Conversations with Earth

Step Five of the Green Bodhisattva PathClark Strand

In Step Five of the 12 Steps of Ecological Recovery, “We admitted to Earth, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Once we had made our ecological inventory, it was time to share it with another human being. We were under no obligation to change anything about our lives so long as nobody else knew the exact nature of our problems. No matter how thorough or fearless we had been with our inventory, its words were not real, or binding, until they had been shared with another.

We gained further insights through the process of sharing. The persons listening to our inventory invariably asked for explanations or elaborations at various points, and in responding to these requests we learned much more about ourselves and our histories than we could have arrived at on our own. More than that, sharing our inventories helped to ease our fear and isolation. The ecological excesses of our lives—the waste, the overconsumption, the inevitable compromises we felt compelled to make in the course of any given day or month—these were easier to come to terms with once we had shared them, not because the responsibility for those wrongs had been divided, but because we realized that we did not have to suffer them alone.

But what of sharing our ecological inventory with Earth? How was that to be accomplished?

In a traditional Fifth Step, the process of sharing a moral inventory was carried out as if God were present and listening to all that was said. The speaker and listener sometimes paused at intervals during the inventory to honor or acknowledge this fact. When it came to making our ecological inventories, however, a question inevitably arose: Did Earth listen to our inventory? Did Earth respond to confession, to meditation, or to prayer?

Such questions were for each E.R. to decide for him- or herself. We could offer no theological rulebook for matters of individual conscience or belief. However, we can share something we know about the more physical disciplines of biology, geology, and ecology.

Everything that happens to us in life is supported by a biological platform. Even our thoughts are biologically-generated electrical impulses firing along synaptic pathways through the brain. We experience these thoughts as our own, but the truth is, they only take place inside of our bodies. Those bodies are composed of cells that are constantly dying and being replaced with nutrients taken from Earth. There is no part of our bodies that was not taken from Earth, and no part that was not dedicated to some other purpose before it came to us. Thinking forward at bit, there isn’t any part of our bodies that won’t be dedicated to some future purpose not our own. These are the simple biological facts. There is no part of us that exists independently, or really separate, from Earth. Our thoughts, localized in bodies made of Earth, give rise to the belief that we occupy a world apart. But such a world does not, in truth, exist.

Some of our E.R.s believed in prayer, and some did not. But all who considered the matter carefully acknowledged that their bodies, at least, were in perpetual “conversation” with Earth. Was that conversation intimate enough to call a kind of living prayer? Some thought so and willingly embraced the reality of that idea. Others thought the reality far more intimate than that. No conversation was possible between two things that were fundamentally the same. Such members favored an identification with Earth instead, seeking through meditation and various other spiritual or ecological practices to realize a oneness that already existed between their thoughts, their bodies, and Earth.

Next came geology. The 20th century priest and environmental activist Thomas Berry felt so intimate a connection to Earth elements as the origin and foundation for all life that he eventually ceased referring to himself as a theologian, substituting the term geo-logian instead. This was an idea many E.R.s embraced as well. “Men come, and men go,” says the Book of Ecclesiastes, “but Earth abides.” The geological strata of the planet was a scripture far older and more accurate than any text written by humankind. The story it told was of a planet that gave rise to all life, patiently sustained all life, and into whose embrace all life was in a process of perpetual return. As much as anything, that process was a function of gravity. Matter was constantly rising and falling on the surface of the planet—rising in the myriad life forms that had spread across nearly every square mile of its surface, powered by the sun and atmosphere, and then falling back once more into the planet’s embrace, to begin the process again. Earth was the place where all of this happened. Really, Earth was all this. Ecology was just another name for this ceaseless interaction between biology and geology—between life and the planet. The name we chose for all of this was Earth.

“Earth as we understood Earth” our third and eleventh steps said. We were the first 12 Step fellowship to make a leap of that kind. True, the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous often allowed that Nature could be our Higher Power. In fact, it said this often enough that many E.R.s came to believe that A.A.’s early pioneers probably felt the same way they did about Earth. Still, theology—not biology, geology, or ecology—remained foundational for the language of 12 Step recovery, with the caveat that you could, if you liked, think of Earth or Nature as God.

