Thursday, August 9, 2018

Why be good?

Years ago, I met an earnest young, red-haired evangelical Christian woman who loved to engage in "Christian apologetics" as they call it--that is, spirited debate with "nonbelievers" to persuade them of the truth of Christian revelation.  (At that time, I was sort of a borderline case, interested in and sympathetic to Christianity but not enough to make a commitment). At one point in the conversation, she pulled out what seemed to be her trump card (no pun intended), her clincher, by posing the following challenge:  "If you don't believe [in the basic Christian ideology of a just but merciful God, the self-sacrifice and resurrection of his only begotten Son as our sole path to salvation, and a moral universe where the good are rewarded with eternal bliss in Heaven and the evil are punished with eternal Hellfire after death], why be good?"

Why indeed?  My answer at that time was rather flippant and imperfectly digested: "Because it makes biological sense." This answer is subject to challenge by a skilled debater on any one of many grounds--such as wasps who paralyze and insert their eggs into the larvae of other insects, whereupon their own larvae consume the larger larva from within, rather like the famous hideous scene in Alien. Or the incontrovertible fact that in most mammalian species including primates, the most aggressive male--the Alpha Male--gets to impregnate all available females in his troop by fighting off or terrorizing all the other male rivals, until a younger male challenges him as he grows old and decrepit.  Or the fact that outright criminality--theft, violence, and deception--are commonplace throughout the animal and even plant kingdoms, as individuals compete for available resources, avoid predators, or snare their prey.

So the study of animal or plant behavior, as I now know, provides no model at all for ethical behavior, and we land yet again on this woman's thorny question: Without a religious belief system that commands belief in rewards or punishments in the afterlife, "Why be good?"

Conventional, popular Buddhism throughout Asia offers another version of the rewards-and-punishment scheme, in the widespread belief in Karma as a kind of balance sheet for our actions and their consequences that transcends individual lifetimes, such that karmic debt accumulated in one lifetime comes due and is either paid off, or increased, in the next, and where one's incarnation in the next life is determined by one's conduct in this life.  Just as various figures in the Catholic hierarchy, from the Pope on down, devised bribery schemes whereby people could buy salvation by lining the pockets of the Church or the local monastery, Buddhist cultures have similar schemes for paying off one's karmic debt in advance by making offerings to one temple or guru or another. I encountered one such scam in Thailand: at a Buddhist temple we visited, hawkers would sell us birds in little wooden cages, and we could accumulate "merit" by releasing the birds within the temple precincts.  Then, of course, they would go out and trap more birds, or even the same birds, and repeat procedure, in order to milk the gullible tourists.

So given the universality of this kind of self-serving behavior--whether fraud, violence, or hypocrisy--in both the biological and social world, if we choose not to believe in an ideology we can neither prove nor disprove (such as the existence of God, heaven and hell, the law of Karma extending across lifetimes) then why, indeed, be good?

More sophisticated Buddhists, such as the Dalai Lama, have a more nuanced answer: if we reason that just like us, everyone alive seeks the exact same things--happiness and security--and wishes to avoid the exact same things--suffering, betrayal, or violent death--it makes logical sense, then, to be good--to take care of everyone, and abandon no one. This is a purely logical version of the Golden Rule--to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is predicated on the idea that beneath our differences, we are all basically the same--scared, hungry little animals who are looking for ways to be safe, well-fed, and loved.

This way of thinking works, but only upon reflection, and only up to a point. It does nothing to negate the tendency we all have to lash out or strike back when we feel threatened or offended. And such reactive tendencies often override reflection and rational deliberation altogether. Furthermore, there is never any shortage of cynics--among them most business people and politicans--who will simply argue that it is a "dog-eat-dog" world and those who are unwilling to cut corners, to play dirty, or to hit back will lose out in the end. Machiavelli argued, for example, that in the realm of politics, morally upright behavior will always render a leader vulnerable to those without scruples, who would take advantage of him in short order. He therefore recommends that any shrewd politician must only make a public show of morality, but be ready to abandon it--to lie, to cheat, or to betray others--at a moment's notice, should circumstances warrant this.  He goes further to say that only through such willingness to abandon moral principles can a ruler acquire enough power to dupe, terrorize, and defeat his enemies and establish stability within a state, thereby serving a greater, more lasting good.

Machiavelli's arguments are soundly reasoned and hard to refute, and they are predicated on an assumption about humanity--that we are essentially no different from any other animals, and that we are incorrigibly self-serving--with which I am sure Edward O. Wilson would concur! So again, why be good?

