Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Why start a Dharma Gaia Circle?


Why am I starting a Dharma Gaia Circle this month? To answer this, I wish to begin with one of my favorite passages from Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.

According to recent scholarship in Chinese history, Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching most likely date from the Warring States era of Chinese history (481/403 to 221 BCE) when China had fractured into various rival warlord states battling viciously for dominance; a prolonged (two centuries or more) era of bitter internecine warfare prior to the unification of China under the Qin dynasty.

In the context of this period of catastrophic societal breakdown into civil strife, Lao Tzu composed a simple but beautiful recipe for social regeneration (Tao Te Ching, verse 54):

What is well planted will not be uprooted.

What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.

It will be honoured from generation to generation.

Cultivate Virtue in yourself,

 And Virtue will be real.

 Cultivate it in the family,

 And Virtue will overflow.

 Cultivate it in the village,

 And Virtue will grow.

 Cultivate it in the nation,

 And Virtue will flourish.

 Cultivate it in the world,

 And Virtue will be everywhere.



 See others as yourself.

 See families as your family.

 See towns as your town.

 See countries as your country.

 See worlds as your world.

 How do I know that the world is like this?

 By looking! 

(Gia Fu Feng Translation, adapted with reference to other translations).

The word translated as "Virtue" here is Te (or pinyin de), the second word in the title Tao Te Ching, often translated as "The Classic of the Way and its Virtue." However, like Tao itself, this word Te is not precisely translatable; it does not simply mean "goodness" or "manliness" (two Western meanings of "virtue" from its Latin root virtus), but it refers, in general, to what might well be described as the efficacy of human behavior in accordance with the Way of nature. (Hence it could even be taken as another definition of permaculture!) Therefore, my own interpretation of "Virtue" (Te) might be a combination of (1) ecological awareness, understanding, and responsibility, with (2) behavior that effectively promotes the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our living planet, all rooted in wisdom and compassion.

So what is Lao Tzu telling us, in the context of a chaotic, violent, disintegrative era much like his own?

That social regeneration begins, not from the top down, but from the ground up--starting from individual healing and regeneration, leading to the healing and regeneration of families, communities, societies, landscapes, and our entire living planet.  And this, in a nutshell, is why I am creating a Dharma Gaia Circle.

The key line is this one: "Cultivate Virtue in yourself, and Virtue will be real." This is a profound insight that we often forget as social activists, in our passion to right the wrongs of our society and government. No attempt to "cultivate Virtue" in the community or state is likely to last or become deeply rooted unless we first make that Virtue "real" by cultivating it within ourselves. So this one line comprises the agenda of my Dharma Gaia Circle: to "cultivate Virtue" in ourselves, so that it is real, and so that we can then plant it more firmly, and  cultivate it more effectively, in the larger circles of relationship within which we live: our families, communities, states, and living planet.

There are, of course, myriad methods for cultivating Virtue in ourselves, but I have sought, over many years, to evolve an effective method for myself and others that integrates personal integration and healing with that of all the larger systems of which we are a part: our household, neighborhood, circle of friends, landscapes, community, state, nation, and--above all--our living planet.  And here, in brief, is what I have come up with, based on the Dalai Lama's wonderful definition of the Dharma as simultaneously a "principle, precept, and practice."

PRINCIPLE: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."  --Martin Luther King, Jr.

PRECEPT: "Take care of everyone, and abandon no one.  Take care of everything, and abandon nothing."  --Lao Tzu.

PRACTICE: (Guided meditation on the breath)

1. (Reinhabiting the present moment):  Breathe, Observe, Let Go. --the Buddha (Sutra on Breathing)

2. (A generic daily agenda): "Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch"  --Garrison Keillor.

3. (A generic life agenda): Learn Gaia; Teach Gaia; Heal Gaia; Create Gaia.

For a deeper dive into all of this, please see my Dharma Gaia Manifesto.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Dharma Gaia Mantra: A Short History

The "Dharma Gaia Mantra" is a ten-breath guided meditation that has become the centerpiece of my practice, and the seed of the Dharma Gaia Circle I hope, in the coming year, to create. Divided into three parts, here it is:

1. Reclaiming the Present Moment:  Breathe, Observe, Let Go.

2. Reclaiming the Day: Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch. [with gratitude to Garrison Keillor]

3. Reaffirming our Life Agenda:  Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, Create Gaia.

So where and how did this formula for practice originate?

