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The more deeply I search for the roots of our global environmental crisis, the more I am convinced that it is an outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is, for lack of a better word, spiritual.
Earth in the Balance
It's 2001. Sixty-five million years since the day when a wayward asteroid slammed into the earth's surface, promptly extinguishing eighty-five percent of life on the planet. That event marked the end of the dinosaurs and the beginning of the Cenozoic era, an era that eventually gave rise to an upright primate called Homo sapiens. And now, forty thousand years after Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, many scientists from around the globe are telling us that these upright primates, that is, human beings, are responsible for engulfing the world in a crisis unequaled since that cataclysmic collision so long ago.
As we enter the third millennium, there is little doubt that this third rock from the sun that we call home has, ecologically at least, seen better days. With the increasing threat of global warming, a rapidly accelerating species extinction rate, diminishing fossil fuel reserves, massive deforestation, unrestrained pollution, and numerous other environmental problems, the fragile biosphere of planet earth is under siege. Yet the challenges we face hardly stop there. As a hurricane of globalization brings together six thousand distinct civilizations from around the world—economically, politically, socially, culturally—we find ourselves living in a global village that is changing and rearranging itself like never before, in a brave new world precariously poised between prosperity and poverty, new visions and ancient hatreds. Scientists tell us that twenty-first-century technology will soon render nuclear warheads the least of our worries as advanced weapons reach unheard-of powers. A few even say that we are fast approaching the point of no return, that we must renounce the comforts of modern civilization or go the way of the dinosaurs. And the upright primate that engineered the whole mess is projected to increase its present population by more than fifty percent in the next fifty years. Like it or not, we live, as Jim Garrison, president of the State of the World Forum, put it recently, in a world that is burning.
Faced with issues of such overwhelming magnitude and scope, there is a growing recognition that humanity is today at a crossroads, a critical juncture in our evolutionary history. Indeed, many are claiming that the decisions we make in the next few decades will reverberate for hundreds if not thousands of years down through time. So where, then, are we to look for a vision that can help us to understand and respond to this crisis, a vision that is truly global in the largest sense of the word—universal, all-embracing, whole? Recognizing, perhaps, the unprecedented challenge of our moment in history, a number of bold futurists, social theorists, and evolutionary thinkers are beginning to use a word not often heard in the policy think tanks of global decision-makers: spirituality.
Across the country and around the world, it seems that a new movement is afoot. From the spiritual ecology of Thomas Berry to the integral vision of Ken Wilber; from the higher human potential research of the Institute of Noetic Sciences to the voluntary simplicity movement initiated by Duane Elgin; from Gorbachev's State of the World Forum to Michael Lerner's "Politics of Meaning"; from the Millennium World Peace Summit of the United Nations to the recent reconvening of the Parliament of the World's Religions—an unusual intermingling of the spiritual and the social is finding its way into the affairs of the world. Unwilling to leave the fate of the human experiment solely to disciplines whose approaches fail to encompass the whole human condition, these pioneers of the spirit share a conviction that only a spiritual perspective has the breadth and depth of vision to strike at the core of the multifaceted crisis that confronts us today.
But what does it really mean to bring spirituality to bear on the problems of modern society? While it is true that spiritual enlightenment has, throughout most of human history, been seen as the ultimate solution to the human predicament in the individual, what exactly does that mean about the responsibility of the individual for saving the species itself, or for saving other species, or for protecting the life systems of the planet? As eco-theologian Thomas Berry points out in his book The Great Work, the major wisdom traditions of the past and the spiritual values that arose from their teachings were formed and shaped in a world that simply never had to contend with the kinds of global issues that we must confront today. So can enlightenment save not only the individual but the world as well? And if so, what does that mean about the nature of the spiritual path at this moment in our evolutionary history?
These are some of the questions that we began to ask ourselves as we started our research for this issue of What Is Enlightenment? And as always, we began the inquiry by taking a closer look at our own lives. For us, as for many seekers, the decision to follow a spiritual calling was driven largely by the conviction that the ultimate solution to the problems that face our society lies in a transformation of human consciousness, and that the spiritual path is, in fact, the most direct way to confront the egotism and selfishness within us that seem to be at the root of just about every problem that exists in the external world. But as we began to read about the stark reality of our ecological crisis, as we studied the patterns of climate change and learned of the massive extinctions taking place within the rich diversity of the world's ecosystems, there were some difficult moments when we began to wonder if it wasn't time to throw in the spiritual towel altogether and trade in our spirit-first faith for some Earth First radicalism. Evolutionary biologists tell us that our primate minds are ordinarily not conditioned to think beyond our local circumstances, but as we gazed directly at the uncomfortable truths of our collective situation, the profound global consequences of our current course of action did, in fact, come crashing in. Are we quietly meditating on the upper decks of the Titanic, we wondered, debating finer points of spiritual insight while the ship founders around us? Fiddling with Nero while Rome burns? Maybe we should simply give everything we've got to saving the environment, we thought, drop it all and join the battle. After all, the higher levels of human evolution may not mean very much if the most basic levels of our biospheric life support begin to fail.
While we did not, in the end, abandon everything and move to the rainforests, we did begin to discover just how deeply unnerving it can be to place your own spiritual journey within the context of a world crisis, especially one of the magnitude that confronts us today. So for this issue of the magazine, we set out to speak with individuals who could address both the question of how enlightenment can save the world and the equally important question of what the meaning and significance of enlightenment is in a world that needs saving. Indeed, the contributors on the following pages have each explored crucial questions about the nature of the spiritual path at this point in history, and many have arrived at some challenging and unexpected conclusions. They bring insights from science, technology, evolutionary theory, spiritual traditions past and present, and from their own compassion, blood, sweat, and tears. From the courage and grit of the spiritual activists to the new perspectives of the evolutionary theorists, from soaring visions of the future to the harsh realities of a suffering society, their words implore us and inspire us to look at our own spiritual lives within the urgent and overwhelming context of a world that is burning.