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 full report was released in 2013) 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 time frame for deep changes in societal values.

Everything must change. Now.

Time to Repent?

I have been feeling pretty apocalyptic recently.

I no longer think there is much we can do to avert climate catastrophe. Even the kind of repentance (metanoia) that I have been advocating for twenty years or more won’t change the harsh fact that we have utterly failed to address our most pressing problem. We are going over the cliff even if we slam on the brakes now (and we have done no such thing, we are stomping on the accelerator).

The most recent evidence of this is a summary report on the state of the ocean that predicts mass extinction in the oceans if we do not radically and rapidly change our values and our ways of living.

Now what? I really don’t know. We will have to adapt as best we can within the very real limits this much warmer, less hospitable world will impose on us. We must keep trying to wean ourselves off fossil and nuclear fuels, and reduce our environmental impact in every way, for the sake of future generations, but I no longer think we can stop climate disaster. We might be able to lessen its impact.

My biggest concern now is that increased environmental distress will lead to more conflict. I am afraid that a warmer world is also going to be a more stressful world, a meaner world, a more competitive, conflicted, militarized world. There will certainly be no end of work for those of us who wish to bring compassion and understanding and a vision of unity, interdependence and shared resources to a troubled world.

In my view, limited as it is, we have utterly failed to awaken to the Earth’s beauty and, more important right now, its fragility, and our absolute dependence on its health and well-being. We still manage to think that we are somehow separate from the Earth. That failure will ring down through the ages that remain to the human family. But it is never too late for us to awaken to our innate compassion, and to move forward into this unpredictable future in mutual support rather than enmity and competition. We can still repent (experience a complete change of mind), but I no longer hold out much hope that doing so will avert environmental catastrophe. It might help us survive it.

Blowout

The Deepwater Horizon oil blowout is so upsetting that I have not been able to write about it. I can barely absorb the enormity of it. Which aspect of this mess does one focus on? The human lives lost? The oil itself? The risk of drilling deep wells (4 – 7 miles deep) in deep water? The impact on deep sea marine life, on corals, on turtles, on tuna, on dolphins? The impact on shore life, on pelicans, on marshes, on shellfish, on oysters? The impact on people who fish for their livelihood? The impact on people who love the marshes and used to go to them for solace, to connect with unspoiled nature? Does one focus on BP, Transocean, Haliburton, and the layers upon layers of lies and deceptions that continue to this day, but that one realizes are part and parcel of corporate life in the modern world? Does one focus on the political grandstanding and government incompetence and complicity? Does one talk about the way in which mega-corporations now influence every aspect of our lives, for who can resist a corporation that earns a couple billion dollars in profit every month? Does one talk about how our democracy appears to be in tatters? Does one talk about the shallow reporting and blatant propaganda and the way the government-corporate-security machine blocks real reporting? Does one talk about our own complicity, about our utter dependence on fossil fuels? Does one look for the droplets of hope in this sea of despair? This “spill,” this catastrophic blowout, touches everything, just as oil now touches everything. Can one write sensibly about everything, and the collapse of everything? The only meaningful response must also touch everything.

In 2003 I played a minor role in a much smaller oil spill on the southern shores of Massachusetts. I was a shorebird monitor working for Massachusetts Audubon when several hundred thousand gallons of fuel oil spilled out of a barge making its way through Buzzards Bay. Much of that oil came ashore on the sanctuary where I was working. I learned three things on the day when the representatives of the Federal and State governments and the “responsible party” showed up to “manage” the crisis.

First, we have no effective contingency plans for dealing with oil spills, so the response is “make it up as you go along.” Oil spills are chaotic and unpredictable. We could at least TRY to prepare, which we don’t seem to do at all. Having plans in place, and then following those plans would surely help a lot. BP and the Federal government both appear to have failed catastrophically on this score. But still, I did see first hand that oil spills have a life of their own, and the response has to be both highly coordinated and profoundly flexible, features not apparently built into either corporate or government bureaucracies. Features that are perhaps not fully achievable, which should give us extreme pause about allowing drilling to take place in deep water in the first place.

Second, ego rules the day. Everyone wants a piece of the action, wants to be in charge, wants to be the top dog, wants to stick it to everyone else. It’s hard to find anyone who really gives a damn about what’s happening. It’s hard to be in the middle of an oil spill and not become cynical.