Some time around 1997-1999 (I forget exactly when), after I had become a disciple of the Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, and had read many of his books and immersed myself in his wise and practical distillation of Buddhist teachings, I started mulling over ways I could impart his wisdom to my students at Hampton University, a historically black institution in southeastern Virginia.  The vast majority of my students were devout Christians, along with a few Muslims, who might be quickly alienated if I introduced them explicitly to Buddhist teachings. So I started developing techniques to teach Buddhism without the "B" word--that is to translate the wise and practical teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh into a language free of religious or cultural references to Buddhism. And so I started working on a set of "axioms for clearing the mind" as a sort of digest of Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings. After several tries, here are the axioms I came up with:

1. The present is all there is; the past is gone, and the future hasn't happened yet.[An essential teaching, often revisited by Thich Nhat Hanh]

2. That that is, is. [originally, a parodic line from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night that encourages us to accept what we cannot change and to let go of the past subjunctive]

3. Nothing you've done, suffered, or failed to do in the past has any necessary effect on what you choose to do in the present moment. [This helps to overcome self-doubt, which often plagues young people in college classes]

4. There are only two states of mind: mindful and distracted.

5. Therefore, there are only two ways of doing anything: mindfully ("doing it in order to do it") or distractedly ("doing it in order to get it done").

6. Everyone gets distracted, all the time.

7. Therefore we all need some useful techniques for moving from distraction to mindfulness.

8. Here is one such technique. Try it to see if it works. If not, improvise.

My "technique," of course, is the Mantra, which I then explicated in brief on a handout I gave them at the start of every semester, entitled "Axioms for Clearing the Mind," and aimed toward college students.

This handout was so popular that some students even slid it into the transparent envelope on the front of their three-ring notebooks, so they could refer to it as needed. And no one knew or cared that these teachings were "Buddhist."

Since then, this mantra has repeatedly demonstrated its worth in my own practice. As I explored its implications, I came to see how it reflected all the essential Buddhist teachings, as I elaborate in my "Dharma Gaia Manifesto" posted here entitled "Dharma Gaia: Spiritual Practice for a Finite Planet."

As time has passed, I have developed a variety of techniques for using the Mantra in my practice. These include the following short and long variants:

I. The Three-breath Practice: On three long breaths, combine the following injunctions:

Inbreath="Breathe, Observe, Let Go."

Pause="Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch

Outbreath="Learn, Teach, Heal, Create"

Pause: "Abide..."

II. The Thirty-Breath Practice:

1. Contemplate (the importance of)...breathing, observing, letting go...

2. Practice (in the present moment)...breathing, observing, letting go...

3. Vow (for the rest of your life) breathe, observe, let go...

III. The 108-breath practice (best used with a Mala). For this one, you add the injunction "abide" to the first two triads--e.g. "Breathe... Observe...Let Go...Abide... and you associate these with the four Brahma-Viharas or immeasurables: Benevolence, Compassion, Joy, Equanimity. So rather than 10 breaths, you have a total of 12 breaths for each repetition of the mantra. These, repeated 9 times, equal 108--the number of beads on the mala, and a sacred number in Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

I have personally found this mantra to be immensely useful at stabilizing my mind and clarifying my purpose in life, whenever I slip into any kind of "blue funk." I hope that anyone who reads this will likewise find it useful. But remember: mantras are like training wheels. They can be discarded when you no longer need them to support your practice.


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

My Legacy

 Recently, an internet acquaintance sent out a very gloomy and depressing YouTube presentation he had compiled, which features the eminent climate journalist Robert Hunziker giving us a tour of places all over the planet that are in various states of ecological collapse due to the climate crisis. The general theme of this presentation, as with many other recent articles I have read, is that it is too late--that we have already passed the tipping point, beyond which the excess atmospheric CO2, compounded by methane from melting permafrost and by the loss of albedo due to melting ice caps, is causing a runaway feedback loop that will accelerate global heating to the point that living systems throughout the world will collapse before too much longer, dooming all of humanity and most other vertebrates to a ghastly fate of mass starvation and extinction. His message was essentially that of Dante's Inferno:  "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here..."

He may well be right, of course. The vast amount of data from all over the planet pointing toward imminent global ecological collapse is hard to refute.  That may be that. And in theory, I shouldn't worry since, at 71, I'll most likely be dead and gone (or not...), before everyone else shares my fate. 

But I refuse, categorically, to give up hope. Instead, I have vowed, till my very last breath, to propagate Gaian consciousness, in theory and practice alike, in whatever ways I can, in the hope that, against all odds, we may arrest this catastrophic juggernaut before it is far too late, and thereby catalyze the spontaneous remission of the cancer of the Earth.

We cannot do this from the top down. The current systems that organize our global civilization--governments and corporations alike--all have an enormous vested interest in Glomart--the (entirely artificial and maximizing) order of money.  But Glomart, as I have often said, is fundamentally incompatible with Gaia. A maximizing economic system that depends on endless growth of population, production, and consumption cannot long endure on a finite, optimizing biosphere that is not getting any bigger.

But we can--in principle--transform our global civilization from the ground up--that is, from our personal lives to our families, communities, farms, and forests, to our city, county, and state governments, thence to the federal government and the international community. We can all transform our parasitic relationship with Gaia into a symbiotic one.   But how?

"Cultivate Virtue in yourself, and Virtue will be real."  So says Lao Tzu in his own prescription for social regeneration (verse 54). But how?  There are, of course, an infinite number of recommendations for how to do this, so our best bet is to find one that works for us. But the point is, personal regeneration is the indispensable first step to social and ecological regeneration, or--failing that--to acceptance of mortality, whether our own or that of our entire civilization and biosphere.

