Cogs in the Machine

Practice of the Week
Cogs in the Machine

Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.

Part of coming face to face with reality is realizing how much of our collective situation is truly out of individual control. We live embedded within systems over which we have no power. We are citizens of a country whose government may do things – wage war, impose taxes, pass laws – with which we disagree. We may protest or work to elect people whose actions may better reflect our own opinions, but there is a limit to our influence, individually or as a group. Even if we dedicate our lives to a particular cause, there are a thousand other equally worthy causes that won’t receive our attention.

Every aspect of our lives – the food we eat, the cars we drive, the places we work, even the toilets we flush – has an impact on the environment, and precious little is within any appreciable individual control.

This can be disheartening and result in apathy. Too many negative headlines about the environment can cause people to disengage from the debate altogether, believing that it is entirely beyond our control and influence. However, despite the risk of disengagement on the part of some, the first step toward recovering from our collective addiction to consumptive and polluting culture is recognition of the extent of our powerlessness.

Consider this story: Once upon a time, “Mr. Green” wanted to live an eco-friendly lifestyle. He worked for Giant Megacorp Industries and wasn’t very happy about it, but he had children to support and jobs are hard to come by, so off to work he went. He recycled all he could at home and made sacrifices to save money for solar panels on his house. But he still worked for GMI and felt he couldn’t afford to quit. One day, GMI sent Mr. Green across the country on a big jet plane to an important convention where they served him factory-farmed food for his dinner. Every day, he handed out free goodies made of plastic to potential clients. He stayed at a Big Fancy Hotel where they changed his sheets and towels even when he told them not to do it. Mr. Green went home after the convention feeling guilty. He wanted to help GMI become more eco-friendly, but his boss, Mr. Bigshot, didn’t care.

Sound familiar? There are thousands of Mr. and Ms. Greens out there today, doing the best they can in the real circumstances of their lives. We can accomplish a lot through individual choices, but we need to be aware of systems that are beyond our control. To change them, we may need to change laws, but more importantly we need to change the culture as a whole.

Decades ago, heavy smoking was commonplace. It was sophisticated and sexy. Today, non-smoking is the norm in the US and Europe. Why the change? Studies convincingly demonstrated the health harms of smoking, and laws were slowly changed accordingly. More important was the change that took place in the culture. Smoking is no longer the mark of glamour or status it once was. Attitudes shifted.

To change the Earth-destroying systems that are beyond our control, we need to experience a soul-deep cultural attitude shift and rediscover the sacredness of the Earth. We have the scientific understanding – but attitudes have not yet substantially shifted. Planet-destroying, do-what-I-want attitudes will need to give way to Earth-restoring behavior the same way that smoke-filled offices gave way to cleaner indoor air. Facing up to the way things really are is a critical first step toward making the deep changes our society so desperately needs.


1. The Roller Coaster. When you have some time when you won’t be disturbed, imagine you are getting into a roller coaster. As you visualize, engage your whole body. You sit, and the bar comes down. You’re strapped in. As the coaster begins to move, you realize there’s no turning back. Imagine yourself on the slow, jerky climb, the stomach-churning downward rush, the wind in your hair, the twists and turns. Now, imagine that instead of stopping, the ride keeps on going, on and on. You feel queasy, but people around you seem to be having fun. You can’t get off. Slowly, one by one, others start to feel sick like you do, and together you shout to the people in the control booth. Ride the coaster in your mind a while and think about all that is out of your control. The coaster is our culture. Are we shouting yet?

2. Ritual of Release. Obtain a fireproof bowl and at least a dozen slips of paper. Place the bowl on your altar, and over the course of a week or so, write down some of the Earth-threatening things that are out of your control. For example, you might write “illegal logging in the rainforest,” or “overfishing the world’s oceans.” As the bowl fills over the course of the week, spend a few minutes each day just being at your altar. Sit beside it and contemplate all that is implied by the items in the bowl. After a week, take the bowl outside and carefully burn the papers, symbolically releasing what you cannot control. Add the ashes to your garden.

Group Activities

Group Ritual of Release. Ask each group member to write down one example of threats to the Earth that are beyond the group’s control and add it to a large bowl. Spend some time sharing as a group, then take the bowl outside and burn the papers. Invite everyone to sit in silence for a while.

Questions for Group Conversation:
  • Have you every felt swept up by circumstances beyond your control? Is this experience a product of contemporary culture?
  • Have you ever consciously done something harmful to the Earth simply because it was easy? Did you feel guilty afterwards?
  • What charitable organizations do you support. What can you do to help their work?
  • What is it about the system of government under which you live (national, state, local) that makes it difficult to bring about cultural change?

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