Except, in the case of the Buzzards Bay spill, the people who were hired to do the actual cleaning up. Mostly ethnic minorities, probably not paid very well, many bussed in from all over the country, roaming the beaches in yellow hazmat suits in the hot sun, picking and raking and shoveling the oil into garbage bags. They were, for the most part, disgusted by the whole thing, and genuinely interested in the welfare of the plovers and terns who were nesting on the beach at that time (it was exactly this time of year – seven years ago on this day I was patrolling the beach, educating the cleanup workers about the birds, and updating my sketches of every nesting bird and the oil patterns on their feathers. We couldn’t capture the birds to clean them because that would mean abandoning active nests). Lesson number three: if you want to know what’s going on, don’t listen to the big shots. Listen to the men and women doing the dirty work (unless the Corporation has put a gag order on them).

I had taken the bird patrol job originally because I had been sick for a couple of years with something akin to chronic fatigue syndrome, along with debilitating heart palpitations, and I needed a quiet, healthy, outdoor job. I wanted, more than anything, to become deeply acquainted with the land and the sea, to open wide all my senses and become intimately familiar with one little stretch of coastline and all its inhabitants. I wanted to atune my life to the rhythms of the land and the sea, to orient my life to a Life deeper than myself, and deeper than the stressful human world as well.

Instead, an oil spill on my very first day on the beach, egos galore, chaos, stupidity and many, many sad oily birds, most of whom could not be saved, most of whom were probably never even seen. I left that job sick at heart, even more exhausted than when I went.

And now I see the same thing playing out on a much larger scale in the Gulf. We seem to be incurably shortsighted and negligent, even willfully destructive of the only home we have. We seem to have physical power — fossil fuel augmented power — well beyond the capabilities of our brains, certainly way beyond our level of wisdom and respect. I really don’t understand how short-term profit has managed to eclipse all good sense, but it has. The impression I have of the BP execs is that, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, “they’ve been lying so long they don’t know what’s real.” They are living in a delusional world. But in a sense they are just magnified versions of the rest of us. We have all been living in a delusional world. One in which we believed we could heap any amount of abuse on our planet home, could live for our self-gratification alone, and there would be no consequences. The Earth would just take it and take it and keep on taking it, indefinitely, infinitely, without complaint.

Well, the abused Earth had one too many holes punched in her and now she is pouring out her life blood.

It seems terribly clear to me that we do not know how to think about being part of a living world. We are pretty good at thinking mechanically. We’re great at inventing gadgets. We are amazingly good at spinning theories. We are lousy bad at understanding complex systems. There’s a reason for that. Complex systems — bodies, ecosystems, planets — can’t be understood. They aren’t linear. They aren’t predictable. Small changes create big changes. They adapt. They invent. One cannot control them or master them. If one wants to survive, one can only work with them, attentively. One must learn their rhythms and their ways more deeply than mechanical thinking can encompass. It’s like riding a wave. You can’t predict what it will do. You can only go with it and keep your balance. You need to “think” with your whole body, not just from the narrow confines of your left brain. You have to respect the wave you are riding. Try to dominate it, and it will teach you who the Master is.

Are we learning? Are we learning that we are not the master here? Are we learning that our planet home is beyond our control and comprehension? Are we learning that our planet is alive and dynamic and inventive and ever-changing? Are we learning that we have limited brains that can only see from a limited perspective? More knowledge is not going to save us. Only more humility. Only coming to a full understanding of how little we know — how little we can know — and learning to live sensitively in not knowing.

We are adapted to function at a small scale, at a community scale, where no individual is expected to know everything, and no individual has much power over anyone else. Maybe our institutions have become too big for any human being to manage. Maybe it is not humanly possible to behave decently within such monstrosities. Maybe we have created financial and corporate and government systems too big and powerful for our limited brains to handle, and we need to scale down, rapidly, back to the community scale that we can comprehend. At the very least, we need to figure out how to break the death grip that mega-corporations and financial institutions have on our lives, on our government, on our democracy. We must end the cycle in which the giant corporations get all the reward for unmanageably risky behavior, and the rest of us, and the planet, get all the pain. There is much more being revealed here than negligence on the part of an oil drilling operation.