Hence my legacy. This is what I hope--and intend--to instill within all those whom I am able to reach, of whatever age but especially the youth, before I die.   It is my own interpretation of the universal Dharma, which the Dalai Lama aptly characterized as simultaneously a principle, a precept, and a practice. Here is my formulation of these: 

Principle: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."  --Martin Luther King, Jr.

Precept: Therefore, let us strive to "take care of everyone and abandon no one; to take care of everything and abandon nothing." (Lao Tzu).

Practice: Breathe, Observe, Let Go;  Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch; Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, Create Gaia."

How might this work?  Imagine...

--a Dharma Gaia circle, an ecumenical meditation group that meets bimonthly on lunar holidays and for outings (Gaia Walks) on solar holidays, beginning each meditation by reciting the Principle and the Precept, and then "launching" their sitting meditation by using the Practice as a guided meditation on the breath. This could grow into other community-building activities, such as potlucks, book club, etc. Once established with a standard protocol (based on the Principle, Precept, and Practice), one such group could "bud off" into others, propagating itself through the Web...leading to

--Dharma Gaia Practice Centers established in various localities, both urban and rural, to model Permaculture design and to practice and promulgate self- and community-regeneration through the three basic disciplines of meditation, satyagraha, and permaculture, leading to...

--incorporation of Permaculture, regenerative design, ecological awareness, and other Gaian principles and practices into educational systems, K-12, and into public policy as well...

--creating, in turn, irresistible political pressure and economic incentives on policymakers and businesses to abandon fossil fuels and to build a renewable energy infrastructure, as well as taking care of everyone and abandoning no one (Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share)...

--massively cutting CO2 emissions worldwide, while investing in large-scale landscape regeneration (incorporating permaculture principles) to rebuild topsoil and sequester as much carbon as possible, while simultaneously diversifying and relocalizing food and other economies everywhere...

It may, of course, be too late for any of this to make a difference in the fate of our planet. But these values and goals are still worth pursuing, no matter what happens. As Gandhi often taught, the essential lesson from his own core spiritual tradition, the Baghavad Gita, is to "renounce the fruits of action"--that is, to let go of attachment to outcomes. Viewed from this perspective, it really does not matter whether or not we succeed in saving our planet or our future in the long run. All that matters, right now, is that we do what we know is right--for ourselves, our  loved ones, our communities, and our magnificent living planet. So let us all vow to Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, and Create Gaia--right up to our last breath. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Seeding Gaia

 December has come, the time of Winter Solstice--a time of new beginnings. Having mulled over my "seed" idea of launching a Dharma Gaia movement, integrating vertical (body-mind-spirit) and horizontal (self-community-planet) healing modalities, I am finally ready to let it germinate, push through the topsoil of my own private ruminations,  and out into the open air of public awareness. I am fully cognizant of the fact that, like most new seedlings, this will expose it to innumerable threats--of being trampled upon, consumed, dessicated, or poisoned before it even establishes a root system.  But since the viability of any seed is encoded in its genotype, I wish to lay out, for all to see, the "genotype" of the Gaian seed that I have conceived and nurtured over the years.  

This notion of "seed" ideas has parallels, of course, in historical culturally transformative movements, such as Buddhism, Christianity,  Islam, Communism, and even liberal democracy.  All of these are rooted in certain basic "seed" ideas that were viable enough to flourish and replicate under many different cultural conditions. Here are some of these "seeds:"

Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths (the inevitability of suffering; the root cause of suffering in attachment or craving; the possibility of letting go of craving and cessation of suffering; and the basic guidelines for achieving that possibility (i.e. the Eightfold Path) through cultivating wisdom and compassion.

Judaism: "Hear, O Israel: Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind."

Christianity: "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, so that whoso believeth on Him shall have eternal life."

Islam:  "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet."

Communism: "From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs."

Democracy: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal..."

So what are these Gaian seed ideas?  Here are a few:

1. Life creates and sustains the conditions that sustain and propagate life. (The essence of Gaia theory)

2. Humanity is a part of, not apart from, "nature" (or Gaia)

3. The Gaian categorical imperative: In everything we do, we must strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our living planet simultaneously.

4. The three core ethics of Permaculture: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share (i.e. reinvesting the surplus back into Earth Care and People Care).

5. The Dharma Gaia mantra (a generic blueprint for practice): 

Breathe, Observe, Let Go; [Reclaiming the present moment]

Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch; [A generic daily agenda]

Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, Create Gaia. [A generic life agenda]

6. Three directives: Good Buy; Good Work; Good Will.

7. Three injunctions: Grow Gardens; Grow Community; Grow Awareness.

My plan of action:  This coming year, I intend to create a Dharma Gaia Circle, an ecumenical Sangha (community of practice) dedicated to practicing and propagating these seed ideas by cultivating the three essential disciplines of meditation, Satyagraha, and Permaculture.  We will meet twice a month in accordance with the Lunar calendar (new and full moon)--initially in virtual (Zoom) format but later, as possible, in person, for formal meditation, dharma discussion, and other activities such as reading groups and/or potlucks; and if this group coalesces, we will create a website and attempt to develop and propagate a basic protocol, so that others can create their own Dharma Gaia circles elsewhere.

