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.