Sunday, January 5, 2020

Our last, best hope

January 5, 2020

Like most thinking people on the planet, I have a heavy heart this evening. Ever since our deranged, maniacal "president" impulsively ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Iran's top general and second in command, our fragile global political order has been coming unglued, plunging ever-more rapidly downward toward the unthinkable cataclysm we have all feared for my entire life--"World War 3." As Thomas Paine once wisely said,

"He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death."

So it was when George W. Bush launched unprovoked invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; so it was when Hitler bombed Poland, when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian terrorist, when Napoleon invaded Russia, and so forth, through all the annals of history. But the (now apparently inevitable) war with Iran may spiral rapidly into a conflagration that will dwarf all these past horrors, especially if, in the acceleration of hostilities, Trump yields to his long-time fantasies of unleashing our vast nuclear arsenal, drawing Russia, North Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and likely India and Pakistan as well, into the general, apocalyptic melee.

Behind the scenes of all this political madness and folly, of course, is the ever-accelerating pace of climate change--or more precisely, climate catastrophe, which has already engulfed nearly all of Australia in vast, uncontrollable wildfires, while unleashing unprecedented heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, and floods all over the globe, along with melting ice caps, sea-level rise, ecological collapse on both land and sea. This could be it: the end of history; the end of humanity; the end of life on Earth as we know it.

So where is this "last, best hope" I refer to? Is it not somewhat of a bad joke, at this juncture, to even mention the word "hope?" At a macro-scale, probably so. I have little doubt that our money-and-fossil-fuel-based global industrial world order is doomed, inevitably, to collapse, whether rapidly or incrementally, into chaos and horror and mass die-off, which will probably take most of humanity and the rest of life as we know it along with it. (The extinction may well be total--in which case, obviously, there is no hope at all for us.)

But I still hold out some hope, nevertheless.
Why, you ask.
My short answer? Permaculture.

How so?

As one wag (I forget who) once put it, "Permaculture is revolution disguised as gardening."

So what exactly is Permaculture?

It is a method of gardening, but more than a method of gardening.
It is a method of landscape design, but more than a method of landscape design.
It is a systems-based approach to the design of healthy ecosystems that include humans.
But it is even more than that: It is a way of thinking, an ethical way of living, and a way of interacting with each other and our living world, our local (and global) habitat, that includes all of the above.

In short, it is the seed of a new global culture, a Gaian culture, that has already taken root around the world, and may rise like a phoenix from the ashes of our current dying industrial civilization. It knows no boundaries; it embraces and nurtures the entire planet (human and nonhuman alike); and it is not daunted by any challenges at all, but flourishes in every conceivable habitat, from deserts to rainforests, from equator to polar regions, from back yards to farms to cities to whole communities and cultures--even distressed communities like refugee camps.

And above all, it is resilient enough to survive apocalypse: as long as there are humans living together and trying to cope with adversity, permaculture can take root. And since its basic principles are common to all living beings, it can even survive the extinction of humanity itself--for all living beings follow the 12 principles: they observe and interact;  they catch and store energy; obtain a yield, apply self-regulation and accept feedback, use and value renewable resources and services, produce no waste, design from pattern to details (if you don't believe this, watch a spider build a web!); integrate rather than segregate; use small and slow solutions; use and value diversity; use edges and value the marginal; and creatively use and respond to change.

And so by learning and teaching Permaculture, no matter what happens, we say YES to life itself.

I will end, as always, by sharing my Dharma Gaia mantra--a guided meditation I have formulated that helps me whenever I feel overwhelmed by grief and despair for our planet, people, and other living beings. On ten consecutive slow breaths, repeat (aloud or to yourself) each of the following verb phrases. For a longer meditation, you can try doing so three times in a row: first to contemplate them, then to practice them (in the present moment), finally to vow to adhere to them as long as you live and breathe, renewing that vow whenever necessary. The mantra is divided into three parts:

1. Reclaiming the Moment:  Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
2. Setting a Day's Agenda: Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch. [with gratitude to Garrison Keillor]
3. Revisiting your life agenda: Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create

Finally, remember the Permaculture slogan I have devised as well:

Grow gardens; Grow community; Grow awareness.













Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Little Ones


Although I have no children of my own, I  heard this morning that my niece, Lillian, has just given birth to a little boy, whom she has named Charlie--a name of long lineage in my family, since it is also the name of my brother, father, grandfather, and even great-grandfather. So that makes a total of six grandbabies in my family: Rafi, age 7; David and Elsie, age 2 (or so)--all three children of my brother's eldest daughter Teresa; Lila and Amelia, the two baby daughters of Vickie (Teresa's younger sister); and now, newborn Charlie--my sister's first grandchild.

