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For anyone who has completely read Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, I applaud you. At over five-hundred pages and filled with difficult language, introspection, philosophy and fictional dialogue between the two sides of Thoreau’s mind, many have said the book is like the Bible – widely respected and referred to, but rarely read in its entirety. It has been called an American classic — one that speaks to many of the qualities that Americans believe they exemplify – self-reliance, love of nature, freedom, spirituality. Over the last forty years it has been embraced by many environmentalists as a prophetic work pointing to the dangers of consumerism and the destruction of nature. Thoreau lived at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and yet he could already see its negative impact on the world and on humanity. Noise, deforestation, urban sprawl, pollution, the extinction of wild animal species – these were all alarm bells he rang in his book that was based on observations he made in 1844. Sadly, as we all know, his warnings have come true. The planet faces an environmental crisis even he did not imagine.
As I continue my August message theme of being the change you want to see, I want to focus my thoughts today on global warming. Whether or not you believe such warming is caused by humans or is simply a natural phenomenon, that is not the point. Almost everyone agrees the planet is warming. The last year that the average global temperature was colder than the 100 year average was in 1985. Every year since, the average temperature has been well above average. Even so, individual weather related events like a single storm or a single cold winter do not prove or disprove global warming. But trends do. And trends do not lie. The earth’s average temperature across the planet, since records first began being kept in 1890, has risen by 1.4 degrees fahrenheit. Such a rise is hugely dramatic – not seen from glacier ice samples since well before humans existed. Average temperatures in the Arctic – in Alaska, Canada and Russian Siberia are at all time highs. Glaciers and ice fields are rapidly melting – only 27 now exist in Glacier National Park in Montana when in 1910 there were 150. The largest glacier found in the tropic latitudes, in Peru’s Andes mountains, has dramatically melted away – losing ice that had taken over 2000 years to form. The Antarctic ice shelf is shrinking and large chunks are regularly breaking off – the largest one ever – larger than Connecticut – broke off this past March and is slowly drifting north, melting as it goes. Sea levels are rising and high tides are now regularly producing floods across the globe. The number and intensity of natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, droughts and severe winters have dramatically increased. Only 15 significant natural disasters occurred in 1900. Over 500 occurred in 2000. Global warming is a fact.
Now, whether you believe that has been caused by humans, another fact is that over 95% of climate scientists from around the world assert that not only is the earth warming at alarming rates, the temperature rise has mostly been caused by human made carbon pollution of the atmosphere. From measurements taken near the time of the Declaration of Independence compared to ones taken today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by nearly 30%. While the earth produces natural carbon dioxide, the burning of fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal is the primary cause of the increase. Other human causes like deforestation and methane gas producing herd animals like cattle account for the rest of the increase.
While few people can know the longterm affects of global warming, scientists have created computer models showing that by the year 2100, the earth’s average temperature will be seven degrees warmer – a shocking increase that will change climate zones all over the earth. The midwest will be much like our current southwest – hot, dry, and arid. The temperate zone where most of the worlds crops are grown will transition father north – Canada and Siberia will be the world’s new bread basket. The US and Australia will lose much of their agriculture. Florida, most of the east coast and Louisiana will be underwater or else much like Holland – land below sea level and livable only after massive investment of money to build dikes and sea walls. Fresh water will be at a premium with many rivers and lakes drying up.
What this might mean for humanity and the earth as we know it, is frightening. Children born today will likely be alive in 2100. Certainly their children and grandchildren will be. What will life be like for them? It is easy for us to say we will be long dead by then – that the most severe effects will not touch us. But our heirs will suffer because of environmental actions we each practice today. Is that a legacy we wish to give them – that we simply did not care? Even worse, that we cared but did nothing or very little to stop it? As with many problems we face in the world, I believe change can only begin with each individual. We must be the change we want to see.
And that brings us back to a discussion of Henry David Thoreau and his book Walden. He asserted with his Transcendentalist philosophy that human change must be a spiritual one. Like Gandhi, Thoreau saw that change for both himself and others has to happen in the inner soul – in how we see ourselves and our place within the larger universe. Transcendentalism argues that one must consciously work to separate the ego from the true self. Our egos are full of supposed needs and wants. Our true self, he believed, can transcend the ego and live according to how nature intended for us to live. As living organisms like any other, Thoreau asserted humans can exist and even happily thrive with the fulfillment of only four basic needs – food, shelter, clothing and fuel – those sufficient to sustain life. All other of our supposed needs are simply desires manifested in our minds by ego.
By suppressing the ego, Thoreau said, we will find connection with nature, with the universe, and with a contentment that allows us to be at peace. Human society has evolved, he believed, to the point that we think we need more than we do – more elaborate clothing, bigger homes, easier transportation, and manufactured entertainment. In today’s world, our supposed needs are even greater. How many people declare that it is a basic need to have a computer? If we choose to live in human society, it is probably a need we must have. But our bodies, our natural selves, our survival – they have no need for it. As any person older than forty knows, we once lived quite happily without personal computers. In Thoreau’s day, people over fifty had once lived quite happily without railroads.