On Solar holidays (equinoxes, solstices, and cross-quarter days) we will organize Gaia Walks in various parks and other beautiful places, combining walking meditation with mindful observation, and then sharing our impressions in a talking-stick circle. These can optionally be guided tours with a ranger naturalist, but the basic protocol will be to resist idle chatter, so we can be fully present with the beauty of Gaia wherever we are.

Other possibilities, of course, may evolve from this basic pattern of meeting on Lunar holidays for meditation and discussion, and on Solar holidays for Gaia Walks. One longer term goal I have is to purchase some land nearby--or even within the city of Salem--in order to create a prototypic "Dharma Gaia Practice Center" that provides educational offerings to the community in self-healing, social healing, and permaculture design, while establishing and managing a Permaculture Demonstration Site and supporting itself through a CSA.  This may not happen in my lifetime, but no matter...

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Gaianitas: My message to future generations

"Everything that lives is holy." --William Blake

As everyone now knows, we are in the midst of a huge global pandemic that has sent us all into isolation, and that could easily bring our house-of-cards global market economy crashing down around us, leading to--who knows what? Chaos, suffering, and madness, to be sure.  All bets are off for the future of civilization--this civilization anyway...

(For more information on this, visit the most reliable information I have yet encountered on the progress of this pandemic, its economic ramifications, and the likely effects of various policy decisions: Chris Martenson's daily update on

I am 71 years old and male, meaning that I am at high risk of contracting this virus, and in the likely prospect that our medical facilities are overwhelmed, dying from it.  Fortunately, my Buddhist practice has freed me from any primordial fear of death; I am at peace with my own impermanence.

My concern is for younger generations, who may suddenly face the prospect that the futures they had planned, prepared for, and dreamt about will simply vanish, and they will be left--even if they are untouched by this virus--with the irredeemable wreckage of the only world they've ever known, and with the unimaginable and unpredictable chaos and madness that will follow in its wake.
It is for them that I am composing this message.

I should start by explaining the word in my title: "Gaianitas"  It is the Latin formation of what, in English, we might call "Gaianity."  But what the heck is "Gaianity"?

First the short answer.  I would define "Gaianity" as a functional awareness that humanity is a part of, and not apart from, nature--its biological support system--coupled with the awareness that this system--our biosphere--is a complex adaptive system that evolves according to its own, incredibly complex, self-regulatory feedback loops.

A simple metaphor for this is a computer.  A computer consists of (1) hardware--its physical foundation in metals, plastics, circuit boards, etc. (2) software--the information enabled by, and flowing through, the design of its hardware.  And information, as Gregory Bateson succinctly defined it, is "a difference that makes a difference;"  that is, a difference transmitted along a circuit that feeds back into itself, resulting in either magnifying that difference (positive feedback), diminishing or eliminating that difference (negative feedback); or some combination of the two (regulatory feedback).  A classic example of a regulatory feedback loop is a thermostat, which measures and processes information about temperature changes, in response to which it either turns on or turns off the heat, depending on whether the temperature is lower or higher than its set point. (For a good basic guide to systems and their behavior, see Donella Meadows' wonderful book, Thinking in Systems.)

Software, for a computer, consists of two levels: the operating system, and applications.  Without the operating system, of course, no applications will run. But when the energy source is cut by unplugging it, the whole system shuts down, and all you have left is the hardware.

Now consider our planet. Its "hardware" consists of four essential ingredients that were classically labeled as "elements" (though not in the modern, chemical understanding of that word):  Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.  It turns out, moreover, that our ancestors, while ignorant of modern molecular chemistry as we now understand it, were very wise in discerning that these four "elements" are also the four essential requirements for life:  Fire (an energy source, usually the sun); Air (containing stored solar energy in the form of free oxygen--a highly reactive gas, which we breathe to power our metabolism); Water (which needs to be in liquid form to be useful to living organisms, meaning that it is only useful within a specific temperature range); and Earth (the mineral substrate from which living organisms construct their bodies). But unlike computers, living organisms are self-organizing complex adaptive systems--an important concept which we will revisit further on.

When biochemist James Lovelock and his colleague, microbiologist Lynn Margulis developed Gaia theory back in the late 1970s, they applied systems theory to Lovelock's question: Why is our global atmosphere in a far-from-equilibrium state (with free oxygen in abundance) while the atmospheres of all the other planets are in chemical equilibrium (for example, Mars and Venus both have 95% carbon dioxide--the natural "resting state" of oxygen molecules, bound to carbon), and almost zero free oxygen.