New births, new generations of one's family, are and always have been a cause for joy and celebration, and I would be a grinch indeed if I were to do anything other than share in the joy of my siblings, nieces, and grand-nieces and nephews.  But inevitably, the dark question arises: What kind of world are we leaving to them?  How long before the accelerating ravages of climate disruption trigger a cascading series of catastrophes, both natural and social,  that transforms their lovely world into a hellish landscape of chaos, violence, grief, madness, and starvation from which there is no possible escape? And is there anything we still can do to avert or even mitigate this catastrophic dark cloud over my descendants' future?

At a global scale, probably not. We had a chance, 30-40 years ago, when the reality of climate disruption due to rising CO2 levels first became widely known to the public. But due to concerted strategies of denial by the Fossil Fuel industry (spearheaded by Exxon) and parroted by Republican politicians, coupled with almost total neglect by both political parties and the pervasive, corporate-owned mass media, we have done next to nothing to curb our carbon emissions worldwide; in fact, recent figures have shown that we have pumped more carbon into the atmosphere since 1985 than we did during the entire preceding history of the industrial revolution since about 1800. This has been a catastrophic collective failure of will.

We all know why, of course. The entire Industrial Revolution, bringing with it a previously unimaginable growth in affluence, in population, and in technological innovation, arose entirely due to the sudden infusion of seemingly endless supplies of cheap fossil fuels--coal, petroleum, natural gas--that powered it.  Net energy, after all, is the foundation of any economy, and the vast amount of easily accessible and transportable net energy made available by fossil fuels drove the industrial revolution and spread it around the world, all within a mere 200 years--a geological eyeblink.

No one even imagined that there was a downside to this explosion of affluence and innovation until atmospheric sensors in Hawaii started recording rising levels of global CO2, around 1956.  (That was within my lifetime.) Subsequent years, of course, have solidly reinforced the conclusion that this rapidly rising atmospheric CO2 is entirely due to the burning of fossil fuels worldwide. Yet we are so addicted to fossil fuels--and the vast amounts of money they earn for investors--that we suppressed and denied this information until only recently, when the catastrophic effects of this rising concentration of CO2 became more and more obvious: melting polar icecaps, die-off of coral reefs worldwide, record hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, collapse of ecosystems and disappearance of species, and so forth. No thinking person (a category that excludes most Republicans, unfortunately) can any longer deny what is happening to our planet and why.

So why are people still having babies?  It's obvious--we are animals, and that is what we do.  And giving birth is the peak defining experience of femininity.  So I cannot and will not judge anyone for doing what comes naturally. But I am relieved that I never had any children of my own. It has spared me the personal dread and anxiety which will increasingly preoccupy the lives of my nieces and nephew as they raise their children and attempt to give them hope for their future. That hope will increasingly become elusive, at best, for the climate catastrophe will spare no one--not even the super-rich.

So here is my message for my grandnieces and grandnephews--a message I will never actually show them:

Dearest Rafi, Elsie, David, Lila, Amelia, and Charlie--

We love you all, but we have left you a broken, dying world. We have no excuses--we knew about what was happening 40 years ago, but we did nothing to curb our total addiction to fossil fuels. Addictions are hard to break--especially one that is the very basis of the increasing affluence that we enjoyed and took for granted all our lives, and that you still enjoy today. But not for long.

So here is what I suggest:

1. Let go of false hopes.  The future you inherit will be nothing like the present, and even less like the glorious techno-future that the mass media will continue to promote, in the teeth of growing evidence to the contrary.
2. Don't despair--your future will be hard and bitter, but this can be mitigated if you start now with the following suggestions.
3. Learn how to grow your own vegetable gardens starting now, using permaculture methods that minimize and even eliminate external inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and imported topsoil, and that adapt to changing climates through diversity. This way you will be able to feed yourself and others good, nutritious food after corporate agribusiness collapses.
4. At the same time, grow community: make lots of friends, and nurture those friendships by taking care of everyone, and abandoning no one. As your community expands, get involved in learning new skills, teaching them to others, healing each others' anxieties and illnesses, and creating innovative solutions to problems that arise.
5. Finally, grow awareness. Learn to think critically, so you can transform hostility into a teachable moment by calmly asking people two questions:a) What do you mean by ________(a word they just used--even an insult)? and b) Why should I believe what you say about it? (What is your evidence, and where did you get it?)  These questions, skillfully employed, can turn a fight into a dialogue.
6. Learn to meditate--Breathe, Observe, Let Go--whenever you find yourself afflicted by rage, anxiety, or craving.

And keep your eyes focused on a noble purpose for being alive--to cultivate the resilience, courage, and determination to create a new civilization that is symbiotic with, rather than parasitic upon, our biological support system. That new, post-industrial, Earth-friendly civilization starts from the ground up (quite literally, by building good topsoil)--not from the top down (by following demagogic leaders). Keep on trying--never give up--no matter what happens. And even if we all fail--even if our living planet goes into a runaway feedback loop that renders it uninhabitable, we will all die, but you will die in peace, comfortable with the inexorable reality of impermanence, just as you lived.

Blessings,

Uncle Tom

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Beyond Money: A new way of imagining "capital."


