21 August 2012

Everything Must Change

I wrote the following essay a year ago, but I never published it. The news is so grim, the goal seemingly so impossible, that I thought it was probably not helpful to talk about it because it would discourage people rather than motivate them. Certainly that is the effect it has had on me. I've been living with this for over a year now, and I have been sick and depressed. But I think we have to face the reality of our situation. The truth is our only hope even if at first we do not see any way forward. If we are not honest about the situation, we can not even begin to address it rightly and completely.

I think this helps explain my previous post on metanoia. Our situation is urgent, and we are not doing what we need to do, and we are not stopping all that we need to stop (e.g. burning fossil fuels). The whole system must change. For me, "the system" exists both as external social, economic and political circumstances; and as an internal mindset -- beliefs and unconscious thought patterns that govern our behavior. The inner and the outer aspects of "the system" or what I sometimes call "the exploitation system" are intertwined, mutually reinforcing, and extremely difficult to unravel. For "the system" to change we have to be absolutely honest with ourselves about both the internal and the external aspects, or else it continues unabated. That's what metanoia means to me: stepping aside absolutely from the exploitation system, both internally and externally. Stepping aside to where? That's what is so hard to describe, because for most of us, what I am calling "the system" is simply "reality" or "life as we know it." Stepping aside from that ends up sounding like moving into a fourth spatial dimension. Where the heck is it?

I'll have more to say about this if I can find some clarity myself beyond what I have already described in this blog and in my essays. This is what I have been writing about for more than twenty-five years, and I still don't think I have quite succeeded in explaining what metanoia means to me.

Everything Must Change
21 June 2011

An unusual meeting of ocean scientists (International Programme on the State of the Ocean) just released a summary report (note: the meeting was in April 2011 and the full report still isn't available) concluding that unless there is a wholesale transformation of human society,

"... the world's ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history."

The oceans will undergo a major extinction event that will cause ecosystem reorganization never seen within human history, on a level with past major extinction events (which have occurred a few times over the past 600 million years). All the known problems are accelerating much faster than anyone predicted, and the reason is that the problems are interacting to amplify their effects. So, for instance, acidification is having a greater impact than expected because the oceans are already stressed by the presence of toxic chemicals. Because of the way science is done, the effect of all of these stressors on each other has not been studied.

The interlocking problems are climate change (warming, acidification and oxygen deficiency), pollution (heavy metals, plastics, nitrogen from agriculture, and a variety of toxic compounds from industry and agriculture), overfishing, and habitat loss (which they list separately but which is often a result of the others, although seafloor trawling, which is destroying habitat directly is a stressor in itself, not just a consequence of overfishing). They don't mention sound pollution. That might fall under habitat loss, but I think it should have been listed as a factor in its own right (note: as was clearly demonstrated for the North Atlantic right whale in 2012).

It's a very grim picture. The solutions these scientists offer amount to this: everything must change. The whole structure of human society must change. They don't come out and say that directly, but they come close. For instance, one of their solutions is to

"avoid, reduce or at minimum, universally and stringently regulate oil, gas, aggregate and mineral extraction."

Wow. That one alone requires a complete transformation of our politics, our economy and our way of life. And so do all the other solutions they offer.

They make it clear that this is not a hundred-year project. We are perilously close to not being able to stop this thing. We may have already crossed that line and made total collapse and mass extinction unavoidable. In the summary conclusion they state,

"Technical means to achieve the solutions to many of the problems the workshop identified already exist, but current societal values prevent humankind from addressing them effectively. Overcoming these barriers is core to the fundamental changes needed to achieve a sustainable and equitable future."

That's as close as they come to stating outright that everything must change. These changes are not  adjustments within the system. They require a total transformation of the system. Current societal values must change. We must change. And fast. Not over several generations, which is the normal timeframe for deep changes in societal values.

Everything must change. Now.

18 August 2012


I have been following and occasionally commenting on an article in Orion magazine by Derrick Jensen called "Self Evident Truths."