And once he had stated this question clearly, Lovelock immediately recognized the answer: life itself was constantly interacting with, and remixing, our atmosphere, resulting in our current far-from equilibrium state (with 21% oxygen and only trace amounts of CO2), while most of the carbon is sequestered in living organisms, oceans, and topsoil. Here, in brief is the way Gaia works:

1. Fire (energy) comes from the sun, of course, where plants harvest it to photosynthesize, thereby creating the simple sugars (effectively storage batteries of solar energy) that drive the metabolic synthesis of carbon and other essential elements into the growing structures of the plants themselves. As they do so, these plants symbiotically create diverse niches for many other organisms, from bacteria to insects to other plants and animals. Life propagates the conditions that sustain more, and more diverse life.
2. Earth (minerals) Without plants, there would be no animals, and without insects, worms, and microbes to process the minerals in the soil, there would be no plants either. Life propagates the conditions that sustain more, and more diverse life.

3. Water in its liquid form is essential to all life, while living organisms and ecosystems in turn store and filter water. Without life, there would be no fresh water on the planet--and there might not be any oceans either. So life likewise drives the water cycle.

4. Air. As plants draw in CO2 from the atmosphere for photosynthesis, they separate the carbon to use in their own bodies, and return the excess oxygen back to the atmosphere as O2. This oxygen has  high potential energy--is highly reactive (as you know if you strike a match--for the flame is nothing more than an explosive oxidization reaction), and so this energy, along with plant matter, drives the metabolism of all animal life. (That is why we breathe).  And when we breathe, we take in oxygen and return CO2 to the atmosphere, making it available to plants. Without plants, we would not be able to breathe--and without us animals, plants would eventually run short of atmospheric carbon.
Once again, life sustains life.

Without life, he found, the Earth would have an atmosphere much like Mars or Venus (95% CO2) with an average surface temperature of 280 degrees F and no liquid water. In other words, a hot, hostile world like Venus.  But with life busy sequestering excess carbon, splitting CO2 into carbon for complex structural molecules like lignin (i.e. wood) and releasing excess O2 into the atmosphere, we have what we have: a shimmering, blue, watery planet hospitable to life.

Although few people recognized it at the time, this insight changed everything. Until that moment, the default assumption among scientists worldwide had been the "Goldilocks theory"--that life arose on our planet because we were lucky; it was just far enough from the sun for water to remain at a liquid state, with a naturally oxygenated atmosphere, and just enough solar radiation for photosynthesis, and so forth. Not too hot, not too cold.

But Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis painted an entirely different picture: life was not a passive passenger on a hospitable planet as everyone thought. Rather, once it got started (and we still have no idea how), life created, and cybernetically regulates, the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface to make them all increasingly hospitable to the propagation of life.

After it was published and developed further, Lovelock's Gaia theory encountered hostility from mainstream scientists, on one hand, and religious (especially Christian) communities on the other. Scientists were appalled by his unapologetic willingness to bridge the cultural divide between science and myth by using a mythic name "Gaia" for a scientific hypothesis. This was heresy in their eyes--an attack on the prevailing reductionist paradigm, and a dangerously mushbrained (in their view) conflation of evolutionary biology and wishful thinking about an all-nurturing mythic "Earth Goddess." The biosphere, they insist, could not have any agenda overall--it could not "regulate" anything. It simply evolves in response to blind forces like everything else.

The religious folk, of course, were equally appalled. The idea that the Earth was alive and somehow sacred was, in their view, a dangerous reversion to paganism, to nature worship, which must be vigorously discredited.  At the same time, the Gaia meme was enthusiastically (and uncritically) embraced by new age hippies in California, already predisposed to worship any nature goddess they could find.  And environmentalists jumped on board, quite naturally, since it gave them another rhetorical tool in their chest for fighting back against corporate polluters and despoilers.

The mass media, meanwhile, initially seized upon the connotative richness of the concept with no awareness of the science behind it. Even today, mail-order businesses like Gaia (formerly "Gaiam") market upscale cosmetics, health care products, and fashions to green-minded suburbanites...  But by and large, the idea of "Gaia" has disappeared from the screen of public consciousness altogether--not because it is invalid, but simply because most people, living in a mindset formed by agro-industrial assumptions about "man" vs "nature" (or "economy" vs "ecology") fail to grasp its significance.

At the same time, serious Earth Systems Scientists and exoplanet-seeking astronomers have completely adopted Lovelock's theory--they just call it "Earth Systems Science" rather than "Gaia."  So why do I cling to this concept, which seems to have been only a very brief blip on our cultural radar, a passing fad?

The answer can be summed up in a small book by British philosopher Mary  Midgley entitled Gaia: the Next Big Idea. (This book is now out of print--another passing blip on our cultural radar screen!)
Midgley's argument was that really big ideas--culturally transformative ideas--take a long time to germinate, like dormant seeds in inhospitable conditions, because they fundamentally subvert the dominant cultural paradigm--the set of presuppositions that runs so deep in our cultural consciousness that the vast majority are unaware of them.  And these presuppositions are encoded, ironically, in the word "nature."