The word "capital" has normally been taken to refer to available money, or--more precisely, "Wealth in the form of money or assets, taken as a sign of the financial strength of an individual, organization, or nation, and assumed to be available for development or investment." (from the Business Dictionary)

 By this common definition, capital is inherently rooted in our global market economy, which I call "glomart" for short. But that money-based economy is completely incompatible with Gaia, our biological support system, since it depends on the infinite growth of production and consumption of commodities--which is impossible on a finite planet.  Money itself is just arithmetic, after all--an abstract transform of information about the marginal value of commodities. Hence, without commodities, you cannot have money--and without money, you cannot have commodities. In order to have a "commodity" you need to put a (physical or abstract) boundary around something in order to sell it on a market.

But such boundaries inevitably isolate that entity from its context, and all of the relationships that sustain it, and that it, in turn, sustains.  This is why, historically, we decided that human beings could not be commodities.  The Civil War marks our nation's final decision on this matter--the point at which we recognized, legally, that a person's autonomous rights as a human being supersede his or her commodity value to a plantation owner.  Likewise, the National Park System arose in recognition that certain places had too much intrinsic (non-monetary) value to our culture to be reduced to commodities for the market. When something is too sacred to be traded, it is no longer a commodity; no longer a form of "capital" in the usual sense of the word.

But there is a big problem with this "usual sense of the word." The sole object of any business enterprise is to increase its store of capital--of money and/or the commodities that can be traded for money. And money--or capital--is a zero sum game: if one person has it, the other does not. So the object of business--of Glomart--throughout the world is to build their capital base by transforming nature into commodities as rapidly as possible: land into real estate; diverse and fertile prairies into monocultural farms; forests into board-feet; potentially valuable minerals into mined and manufactured goods; oceans into fisheries and fisheries into fishmarkets and restaurants; fossil fuels into cheap energy resources that power all of the above. The net consequence, of course, is the ongoing destruction of our biological support system, coupled with the commodification of everything--and increased isolation of everyone.

Is there a better way of thinking about capital?  Fortunately, yes. Recently, thanks to Toby Hemenway and other Permaculturists, I came across an eye-opening article called "Eight Forms of Capital" by Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua. Based on systems theory--conceived in terms of pools and flows--the article lays out a revised, more comprehensive definition of "capital" as any and all resources, both material and immaterial, that can be traded within a community or between them or combined ("complexed" in their lexicon) into other, more complex resources. The Eight Forms of Capital, which I have arranged holarchically, from simplest to most complex, are as follows:


