A Conservationist Manifesto

On the Agroinnovations podcast there was an interview with the author of A Conservationist Manifesto, Scott Russell Sanders. He had some interesting ideas and thoughts. Here is a smattering of them with my own commentary, as usual.

Get On the Boat!
Sanders says that the ark in the biblical story is a profound ecological parable that “represents a vessel that carries through troubled times those things that absolutely must be preserved”. There is a profound value of biodiversity in the story, even if there was no obvious purpose or they were a nuisance. Sanders idea that the biblical narrative of Noah and the Ark is an apt metaphor for modern catastrophe certainly caught my ear. This idea has also been mentioned in the comments on this blog. The thought is that there should be lots of little communities that are living out the kinds of practices that can lead us through potential ecological catastrophe. He read this quote from his book,

Those who try to live more simply are harder to see… They go about learning the skills and mastering the tools necessary for meeting basic human needs. They grow food. They build shelters. They make clothes. They draw energy from sun and wind and wood. They get by with fewer possessions and learn to repair the ones they have. They create much of their own entertainment with homemade art, music and stories. They derive pleasure from good work, human company and the perennial show that nature puts on. So far as possible they rear their children away from television and advertising. They buy as little as they can from the global economy and instead they support local economies based on cooperation, barter and sharing. They protect and restore woods, prairies and swamps making room for wildness.

He calls these people “Ark builders”. They are the keepers of the kinds of knowledge that is “necessary for meeting basic human needs”. When asked the question, “Are we facing catastrophe?” Sanders points out that we are already in a catastrophe, a billion people going hungry every day, a billion people lacking access to clean water, the exponential rate of species extinction, the loss of topsoil, etc. The catastrophe is already here. We have just made it possible for some of our human family to ignore this reality. In other words, the wealthy have created their own arks to insulate themselves from catastrophe. The question that really faces us is not whether or not we face catastrophe, but which boat we will get on, the flashy big boat that is poorly constructed underneath that shiny veneer or the humble ark made of humble materials that requires us to row and work together.

First Church of the Consumer
Sanders quotes an advertising executive in a trade publication from the 1950s summing up the need to promote more consumption to get the economy going,

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. The economy needs things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

Wow! I have been arguing and pondering the notion of consumerism as a religion, but never heard it put so explicitly from the mouths of the high priests of advertising, the bishops of the consumer religion. Sanders then points out that in order to fulfill the evangelistic mission of this consumer religion we must trash the earth in order to serve the economy. As I’ve said before this is exactly backwards, the economy exists to serve the earth and human beings as part of it, not the other way around. I hope sometime to take on this idea of consumerism as a religion in more depth, not as a metaphor, but as a deadly serious reality.

Hope or Optimism?
Sanders’ son challenged him to not just point out how bad everything is, but recognize that we need hope to push us forward. I found Sanders’ definition of the difference between hope and optimism both profound and helpful. Optimism is the confidence that everything is going to turn out just fine, no matter how bad it looks. Hope, on the other hand, is the conviction that despite how bad things look there is good work to be done right now to build the kind of world that we want. While I might modify this definition of hope, the contrast between the simple-minded ignorance of optimism and the hard work of hope is insightful.

I often feel cornered as a pessimist because I am not particularly optimistic about the prospects for our modern civilizations and see catastrophe looming on the horizon. This duality of pessimism and optimism is once again an exercise in missing the point. It only tells us the particular mood of an individual given a particular question. Hope tells us infinitely more. Hope reveals both the dire situation we face and draws on deep wells of faith, tradition, intellect and wisdom to pursue a better future, not on a global scale, but in the smallness of our own lives. This makes change not only more possible, but more grounded in reality of both the problems we face and the practicality of what we can do now to bring about something other, something new, beautiful, hopeful and small.

  • Lynden

    Hi Lucas,
    Hope you and your family are doing well. Completely off the topic of your post, but just thought I’d share something I find funny… I’ve got your blog listed as one I read on mine, and it shows up as “what would Jesus eat”, with the most recent post title underneath. Today it was, “what would Jesus eat: A communist manifesto”. I was picturing Jesus eating a communist manifesto and that image went a long way in cheering me up!
    Take care,

    • Lynden

      Oops, conservationist manifesto… not quite so funny, I’ll stick with my version haha