I remember being assigned in second grade the task of drawing a picture of what our houses would be like as our planet became overpopulated. This was 1965 and I lived in a crowded suburb of Detroit. From my limited world, overcrowding seemed inevitable. It was a scary and very real scenario that our teacher perpetrated on us vulnerable seven-year-olds. I was sacred…until, a year later when my family drove out to New Jersey. We traveled through miles of the flat and virtually empty farmland of central Ohio and over unpopulated forests in mountainous sections of Pennsylvania. Literally, miles of no one! I was miffed! I had been lied to and made afraid for no reason. There was lots of room. We weren’t facing some huge crisis after all…and I might actually live to graduate from high school.
This caused me to be forever skeptical of cries of wolf…especially in global issues. As warnings concerning the coming horrors of global warming, climate change, or increased weather events (or whatever newest terminology is), I admit that I have a tendency to be slightly skeptical. I am less apt to accept what I am told until I do my research. Which leads to my second issue: my tremendous lack of scientific knowledge. Science is just not my strength, even though I maintain a deep fascination for the subject.
For this later reason, I found Macy and Johnstone’s book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy  surprisingly approachable, because it is not a scientific book. However, this book made numerous assumptions about related to science, psychology and social concerns without significant documentation, such as:
- The earth is in crisis, pain, and trauma (p. 67)
- We should empathize with the pain of world (p.27)
- People are traumatized by the earth’s trauma (p. 64)
- Healing of the earth is possible through cooperation and connectedness (p.5)
- The healing of the earth should be the “center of things” (p.211)
Based on these givens, the authors set out (not a detailed program but) a call for cooperation for a hopeful future. “In the story of the Great Turning, what’s catching on is commitment to act for the sake of life on Earth as well as the vision, courage, and solidarity to do so.” (p. 27) This process begins with a sharing the pain and trauma of the earth: “A central principle of the Work That Reconnects is that pain for the world, a phrase that covers a range of feelings, including outrage, alarm, grief, guilt, dread, and despair, is normal, healthy response to a world in trauma.” (p. 67) Like despair over sins is the foundation for reconciliation, so personally despairing for world is both normal and foundational for gaining courage to join with others to bring about this “Great Turning.” This book is then about the “healing of our world” which is “our gift of Active Hope. The purpose of this book is to strengthen our ability to give the best gift we can: our finest response to the multifaceted crisis of sustainability.” (p. 4) We then have a book that both paints a bleak picture of a world in crisis while, at the same time, seeks a hopeful way for the future.
My first concern about Active Hope is its idolization of the planet. Not only are we called to feel the pain of the earth’s crisis, but we should “hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.” (p. 71) It is further explained that: “When we hear the of the sounds of the Earth crying within us, we’re unblocking not just feedback but also the channels of felt connectedness that joins us with our world.”(p. 76) It is by giving the earth these human characteristics of pain and sorrow that allows us to be tuned in to the earth as we would to a living being. This then provides the key to our interconnection with all of earthly life, and allows the earth to enter into our inner lives: “Just as we experience the Earth crying within us as pain for the world, we can experience the Earth thinking within in us as a guide impulse pulling us in a particular direction.”(pp. 116-17) These human and spirit-like qualities given to earth, leads us to “think of ourselves as deeply embedded in a larger web of life, as Gaia theory, Buddhism, and many other, especially indigenous, spiritual traditions suggests.”(p. 74)
This raises the earth to both a living and spiritual being. which brings me to my second concern. If the “earth” is our central focus, then this will naturally determine our priorities. The authors suggest that if we join in the Great Turning, “(w)e can think of this shift as changing our map to one that puts the healing of our world at the very center of things.” (p. 211) But the question that needs to asked is: Should this be the “center of things”? I can’t help but remember how Jesus often used the word “world,” by which he clearly does NOT mean the planet itself, but rather “people” – that God so love the world (i.e. individuals that make up the world). Jesus focus during his ministry was to hear and feel the pain of people (“he had compassion” in Mt. 9:36, literally, he felt distressed at their suffering), and sought their healing and comfort. I have to wonder if our focus is on the planet (the inanimate globe), will we miss the more immediate crises that faces our world, the suffering of people, which seems to be Jesus’ focus?
In How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place,  Bjorn Lomborg asked experts in economics “if you were to spend an additional $75 billion over the next four years to do good for humanity and the environment, where would you spend it first?” (loc. 85) It was a question of prioritizing the world’s biggest problems, that would bring the most good—not for the earth per se, but—for “the ‘good’ for the people and the planet” (loc. 85, emphasis added). Top on the list includes:
- Reduce undernutrition in preschoolers
- Expanding the subsidy for malaria treatment
- Expanding childhood immunization
- Deworming of school children
- Expanding tuberculosis treatment
- Increase yield enhancements to decrease hunger
- Early warning systems to protect against natural disasters
- Strengthen surgical capacity (loc. 33)
As I look at this list developed by panel of top economist (including four Nobel Laureates), what stands out is that it focuses entirely on helping living and suffering people (especially children). This, I believe, would be how Jesus would prioritize the projects, as “the world” he loved were the people who were hopelessly helpless and harassed. If we hear the suffering of the world (i.e. people) and act to elevate their suffering, then wouldn’t we naturally seek to better the environment they live in (and will live in for generations) in order to provide have enough food, clean water and medical care to live full and healthy lives? If we raise up the earth as our primary focus, our idol, or “center of things,” I fear we are in danger of forgetting the children who are actually the one’s who are in crisis and in pain, and we will mistakenly direct our resources that can do the most immediate good.
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012).
Bjorn Lomborg, ed., How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place (Copenhagen Consensus Center, 2014), Kindle.