He’s been called “the town crier of the global village.” But John Seed does far more than sound the alarm of impending environmental disaster.
Whether fighting to shut down uranium mining in Australia, organizing grassroots efforts to halt the destruction of rain forests in New Guinea and Ecuador, or putting himself in the path of bulldozers, Seed is a tireless advocate for the planet.
Part teacher, part roll-up-your-sleeves activist, Seed travels through the United States each year leading environmental events. Not content to shout dire warnings about the fate of the planet, and perhaps aware that many of us wouldn’t hear him anyway, Seed delivers his message in musical, theatrical roadshows, as well as in community-healing workshops known as Councils of All Beings.
In a council, people assume the roles of plants and animals speaking to those who threaten their existence. This allows participants to unearth their own sense of hopelessness, anger, and sorrow — and, more importantly, to stop experiencing the environment as something external and separate.
This step in awareness is crucial, Seed says, for it is our reckless sense of separate dominion that is most dangerous to the earth. When we even temporarily assume the identity of a meadowlark, a cottonwood, a scorpion, or any planetary species, Seed says we cannot help but feel a profound, new understanding of their place as our equals. Without ceremonies like these, which recreate ancient rituals of inter-species respect, we forget our relationship to the earth. And in this forgetting, he says, lies our ability to destroy the world.
Seed’s workshops and roadshows, with their blend of nature rituals and animal pantomime, may seem a passive vehicle for his message of planetary doom. Yet Seed is more than a vaudevillian for the planet. He’s an impassioned, serious activist who rushed full-speed into saving forests after a single, life-changing event in his native Australia.
Living in New South Wales in the 1970s, Seed was unaware of the rain forest five miles from his home. One day, he heard of a nearby logging dispute and wandered down the road to learn more; what he discovered was the rain forest and a protest that swept him into the currents of activism. Seed came away from the event forever changed; he rapidly abandoned his contemplative lifestyle and was soon leading protests himself.
Seed doesn’t know why that first protest affected him so intensely. He speculates that it was probably due to the rain forest itself — so different from the second-growth forests with which he was familiar. That, he says, coupled with the danger and threat of arrest, jolted him into action. Today he is known as one of the most outspoken rain-forest advocates in the world.
The author of Deep Ecology and the editor of the World Rainforest Report, Seed also directs the RainForest Information Centre (Box 368, Lismore, New South Wales 2480, Australia), an organization dedicated to protecting the world’s rain forests.
Recently, the spiritual teacher Ram Dass — himself the subject of many Sun interviews over the years — organized a ten-week activist course in Oakland, California called “Reaching Out.” In this interview, which was part of that series, Seed talks with Ram Dass about the state of the planet at the end of the twentieth century.
— Cassandra Sitterly
Ram Dass: Yesterday I was following a truck that had a sign on the back saying, I am polluting the atmosphere. I had never seen a sign like that acknowledging the part we’re playing. As time runs out for the environment, how do we get a sense of the catastrophic implications of what we’re doing?
Seed: That’s the fundamental question, isn’t it? Because if we were able to fully acknowledge what’s happening, then surely we would have the necessary will to prevent it. The technology certainly exists: we know how to grow food properly, we know how to control population. But the will doesn’t exist because we don’t really believe that anything catastrophic is happening.
Ram Dass: How do we come to believe it?
Seed: I believe that loss of the ceremonies that acknowledge and nurture our interconnectedness with nature is a large part of the problem. We modern humans are the only ones — as far as I can tell — who have ever attempted to live without these rituals as an integral part of our lives. The people who do place great importance upon such rituals live in very close connection with nature — hunter-gatherer societies, for instance — where they are immersed in nature all the time. If we consider how necessary they find it to guarantee their connectedness by performing such ceremonies, how much more we, living such denatured lives, must need to do this.
We have now pushed the environment somewhere “out there.” Of course, all we have to do is hold our breath for about a minute to prove that the environment isn’t really “out there.” There’s a constant exchange not just of air but of moisture and of soil into our bodies. We don’t experience ourselves in this way. Our experience of ourselves is still mediated by thousands of years of Judeo-Christian brainwashing, which makes us feel that the real reality is somewhere else — in heaven, anywhere but here on this earth.
Ram Dass: What are examples of those kinds of cultures that are close to nature?