This recognition by Thoreau was the reason why he retreated to Walden pond to live for over two years in a 10 foot by 15 foot one room cabin he built himself. As he wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” Thoreau saw the dangers of industry and civilization and so he sought to prove to himself and to others that anybody could live an extremely simple life and that such is the key not only to transcendental happiness but the key to preserving all of nature, of which humans are an integral part.
He built his his own cabin, made his own crude furniture, grew or collected his own food and found entertainment in the solitude, peace and glory of nature. He found that simple daily tasks of tending his garden and keeping his cabin in decent repair were all the fulfillment he required. As he wrote, “If a person walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he or she is in danger of being regarded as lazy. But if that person spends days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he or she is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”
Long walks in the woods or sitting by Walden pond allowed him to feel like he was like any other creature worshipping the god of nature by immersing within it. No restaurants, no trips to different lands, no industrial made furniture or tools, just him, his handiwork, his simple life reduced to the basic needs.
And that was key to him for his spirituality. Much like Gandhi many years later said that all humans are born spiritually blind, Thoreau believed all people are born spiritually asleep and prone to crave sleep and rest. For him, people must become spiritually awakened by living simply. He compared his awakening to getting up early each day to take long walks in the woods while those who lived in town slept past dawn, cocooned in their comfortable homes. It was during those walks that he came alive to the value of nature, the glory of the earth, and the need for its preservation.
What one finds in reading Walden and studying the Transcendentalism of Thoreau is the belief that inner change is necessary for external change. If we want to save the planet, we must first change our spiritual attitudes about it and, most importantly, about ourselves. Do I really need all that I own, all that I buy? Indeed, I spend a lot of time worrying about my stuff and maintaining it. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I don’t have – newer cars, nicer meals, better clothes, exotic trips. My ego can too often take control of the true me – the me that loves the outdoors, the me that sees fantastic beauty in nature, the me that seeks quiet lakes and trails, the me at peace working in my yard, the more simple me that nature intended I be.
And so to build up the real and natural me, as Thoreau suggested, I must dig deep within myself to identify my ego that wants things I don’t need. Then I must consciously work to separate, as much as possible, the ego from who I am and enable myself to live without as many of my desires as possible. I do not pretend that I or anyone else in today’s world can live much like Thoreau did for over two years – indeed, even he never returned to that lifestyle. But Thoreau’s understanding of our genuine needs in order to live, versus the desires we think we must have, that philosophy ought to give us pause – especially regarding the fact of global warming. Only by simplifying our lives as much as possible, only by reducing our desires can we change attitudes about how we consume and contribute to the destruction of our planet.
That kind of inner change in me would help me buy less, consume less, eat less. My carbon impact on the world would be reduced. I would drive less. I would walk, bike and carpool more. I would be satisfied with what I already have. I’d buy rummage sale items and not shiny new things. Many aspects of my life would change including attitudes about what fulfills and entertains me. Long walks, hiking, gardening, reading and meditating would take up more of my time. I would go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. In everything I do, everything I eat, everything I consume, I would hopefully think of whether or not it was really crucial not only for my survival and happiness but also for the good of nature. In just one example, the New York Times this past week reported that shrimp is now America’s most popular seafood. We annually eat an average of four pounds per person. To meet that demand, farmed shrimp is raised in Asia at great environmental harm. Local, American wild shrimp is better but its seasonal, more expensive and limited. A sustaining ethos, environmentalists argue, is to eat only local shrimp and treat it like a rare and special food – not a mass quantity item. As with all other things we consume, by doing so we would begin to be the change we want to see in saving our planet.
As I said in my message last week, being the change we want to see should NOT be perceived as a sacrifice. The ultimate intent of inner change is about seeking the divine. It’s about connecting with forces far greater than ourselves. In speaking last week about committing to serving the least of our brothers and sisters, I did so not to shame people. In quoting Gandhi, I pointed out how, through service, we can find our beautiful inner divinity that prompts us to love, share and help others.
And that exactly echoes what Thoreau wanted for himself and others. By living a simpler life, by getting back to nature and its wondrous charms, he believed we will find the god we seek. As he wrote in Walden, “Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity; so that not a snowflake escapes its fashioning hand.”
Whatever force it is that created humans and the whole of the universe, that is a power of unknowable wonder. It need not matter whether that force is supernatural or natural – it is a divine force in the sense that it is beautiful, eternal and beyond full comprehension. A snowflake, a quiet pond, a tiny insect, our human brain, distant galaxies with millions of stars – these were all made by the same force and each is a miracle to behold. When we look in awe at nature and, indeed, revere it, we discover we too are divine.
As the earth spins across an inky darkness, seemingly alone in its ability to sustain life, it is imperative that we respect it and all of the creations upon it. Thoreau keenly understood this, writing that a journey into the self allows us to see ourselves, connect with the divine, and thereby find the inspiration to live more simply and protect nature. I pray that each of us take that journey and begin to become the change we want to see.
I wish each of you much peace and joy.