Stopped In Our Tracks

“…all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the way our universe is structured… We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality.” Martin Luther King, Jr. A Christmas Sermon On Peace (1967).

This may fall into the category of “be careful what you wish for.” For decades I have been saying that the trajectory of human civilization is so destructive and the psychological barriers to essential change are so formidable, that we, civilized humanity, need an intervention. We need some force from outside of us to stop us in our tracks. The examples I have given have mostly been positive: meeting a whale, observing the limits of the mind, dwelling in silence. I have certainly been aware that there are negative interventions: loss of a job, loss of a loved-one, loss of a sense of purpose. Anything that disrupts our normal routine can intervene in the perpetual mental activity that turns wild reality into domesticated illusion, forms our most fundamental worldview, and has led us deep into a disconnection from the living world. I was also aware, given the stress the planet is under, and given how ubiquitous global travel and transportation are, that a global pandemic was certain to occur at some point. I never wanted what we’ve got. There were a million ways to do this gently, the intervention revealing our destructive self-constructs, not threatening our lives.

I cannot deny that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has stopped us in our tracks. But so far, I would have to call this a spectacularly failed intervention, or at best (and not very good at that) a temporary success. Carbon emissions will drop as a result of severely reduced travel. But that will be offset somewhat by rises in air conditioning needed to cool over-worked streaming servers as nearly everyone turns to the internet for entertainment, shopping and work-and-school-from-home. We have been stopped in our tracks, but the sudden collapse of the global economy has made the cry to return to normal louder. Where is the systemic change required to stem the rise of carbon in the atmosphere and the devastation of biodiversity on the ground? As economies reopen (without any effective way to treat or prevent the spread of the virus) I expect environmental stress to increase, even as human deaths rise. The worst of both worlds.

On the positive side, people are turning to walks in nature and online music sharing to compensate for social isolation, which is a healthy impulse. But lives are being lost, and jobs are being lost, and people’s lives are devastated, and I have no sense that there is anything positive that is going to come out of that. You can be certain that Amazon.com and Walmart will do just fine, but what about our local economies? You can be certain that the disaster capitalists are looking for any and every opportunity to position their companies to take over wherever there has been a local loss. If the long-term effect is to hollow out our local economies even more than they are already, this “stop us in our tracks” intervention will have failed spectacularly to move us toward the vibrant, diverse, bio-sensitive economies that we and the biosphere need.

Life survives catastrophe through diversity. The more ways of being that exist, the more likely that some of those ways of being will survive a cataclysm. The less diverse our systems are–the more we depend on only a few companies, crops, species of animal, cultural resources–the more vulnerable we are to extinction. Trillion dollar government bailouts are happening, but so far the bulk of the bailouts have gone to the corporations that need it least. I want people who have lost their jobs to be made whole. But, honestly, I do not want the airline industry to be made whole. I want people to survive, but I do not want the system that is destroying the planet to survive. I want human-and-nature-scaled economies to survive, but I do not want the global exploitation economy to survive. I want people to live in culturally rich and diverse communities, but I do not want anyone to be able to fly anywhere in the world for any reason. The greatest danger of this moment is that it may reduce biological and cultural and economic diversity even more, and set us up for an even bigger fall next time. And there will be a next time.

Whatever the proximate cause of the SARS-CoV-2 virus outbreak turns out to be, the ultimate cause is the total appropriation of Earth’s “resources” by humans. We have invaded every corner of the globe and taken everything for ourselves. And then we travel everywhere as if we own it all, and somehow we are surprised that we spread invasive organisms and diseases with our travels. A fungus we spread has been devastating bat communities in North America. Other fungi that we unwittingly spread, the chytrid fungi, are killing amphibians in staggering numbers. Now a virus we spread is devastating our own communities. I would hope that the primary lesson of this outbreak would be that we need to curtail global travel and shipping. Global travel and shipping are destructive in ways we mostly do not get to see directly. Now we get to see it.

But once this disease has run its course, and we have suffered our terrible losses, will we learn that lesson, or will we return to business-as-usual? Will we continue to replace shopping sprees with walks in the woods, or will we stay indoors, glued to Amazon and Netflix for entertainment, wedded to Zoom and Facebook for “connection”? Will we discover the joys of solitude and quiet and simple sharing of music and conversation, and hold on to those when the crisis has passed, or will we strive even harder to restore what was lost, to return to our previous definition of “normal?” Will we continue to insist on clean city air and dark night skies and quiet soundscapes full of birdsong but not air traffic or, in our eagerness to get away from this very difficult time, will we allow all of those positive aspects of living a slower, more local life to fade away like a dream? Will we stop flying all over the world, or will we double down on traveling to prove to ourselves that we are the masters of the world after all? Will this crisis be like the Deepwater Horizon blowout ten years ago, one that captures our attention at the time, and feels at the time like the one that changes everything, but is soon forgotten by almost everyone, no lessons learned? Will we allow this intervention to change us, or will we double down on imposing our worldview and the lifestyle it generates onto the world it is destroying?

