Imagining Alternatives to Normalised Destruction
It appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left.
— Henry David Thoreau
It’s Friday night, you’re snuggled up on the couch with your housemates, family, or close companion watching David Attenborough and Co.’s latest exhibition of the beauty and wonder of the natural world. The episode is wrapping up and the montage shots begin: there’s a Blue Whale mother and calf gliding effortlessly beneath the surface of the deep, a thick black mass of penguins noisily crowding the Antarctic coast, enchanting aerial vistas of the Amazon veiled in mist, the shadow-pocked expanse of a thousand sandy crags hidden deep in the heart of the desert. As the music swells, you barely register Sir David’s closing remarks:
All across our planet, crucial connections are being disrupted. The stability that we and all life relies upon is being lost. What we do in the next twenty years will determine the future for all life on Earth. (Our Planet, Netflix)
You release a satisfied yawn as the screen fades to black and the credits roll.
“Well, that was nice, wasn’t it? I think it might be time for bed.”
Attenborough’s warning is a bit familiar; a bit abstract. It can feel almost inevitable: we have lived for some years beneath the shadow of these kinds of pronouncements and many of us, if still uneasy at times, have grown used to life in their shade. Yet with more than three-quarters of Australians reporting being concerned about the impacts of climate change (The Australia Institute, ‘Climate of the Nation Report’, 2019), we are as convinced as ever of our need to act. Despite our misgivings, though, on the whole we remain—both as a society and as individuals—notably reluctant and faltering in our response. It can just seem too big, too intangible, too far off.
But the sorts of issues Attenborough and others allude to are not only challenges for the future, but crises in our present. In the last forty years, for example, we have reduced vertebrate populations worldwide by 60% (WWF Living Planet Report, 2018). Far from being allowed to be fruitful and increase in number, in less than half a century more than half of the beasts of the earth, the creatures that move along the ground, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea have disappeared. To call this reality ‘startling’ would surely be an understatement, but we have become a culture almost inured to hyperbole, even when it is anything but. The announcement that we have, by our own hand, brought about the sixth great mass extinction event is more commonly met with a shrug of resignation than with sackcloth and ashes.
Most of us are aware that this kind of thing is part of a larger story, too. Predictions of displacement of human communities due to sea-level rise or desert expansion, and warnings about potential food shortages or extreme weather events, have become part of the background noise of our lives. But, for the most part, these macro-fears remain secondary to the concerns and stresses of daily life.
Ah yes, daily life. And here we come to it. Why do we find it so difficult to change? I believe a key reason is that for all our awareness, our data, and our concern, we feel ourselves to be almost inescapably locked into patterns of life which create and fuel crisis.
A key word here is consumption. There is now little doubt that we are over-consuming the world’s resources. Since 1970, our ecological footprint (a chief measure of consumption) has grown by 190%. Globally, our present rate of consumption requires more than one and a half times the resources our Earth can actually provide. For those of us in the wealthiest nations, the extent of our ecological overreach is significantly higher still.
But all too quickly we arrive at a dissonance point. It can be extremely difficult to see that what is normal to us is so dramatically amiss. How could simply going about my daily life be so closely bound up with such issues? Practically, it is hard to believe that the type of lifestyle that most of us, our neighbours, our friends, our families habitually lead—for many of us the only lifestyle we have ever known—is lived over the edge of an ecological precipice. What’s more, the idea that we may have to forego or limit the consumption to which we are so accustomed runs counter to our lifelong economic training; our prevailing paradigm tutoring from birth that the only thing keeping us from fulfilling our desires should be our means of doing so. If we want it, and can afford it, we should have it.
Consider air travel. In terms of personal carbon footprint, travelling in planes is likely the third most impactful activity in our lives (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017), yet most Australians consider overseas holidays to be almost a 21st Century right, as well as an important rite of passage for many young people. We casually accept that, while almost unimaginable a century ago, travelling interstate and internationally in planes is often the requirement of doing business in the modern world. What was only a few years ago a rare and thrilling opportunity is seen as a tiresome necessity and our complaints have become as prosaic as discussing the weather: ‘How was the flight?’ ‘Oh, awful! We were delayed for an hour!’
I sometimes think of a conversation I once had with some of the most devoutly eco-conscious, organic-loving, Fairtrade-purchasing people I know. We were waxing lyrical on our dream destinations, Prague, New York, Northern India, the Andes… when I cautiously suggested that—given the known impact of air travel—maybe we shouldn’t fly so much. Even among such avowedly ‘green’ folks as these, I was met mostly with blank looks and hasty justifications.
