Last week I returned from Southeast Asia and an opportunity of a lifetime. I spent 14 days traveling on the Irrawaddy River by riverboat, 600 miles into the remote center of Myanmar (Burma). This is a land frozen in time. There is no internet access, no cell phones or land lines. Cars are only found in the larger cities where they are used as taxis. You can’t use your credit card because Myanmar is not connected to the world’s banking system. The vast majority of the population lives in what we would consider subsistence poverty which means they have food, mostly from their garden and animals, and other essentials. The children are educated and seem happy. Family and Buddhism are at the center of village life. An archeologist traveling with us told us that the small villages that we visited still live in the Iron Age.

Yet the starkest difference that I saw is that there is no culture of consumerism and technology like our own to fuel never ending economic expansion. Village life is simple and sustainable. It was a wonderful opportunity to see life in reasonable harmony with nature –the way we as a species lived for hundreds of thousands of years.

But as the days rolled by on the river a darker story unfolded. I became witness to the systematic looting of the country’s vast stores of natural and cultural resources by the “generals”, as the military dictatorship is called. We passed miles of denuded hillsides as raft after raft of old growth teak floated down the stream to Mandalay or Yangon. The generals have been cutting the old growth teak forests for decades. It takes at least 30 years to grow a mature teak tree so they just continue to harvest further up river to meet the huge demand, mostly by Japan. They are also aggressively mining precious gems and gold for export and pumping their vast stores of oil out of the ground and sending it by pipeline to China.

While it would be easy to vilify the ruthless dictatorship that rules the country with an iron hand, I’m not going there. I want to stay focused on the broader global issue of sustainability. After all, the generals wouldn’t be pillaging the land if there wasn’t such a pent up demand by the “developed” countries, and aspiring developing countries, to support our lifestyle of consumerism and continuous economic expansion.

Spending a couple of days in Bangkok on our way home made the situation all the more clear. The last time I was in Bangkok was 1986. It was a bustling city of two and three story buildings, food venders and Tuk Tuks on the streets. Last month we flew into a modern city with freeways, luxury cars and a swelling middle class. As I looked out across the city from the 30th floor of the Millennium Hilton I was stunned. High rises dominated the horizon in all directions as far as I could see through the smog. The pace of economic development, the display of extreme wealth and the massive consumption of the mushrooming middle class was astonishing. I also knew that this same lust for consumerism was playing out in India, China and most of Southeast Asia. Together these countries represent a significant percent of the world’s population. That’s when it sunk in that this shift in values and lifestyle, from subsistence to voracious consumerism, in the last two decades represents a significant uptick in the rate of environmental degradation. What the generals are doing in one small country mirrors the vast economic growth spurt in Asia which aspires to the consumerism of the west.

How did we get here?

Many of you have heard this: if you put a frog in a pot of hot water on the stove it will jump out. But if you put it in cold water and very slowly turn up the heat it will just sit there until it boils to death. If the rate of temperature change is gradual enough it doesn’t even notice that it’s getting hot. We are the frog, and the rate of change in water temperature equates to the rate of global environmental degradation.

“How did we get so badly out of balance with our natural world?” I wondered as I felt grief for a plundered world, the unacknowledged grief that many of us carry manifested as depression, anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness.

What do we need to restore balance?

Most of us are trying to be more ‘green’. But our efforts are little more that holding actions. We’re recycling, driving hybrid cars, changing our light bulbs and putting on a sweater instead of turning up the heat. And yes, we’re looking at alternative sources of energy and creating green jobs. But what became clear to me in Thailand is that our current efforts are a drop in the bucket when what we really need is a sea change.

The only thing that will turn us around is a fundamental shift in world view and values.
Too many of us lack intimacy with the natural world. Instead of understanding our place in the natural world, we see ourselves as separate and it is this estranged relationship that is creating untold environmental damage.

It’s not too late to change but we must resist the temptation to point our index finger outward toward The Media, politics or even modern culture. The change I’m speaking of must go beyond any transformation of contemporary culture because that culture is based upon the illusion of separateness from nature.

We must start with ourselves by healing our relationship with the natural world that sustains us. As we heal, we align our identity and core values with our deeper human nature. At the same time we fulfill a universal longing for a sense of oneness with the universe and all of creation. We must find our niche – our soul – and in doing so discover our particular place in the world and our unique purpose. We can think of our soul as our true place in nature, what biologists might call our ecological role, the unique way that each of us is meant to serve and nurture the web of life.

How do we find our niche? The easiest way to start is to spend time in nature appreciating its beauty. Quickly we learn that nature reflects our soul and reveals our unique purpose: our gift to the world and our potential awaiting to be discovered. And as we each mature fully into ourselves- into our wholeness- this unique gift brings healing to the world and purpose to our lives. The world cannot become full until we become fully ourselves. As we do, we awaken the universe.

Author's Bio: 

A scientist by training and inclination Dr. Brenda Sanders is a former professor of Biological Sciences who taught cellular and molecular biology, and environmental physiology. In 1997 she had an unexpected awakening into unity consciousness which instantly altered fundamental aspects of her personality. After more than a decade of integration and spiritual maturation, she has developed an approached to life that is informed by biology and the natural environment to bring continual connection and insight into our lives.