Using the Earth Charter and contemplative practice to develop narratives that promote intergenerational care.
I believe in stories.
I believe in the power of stories.
I believe in the inspirational and transformative power of stories.
I believe stories can create or destroy character.
I believe stories can move people to action either for good or for evil.
I believe stories can shape the future.
I am and always have been influenced by stories. There is nothing I love more than listening to a well-told story, reading an exquisitely woven novel, or contemplating the various ways I can tell my own tales. To provide context and background for my work, I would like to begin by sharing a little about my personal story and the stories that shaped me.
The most influential stories of my life are the ones I heard while growing up--the tales of my family, my faith, and my culture. Though often at odds, the stories of my Italian heritage, my Roman Catholic faith, and my consumer suburban upbringing all contributed to the person I am today and to the core of my beliefs.
I grew up in a traditional Italian home, attended Roman Catholic school, and spent hours in front of commercial TV. Italian folk tales, Bible narratives, sitcoms, and TV commercials became my windows on the world. My relatives back in the old country, Noah, Adam, Eve, and the Baby Jesus, Tony the Tiger and Josephine the Plumber formed the cast of characters in my narrative world. The tales of my family's World War II experience, the birth of Christ, and the Cleaver's perfectly clean house each promoted its own distinct set of morals and values. Each story offered its own brand of wisdom, provided instruction about how to live my life, and contributed to the still small voice that is my conscience.
These stories and their respective morals still speak to me at the most essential level. My family stories of survival through the most difficult circumstances haunt me every time I waste food or take my gifts for granted. Noah's is the tale of a deeply faithful person who, like me, was willing to take care of all God's creatures (I have ten pets in my home today). The commercial imperative to have a spotless bathroom or the newest style of shoes produce in me feelings of guilt and inadequacy when my home gets dirty or my outfit isn't new or stylish. As I contemplate what it is I truly believe I often feel confused and conflicted. I struggle to see what I am called to do at this stage of my life, particularly in relation to care for the planet. It is in my personal narratives that I often find my answers.
I share my own struggles to develop an eco-spiritual consciousness because I do not think my story is unique. I believe most thoughtful people today are engaging in similar moral and ethical self-examination and are concerned about how their individual actions will impact the future for their children and grandchildren. These personal journies lead us to consider some important questions. How do we live lives that promote intergenerational thinking and care in a world rife with messages that tell us to indulge fully in the here and now? Is it possible to build sustainable communities in a world that still functions primarily on a self-indulgent consumer imperative? What is each of our individual responsibility in insuring a healthy planet for future generations?
When I look at the sources of my own knowledge (and hopefully wisdom), I realize that they are based in rich intergenerational thinking. The stories of my faith and my family reflect backward on past generations and they also encourage me to think about the future. Both encourage me to think critically about the present and to have the courage to make my own life choices based on my deep-rooted beliefs and values and not on popular culture. And along with my own self-examination has come the realization that a cultural shift toward real sustainable living will not come from political or social change, but from deep personal change and individual action. I do not believe that it is already too late and I have shifted the bulk of my work to teaching eco-spiritual consciousness.
In reflecting on Hegel's observation, "The owl of Minerva flies at dusk," David Ehrenfeld (2009) writes, "What Hegel meant by saying that Minerva's owl flies at dusk is that when troubles gather and the prospects for the future of civilization seem dark and growing darker, only then, when it is too late to do anything about it, can we begin to understand what is happening. Minerva's owl is now on the wing, but there is still some daylight left, still a little time to prove Hegel wrong" (p. 240).
Like Ehrenfeld, I am still hopeful but I also believe, like Ehrenfeld, that the answers do not lie in our politics or economics, but in our personal narratives. And I believe that we need a powerful philosophical structure to serve as the foundation for these stories and that this foundation must resonate for people of all faiths and of no faith. This thought process has led me to my current work as a GreenFaith Fellow in teaching eco-spirituality using the semantic tools of transformative narratives, contemplative practice, and the Earth Charter. I believe the way to a healthy future for the planet is to invite each individual to engage in examination of their own stories with a particular eye to historical context within their own families and with a predictive eye to future generations. Central to my work is a focus on the consequences of individual actions and a recognition of how these choices grow out of the narratives that influence each individual's autobiography. In the remainder of this paper, I will explore a set of semantic tools and a conceptual framework I am using in my work as a teacher and as a GreenFaith Fellow to promote intergenerational care and sustainable lifestyles.