I see three possibilities awaiting us:

We put all of this behind us as quickly as possible in a rush to get “back to normal” and learn nothing. It won’t quite be normal, because so many small, local businesses and colleges will have closed permanently. We will continue to assault the Earth with our noise and our travel and our digging and drilling, and we will continue to encroach on wildlands all over the planet, reducing living beings to “resources”. The planetary fever will continue to rise, and the abundance and diversity of plants and animals and ecosystems will continue to fall. We will continue to spread diseases to ourselves and other animals, and they will spread diseases to us, and we will be even less prepared for the next inevitable pandemic than we were for this one.

Or, we learn the lessons and we decide that there are aspects of this life we like– the quiet; the clean air, the walks and the music –and things we have lost that we are eager to have back– the local theater and music and food and socializing. We kick Amazon.com to the curb. We stop traveling, the airline industry dead. We stop subsidizing and burning fossil fuels, that industry also dead. We rebuild vibrant, diverse local economies and stay in them because they nourish us. We give the non-human world room to breathe and find a multitude of ways to coexist with our non-human kin.

Something else. Crises like this have a life of their own. We react in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Pulled in one direction by our powerful desire to return to the familiar, pulled in another by a sense that the possibility of something new and better and healthier has been revealed, we end up somewhere in between the two. It makes no sense for access to health care to be tied to employment; maybe that is now so obvious that we do something about it. Attracted back to local community that is scaled to our senses, we try to revitalize our local economies, but are powerless to stop the hegemony of Amazon.com and Walmart and other giant corporations that use this time to consolidate their power and wealth. Repulsed by having been forced to spend so much time at home, we start traveling more than ever. Literally sick to death of this President, we send him back to his lonely New York tower, and the whole planet breathes a sigh of relief. Having already spent trillions trying, and often failing, to prop up the global economy, we lack all will to invest in a Green New Deal; and international efforts to combat global warming and species extinction stall, but pockets of local sustainability initiatives take root nonetheless.

These are not predictions, just possibilities, with the third seeming to me to be the most likely. Reality is messy. It’s never all good or all bad.

If there is one lesson we need to learn from this crisis, it is that we are not in control. We think we are in control of the world. We think we have power over the world, but we have no power. We belong, but we do not control. We need to be careful with this planet. The balance is delicate and on a knife’s edge right now, and we are the ones who have brought it to this precarious place. We are not in control, but we are influential. Our actions matter, which means we need to listen very, very carefully and move forward cautiously, with awareness of the impact we are having. We need big doses of humility, which, I was recently reminded, means being brought down to earth (humility, humus, and human all come from the root word meaning “earth” or “ground”). We are earthlings. Our lives are inextricably bound to the other lives of Earth, “tied into a single garment of destiny.” How we live, where we go (and how we get there), whether we live sensitively or callously, whether we are aware of the consequences of our words and our actions or oblivious to it all, affects everything and everyone. Our destructive ways of living inevitably rebound back onto us. It would be well for us to at least learn that lesson, even if we learn nothing else.

Contemplation Is An Unmediated Encounter With Reality

Contemplation is essential to addressing the ecological crisis. Unfortunately, contemplation is not very well understood. Contemplation is not meditation, it is not mindfulness, and it is not prayer, at least not if we want to understand contemplation as an essential part of addressing the ecological crisis at its root. At its heart, contemplation is an unmediated encounter with reality. Reality is the whole of what actually is. Contemplation is an encounter with the whole of everything, an unfathomable encounter with reality. Continue reading “Contemplation Is An Unmediated Encounter With Reality”

We Must All Be Changed

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Dr. King on April 22nd, 1967, slightly less than one year before he was killed. I had just turned six. He was coming to Brown University to speak, and my father, who was a chaplain at the university, was given the job of meeting Dr. King at the airport. I went along for the ride and shook the great man’s hand. I remember the total attention that he gave to me as he met me. Two weeks earlier, he had come out publicly and forcefully in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and an ocean of criticism had fallen on him for doing so. Here was a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and yet, he had the time and attention for an unknown six-year-old white kid from Rhode Island. Continue reading “We Must All Be Changed”

Metanoia

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.

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.