There has been a long pause before this post, the result of a collision of events that left no time for the coherence that I find this kind of writing requires.
I have found my ethics of reaction to be well-honed and often practiced, but the ethics of reflection require a different mindset. (No doubt this is why I have always preferred the immediate challenge of tactics to the long game of strategy.)
There has been much to which I needed to react in the past two months, leaving reflection to some distant moment. So it is perhaps fitting (given the last post on St Patrick’s Day!) that this one gets written down in another Irish pub, this time in Ottawa, as far from Parliament as The Dubliner was from the Capitol.
I had reached one of those proverbial forks in the road, the place where there is a clear choice between directions to travel, but no further indication of what lies ahead nor even of the direction in which those two forks might ultimately lead the unsuspecting traveller.
That fork requires a definite choice — not some fade to left or right, like a badly-hit golf ball.
Past my own fork in the road, a couple of weeks ago I came across something written by my grandfather (and namesake) some 65 years ago. In 1951, Harvey Leroy Denton was one of the contributors to a book called In Such an Age: Young Voices in the Canadian Church. His chapter began with the following words:
“We had been travelling for some time along a narrow country road. It had snaked its way up hill and down dale and, since there was no other road running in the direction we were travelling, we had followed it with more or less assurance that it would bring us to our destination. Suddenly we rounded a turn and jolted to a stop at a cross-roads.
“Standing in an angle formed by the converging roads was an elm tree. The prevailing wind in the area had had its way with the young tree and now it stood with bent trunk and permanently bowed head, looking like a large interrogation point. It was a question mark at the cross-roads, symbolic of our situation as we sat there and discussed the problem of which road to take.
“The thing is a parable. We travel along the way of life following a road which seems to give reasonable assurance of bringing us to some appropriate destination. Then one day we arrive at cross-roads in thought and life and a choice becomes inevitable. What to do now?”
What then shall we do? This is the ethical moment, the question mark at the cross-roads for us as individuals and as a society.
Notice it is not “what then shall we think?” There is a decision point, a place where reflection and strategy end, the conversation stops, and something must be done.
Unsure of where either fork might lead, we must therefore base our decision on the principles which illuminate our lives at that moment. For me, the choice was whether or not to continue my writing and my outside involvement with the United Nations Environment Programme, because a conflict had emerged between those activities and my long-term, secure job as an instructor. The fork in the road did not appear by my choice — when does it? — but the choice of “what then shall I do?” became immediate, unavoidable — and entirely my own.
So I exercised my option for early “retirement.” My fork in the road led me away from that security in some other direction, to launch a consulting practice (greenethics.ca, inc.) in June and to explore whatever other paths and opportunities appear along the way.
In the first month, this decision allowed me to do a number of things: I was able to teach an intensive History course at the University of Winnipeg on “Revolutionary Responses to Climate Change”; to make a first trip both to UN HQ and to New York City as part of the first Global Meeting of the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Production and Consumption (10YFP); then travel to Ottawa for a Stakeholders’ Forum on UNEA outcomes, followed by the organizational meeting for the North American regional assessment for GEO 6 (in which I am going to participate as an author).
Which, of course, brings me to D’Arcy McGee’s Pub and this blog entry.
In each of the UN events, “what then shall we do?” kept surfacing as the key question for the participants. Despite the predisposition of UN processes to, well, keep processing, the urgency and necessity of accomplishing something is growing by the day.
The Sustainable Development Goals will be approved and launched this fall — a voluntary initiative, but one that governments around the world will disregard at their peril. Whatever the local take on the meaning of “democracy,” the voice of civil society — everyone but government — will no longer be silenced or ignored.
What that voice means or what form it will take will vary from place to place, but what it says will become louder as the effects of climate change, resource depletion, and ecological degradation become more apparent right where people live, from Kalamazoo to Kisokon.
As a global society, we have reached a cross-roads. The decision we make today will determine the course of future generations more certainly than at any other time in human history.
We do not know what lies ahead, where for certain each fork will lead in the end. We can only make the decision based on the principles we hold right now, what we hold as close to our hearts as our children, as intimate as the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat — as dear to us as that place we call home.
We really have no choice at all — just as I really had no choice. It is the choice between a false certainty and Possibility, between blindness and hope, between self-interest and generosity.
But that choice leads us to action, not inaction. No one makes a choice at the fork in the road and sits down to admire what it was.
Nor, once the choice is made, does the path ahead suddenly become clear. We need to recalibrate ourselves, personally and collectively, to decide what is most important.
We need to re-measure ourselves and re-assess our abilities, to reorder our priorities and re-evaluate our resources, if we are to adapt who we were to who we will need to be on this new phase of the journey. Most of all, we need to articulate the values that lie at the core of our decision to take the other road — to realize who we are.
The SDG debate was most clearly about values, about what kind of future World We Want — and how to measure the steps we need to get there. The 10YFP debate is about how we re-think the balance among needs and wants, in our own lives and in the world as a whole, to achieve a sustainable level of production and consumption.
It’s a small planet, and it’s the only one we have. We need to find ways — new ways — to get along with each other, to work together instead of at cross-purposes. We need to set aside the inevitable differences — things that might seem petty to others, but which go to the core of who we are as individuals and communities — and find some other path forward that we can share, not only with other people, but with all the children of the Earth.
That’s our job — our “great work,” as Thomas Berry calls it.
Time to start – I’ve been sitting here too long already!