“Not knowing” used to be the language of mystics. Now it is the language of survival. We need to accept how little we can know, and change our behavior so it is in harmony with our profound ignorance. We could use a healthy dose of caution. From a full appreciation of our limits, knowing how little we can know, comes greater attention to the life that is right at hand, and greater sensitivity to the possible consequences of acting out of ignorance. With “not knowing” comes attention, humility and compassion.

There is so much we can never know. We can never know the living truth that is the planet’s life. Our only hope for survival is the recognition that we are a part of that planet, and if we reach deep enough into ourselves and discover our essential ignorance, we can also find our essential inseparability from the home that is so much more than just a place we occupy. It is our body. We are part of it as much as blood cells are part of the human body. We are currently behaving like blood cells in rebellion against their host, a condition that cannot turn out well. That behavior will end. It will either end before the body collapses, or it will end with the collapse of the whole body. But end it will, because the part cannot attack the whole and survive.

We need to recover our rightful place within the natural order of Earth’s body and the deeper order of being in which even it is embedded. We need to recognize that our intellectual understanding of that larger body is, and always will be, partial, limited and distorted in most of its essentials. We must live with a deep appreciation of our ignorance. The way of “not knowing” is the way of listening deeply. It is the way of learning. It is the way of being fully present to life as it is unfolding. It is the way of respecting Life over self. It is the way of being open to the whole truth. It is the way of creative improvisation. It is the way of love. It is the way of Life itself.

A Sea Change

I have been wanting to write a piece about ocean acidification for several months, but it has not come together. Nor is this piece exactly what I wanted to write. But it seems to be the case that – horrible as the BP oil spill is – even this catastrophe is not leading us to take seriously the fact that fossil fuels are poisons, whether spilled or burned, and we need to stop using them. For me, the untold lives lost from this leak will have been lost in vain unless we learn this lesson. Oil, and coal, are poisons. We have to stop using them. Whether they visibly leak and spill on land or sea, or whether we burn them and make them invisible, they are deadly poisons.

We have an opportunity here to awaken at last from our oil-soaked dreams of unending wealth and gain, which have turned into a nightmare of unending disease and untimely death, for us, for the Ocean, for the whole Earth.

It’s no fun being so gloomy. But how are we ever going to change this situation if we don’t look in the mirror and see that we are what has to change? All of us. You and me. No exceptions. That might sound depressing, but it is actually empowering. Because it means change is in our hands, not someone else’s.

**

Spills and leaks are not the only way that oil disrupts the life of the Ocean. A much bigger threat to the Ocean – at least over the long term – is carbon-induced acidification. Despite a comprehensive article by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker in 2006 (still available online) and a 2009 movie called “A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish,” very few people know about ocean acidification.

The Ocean absorbs about half of all the carbon that is pumped into the atmosphere. It has been thought that this is a good thing. If not for the Ocean, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be much higher than it is, and we’d already be living in a much warmer world. But increased CO2 in the Ocean is leading to ocean acidification, and that could be even more catastrophic than global warming. The Ocean is not actually becoming acidic, but it is becoming less alkaline. In the past 250 years, average surface ocean pH has dropped from 8.179 to 8.069. That is a 28% increase in acidity (or decrease in alkalinity). We have believed that the Ocean, like the Atmosphere, is too big for its chemistry to be changed by our activity. We have been wrong.

The declining pH of the Ocean is already affecting organisms that are essential to the marine food chain: corals and pteropods. Lower pH inhibits these and other organisms’ ability to build calcium carbonate shells and bodies. As ocean pH continues to decline many essential organisms will be affected, including oysters and clams, shellfish, krill and many other forms of zooplankton, essential food for many species of fish, bird and marine mammal. One blue whale eats about two tons of krill every day. No krill, no blue whales. No fish. A severely diminished ocean.

It will take time for the Ocean to reach catastrophic pH levels, but the problem is it will take even more time for the Ocean to balance itself. If we were to stop burning all fossil fuels right now, it would take thousands of years for the pH of the Ocean to return to what it was prior to the industrial/fossil-fuel revolution, because of the extremely slow circulatory patterns of ocean currents. But we continue to burn fossil fuels, adding carbon to the atmosphere and the Ocean, at ever increasing rates.

