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Guest column Alula Shields: In the face of fire

  • Thich Nhat Hanh leads a mindful walk at Plum Village in France in 2014. Wayne Gersen

Published: 9/16/2019 5:00:15 PM

If 6 degrees centigrade of global warming takes place, 95 percent of species will die out, including Homo sapiens. Mass extinction has already happened five times and this is the sixth.

According to the Buddhist tradition, there is no birth and no death — after extinction things will appear in other forms. So you have to breathe very deeply to acknowledge that we humans may accept that hard fact, without being overwhelmed by despair.

That is why we have to learn to touch eternity in the present moment, with in-breath and out-breath, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches.

The threat to humanity’s future is in front of us and confirmed. With every day that passes, we have fewer opportunities to amend our wrongs. Despite what we choose to accept, the choices in our daily lives have made us complicit in the fires that raged across the Amazon and Africa, the sea levels rising in South East Asia, vanishing groundwater in India, among so many other bells that mother earth is ringing to gain our attention.

We post our dismay in social media, yet we still get in our cars, go about our day and most likely consume resources that come from halfway around the world. We cannot continue to point fingers at the politicians and companies as we support the system that cripples us. Many of us preach a better way of living, yet don’t make a commitment to sustainability in our daily lives.

By way of greenwashing, companies condone certain products and lifestyle choices that make us think we are “sustainable.” However, the reality is that we are not. The definition of sustainability that we have been taught is wrong. As long as we fail to honor the value in every single species on this planet, when we fail to express our gratitude toward the rivers, the mountains, the rains and the sun, as long as we continue to take without giving back, we will never understand sustainability.

Our indigenous brothers and sisters preached the philosophies of reciprocity and interconnected living long before the European diaspora. Instead of adopting their teachings, colonists enforced economic dominance over the natural world. As Daniel Quinn writes in “Ishmael,” this was the profound division of takers from leavers.

This pervasive culture has now infiltrated many indigenous communities to varying degrees, leaving only the uncontacted peoples as the sole “leavers” on this planet. As parts of their home presently become engulfed in flames, we risk losing the key to our future.

Our response in the face of these increasing disasters is to shuffle around in an attempt to find concrete ways to contribute positively. However, we continue to fall short because, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we are not yet organized. We have the greatest opportunity in human history to organize. We have the power to shift our energy away from unsustainable worldviews. We have the power to restructure our relationship to resources and definition of “success.” We have the power to reinvigorate our sense of connection with the natural world.

Only then, in action, can we understand sustainability. Mother Earth is beckoning us to change now, today. Because tomorrow is too late. Please share how you are making changes:

Alula Shields lives in Shelburne Falls.

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