- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
Recently I had occasion to drive up to Los Angeles. As I neared the city, the incredible volume of traffic on the overly-congested highways in and around the city really struck me- an ocean of automobiles for as far as the eye could see, everyone barreling along at 70 mph in six to eight lanes of traffic. The amount of fuel consumption and engine emission alone was so staggering that I couldn’t even imagine it.
As I drove along I was also struck with the fact that it didn’t have to be this way- all these cars on all the highways, the air poisoned and polluted. In fact the uncontrolled traffic in a city like Los Angeles is a direct result of decisions made 100 years ago by big business and industry, oil companies and automobile manufacturers.
A hundred years ago people got around the newly expanding City of Los Angeles by making wide use of pubic transit- electric streetcars and cable cars were the primary mode of transportation. In fact Los Angeles streetcars were the “talk of the country,” touted as a new model of transportation for the growing population in the nation’s big cities - safe, energy efficient, easily accessible for everyone, economical.
But the captains of industry saw streetcars as being a serious hindrance to the “profit margin.” There is way more money in making and selling cars to every individual and forcing them to buy your gas. And so they exercised their influence and used their political power, and streetcars met an untimely death.
To this day there is very little in the way of good public transportation available in the city of Angels- instead they have lots of individual automobiles, polluting the air, clogging the highway, quietly destroying Mother Earth.
We hear an awful lot today about global warming- incredibly harsh winters, summers that are hotter than ever before in history. Out here in the desert the temperature today is expected to top the record of 116 degrees, and the entire state is suffering from a severe drought. Oceans are being over-harvested and polluted by oil spills. Forests are dying.
It all makes me wonder, like the traffic in Los Angeles, could it have all been avoided if 100 years ago different environmental decisions were made – decisions not driven by bloated egos in the worship of the almighty profit margin, but decisions driven by respect not only for Mother Earth but respect for our fellow human beings?
In her book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis, Buddhist author and teacher Susan Murphy takes a lesson from the Hopi Tribe of the North American Indians who believed that the “Great Spirit” intimately abided in and flowed throughout all creation. They believed that we all belong to Mother Earth, all joined together in the flow of the abiding spirit, and so what we do to the earth we do to one another.
I was especially interested to read about the decision-making process employed by these native peoples when it came to how to treat the natural environment:
The Hopi way of approaching any big communal decision about
how to treat Mother Earth is one that may seem strange
to ears like ours so attuned to the urgent din of ‘growth at all costs.’
They would gather together and ask the question,
‘What will this mean for the next seven generations?’
The people would close their eyes and reach deep inside to visualize the faces
of those downstream in time from themselves –
the next seven generations of those unknown stewards of the earth yet to be born.
The idea of making decisions about the earth with a concern for what it will mean for the next seven generations is a very powerful image for me. If those who went before us one hundred or so years ago had that same kind of spiritual sensitivity our planet would likely not be in the kind of trouble we all experience today.
It also seems to me that you don’t have to be a corporate executive or oil tycoon to be making seven-generation decisions when it comes to how each of us treats Mother Earth. Recycling, saving water, concern for how much fuel and electricity we consume- these are far more than politically correct acts performed by liberal-minded “tree huggers.” The way any one of us treats the earth is the way we treat one another - not only those who live on this planet with us but those who will come after us in the generations yet to come.