We commonly hear now that to avoid the worst effects of global warming, we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% in the next 40 years. Hard enough to do that. But to avert the crisis of ocean acidification, it is probably not enough to reduce the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. We have to stop it. Get to zero. Soon. Pteropods and corals are already showing signs of carbon-related distress. Any further decrease in ocean pH could have devastating consequences for the marine food web. As the Ocean goes, so go we all.

This needs to be our goal: eliminate all fossil fuels from our diet. As soon as possible. Say what? How is that even possible? Our entire economic system, how we work, how we live, how we move around, how we make money, how we stay warm, how we manufacture and ship all the stuff we need and want and throw away, how we light our homes and businesses, all is dependent on the energy stored for millions of years in decaying plants, dragged out of the ground and used up in the course of a couple of hundred years. Oil is our fuel of choice for transportation and heat. Coal is our fuel for electricity. Transportation, electricity and heat provide us with the kind of life we take for granted..

Our way of life is now so bound up with the burning of coal and oil and gas that such a change feels impossible. It is not simply a matter of stopping a habit. It means changing how we live. It means changing our politics, our means of living and moving around, the ways we do our work. Almost everything we do.

It is amazing, almost unimaginable, that a mere 250 years ago there was essentially no oil (except whale oil). There was no gas. Coal was known and used, but little. The world we consider unalterable and our birthright began less than 250 years ago with the invention of the steam engine. The carbon orgy really got going a mere 60 years ago, following World War Two, when consumerism became a way of life. Our lives now are so bound up with buried sunlight, our sense of who we are and what we need most essentially is so aligned with this particular way of living, that it is very hard to imagine doing without oil or coal or gas. But most humans have, and some still do. And so can we.

We cannot go backward. We know that. We cannot snap our fingers, turn off all the oil and gas wells, shut down the coal mines, and go back to the way we lived three hundred ago or even sixty years ago. We certainly can’t go back to burning whale oil. For one thing, there are now many more of us and many fewer whales. Three hundred years ago the human population was about six hundred million. Now it is nearly 7 billion. That ten-fold increase in population was made possible largely by industrial agriculture, which is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels. We can’t snap our fingers and suddenly start fueling our current way of life with windmills and solar panels and organic agriculture. We will need all of those, but adopting them will require big changes in how we live. Fossil fuels have made possible a way of life that I believe cannot exist without them. We have some tough choices to make.

Short of the discovery and wide implementation in the next few years of some new, clean and safe, nearly unlimited form of energy (none of which describes nuclear fission), radical change is needed. Unimaginably radical. Change at a pace and a scale humanity has never seen. How is such a change possible?

There are only two things I am sure of here. One is that as long as we think it is impossible, it will be impossible. Our only hope of achieving zero carbon emissions from fossil fuels is to devote all our creativity to the task. Eighty percent reduction in 40 years is a start, but not enough. We have to get to zero. Not just because of the carbon, but because of all the other ways fossil fuels poison our world and our bodies.

The other thing I am sure of is that the easiest thing that we can do, the fastest and the simplest and the least painful, is the one thing that most of us won’t even consider. Slow down. Live with less. Adjust our expectations. Simplify. Own less. Travel less. Share more. Experience more discomfort. Live more like the other animals, taking no more than we physically need and giving more back to the Earth. Accept that much of the “progress” of the last three hundred years has not been progress at all, it has been poison. Abandon the psychological need for more and more and more and shrink materially. Go back to using non-polluting technologies of the past that could still work for us now.

Among the modern technologies, the ones that seem to me most promising and helpful are wind and micro hydro, passive solar heating, ground source heat pumps for heating and cooling, and to some extent photovoltaic electricity. But there’s no way those are going to provide the power joy ride we’ve been on for the past 60 – 300 years. Scaling back radically has to be part of the solution.

Hard as that sounds, it requires no technological breakthroughs. We simply have to change our minds, which can happen in an instant. We simply have to accept that it is okay to do less. Alot less. We don’t have to be so busy. We don’t have to accomplish so much. It’s not good for us anyway. We can slow down. And then we can relearn manual skills that are rapidly being lost. I think the hard part is not the physical change, but the psychological change. Our sense of self has become bound up with carbon-fueled progress and speed, so what has to change is who and what we think we are.