II. Becoming Mindful of Our Stories--Tools and Cognitive Framework
If we are serious about promoting intergenerational care and sustainable lifestyles, we must find ways to build an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual bridge between modern consumer thinking and the native American philosophy that focuses seven generations out. In "Becoming Good Ancestors" David Ehrenfeld (2009) wrote, "political and social systems do not bring about fundamental changes in human nature" (p. 208). Only appeals to core beliefs and values have the potential to motivate even small shifts in human behavior. What are some of the semantic tools we can use to invite individuals to examine their core beliefs and values? In my own work, I use three specific tools that have been effective in helping my students develop an eco-spiritual, intergenerational perspective. These semantic tools are transformative narratives (particularly eco-spiritual parables), contemplative practice, and The Earth Charter. Each tool has proven useful independently, but the integration of all three has offered me the greatest impact in my work with students.
A. The Tools
1. Transformative Narratives
The central idea of Narrative Theory is the belief that at our core humans are storytellers and story consumers. We make sense of our lives by the stories we hear and the stories we tell. The influential narrative theorist Walter Fisher (1987) suggested that the most effective stories are characterized by the properties of coherence and fidelity. In other words, the facts of the story make sense and the story flows. And more importantly, the content of the story includes ideas, characters, plot line, language, and values that resonate for the listener.
According to David Suzuki (1997), "the brain creates a narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end - a temporal sequence that makes sense of events. The brain selects and discards information to be used in the narrative, constructing connections and relationships that create a web of meaning. In this way, a narrative reveals more than just what happened; it explains why." (p. 20)
Good stories have extraordinary power to shape us. They influence our values and our worldviews. Children are particularly susceptible to the power of a well-crafted story. The most effective stories are, as Walter Fisher notes, ones that people will internalize and take ownership of because they resonate with what they already know and believe about the world.
It is precisely this type of inspirational and transformative story that we need to promote eco-spiritual and intergenerational thinking. The semantic nature of these stories cannot be apocalyptic. Instead, they should be invitational. These new stories need to be didactic, they need to have a moral, and this moral needs to be actionable. These new stories need to reach people where they are today and offer them a transformational example of how things could be in a language that is appealing and accessible. The new stories need to demonstrate how values lead to behavior and they need to show that behavior has consequences that may take the form of pitfalls or rewards, but mostly they must focus on the rewards. Above all else, the new stories must offer something people really want and need at a deep level. Such transformative stories can be a powerful tool in shaping a healthy future.
2. Contemplative Practices
The second tool I am using to teach eco-spiritual, intergenerational thinking is contemplative practice. Detailed on the Tree of Contemplative Practice published by the Center for the Contemplative Mind (www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree.html), contemplative practices fall into seven categories that include creative process, movement, stillness, activist, generative, ritual/cyclical, and relational practices. The effective use of contemplative practice requires knowledge of your audience in choosing the appropriate form of practice. Designed and implemented well, contemplative practices have great potential to invite deep personal reflection and a means to reframe the language people use to define their lives. I have done extensive training to prepare for my work with contemplative practice in the classroom including a weeklong intensive curriculum workshop at Smith College sponsored by the Center for the Contemplative Mind. Contemplative practice has the "potential to transform the way one views self, world, and activity" (The Meditative Perspective, 2004, p. 1). Arthur Zajonc (2008) contends "contemplative practice can become contemplative inquiry" and "contemplative inquiry not only yields insight (veritas) but also transforms the knower through his or her intimate (one could say loving) participation in the subject of one's contemplative attention" (p. 2).
3. The Earth Charter
The third tool I am using to teach eco-spiritual, intergenerational thinking is The Earth Charter. The Earth Charter "... is a declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society for the 21st century. Created by global civil society, endorsed by thousands of organizations and institutions, the Charter is not only a call to action, but a motivating force inspiring change the world over." (http://www.earthcharter.org/) The Earth Charter is a powerful semantic tool because it offers language that is inspirational, invitational, and transformative for consideration of the environmental crisis. The Earth Charter is a particularly useful document because it does not espouse any specific faith perspective, yet it is rooted in a powerful foundation of morals and ethics. The document celebrates a wide range of spiritualities with a clear focus on intergenerational care. Of particular note is Principle 4 that states that we must "Secure Earth's bounty and beauty for present and future generations." To do this, we must "Recognize that the freedom of action of each generation is qualified by the needs of future generations." It is our responsibility to "Transmit to future generations values, traditions, and institutions that support the long-term flourishing of Earth's human and ecological communities." In this principle, The Earth Charter offers clear language for eco-spiritual, intergenerational thinking. Phrases like "freedom of action," "secure Earth's bounty and beauty," and "support the long-term flourishing of the Earth's human and ecological communities" offer a new semantic vocabulary for the environmental movement. The use of this document in classes and workshops helps to call into question mainstream American thinking that promotes immediate gratification with no thought of the impact of our choices on the future and replaces it with a language of responsibility and hope.
B. Conceptual Framework
Effective use of the semantic tools of narratives, contemplative practice, and The Earth Charter requires a conceptual framework to serve as a structure, a loom of sorts, to help weave these tools together.
