Industrial Civilization and Everyone Else

Practice of the Week
Industrial Civilization and Everyone Else

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

On a bookshelf in my living room sits a bright and colorful book, full of interesting photos of children from around the world. In some cases, the authors chronicle small details of the child’s life, such as a favorite toy or food. I can open to any page and find something that catches my eye and holds my interest. The stories of the children’s daily lives are fascinating, and very personal.

One photo of a little boy is included without a story, just a caption giving his name, Nicodemu, his age, 8, and his country, Tanzania. That photo still draws me in every time I look at it. Nicodemu is half-smiling and looking off into the distance, away from the camera. He is wearing what looks to be a dirty cast-off rag that has been draped and knotted into a robe of sorts. The sandals on his feet don’t fit very well. He holds two long sticks, perhaps used for herding or as walking sticks. Perhaps he was part of a loving family and had his most basic needs met, despite his appearance. I hope so. My heart breaks every time I lay eyes on his picture. More than once, his image has brought me to tears. When I see him, I want to give him a hug and a good meal.

Of course, I know he is only one child of millions but statistical knowledge of “the millions” doesn’t touch us like an image or story of one child. We are hard-wired by evolution to respond to individual people, not statistics. Nicodemu has become a powerful symbol for me of the “rest of the world,” which remains mostly out of sight. I’ll never know what happened to him, but I expect that my thoughts and prayers will turn to him from time to time for the rest of my life.

If the whole world lived a middle-class American lifestyle, it would take more than four Earths to provide the resources. This lifestyle can only be maintained if others around the world do not share it, and instead live in dire poverty. Resources are extracted, exploited, and unequally shared. The reasons are complicated and subject to much debate, but this is the situation. Americans have a lot compared to Nicodemu, even those who live on a tight budget. We have way more than anything resembling our fair share, while others have so little. In fact, one of the biggest problems facing us globally is that the developing world aspires to a middle-class American standard of living, and those of us who have that keep raising the bar for ourselves.
“The citizens of wealthy nations demand that their leaders continue to raise their standard of living – and they must do so simply to avoid unemployment and please business.” (Peter Seidel)
So the disparities become every greater.

None of this is the fault of us as individuals. We no more could control the circumstances and locations of our births than Nicodemu could control his. We were lucky. While we cannot be blamed for the circumstances that led us to where we are today, we do have a responsibility to live with as much integrity and mindfulness as possible in our personal lifestyle choices. We need to say “enough” to our leaders and to the unrealistic notion that our standard of living should constantly rise. We need to say “enough” in our individual lifestyle choices. We owe Nicodemu and the millions like him nothing less.


1. Mindful Fast. Consider fasting for a day or even just a single meal. If you are medically able to do so, set aside a day to fast – preferably one in which you don’t have a lot of obligations. A quiet, solitary retreat day is ideal. Spend some time in contemplation, meditation, or prayer. When you break your fast, do so gently and slowly with simple foods. As you fast, note the sensations of your body. Do they stay the same throughout the day, or do they change? Reflect on the feeling of hunger – what meaning does it hold for you? Contemplate the haves and have-nots. Does the experience of the fast influence your thinking? How?

2. Altar: Child of Empty Bowl. Find a photo of a child from a poor country. Place it on your altar for several days, along with an empty bowl. At your altar, consider what this child’s daily life might be like. Don’t romanticize. Acknowledge aspects that may be positive, but don’t gloss over the tough stuff either. Write your thoughts in your journal.

3. Journaling: Brainstorm Lifestyle Changes. Brainstorm ideas about how you can make lifestyle changes that better reflect your values. Don’t censor yourself. In your journal, write down anything that comes to mind, no matter how wild and impossible it may seem. Brainstorm for at least ten minutes. Then set aside your list for a day or so. When you come back to it, ask yourself: "What ideas resonate most strongly? What changes can I make?" Make them.

Group Activities

Host a Hunger Banquet. At an Oxfam Hunger Banquet participants are randomly assigned to an income class. A few, assigned to a rich table, are fed a complete meal with food to spare. A few more receive a simple meal of beans and rice. The majority are seated at poor tables, where they are given a small portion of rice alone. The dinner is a powerful catalyst for discussing issues of wealth distribution. See Oxfam's INFO HERE.

Questions for Group Conversation:
  • Why do we respond to stories and photos of individuals who experience suffering, while ignoring suffering on a large scale?
  • Why do well-intentioned solutions from rich countries sometimes backfire in poor countries and end up making poverty problems worse?
  • How would you explain to a poor child from a poor nation why the world is the way it is?

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Previous Ecospiritual Practice: Cogs in the Machine
Next Ecospiritual Practice: The Problems of Progress

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