There is a classic, more subtle Buddhist response to this perennial conundrum that does not rely on a belief in reincarnation, and that fully accepts humanity's animal nature.  And that is that bad behavior, ranging all the way from simple anger and resentment to lying, fraud, violence, and murder--is, in effect, its own punishment, for it creates inner confusion and perturbations in one's consciousness that prevent one from achieving the mental clarity that is a prerequisite to awakening and inner peace. And these inner perturbations in turn have ripple-effects on everyone around you, creating a tsunami of suffering, both inner and outer, and coming right back to you, in whatever forms "you" take, now or in future generations. This understanding is predicated on the Buddhist realization that the idea of a separate self is ultimately a delusion, a kind of moire pattern generated by ignorance, greed, and hatred. And as Chogyam Trungpa has put it, the only thing that is reborn is your neurosis.

I have found the truth of this insight in my own experience and practice. When I have a clear conscience--when I have spent my time well, and been gentle and helpful to my wife and to all those around me, my meditation goes much better than if I am agitated, resentful, feeling guilty about procrastination, or obsessed with political attachments and aversions. And that, in itself, is a sufficient answer to the question "Why be good?" even if evil and corruption pervade the world (as they always have).
















Monday, July 16, 2018

Balderdash!


On August 22 of this year, my mother, Geraldine (nee Kane) Ellis, would have been 100 years old, had she not passed away 20 years ago. So I am dedicating this blog entry to her memory.

Back in the late 70s, when I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, I drove across the country with my parents, who were visiting my brother, then in California, while I was returning to Oregon from a visit home in suburban Philadelphia. While we were stopped in Salt Lake City, we visited the Mormon temple complex, including the Mormon Taberacle (where we heard the famous choir rehearsing), and then went to the visitor center.

The whole exhibit turned out to be an elaborate propaganda ploy for inducing the visitors to convert to Mormonism. First we went up a long, spiral ramp with murals of familiar scenes from the Old and New Testaments, such as the Fall of Man, Noah's Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Red Sea, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and so forth, right up to the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, and the Crucifixion (on the assumption that visitors, as biblically literate Christians, would feel right at home).

Then, on the upper floor, the big push began in earnest, with a diorama showing the figure of Joseph Smith in the woods of upstate New York when--Voila!--a bright electric light goes on, and a figure in white robes--the Angel Moroni--appears to him with golden tablets containing the Book of Mormon. And so forth...

Our guide was an impeccably dressed blonde-haired man with shiny skin and perfect teeth, whose carefully rehearsed enthusiasm grew in intensity as he retold the story--of Smith's revelation, of the new sect, of their persecution and exile, and finally, after Smith's death, of their triumphant establishment of their New Jerusalem under Brigham Young on the shores of Great Salt Lake.

My mother, showing her best Victorian manners, listened politely to the entire presentation, but on our way back to the car, after we passed a sculpture of a robed angel whose feet floated just about the ground, handing the "staff of Aaron" to Joseph Smith on the shores of the Missouri, my mother stopped, put her hands on her hips, and said, "What a bunch of balderdash!!"

This story has stuck with me ever since that day. It evokes a habit of mind that my parents both instilled in me from childhood, for which I will be forever grateful: the habit, that is, of skepticism--of knowing and calling out "balderdash" when I hear it.

I thought of this story the other day, when I was reading an excellent book by Alan Wallace, an eminent scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. This particular book, one of many he has written, is on the Lojong teachings, also known as the Seven Points of Training the Mind--a series of 59 pithy slogans, divided into seven categories or "points," to help practitioners train their mental processes so that they can transform any adverse circumstance into a seed of awakening to wisdom and compassion.  Wallace's commentaries on these slogan are, by and large, keenly insightful, and imbued with his exhaustive study of the vast body of sutras and commentaries in the Tibetan tradition. For this reason, he is one of my favorite Buddhist teachers.

And yet...there is one thing about Alan Wallace's teachings, along with those of many other Buddhist teachers, both East and West, that sticks in my craw: his insistence upon belief in the doctrine of reincarnation, or "rebirth" as many Buddhists call it, as a prerequisite for understanding the body of Buddhist teachings and achieving true wisdom and compassion.

