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The soul of a nation

Amazon warehouse worker - consumerism and alienation

This week of impeachment proceedings in the USA has surely been one of those times to reflect hard on where the country is going.

The clash of ideals and ideology, the talking past each other, the pontification, and ultimately, the sheer hypocrisy of the Republican defendents of this president around the subjects of corruption, lies and misinformation - all are deeply challenging to our psyche.

In a year when Rome is figuratively and literally burning, with heatwaves, and when our Earth is pummeled with fierce storms, some pretty catastrophic wildfires, typhoons, droughts and floods, this political chicanery is like the frivolous court politics before the fall of Roman Empire.

Part of our problem in the USA as a nation, it seems to me, is that we don’t connect our own varied symptoms to the root cause of our woes. We deal with issues from political corruption to plastics pollution, from climate change to opioid addiction and rising inequality as though they are separate, fragmented, unrelated problems.

But of course they are not. They're the inevitable outcome of a country which has not (recently) asked where it's going, and how it's going to get there. And of an economy and mindset which prioritize profit over absolutely everything else which is important. Like people, relationships, good health, happiness, or (for that matter) the planet.

I agree with environmental philosopher Tom Baugh that the root cause of much of the USA's varied woes is spiritual, ethical, and values-based.

I receive a lot of mails, texts and Facebook comments from friends and professional colleagues, which refer to feeling overwhelmed. They say things like “How can I focus on climate change when the tractors are arriving at my door?” (this from a friend who runs a conservation trust in a global biodiversity hotspot surrounded by agricultural transformation). Or, “I want to help solve the biodiversity crisis, but I’m so angry about politics right now that I'm focusing on that.” Or, “I just can’t sleep thinking about ocean plastics, and my son is in active addiction, so how can I deal with anything else?”

These seemingly disparate things frazzle us, when we should be called deeper into analysis and synthesis.

overwhelmed - tsunami

“Overwhelm” becomes, I am belatedly realizing, so much more manageable when one treats all these symptoms of an alienated society, a rigged economy, a broken political system as some of the thousands of predictable facets.

And although I don’t really know the language of gemstone cutting and polishing, all these facets reside within these few faces of the society, economy and political system which result from the attitudes with which we started this nation.

The USA was born not through collaboration and learning deep wisdoms from the people whom some of our ancestors subjugated and killed, but by fostering a spirit of “rugged individualism.” A spirit of I (family) versus We (community). Of immediate profit rather than patient investment (in money, or lands, or relationships). Of rights versus responsibilities.

Some of these traits might have seemed, I should say, to serve us at the time of nation-building. But they also led some of our ancestors to commit theft, rape and genocide with a bitter and fearful arrogance. And to import and subjugate slaves in the most heinous and unspeakable ways. Those dark eras should have been enough of a warning flag by the 19th century.

Indian Land for Sale poster_19th century

All that above is obvious, I guess. But how do we get “there” - where we need to go as a nation - from “here”? Do those of us who grieve at the failure of a country which once thought itself so bold, so rebellious against power and authority, so 'exceptional,' really want to give up and descend into bitter and twisted lament?

Hopefully most of you will forgive me for being still ridiculously idealistic even at the age of 58, and blessed with a cheerful DNA that enables me to move pretty quickly through moments of ecological grief, despair and angst.

I do think there is merit in calling out the problem for what it is: a vacuum of moral, social and spiritual values that has led us to worship things over ideas; status over wisdom; vanity over service. So it’s no surprise that we are left with Trump, McConnell and Doug Collins.

If you agree with any of this, join me in calling out this problem for what it is - with our neighbors, families, colleagues, and friends. This is one thing I haven’t really been doing - not least because it is painful to do, especially with those who have not been privileged to live elsewhere, and who may not see the irony of the country's continued myth of exceptionalism.

How is it possible to shift that moral landscape in the minds and hearts of people in the West (especially in the USA)? Well, of course, that shift is already happening, and not always in the way we might like – towards what used to be called the “Moral Majority” in the 1970s and 1980s, ultraconservative family values, and political movements like the Tea Party which use that deep yearning for morality as a cover for political and economic profiteering.

A more humble morality shift has been happening, too, at least since the '60s. Observe the popularity of mindfulness, community emergency response teams, neighborliness apps like “NextDoor”, lessons from many other regions, from Scandinavia to southern and far-east Asia, to health practices and spiritual disciplines from tai chi and tae kwondo to Buddhism, yoga, integrated and functional medicine… and not just on the west and east coasts, either.

