Scott Russell Sanders is not an angry prophet. But in the face of global warming, population explosion, looming food and water shortages and a cultural mindset that chants more, more, more, the Indiana University-Bloomington professor, environmentalist and author of the new book A Conservationist Manifesto
might be forgiven for raising his literary voice just a bit.
"Some parts of the new book may seem confrontational, challenging to the status quo, to what we're told day in and day out by the dominant media, by advertising and billboards and so forth," Sanders says. "But if we only respond meekly and quietly and politely to this goliath, to this juggernaut that is damaging the human community and also damaging the planet ... we'll simply be shouted into silence."
For Sanders, humanity's stark dilemma boils down to this: "We're on a finite planet, and on a finite planet we cannot have infinite growth." A Conservationist Manifesto
invokes biblical metaphors to describe both our woes and our means of overcoming them, and the values it proposes - thrift, reflection and a sense of the common good - are hardly radical, but in many ways a return to an earlier American way of life. Our more modern pursuit of happiness, in his view, has led us badly awry; in the new book he writes, "We are quickly forgetting who we are, where we are and how we ought to live."
The ills Sanders diagnoses are spiritual as well as environmental - related, in fact. Consumerism is a kind of crack, with an ever-diminishing delivery of instant gratification that drives us to use up the planet and ourselves at a faster rate as our levels of denial grow and become more desperate. We are slaves to what he calls "the sovereignty of human appetite," and we are told constantly that more of what's destroying us is actually our salvation.
"We have lost the sense that life has deeper spiritual purposes," Sanders says. "To this day, I am profoundly influenced by what I take to be the fundamental, ethical teachings of especially the New Testament and also the Hebrew prophets ... and one of their central teachings is to not commit our lives to the pursuit of wealth, the accumulation of stuff, but rather commit our lives to loving our neighbors, to living simply in a materially simple way, and to cultivating our spiritual dimension rather than our material dimension.
"So it is absolutely bewildering to me that so many evangelical churches in America today have identified with what they call free-market capitalism, as though Jesus' central teaching were to build up as much wealth as possible, to accumulate as much stuff as possible. My book is a modest contribution to an alternative vision - a vision of life that's materially simpler and spiritually richer."
That vision, Sanders acknowledges, requires thoughtful reconciliation with the reality of modern life. "Everybody who's alive participates in some level of what I call the consumer economy," he says. "I do. I have a car, I have a house, I have a television, I have a computer ... the choice is not between buying absolutely everything that's for sale and going deep into debt and taking out second and third mortgages on our house on the one hand, and on the other hand living in a cave. The choice is something in between. All of us, however modestly or simply we live now, can choose to live in a more modest way."
Sanders warns that such a choice will eventually be imposed upon us by necessity. "Humankind is in for a very hard century or two centuries," he says. "There are going to be radical changes in our way of life, in this country and in much of the world. The changes are going to come about for one of two reasons: either because of ecological and political breakdown, or because of choice, because of making wise decisions. And I would rather that the change came about because of wise and thoughtful decisions."
Recent political changes have contributed to Sanders' own innate capacity for positive perseverance. "I am fundamentally hopeful in this book and in my overall outlook because I'm a teacher. I see evidence every day that people, including myself, are capable of learning, that they are capable of overcoming certain kinds of ignorance and bias and prejudice, that they are able to reason, that they are able to consider evidence and make ethically responsible choices. They're able to. The conditions that make that sort of shift in consciousness possible include having leadership at the national level that speaks to us intelligently and to what Abraham Lincoln famously called 'the angels of our better nature' ... rather than to our fears, our envy, our jealousy, our selfishness. We need leaders that appeal to our compassion, our reason, to our sympathy, to our vision and sense of responsibility to the future. In that regard I think that things are more hopeful now than they have been in decades."
Still, the odds of convincing the human race to fundamentally change its behavior can often seem nearly insurmountable. "There certainly are days when I feel discouraged, many days," Sanders says. "I also think I have a realistic sense about the impact that any book can have in our culture, which is clearly dominated by the electronic media. At the same time, the writing of books is what I know best, it's what I'm able to do."
And for Sanders, the stories that books and other mediums deliver remain a profoundly important part of any cause for hope, as well as a reason for continuing to write. "It's hard for us to think about how to lead our lives if we don't have stories to embody our values and our understanding," he says. "And most of the stories that are sold to us by the commercial media are stories about privatism, about individualism and selfishness and short-term pleasures, rather than larger stories that help us to understand our place and relationship to other citizens, to other species and to other generations. So I try to tell stories, in this book and others, that invite readers and myself to think about how we lead our lives in relationship to these larger stories." Sanders tells his stories well - our challenge is to not only listen to them, but to live them as well.