Today one of the biggest global campaigns in history launches a new phase – the 10/10/10 global work party. During 2009, in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference on climate change, COP15, the 350.org campaign organised the ‘most widespead day of political action’ on Saturday 24 October when 5,245 separate actions took place across 181 countries all calling for a commitment to a target of 350 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere. Present levels are above 385 ppm and rising.
Despite general acceptance of the science presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the politicians meeting in Copenhagen seemed unable to give the leadership needed at this stage in history. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report says that global warming is definitely happening and that this warming is more than 90% likely to be caused by the activity of humans increasing levels of greenhouse gasses such as CO2 into the atmosphere. On our present course we are looking at a future where more frequent extreme weather events cause crops to fail, rising sea levels and floods create millions of refugees, leading to a much greater potential for conflicts over scarce food resources.
Even if we don’t accept the science that humans are causing global warming, there are other compelling reasons to reduce our dependence on burning fossil fuels. Simply put – they are fast running out. We have already burned the best coal and tapped the easiest oil fields. The coal that remains in the ground is increasingly of lower energy value. The oil and gas reserves that remain untapped are harder to reach making them more expensive and with greater risks of environmental catastrophe when, for example, oil rigs explode. Rather than waiting until the last drop of oil is burned, we need to prepare quickly for a world where our energy needs are met by renewable resources.
Why do we find it so hard to change? In many ways we resemble an addict who continues in self-destructive behaviour habits, ignoring or denying all the rational arguments against this behaviour. I suspect that this is in fact the case. We are addicted to materialism.
In 1923, Martin Buber wrote his seminal work Ich und Du (I and Thou) in which he says that humans have two basic modes of relating with the world. One is the I–it mode and the other is the I–thou mode. In the first, the it is an object and the relating is one-way. The object does not relate back to us. In fact Buber says that the I–it mode is really I–I because the object only exists for us in so far as it fits our purpose and ideas. The it becomes an extension of ourselves, a projection of our own minds.
By contrast, in the I–thou mode the I becomes transformed by the relationship with the other. In fact there is no longer a single individual I but something bigger – we or us. In parts of Africa there is a concept of Ubuntu which has been translated in various ways. My favourite translation is “I am because we are”. It is a recognition that the individual self is an illusion. A person can only become fully realized, fully themselves, in relationship and community with many others, past and present. And as mystics have long understood, that transforming relationship does not have to be with another person. We can relate in this way to a place or a tree or even, as the poet William Blake discovered, to a grain of sand.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour
Back in 1923, Buber realized that in the culture of the West that he was a part of, the I–it mode was taking over. Even in our dealings with other people we tend to treat them as objects existing only for our own purposes (whether those purposes are conscious or unconscious). Rarely do we allow ourselves to become wholly transformed by another. Most of the time, even among those we say we love, we are holding something back – some untransformed I that refuses to become a We.
Our addiction to materialism is a result of this. We cannot find fulfilment in the world of I–it because we are made to live in relationship – true, deep and transforming I–thou relationship. Countless studies have found that once people have their basic needs met, increasing wealth does not lead to an increase in happiness. Yet we still keep trying to spend our way to happiness, even though we are causing great harm to the planet and putting future generations at risk.
Today, as people gather in work parties around the globe, I hope that something profound may happen, with an impact way beyond the value of the actual work being done. My hope and prayer is that we may start a shift towards true relating. A shift away from I to We that can finally break our addiction to more and more stuff.