Henry Agard Wallace, Vice President to Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Maybe this actually started in the 1940s. Last night, our family watched Oliver Stone’s “Untold history of the United States." We were reminded of enormously popular Henry Agard Wallace, progressive Vice-President to FDR in 1944 (65% in Gallup poll) and how he was ‘redbaited’ and forced out at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in favor of inexperienced and unpopular Harry Truman (2%), who of course then soon became President on the death of Roosevelt. And how the history of this country - from Hiroshima to the Cold War - might have been profoundly different had Wallace instead become President. Wallace was a surprisingly thoughtful and progressive man of deep values, tolerance, curiosity and respect for others.

Philosopher Tom Baugh started a thoughtful email discussion group to which I belong, "Anthropocene Events," and this weekend he wrote a dark lament on our nation's continued inability to favor those values over greed, arrogance and bigotry:


The myth of American exceptionalism is just that - a myth built on the slaughter of millions of the continent’s original inhabitants…the enslavement and indenture of millions of African men women and children…the rapacious extraction and destruction of its natural resources to feed industries that continue, to this day, to spew toxins into the air water and soil to feed a military industrial complex that has institutionalized perpetual war where we sacrifice our youth. This is a republic whose basic institutions are ragged to the point of shattering…whose federal legislature is so badly corrupted by greed and confusion that it can barely function…whose President is a criminal sociopath with psychopathic tendencies (‘I am the one’)…whose primary domestic advisor is the racist Stephen Miller… whose administration is building concentration camps along our southern border where heavily armed police rip children away from their parents while 30-40 million supporters madly cheer with each absurd claim and criminal action. It is no wonder that in this ‘exceptional America’ millions of its citizens are homeless, starving, and badly in need of medicine and health care. There is a spiritual rot at the heart of this republic.


But it doesn't have to be this way. We can change it. But it's not a trivial task. It certainly won't happen if we don't hit the reset button.

You may remember the gripping 2011 triple-whammy events in Japan of the 9.0-9.1 magnitude Tōhoku or Sendai Earthquake. It was the fourth most powerful earthquake on the planet since the advent of modern record-keeping in 1900, and was followed by devastating tsunamis, as well as, of course, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster at cooling towers along this coast.

We often pride ourselves as humans on being adaptable, and we are. But few nations can cope with multiple major disasters, especially those which happen in very quick succession. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 16,000 people through drowning or blunt trauma, even before the nuclear disaster rendered much of that region uninhabitable. Unlike Haiti, the USA or other countries in such times, there was no looting, no pillaging, only patient, grieving, community-minded assistance.

The Japanese - not historically a nation associated with tolerance or pacifism - do have a word for civic-mindedness, 市民意識 or 'Shimin ishiki,' which I believe is not directly translatable from English.

Japanese 2011 earthquake recovery

As we leave behind these last ten thousand years of remarkable climate stability, economic prosperity, and agricultural productivity and head into the less stable unknown, I think we can all agree that it behooves us to consider how we want to be as a species during these times. When disasters strike - as they inevitably do even in the most stable of times - do we let the 'thin veneer' of civilization slip away and loot and pillage? Do we hold the tideline of community, decency, logical thought and civic mindedness?

One of the most important things we can all be doing is to be simply talking about that moral vacuum in our countries - as it has increasingly crept into most countries - and how to change it for the better. We all have different voices, soapboxes and pulpits - conversations at work or around the dinner table, in sermons or discussions among faith communities, on social media, with politicians, in blogs, and with youth and old folks at climate strikes.

Many in other countries have seen and commented on the USA's moral vacuum for years. It does not help us as a country to just shrug our shoulders and accept our weaknesses. Although urbanization, consumerism, private vehicles, guns and shopping malls have eroded so much of what I grew up with - and perhaps what you, reading this, grew up with - the world does not have to be this way. We can change it.

We can start that conversation within our families, our networks and communities about growing the We back, in place of the Me; about building community and not just the isolated suburban nuclear family; about 'paying it forward' and investing in relationships; and about good citizenship in troubled times.

For these will be hard times to navigate - especially, for those who have been left stranded as the detritus on the beachhead of consumerism and profiteering - lonely, dissatisfied, uncomprehending, and alienated. And there are a lot of disconsolate, cynical, tired people in this month of impeachment proceedings. It's yet another crossroads for the USA. Let's take a decision to start growing back its long-neglected soul.

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