Alarms that things are terribly wrong and need to change

The next time you’re frantically fighting traffic to get to work or to the market in that shiny, over-priced, gas-guzzling vehicle you work so hard to pay off, ask yourself — is this really the life you want and need? Is it fulfilling? Do you want your children to live this kind of materialistic life bereft of true community? Will they even have the opportunity to enjoy the same material pleasures? 

The facts is, with the kinds of consumption-driven lifestyles most of us in developed countries lead, humankind is destroying both itself— mental illness, much of it stress-induced, is now the leading cause of disability in the world— as well as destroying our precious home, the Earth’s natural ecosystems that we, like all creatures, depend upon for life itself.  What more proof do we need that modern man’s destructive, toxic lifestyle needs changing?  

If we can only hear them, alarms are going off all around beseeching us to stop and ask if we’re a species meant to live in isolated, artificial, decadent indoor environments separate from both nature and human communities, where we are connected electronically, but disconnected in every meaningful sense?  

Or are we a creature that can be healthy and fulfilled only when living in harmony with our natural and human surroundings?  Maybe it’s time to try the latter for a while, because the former sure isn’t working. 

Many scientists consider climate change to be the single greatest threat to civilization man has ever faced. And yet it is but one of many ways we are insidiously harming or destroying the Earth’s life support systems, much of it due to our over-consumption and the related burning of toxic fossil fuels.    Contamination of air, water and land; food and water shortages; depletion of farmland; acidification of the oceans; resource depletion; mountaintop removal; habitat destruction; mass extinctions—the list goes on and on. 

What more do we need to hear?  The alarms going off tell us that things are fundamentally wrong, but we’re stubbornly slow to act, or even listen.  I fear it will take a historic global catastrophe before people in numbers begin to act.  We certainly can’t wait for a polarized and paralyzed government to act. 

If we were happy in our unsustainable lifestyles producing this environmental destruction, one could perhaps understand the reluctance to change. But most people aren’t happy, certainly not in the U.S.  In fact, more and more people are dissatisfied with their jobs and their lives. People aren’t just unhappy-- mental illnesses are becoming epidemic. Increasingly, people need an array of drugs just to make it through the day. I know because I’m one of them. 

I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation a few years ago to begin taking steps away from the empty materialism and toward a more communal lifestyle centered on wholesome and meaningful values. My journey continues. 

Anyone living today in a nicely appointed, spacious home and driving a comfortable, climate-changing, fossil fuel-burning automobile to work or to the market would tend to think that someone espousing the virtues of a Henry David Thoreau—simplicity, harmony, sustainability --  seems irrelevant and oddly out of touch with today’s “progress.”  But perhaps there is a timeless wisdom there that we need to reconsider. 

We’ve become so obsessed, so addicted to the countless products that now support our decadent, hollow lifestyle that we’ve allowed—make that funded-- the corporations that create these products to usurp our democracy and rule the world. That’s another alarm. Formerly democratic societies such as ours are becoming plutocracies, ruled by big corporate money that ironically comes ultimately from us, the now neglected consumer/citizen. 

Fundamental change is so intimidating and difficult. We don’t know where to begin. I don’t know who has the answers, certainly not me. But I think it has to begin with looking around and recognizing the signs that things are wrong, terribly wrong, and need to change. It might help to turn off the TV and computer for a while and go outside to take in whatever piece of nature is available.  Maybe talk to a few random strangers. Reflect on your existence. Think about where your next meal will come from.

That may help a bit, but sooner or later we’ll need to collectively set out on the adventure of creating a new life and a new government based on values and principles that can sustain both our wellbeing and our life support systems, for ourselves and for posterity.   

The good news is that change is coming at long last.  The broad, worldwide social movement for democracy and social justice is building steam and promises to bring the kind of far-reaching social change we last saw in the 1960’s. The number of protests worldwide has increased steadily and significantly over the past decade, a phenomenon not seen since the late ‘60’s. These protests have centered around the themes of human rights, government accountability, social justice, and sustainability.  The various themes have an underlying commonality, producing what has been called a mass, worldwide movement for “human preservation.” 

It’s gratifying to me that many Unitarian Universalists are among the leaders and activists in this movement. Just as it can be difficult to ‘see the forest for the trees,’ most people now don’t even see this singular, inter-connected social movement. But it’s there and is beginning to make its presence unmistakably felt. We’re on the brink of historic social and political change. 

I see this social movement as a train that has already left the station. The more people who get on board and help organize, navigate and drive, the faster we can reach our destination.  Change must come from people, not governments. 

I do what I can to support this much needed movement for change—largely by writing to spread the word. Both my ideas and my inspiration come primarily from my fellow activists and members of my UU congregation, where our mission is “to create community, transform ourselves, and transform the world.”  I can’t think of more critical needs. 

Oh, one more thing—I wasn’t at all certain about the future success of the movement or the inevitability of change until none other than Pope Francis began expressing his support for many of the ideals of the movement and linked them to the founder of the religion that most Americans practice, at least ostensibly. We’re picking up some pretty good allies. 

 --- Tony Giordano, adjunct college instructor and research consultant in social science, is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County (NJ) and its Social Action Committee and Climate Change Action Teams.  Tony is author of the book, "It's Not All in Your Head: Unearthing the Deep Roots of Depression."  

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