The other commentators frequently refer to a book that Derrick co-authored called Deep Green Resistance (2011), which advocates a resistance movement that includes the use of violence to bring down industrial civilization. What follows is a slightly modified version of a comment I made on the Orion site earlier today.


I've been operating under the assumption, which was common twenty years ago (cf. How Much is Enough (1992) by Alan Durning), that a more modest, European style life is sustainable. That using 90% less electricity than the American average (which we do, and which is perfectly comfortable) is sufficient. That driving less, and eating more local food and no grain-fed animals, and drinking fewer bottled drinks, and not flying, and mending clothes rather than buying new, and fixing things rather than replacing them, and keeping a computer for a decade rather than a couple of years, and eschewing the whole smartphone/cell phone thing, etc etc is enough. That converting to solar for heat and electricity is good enough. I thought it was sufficient to live with less of this stuff. That the American (now mostly global) "way of life" is so obscenely obese, that trimming the fat is enough. That giving it all up entirely is not necessary. And that may still be true, although we are not even close to doing any of that trimming!

But now I am not certain. I am not entirely convinced, but I am at least unsettled by Derrick's position, which is that the entire package of civilization as we know it is unsustainable. That any importation of materials from outside your immediate region is unsustainable. That any use of fossil fuels is unsustainable (this is unequivocally true - no finite resource can be used indefinitely). That any mining of minerals is unsustainable. That any exploitation of labor is unsustainable (this one seems more a moral stand than a physical one - unfortunately, exploitation of labor can probably go on indefinitely in a strictly biological sense). I reject absolutely the use of violence and destruction to bring down the system because I feel they are part of the system that needs to be transformed, but the advocacy of a strict definition of sustainability is compelling.

What kind of life would we be living without any export or import of materials, without any fossil fuels, without any mining of minerals, without any exploitation of labor? What if we include animals in that? How would we live without any exploitation of human or animal labor? Now we are back to being hunter/gatherers with perhaps a bit of permaculture thrown in. Or if we compromise a wee bit on the animal part, we can include being pastoralists (shepherds, goatherds, nomadic reindeer herders etc).  What else is there that is completely harmonious with the processes of life? How else can we be human animals, where absolutely everything we take from the Earth is given back in a form that is useful to Life? What else can it possibly mean to live sustainably?

I ask these questions in all seriousness. From this strict definition of sustainability (which is the only definition that the Earth cares about) nearly everything we do now is unsustainable. It all has to stop one way or another.

I agree with Derrick that to participate in the current industrial economy is de facto to live a life of violence and exploitation. That is part of the structure of civilization. Theologian John Dominic Crossan calls it the "exploitative normalcy" of civilization and argues that Jesus was calling his followers to reject that system absolutely, both in the external circumstances of their lives and even more potently in the internalization of that system in their own behavior and thinking (cf. The Birth of Christianity (1998)). I have been making that argument for a couple of decades. But I still reject the intentional use of violence to combat what is for most of us the unintended violence of a system we were born into and are trying to find a way out of. Violence can not end violence. There has to be a better way.

The Civil Rights Movement is a fine example of positive, nonviolent, coercive resistance, but my understanding is that Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/social/economic/military system was so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what Jesus called metanoia -- a complete transformation of heart and mind. Resistance tactics were adequate for achieving limited political and social gains within the exploitation system, but not for transforming or unravelling the system itself. Dr. King got into big trouble with his movement colleagues when he started addressing the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us, and we much prefer to project it onto someone else. Like it or not, this is not an us-versus-them problem. It is an all-of-us-together problem. That doesn't mean there aren't a few people who are benefitting from the system at the brutal expense of everyone and everything else (and that "few" now includes most of us in the industrialized world), but it does mean we will get nowhere by projecting all of our fear and anger and blame onto them.

J. Krishnamurti (1895 - 1986) said in his book, Beyond Violence (1970),

"... unless there is a fundamental, radical revolution in the psyche, in the very root of one's being, mere trimming, mere legislation on the periphery, has very little meaning. So what we are concerned with is whether man, as he is, can radically bring about a transformation in himself; not according to a particular theory, a particular philosophy, but by seeing actually what he is. That very perception of what he is, will bring about the radical change. And to see what he is, is of the highest importance - not what he thinks he is, not what he is told that he is."