I am reminded, when I see such insistence, of a young devoutly Christian woman who challenged me, after hearing a Bach cantata, as to whether I "believed" what I had just heard, sung along with on the final chorale, and applauded. As she engaged me afterwards, trying to convert me, she at one point said, "All you have to believe is..."

"Wait," I interrupted.  "I don't 'have to believe' anything."

And the same goes, I'm afraid, for Alan Wallace, much as I admire him and have learned from his teachings. I cannot agree to "believe" in reincarnation, as a prerequisite, as he would have it, for achieving true enlightenment--any more than I have to "believe" in the divinity or the resurrection of Jesus, in order to be "saved."   For me, any claim, from any religious tradition, that I "have to believe" anything is, ipso facto, BALDERDASH.

So what about this Hindu/Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation/rebirth--the idea that my current suffering is the consequence of my karma, my accumulated misdeeds and delusions from past lives--or, conversely, that we should predicate the injunction to extend compassion toward all--even our enemies--on the notion that, in some past life, they all were my mothers? Or that after we die, we ascend to some Bardo where we await rebirth, and when our practice is sufficiently advanced, we can choose our own rebirth?

A quick scan of the belief systems about the afterlife throughout world history that we know about  will disclose two salient facts: (1) they are all completely different, and deeply rooted in the mythology of each particular culture; and (2) they all serve the pragmatic purpose of giving people a  reason, based on hopes for bliss or fear of the unknowable (i.e. what happens to them after death), to behave themselves--that is, to act in socially adaptive ways and curb selfishness when it threatens the social order. Any thematic commonalities between these widely divergent narratives of the Afterlife can be attributed to this pragmatic purpose of encouraging good behavior while alive. But of course "good behavior" is often construed as behavior benefitting one's own tribe, as against their rivals or enemies. This is why so many people, throughout history, have been willing, based on their hopes for the afterlife, to take up swords and massacre their enemies--from the Christian crusades to the present-day fervor of ISIS terrorists and even the Buddhist zealots in Burma who are annihiliating the Rohingya Muslims in order, they claim, to protect their Dharma-based culture from the barbarians.

But if one does not believe in past and future lives, or chooses an honest agnosticism about the whole question, can one still be an authentic Dharma practitioner? Alan Wallace would probably say no. But fortunately, I have some able assistance in rebuttal of this claim from Stephen Batchelor, the British author of an excellent book called Buddhism without Beliefs. In a recent open letter to Wallace,  Batchelor observes that the belief in reincarnation was a commonplace throughout the Hindu world at the time of the Buddha--just as the belief in the One True God of Israel was part of the cultural furniture for Jesus and his disciples. But he also cites specific instances in which the Buddha remains silent in the face of this and all other unanswerable questions. On this basis, he argues--rightly I feel--that no mandatory beliefs--in rebirth or anything else--are a prerequisite to authentic Dharma practice--the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. We don't need a self-serving excuse to practice compassion, once we understand that doing so is intrinsically gratifying, even while it contributes, however slightly, to healing a very sick society, culture, and planet.

My own take?  I believe in recycling--not "rebirth" per se. Like every other living organism, when I die, the elements composing my body will decompose, quickly entering the food chain through worms, maggots, and microorganisms, and become raw materials for the new growth of microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. As for my mind--that unique perspective on the world that looks through my eyes and is conditioned by all of my past experiences, my unique heredity, and so forth--it will wink out as surely as the Cassini Spacecraft did when it crashed into Saturn, for that mind, like the Cassini spacecraft, depends entirely on the delicate and complex organization of its component parts to function as an information processor. And when all those connections are broken, it will cease to exist as sure as the spacecraft did when it burned up in Saturn's dense atmosphere.

But as long as I know that this thing called "I" is actually just a temporary configuration of Gaian elements--Earth, Air, Fire, Water--organized into the trajectory of a living system, from conception to birth to life to death, it does not really matter whether I live or die. As William Blake, a poet and visionary whose deep wisdom I can always rely on, put it,

Little fly
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art thou not
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath:
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

(Happy Birthday, Mom!)






Friday, July 6, 2018

The Contagion of Hell


"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."
-- Thomas Paine

This afternoon, while doing my periodic stint at the Master Gardeners' Plant Clinic (fielding questions about plant issues from the callers and visitors to the desk), I had a deeply unsettling experience.

My companion and mentor was an elderly gentleman (name withheld for privacy) who was quite hard of hearing. We did not talk much, but he was a good teacher, for when I sought to identify a weed, or address clients' issues on the phone, he patiently guided me through the process of searching the multiple online sources of information to find the answer, even when he knew it himself.  For this I am grateful--he is a wise and kind teacher.

