This Precious World

The world is burning (and drowning and starving), and what are we doing?

Some of us are in complete denial, or don’t dare to admit what we know, or are overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, so we carry on with business as usual. We keep growing the economy, keep burning fossil fuels, keep razing the forests, keep mining the minerals, keep exploiting human and animal labor, keep accumulating wealth in fewer and fewer hands. We continue treating the planet as nothing but a resource to be exploited. The status quo is all we know, so it’s all we can do.

Denial is getting harder to maintain. With floods and fires and storms and droughts and oven-hot temperatures and climate migrations (of humans, plants and animals), Earth is making it hard pretend. Unable to avoid those elemental messages, many of us are putting our faith in green technology. We still think the economy can continue growing, but it can be done with cleaner technology: solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles (still large and powerful), heat pumps, green buildings, maybe a little nuclear power thrown in to level the supply of energy, and so on. The means have to change, but the ends (infinite growth in material wealth and personal power) do not. If necessary, maybe economic growth can somehow be decoupled from growth in material and energy consumption. But that is a long way off. In the immediate future, we keep growing materially; we just green it.

Green growth is one form of a larger approach to trying to solve the crisis (or avoiding the crisis while convincing ourselves that we are solving it). I’ll call it Magical Thinking. Magical Thinking believes the human mind is so powerful that it never needs to compromise. It will always find a way out of the dilemmas it has created, without requiring any sacrifice. There has to be some technological solution, or some new social arrangement, or some new economy that will allow continued and growing affluence, and will prevent destruction of the web of life. We haven’t found it yet, but very soon, some clever person is going to have some transformative insight that shifts the paradigm and allows us to keep on keeping on. What is not required is any fundamental change in our essential assumptions and commitments regarding who we are and how we live. Some magic new source of free energy (humid air?), for example, would solve all of our problems. So we wait for it.

And then there is a fourth way, the only one that recognizes the problem. It understands that endless material growth is impossible (and deadly) and proposes some form of contraction in the human ecological footprint. The only way out of the “growth is killing us and the planet” dilemma is to stop growing. Stop growing the human population and stop growing the consumption of materials and energy. But more than that, we need to reduce. Reduce the human population (voluntarily, through education and readily available birth control) and reduce our material consumption. Live more simply. This isn’t about the end of skilled work or trade or commerce, but it is about the end of investment capitalism and most global shipping and travel, and most meat production and many other forms of industry and industrial agriculture. The demand for infinite growth is killing the planet and simply has to stop.

No one seems to know exactly how much reduction is needed. Probably not going back to living in grass huts, but definitely not living like the wealthiest 1% (those with incomes over US$109,000) who are responsible for 15% of carbon emissions, and probably not like the wealthiest 10% (incomes between $38,000 and $109,000) who are responsible for over 50% of carbon emissions. Maybe not even like the middle 40% (incomes between $6,000 and $38,000) who are responsible for 41% of emissions, since the current total is still too much, but perhaps somewhere above the poorest 50% (incomes under $6,000) who are responsible for only 7% of emissions (These numbers all come from a 2020 report from Oxfam called Confronting Carbon Inequality).

I’m using carbon emissions as an example because they are relatively easy to measure, not because carbon is the only problem. The problem is also destruction of habitat (especially for industrial-scale agriculture), exploitation of Earth’s plants, animals and minerals, invasive species spread by travel and shipping, and all of the forms of pollution (carbon, plastics, nitrogen, forever chemicals, noise) that go hand-in-hand with industrial civilization, all aspects of the extractive economy. The carbon emissions profile doesn’t cover all of those other destructive forces, but it is a proxy for where we need to be heading: everyone at an income level (and equivalent consumption level) of around $10,000-$15,000 a year. Lianos and Pseiridis in their 2015 study (Sustainable welfare and optimum population size. Environ Dev Sustain 18, 1679–1699 (2016).) placed that figure at around US$11,000 (but they also concluded that Earth could support only 3 billion humans living at that level).

I have lived at that level (or lower) in the United States for most of my adult life. It’s not destitution, and it’s not extreme affluence. It’s a decent life, but not extravagant. The hardest necessities to achieve at that income level in the United States are housing and health care. In my case, shelter only came thanks to the generosity of my landlord who charged a modest rent for my simple apartment because I was stable (I lived there for 20 years) and quiet and responsible and he, definitely in the 1%, didn’t need much money. So, as societies we have to figure out how to make it possible for everyone, on very modest incomes, to have safe, healthy homes. Health care has been a mixed bag, sometimes achievable, sometimes not, depending on the vagaries of state and federal health care legislation. As we know from other countries, universal health care is achievable, and the fact the we don’t have it in the United States, the wealthiest nation in human history, is absurd.

Sadly, even though this fourth way understands the nature of the problem, it is not moving us where we need to go. Resistance to its message is too strong. What the contemplative perspective brings to the conversation is that this necessary transition to “less” is blocked not only by societal forces, but also by psychological forces. We feel that we need more in order to be whole. Our identities, our sense of self-worth, are wrapped up in the demand for more and more, endlessly more, material prosperity. Even to stop, to be content with what we have, is hard. To contract, to live with less feels like a loss of self, a loss of power, of autonomy, of social standing. Who will take the first step, when those who do are devalued by a society that values material wealth and power above all else? I decided decades ago to live on a part-time income so I would have more time for my family and friends and for the Earth. Now I am paying for that with a miniscule social security benefit. So there are policy problems, and societal pressures and personal discomforts all of which need to be overcome to live with less.

