The crisis we face is not environmental, it’s civilizational.
There are far too many people consuming far too many resources for the planet to bear. As the climate changes, how do we undertake the hard transition from an industrial-technological civilization to an ecological-technological civilization? However we do it, it’s a slog.
We may be on the cusp of a new geological age. The Holocene has hosted all human civilizations to date. Its salient mark has been a relatively stable climate. Now the Holocene is exiting, and ahead lies the “Anthropocene,” an age of human-induced change in core planetary processes, climate volatility, and uncertainty. The changes reach from the polar ice caps to the ocean depths, touching every ocean, landmass, and layer of the atmosphere. Human civilization is due for a rude awakening to the reality that the basic unit of human survival is not human society—it is the entire planet. We may soon be forced as a species to accept a truth that cosmologist Thomas Berry asserted: because “planetary health is primary” and “human well-being is derivative,” the first law of economics is the preservation of nature’s economy.
The impending ecological catastrophe is perhaps the greatest challenge humans have ever faced. Where are the leaders and where is the renewable moral-spiritual energy for tasks that will span generations? Might religious environmentalism contribute something essential?
More than eight decades ago, sociologist Howard Becker undertook a study of leaders at inflection points in history, those moments when the future closed in around something quite different from the present. While Becker’s study was provoked by secularization—rather than by the challenge of climate destabilization on a hot, crowded planet called home by more than 7 billion souls—his findings are suggestive. The most effective leaders, he discovered, were not the keepers of the reigning paradigm. Rather, the keepers of the conventional wisdom were so captivated by their own success that they failed to exit the mindset and institutions that had created wicked problems in the process of making their success possible.
Instead, the most effective leaders were “sacred strangers in secular society.” Sacred strangers drew on traditions that anchored them in a place beyond the presently popular. At the same time these leaders undertook a revision and expansion of the very traditions that anchored them. They were outliers and dissenters, yet they were not cynics about either social change or the reform of their cherished faith traditions. A compassionate retreat from the reigning culture and its gods was possible, and another way was attainable. Sacred strangers knew what the prophets knew: things can fall apart and new creation can arise.
The sacred stranger profile contrasted with two other leadership profiles. Some leaders abandoned ties to older traditions as they embraced the new. For them, the new displaced the old. They wanted nothing more than modernity’s freedom, modern prosperity, and the pleasures of privilege. Other leaders held fast to the old. They engaged in long and bitter battles against encroaching secularization, only to find themselves with waning influence and deepened alienation. While they felt they had never left home, home had left them.
Distinct from both of these cohorts, sacred strangers sought new possibilities while drawing upon the values, meanings, and insights of older sacred orders.
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