And yet...during most of the afternoon, when there were no calls or visitors, while I was dutifully studying various instructional sites on plant diagnosis, I noticed that he was lost in his favorite YouTube distractions. To this, I can relate, of course--I only too often kill idle time in the same way, by surfing YouTube, and letting my curiosity wander randomly from one clip to the next.  

But I couldn't help noticing what grabbed his attention. First, he was watching what seemed to be an instructional video on using an airgun to kill rats. In one sequence after another, the video would peer through crosshairs, fix them on a rat, and blow it away. This went on for a long time. A bit grotesque, but nothing out of the ordinary for a gardener. But the Buddhist in me could not help wincing every time a rat was killed, just for being a rat. Thereafter, he watched, with similar absorption, a video showing dogs tearing into rats that were being unearthed by a bulldozer from a large compost heap. And I was a bit unnerved by my colleague's obsessive attention to these videos; they went on and on.

Then things got a whole lot worse, all in silence. It appeared that this man was a military veteran, for later, as I studied my plant diagnosis materials, I noticed him, with equally rapt attention, watching military videoclips from Afghanistan, again through the crosshairs, but this time of heavy artillery, zeroing in on a man and a young boy--"the Taliban," he said--only to have them vanish in a fiery explosion.  

"Ooh, wow! That was good!" he exclaimed, with the twisted enthusiasm of a 12-year old playing a video game.  First rats--then "the Taliban"--to him, it made no difference. Killing was fun.

I was appalled, but I kept silent, and tried not to look any more, instead focusing on my reading of plant diagnosis. I did not--I could not--engage him in conversation, for I did not want to reveal how utterly sickened, nauseated, and disgusted I was by his chosen entertainment.

Then he went on to drone video clips, again of zeroing in, this time from the air, on hapless, unnamed figures far below, and blowing them to smithereens. At one point he said gleefully, "If you're a Taliban, and you hear a plane overhead, you'd better not step outside!"

I said nothing, biting my lip, and proceeded with my plant studies. But inwardly, I felt sicker and sicker.

How could this old man, with whom I was constrained to spend three hours alone, simultaneously be a seasoned gardener, a patient and effective teacher--but with the private interests and passions of a murderous psychopath?

One answer: war.   After this, I could not and did not engage him in conversation about his past--I just wanted to get away from him as quickly and politely as possible--but I'm assuming that he was a veteran; his hearing may have been damaged in combat, for all I know. But he obviously loved the military, and saw "the Taliban" as nothing more than vermin--than rats. I did not want to know why.  I could not bear to find out, and I did not want to alienate him by challenging his views--or questioning his vicarious passion for killing. Was this prudence or cowardice on my part?  I still don't know.

But looking, at this through a broader lens, I see this as symptomatic of a kind of soul-poisoning that has afflicted our country and the world. As early as 1960, President Eisenhower recognized the symptoms, in his famous farewell address, when he warned us against the rapidly growing influence of the "military-industrial complex:"

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

Seldom have more prophetic words been spoken!  In the years since then, we have been bogged down in attenuated, catastrophic, and utterly unnecessary wars--first Vietnam, and now Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows where else, while the power and influence of the military-industrial complex has grown steadily, and has now brainwashed most of us into a toxic worship of all things military. Increasingly, veterans are given preferential treatment everywhere they go, and we are all expected to say "Thank you for your service" whenever we meet them.  I refuse, of course. They have "served" nothing but the interests of corporate wealth and power.

Those who have been in these wars are scarred forever--if not by injuries and PTSD, then by the kind of soul-poisoning--the love of killing and the  complete dehumanization of the "other"--that I saw so clearly in my colleague today. Yet any criticism of the military is seen as practically seditious. This trend toward the militarization of society, the worship of power and cruelty in defense of "freedom" (a vague concept which itself has become meaningless, due to mass surveillance of the population and the militarization of police with a seemingly unlimited license to kill), has achieved its apotheosis in Donald Trump, and it will be clearly manifest next Veterans' Day, when he holds his massive military parade in Washington--which is the wet dream of any despot. 

