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.

The Oil and the Whales

This is not for fun. This is one of the most distressing video reports I have seen from the Gulf of Mexico. At about 7:00 minutes in, dolphins and a sperm whale appear, struggling to live, some clearly not succeeding.

A new article from National Geographic suggests that the removal of as few as three whales from the Gulf population of sperm whales could doom that population to extinction. At this point, it seems to me that the death of only three whales would be a miracle. I’m afraid the Gulf sperm whales are lost.

I just came from a presentation to the next generation (a crowd of 6 year-olds) of my whale program, “Whales, A World of Sound.” My small effort to help a new generation fall in love with the whales isn’t going to amount to anything if the whales don’t have a healthy ocean that they can live in.

My friends at the Ocean Alliance are sending their research vessel to the Gulf to investigate the effect of oil and dispersents on the marine life there. They just published a report from their global survey of sperm whales showing how our human generated pollution has spread to every ocean in the world, far from the industrial centers that are the source of the toxic substances, and entered into the flesh of these amazing animals. The Gulf is a magnified version of what is happening everywhere in other forms. We are poisoning the oceans everywhere. And really, like the blowout, we seem to be incapable of stopping it. We don’t even seem to be trying.

I am sick at heart.

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.