  1. Material Capital: Nonliving physical objects or materials which can be combined or transformed into useful tools or commodities. (Zero-sum and inherently degenerative--i.e. subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics)
  2. Living (or biological) Capital: Animals, plants, microbes, fresh water, and topsoil. This kind of capital can be regenerative if wisely and prudently used, stored, and nurtured. But it is still partly zero sum--at any given moment, what one person eats or drinks cannot belong to or benefit another person (other than a mother's nursing child) as well. This is why there is competition for food and water in many parts of the world. (But it can, and does, benefit the microbes in our intestines and elsewhere that are part of our bodies' symbiotic matrix). Living capital can often, of course, be transformed into material capital as well (e.g. wood). These two--material and living capital--form the foundation of any economy or ecosystem, human or otherwise. The next four forms of capital pertain to individual human beings. 
  3. Experiential Capital: The practical knowledge and skills we gain from our lived experience. These can include practical skills like housekeeping, carpentry or gardening, and can be "complexed" to form higher-level skills, such as engineering or architecture. It can be Positive Sum, in that the more experience you have, the more benefit you can bring to a community through solving their problems and teaching others what you know.
  4. Intellectual Capital: This is what people go to college for; to gain the theoretical knowledge and thinking skills necessary to make wise decisions, to gain employment, and to collaborate with others on projects. Depending on the field of interest, it is generally combined with experiential capital to one degree or another. 
  5. Social Capital: This refers to the "people skills" we acquire through collaborating with and socializing with others. It is likewise Positive-Sum, in that the more Social Capital you acquire, the broader your influence becomes on others, and the more you can accomplish collaboratively.
  6. Spiritual Capital: This is the most abstract, least quantifiable form of capital. The Buddhists have codified it in their concept of Karma, which refers to the net consequences of any intentional action on both the inner (self) and outer (world) realms of experience. In Buddhist epistemology, Karma (spiritual capital) can be conceived as a kind of balance sheet, which transcends individual lives, and shapes our day-to-day experience.  The good news is, moreover, that Karma, (both individual and collective, past and present) while it determines the context in which we take any action, does not predetermine the action itself. Through mind training, we can learn to identify and expose the karmic roots of any thought, feeling, or impulse that arises, evaluate it accordingly, and then make a free choice as to whether to increase our karmic debt by indulging dysfunctional impulses--or pay off an installment of it by acting at that moment with wisdom and compassion.  And it is by such training--both in formal meditation and in mindful living--that we accumulate spiritual capital, manifested as loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. And so, like experiential, social, and intellectual capital, spiritual capital is a positive-sum game: the more we have, the more others benefit as well. The last two forms of capital are collective, rather than individual, in that they acquire value only through group interaction:  
  7. Financial Capital: No need for further comment on this, which has generally been considered the only form of capital. Money is, of course, useful as an abstract medium for trade--that is why it was invented. But since it is simply arithmetic, it has two insurmountable problems. For one, it is inherently zero-sum: if one person has it, others do not.  On a finite planet, the logic of money is exactly that of a monopoly game, and a monopoly game has only one possible outcome: the winner(s) own everything, and the losers own nothing, and owe the winners rent for their houses and hotels. That is rapidly becoming a model of the world we live in today; a world where a handful of billionaires own everything, and all the rest of us work for them, are in debt to them, or have been abandoned (or imprisoned) by them to lives of poverty, homelessness, and destitution.  The other problem is that money must grow, or else it loses its value. And the only way to "grow" money is to turn everything else into it--that is, turn nature into commodities, citizens into consumers, and communities into "markets"--until the Earth herself is denuded of life and polluted to death.  Still, in our world, we all need money to survive. But the more we can rely on the other forms of capital, the less money we will need to lead happy, fulfilling lives. 
  8. Cultural Capital: The last kind of "capital" we can accumulate and trade on collectively is that bestowed upon us by our respective cultural heritages and practices. It refers, according to Roland and Landua, to "the shared internal and external processes of a community – the works of art and theater, the songs that every child learns, the ability to come together in celebration of the harvest or for a religious holiday." These days, most people acquire their cultural capital from absorption in mass media culture--which has increasingly become their only common cultural currency.  Since most mass media simply reinforce the dysfunctional cultural premises of Glomart--(More is always better; To be is to buy)--people also adhere to fragmented and mutually hostile subcultures, whether they are churches, synagogues, mosques, football fan clubs, street gangs, or right-wing hate groups on the internet. But diverse cultural capital within communities can still be a fertile and useful resource for diversifying and enriching our experience (as in Mexican or Thai restaurants, Tai Chi and Yoga classes, community theatre, etc.)
If we can learn and teach people how to think more broadly about these various different forms of capital available to us, we will go a long way toward emancipating ourselves from the tyranny of Glomart, and the inner tyranny of predicating our self-worth solely on the size of our cars and houses and stock portfolios. The best way to grow our own spiritual, social, experiential, intellectual, and even cultural capital is to devote our lives to various forms of learning, teaching, healing, and creating.


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

To what should I devote my life?

As we contemplate our threatening and uncertain future these days, with everything falling apart at once due to a "perfect storm" of accelerating climate change, deterioration of our global ecological support system, disintegration of our social fabric--both nationally and internationally--into outright fascism, belligerent nationalism, warmongering, corporate and military predation, and fanatical hatreds on all sides, we all face a searing question that has been memorably posed by environmental journalist Dahr Jamail in his recent book The End of Ice:

“From this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?

Answers will vary, of course. Some, perhaps most affluent people, will opt for hedonistic denial--continue pursuing their private dreams of bigger houses, luxury vacations, large SUVs, exciting new career possibilities, idyllic vacations, happy children, and so forth. Like drunken passengers on a cruise ship on the Niagara River, they will continue to drink, dance, and laugh, ignoring the roaring around the bend, until the boat tips over the precipice.

A vast number of others, at the poorer end of the spectrum, will be too preoccupied with daily survival in an increasingly violent and hostile world to give much thought to anything beyond getting through the day.  Those few of us who strive to remain aware and not escape into denial face a yawning vortex of despair as everything--starting with climate--goes from bad to worse with each passing day, week, and year. So how can we keep our balance on this thin line between denial and despair? In a world without hope, or where hope is increasingly elusive, to what do we devote our lives?

Some have already opted for despair.  For example, Roy Scranton, an English professor I recently heard at a bookstore, has published a self-indulgent collection of his own essays, entitled We're Doomed--Now what? For him, and for other writers like him, despair is chic. I obligingly purchased his book, only to find that he had recycled many of his earlier academic essays that had nothing to do with climate change, and that when he focused on his presumed topic, he knew nothing more about climate change than I do, but enjoyed wallowing in despair.  When I asked him if he had heard of permaculture, he shrugged off the question--how could I possibly be so naive as to offer alternatives to total despair? 

Dahr Jamail's own response to his question is far more nuanced, although he admits that he must reformulate it from day to day, fending off the vortex of despair as he goes. And that is simply to devote his life to doing good, which in his own case as a journalist and activist, means exposing the cruelty and mendacity of the powerful, and faithfully describing what he sees and what he is told by researchers, in order--against all odds--to awaken his readers to reality. 