The original insight of Ecological Recovery was the discovery that Earth was a Higher Power as broad and inclusive in its scope as God. Earth as we understood Earth could be as small as the family garden or as vast as the cosmos. In the former case, it was a familiar mystery, intimate and nurturing, and even loving in the food it produced for the body and the delight it gave the senses. In the latter, like everything else in the universe, it was star rubble and therefore as much a part of the whole as a cell was part of the body. Like God, Earth could go as small or as large as you liked. Taking a page from Berry’s book, some of us began to think of ourselves as eco-logians. Others felt there was no need to preserve the language of theology. We were the Children of Earth. “Child of God” was just one way of stating that much older, more elemental reality.

When we made our searching and fearless ecological inventory in Step Four, and then, in Step Five, admitted to Earth, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs, we acknowledged the many specific ways in which we had denied the reality of our condition as Earth children. It didn’t matter whether we thought of it as a confession or a prayer, or even whether we thought there was someone or something else listening to what we said. Earth was witness to everything, and always had been. It was as if a star were to confess its presence to the night sky, or a flower tell what it did to the field. How could Earth not know everything? Our Fifth Step was as much a process of realizing this as it was a process of admitting all of our wrongs.

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Mat Osmond's picture

Many thanks for this Clark. It brings many threads together for me, and of the various spiritual 'takes' on the converging ecological crises, viewing our condition as profoundly addicted makes the most authentic sense to me. No false hopes and easy fixes, but a healing through turning back to the real.
Are the phone meetings still live? I see the number's gone this time. I tried phoning from UK (1pm our time) last Friday, and it didn't seem to be working - but I may have made a mistake with the various prefix codes.

All the best,

amclellan's picture

I only started reading this series today, Clark, and it is inspiring but uncomfortable reading. Despite years of Buddhist training, I am still an addict, still a consumer. Sure, I buy local, seasonal and fairtraded as much as I can, but that addiction is still there, just in a more socially acceptable form, a way to consume guilt free.
Your thoughts have reminded me both of Joanna Macy and Reggie Ray in different ways - Joanna for her deep ecological wisdom of interconnectedness, and Reggie for his insight of how the body holds wisdom, that I think that somatic awareness could be used as a way of reconnecting to the earth again.
Have you thought about publishing this series as a book? Although that would, of course, use more resources, I think it would be a way of keeping the ideas alive which are more transient in magazine form. An online group of ERs might also be an idea to connect together those of us who are interested in this but cannot attend the Friday gatherings.

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Amclellan. I'm glad you connect with this series. It sounds like we've had some of the same experiences--training for years in Buddhist practice only to discover that much of our worst cultural suffering remained untouched.

Regarding your suggestion about a book: I have considered the idea several times. There are lots of “12 Steps of This and That” books out there written by individuals (rather than by fellowships). I counted at least 15 on my last trip to Barnes and Noble. The problem with those books is that nobody actually recovers with them. To recover you need meetings and a group.

I started writing these essays a year and a half ago because it had become obvious to me and my environmentalist friends that an addiction paradigm was at work in America society and approaching end game status. We were a society of addicts, and with few exceptions, each one of us was an addict. Consequently no effort to forestall widespread environmental and ecological disaster had much chance of working. At some point in the not-too-distant future, America would hit the wall. Shortly afterward, the rest of the world would hit it, too. This revelation shook me to the core.

But it turned out that “shaking up” was exactly what needed to happen. Jung called it “deflation at depth,” and it is the experience that usually precipitates the spiritual awakening that people in recovery speak of. You realize the complete hopelessness and unmanageability of a life based on self-will, and at that moment—and only at that moment—you become open to another way. For me, that other way was E.R.

At the time, there wasn’t a 12 Step fellowship devoted to environmental issues, although groups like Consumers Anonymous had tried for awhile, ultimately without success. And at least a few books had been written. Unfortunately, they were too personality driven and didn’t tend to empower individuals to recover in small groups. That is what I am most interested in. The book I want to see written sets forth the nature of addiction to ecological excess, offers a solution in the 12 Steps of E.R., then offers personal stories by a few dozen members, explaining what their lives were like before, how they struggled in recovery, and what their lives are like now. In other words, I’d like to see an Ecological Recovery version of the A.A. Big Book.

Of course, you need a working fellowship to produce such a book, and so that is where I am putting my focus now. One individual can do much of the writing, but only with extensive input and ratification by the whole membership. Otherwise, the book will produce readers, but not groups, and without producing groups it will not produce longterm recovery.

Does this make sense to you? I will write a book called The 12 Step of Ecological Recovery if it serves the members of E.R. on their journey toward creating a literature of their own. But the final say about what goes into the book Ecological Recovery (their own working handbook) really rests with them. I am just one member of the group—albeit one with a sense of mission and strong opinions on the issue.