For the vast majority of us, the word "nature" is automatically conceived in antithesis to "humanity."  Even Bill McKibben, one of the most astute environmental thinkers and warriors I know, entitled his first book The End of Nature--by which he refers to those parts of the world still unaffected by a human presence. His argument was that every square inch of the biosphere has now been affected, usually for the worse, by human civilization.

On the other hand, most people, if asked, will accept the obvious--that we are a part of nature; that like every other living organism, we breathe, drink water, and eat food made from other living organisms. But we still routinely talk about "nature" as something "out there," away from ourselves and our society. For developers and economists, "nature" is nothing but a "resource" waiting to be transformed into commodities for market; for environmentalists and recreational enthusiasts, "nature" is a refuge from civilization--somewhere "outdoors" where you drive to, pull on you hiking boots, and "get away from it all." And for scientists, "nature" is an object of study at the other end of their microscopes.

And yet no indigenous, tribal, nomadic, or horticultural society that I know of even has a word for "nature" as distinct from "humanity."  Despite their vast differences in mythology and customs, these cultures share a surprisingly common set of assumptions. They see the world as "all their relations" and their communities as embedded in this sacred world, which includes not only the plants and animals they depend on for their survival, but also the unseen forces that influence their lives and are personified as deities, and their ancestors watching over them. But "nature" as something outside of themselves is completely alien to their worldview.

But for us, the distinction between "man" (subject) and "nature" (object) is axiomatic, going right back to the dawn of the agricultural revolution, when a sharp distinction arose between cultivated and "wild" landscapes. The Wild--the area beyond the pale of cultivated (monocultural) lands, became the adversary--the zone of danger (from neighboring tribes, or from wild animals and agricultural pests).
But it was also the zone of opportunity, since it could be "subdued" and transformed into cultivated land.  Hence the injunction from the Hebrew God in the Genesis creation story: "Fill the earth and subdue it."  (It is noteworthy also that these Hebrew texts have now been dated to the dawn of the Agricultural revolution!)

The Gaia concept was quickly squelched from public consciousness, I would suggest, because it is radically transgressive: it subverts this basic "man/nature" dichotomy, which is the theoretical foundation of our agro-industrial civilization.  In his original books, Lovelock pretty much ignores humanity altogether, other than dismissing us as a temporary "plague" upon the planet.  But some of his disciples--particularly Stewart Brand in California, and thereafter Bill Mollison in Australia--went a lot further. In his 1970 Whole Earth Catalog, Brand coined the slogan of what was then known as the "whole earth" movement, which in turn has evolved into the Gaia movement: "We are as gods, and may as well get good at it." 

Mollison, who cited Lovelock's Gaia Theory as his primary inspiration for his Permaculture idea, was also influenced by Brand, whom he took at his word, by developing his system of landscape and human habitat design based on the Gaian consiousness that humanity is a part of nature, but a part which has gained  unprecedented power over the whole, and therefore has the responsibility to create a symbiotic, rather than parasitic relationship with our biological support system if we are to survive. He then undertook to show us how--and this was the beginning of the worldwide Permaculture movement.

 Gaian theory was eclipsed by the passage of time and the dominance of industrial consumerism (for which I have coined the term "Glomart"), firmly predicated as that is on the  (illusory) man/nature dichotomy. But Glomart--the order of money--runs on a set of premises or production rules that is the polar opposite of Gaia:

  1. Glomart: More is always better/Gaia: Enough is enough.
  2. Glomart: You are what you own/Gaia: You are what you do.
  3. Glomart: Nothing has value until it has a price/Gaia: value is a function of interrelatedness.
  4. Glomart: The bottom line is the bottom line/Gaia: Life itself is what matters, from one generation to the next.

Models and theories are of interest only to scientists and intellectuals; the rest of the world is in desperate need of something practical--a way to survive the coming apocalyptic collapse of global industrial civilization, and to rebuild a new civilization from scratch, based on a more accurate understanding of our relation to Gaia, the complex adaptive system that is our biological support system.  To achieve its transformative potential, Gaian theory needed a coherently formulated Gaian praxis to go along with it.  And thanks to Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, and all their disciples worldwide, this has happened. Permaculture is the praxis, based on Gaia theory, that may yet spawn a new global culture that is symbiotic with, rather than parasitic upon, Gaia herself. And it is a transformation in which we can all participate, starting in our own backyards.  If I die of the current plague, this is the message I hope to leave with any or all future generations who see these words:

Everything that lives is holy, and life itself creates, sustains, and propagates the conditions that further support and propagate life.  So get busy today, growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness.  Glomart (our global market economy) is dying; long live Gaia!