My own response, likewise, varies from day to day.  But it is rooted in my cultivation of the Dharma--the ongoing awareness of impermanence, interbeing, and oneness. One practice I find very useful is what Buddhists call "The Five Remembrances"--five inescapable realities of life that most of us prefer not to think about. By deliberately calling them up, as a meditation practice, we familiarize ourselves with them, and they are less threatening to our equanimity, which in turn is a prerequisite to our generic daily agenda: being well, doing good work, and keeping in touch. The five remembrances are as follows (as rendered by Thich Nhat Hanh)

1. I am of the nature to get sick; there is no way to avoid getting sick.
2. I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to avoid growing old.
3. I am of the nature to die; there is no way to avoid dying.
4. I am of the nature to lose everything I cherish; there is no way to avoid losing everything.
5. My actions are my only true possession; by my actions shall I live.

On days when I feel overwhelmed with grief and rage for what we are doing, in our ignorance, greed, and denial, to our unique and magnificent living planet, I modify the first four remembrances by adding in the larger extensions of the first-person subject, as follows:

1. "I (and my community, and Gaia) am of the nature to get sick; there is no way to avoid getting sick..."

--and so forth.  The effect of this practice, sincerely applied as often as necessary, is to restore my equanimity once again, so I can resume my Dharma quest to grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness--to practice Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share, and to learn Gaia, teach Gaia, heal Gaia, and create Gaia--up to my last breath, no matter what happens.


Saturday, March 9, 2019

A Truffula Seed

This is an initial draft of a sermon I plan to deliver at UUCS in early April.

CENTERING THOUGHT:

While western colonialist culture believes in “rights”, many indigenous cultures teach of “obligations” that we are born into: obligations to those who came before, to those who will come after, and to the Earth itself. When I orient myself around the question of what my obligations are, a deeper question immediately arises: from this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life? –Dahr Jamail

READING:  [Excerpts from] The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, ending with the line,

"UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not.

"So catch!" cried the Onceler; he let something fall.
"It's a truffula seed, the last one of all.
You're in charge of the last of the truffula seeds.
And truffula trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack,
Then the Lorax and all of his friends
may come back."

SERMON:

I've always been a Dr. Seuss fan.

So when I first encountered The Lorax, in 1971, shortly after great national awakening of Earth Day 1970, it resonated deeply. I remember a party with my college friends, where I brought my copy to show them, and a flamboyant, theatrical young woman in our group named Nancy entertained us all with a dramatic reading. When she got to the moral of the story, the party fell silent as she paused dramatically on the half line:

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Dr. Seuss was right, of course. Nothing has gotten any better--only a whole lot worse, since that evening some 48 years ago. Unlike Dr. Seuss's penitent villain, the Oncelers of the real world--from Monsanto to Exxon Mobil to Donald Trump--have yet to repent, even as the "grickle grass" grows up all around us: toxic pollution of land, air, rivers, and even the ocean; deforestation and desertification; loss of biodiversity;  and above all, the looming spectre of accelerating climate change from fossil fuels that threatens our common future. Yet the Oncelers still rule, with their unshakeable faith in the economics of "biggering and biggering and biggering and biggering!"

But the Onceler is not just the villain. He is also the penitent first-person narrator, telling his sad story to the little boy--the stand-in for the reader--below his dark, isolated tower. And in making this narrative choice, Dr. Seuss knew exactly what he was doing.

We are all, after all, Oncelers--not just the rich and powerful. From the time of the Agricultural Revolution, some 12,000 years ago, we have drawn a conceptual barrier--that had not previously existed in any human tribe-- between "man" and "nature"; between the "civilized" and the "wild." On this side, in our cities and cultivated fields, we were safe. Outside of these--the "wild," was a place of both danger and opportunity. The danger came first from wild animals who would threaten us or our crops--whether lions, tigers, bears, wolves, or deer, rats, mice, and swarms of locusts all feeding on our crops. The opportunity came from the fact that the Wild was lawless--a place where no constraints applied, and we could find some new "resource"--whether forests, minerals, or--significantly, other arable land we could raid and steal from those already there, clearcut, and plant with monocultures to feed our growing population.  The entire history of our agro-industrial civilization--from the walls of ancient Babylon to Trump Tower--could be seen as the inexorable working-out of this basic Onceler ideology--that "nature" is nothing but a "resource" for human expansion, and it has no value at all until it is transformed into commodities for sale and profit.

So when the Onceler arrives to set up shop amid the beautiful Truffula Trees, waving in the breeze and nurturing a rich ecosystem of "brown barbaloots, "humming fish" and "swomee swans," he, like our ancestors and most entrepreneurs today, sees it as nothing but a "resource" to turn into hot-selling commodities like "thneeds" as quickly as possible.

While the Onceler represents the powerful corporate and industrial interests who have everything to gain and nothing to lose from plundering the planet and exploiting its inhabitants in order to maximize their profits, the Lorax--the fuzzy little guy who "speaks for the trees" and pesters the Onceler to no avail, is an apt image of the environmental movement, in which I have been an active participant throughout my life. But the nagging Lorax only creates contempt and resentment in the Onceler, who shrugs him off, while he keeps "biggering"--until the last Truffula Tree falls.

