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.


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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Breaking the Frames

When I was a college undergraduate, I studied the theoretical underpinnings of Freudian psychoanalysis with J. Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Brown University. One of the central concepts that I took away from my studies with Dr. Milhaven was the therapeutic necessity of what he called “breaking the frame.” His belief was that problems in human relationships come mainly from the way that we frame those relationships; the belief structures that we build around our relationships to make sense out of them and align them with our own needs and desires. Not all of our frames are dysfunctional. But when our framing stories are too far out of alignment with reality, we expend useless energy trying to force the world back into our frame, instead of allowing our frame to adjust to reality. This is the source of much of our distress: our framing of reality is out of step with reality itself yet we remain committed to our frame.

Our frames are intimately intertwined with our sense of who we are.  To dissolve one of our essential frames is to lose our sense of self. We are so committed to our mental frameworks, that we usually fight like hell in defense of the frame, even as it diverges further and further from the truth. In those cases where our commitment to our frame is absolute, the only solution is for something outside of us, some person, some situation, some unexpected force, to break the frame. Something has to happen that exposes the false frame, allows it to be seen at last for what it is. Not reality; merely a way of interpreting reality. Not the self; merely a story about the self. Not the other; merely an image of the other.

This is not an easy thing to go through. We pin our sense of security, our sense of identity, on our mental frameworks. When the frame is broken, we feel truly lost for a time.  This is well known to everyone who has lost anything that helped define our life: losing our health, losing a job around which we organized our life, losing someone we love, discovering that someone we trusted has been deceiving us; discovering that the system that supports us abuses others. The loss is hard enough, but the disorientation that comes with the breaking of the frame can be completely debilitating. We resist this disorientation, so we can carry on for years beyond the point at which we receive the first clues that our framing story is out of alignment with the truth. We resist and resist and resist the loss of the frame, because along with the frame goes a solid sense of identity. The frame is the boundary of the self. Without the familiar frame, who am I?

My work with Giles Milhaven was very influential. A lot of my frames have broken over the years, and it has never been easy. But I also have seen that ultimately it is healthier to stay in touch with reality than it is to carry on in conflict. It is easier to have a fluid and adaptable sense of self, than it is to have a rigid and fixed identity that is in conflict with the living world.

And I have seen that the framing of reality is not only something that happens in the individual; it happens to entire cultures, especially now when so much information is channeled through mass media and shared by millions of people almost simultaneously. When a distorted frame is shared, it becomes more and more possible for us to participate in mass delusion. It is hard enough to break the individual frame. It is even harder to break the societal frame, because we seem to be wired to conform to societal norms. We prefer to do what our peers are doing, to think the way our peers are thinking, to care about the things that we perceive our peers to care about, to look like the images that claim to convey what our peers look like. The risk of not conforming is isolation, being ostracized, kicked out of the community. If we rebel at all, we usually rebel within a subculture to which we continue to conform.

The planetary ecological crisis requires the breaking of frames at many levels: individual, societal, economic and political. A truly daunting prospect. I find myself frustrated with most attempts at change because they end up being the sort of change that tries to massage reality into the existing frame. Very rarely does anyone dare to break the frame. The consequences are too frightening. We react violently when someone tries to break our frame before we are ready. The frame is “me” until it is broken, so I will fight to the death to preserve it.

This is a great conundrum. Fundamental change is required of us at this time but most of us are not ready for the change. We are committed to our worldview, not to the world. We are willing to tweak the system, but not to turn the system on its head. We want our life to go on in its familiar track, not to change everything. We want security, not uncertainty. We want more, not less. We want to keep the frame intact and just change the picture. If someone tries to break the frame, or the Earth breaks the frame, we will resist. But the frame has to break nonetheless. Life depends on it now.

An example of changing the picture without breaking the frame would be our hope that technology will solve all of our ecological problems. The techno-optimists believe that we can solve all of our problems with solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids and electric cars. The only change required is a change of means, not a change of self or society. It won’t work. As long as we have a sense of self – or an economic system – that endlessly demands more and more, the technology won’t help. We’ll keep needing more of it, and the planet is already groaning under the weight of our perceived needs. Emphasis on the word “perceived.” These are not real, biological needs. They are needs arising from how we frame reality, including our sense of identity. The frames need to be broken. How do we do that without creating a backlash? How do we get around our resistance to essential change? That is the conundrum.

There is no easy solution to this. We are not yet ready to break the frames that define us in relation to the natural world. All I can say right now is that the longer we postpone the reckoning with reality, the harder the reckoning will be. The farther we push the physical limits of the planet, the harder the crash will be.

Take one example: Imagine a world without fossil fuels. Not 100 years from now when some unlimited fantasy fuel has magically appeared or the beleaguered Earth has somehow supplied us with the raw materials and the land to build millions of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. Now. Imagine your life right now without fossil fuels. The blasting and drilling and fracking and pumping have stopped. Coal and oil and natural gas are gone. How does the limiting of your mobility, your autonomy, your employment options, your material security – all of which are presently tied to the availability of fossil fuels –  affect your sense of who you are, of how your community is structured, of what you can do?

Which of your frames – your fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is and what you expect the world to give you – are dependent on fossil fuels? Are you willing and able to abandon those frames for the sake of life on Earth?