Could American society be based on a collective trance of consumerism that is making people unhappy and at the same time threatening the health of the planet?

That was the big question posed to 60 people at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ventura on Saturday and Sunday by two volunteer activists from a high-powered nonprofit in San Francisco, the Pachamama Alliance. The two led a symposium and organized a workshop intended to awaken listeners to the threat to our future, and to motivate action to save it.

“You may find yourself worrying about the state of the world,” said Gabrielle Sundra. “I know myself, I get present to all the good news that is happening, and then there is this wave of reality. We have the gift of living the most meaningful lives of our species. We get to create a world that will create the survival and the sustainability for our human family and for our animal family.”

Gabrielle, a former college administrator, works with her husband, Raj, a former engineer, as volunteer facilitators of symposiums and workshops for the nonprofit. They explained that the idea that our society has fallen prey to a “trance” came from a rainforest people named the Achuar, a “dream culture” of about 19,000 indigenous people living in the rainforest in Ecuador.

In the l980s, after the Achuar found their lands targeted for drilling by oil companies such as Occidental, they responded by reaching out to prominent activists in “the North,” including Lynne and Bill Twist, who had experience raising funds for an anti-hunger campaign. In response, the Twists set out to bring together “a cadre of awakened global citizens,” or “change agents,” Gabrielle said.

The nonprofit group has had success in Ecuador in recent years, working with a popular leftist government led by Rafael Correa to put a new constitution before the voters that specifically gives nature itself legal rights. By a two-thirds majority, Ecuadorean voters approved the new constitution in September 2008.

Around the world, the Pachamama Alliance wants to inspire a movement to push for environmental and spiritual sustainability, as well as social justice. To the gathering in Ventura, Gabrielle stressed the idea that the group was intended to help people change, not to tell them what action to take.

“It’s one of the exciting things and it’s one of the challenging things,” she said. “No one knows how to do what we’re taking on. It’s an audacious goal. So, to be clear, we’re not going to tell you specifically what there is to do. We’re here to serve you and invigorate you.”

Bob Dodge, a physician who helps lead a group in Ventura called Beyond War, explained that the Pachamama Alliance was utilizing many concepts already part of antiwar activism.

“The language of ‘we are one,’ ‘the individual can make a difference’ and the interconnectedness were already familiar to us,” he said. “Last fall [the Pachama Alliance] came to us and presented their work, and the Social Action Group at the church felt it was so important that we need to do this, and want to present a full weekend symposium.”