In "The Dream of the Earth" Thomas Berry (2006) observed, "It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story" (p. 123). We must, as Postman (1995) suggested in "The End of Education," identify new "gods that serve." Finding these new gods, or this new story, requires a deep examination of existing values and an invitation to embrace new values. I propose two possible conceptual frameworks for moving us from gods that don't serve to gods that serve. These frameworks grow out of The Earth Charter and each begins with a core value/belief, looks at the common actions that grow from these values, predicts the results, and then offers the pitfalls and/or rewards. The first framework contrasts the god that does not serve of Consumerism with the god that serves of Community.
Value/Belief Action Results Pitfalls/ Rewards "Me First"-- Mindless Instant No long-term Hyper-individualism/ consumption gratification/ satisfaction. Consumption-- of goods pleasure. Depletion of Self-focus. and resources. resources. Constant internal hunger. "Community Mindful use Long-term Long-term First"--Other focus. of resources focus. satisfaction for Sense of and peace of true needs belonging mind. only. and joy. Conservation of resources. Satisfied spirit.
The second framework juxtaposes Dominion as a god that does not serve with Stewardship as a god that serves.
Value/Belief Action Results Pitfalls/Rewards "Dominion"-The Mindless use Planetary Reduced resources Earth is here of everything devastation. for current and for me with future generations. to use and abuse no thought as of I wish. result or impact. "Stewardship"-I Mindful focus Conservation, Knowledge of on am responsible consequences protection, having planned to of for care for the actions. sustainability. your own future Earth and and all life The future of upon it. others.
I believe that many of the environmental narratives being told to us today seem frightening and overwhelming. Many people do not see a "practical and personal" dimension to the crisis, so the moral of the story seems remote and unachievable.
The frameworks I am proposing have the potential to create new stories that can be personal and practical, have resonant morals, and motivate people to take action. Using the proposed semantic tools of narratives, contemplative practice, and The Earth Charter can provoke the necessary shift away from hyper-consumption and dominion to community and stewardship.
III. Bringing the Tools Together
My concern for eco-spirituality, intergenerational care, and true sustainable living motivated me to take action in my own work. I found myself asking the question, "What is my role in this discussion? What can I do to help?" After all, I am not a scientist. I am not a politician. I am not an economist.
But I do teach about things that really can make a difference. As a Communication professor, I teach about constructing effective messages. I understand the power of language, especially in crafting powerful narratives that can promote change. As a Media Ecologist, I teach about the best uses of media to tell these stories. And perhaps most importantly, as a novice Eco-Theologian, I can explore with my students the role of faith and parables in the sustainability discussion. And this is what I am now doing. Specifically, I am embodying my beliefs both in the semantic tools I discussed and in the conceptual frameworks I presented in two concrete ways. First, I now teach an annual course called "Living the Earth Charter." Second, I am completing a series of eco-spiritual video parables for my GreenFaith Leadership Project.
A. Living the Earth Charter
Living the Earth Charter was designed as a course using contemplative practices to examine how we can live the principles of The Earth Charter, both personally and communally. To do so, we examine our cultural values, their roots, and perhaps most importantly, the stranglehold these values and roots have on us and which make it so difficult for us to change the way we live. We consider the critical yet very difficult question, "Why is it SO difficult for us to change the way we live even when intellectually we see what our current lifestyles are doing - both to the planet and to ourselves?" The related action question we address is "What do we really need to DO to live the Earth Charter both individually and communally?"
Narratives, contemplative practice, and The Earth Charter are woven together throughout the semester with the hope of encouraging students to embrace the new story. Course evaluations point to the success of this approach with students reporting they felt a personal shift in their thinking over the course of the semester. Several students have contacted me since the completion of the course to share personal stories of new ways they find themselves behaving as a result of the work we did in class.
B. Eco-spiritual Video Parables
As part of the GreenFaith Fellowship program, each Fellow is required to design and deliver a leadership project. My background in Communication, Media Ecology, and eco-spirituality influenced the design of my project that is to create a series of eco-spiritual video parables. Biologists Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic (2006) noted "We may be seeing evidence of a fundamental shift away from people's appreciation of nature (biophilia, Wilson 1984) to 'videophilia,' which we here define as 'the new tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.'" As noted earlier, if we are to create resonant new stories, we first have to reach people where they are currently. In response to videophilia, I decided that video was the medium within which I should work. My target audience is teens and young adults between the ages of 12 and 21.1 am hoping to use the concept of videophilia as a vehicle to help people rediscover biophilia.