This still seems to me to be our best and perhaps our only hope. That we see things (ourselves included) as they/we truly are and stop deceiving ourselves. That in itself brings about a radical reorientation without any violence or coercion. I have seen this in action, and I known how powerful it can be.

That still leaves open the question of how much is enough and how much is too much. It still leaves us pondering the meaning of sustainability: we must use only what we truly need, and absolutely everything we use from the Earth must be given back in a form that is beneficial to Life. It still leaves us with the urgent question of whether we can change course quickly enough and soon enough to avert catastrophe. But I am convinced we can not answer those questions adequately and on the scale required, where it actually makes a global difference, without a radical transformation of heart and mind. Without that transformation we inevitably fall back into violence, the endless repetition of that ancient ill.

14 May 2012

A Listening Life

Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton are leaders in the fields of acoustic ecology and nature recording. They are two of the world's great listeners. Bernie just released a book, The Great Animal Orchestra, which is a personal and scientific account of the field of acoustic ecology. Gordon was just interviewed by Krista Tippet on the NPR show, On Being. Gordon called this interview the largest amount of airtime ever devoted to the subject.

I really enjoyed this interview, both the broadcast version and the unedited one. I especially appreciate the way that Gordon talks about what it means to him to listen. Listening is one of the most essential, elemental things an animal does.  Gordon makes the point that throughout the history of life on Earth, seeing is optional, but listening is essential. No animal has ever developed "earlids." Our ears never sleep. But we humans have found other ways to stop listening, perhaps for the first time in evolutionary history. We have become preoccupied with our own thoughts - our internal virtual reality, or if we listen at all, we very selectively attend only to that one element in the total sound field that we think is important to us, and we filter out everything else. And in our modern world with its ubiquitous screens, we overwhelm the auditory channel with visual stimulation.

For Gordon, to listen means to let go of the filtered, focused, selective attention we are taught and return to a more elemental, more natural, open awareness of the whole tapestry of the acoustic world. Bernie Krause describes this in his book as well. Open awareness -- deep listening -- changes us.

These two nature recordists are articulating what I have found in what I call the contemplative life, which basically means a life of listening. And this is what draws me to nature sound recording. It's not mainly about capturing and preserving sounds, although obviously that is part of it. It is really about learning to listen more fully. There is a magic in open awareness that both Bernie and Gordon describe, and so does Roger Payne in his book Among Whales as he relates how it feels to hear a whale singing beneath his sailboat: there is a subtle but utterly reorienting shift of perspective, in which one experiences the integrity of a place, and one's irreducible participation within that place. One experiences oneself as inextricably part of the larger whole. One finds oneself, locates oneself as Here and Now and This. And it is absolutely astonishing to discover how much of our self-identity has been founded on not-Here, not-Now, ANYTHING but THIS!

When I am listening and recording in the Bay of Fundy, I feel as if I am listening not so much to the particular sounds as to the space itself, and to something even deeper than the space, the presence of the whole Bay and the mysterious stillness in which the Bay itself is enfolded. The Bay is well suited to this kind of listening because it is so huge, and actively in motion, and yet it can be as still as a pond. Every little sound is absorbed into this vast stillness and you can hear and feel that presence that is the whole Bay. Especially in the middle of the night when there are no lights and all you can do is hear the presence of the Bay. This is what nature recording is about for me. Listening. Being present and being in the presence of a particular place, and by extension being in the presence of the whole Earth, the whole universe. It is only in those times of deep listening that I know who I really am.

When we do begin to listen unfiltered (or as near to it as we can consciously get), one of the things we inevitably discover is that we humans are generating an awful lot of noise, primarily from the internal combustion engine and the jet engine. Noise has a specific definition in acoustics: random acoustic fluctuations that contain no meaningful information. The bugaboo of nature recording is electronic noise, the hiss created by microphones and amplifiers. The signal is the acoustic wave that contains information. The bird song. The cricket song. The whole soundscape tapestry. The idea is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Increase the signal, reduce the noise.

