August 24, 2019

I Refuse a straw, I drive less, I bring my cloth bags—& they set the Amazon on Fire. Why I still have Hope.


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I know I am overwhelmed. I feel paralyzed and numb.

You guys, this is serious. The Amazon is on fire and has been burning for a while now. My first instinct is to look away, close the blinds, and watch some amusing videos and pretend like I saw nothing. My first instinct is to tell myself, “It’s okay, eat some chocolate, and don’t think about how it seems like all of my effort is absolutely meaningless.” I compost, ride my bike, buy eco-friendly and organic products, and they set the f*cking rainforest on fire. 

Stuff the feelings down with more chocolate and funny cat videos.

I know I feel powerless to stop this juggernaut that seems so impervious to my small efforts. And, it hurts too much to see the trees black and burning and the people who live there crying and furious. It hurts too much to see all of their and our effort up in flames; gone so easily. Even though it’s far away, the Amazon is our home too. This planet Earth is our home.

But, when I did finally face the pain and looked at the destruction, an interesting thing happened. Instead of more pain, paralysis, and despair, I began to see answers

It’s like burning my hand on the stove. If I ignore it, then my agony and the damage to my hand increases dramatically. However, if I actually acknowledge the pain and look at it, then I can understand what needs to happen next. I need to tend to my hand; run it under cool water, bandage it, use balms, get help. 

This doesn’t change that my hand was burned, but it does mean my hand can begin to heal. Hopefully, it means I’ll be less likely to burn my hand again because I will have learned something from the situation. This idea of turning toward our pain, of feeling it, and understanding what it has to teach us is a fundamental aspect of Joanna Macy’s The Work that Reconnects, and I learned much about her work during my time at Naropa University. 

I know it is so easy to fall into the trap of seeing the burning Amazon and believe we are powerless and that nothing we do matters. 

But that’s the thing, thinking we are powerless is a trap, and one the “powers that be” hope we will fall into. They want us overwhelmed, numb, and apathetic. They want us confused, unfocused, and content with small, placating solutions. They hope we will see how big they are and just give up. 

We need to resist this kind of thinking and look right at this juggernaut full on because we need to know exactly what we are up against without being fooled by bluster. 

When we look at the larger picture with the details in context; seeing where everything connects to everything else, we can see the assault is destabilizing and undermining its own existence by destroying the environment. 

This devastating blow to us is also a blow for it. As awful and painful as it is, we need to understand this so we can take advantage of the instability. When we zoom in and look at the juggernaut itself, we realize something important: while the movement is large and powerful, it is also made up of small parts, of small nuts and bolts. We pull out the right bolts and, well… 

In living systems theory, those bolts are known as “leverage points.” These are the points in a system where we can create the most effective change with minimal effort. It is the difference between trying to knock down a brick wall or having a key to open a door in that wall. This is how we will create change and it is also the least catastrophic way to create change.

Our juggernaut is our current sociocultural/economic system and it needs to change. We are losing our planetary lungs right now because we have allowed a system to exist that requires the destruction of our planet and the devaluation of humanity in order to thrive. This is a system for elitism and superiority over others and is meant to concentrate benefit and power for only a few humans. We allow large multinational corporations to run our country; making the rules to benefit themselves. We need to pick better leaders. 

This system is not working for most of us. This system is actually harming most of us. The funny thing is, we are this system—we just keep forgetting. 

We need to change. We need to choose who we’re going to be; as individual people, as families, as societies, as a species in this planetary web of life. We need to decide what it is we really value. 

Do we value profits above all else and at any cost? Do we value profit over clean air and water, over all of the living beings we share this world with, over each other? Do we value power for only a few? Do we only value the system of me getting ahead of everyone else and doing whatever I want? Do we value our comfort over anything else?

No? Then we need to create a better system. Here are some ideas:

Create and Participate in Community

Get together with other people and friends and talk about what is going on. Talk about what you think the root problems are and talk about solutions. Share what you observe with each other. 

Digital communities are important, but really try to get together with people in person and show up. It is so easy to let other things get in the way and not realize how important your group is. 

I think building community and learning how to be in community, without being “exclusive” is one of the most important things we can do for each other and our planet. We need to support each other which means we need to show up and participate. Community isn’t about bending everyone else to your will and vision. Community isn’t about losing your individuality either. In living systems and ecology, balance seems to be the most important principle. We need to take care of ourselves, take care of each other, and take care of our planet. 

All of these levels intertwine and connect together. I have a responsibility to my community and my community has a responsibility to me. 

As we are breaking down this current system, we need to have a new one ready to take its place and we build this new system by building community. This is the place to learn and practice compassion. This is the place to understand our interconnections.

Support Investigative Journalism

We need to know what is going on, but much of our news media seems to be about entertainment and sensationalism, because frankly, this is what the majority of us have wanted to watch. We’ve also refused to pay for our news and investigative teams are expensive. 

Let’s find and support journalists and news organizations that have strong investigative teams with a good record for transparency and honesty. Maybe that means paying for a subscription. Maybe this means letting our news outlets know we want to be informed and call them out for not reporting on stories like the Amazon fire.

Look at What is Happening, Observe, and Ask Better Questions

See how everything connects and works together. Examine the big picture and the smaller details. Look deeper. Don’t be fooled by bluster and bravado and the mere appearance of things. Look for the leverage points, they are the key.

We create a better system by asking better questions like, “How do we create a system that can benefit our world?” Instead of the current question, “How do we create a system that maximizes monetary profit for shareholders?” It’s the same situation with world hunger. Our current food production system and economy is based upon the question, “How do we make the most money off of feeding people?” It is not concerned with simply, “How do we feed the most people?” 

Do you see how that just changes everything?

Do Our Inner Work

When I was at Naropa, every semester I had a class called “Inner Work for Environmental Leaders.” If we are going to face our pain and deal with our overwhelm and feelings of “not enough” we are going to have to deal with a lot of our stuff.

Acknowledging our hurt for the Amazon and the world is to acknowledge our vulnerability. It can mean examining ourselves in an uncomfortable light. It can mean being exposed and raw. So, maybe this inner work is supported by a coach or therapist, yoga or other contemplative exercises, and group workshops. 

You see, if we are going to challenge the world, then we are going to have to be comfortable with challenging ourselves, too. After all, like it or not, we are a part of this system and we need to understand our part in it if we are going to be effective at creating change. We must have the courage to feel and learn from our pain.

In the end, we need to realize our power, take back responsibility, and come together to be for a new world as much as we are against this old one. The Amazon will continue to burn, oil drilled and spilled, and land bulldozed as long as we have a cultural and economic system that requires a constant flow of new resources to feed our consumption and maximize profits at any cost.

I want to leave you with Joanna Macy sharing the Shambhala Warrior Prophecy, which always gives me solace in these dark moments:

Thank you for all of the hard work you’ve done to make this planet better. Thank you for all of the hard work you will do. I’ll see you out there.


“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

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