Filed in Environment

The Care of Earth

Putting faith in a planet greater than ourselvesClark Strand

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Ask ten people on the street if they believe in God, and—depending on where you live—you could get ten different answers. Ask ten Buddhists if they believe in Amida Buddha, and the responses will likewise vary: “He’s a fairy tale.” “He’s a metaphor.” “I plan to be born in his Pure Land when I die.”

But what if you ask ten people if they believe in Earth?

A few ecology-minded souls might get what you were up to, probably the younger ones. The rest wouldn’t have a clue. A typical answer might go something like this: “Earth is what we stand on. Earth is where we live. It doesn’t matter whether we believe in Earth or not. Earth is simply real.”

Or so we’d say. Actually, if Earth were real to us, the planet wouldn’t be in such a fix. In his 2006 book Cultural Addiction, Albert LaChance wrote: If we were true Materialists, we would care about materials. Our very first concern in all decisions, individual or collective, would be the materials of the planet—the soils, the waters, and the air. The sad fact is that we care little for the materials because we care little for Mater Earth.…The name of the addiction that is killing the Earth is consumerism.

In other words, we believe in our own reality, not the Earth’s. When it comes to the day-to-day business of ordinary life, desire trumps the planet every time.

In Step One of the Twelve Steps of Ecological Recovery, we admitted we were powerless over excess, the myriad ways we place ourselves before the planet, taking more than we need from the Earth, from other species, and ultimately from our own children and grandchildren.

In Step Two, we recognized the madness of this and came to believe that only a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step Three tells us what that Power is and how to embrace it: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Earth as we understood Earth.

In the original Twelve Steps, A.A. uses the word God rather than Earth. I once sat next to a woman at a meeting where chapter 1 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous was being read out loud. In “Bill’s Story,” A.A. cofounder Bill Wilson chronicles a 17-year losing battle with alcoholism. In and out of different jobs and institutions, and often homeless, one night he became so convinced he would end it all while drunk that he dragged his mattress down to the ground floor so he couldn’t leap from his third-story bedroom window.

Then one day a former drinking buddy told Wilson how he’d managed to quit drinking by following a spiritual program of recovery. Wilson had no use for the divinity he’d been brought up with, a God he referred to as “the Czar of Heaven.” Lucky for him, his friend was more interested in recovery than religion, so he suggested, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”

As that sentence from the A.A. “Big Book” was being read, the woman next to me whispered fiercely, “Bingo!” then added more softly, leaning close so that only I could hear, “That one sentence is the reason I’m still alive.”

I’ve often wondered what keeps me alive in these so-called ecological end times. I know, of course, that nothing is going to keep me from dying, whether we reduce greenhouse gas emissions or not. The Buddha was clear about that: Old age. Sickness. Death. There’s no recovery from these. But there are ways of growing old that don’t destroy meaning. There are forms of sickness that don’t destroy the soul. And there is a death that isn’t a dead end, but the joyous and willing reunion with a Power greater than ourselves.

For me that Power is the planet—the Earth that created all life, that sustains all life, and toward which all life is moving with every heartbeat and every breath. And so the sentence that is going to keep me alive, for as long as I am alive, is this: “Made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of Earth as I understand Earth.” Leaving aside for a moment the grave environmental issues at stake, why waste a lifetime pretending I know how to run the planet better than the planet knows how to run itself? For that matter, why pretend that I know better than the planet how to run my life?

Green Bodhisattva Alliance Phone Meetings
To work through the Twelve Steps of Ecological Recovery, join our Friday 8 a.m. (E.S.T.) phone meeting by calling (712) 775-7400 and inputting the code 472474 followed by the # sign. Meetings are free and last for one hour, with time for fellowship afterward.

Clark Strand is a contributing editor to Tricycle and the author of the weekly “Green Koans” column at tricycle.com.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

If you are the Don Quixote of the Twelve Steps of Ecological Recovery, Clark, then I and many others wish to be your Sanch Panza. But will individual efforts such as riding my bike instead of driving to work, composting my yard and kitchen waste, re-using my cloth tote instead of mindlessly having the bagger at Safeway put my weekly groceries into plastic bags be enough to combat the daunting windmills of mass consumerism that supports a global economy that has no sense of Mater Earth's limited "milk"?

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Dominic. I guess the only right answer would be another question: Can you imagine a scenario for change that does NOT involve these kinds of individual efforts? Our problem all along has been the belief that we have to change the world first and ourselves second. It actually works just the other way around. Change ourselves, our habits and behaviors, and the world changes. I believe this is what Nichiren Buddhists call "esho funi" (the oneness of person and environment). Does that make sense, Sancho? Call me crazy if you will, but let's keep tilting no matter.

ClarkStrand's picture

The title of this installment is perhaps a little misleading at first glance. "Care of the Earth" refers to the Earth's care for us, and learning to entrust ourselves to that care, handing our will and our lives over to Earth "as we understand Earth." The original A.A. language says God in place of Earth, of course. The idea here is summed up at the end of the essay with the idea that it's folly to suppose that we know how to run the planet better than the planet does.

rinchen_wangmo's picture

Although I generally agree with this article, I feel uncomfortable when the concepts "Earth" and "biosphere" are mixed up. Yes, human activity (or part of it) is toxic/dangerous to the biosphere. Yes, it's tragic and we absolutely need to do something about it, including respecting the Earth more. But the biosphere is only part of Earth, and whatever happens to it, we are not killing the planet, who is much stronger than any given species, even ours.

ClarkStrand's picture

I'm not sure what would inspire me to draw a difference between Earth and biosphere, Rinchen. Must I see these as two different things? There is no particle of my body, which is now alive, that was not once a non-living (non-biological) Earth element. Nor is there any particle that will not return to Earth. In fact, my body and the Earth are in such a perpetual state of exchange with one another that, really, it is only this thing I call a "self" that allows me to distinguish between them at all. The truth seems to be that the biosphere and Earth are two aspects of a single phenomenon. I suppose we could say "Biosphere" in place of "Earth" at our Ecological Recovery meetings, but I doubt anyone would feel inspired to do the hard work of recovery by such a purely scientific-sounding term. Not so much emotional valence there. Just my thoughts.