But the real bugaboo in recording and listening is engine noise. It is noise, because it conveys no information. A song, be it whale, bird, frog, cricket or human, conveys information. Here I am. This is who I am. Most animals who sing have signature songs, songs that identify them as individuals to others. Who knows what other information all these songs convey? Noise conveys no information, and when it becomes dominant it masks or obscures important information, and that is absolutely the situation we are in now. Human noise is obscuring our awareness of who we really are as members of a living planet.

Gordon Hempton has made this his primary cause with an organization called One Square Inch of Silence. He talks about silence as an endangered species. The encouraging fact is that, unlike global warming, unlike all the toxins we have dumped in the ocean, noise pollution is utterly and instantly reversible. Just shut off the engines, and there is the silence waiting. I suppose it is possible that there has been irreversible damage to some species and some places from excessive and prolonged noise, the ecosystem equivalent of loss of hearing, but still, there is something we can do, if only we were willing.

I remember what it was like after 9/11/2001 when air traffic was halted. As I mentioned previously, the right whales in the Bay of Fundy also enjoyed the quiet that was imposed by reductions in shipping traffic after 9/11. Their stress levels dropped when the shipping noise stopped. They could hear each other again without fighting to overcome the noise.

I wonder what it would be like if humanity declared a noise sabbath. One day a week. No air traffic. No internal combustion engines. Except those few absolutely essential to preservation of life. What would happen to our stress levels? What would we hear that we have not been hearing? Could we do it? Just one day a week? One day a month? No chain saws. No lawn mowers. No jet skis. No airplanes. No cars. No trucks. No trains. No ATVs. No snowmobiles. No weed wackers. No generators. Wow. What a day that would be! Many of us would hate it. The withdrawal might be painful for some. Cessation of so much noise also means cessation of most of the activity to which we are accustomed. We might have to experience ourselves as we are, without the cover of noise and frantic activity. That can be painful at first.

But we might find that we love it. That this silence, this deep listening, is what we have been looking for for a long, long time. We might come to wonder how we ever lived without it. We might come to realize that silence is essential to survival.

16 March 2012

Is Silence Going Extinct?

As I noted in my previous post, we are just beginning to realize that natural soundscapes matter to ecosystem health, and that we have filled them with mechanical noise as if they don't.

A new article on soundscape ecology was published yesterday in the New York Times, with some lovely audio recordings from Denali National Park embedded.


There is a very engaging lecture on this subject by soundscape recordist and ecologist Bernie Krause:


We are looking forward to Krause's new book The Great Animal Orchestra, which treats the subject of soundscape ecology in detail. It is due out next week.

My own recordings this week have focused on the red winged blackbird. Harbingers of spring, they are arriving about two weeks early this year and so may also be harbingers of a changing climate.

02 March 2012

Where's a Whale to Go?

The Right Whale Research Team at the New England Aquarium have been studying whales in the Bay of Fundy, Canada for more than 30 years. The peak of right whale presence in the Bay is usually in September or October of each year. So it was that in 2001 the team was in the Bay when shipping traffic was halted due to the 9/11 attacks. It also happens that at that time the team was pioneering a new research method, using dogs to track right whale feces. Whale feces are a treasure trove of information, including the presence of stress hormones.

It should come as no surprise, but the NEAQ now has evidence that stress levels in right whales decreased when ships were absent in the days following 9/11/2001.



Chronic stress wreaks havoc with general health, as most of us know. Shipping noise is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the oceans, so where is a whale to go to get some peace?

I have several connections to this story that make it personally resonant.

My very first encounter with a whale was in 1995, in the Bay of Fundy.

That was a fin whale, not a right whale. But the encounter was one of the most ecstatic of my life, and it changed the course of my life. I came home so excited that my parents then changed their vacation plans and went whale watching on the same boat out of Nova Scotia and also saw whales. My mother then turned that experience into a children's sermon called Digby the Whale.

