Sustainability as a Spiritual Journey

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” — Elie Wiesel

What is the organizing principle of your life? Is it the next meal, the next dollar, the next love affair or the next buzz? Whatever that organizing idea which gets you out of bed in the morning is, it is your “ultimate concern.” The idea was identified by Paul Tillich, the highly consequential philosopher of religion of the mid-20th Century. Tillich understood the “ultimate concern” as this:

“Paul Tillich believed that the essence of religious attitudes is “ultimate concern.” Ultimate concern is “total.” Its object is experienced as numinous or holy, distinct from all profane and ordinary realities. It is also experienced as overwhelmingly real and valuable—indeed, so real and so valuable that, in comparison, all other things appear empty and worthless. As such, it demands total surrender and promises total fulfillment.”  — Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Concepts of God”

What got you out of bed this morning? Was it hunger or pain, or perhaps fear that you would lose your job if you didn’t show up for work? How do those concerns compare to the sustainability of life on this planet? At this moment, sustainability is not as immediate a concern as personal hunger or pain, but we are moving in the direction that will make sustainability an immediate concern. Perhaps it will be our grandchildren rather than us who will experience hunger because the fisheries have collapsed. Perhaps even our children will breathe poisoned air and be unable to find clean water to drink. Sustainability is rapidly becoming immediate and personal. I love my children and grandchildren. That’s immediate enough for me.

How can sustainability become an ultimate concern? Most of us didn’t awaken this morning with the thought of how to make life on this planet sustainable. That’s a bit abstract for most folks and the abstraction is part of the problem. Unless you live in Star Trek world, we don’t beam from place to place. We must travel. There is a journey involved. When we’re talking about sustainability as an ultimate concern, it is a journey of the mind and spirit. We don’t start out there. An evolution of thought is required. A movement of the heart, the emotions, must take place. There must be desire and motivation. There must be the promise of a reward. That’s why the idea of a spiritual journey appeals to me here. Like the knight in the Quest for the Holy Grail, the purpose was never really to find a magic cup. The real miracle is the personal transformation in which personal priorities are reorganized. New insights are seen. Ultimate concern moves beyond the next meal.

Some dangerous myths must be debunked and abandoned:

  • Unless the world can grow larger, the idea of perpetual growth in our economies is false.
  • The idea that wealth allows the unlimited consumption of energy and resources must be abandoned.
  • The myth of unlimited space and resources must be debunked.
  • The idea that an all-powerful deity will step in to fix problems if they get too severe must be abandoned.
  • The idea that climate change is part of an apocalyptic end-time must be debunked.
  • The idea that the political class can fix the problem is unrealistic.
  • Large-scale human migration into outer space is unrealistic.


The old proverb says, “The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” (My apologies to the elephants.) Small victories add up to large victories. No one can do it all, but everyone can do something. The most important thing is not to allow ourselves to feel overwhelmed and powerless. If Greta Thunberg can cross the north Atlantic in a sailboat to address the UN, we normal folks can figure out a way to make a difference too. The most important thing for us is to get our heads and hearts on the journey toward sustainability.

Some first steps:

  • Relate to a non-human intelligence. It can be a dog, cat, lizard, snake, whale, spider – it doesn’t matter which as long as you really experience and relate to the alien life form, the totally other consciousness.
  • Make your garbage man love you. When you get your garbage down to a single tidy bag of throwaway, your garbage man will love you and you will be reducing the pressure on our planet to absorb your refuse.
  • Unplug the Vampires. Do you really need to have all of those re chargers plugged in? Unplug those that aren’t actually in use.
  • Recycle. ‘Nuff said.
  • Go somewhere beautiful and feel the interconnectedness of life. You just have to do this, but I promise you it will happen when you’re looking for it.
  • Salvation is fun. Winning is a rush. Pick a cause. Get involved. Go to meetings and rallies. Presence is Power.
  • Shoot pictures of everything. My own personal fetish.

What is your ultimate concern? Religious people will generally answer “God” to that question, and that’s reasonable given our traditions, but what is “God” really? Is “God” separate and removed from our “oikos,” our home? I doubt it. Even in the Old Testament, as funky as that was, God said clearly that we were to “have dominion” over the Earth, and that means to rule wisely. That means active management rather than exploitation for the near-term.

I sometimes feel that the non-religious are freer in forming ethical systems. Metaphysics complicates things. Is it ethical to exploit the planet to the point that someday billions of people will experience a living hell? The answer is clearly, no. We cannot enjoy the bounty of the planet knowing that we are condemning future generations to famine and suffering.

If our ultimate concern can become the work of handing on a planet and a lifestyle which is a blessing to subsequent generations, we will have accomplished something worthwhile. Our lives will have counted for something.

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