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Idiot Wind

 "Idiot wind

Blowing through the buttons of our coats

Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind
Blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves"

--Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's lyrics have a haunting way of coming back in new contexts that give them whole new shades of meaning. When he wrote this scorching ballad back in 1975, around the time of his heart-wrenching divorce from Sara, the love of his life, it was little more than an inspired scream of rage from a man who had just lost his wife. And--as always with Dylan--the lyrics touched on the broader cultural implications of this painful marital breakup--including (then and now) the general spread of idiocy throughout our culture--"Idiot Wind...blowing like a circle around my skull/From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol..." 

But today it has yet another, rather grim meaning for us all, here in the Northwest. My wife and I spent the past long weekend--and had intended to spend the rest of the week, at our time share on the Oregon Coast.  The first three days and two nights had been, as usual, spectacular, with crystalline blue skies over the Pacific Ocean right outside our window, with distant white caps, a fog bank along the horizon, pelicans and other sea birds soaring gracefully here and there, and--if we were lucky--the occasional spout of a migrating whale.

But then, in the middle of the night, the wind changed, and a fierce, hot easterly wind swept from the high desert across the Cascades, the Valley, and the Coastal Range, meeting up with other coastal winds from the north, all fanning the flames of wildfires into raging infernos and bringing a pall of reddish smoke and cinders over our whole region. We awoke in darkness, the power knocked out by falling trees and woody debris everywhere--but then, despite the sunrise, the darkness got even darker, as the sky turned to a lurid red. Our coastal Heaven-on-Earth had turned hellish overnight, and so we packed up and left, heading south since our normal northern route through Lincoln City had already been blocked by downed trees and another wildfire. When we turned East at Newport on Highway 20, we saw that the smoky reddish-yellow sky cast a pall over the entire Willamette Valley, due to wildfires raging out of control and sending panicking residents fleeing from their homes, farms, and villages up through the Santiam Canyon. Right now, I sit in my suburban home at the south end of Salem, hoping that the fires surging from the mountains to the valley stop short of our city.

Idiot wind, indeed.  This easterly wind, bringing desert heat and blowing wildfires up into conflagrations, has been called a "once in a century" weather event.  But in this age of accelerating climate chaos worldwide, "once in a century" has come to mean "every few years." So it is also for "record" floods throughout the midwest, for untimely and destructive monsoon rains in India and South Asia, for European and Alaskan heat waves, and of course for unprecedented wildfires not only here, but in Australia, California, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska, the Amazon, and elsewhere...not to mention hurricanes in the Caribbean, breaking new records annually for their frequency and ferocity. Indeed, "it's a wonder that we still know how to breathe..."

Probing a little deeper, it is interesting to note that the word "idiot" in ancient Greek did not simply mean "a stupid person" as we use it today, but specifically, it referred to a private person (idios)--one who was interested only in himself, and did not engage with, nor care about, anyone else. For the Greeks, whose definition of man as a "political animal" was intended as a compliment, not an insult, there was nothing worse than withdrawing from engagement with the polis, the (democratic) community, and becoming entirely self-absorbed and self-interested.  Such a person was, indeed, stupid, as far as they were concerned.

Yet today, we have created a culture of idiots, each watching their own TV news channel (with Fox being by far the most idiotic of the group) and reading their own online news, specifically filtered by algorithms to reflect their own particular interests and biases.  And so people of different political affiliations often inhabit different universes altogether, each of which is equally "real" to them--because they don't even talk, much less listen, to anyone other than people like themselves.

One of the worst consequences of this general spread of idiocy--of self-absorption and susceptibility to partisan propaganda and media manipulation--is the politicization of science. This has been most recently evident in the (thoroughly idiotic) refusal of many people to wear masks or respect social distancing, on the grounds that it "violates their constitutional rights" even though it is nothing but a sensible public safety measure, universally prescribed by epidemiologists worldwide who know the potential consequences of a new and deadly virus which spreads rapidly, asymptomatically, and exponentially through aerosols we breathe. This means that all of us are potential carriers of the virus, whether we know it or not.

But getting back to the wildfires that have turned our sky a pale, sickly yellow, with fine cinders floating down in all directions and an acrid, smoky odor--this "idiot wind" has been blowing across our country, fanned by Republicans with the lazy complicity of Democrats, ever since 1988, when our foremost climatologist, NASA space scientist James Hansen,  testified before Congress about the imminent dangers of fossil fuel-based carbon emissions accumulating in our atmosphere. Since then, the Oil industry (ExxonMobil in particular, but all the others as well) has funded a widespread misinformation campaign, sowing public doubts about the reality and/or the implications of CO2-based climate change, while Republicans undertook a ferocious campaign of denial, even smearing senior climate scientists like Michael Mann. As a direct result, a total of 32 years have elapsed since Hansen's dire warning to Congress, and despite a vast array of confirming evidence from all over the world, our nation has done next to nothing to reduce our carbon emissions, and we still have a pig-headed climate denier in the White House who has withdrawn the US from the hard-won Paris Agreement--the first of many such attempts to actually result in an international treaty to cut global emissions--and he has given the oil, gas, and coal industries everything they ever wanted.