So it is with the Environmental Movement, which after a few early victories such as banning DDT and the Endangered Species Act, is now again on the defensive, first ridiculed and marginalized on Fox News by corporate toadies like Rush Limbaugh, and now in full retreat under the onslaught of Trump and his billionaire minions in the fossil fuel industry, who have launched an all-out attack on every environmental regulation they could find.

 So I would like to focus on the final passage--where the now-repentant Onceler entrusts the young boy--a stand-in for the reader--with the very last truffula seed of them all. This precious truffula seed is the key to the boy's understanding of the word inscribed on the pedestal in the midst of the gloomy, dying landscape: UNLESS. The hope it embodies is entirely conditional: a seed must be planted in good soil, in the right climate conditions, nurtured with "clean water and fresh air," and protected "from axes that hack" if it is to be viable.

This truffula seed--and not the futile nagging of the Lorax himself--is thus the key to the allegory in Dr. Seuss's tale. But is there a viable truffula seed in a time like ours, when everything seems to be falling apart at once?

Many proposed solutions for our current global crisis are floating around these days. They fall into three broad categories: technological fixes, political action, and personal or community-based initiatives. Unfortunately, none are very convincing.

Technological fixes, like proposals to geo-engineer the atmosphere or extract excess CO2, are prohibitively expensive and would require an unprecedented level of cooperation among the world's governments to pull them off. And even then, as completely untested technologies, they might backfire badly. Also, they embody the same kind of linear mentality that caused the problem to begin with: shield the atmosphere from excess solar radiation, and then we can carry on with business as usual, drilling more oil and gas, plundering our resources for commodities, cutting down forests to build more suburbs, and "biggering and biggering..."

Political solutions, like the Green New Deal, are courageous and inspiring, but face a huge uphill battle against entrenched corporate interests with vast pools of money to buy off politicians and saturate the airwaves with hysterical propaganda about "socialism." And even if, against all odds, this bold initiative passed, it would face entrenched and ongoing opposition from those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Personal solutions fall into two categories: green consumerism and adaptation. Green consumerism refers to the notion of personal responsibility--if we each make changes in our purchasing habits to reduce our ecological footprint, the net effect will be to reduce overall carbon emissions, and thereby save our planet. In theory, this is true. But as Bob Dylan once said, "Most people don't do what they believe in; they just do what's most convenient, and then they repent." And of course, a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is out there brainwashing us day and night with appeals to convenience--spelled P-L-A-S-T-I-C--regardless of environmental consequences.

This leaves adaptation, whether it is cities spending billions to wall in their waterfronts to protect against sea level rise, or smaller-scale "transition town" movements, where people teach each other the skills they will need to grow their own food, build their own houses, create their own currency, and so forth--to secede, in effect, from the rest of the dying world.  But such transition towns could quickly devolve into entrenched, embittered survivalist communities, bristling with weapons behind high walls and barbed wire. Who wants to live like that? As Robert Frost once said, "Something there is that does not love a wall."

So what is left?  In this time of rapidly accelerating climate catastrophe, as we collectively face a terrifying future of combined environmental, social, and economic collapse, what can we do? How do we navigate the treacherous waters between the alluring Scylla of television-induced denial and the Charybdis--the vortex--of despair? Where can we find this precious Truffula Seed of resolution, and how can we nurture it?

If I had an easy answer to this dilemma we all face, I would already have collected my Nobel Prize. I don't. So I think we all need to find our own Truffula Seed--our own still center from which to face the day, beyond false hope, and beyond abject and useless despair. So I will offer my own Truffula seed. If it works for you, plant it and cultivate it; if not, improvise.

My Truffula seed is a dicot, in that it consists of two complementary commitments we all can make. The first is a formal statement of a Gaian Categorical Imperative--an ethical code to live by:

"In everything you do, strive to assume responsibility for the health, competence, and resilience of yourself, your community, and our living Earth--simultaneously."

Health, competence, and resilience are the three essential survival values of every living system at every scale from the simplest one-celled organism to the blue whale--to us. Health is internal homeostasis--being well. Competence is the ability to thrive within, and serve the needs of, an existing, predictable community--doing good work. And Resilience is the ability to adapt to unpredictable changes in the world around us--keeping in touch.

 If we benefit ourselves in ways that are destructive to our community, we will probably end up in jail. If we benefit our communities in ways that are destructive to the planet, we may become billionaires--but our children will curse our bones. Only when we benefit all three--ourselves, our communities, and our planet--are we doing truly good work: learning, teaching, healing, and creating.

The second commitment is a simple slogan, a plan of action for the first. Here it is:

"Grow gardens; grow community; grow awareness."

Growing gardens improves our own health and that of the Earth by reducing our dependence on topsoil-destroying, pesticide-dependent corporate agriculture. It also strengthens our bonds with our neighbors and community. As Permaculture teacher Geoff Lawton once said, "You can solve all the world's problems in a garden."