This "contagion of hell," of course, is not just limited to veterans or the military. It has spread to the population as a whole, in a coarsening of our sensibilities, and the prevalence of rampant violence in our films and mass media. And it has infected large swaths of the ordinary, alienated, and demoralized population--the gun nuts of rural America, the mass murderers who have become epidemic, the murderous narcotics cartels  and adolescent street gangs terrorizing both our cities and whole war-scarred regions throughout Central America, Africa, and the Middle East; the rise of fanatical hate groups everywhere, whether the neo-Nazis at home or ISIS abroad. And it feeds on itself, of course, for this steady rise of mass violence among local populations in turn serves to rationalize an ever more bloated military budget and the deployment of yet more soldiers and mayhem to the far corners of the Earth.

Is there any solution to this epidemic of soul-poisoning, this contagion of Hell? I hope so...but it might be terminal, the inevitable demise of the unsustainable Glomart world order. For my own part, all I can do is adhere to the Dharma and to Gaia--to the threefold discipline of Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture. To make "energetic progress in the good" rather than wasting all my vital energy in a futile battle against overwhelming evil.



Thursday, May 17, 2018

Permaculture and the 'Pure Land'

"If you know what life is worth/You will look for yours on Earth" --Bob Marley

"Pure Land" Buddhism is a popular branch of Mahayana Buddhism which is found throughout East Asia, including Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. It is based on the worship or veneration of Amitabha, which roughly translates as the celestial Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life. And--like Christianity--it is soteriological in emphasis; that is, it focuses on something analogous to the doctrine of salvation in the afterlife--the idea that this world is incorrigibly corrupt, but if we have faith and are well-behaved while here, and devout in our meditation, devotion to Amitabha, and adherence to the Precepts, we will go to the Pure Land after we die and live joyfully forever with Buddha Amitabha in a kind of Buddhist heaven.

--And for this very reason, I have no use for Pure Land Buddhism. It strikes me, like the Christian concept of heaven, as a compensatory myth for those--the vast majority of ordinary people--who are traumatized by, and therefore in deep denial about, the inescapable reality of death, and hence the extinction of the only "self" they have ever known up close.

I am fortunate, I suppose, not to share this consuming anxiety about death and impermanence--at least, not to the degree that affects most people. So I don't need a compensatory myth about Heaven or the "Pure Land" or anything else. One of my favorite moments, for example, in an interview with Permaculture founder Bill Mollison, a few years before his death, was when a young German student asked him what he thought would happen after he died.  With his usual belly-laugh, Mollison replied,

"You die, and somebody lays you down.  Flies come and lay eggs in your orifices...and maggots eat your body, and crawl off and bury you in the soil, and the wind blows, and slowly you disappear into the surrounding country." And it didn't bother him a bit.

While his own quirky and charismatic personality may largely account for this nonchalance, I can't help thinking that his lifetime immersion in Permaculture theory and practice had a lot to do with his ease and comfort with his own impermanence. Living close to nature, and applying the patterns he observed there to his own design principles and practices, Mollison discerned (rightly, I think) that the Earth is already the "Pure Land" and that to reinhabit that land, all we need to do is to observe, study, and apply the regenerative principles by which ecosystems self-organize, grow, and diversify, recycling everything and wasting nothing. Just as he saw through the delusional "Man/Nature" dichotomy that afflicts our dysfunctional civilization, Mollison also, by his immersion in Nature, was able to see through the equally delusional "life/death" and "self/other" dichotomies that go along with it.

And by studying and applying these Permaculture principles ourselves, we too can (re-) inhabit the "Pure Land" while we are alive, and peacefully let go, allowing ourselves to be recycled and re-absorbed into it when we die.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Healing Power of Gardening

From the time I was about 20 years old, (some 48 years ago, back in 1970) I have realized that there is a perfect, and deeply distressing, analogy between the effects of cancer cells in a body and the effects of human civilization on the planet. Once I discovered and was illuminated by James Lovelock's Gaia theory, in my early 30s, this analogy became more of a homology: if the biosphere itself is a self-organizing and self-regulating complex adaptive system resembling a living organism, then it follows that human civilization is, in fact, a cancer upon the Earth, for like cancer cells, we treat our biological support system, the biosphere, as nothing more than a "resource" for our own expansion and proliferation, and thereby undermine the health and viability of the system that sustains us all.

This realization prompted what has become a lifelong quest for me: to analyze the underlying causes of this global cancer, and thereby find, if possible, a cure.

