1 Dec 2008, 2:18pm
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Walking the Talk: How Empowered Are You?

After several long months of talking to Oregonians of all ilk and walks of life, another chapter of Ecotopia Revisited is complete.  There is still much data crunching and qualitative work to be done, but there are a number of observations that we can see at this point in the project.  My immediate interests lie in the difference of degrees of hope between residents of intentional versus non-intentional communities, a thread I began in my previous post (Pragmatism Reveals Degrees of Hope).  Given that we found many surprising correlations between these two groups (or maybe not so surprising!), what appears to be their main difference and from what does this difference spring?

The survey we administered to participants of our project, in addition to a number of volunteers that took the survey online, examined individuals along a number of different worldview axis.  Does an individual see nature as inherently sacred, or sacred for theological reasons?  Does one value a vision of ecotopia, in which society is based around a local economy and natural products?  Is the world on the brink of some kind of significant collapse?  How much does one identify as an American or an Oregonian? How much does one identify as environmentalist, spiritual, religious, or morally or politically conservative?  Our results showed us a remarkable lack of significant difference between people living in intentional communities and others.  This means, for example, that you are no more likely to find an ecotopian, dystopian, or environmentalist in an intentional community as you are in a non-intentional community.  The distribution of Oregonians we interviewed reflects similar values and worldviews across the board.

The consistent choice of D.T. Suzuki’s quote (“we are the air, the water, the soil, the sun. What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves, because we are a part of the web of life”) is another significant similarity that has already been discussed to some degree.  This quote was chosen 72 per cent of the time, which means that across all of our interviews almost three out of every four people chose Suzuki’s words as personally meaningful.  Clearly this sentiment reflects a common worldview, at least in the Oregonians who participated in our project.  The quote can be interpreted differently, of course; generally participants would either speak of it in a more ecological, scientific way or in a more spiritual, philosophical way.

Now, in light of the above correlations and similarities, what does this lend to thinking about degrees of hope and empowerment?  I am struck by how persistent Suzuki’s quote was and by the discussion it generated.  In this and other inspirational quotes, many people signaled their need to look at the world through a positive, solution-oriented framework; hence, perhaps, the negative correlation between inspirational quotes and factual quotes from authorities of science.  We also heard comments about Suzuki’s quote being philosophically distinct: that if our global (or national, or local) society functioned more from the framework of Suzuki’s quote, than we wouldn’t be in the kind of mess we’re in now.

Suzuki’s quote is about having a responsive and responsible relationship with the earth.  In ecological terms, it is recognizing that what we physically put into our air, our water and our soil will come back to haunt us (or bless us, depending on our choices of treatment).  Think lead poisoning, contaminated water, and greenhouse gas emissions.  In a metaphysical sense, Suzuki stirs sentiments of oneness with the cosmos and a deep recognition that somehow we all are inherently connected.  It is an acknowledgement that the individual’s interests ultimately lie in the interests of the whole, on many different scales.

While this quote resonated in both kinds of communities, there is a distinct difference in the lifestyles of the residents in each.  Many of the intentional communities we interviewed were embedded in a natural landscape that the residents worked  on daily and often depended on for their resources, to some degree.  They ate food from their gardens, used energy from their decentralized renewable resources, built structures out of clay, straw and water, and sequestered water from on-site locations.  No community was entirely self-sufficient in their needs, but each was pursuing projects to move in that direction.  Hence, it is not a far leap to conclude that these people were directly and actively living in a manner that reflects Suzuki’s quote.  It was readily evident that everything that happens to the land they lived on, will eventually affect them in some way or another.  This practical sense of Suzuki’s quote may well cultivate the more spiritual interpretation of it, as well.

Another difference between intentional and non-intentional communities is the degree to which people report a strong sense of personal political empowerment.  It is my impression that, while most of our participants resonated with Suzuki’s quote, those who were actively living in that worldview – that is, seeing how their actions on the planet affect them directly – were able to feel more empowered in their role as an individual in the midst of global crisis.

Does this mean that one lifestyle is better than another?  I make no presumption to judge.  The way one chooses to live is the result of a plethora of complex factors and preferences and at best reflects the uniqueness of each individual.  In a world where there is great concern over the direction the future will take, each individual is faced with the challenge of determining how she or he will personally respond. Whether those lifestyle choices foster empowerment or disempowerment is in the hands of each individual.  Do the current circumstances of the world demand that every person feel personally involved and responsive in some way?  Again, I am not one to judge, but we can glean from our research that among the many different ways one can cultivate a sense of empowerment, actively practicing a philosophical worldview that acknowledges the interrelatedness of every individual’s interests is but one solution.

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