When I was coming of age as a young adult, I spent summers working on the family farm in Kansas and the rest of the year in the Bay Area of northern California. This spanned a period of five years in the mid-‘70s .
Jimmy Carter was elected President during that time, and an environmental consciousness seemed to be expanding. We’d all seen the photo of the blue planet floating in space as it appeared from the perspective of the moon.
Many of us had read “The Population Bomb” in which Paul Ehrlich laid out the stark consequences of overpopulation. The exponential growth of the world’s population was bound to cause more suffering and conflict as we put more and more pressure on the biosphere. We felt the urgency of the situation as well as the necessity for change.
When Star Wars premiered in 1977, we found inspiration in the notion that the controlling powers of “the Empire” could be successfully challenged by young rebels who learned how to surrender to “the Force.”
“Use the Force, Luke,” the disembodied voice of his mentor implored of Luke Skywalker as he engaged in aerial combat. “Let go.”
This was just a movie, of course, but it carried a type of mythic energy that stirred the imagination. The question became -- how did this translate into action in the real world? What did it mean to “let go?” How were we to align with The Force?
Such questions resonated with the metaphysical musings I was engaged in at that time as I studied mysticism and spirituality. I could see analogs of “the Force” in Eastern philosophies like Taoism, where aligning one’s own basic nature with the flow of life surrounding you became a recommended way to “let go.”
In the spring of ‘78, some friends and I went to the New Earth Exposition in San Francisco. Programs and displays explored such things as renewable energy and alternative lifestyles. The theme of the expo was “Living Lightly on the Earth.”
I bought a T-shirt with those words emblazoned on it over a bucolic scene featuring a wind generator and plenty of sunshine. Feeling like we were on the cusp of a new, healthier way of being, it became one of my favorite shirts.
I was only in the expo hall for a few hours, but the notion of a “new earth” or a new relationship with the Earth stuck with me.
Return to Kansas
When I returned to Kansas, I considered how our farming operation might change to reflect the type of ecological sensitivity that was being called for. Dad was getting ready to retire & I appeared to be the only one in a position to keep the farm in the family.
I considered how we might transition into organic agriculture and what that would require. An organization called The Kansas Organic Producers held a local dance as a fundraiser and folks were beginning to hear about the health benefits of organic food.
After a period of time, I realized that it would be very difficult in our part of the state – some distance from urban areas -- to market organic produce, and I could see that the necessary support system for growing and marketing organic crops wasn’t yet in place.
More importantly, I realized that I really wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. As the ‘70s came to an end, so did my flirtation with farming.
This meant that our family’s farming operation along Clark’s Creek was coming to an end. I had to come to terms with the fact that we’d be losing our home base, which had served as an anchor for our family since the 1850s.
But there were a lot of farming families in the Midwest facing challenges and difficult decisions back then. Farm auctions and foreclosures had become more common at that point in time. At least our decision to wind down our operation was voluntary.
President Carter’s move to place an embargo on wheat sales to Russia (after it invaded Afghanistan) had knocked the bottom out of the price farmers received for their crop. That move, along with his inability to gain the release of a group of Americans held hostage by Iran, had a lot to do with making him a one-term president.
When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, things took an immediate turn away from the proactive environmental policies championed by Jimmy Carter.
“Government is not the solution to our problems,” Pres. Reagan declared in his inaugural address, “Government IS the problem.”
President Reagan set out to shrink the role of the federal government and do away with regulatory policies that might be burdensome to business. The regulatory powers of the Environmental Protection Agency, which had only been in existence for about ten years, were diminished. Protecting the environment became less important that promoting economic development.
Now, with the election of Donald Trump, it appears we’re back to where we were in 1981, although proposed cuts to the EPA are much more draconian. At a time when climate change poses clear and growing danger to us, we see the new head of the EPA deny the evidence before him as news reports reveal plans to severely slash the EPA’s budget as well as its workforce.
I accept the fact that we’re already in dire straits in regard to climate change, overpopulation and the pollution of planet … and it wouldn’t be much different if the outcome of the last election had been different. But, to use a golfing analogy, if we follow the trajectory of the tee shot that’s been set up by the new administration, we’re going to land in a really deep rough, if not in a water hazard that sucks us in and swallows us whole.
We’ve already seen how challenging it can be when people are displaced from their homes and have to set out in search of safety and shelter. Too many have already drowned, become victims of “collateral damage,” or been relegated to overcrowded camps and perpetual refugee status. Seems likely that more will follow in response to rising sea levels and other catastrophic events – both natural and manmade.
It’s possible that the challenges we face will prompt us to rally around a renewed commitment to environmental stewardship and social justice, and that we’ll find ways to mitigate the impact of greed and selfishness as well as extreme weather and rising tides. I'm not ready to succumb to a doomsday scenario just yet.
Discernment & the Devil
I’m still hopeful that the course of planetary evolution in the long run leads toward a future in which we will actually realize the importance of “living lightly on the Earth” and will strive more intently to achieve it. In the short term, however, we’d better fasten our seat belts and prepare for more turbulence ahead.
This sounds pretty scary, I know, but it’s important that we don’t succumb to fear. Remember the simple truths expressed by Master Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side,” he said. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
It might be helpful to remind ourselves that “the dark side” isn’t inherently evil. It’s a form of ignorance, egocentrism and greed that obscures the reality of interdependence and commonality.
I’m reminded of what my friend Dan Wildcat once told me as he reiterated a Native American perspective on the web of life: “We ARE all related,” he observed. “We ARE all connected.”
In my world, the Devil doesn’t exist, and we’re not locked in to a cataclysmic duel that’s carrying us inevitably toward Armageddon. We can’t so easily shirk our responsibility to the planet and to future generations by denying our role in the ongoing evolution of life on Earth.
The devil may be in the details, as the saying goes. We have to pay attention and use our abilities of discernment as we sort things out, sifting the truth through our notions of gods and devils, angels and demons, allies and aliens.
It’s not easy to see our way through the fog of culture wars and deal with regressive, reactionary impulses that are continually fueled by fear-mongering media moguls, oligarchs and power-hungry politicians … but that’s the challenge we’re facing. Are we up to the challenge?