I did not know about the story until several years later, after my mother's death. Discovering that story was a revelation to me, because it helped me understand why the whale encounter had been so potent for me. In her genius, she recognized what the whale represents, at least for her and for me: they are messengers of the Deep. For me, this story was the conscious wedding of what until then had been an unconscious understanding: my life is uniquely oriented toward the contemplative life especially as it expresses itself in the natural world. It is really as a result of my mother's insight that The Natural Contemplative came into being.

My mother's story anticipates the NEAQ's research finding: "Whales are probably happiest when they are experiencing deep calling to deep.. and they are not really meant to be in the midst of the hullabaloo of human restlessness and noise."

Back to the Bay of Fundy. I had my first experience of a right whale in 2002, also in the Bay of Fundy. I was on a whale watch boat but I was well aware of the NEAQ research boats and the dogs, although it took a while for me to learn what the dogs were doing.

Although I was a Benedictine novice back in the 1980s, it is really the whales and the Bay of Fundy that made me a contemplative. And my mother's story:

"Like Digby the Whale, I think that we too are meant to live with the deep in us quietly calling [and listening] to the deep which is God, and not always be around the hullabaloo and the noise and the restlessness that is all around us in the world."

That is as good a description of the contemplative life as I know.

If you read my last post you'll know that I, too, find the press of human noise pretty stressful. I can relate to the whales. I want to get away from the hullabaloo, and I don't always know where to go, except for short periods. The cell phone and wireless devices have reached into nearly every corner of our world. The Bay of Fundy used to be one of my quiet places. But, like the right whales, I am finding that even there the noise is increasing, thanks especially to cell phones and iPhones and all the rest of those mobile noise makers.

In addition to the noise, we are now bathed in wireless signals (a "smart" meter was just installed on our house this week. Before now, we had no wireless signals at our house. We are going to try to get rid of this one too). How sure are we that this ocean of electromagnetic energy we are swimming in does not add up to yet another stressor? If we turned off all the signals for a few weeks, like what happened for the whales in 2001, would we discover that our stress levels drop as well?

I well remember what it was like to be outside in the days following 9/11 when all air traffic was grounded. It was lovely. What an interesting experiment it would be, to turn off all the wireless signals for a couple of weeks. What might we hear? What might we rediscover in ourselves and in our world, if we simply turned off all the noise?

But the real question is, where can the whales go? Right whales (of whom there are only about 500 remaining) go to the Bay of Fundy in the summer, because that is where their food is most abundant. They don't have a lot of choice in the matter. Maybe there are technologies that can make ship traffic quieter, but there will be costs involved, and are we willing to pay those costs for the sake of the whales? Maybe we would if we realized that they and we are much the same. We need the quiet. We need the deep in us to call to and hear from the Deep that is the living universe, if we are to know any measure of peace in our time.

04 February 2012

Fear of Missing Out

My experience of contemplation is that at its core it is a way of being fully attentive, to others, to the Earth in all its manifestations, to one's own inner experience. And more than that, it is coming to be aware of the deep "emptiness" that makes all such attentiveness possible. In practice, contemplation means being still, being quiet, and being alone. What makes contemplation difficult is that it requires absolute honesty. One eventually has to face the truth about oneself. In stillness, all one's blemishes, prejudices, erroneous beliefs and deep fears are exposed.

The reward is an even greater ability to be attentive, a deeper engagement with the movement of Life in all its complexity and pain and wonder. At moments, it involves a stunning sense of belonging to something unimaginably beautiful and creative and generous: the living universe.

Contemplation appears to me to be irreconcilable with the electronically-hyperconnected world of smart phones, iPads, Facebook, texting, Twitter and 24/7 news coverage. The mantra of our day is that electronic devices and social media are connecting us in ways never seen before. That may be true, but at the risk of being dismissed as an old fart, I have to say that this hyperconnectivity is also disconnecting us profoundly right at the moment when we most desperately need to be deeply connected, not to our electronic devices, but to deep wisdom. I have not yet seen any evidence that iphones and Facebook connect us to our deepest wisdom. But deep wisdom is what we need most as we move into a hotter, more crowded, more polluted, more conflicted world.