In pursuit of this quest, my first realization (for which I am thankful to Gregory Bateson, above all) was that the root causes of the Cancer of the Earth are not genetic--not somehow endemic to the human species--but rather, epistemological. The cancer originates, that is, in the false perception--dating back to the Agricultural Revolution, but codified by Descartes at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, that "man" and "nature" are separate, antithetical entities, and that the only true purpose of "nature" is to serve as a "resource" for "man."  In his masterful final book, "Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity," Bateson blew this Cartesian dichotomy ("Res Cogitans" vs. "Res Extensa") right out of the water, when he demonstrated that the processes of biological evolution and learning in other living organisms are homologous with all the processes that we label as "mind"--that "mind" and "life" are the same thing.

When Lovelock's Gaia theory first was published and widely disseminated, near the end of Bateson's life, this homology between mind and life got a catchy name and a photo image, and thus went from abstract theory to counter-cultural phenomenon. "Gaia" as myth, model, metaphor, and movement became the only concept we have that dissolves the "man-nature" dichotomy altogether by positing a single system comprising both. Any understanding of Gaia theory makes it irrevocably clear that we are a part of "nature," not apart from it.

This being the case, the question remains: what part of this magnificent Gaian system are we? What is our role? Pessimists, of course, see our role as inherently pathogenic: human civilization is a cancer on the Earth, cancer consumes and destroys its host, and therefore we are doomed. Unfortunately, they may well prove right in the end. But despair is self-validating and therefore self-defeating. If we believe that there is nothing we can do to change our headlong course toward annihilation, then we will do nothing. But what if there is something we can do, before it is far too late?

If our global cancer is based on our shared cultural premises--on erroneous core presuppositions rather than on genetic propensity, as Bateson claims--then the path to healing and regeneration may well start with abandoning those presuppositions and embracing an alternative, systems-based, Gaian worldview. This is exactly what Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the worldwide Permaculture movement, had in mind. Mollison explicitly cites Gaia theory as the foundation of his vision:

"Lovelock (1979) has perhaps best expressed a philosophy or insight, which links science and tribal beliefs: he sees the earth, and the universe, as a thought process, or as a self-regulating, self-constructed and reactive system, creating and preserving the conditions that make life possible, and actively adjusting to regulate disturbances. Humanity, however, in its present mindlessness, may be the one disturbance that the earth cannot tolerate (Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, 2)."

As the founder of the Permaculture movement, Mollison's essential project was to create a Gaian praxis inspired by Gaian theory--to develop an autonomous, self-propagating educational movement that would evolve a human culture based on close observation of, emulation of, and engagement with the natural processes of self-sustaining and self-regenerating ecosystems. Originating in Australia, the Permaculture movement has since spread worldwide, albeit below the radar of Glomart corporate media. As his foremost disciple, world-renowned Permaculture master teacher Geoff Lawton, once said,

"You can solve all the world's problems in a garden."

However exaggerated this claim may seem, there is deep truth to it. Gardening (using permaculture principles), after all, promotes the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our living planet simultaneously:

  • It promotes our physical health by giving us good outdoor exercise and simultaneously growing nutritious fruits and vegetables for ourselves and our families.
  • It promotes our competence by enabling us to learn from our mistakes, and seek out knowledge and skills from others.
  • It promotes our resilience by grounding us and increasing our ability to adapt to change, so we are less likely to panic or despair when (as now) political life turns ugly and vicious, or when unexpected catastrophe hits, whether from violent storms, prolonged drought, or economic collapse.
  • It does likewise for our community, by increasing our collective self-reliance and encouraging us to share our knowledge and skills freely with others.
  • Finally, as more and more people build healthy topsoil, they sequester more and more carbon and reduce the atmospheric excess from fossil fuels, thus enhancing the health, competence, and resilience of our entire planet. 
In short, systemic Gaian thinking and its practical manifestation in the global Permaculture movement have the potential to become what we all need the most--a viable mechanism for the spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth.




Sunday, April 22, 2018

Convenience and Repentance


In one of his narrative ballads, Bob Dylan has the following line:  "Most people don't do what they believe in; they just do what's most convenient--and then they repent."

Earth Day has become, in recent years, something like our annual day of repentance for all the conveniences we take for granted the other 364 days of the year: conveniences like cars, plastics, computers, televisions, and easy year-around access to fresh and prepared foods from all over the world. We know that all of these conveniences have their environmental costs, but it is easier not to think about them--so we set aside Earth Day to be reminded of these costs, and briefly repent--before going back to business as usual.

