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 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 shelter. Health care has been a mixed bag, sometime achievable, sometimes not, depending on the vagaries of state and federal health care legislation.

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.

 

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. Continue reading “Stopped In Our Tracks”

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.