Growing community improves our individual and collective competence.

Growing awareness enhances our resilience, both individually and collectively.

Our garden begins, not in our backyard, but in our heads. It begins
by reclaiming the present moment. This was a core teaching of the eminent Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. In all our anxiety about our future, we forget the simple fact that the present is all there is. The past is gone, and the future hasn't happened yet.  Both past and future are what the Buddhists call "mental formations,"--fabrications of the mind with no basis in reality. The past is irretrievable; all we can do is learn from it. The future is imaginary. We have no way of knowing for sure what will happen even tomorrow, to say nothing of ten or twenty years from now. We know, however, that our future--and that of our children--will be shaped--and constrained--by decisions we have made in the past, but also--more importantly--by the decisions we make in the present moment. So how do we reclaim the present moment?

By breathing, observing, and letting go. We breathe in order to observe; we observe in order to let go; and we let go in order to breathe. The minute we do so, we calm down, our breath becomes more slow and even, our heartbeats more regular. Simply breathing reconnects our minds and our bodies, bringing us back to the present moment. Our breath is our home base, connecting us to the Earth and to one another.

Then we can turn to our day's agenda, by renewing three simple vows.  The radio host Garrison Keillor had a wonderful sign-off on his morning radio program, "Writer's Almanac" which I have adopted for my own generic daily agenda:  "Be well; Do good work; and Keep in Touch."

Be well--take care of this precious body while you have it. One good way of doing this is by growing fresh, organic vegetables in your own gardens. This enhances your health, competence, and resilience simultaneously.

Do good work--focus mindfully on the tasks at hand, for the best interests of yourself, your community, and the planet as a whole. This is a good way to build competence and grow community.

Keep in touch--take care of everyone, and abandon no one. This is a great way of developing your own and others' resilience and growing awareness.

So I would like to leave you with a simple guided meditation that I use in my own daily meditation practice, to maintain my equanimity and focus no matter what happens in the world around me. It consists of ten verb phrases, on the breath, divided into two sets of three and one of four.

The first set helps us re-inhabit the moment:  Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
The second (with gratitude to Garrison Keillor) helps us reclaim the day: Be well, do good work, keep in touch.
And the third consists of four general life goals around which we can orient ourselves--the only things worth doing with our lives:

Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.

This is my Truffula seed--my way of reconnecting every day with my still center and renewing my own commitment to growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness. It is yours to use if it works for you; if not, improvise.

So I would like to try a guided meditation today. Please sit up, straight and relaxed, settling into your breath as we contemplate and practice these injunctions on the breath:

Breathing...observing...letting go...
Being well...doing good work...keeping in touch
Learning...teaching...healing...creating...








Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Utopian Fallacy

Recently I read an article by one Richard Bartlett entitled "Courage Before Hope: A Proposal To Weave Emotional and Economic Microsolidarity."  In a long and elaborately thought-out discourse, Bartlett lays out a grand scheme that depends on creating intentional communities of "people with life-supporting values" coming together to "grow our power to influence the distribution of resources." There are many interesting insights in this article, but I am afraid the author is laboring under a delusion, which I like to call "the utopian fallacy."  So here is how I commented on his plan:
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You have done some careful and creative thinking about navigating the treacherous pass between denial and despair in the coming bad years. I guess my only reservation is the “intentional community” fallacy — the dream of creating a whole community of like-minded, equally aware, creative people to set yourselves apart from a dying world and create your own mini-paradise.
There are several problems with this approach:
  1. How will you protect yourselves from the dying, desperate masses who will want what you have, and be willing to kill for it? And how do you accomplish this protection without poisoning your souls and becoming vicious, mean-spirited survivalists who gun down everyone in sight?
  2. “Intentional community” is somewhat of an oxymoron, because our intentions are as individual as our fingerprints. And this inevitably leads to conflict, which must be resolved by some agreed-upon laws or authority — and enforcement.
  3. A planet-sized problem demands planet-sized solutions; nothing smaller will suffice. But these cannot be top-down (i.e. creating some sort of global political authority that everyone will respect) because we are tribal by nature, and so any such world government would have to be maintained by force against the ever-present forces of ignorance, greed, hatred, denial, and despair.
All of the above being the case, my own solution can be summed up in a simple slogan: GROW GARDENS; GROW COMMUNITIES; GROW AWARENESS. Note that I use the verb “grow” rather than “build.” To unpack these a bit:
  1. By “grow gardens” I mean practicing Permaculture (regenerative design based on ecological understanding). This is a bottom-up, rather than a top-down solution. And it engages with the planet as it is, not an imaginary planet we are trying to create from scratch. As founder Bill Mollison often said, “The problem is the solution.” That is, by looking deeply at any given problem, you can turn it to your advantage.
  2. By “growing community” I mean propagating Permaculture, by sharing the fruits of your success with your neighbors — whoever they are — and teaching them in turn how to incorporate ecological design principles into their own gardens and community gardens.
  3. “Growing awareness” is a net consequence of the above. When people have a clear choice between an adaptive, life-affirming way of living and a maladaptive, violent, greedy way, they will quite naturally choose the former.
Two books I highly recommend, both by the late Toby Hemenway, lay out these ideas clearly and cogently: (1) Gaia’s Garden (a guide to backyard permaculture); and (2) The Permaculture City. 
By doing so, we have the best chance of becoming agents of the spontaneous remission of the cancer of the Earth, by nurturing the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet simultaneously.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Things dying...Things newborn