Seed: I saw some dances and ceremonies among the Hopi Indians a couple of years ago. A hundred dancers were dressed from top to toe with animal masks and feathers. These people lived in the oldest continuously inhabited village in the Western hemisphere, and had been performing these ceremonies and rituals without break for thousands of years. This isn’t a process that you complete. You can’t say, “Well, we’re alienated, therefore we need these therapies and then we’ll be OK.” Being OK means realizing that these ceremonies must have a place in our lives; they aren’t something we’re ever finished with.
Ram Dass: When I think about our culture, I wonder if it will take an incredible crisis to awaken our consciousness, or can you see it being roused more gradually?
Seed: If the traumas we’ve already had aren’t sufficient to awaken our consciousness, then I’m afraid that any trauma that would be sufficient would also be lethal. Dr. Mostafa Tolba, the director general of the United Nations Environment Program, says that at the current rate of destruction, we face by the turn of this century an environmental catastrophe as complete and as irreversible as any nuclear holocaust. This is echoed by many scientists. If what they say is true, it’s hard to imagine any trauma sufficient to awaken us that wouldn’t also be a death blow to the planet.
So then, what can we hope for? Humans have been evolving on this planet for four billion years. As a creation myth, this has advantages over an old man with a white beard creating everything six thousand years ago, or even a turtle with the world growing on its back. The composition of my blood and its relationship to the composition of sea water four hundred million years ago when we left the oceans, the growth of the human fetus with the vestigial tail and the gills — so many clues indicate that evolution is actually the true story of where we came from. And if that’s the case, then I as a human have been successful through all of that time. The evolutionary road is littered with the bones of those who couldn’t adapt, who couldn’t adjust to the crisis of their time, whatever it was. But we have this perfect pedigree, and we must have some hidden resources we’re not aware of yet. Something needs to trigger us so that we begin to identify with that larger body of ourselves rather than merely seeing with this tunnel vision we have now, looking only at this very immediate time.
Nothing but a miracle would be of any use. Look at the rate of destruction, whether of the rain forest or of the ozone layer. If you were to multiply all the efforts of conservationists by a factor of ten, or even a hundred, it wouldn’t be enough to stop it. It would take a very simple miracle, really. Human beings would need to wake up one day with the realization that this is the end unless we make certain changes, and then decide to change. That doesn’t seem very likely. But our entire history is so marked with miracles that it’s only our strange modern psyche that refuses to see them. The miracle of being descended from a fish that chose to leave the water and walk on the land — well, with a pedigree like that, you can’t lose hope.
Once I understand intellectually that my relationship to the earth is that of a leaf to a tree, it’s obvious that the needs of the tree have priority over the needs of the leaf.
Ram Dass: Is the process of awakening to that history a rational process? Is it intuitive? Is it a cellular wisdom? What level of awakening are we talking about?
Seed: I think it has to be all of those. Though our different concepts may be of some use to us, reality has no seams. My own awakening, shall we say, started when I left my job as a systems engineer for IBM and started living on the land. I had no interest in ecology, but through circumstance I found myself involved in the defense of a particular rain forest — much against my beliefs at the time. Once I was involved, I became gripped emotionally by that forest. I also started to become intellectually interested in the subject, and then I discovered this rain forest was the place where I had evolved for the last hundred and thirty million years. In that light it wasn’t in the least surprising that it could affect me so powerfully.
In the Council of All Beings, we have a ritual that recapitulates our evolutionary journey and attempts to awaken the deep memories. I think there’s a lot of evidence from rebirthing, LSD research, and so on that cellular memories do exist, but through our conceptual framework and filters we shut them off from ourselves most of the time. Ceremonies and rituals have the power to release us from those filters and allow other realities to enter us.
Ram Dass: There are two ways of thinking about an evolutionary miracle. One is that the evolutionary process itself inevitably brings it about, and therefore what humans think they’re doing is irrelevant. The other is that there’s a key moment where what humans decide to do is critical. Where do you stand?
Seed: I don’t know the answer, and in a way I don’t need to know. I continually make a surrender to the larger picture whenever I’m at any kind of a crossroads. My own sense is that the earth is undoubtedly alive, undoubtedly intelligent — much more intelligent than I am. In fact, my intelligence is only the tiniest fragment of the intelligence of the earth. I’m just a leaf growing on this tree. So it’s safe for me just to surrender and allow the sap to come from the tree and move me where it will.
