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Earth Day '09: The Great Work Begins

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Earth Day was first celebrated 39 years ago, in 1970. Then, as now, the holiday was motivated by the fear that our modern economy is ecocidal. The root of economics and ecology—eco-, or oikos in Greek—means “household,” so ecocide means “the destruction of the planet as home,” the death of the World-House. Earth Day reminds us that the current economic crisis is not merely a case of toxic debt, but of toxic waste; not just a matter of heating our homes but of overheating the oceans and atmosphere. All the living generations share the task of turning this curse aside, a fact not lost on the Obama administration or its counterparts in other countries. Now the ancient dream of world-citizenship, the planet as cosmopolis, is at the heart of the survival of civilization.

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This is a difficult thought to hold in one’s mind when it is hard enough simply to find matching socks in the morning. That’s why we avoid thinking it. Our ancestors didn’t have to think it: the fate of the world was a matter for God, or the gods, or the Tao, or the spirits; our role was to cooperate with cosmic principles largely beyond our control. Modernity changed that: we now exert power once reserved for the divine, but our cultures, our ways of life, have not caught up to this reality. Hence the genius of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”: Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? The fight between paradise and parking lot just got kicked up a notch. I admit that this truth is inconvenient; it is easier to dwell on the morning commute, to hope that the technology driving the mess will clean it up. Nonetheless, technology is the servant of culture. We will save or destroy ourselves, with or without the Terminator’s help.

If the transformation of culture is the key to a sustainable world, then the work we do at Juilliard is of utmost importance. If culture is the garden of ethics, then the arts, as catalysts of reflection and transformation, have a pivotal role to play in the evolution of a new way of life. This is what President Polisi’s idea of “the artist as citizen” has to do with Earth Day: we must all become makers of a civilization that saves us. Painful as it is to admit, this is not, originally, my idea. Speaking of "The Great Work" of our times, the historian Thomas Berry writes: “The task of moving modern industrial civilization from its present devastating influence on the Earth to a more benign mode of presence is not a role that we have chosen. It is a role given to us, beyond any consultation with ourselves. We did not choose. We were chosen by some power beyond ourselves for this historical task … The nobility of our lives, however, depends upon the manner in which we come to understand and fulfill our assigned role.”

For a culture that prizes individual freedom, Berry’s “Great Work” may seem like very bad news. Don’t we have the right to determine our own role, especially when existence itself is at stake? There’s the rub: the economy of nature grounds both persons and politics. Life, liberty, and happiness cannot be pursued on a poisoned planet. If duty is not a disaster for the free citizen, we must use our vocations, freely chosen, to serve the common good.

So, let’s try this again. Tony Kushner, a playwright close to my heart, also writes about the Great Work in Angels in America. In that play, Kushner envisions the souls of the dead joining hands to form oxygen molecules that rise into the sky to replenish the damaged ozone layer. This is an instance of the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, the repair of the world, translated into contemporary environmental terms. It is not anti-modern—a wish to return to a simpler past that is, in any case, a fantasy—but a reminder that ethical progress is what people want from history. Through most of the play, the angel America attempts to convince the prophet Prior Walter—a gay man with AIDS—that change is the force that broke the universe. Change, she says, is chaos. He replies: “We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks—progress, migration, motion is … modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait.”

Prior wins the debate: the angels do not succeed in saving humanity from change. We can’t stop history, but we can shape it. For Kushner, everything depends on an embrace of the messy, joyful, terrible task of world-repair. As the play ends, Prior breaks the fourth wall and says “I bless you: More life! The Great Work begins.” By doing so, he pours out the hope of tikkun into the audience, the city, and the world. Our obligation to heal the Household is not a betrayal of modern life, but the flesh of freedom in the very place we find ourselves.

Speaking of which: Central Park. Prior pronounces his blessing in Central Park, in front of the Fountain of Bethesda, an angel of healing whose touch evokes a spring from the parched land. As I write, it is snowing, and the fountain is dry. You will read this in a time of flowers. Chances are the waters are flowing. On April 22, in honor of Earth Day, take a moment and walk to the park. See if the waters are not already at work in the winter of history and the desert of the heart.

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