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Good News, Bad News...Which is it?
Ruth Rosenhek  (1998?)

Oftentimes when my friends ask me, "So how are things going?" they are inquiring about the ecological state of the planet. My friends know that I’d be delighted to rap about this since this is my favorite topic.

I usually give the bad news first, stating a number of facts from the ‘Doom’ file on my computer which is bursting at the seams. Such as:

* The world's natural forests are decreasing at alarming rates, a 10 percent loss between 1970 and 1995 which is equivalent to a yearly loss of a forest the size of England and Wales. 1

* Three quarters of the world's bird species are declining in population or are threatened with extinction.2

* About 30 percent of the world's coral reefs - which contain most of the oceans' biological diversity - are in a critical condition from pollution, sedimentation, and destructive fishing and mining.3

And the real heart wrencher. Many of the large mammals that we’re used to seeing in National Geographic, symbols of the wilds, of freedom and beauty are sadly endangered. Nearly half of the world's 233 primate species are now threatened, largely because of their dependence on large expanses of the rapidly declining tropical forests. 4

Usually my friends jump into the conversation adding some news that they’ve just read in the newspapers or seen on television: dolphins and sea turtles endangered by fishermen dynamiting the Philippine oceans; cyanide heap mining wreaking disaster upon the Western Shoshone’s land in Nevada; the orangutan’s near extinction as the Indonesian forests burn relentlessly.

I nod supportively as I listen and feel these grievous events. To put some sort of context around our conversation, I say, "We’re experiencing the 6th major mass extinction on Earth and there’s no knowing how much longer the spasm will continue; we’re on a downward swing right now which probably marks the end of what is scientifically known as the Cenozoic era. The last spasm of this magnitude was 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period. At that time, all animals over 55 pounds disappeared and over three quarters of marine animal species were lost."

"The good news is that each time life on Earth is depleted like this, life surges forth creatively as it adapts to the emerging times. Within five to ten million years after an extinction spasm, a rich biodiversity fills in the vacated niches as those species that survive adapt to the new conditions."

"Of course, this good news only takes us so far when we look squarely at the destruction and suffering that occur on a daily basis on this planet we call home. Especially when we realize that it’s human beings who are the root cause of the global devastation."

"It’s so horrifying. I don’t know how you can think about this, let alone feel the impact. Isn’t there any good news?" my friend moans.

Before I move on to the good news, I first take a moment to explain that our feelings of grief and anger are healthy, normal reactions to the kind of ecological and social crisis that we’re experiencing. We’re so accustomed to repressing these feelings from childhood and on into adulthood. Unfortunately with the repression comes apathy and a lack of engagement in the world.

My friend is nodding. We’re all too familiar with being asked to "lighten up" or having our feelings trivialized by others who might not want to talk about the sad fate of rainforests, rivers, wildlife or global climate change.

"What’s amazing," I say, becoming animated now, "is that these feelings often carry a deep wisdom with them. After all, feelings are not new to us; mammalian intelligence has relied on feelings and intuitions for millions of years. Every generation of our mammal ancestors survived long enough to procreate, even through difficult challenges, by trusting their feelings and intuitive senses. This bulge here (I place my hand on my forehead) has evolved much more recently and yet we modern humans tend to trust this, our cognitive abilities, above all else. But, look where this has gotten us thus far. Are we really so smart, destroying entire ecosystems, the very fabric of life upon which we depend for our survival?"

My friend and I share a laugh for a moment at the expense of human egocentrism. I continue on.

"We modern humans have a tendency to feel separate from the natural world. But as we feel our rage, fear and grief about the clearcutting of old growth trees, the ominous plight of large mammalian species, the toxification of the oceans...we EXPERIENCE a deep connection with the Earth , an indentification that nurtures our desire to protect the Earth. Much as we would move our foot out of the way of a bulldozer, we are moved to protect the beautiful douglas fir forests and creeks that run through our neighborhood from impending threats."

"So one good thing that’s happening is that more people are opening to these ‘ecological’ feelings as they lift the veils of denial and numbness. As we express these feelings, we become increasingly motivated to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Consequently, many people are changing deeply ingrained lifestyle habits which are destructive to the environment. For example, more and more folks are turning to the ways of voluntary simplicity, alternative energy sources and organic gardens. We’re seeing more and more ecologically sustainable businesses, permaculture gardens, and Earth protection projects."

Bad news. Good news. Which is it? My assessment is that right now we’re seeing much more destruction than protection and sustainable solutions. To really make it through these times and into what Joanna Macy calls The Great Turning, requires a fundamental shift in human consciousness, one in which we truly EMBODY our interconnection with the whole Earth and all living beings. In which we recognize and heal our tendency towards experiencing ourselves as separate from Nature. In which we understand that we are not the spider but just one strand among many in the web of life, all inextricably interwoven, all equally vital to the whole system.

"Do you think we might actually experience this kind of transformation of consciousness in time?" my friend asks.

That’s the big question. Will there be a happy ending to this tragic epic? Will we humans learn our lessons in the great school of physically manifested life?

"I don’t know." I reply frankly. "Perhaps this is the real challenge of our times. Even when we increase our ecological awareness and engage in activities which nurture a sustainable future, there’s no way to know how things will turn out. Will the elephants and tigers still be roaming the Earth? Will there be frogs by the creek where our grandchildren will play? Will future generations of humans be able to lead healthy lives?"

Fortunately, our engagement in a sustainable future goes beyond the question of hope and despair. There’s much joy to be found in working for the healing of our relationship with the Earth and each other. And there’s much suffering each day calling out for compassionate action. Calling on us to find new ways to live that are sustainable, that nurture ecological consciousness, and that are compassionate towards all beings.

"Every action is basically a prayer," I say. "A prayer for the Earth. When we realize that we love life and we love this Earth, we find joy in acts that protect the Earth and all living beings."


1. Report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), October, 1998 (reported by Agence France-Presse)

2. Worldwatch .Institute report, "Life Support: Conserving Biological Diversity," by John C. Ryan

3. Worldwatch .Institute report, "Life Support: Conserving Biological Diversity," by John C. Ryan

4. ENVIRONMENT: Mass Extinction of Animals, The Inter Press Service in English, 4:04 PM May 25, 1998 (Worldwide distribution via the APC networks).

5. Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN), 1996 reported in ENVIRONMENT: Mass Extinction of Animals, The Inter Press Service in English, 4:04 PM May 25, 1998 (Worldwide distribution via the APC networks).

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