Despite the apparent unparalleled nature of today’s struggle with climate change, one could reasonably argue that this is not the first, but the second time that humanity has suffered radical, global environmental destabilization by its own hand.
Think expulsion from the Garden of Eden. There we were, just the two of us (instead of the cozy 7 billion we have grown to be today), happily tilling and tending the garden, basking in the gentle climate and eating to our heart’s content.
Then, whether seduced by greed, appetite, curiosity, the nudge of boredom, the itch of discontent or the promise of progress, we bit off more of the world’s resources than we could chew.
And all hell broke loose. Recognized animals started displaying grotesque deformities. The vision of the ever-renewable, self-sustaining creation was broken. In place of abundance, the land would yield tasteless food and that only after hard labor.
So the question is: what can we learn from this story and our ancestors’ supposed response?
Adam and Eve were much like us, it seems. Adventurous, curious, a good balance of industrious and lazy, a bit bored with the same-old/same-old, having enough yet wanting more. Eating the apple seemed like a risky but worthwhile thing to do. Yet when their eyes were opened, they saw the naked truth of the world. They realized the vision of paradise they had was just an illusion. They saw that in fact the world was not an invulnerable, never-ending goodies machine, there for the taking and taking and taking. They realized that progress had its price; that expansion and desire and appetite took its toll; that they would be responsible for the choices they made; and that their choices would affect the well-being of the whole world no less than their own.
What, then, did they do? What was the first response of these first humans to the awesome awareness of their power and its consequences?
They covered up what they didn’t want to see. They denied the truth of their newfound knowledge; pretended that all was as it was before. Unable to face the consequences of their choices, unable to accept the need to change in light of their newfound knowledge, Adam and Eve hid. They tried to live just as they had, hoping no one would notice. But of course, as the story goes, Someone did.
“They heard the sound of God walking in the Garden. And they hid. But God called to them, saying: ‘Where are you?’”
That, it seems, is the question we are being asked today.
Our generation is indeed a chosen generation. We have lived more like Adam and Eve in a bountiful Garden of Eden than any generation before us. Yet we now know the truth about this garden. We know, and are tracking, the real and potential earthly degradation that is the price of our appetite and consumption. And like Adam and Eve, we have hidden our eyes and ignored the truth about the consequences of our actions.
Only this time it is not God who will be throwing us out of the garden. We are doing it to ourselves. We are doing it by failing to change the ways we plant and harvest, mine and manufacture, travel, design and engineer our world. We are doing it by failing to see that more is often less; that just right is all we can really use, all we really need, all that really matters; that happiness is found in the time and tenderness we give each other and not in one more pair of shoes.
But all is not lost. We still have one foot in the garden. We know how to live so that we may thrive and not deprive our — we hope — endless stream of children from thriving themselves. We know how to avoid being the generation that unfairly benefits from the blessings of modernity yet dodges and displaces the price of progress. We know how to avoid placing any more of the costs of our enjoyment on those who come after us.
We know, and are learning more all the time, about how to be part of nature’s rhythm of renewal and not act apart from and against it.
We know and can do so much. For good or bad. Our future lies in how we answer The Question: “Where are you?”
If we hold that simple question before us as we go through our days deciding and designing our policies, practices, systems, dreams, consumption, and all our personal and communal behavior, then we will finally have come out of hiding, reclaimed the garden, and be learning again how to live rightly in the world’s fullness.