At the midpoint of Shakespeare's visionary late romance The Winter's Tale, the old Shepherd, who has just discovered the abandoned cradle containing the infant Perdita, meets his breathless (and clueless) son, the "Clown," who reduces catastrophe to low comedy by getting all mixed up in his descriptions of what he has just seen: an offshore shipwreck in an approaching storm, and a bear feeding on a "gentleman" (whom we know to be Antigonus, the doomed emissary of Leontes court, charged with abandoning the child on "the seacoast of Bohemia" before his famous "exit, pursued by a bear.") After hearing his son out, the Shepherd remarks,

"Now bless thyself, thou metst with things dying, I with things newborn."

This is a good thought for the new year.  To be sure, we scarcely need to be reminded of all the "things dying" these days--our fisheries, our forests, our biodiversity, our stable climate (the willful disruption of which by our fossil fuel-dependent industrial civilization promises a greatly accelerated die-off in the near future), and the basic shared values, civility, and integrity without which our democratic institutions degenerate into tyranny and endemic corruption. So where is this "newborn child" who promises eventual regeneration?

There are, of course, a number of candidates.  For politically minded people, she may be incarnated as someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez--the young, beautiful, outspoken new congresswoman from the Bronx who has become an overnight superstar for the political Left, while striking fear and loathing into the republicans and their goons at Fox News. Inspiring political leadership, especially when built around new and visionary memes like a "Green New Deal," can do much to alleviate the political gloom and despair that most of us have felt since the rise of Trump.

Cultural history has shown, moreover, that real transformation starts more from the ground up than from the top down.  So even if we manage to elevate aspirational new political figures like Alexandria or Beto O'Rourke to positions of influence, they will still face a massive global corporate elite with an overwhelming vested interest in the status quo, and a bottomless supply of money to buy off politicians, saturate the airwaves, rig elections, and enforce their agenda--growth and more growth, regardless of the cost.

This is why I tend to invest my own energy and aspirations into "things newborn" at the local, grassroots level--things such as the worldwide Permaculture movement,  but also, more subtle changes like the mainstreaming of the idea of "mindfulness" (though often depleted of any ethical content) and the rising interest, across a broad spectrum of the public, in locally grown food.

When I was young, roadside farmers' markets were a common sight when my family drove out into (what was then) the "countryside."  As that countryside was paved over with bland, soul-numbing suburbs and big-box malls, farmers' markets vanished, simply because everyone drove to the supermarket...and then to superstores like Walmart...where they could get everything they could possibly want, all at once, for dirt cheap. It did not matter in the slightest that all this (mostly processed) food had been grown far away, on vast, soil-depleted, monocultural fields saturated with pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers, nor that the merchandise had been made by cheap, exploited laborers in China or Guatemala. It was cheap and readily accessible, and that was all that mattered.

Fast-forward to today. Once again, farmers' markets are flourishing--against all odds--not only in the "country" but also in towns and cities. This may seem insignificant--we still have vast big-box stores being built everywhere on acres of asphalt. But it does herald a growing shift in our collective food preferences, which can be encouraged and accelerated. And the rise of larger Saturday markets, like the one here in Salem, where local merchants and craftspeople of all kinds sell their fresh produce, art work, and other hand-crafted items, heralds a regeneration of community-scale commerce, all of which diversifies the local economy and dramatically reduces our carbon footprint (since these goods are grown or made locally and do not have to be shipped across oceans and continents to get to us).

Piggybacking onto such trends are initiatives like the City Repair Project in Portland, or the Transition Town movement, striving to reweave the bonds of cooperation and conviviality that once characterized the village life of our ancestors, but with the specific intent, today, of overcoming the legacy of mutual alienation caused by our self-centered culture of industrial consumerism, and rebuilding trust, so that we can once again build economic and ecological resilience into our communities and rely on each other when disaster strikes (as will become more common with advancing climate disruption).

Political involvement is, of course, essential, and always will be.  But given the perennially corrupting influences of money and power, we cannot rely on political leadership alone to make the vast changes we need to shift from a parasitic to a symbiotic relationship with Gaia--our global biological support system.  We need to make those changes ourselves, starting with our own minds (cultivating equanimity, wisdom, and compassion in whatever ways work best for us, in order to face an increasingly dire and frightening future with resolution and confidence), then healing and recreating our gardens, our communities, and our social and political fabric itself.