The contemplative way has always seen the value of less. By seeing through the self, and reorienting toward life itself, toward our networks of relationships with each other and our wild kin, the plants, the animals, the trees, and rivers, and the air and the soil, we discover our greatest joy. As long as our basic biological needs (shelter, food, air, water, health) are met in modest ways, then meaning comes from the quality of our relationships. But one should not underestimate the power of identity—our attachment to more—that prevents us from moving away from this extractive, exploitative, destructive, competitive society. The contemplative way is not trivial or easy to fall into (although it is easy once fallen into). We need to stop or be stopped. We will be stopped by Earth herself if it comes to that, but only after we have done incalculable damage to ourselves and the fabric of life.

Contemplatives know that waiting to be stopped by our own destructiveness is not the only option. We can be stopped by silence. We can be stopped by a bird singing, or a tree sighing in the wind. We can be stopped by anything that we don’t think is “me,” suddenly announcing itself, sliding around our defenses, and telling us, “Look! Listen! I am what you are and you are what I am!” And you fall to your knees when you realize how wrong you have been about almost everything.

That is the only thing that can save us and this precious world.


Remembering Roger Payne

I became aware this morning of the death of Roger Payne.

For those of you who did not know him, Roger discovered that humpback whales sing long, complex songs. And along with his wife, Katy, discovered the ways in which humpback whales modify their songs in something like the folk process in human music. Roger also pioneered the study of right whales in Argentina.

I first “met” Roger through his seminal paper, “Songs of Humpback Whales,” which was published in Science in 1971, but which I did not discover until 1983 when it was required reading in a course in Animal Communication that I took my senior year in college. At that time I also started listening to humpback whale song and wondered endlessly what it all meant. Roger was also a cellist, almost certainly the first person to improvise along with whale song, before David Darling and Eugene Friesen took up that calling (pun intended). In time, and not coincidentally, I also took up the cello and started composing my own tunes based on whale songs.

Roger was a friend and a mentor and significantly influenced my work in marine conservation and contemplative ecology and music. Most of what I know about ocean acoustics, I learned from him. I worked with Roger in 1998 when he and his second wife, Lisa Harrow, had recently moved to Vermont. I helped Roger organize his voluminous files, while we talked about whales and philosophy and the state of the world. We had plans to digitize his entire humpback whale audio collection, which at that time only existed on decaying reel-to-reel magnetic tape, but that project fell through due to lack of funding. I wonder if it was ever done?

I offer here an excerpt from an essay Roger published just last week in Time Magazine. It turns out to be his final message to the world.

“The way I see it, the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years isn’t E = mc2 or plate tectonics or translating the human genome. These are all quite monumental, to be sure, but there’s one discovery so consequential that unless we respond to it, it may kill us all, graveyard dead. It is this: every species, including humans, depends on a suite of other species to keep the world habitable for it, and each of those species depends in turn on an overlapping but somewhat different suite of species to keep their niche livable for them.

“But there’s a problem here. No one can even name all the essential supporting species, let alone describe their full roles. We do know that some of the most essential species are microscopic plants and animals that we kill, unintentionally, by the trillions. But we know so little about them, they don’t even have common names, just Latin names. And many are unknown, unnamed, and undescribed species.

“Faced with such capacious ignorance, our only rational course of action is to use every means possible, regardless of cost, to try to save all species of life, knowing that if we fail to save enough of the essential ones, we will have no future.

“The challenge now is figuring out how to motivate ourselves and our fellow humans to make species preservation our highest calling—something we will never cut corners on, delay, postpone, diminish, or defund.

“As my time runs out, I am possessed with the hope that humans worldwide are smart enough and adaptable enough to put the saving of other species where it belongs: at the top of the list of our most important jobs. Fifty years ago, people fell in love with the songs of humpback whales, and joined together to ignite a global conservation movement. It’s time for us to once again listen to the whales—and, this time, to do it with every bit of empathy and ingenuity we can muster so that we might possibly understand them.””

The full essay is here:

Thank you, Roger, for everything you gave to the whales,  gave to all of us. I can only hope we heed your call to protect life, all of life, on this precious planet.

Think Black: Remembering C.T. Vivian

I note with sadness the death yesterday of the Rev. C.T. Vivian. For those of you who do not know of him, he was one of the core leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

I met Rev. Vivian in 1984 in Atlanta. At the time I was living and working at the Open Door Community, an intentional community modeled on the Catholic Worker communities. The Open Door provided permanent residence to about a dozen men and women who would otherwise be homeless without prospect of shelter. We also provided daily morning and noon meals to hundreds of other homeless women and men, daily showers and changes of clothes, and an ongoing ministry of visitation, advocacy and street actions against the death penalty in Georgia.

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We Can’t Go Back To Normal

We can’t go back to normal, because “normal” is a disaster. Normal, at least anywhere that industrial civilization is dominant, is deeply destructive, based on exploitation and domination of people, plants and animals; subjecting the entire biosphere to the demands of profit and power. These are turbulent times, by turns encouraging and dispiriting, but there is no viable “normal” to return to for anyone living in the industrialized world. Whatever comes from the current protests and the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing movement to safeguard Black lives and the authoritarian impulse to suppress dissent, going back to the way things were a few months ago is simply not an option.

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