There is a problem with repentance, however.  "Repent" rhymes with "Resent." And indeed, most of us resent being made to feel guilty for the conveniences we take for granted every day.

President Jimmy Carter found this out to his cost, when he righteously called on Americans to repent their short-term greed and self-indulgent wastefulness and assume greater responsibility for future generations.  The direct result was a wave of public resentment that resulted the landslide election of Ronald Reagan--the joyous Apostle of Greed.

I need not recount the lamentable history that followed: the insidious attacks on environmental regulations, the poisoning of the airwaves by Fox News and the rise of corporate-sponsored vulgarians like Rush Limbaugh, sneering at "environmental wackos," and the gradual corporate takeover of our government, culminating in Donald Trump and his cabal of billionaires and climate-deniers taking a wrecking ball to any and all regulations in the public interest that interfere with corporate profits.

So no--I don't think calling on people to repent, and to amend their profligate ways, will do much to save us.  As we have seen, laying a guilt trip on people can backfire.

 For me, the best alternative to environmental gloom and despair is inspiration. So I would like to share three of my own sources of inspiration.

My first, life-changing inspiration was James Lovelock's Gaia theory,  which fundamentally changed our view of our planet from that of a passive orb that just happened to have the right conditions for life--liquid water, oxygenated air, and so forth--into that of a complex adaptive system in which life itself creates and sustains the atmospheric and geophysical conditions that in turn sustain life--and in which humanity is a part of, and not apart from, nature.

The centerpiece of Lovelock's Gaia model is photosynthesis--that is, plant life. Plants, as we know, are primary producers, which draw on direct solar energy to power a chemical reaction that transforms water and CO2 into complex carbohydrates, which act like batteries to store solar energy for use in growing more plant tissue. So using that "fire," that solar energy, plants transform the other three classical elements--water, earth, and air--into new life, and simultaneously purify the water, oxygenate the air, and turn minerals into topsoil, thus enabling our planet to support all other life--including ourselves. Without plants, there would be little to no free oxygen, no topsoil, and no fresh water on the Earth.

So Gaia is no longer just a myth, but also a model, a metaphor, and a movement for our time. If someone asks me, "What are you?" my short answer is "A Gaian. And so are you. And so is everything else that breathes air, drinks water, and eats food."  We are all Gaians, whether or not we are conscious of this fact. It is the only identity label I know that excludes no one at all.

My second inspiration was the Permaculture movement, initiated by Australian biologist and visionary Bill Mollison, who explicitly cited Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis as his own inspiration. Permaculture is Gaian praxis--that is, it is regenerative design methodology that models human support systems--from backyard gardens to whole communities--on the organization and behavior of natural ecosystems. Three essential characteristics of sound permaculture design are that it is autonomous, energy neutral, and scalable. By "autonomous" I mean that once it has been established, a permaculture design is self-sustaining and self-regenerating. By "energy neutral" I mean that--again, once established, it can run entirely on solar and other renewable forms of energy. And by "scalable," I mean that the Permaculture design principles can be applied at any scale whatsoever--from our own work spaces and back yards all the way to communities, bioregions, nations, and our whole planet.  Permaculture has now become a worldwide movement, and certified practitioners can be found in nearly every nation on Earth.

And my third inspiration is a young 16-year old kid from Holland named Boyan Slat, who, while scuba diving in Greece in 2010, was appalled to see more plastic than fish. But rather than despairing, he researched the huge problem of plastic debris throughout the oceans and came up with a simple, remarkable solution--two floating booms at a wide angle, converging on a central solar-powered collection device in the shape of a manta ray. As it drifts with the ocean currents, the two booms naturally concentrate the plastic debris toward the central collecting unit where the plastic can be  recycled or repurposed.  Autonomous - Energy Neutral - Scalable.  And now, in his early twenties, Boyan Slat is the CEO of a nonprofit corporation called "The Ocean Cleanup" that has hired a full team of engineers who have already developed a working small-scale prototype of his design and are about to go into production in the Pacific.

With examples like Lovelock, Mollison, Boyan Slat, and many others to inspire us, let us all vow, each in our own domain of influence, to become part of the solution; to choose a Gaian Future, rather than No Future.






Sunday, March 25, 2018

Gaia Sermon III: The Two Worlds


What is the difference between a number line and a sphere? (Draw these on a flip chart, or use hand motions in the absence thereof)

That's right: a number line is infinite, while a sphere is finite. (4 Pi R)

Now, what is the greatest single problem facing our world today? (Solicit and acknowledge responses).  Everything you've mentioned so far derives, directly or indirectly,  from one huge problem: the fundamental incompatibility between an economy based on the number line--that is, on the infinite expansion of the production and consumption of commodities--and a home planet in the finite shape of a sphere.