Ram Dass: Three Mile Island wasn’t enough. Chernobyl wasn’t enough. The combination of the two wasn’t enough. Yet there’s probably some critical moment where behavior changes. And at that point the only question is: is it too late, is the damage irreversible? It’s interesting how the data about irreversibility is continually disputed by certain scientists who say that technology will solve the problems. How do you talk to those people?
Seed: That’s really hard. Technology is so good at covering up that it’s very difficult even to see the problem in certain places. It’s possible to hide, especially for the powerful and those with vested interests.
But let me give an example of the scale of the destruction that’s going on. We know that the amount of solar energy necessary to sustain the hydrological cycle in the Amazon jungle — the energy necessary to lift that water into the atmosphere — is equivalent to the energy put out by two thousand hydrogen bombs a day. The vegetation that grows there captures that much energy. It creates a huge heat engine that drives the winds of the world, those winds that the ancient mariners knew, and the same winds that deliver moisture regularly and predictably to North America and to Europe. Those winds don’t simply exist — they’re continuously being created and maintained by large biological systems. The Amazon is one of the vital organs of the living planet.
José Lutzenberger is a great environmentalist who was appointed Brazil’s minister of environment as an answer to that government’s critics, I suppose. He says that if we lose as little as one-third of the Amazon, this process will be irreversibly disrupted. First, the rest of the Amazon will start dying because the immediate hydrological regime will have been disrupted. Then, of course, the climate around the world will be disrupted.
So even if we save a huge national park here and there — even if we could save them, which we can’t because the national parks are being colonized and burnt before our eyes — those efforts are not enough.
The British scientist James Lovelock said that what we’re doing to the Amazon is like the brain deciding that it’s the most important organ in the body and then mining the liver for some benefits. Once we understand our interconnectedness on that level, we realize it can’t be in the interest of the brain to mine the liver, or in the interest of a leaf to destroy the tree on which it’s growing.
So we have to say this: national parks are just not enough. People may reply, “How can you say this? We’re having enough trouble getting a hundred thousand acres here and there as a national park, and you say all the cutting has to stop?” But still, it has to be said. It may be impossible, but nothing less than that is going to be of any use to us. To try to keep the earth alive with a few representative areas of natural places would be like trying to keep a tree alive by leaving a few pieces of bark on its surface, or trying to keep the human body alive with a few pieces of skin. If this were understood, then everything else would fall into place. So the question is, how can this understanding reach people?
Ram Dass: How do you decide whether it’s more useful to get involved politically at the local level or at the international level?
Seed: I wouldn’t know how to make those decisions rationally. What I do is lie down in the forest and cover myself in leaves. I say, “Mother, I surrender to you.” I deliberately allow all of my energies to sink into the earth and to be aligned with the earth. Then when I get up, I do whatever I’m moved to do. I behave spontaneously, and I gain confidence as time goes on, as I’m able to look back at the results of those spontaneous actions to see a pattern of order.
Over the last year, for instance, I spent about half my time doing workshops. This also serves as fund-raising because all the money from these workshops goes back into the rain forest. The other half of my time is spent on political action — including large projects to protect rain forests in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Ecuador — and on direct action like chaining myself by the neck underneath a vehicle to prevent it from moving into the forest.
Ram Dass: It’s as if you become an instrument for the earth. You come out of the earth and you speak for it. You speak for the trees. Can you talk about the change in your self-consciousness as you surrender more and more into that intuitive way of expressing the needs of the earth?
Seed: Once I understand intellectually that my relationship to the earth is that of a leaf to a tree, it’s obvious that the needs of the tree have priority over the needs of the leaf. The tree can exist without the leaf, but the leaf can’t exist without the tree. I allow that knowledge to sink more deeply into my being, to that place where my values are made, where my intuitive moment-to-moment decisions are made. Then I start to partake of the nature of everything else on the planet. This is completely ordinary; it’s not as though there’s anything special about this.
A certain species of butterfly in the Amazon flies in a flock made up of individuals of two different colors, black and orange. When they land, the black ones form a perfect circle, and the orange ones form petals around it, disguising the flock as a flower to fool their predators. Now the black ones didn’t decide, Hey, I’m a black one, I’m going to go in the center. They just did what they did.
I’m made out of the same material as those butterflies. I’m related to them; I’ve been here since exactly when they got here. For a long time, though, I forgot that. I have a propensity to forget. The butterfly never, never forgets who it is and what it wants. When I acknowledge and search for and find and love my rootedness in the earth, and accept my dependency on the earth, and accept that I’m not an independent spiritual being but that my spiritual being grows out of a complex and exquisite biology — then I just become an ordinary miraculous butterfly-like creature.
Ram Dass: But a butterfly whose brain is no longer merely instinctual. Is the prefrontal lobe the enemy of evolution?
Seed: That remains to be seen, of course. If I were a gambling man, I’d have to say that the odds are that we’re going to destroy complex life on earth. But I like Thomas Berry’s idea, and Matthew Fox’s, that we’re here to reflect back upon the earth somehow, that we are the earth coming into this reflective mode, and there’s a certain risk in that. It’s the birth of something new, and the risk of death attends birth. I assume that the earth must know what it’s doing to take such a huge risk, and I surrender to that wisdom.
Ram Dass: Thomas Berry is trying very hard to hold on to both his Catholic identity and to an ecological perspective, and it’s quite a tension for him. What role can religious institutions play in all this?
Seed: All the existing religions have people who are inspirational. The Christians have Thomas Berry, some Quaker thinkers like Marshall Massey, and Matthew Fox with his concept of Original Blessing. I feel it’s very important to nurture influences in every possible way, because it’s too difficult for most people to give up their religion, the infrastructure of their whole psychological and spiritual lives. It’s much easier if they can start from where they are and grow into a love of the earth.
Ram Dass: But they’re following a dysfunctional cosmology, as Thomas Berry calls it.
Seed: The Judeo-Christian cosmology, coupled with our immense technological power, is a terribly dangerous thing. We believe we can conquer nature, while we forget that we are also part of the nature that’s being conquered. That’s very dangerous. But there are other interpretations that need to be supported — in particular, the idea that the covenant wasn’t between God and the Jews, but between God, the Jews, and nature.
Unless you can save the whole thing, you can’t save any of the pieces. So any attempt to save a little piece here and there can only be seen as a kind of ritual or prayer — a prayer for the awakening of people.
Ram Dass: You’re suggesting spiritual practices, like rituals, that would awaken people to their relation to the earth.
Seed: Yes, but these rituals are fairly recent for me. My own changes took place before I knew about them. For me, it all started with the nonviolent, direct action in defense of nature, which I didn’t see as a ritual at first. Now I do see it that way: to go where humankind meets wild nature, that line where nature is being bulldozed and plowed and pushed back; to stand right on that line, not looking at nature with an eye toward conquest, but looking back as part of nature and saying no to its destruction. That was the biggest turning point of my life.
I now believe this to be an act whose value is limited. You can’t save a forest, you can’t save a tree. Today, with the ozone layer disappearing, with the atmosphere changing, with global warming, all the forests, all the trees are going to be gone. The ones that you saved in 1979 or 1989 are going to go along with everything else. Unless you can save the whole thing, you can’t save any of the pieces. So any attempt to save a little piece here and there can only be seen as a kind of ritual or prayer — a prayer for the awakening of people.
Ram Dass: Even as a symbolic statement, that’s very powerful. Let’s talk about Papua New Guinea.
Seed: For ten years or so our main activity in those jungles was to stop bad things from happening. It was a struggle all the time. In the Pacific — in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, in Vanuatu — where the people do have land rights, the fate of the forests is much less in the hands of governments than in the hands of communities who’ve traditionally owned the lands. The only way to protect the forests is to offer those communities some alternative economic development that doesn’t require the destruction of the forest. You can’t expect them, having no economic life whatsoever, to take a lofty view of these things. They don’t want to see the forest logged, but they feel they have no alternative since they lack the skills or the infrastructure for economic development.
In Papua New Guinea, we discovered a small portable sawmill called a walkabout. Wherever these sawmills were, the logging companies couldn’t get a contract because suddenly the trees had value for the people there. We did an ecological audit of these walkabout sawmills. We discovered, as we’d suspected, that the worst of them was far better for the forest than the best of the large logging companies, mainly because the sawmills require no bulldozers, which compact the soil, creating even more damage than the removal of the trees.
Ram Dass: The logging companies cut everything, don’t they?
Seed: Yes. Sometimes the walkabout sawmills do, too, because they’re being used in too small an area, but even then the regeneration was much better because no bulldozers had been used.
With funding by the Australian government, we produced manuals to go with future sawmills so that people would know their options in terms of forest management. Then we found an area to intervene using these sawmills. This was in the Morobe Province in Papua New Guinea, where a large logging company was about to sign a contract with the Zia tribe. The company had clear-cut its way along that stretch of coast, and it was so confident of getting this contract for about 250,000 acres that it had already built a wharf and a fuel dump; it was a matter of weeks before the contract was finished and signed. We came in and offered the people a choice. We said we’d give them three walkabout sawmills, one for each of the villages in that community; a management plan for rotating through a small section of forest in a sustainable way; and a guaranteed market for the sawn timber. In return, would they agree to spurn the advances of the logging company? They did. Now they are getting two hundred times as much for each tree they cut as they would have gotten for the logs from the logging company. Although in the short term they’re not getting as much of a windfall, they can see that this is going to be sustainable in the long run. Each sawmill cuts only seven acres a year, and we believe that on a fifty-year rotation they’ll be able to go back to the first site again and keep logging. So that’s 350 acres per sawmill for three sawmills compared to the 250,000 acres that were threatened by the logging company.
We’re treating this as a model. We’re looking for other places where we can use the sawmill this way.
Ram Dass: Have you had any dealings with the lumber companies themselves? ls there any way to get them to redirect their energies into small, sustainable operations?
Seed: So far we’ve had no success at all with the logging companies. Last week in New York I had a meeting with executives from Mitsubishi’s timber subsidiary because we’re about to crank up a worldwide boycott campaign. There was no comprehension on their part. For them it was just a public-relations problem.
Ram Dass: They don’t have any ecological consciousness at all?
Seed: Well, the individuals may. In our two-hour meeting with them, one of the women in our group began to weep while trying to explain her concerns. I could see that this actually changed something, that something shifted in the room, but the change was personal. These individuals weren’t speaking for themselves as persons, but as cogs in a much larger machine. Very quickly they regained their composure.
Ram Dass: You’re mainly dealing with individual shifts of heart, and yet the perpetuation of the problem lies in a sort of impersonal, amoral corporate entity. Is boycotting all you can do right now?
Seed: With that particular group, yes. It was the same way in 1987 when Rainforest Action Network discovered that Burger King was responsible for more than 80 percent of the beef exported from Costa Rica, whose jungles were being cut down to provide unsustainable pasture, just to drop a few cents off the price of a hamburger in the United States. After unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with Burger King, which didn’t really take our protest seriously, Rainforest Action Network initiated Whopper Stopper Month in May 1987, and there were demonstrations outside Burger King. There was a lot of publicity. Burger King’s sales dropped 11 percent at the end of that month, and six weeks later they agreed publicly to stop using rain-forest beef.
The problem is that somebody else bought that beef, somebody who didn’t have an image like Burger King’s that could be attacked. Also, Burger King continues to make hamburgers out of domestic beef. After reading John Robbins’s Diet For A New America, I realized that pasture land probably presents as large an environmental problem in the United States as it does in Costa Rica. So we can’t feel terribly victorious about it, but it does show that in certain circumstances we can start to change things through pressure. Still, there’s no indication of a change of heart.
Ram Dass: It’s just so painful to see how our economic necessities have come to rule us by the standard of living we’ve created. John, what does the term deep ecology refer to?
Seed: I can tell you what it means to me. It refers to the biocentric, as opposed to the human-centered, approach to life. It means that rather than seeing the world as a pyramid with human beings on the top, we see it as a web, with humans serving as just one strand in that web. Using the intellectual science of ecology as almost a spiritual truth, we allow those truths to become personal through deep questioning. By contrast, a resource-based environmentalism sees the world as composed solely of human beings and of resources for human beings. Some people might lay those resources to waste, while other more responsible people might say, “We shouldn’t destroy these resources. We should preserve them for future generations.” But I don’t see the world as being composed that way. The world contains ten to thirty million species of plants and animals, and we are just one of them.
Ram Dass: So being responsible about saving resources isn’t really the motivation out of which ecological consciousness finally arises.
Seed: It may work for some individuals, but on the whole we’re not capable of making the necessary sacrifices. Look at how difficult it is to make the tiniest change in our behavior; people see therapists for years for the smallest change. So how are we going to make the huge changes required in order to live sustainably on the earth? I agree with Arne Naess, who coined the term deep ecology about fifteen years ago. He said, “Responsibility or duty is a treacherous basis for conservation.” Most of us aren’t capable of such high moral elevation, not in a sustained way. How many of us are Gandhis?
What the rituals do, what being in nature does, is to provide us with new sources of joy that replace everything with which we try to fill our lives. The earth obviously can’t support five billion human beings all aspiring to a so-called high standard of living — digging up the planet and turning it into hair dryers and automobiles. The real desire is not for these material things, but for a psychological or spiritual state. We’re led to believe by advertising that we can find that through things, but that belief isn’t true, and it’s very destructive. Whereas if we can experience great joy just from being alive on the earth, and from being related to all this other life, and from experiencing that interconnectedness and that flow — that’s a very harmless way of finding satisfaction.
Ram Dass: Can you experience that feeling amidst the hopelessness of the situation?
Seed: It’s funny, because in a way the hopelessness of the situation is what makes this feeling accessible to me.
As I said, I was working at IBM as a systems engineer. If there was nothing wrong, I’d probably still be there. Somehow the hopelessness provides an incredible opportunity. As Robinson Jeffers said, “How can one have ambitions in a paper forest?” Who wants wealth or fame once one has seen this? So in a way it makes everything very, very simple. The intense glare of what’s coming toward us burns away all the obstacles to spiritual development and leaves us very open to experiencing this joy.
I think that to do everything one can for the earth is a very joyful position to be in. You invite the despair and the rage and the sorrow and partake of that, feeling the pain of the earth. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The most important thing we can do is to hear within ourselves the sounds of the earth crying.” When we do that, our compassion is out there, we feel that interconnection, and we’re then in a position to do something about it. Without that pain there’s not enough motivation. Our ideas aren’t enough to move us to act.
Ram Dass: We’ve been assuming that our happiness lies in denying the suffering of other people and certainly of the earth. Now the data is in to prove that denial doesn’t work, yet we persist in our denials.
Seed: I think the culture has a lot invested in that denial. In one of our rituals, we grieve for things that are lost — our favorite little piece of nature that’s now covered by a freeway — and people begin to weep and howl and wail. We’re so afraid that we’re going to be crushed by such feelings. But in the context of a supportive group of people, the opposite is always the case. We discover that huge amounts of psychological energy were necessary to hold that denial in place. When the energy is released, we find ourselves joyful and empowered. If we allow that sorrow to carve out a space inside us, that is the very space that can then be filled with joy.
Look at how difficult it is to make the tiniest change in our behavior; people see therapists for years for the smallest change. So how are we going to make the huge changes required in order to live sustainably on the earth?
Ram Dass: In activist groups there are those motivated by anger and those motivated by the joy of identity with the whole. How do you deal with that?
Seed: I do notice that, and I think the anger is dangerous — not the anger itself, but the suppressed anger. There’s also a lot of depression. Sometimes the peace and environment movements are represented by people who are wearing themselves out — depressed, desperate, slightly hysterical — or putting out a message like, “Where were you while I was addressing envelopes all night?” There’s something so unattractive in that. My own reflex is to pull back from it. It’s very counterproductive. We feel guilty that we’re destroying the earth, we beat ourselves, we have to feel bad because of this; that mentality pushes people away.
What has to happen is that all of us need to take part of the suffering into ourselves and feel it, so that we can allow our behavior to change. We who are already doing this have to be attractive enough that, in spite of the pain, people still want to do what we’re doing. In a way it’s our duty to be life-affirming and joyful.
Ram Dass: Trungpa Rinpoche talked about standing right between hope and hopelessness. That’s an interesting metaphysical place to stand in relation to one’s acts. It’s important not to be attached to how it comes out, but just to play one’s role as part of the earth manifesting itself.
Tell me a little bit more about how people can engage in some ritual that would help them, as Aldo Leopold says, to “think like a mountain,” and start to open to the joy that comes from this identity.
