Last year at about this time, I attended an Earth at Risk conference, a gathering of committed, aka “radical” activists and leftists that met in San Francisco. It was a two day event, and I was only able to attend the second day. That may have been for the better. When I arrived, the mood was very somber, and one of the early speakers acknowledged as much, making reference to the tone of the prior day — from what I gathered, it had been a heavy load of apocalyptic rhetoric, the end is near, with little or no hope.
At the time, I was staying in “South Bay,” which is a bit of a haul from “the city,” i.e., from San Francisco. South Bay is (in)famously known as the technological hub of the world, i.e., Silicon Valley. It took me over three hours, as I recall, to arrive at the conference center: a light-rail ride, a real train, a bus or two, then a short walk. Over the river and through the woods, to radical activist conferences I go.
The second day of the conference ended up being more hopeful. There were many very fascinating speakers, but the keynote speaker, Vandana Shiva, was the highlight for me. Sadly, I’d actually not heard of Vandana Shiva prior to the conference. She is a brilliant Indian philosopher, scholar, and globalization critic. She’s also a helluva speaker.
For those who are moved by the suffering in the world — I mean deeply affected by pain and oppression — we tend toward hopelessness and helplessness, which tends to lead toward a certain anger or despair or depression. It may have been that the first day of the Earth at Risk conference had succumed to this darker, heavier spirit. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but it happens to many of us. Realistically, most of us can’t handle reality, can’t bear to look in the face of suffering without feeling despair. (Years ago, I used to wonder how God did it, as a being who knew everything.) For many, the only way to avoid depression is to turn away.
There is something significant, though, that inspired me about Vandana Shiva. It is something that the very best of radicals offer to the world. It’s not necessarily hope, per se. It is to contrast the old familiar perspective that we all know with something new. It is to stare into the belly of the beast and, unflinching, talk about a new way.
And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him. (Revelation 22)
There is something fundamentally destructive about the way our world currently operates, as there always is when Empires rule, when there are those with extreme wealth in a world with great masses who must go without basics like food and water. While most people rather uncritically accept that our current system of global capitalism is a virtuous system or that, at the very least, it is just neutral, the reality is that at a deeper level it is destructive. There is a reason for this. In large part, capitalism is destructive because the success of capitalism (at least as we have practiced it) depends on converting the living world into raw materials (and eventually money) as quickly as possible. It is centered on wealth-building above all else. Those who succeed in this system are not those who seek to preserve ecological diversity or end starvation or create healthy communities. The millionaires and billionaires are those who can turn the living world into “resources” from which to make a “profit.” They see forrests as opportunities for “development.”
Alice Walker, also a speaker at last year’s conference put the problem more starkly, in the language of biblical prophets. In this world, she said, “we live with some demonic forces.” To contrast, she said simply, “What we need more than anything is friendship.”
“Capital,” Vandana Shiva said, “is not a creative force.” In contrast, though, creativity, she said, lies in the earth and in the heart. We need to experience ourselves as the web of life.
These contrasts inspire me. (I’m not sure if it is hope, exactly, because I think that hope is a form of faith, a choice that we must make, a form of faith in what is impossible.) It inspires me to hear speakers like Vandana Shiva and others contrast the old and the new. It energizes me to contrast the familiar perspective that causes suffering with something new and life-giving, when I can truly feel in my bones that there is a better way, that things don’t have to be this way, that we need only change our thinking, our systems, our way-of-being. We all make choices about how the world will be.
I’m not sure if God is going to sweep in and change everything, kill all the bad guys and make the earth new. Maybe, but I rather doubt it. I tend to view much of the apocalyptic biblical text as metaphor and symbol, as an incredible, inspiring, and evocative piece of ancient literature, written by followers of Jesus who were outcasts in the Roman Empire. Like all things that inspire, they looked for a time in which the forces of destruction and oppression no longer rule, where we inhabit a new world, a world whose system has fundamentally changed, a world where we can heal.