out like a cancer. It's merely the most public way that disease manifests among right wing Republicans. It manifests in different ways among liberals and progressives, and even among Buddhists. We're all in this together. That seems to be the broader message revealing itself as we go forward into this century.

That being said, don't believe for a moment that I haven't had this same fantasy. It gets harder to resist each day as the 2012 election cycle heats up. But so far I am able to pull back from it each time and keep my eye on the great blue-green ball. Let me be clear though: I'm not recommending a pull-back from the realities of politics and the ubiquitous oil, gas, and coal lobbies. I do think it pays, however, to go into political action with a realistic understanding of the scope of the problem.

Suburbia, and all that goes with it, is the largest misallocation of natural and human resources in the history of the planet, and the U.S. is more heavily invested in it than any country on Earth. It's sure to collapse at some point in this century, and so far there seems to be no plan in place for what might replace it. Maybe there can't be a plan, because there's no way to save (or any legitimate rationale for replacing) something that was wrong from the very beginning--a system of consumption and delivery based on maximun energy output and an ever-widening delocalization of resources. In any case, this is a problem on a scale that defies our ordinary political discourse. It may be that politics simply isn't up to it. In which case, we will have a revolution. If that turns out to be so, let's hope Bob Thurman is right and it will be a "cool" one. I'd agree with Bob in his suggestion that Buddhism has much to offer in such a revolution.