My GreenFaith project was also influenced by an ecological video parable that was popular when I was a teenager. One of the earliest video "stories" told about the environmental crisis was a TV commercial introduced in 1971 called The Crying Indian (1971). This commercial told a complete and convincing story. It had coherence and fidelity. We have all seen people litter. We have seen smoke billowing out of factories. Most people believe that Native Americans have a love for the Earth. The commercial had a powerful emotional impact; it produced feelings of disgust and sadness. We were encouraged to believe that people who litter do not care about the earth or the beauty of nature. Good people don't litter. The action is clear and simple. Don't litter. It was a good story with a clear moral and for a while after its airing people became more mindful about littering.
I wanted to create a series of new stories with morals that resonate for teens and that they can easily incorporate into their own lives. What I wanted to create were stories that counter the dominant American narratives of consumerism. "Buy this new product and it will make you happy." "Wear this expensive perfume or cologne and it will make you more popular." "More is better." "He who dies with the most toys wins."
Laurel Kearns (2003) suggests that we have to overcome "the global dominance of a capitalist economic system which values everything only in relation to profit margins, so that natural resources either have economic value for consumption, or have no value" (p. 479). New stories will have to challenge these dominant narratives. This is no small challenge when you consider that the average American is exposed to over 250 different commercial messages in a single day (Gladwell, 2000, p. 98). That's approximately 91,500 advertisements a year. The new stories will have to be very powerful to even be heard over the din of the messages of consumption.
The stories I am constructing are designed to build on the core values of my audience rather than to reject them outright. In this project, I am combining the tools outlined above. Each story builds on the principles in The Earth Charter, and each individual story focuses on one of the major themes of spirit, stewardship, or justice. Four of these eco-spiritual video parables are complete. The first is called "The Need" and is a story about stewardship. It invites young people to examine what they actually need to be happy. The second, "The Call," focuses on spirit and encourages teens to question whether they can hear their call to spirit over the din of technology. The third, "The Hands," attempts to build awareness about all of the hands that produce our consumer goods and the environmental justice issues they encounter. The fourth, "The Power," celebrates the greater power of friendship and faith to fuel a meaningful life over the electrical power that fuels video games. Audience response to the videos has been very positive. In addition, a full set of curriculum materials are being designed to accompany the video parables. Several of the activities are contemplative in nature.
We need a paradigm shift, a new way to see the world. We need new gods that serve. We need a new way to define success. We need a new moral to the American story, to the American dream. We need to create what Malcolm Gladwell (2000) in "The Tipping Point" calls "sticky messages." Gladwell proposes "the content of the message matters ... And the specific quality that a message needs to be successful is the quality of'stickiness.' Is the message ... memorable? Is it so memorable, in fact, that it can create change, that it can spur someone to action?" (Malcolm Gladwell, "The Tipping Point", p. 91) He believes that the key to creating "sticky" messages is to make them practical and personal (p. 98). That is what I am trying to do with my work with narratives, contemplative practice, and The Earth Charter. I am trying to promote new gods that serve, in particular, new gods that serve to promote eco-spiritual, intergenerational and sustainable ways of being. The new stories we tell must reach people at their core. The closer we get to someone's core, the more likely they are to act. As stated in The Earth Charter, we must help people "realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more" (The Earth Charter). If enough people can embrace this idea and can live it, we will reach the tipping point we need to preserve the Earth for future generations while still having all that we need to be happy.
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Ehrenfeld, David. (2009). Becoming good ancestors: How we balance nature, community, and technology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Kearns, Laurel. (2003). The context of eco-theology, in Jones, Gareth, Ed., The Blackwell companion to modern theology. London: Blackwell Publishing.
Pergams, Oliver R.W., and Zaradic, Patricia A. (2006). Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media? 16-year downtrend in national park visits explained by watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices. Journal of Environmental Management 80: 387-393.
Postman, Neil. (1995). The end of education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Vintage Books.
Suzuki, David. (1997). The sacred balance: Rediscovering our place in nature. Vancouver: GreyStone Books.
The Crying Indian. (1971). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3QKvEy0AIk (Accessed September 5, 2009).
Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Working Group on Meditation and Law. (2004). The meditative perspective. Working draft published by the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society, Law Program.
Zajonc, Arthur. (2008). Love and knowledge: Recovering the heart of learning through contemplation. Unpublished paper.
Maria Roca is Program Leader for Communication and Interdisciplinary Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. She holds her doctorate from New York University in Media Ecology and has been teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels for more than 30 years. She is a GreenFaith Fellow, serves as a Senior Faculty Associate of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education, and is currently working on a series of eco-spiritual video parables. She co-founded the award winning Wings of Hope program, an environmental education initiative that partners college students with school children in Southwest Florida to learn about important local issues. To date this program has reached more than 100,000 children.
The Earth Charter is accessible at http://www.earthcharter.org.
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|Author:||Roca, Maria F. Loffredo|
|Publication:||ETC.: A Review of General Semantics|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2011|
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