The most disturbing aspect of the digital media world is the way it is reorganizing our brains away from attentiveness and toward fragmented busyness. I do not have a cell phone or a Facebook account. We do not have high-speed internet at home. But I do spend some time online. I do update this blog now and then. And I find that the more time I spend online, the less able I am to pay attention to what is right in front of me. My attention span is shorter. I am more impatient. I don't listen as well. I find it harder to be still for long periods.

If I am experiencing that restlessness and inattentiveness, then what about the people who spend most of their day with their iPad and their Blackberry and their Facebook and their Twitter feed? Are they forgetting how to listen to their own friends, their own spouse, their own children, their own hearts? Are they forgetting how to listen to the wind, to the birds, to the trees? Are they forgetting how to listen at all?

We act and we talk as if this change in our behavior is inevitable and desirable, but from a contemplative perspective it is neither. This digital thing claims to be about connection, but it sure looks like it is mostly (if not entirely) about disconnection and the fear of not being part of the latest thing. I hear there is even an acronym for it. It is called FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. This new technology is sold to us by tapping into one of the most primal human fears: fear of being excluded from the group.

The contemplative life also includes the Earth community. It is more concerned about what is good for the whole community of Life, than it is about what is good for me, or satisfying for me, or stimulating for me. The digital revolution is an unmitigated disaster for the Earth community. What is the life span of a cell phone? About 18 months. Hundreds of millions of them are thrown away every year. Only about 10% are recycled. We have four dead computers in the house, three of them only a few years old, and we are not heavy users. (At least my original Powerbook lasted over a decade before the logic board failed. My twenty-two year old Mac Classic still works perfectly!) Where do we think all that trash goes? Barry Commoner's Second Law of Ecology states: there is no such thing as "away." It goes into the soil. It goes into the air. It goes into the water. We eat, drink and breathe our waste.

And where do we think we get the electricity to power all these devices and the server farms and the cell towers that connect them? Coal. Oil. Nuclear fission. Natural gas. More and more and more.

It's another bubble, like the dotcom bubble and the credit default swap bubble. It can not last. It carries the seed of its own destruction. The Earth can not support it. What will happen when the electronics fail us and we have to face ourselves again, when we open our eyes to the world beyond the little screen, and discover that we have wasted the planet that is our true home and diminished its possibilities?

Fortunately, the Earth is still alive, even though greatly diminished already in its biodiversity. It is still beautiful. It is still generous. It is still fascinating. It is still mysterious. If we could start and end each day connecting to the natural world, even if it just means looking out the window at the sky for five minutes, instead of checking our Facebook walls, it might be enough to remind us what truly matters, who we truly are, where we truly belong. For the more courageous, we can sign off Facebook and face ourselves in silence. Start and end each day in silent contemplation, in communion with reality.

This is the joke of our supposed new-found connectedness. We were never disconnected in the first place. We are already profoundly connected through our participation in the movement of all Life. Disconnection is impossible as long as life remains. What we do to the planet and to each other we do to ourselves. In our illusion of disconnection we invented devices to "connect" us. But because they plaster over the source of our true connection, they ultimately disconnect our sense of who we are from reality.

I thought I might find a way to reconcile the new digital hyperconnectivity and some sort of contemplative practice. But I see that it can not be done. Contemplation is devoted to deep silence, which is where our true connection, the one that never fails, is to be found. Electronic devices are not merely a shallow substitute, they are a distraction, a nuisance, ultimately a lie. They get very much in the way of discovering the deepest place within ourselves that is the connection to everyone and everything. Not the connection of separate fragments into a conglomerate, but the original, undivided whole that is the essence of reality.

If you can manage not to be afraid of missing out on the latest thing, set it all aside for a while. Turn off all the devices. Walk away from them and be alone. Be still and watch the trees. Let them teach you what it means to be connected in reality. They are masters of interconnection. They don't need the latest gadget to do it. And neither do we.