In order for us to stop using fossil fuels, “who I am” cannot be bound up in owning a car or a big house, or a constant increase in income and possessions, or jetting around the world, or always having instant comfort at our fingertips, or instant communication around the globe*, or the instant gratification of driving to the mall whenever the mood strikes, or a calendar full of ten different activities in ten different places in one day. “Who I am” cannot be bound up in endless electronic and fossil-fueled entertainment. *[All the computers and all the server farms need to be manufactured and powered, and right now that takes a lot of fossil fuels – I recently read that server farms have now surpassed air travel as the single largest contributor to carbon emissions. At least Google, the owner of the servers on which this blog is hosted, is looking at wind power. Don’t get me started about Facebook.]

I don’t for a moment think it is likely that we will shift to a mentality, to a sense of “who I am” that is more like indigenous people who have lived in balance with their land for thousands of years, or like the great whales, who have lived in balance with their environment for tens of millions of years. That is a long way to shrink from where we are now. But I still maintain that that is exactly what we need to do, at least temporarily, that it is the only thing we can do fast enough, and that doing so now, when we have options, is a lot easier than waiting until the change is forced on us by an Earth pushed beyond endurance. And I still maintain that doing so is faster and simpler and more realistic than trying to fuel our current lifestyle with new forms of renewable energy, or waiting for some technological miracle to save us. We have to slow down. To accomplish less. To empty out our lives, to decide what is essential and discard all that is superfluous.

Maybe that’s just my bias. I’m a contemplative. That’s what contemplatives do. We try to whittle life down to its essentials.

But I don’t know why most of us are so resistant to this idea. It is not as if most of us really enjoy the stressful, accelerated, polluted, noisy, nonstop, war-ravaged, economically polarized, world that fossil fuels have made possible. It’s not as if most of us really benefit from it (did you make 6 billion dollars in the first quarter of this year, like BP did?). It is not as if we are all relaxed and playful and in love with our lives. It is not as if fossil fuels have made our world healthier and more vibrant. It is just that we have forgotten how to live any other way, and we have been conned into believing that this is how we want to live, how we must live. We have been taught to believe this is progress, that “more” is the meaning and purpose of life. But it isn’t, and it never was, and it never will be, and right now “more” is killing us, not just like a cancer, but often enough in the form of cancer itself, and it is killing the Earth and the Ocean.

The good news is that although the Earth is already greatly diminished, it remains resilient, creative, and abundant with diversity of life. It has great powers of healing and regeneration. It is beautiful and helpful and peaceful and supportive. That is the real world. That is what we are too. If we realign our sense of “who I am” with that world, the real world, the living world — the Earth, the soil, the Ocean, the air, the plants and the animals and the microorganisms, deep silence, the heart of everything, silent listening, watchful stillness, loving, uncompromising honesty — our lives will truly improve, will be less stressful, more peaceful, more enjoyable, more real, more beautiful, more adaptable, more creative. All of that comes from Life itself, and we cannot be that unless we are aligned with reality, with Life, the living truth which is alive within us and around us, always in everything.

Whether it’s oil spills or global warming or overfishing or ocean acidification, we tend to think that there is a technological or political solution that will rescue us – you and me – from having to change. I am suggesting that there is a solution, an earth-centered solution, but it does require us to change. It just happens to be a blessed change, a sacred slowing back down to an Earthly pace, that is quite possibly the very thing we are searching for in our heart of hearts.

Deep Ocean Drilling Must End

With the failure of the “top kill” to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I really feel that we need to commit now to stop oil drilling in the deep ocean. The oil we gain from drilling offshore is simply not worth this catastrophic loss of marine life and human livelihood. The whole thing is upsetting beyond words.

I am especially concerned about the deep Earth/deep ocean wells. This one is at least 3.5 miles below the ocean floor, and therefore under tremendous pressure. I assume this is a large part of the reason why the top kill failed. There are other even deeper wells being explored, as deep as five miles beneath the ocean floor. At these depths the temperatures and pressures are tremendous. We cannot reliably control these wells.

This simply has to stop. Now. We have to find other ways to live. The message couldn’t be clearer.

This is not ultimately about BP or government regulation, as much as there is clearly blame in both departments. This is about all of us being addicted to oil, and oil lying now in harder and harder to reach places.

So we must stop drilling offshore and find another way. All of us have to find a way to live without this oil. No other course is acceptable now.