The attitudes of consumer society may be deeply rooted in our psyche, but it is important to remember that there is nothing wrong with consumption as such: the many fruits and wondrous opportunities of our earth are the good gift of God to all his creatures and the use and enjoyment of all these is, in dry economic terms, ‘consumption.’ Truly, our planet is possessed of astonishing bounty and, if stewarded wisely, there is comfortably enough for all. Yet biblical authors have always known that the delight and value of material goods has a profound spiritual power over us, one which directs and controls much of our modern consumer culture (see Matt’s piece in this edition). It is a power God’s people have always been warned against.
It is unsurprising for the Christian, then, that recent research has confirmed what the sages of the Old Testament and Jesus himself said: that no matter how much we gain and do with material goods, above the threshold of our true needs, they cannot bring us more life. Psychological data repeatedly demonstrate that there is no significant correlation between increased material means and either reported happiness or emotional well-being. Some studies even indicate that the more oriented we are toward material possessions and their associated status, the less happy and healthy we become (e.g., Kasser, 2002).
In some ways, this news makes our situation all the more perverse: we are not only consuming in ways which endanger our planet’s ecological stability, but we are also mal-consuming against even our own interest. But in another, vitally important sense, this news is liberation. It means the desperate need of our age to consume less is in no way a call to be less. Moreover, Christians know that the one who calls us to turn from our path of destruction is the same one who holds out to us life itself, and assures us it is life to the full (John 10:10). Therefore, the more we are freed from the pressure to conform our lives to the pattern of this world, the more we will be able to look our present challenges in the eye, to meet them safe in the knowledge that our ‘life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’ (Luke 12:15).
While addressing the overlapping crises before us certainly goes beyond our personal actions and habits, it must begin with them, for the pattern and character of our lives forms our primary witness of the reality to which we hold. Our unwillingness to attempt dramatic change in the next twenty years, or the next ten, has been variously diagnosed as a crisis of faith—that we do not trust the warnings; or of the heart—we simply do not care enough about the rainforest, the animals, our children’s futures, or our global neighbours, to act decisively; or a crisis of politics—that we lack strong leadership; or economics—that that we demand limitless growth from a finite system. But among and within these crises lives a deeper crisis: of imagination. In my experience, when confronted with the issues, the vast majority of us simply have no vision of life beyond consumer culture and socio-economic business-as-usual. Even those of us seeking to turn from our present mode of life may still struggle to picture a new normal toward which we can turn.
Much of Manna Gum’s work is dedicated to filling in parts of this picture: to show what is possible and, importantly, better—fuller, more true and whole—beyond the frame of the familiar. This has always been an activity central to Christian mission as, in the words of missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, ‘the coming of the gospel … introduces the vision of a new world, a world for which it is legitimate to hope’. Our Christian witness therefore includes patterning our lives according to the world we hope for: it is the world we speak of and live for now as we seek to speed its coming. We are to embody the good news that salvation has come. All things are being made new; from our sick hearts that know not how to say ‘Enough! God is sufficient’, to the world God made and loves and would not see despoiled.
How might you press further into this life of imaginative hope? What new forms could this transformed life take? What assumptions of our present culture could you interrogate?
Less than a year ago I embarked on such an experiment: to test if giving up our corporate captivity to air travel really meant giving up on life, joy, freedom, or even travel itself. I live in Melbourne, but I wanted to spend Christmas in Sydney with my Dad. Of course, I could have taken a train, bus, or driven, but I’d made those journeys before.
Besides, what I really wanted was to see the world—to feel it: to experience God’s creation all the way between my doorstep and my destination. I wanted to get to know my home country a little better too: 1000 kilometres is a long way, but you don’t get much of a sense of the land from the Hume Highway or from 35,000 feet. I also wanted adventure, something that sitting in a plane or a car or a train just can’t provide.
Images taken during Jacob's walk / experiment
So I decided to walk. Through this choice, I discovered that low-carbon travel can be far more than an environmental imperative: it can be a delight. I now question why I ever felt a need to explore countries halfway across the globe when the part of the world I have at my feet is already so varied, vast, and beautiful. I gained so much from the act of walking too: some days were pure meditation and, regularly, I found my spirit welling up with songs of praise to the Creator of such wide, good lands. Danger and difficulty along the way caused me to take new soundings of the depths of my dependence on God and the simplicity of life on the road, carrying only my true needs, fostered a new appreciation for my daily bread.
This is unlikely to be everyone’s idea of a compelling alternative, but for me, it exposed one of the many lies driving our culture of casual over-consumption. It stands as incarnate proof that there are other ways: we are not as locked into this mode of life as we might suppose; nor by turning from our destructive habits should we expect only sacrifice without also gaining from the loss.
With our world order disrupted by a global pandemic, we have each been compelled to reconsider our normal lives. How could you use this lull in the momentum of the familiar to further imagine a better way?
Jacob Garrett lives in Melbourne, where he studies theology and works with young people and communities in the inner city. In his spare time he designs and makes all-natural hiking equipment for the next time he gets itchy feet.^ back to top