As Edward Abbey once said, "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."

He was absolutely right--and as a consequence, today, our living planet has terminal cancer. Its manifold symptoms include climate destabilization, depletion of topsoil worldwide, pollution of land, air, and water, collapsing fisheries and ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity worldwide--and of course the tragic human dimension: a growing, yawning gap between the super-rich few and the desperately poor multitudes.

And terminal cancer has only two possible outcomes: death, or spontaneous remission. The first is, unfortunately, the most likely. But the second has happened in many instances, though no one is quite sure how. So today I would like to focus on the latter. I would like to pose the question: How might we become agents in the spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth?

To cure any disease, we must begin with a diagnosis of the underlying cause. There are those who claim that the cause is genetic--that humans are intrinsically self-serving and short-sighted--in which case we are doomed.  But I do not think so. I believe, with Gregory Bateson and many other fine thinkers whom I admire, that the ultimate causes of the Cancer of the Earth are cultural, ontological, and axiological--that is, rooted in our shared assumptions about what is real and what is not, and what is or is not of value.

We live, after all, in two worlds simultaneously--the one we made, and the one that made us. And they operate according to diametrically opposed rules. For the world we made, I have coined the name "Glomart"--short for Global Market Economy. It is the Order of Money, the root cause of the Cancer of the Earth, because money is nothing but arithmetic--an abstract measure of the market value of commodities. And because money is arithmetic, the entire money-based economy is predicated on the logic of the number line: More is always Better. This is the master operating rule of Glomart, purveyed 24/7 through advertising, and assumed without question at every corporate board meeting.

But the world that made us is Gaia, the Order of Nature.  And as a finite system, Gaia operates upon a completely opposite master rule: Enough is Enough. Indeed, everything in nature follows this rule: if we get too hot, we die. If we get too cold, we die.  If we eat too much or too little, we die.  If our population grows too fast or not fast enough, we die. And so on. There is nothing in nature--no living system in the biosphere, from bacteria to organisms and communities--for which more is always better.

Money is, as I said, an abstract transform of information about the value of commodities. And it is a zero-sum game: if one person has it, the other does not. This is why, in finite systems like our planet, wealth constantly concentrates upward to fewer and fewer people. A monopoly game--a simple model of a market economy on a finite surface--has only one possible outcome: one player has everything, while the rest have nothing--and are in debt to the winner for their houses and hotels.  Sound familiar? Yet we are stuck with this money system, whether we like it or not.

So how might we reconcile the diametrically opposed rules of Glomart and Gaia?  For starters, I will turn to Bill Mollison, the wise old Australian founder of the Permaculture movement. One of his favorite sayings was "The problem is the solution." I see this as a kind of Zen koan. So how might money--the root of the problem--also be a solution in disguise?

It all depends on what we choose to value. Imagine what might happen if we started looking at our dollar as a vote. That is, for every dollar we spend, we could start asking two questions: (1) Where is the money for this actually going? (2) What am I actually getting for it? A tool, or an addiction?  This could be translated into a kind of Gaian Categorical Imperative:

In every decision we make, let us strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our community, and our planet simultaneously.

To the exact extent we assume responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our decisions--about the money we spend or invest, the products we buy, the decisions we make about livelihood, and the way we treat others and our land, we make it easier and more cost-effective for others to do likewise. 

A simple way of remembering this is the triad "Good Buy, Good Work, and Good Will.

Good Buy (Pun intended) means assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of the money we spend or invest and the goods we buy. It means--whenever possible--buying locally produced, organically grown products. It means buying things sustainably made or grown. But it is only the first step--to vote with our dollars.

Good Work is more complicated, more long-term. It means "Right Livelihood:" assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of way we choose to earn money.  But it also means voluntarily doing the good work, wherever we live, to grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness--to disconnect from Glomart in whatever ways we can, both individually and collectively.

Good Will is both the starting point and the end point of all of the above. It refers to the discipline of mindfulness--assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our own attitudes and behavior toward others. As Lao Tzu put it succinctly, "Take care of everyone and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing.

By adopting these three interrelated practices--Good Buy, Good Work, and Good Will--we can each become agents of the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth.