A better history for a better future?

I was invited to Sweden to give a talk and a seminar by the Center for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS) at Uppsala University in Sweden based on a creative non-fiction piece I wrote for Dark Mountain's twelfth book, SANCTUM. I titled the lecture, "Can a better history help create a better future?" and the seminar, "American Dreams, Swedish Dreams and Dreams of Sustainability."

CEMUS has a wonderful 25-year history of student-led education within an old Swedish higher education institute. Uppsala is in an interesting University in its own right - it was originally a joint formation of the church and the state, to prevent the "brain drain" of smart theologians to Europe in 1477. It counts Carl Linneaus as one of its most famous professors - the man who created one of the more influential classification systems. "God created, Linnaeus classified", became an adage.

CEMUS may be following in Linneaus' tradition of bold moves, but it is not through focusing on classification so much as student's ability to create collaborative, transdisciplinary research with one another and their professors. For a good reflection on the importance of alternative higher reflection as student-led education, see this article in Solutions. Given such a rich history, I was not surprised that both the public lecture and the seminar were not only well-attended but that the students asked superb questions and were completely engaged.

Sara Jolena and Sachiko Ishihara, one of the course coordinators, who herself did her MA at CEMUS.

How do we tell the story about how we got to where we are?

I consider this to be one of the most important theological questions we can ask, because it informs how we think about who we are and, thus, what is possible for our future actions. While a "past informs present informs future" has a distinct linear approach that is not, I think, either completely true nor always helpful, in the cultural context of Europe, which is so deeply embedded in a linear temporal way of thinking, I find that just asking provocative questions about the past and challenging how we interpret and engage with it can be helpful. Indeed, one of the students asked a great question about the relationship between the past and the present - isn't the present the only thing that is "real"? Yes, I responded. And I am most interested in what I refer to as the "living past" - the past that is in the present. It is perhaps one the great mysteries that going deeper into the present (a key part of the spiritual path) both awakens and clarifies the past - and enables us to not be bound by it.

Discussions during the Seminar.

In the lecture, I told a different story of the history of climate change than the one that is normally told, which starts in the scientific revolution. This is much of the work of my own research which has become the core material for my flagship course on ReMembering. I had considered the possibility of teaching the material in an academic fashion, as I was at an academic institution, but I chose instead to tell a series of personal stories, in which the meta ecological, social, economic, and colonial histories and theological questions were interwoven into a personal narrative of disillusionment, seeking, relationship, and communion. I highlighted the personal in part because the audience was mostly young people, and I feel that connection is always valued, but also because academia too often favors big words and concepts over our own experience, and as we navigate the Anthropocene Age, we need to be able to ground ourselves - and trust - our own experience.

Later, when talking with my hosts, they talked about how much the lecture helped them re-think their own family histories differently, including their family religious-spiritual history.

Perhaps one of my greatest learnings during my time with CEMUS was their own complex relationship to America - and to faith. I was not sure how relevent an American story - for my story is very much about America - would be to a largely Swedish and European audience. But in the seminar, as we compared "American Dreams" and "Swedish Dreams," it became clear how much "Swedish Dreams" interacted with "American Dreams." I knew, of course, that America was a benchmark for much of the world. But I had not fully appreciated how much Sweden, a country that I look up to in so many ways, from its governance structure to its emphasis on sustainable living in a variety of ways, is amongst the countries comparing itself to America. Sometimes Swedes find America "deplorable and disgusting", as one of the seminar's participants said, but in many ways, Sweden continues to echo the larger global tendency to be attuned to, if not overtly follow, "American" (which are in so many ways also Western and global) practices of fashion, individuality, and general goals.

Regardless, we all agreed- the dreams we have, which are often ones that we inherit from the past, deeply impact the choices we make, which have hundreds of small and large impacts on the very possibility of sustainable futures - from housing arrangements to clothing to Christmas celebrations.

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