Seed: It’s my experience that this is much easier when done in community than when done individually. Find a group of people with whom you can share the intention to heal that sense of separation from the living earth that all of us feel. As a group, you should be very conscious in your intentions. The first thing we do in our rituals is a sharing of what our intention is. Then almost anything you do together becomes a vehicle. It can be as corny as you like. Everyone can go and hug a tree for half an hour. Most people haven’t ever hugged a tree for that long, and maybe even doing that by yourself might work for you. But if you do this with a group and talk about it afterward, you’ll find that half those people have had some very profound experiences. Or you can put your face to the ground and make a minute exploration of a little piece of earth. Explore a hundred inches of ground during half an hour and then get together with the group and discuss what you’ve discovered. In spending a day together just doing anything at all to bring you into contact with nature, every single person in that group will undergo some shift, some transformation.
The amazing thing is that any time we make this gesture toward the earth, it always responds to us, because it’s in the earth’s nature to do so. The earth is incredibly powerful and full of miracles. It hears us and responds. If we want to dig up the earth and turn it into a long wire to carry our messages, it says yes. If we have this hard root that we want to turn into a big fat carrot, the earth says yes. It says yes to every question that we ask, but we’re so stupid in the questions that we’re asking at the moment. Because of our arrogance and human-centeredness, all we see is the miracle inside ourselves; we refuse to see the miracle in that dirt that’s capable of transforming itself into juicy carrots and bits of wire and anything else we want. When we see this, we see also the utter generosity of the earth giving us everything we ask for. To the extent that we can extend our identity beyond the merely human and experience ourselves as part of the earth, we can share in, partake of, and express that miraculous generosity.
Ram Dass: It almost seems as if the human species is a kind of parasitic virus. Are you tempted to work for the annihilation of human beings in order to preserve the earth?
Seed: Humans have been around for only about five million years. The earth has been around for four billion years, and if you had to choose between losing the leaf or losing the tree on which it grows, you’d have to let go of the leaf — even if you were part of that leaf yourself, as in this case I am.
But it’s too theoretical a question because it’s not a choice we have. First of all, every attempt to destroy humans destroys everything else as well. Secondly, the amounts of radioactive waste that exist on the earth are such that suicide isn’t an option for us anymore; if we were to disappear, whether by suicide or some other way, then all of that radioactive waste would get loose. We now have no choice but to be the guardians of that radioactive waste for the next 250,000 years. It may be that we’re going to disappear, and it may be that all complex life is going to disappear from earth, but to get rid of humans isn’t an alternative. It’s a romantic notion that everything would be perfect if we could get rid of humans.
Ram Dass: What are the fundamental premises and values of contemporary civilization that are defeating the earth’s survival at the moment? Which ones would you go after first?
Seed: The first one is the chauvinism that sees human beings as the center of everything. It’s the same spirit that had astronomers executed a few centuries ago for refusing to acknowledge that the earth was the center of the universe. It’s the idea that we’re special; well, of course we’re special, but no more than anything else. That seems to me to be the fundamental error.
But we don’t really feel superior. We feel inferior, we feel invalid, and therefore we puff ourselves up in this way. When we let go of that, we see that our role for the earth’s future is far less important than the role of, say, decomposing bacteria. Once we see that we are just a plain member of the biota, nothing special, then we can see that everything is incredibly special, including us. Then there can be real pride — but not a pride of superiority, of pushing against other things or making other things be low in order for us to be high. It involves realizing how high everything is.
Ram Dass: Do you experience any lapses of integrity in your work? You travel by jets, and so on.
Seed: The change we’re praying for is not a change that I ever claim to have undergone fully or to be demonstrating in my life. I try as hard as I can to have that integrity, but I do travel by plane and use a lot of fuel.
The only thing that helps me in this is a metaphor from an archetypal cowboy movie from my childhood. All the cowboys are asleep and the fire’s gone out and the clouds roll in. There’s a bolt of lightning, and all the cattle start stampeding toward the cliff. The cowboys jump on their horses, and instead of riding in the opposite direction, they ride straight toward the cliff; they ride even faster than the cattle. Now their aim is not to go over the cliff, but only by keeping pace with the whole thing can they turn that herd around before they reach the edge.
So I use a computer and I know the chips were cleaned using CFCs, but there is no harmless way to live these days. Or if there is, way out in the woods somewhere, it seems pretty irrelevant to me. I’m prepared to get my hands dirty with sawmills and airplanes and anything at all, but I’m also, I believe, prepared to let them go.