Meanwhile, glaciers worldwide continue to recede at faster and faster rates, both poles are melting rapidly, sea level is rising, wildfires are sweeping the world, coral reefs are vanishing due to warmer ocean waters, permafrosts many thousands of years old are melting and releasing huge reserves of methane (a greenhouse gas 72 to 100 times more potent in trapping infrared heat than CO2), and catastrophic weather events, from devastating hurricanes and tornadoes to record-breaking floods to long-lasting droughts and ferocious wildfires on every continent (except Antarctica)--all grow worse year by year.

And so, the Idiot Wind continues to howl and blow around the world and inside our skulls...or to quote another dark Dylan song, "Something is burning, baby, are you aware?"

Friday, September 4, 2020

Letter to Kassi

Kassi is a vibrant and enthusiastic young woman in her twenties whom I first met when I co-taught a free course offered by the Marion Polk Food Share called "From Seed to Supper."  (At the time, I was a trainee in the Master Gardeners program, and knew very little about gardening, so my co-teacher, Victoria--another bright and talented young Twenty-something--did most of the teaching.) The following year, Kassi enrolled in the Master Gardener program herself (where she excelled) and then--following my advice--she enrolled in Andrew Millison's Permaculture Design Certificate course at Oregon State (which I had taken the previous fall), and again she excelled.  More recently, during the pandemic, she has married her long-time boyfriend, and together they have assembled a thriving Permaculture garden.

 The following letter is an attempt to leave behind a legacy that could inspire Kassi and other like-minded young people.

Dear Kassi,

How are you and your husband doing these days? When you get the chance, I would love to hear more about your Permaculture garden, and what you are learning from it.

But the deeper reason I am reaching out is this.  As you well know, I am 70 now, and though I'm currently in excellent health, I am at a stage in life where I have one of two things to look forward to: either death, or slow decrepitude and death. You, by contrast, are just beginning your adult life, and while I harbor great hopes for you, I also have great fears for the world that my generation is leaving behind for you. So I wish to channel these hopes and fears alike into some thoughts to share with you, such that, if I die tomorrow (or 20 years from now), these thoughts might help guide you through the encroaching chaos to find your path as a healing agent for our planet.  For from the day I met you, I saw this great potential in you.

I will not waste your time recounting all the threats you and your generation are facing now, and will face in the future--they are obvious to any careful observer. Instead, I would like to share an aspiration I will never live to fulfill, but which might inspire you as well, as you pursue your own path through the darkening times to come.

Imagine, then, a Dharma Gaia Practice Center, here in Salem. This would be on a piece of land, in reasonable proximity to the city, with, say, 1-3 acres on it. (It could, of course, be more or less). 

The goal of such a center (which may or may not have a residential core of people for whom it is home) would be to cultivate a synthesis of vertical and horizontal healing modalities, for ourselves, our community, and our planet. It would be, ideally, replicable, based on a core design that could be transplanted anywhere else, with local variations. Here are some possible components of such a center:

I. HORIZONTAL HEALING (Garden, Community, and Planet)

1. A Permaculture Demonstration Garden, or living laboratory, for creating, testing, and refining Permaculture design techniques, in accordance with the pre-existent climate, topography, and soil types and conditions of the chosen site. For this reason, a residential core group of one or more couples (like yourselves) would be ideal.

2. Periodic Courses and Workshops in any and all aspects of Permaculture Design, bringing in guest instructors when and where possible, to provide ongoing education to the community.

VERTICAL HEALING of body, mind, and spirit:

1. Periodic workshops in holistic healing modalities, such as yoga, massage, and acupuncture.

2. Regular meditation and study sessions, open to anyone interested, to cultivate mindfulness, as rooted in my tenfold Dharma Gaia mantra: 

    a. Breathe, Observe, Let Go; [Reclaiming the moment from distraction]

    b. Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch;  [A generic daily agenda]

    c. Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.  [Revisiting our life agenda]


3. Satyagraha. In the event of encroaching tyranny and repression from corporate fascists and continued depredations of our living planet, training workshops in the three branches of Satyagraha, or nonviolent nocooperation with evil): 

   a. Satya:  Speaking truth to power, mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. Finding skillful means to expose tyranny, lies, and repression wherever they arise, and to nurture communities of nonviolent resistance.

  b. Ahimsa: Training workshops, as necessary, on self-purification and nonviolent civil disobedience to prevent tyranny and protect its victims--mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly.

  c. Swaraj: Cultivating local self-reliance at the personal, community, and regional level by propagating Permaculture theory and practice as effectively as possible, in order to plant the seeds of a new, symbiotic Gaian culture to displace the dying, parasitic Glomart culture.

This, then, is my dream in a nutshell.  As I mentioned, I am probably too old, and certainly lack both the skills and the resources, to implement it myself.  But I am passing it on to you to inspire you, in your own life path, to pursue any or all aspects of such a goal for your own generation, as you inherit this distressed planet from my generation.

Much love,