Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Gaian Economy?

In a letter I just sent to the Daily Press on energy use, I concluded with the following passage:

Our explosive industrial growth was made possible by cheap fossil fuels, but we have reached their horizon of efficacy, beyond which their rising costs and toxic side-effects will overwhelm us. So if we are to have a future at all, it must be one based on energy efficiency, intelligent technology, and sharing--not on endless growth and greed.

Looking over this passage got me wondering: is a Gaian economy even possible? That is, can we ever hope to create or evolve an economy based, not on endless growth of production and consumption (and therefore, of pollution)--not on the "invisible hand" of competing self-interest--but on "energy efficiency, intelligent technology, and sharing"?

This is, of course, an old, old question--but the present, glaring contradiction between our Glomart economy (based on endless growth of production and consumption in pursuit of short-term self-interest) and our finite, Gaian world makes it once again an urgent question to consider.

Does our basic human nature--our innate urge, shared with all other species, to eat, survive, and reproduce--doom us inexorably to an Easter Island future, a hideous feeding frenzy where we compete bitterly and relentlessly with each other to commandeer and exhaust the existing nonrenewable resources, rather than using those resources to create a cooperative infrastructure for renewable energy? Or can we actually learn to plan more intelligently for a sustainable, post-fossil fuel, steady-state economy where, as Shakespeare put it, "distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough?" Is an economy based on sharing, on planetary stewardship, and on voluntary reduction of per capita energy use even possible?

The odds weigh heavily in favor of the former, I'm afraid--a hellish future of accelerating climatic turbulence and drought, collapsing ecosystems, endless resource wars, societal and cultural disintegration, corporate tyranny, and marauding, predatory gangs roaming the blasted landscape and killing everyone in their path, set against shrinking islands of fiercely defended wealth and privilege...not a future I would wish on anyone.

Nevertheless, let us assume--if only for the sake of argument--that an alternative is possible. Buddhist teachings remind us that the present is all there is--that the future--any future--is always just a mental formation, and that the causes and conditions of the future always depend on what each of us chooses to do in the present, just as our present conditions are the direct consequences of causes and conditions in the past--including all the choices made by all our ancestors. If, in fact, the seed of the future always lies in the choices that we make right now, what can we do, starting this moment--to plant the seed for a better future, regardless of what others do, and whatever else happens?

Imagine then--and here goes my sustaining fantasy, yet again--that a self-replicating Gaia movement were to take root, analogous to the rise, in the past, of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity--all massively culturally transformative events that started with a single visionary.
The Gaia movement would be rooted in a practice, easily taught and easily replicated, that brought immediate relief from stress, but also laid the foundation for serious dharma practice, within the cultural frame of reference of each practitioner--not so much a "new religion" (which would be seen as a threat to existing religions) but rather as a practice that is compatible with all existing authentic religious traditions. (By "authentic" I mean compatible with the universal Dharma--the awareness of our "inescapable network of mutuality"--despite their own religious identity politics).

So this new Gaia movement would be based on the following Principle, Precept, and Practice:

  1. 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.
  2. PRECEPT: "Take care of everyone, and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing." --Lao Tzu.
  3. PRACTICE: Breathe, Observe, Let Go; Be well, Do good work, Keep in Touch; Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.
The Gaians--those first initiates in the Gaia Movement--would develop, within themselves, the skills necessary to promote this "seed" concept among adherents of many different religions. Each religion could give it their own name; for Buddhists, it is "Dharma Gaia;" for Christians, it could be called "the Mustardseed Project" after the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jews could associate it with the Hebrew concept of Tikkun--healing the world. And Muslims could likewise integrate it with their own Qur'anic traditions.

As the movement grew--among Gaian Buddhists, Gaian Jews, Gaian Hindus, Gaian Christians, and Gaian Muslims--communities of practice might form that engaged in whatever forms of praxis were appropriate to local conditions: Satyagraha for those who face oppressive political conditions; labor organizing among those exploited by corporate tyranny; negotiation and peacemaking; political advocacy where possible; and above all, ongoing community-building, gardening, education, and ecological protection and restoration.

What form might the resulting Gaian culture take? It is hard to say, of course, but ideally it would be decentralized--a loose association of bioregional communities, each developing cultures, political systems, economies, and technologies appropriate to their own bioregion.

Is such a thing even possible? Once again, transformative cultural movements, starting from a small seed, have happened before throughout human history; there is no good reason why they can't happen yet again. The alternative, for me, is unthinkable--however likely. And that is enough to reinforce my determination to pursue this vision of a Gaian future for as long as I draw breath--for it starts, indeed, by drawing breath: breathing, observing, and letting go...even of my own mental formations about what a Gaian future should look like... The present, after all, is all there is.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Gaian Triads

Numbered lists, particularly in threes, fours, and fives, have long been used as mnemonic devices to help transmit spiritual teachings through the generations. There are obvious reasons for this; we learn best by organizing information into symmetrical patterns. And so we have, in Buddhism, many numeric schemes--the Four Noble Truths, the Five Precepts, the Six Paramitas, the Four Brahma-Viharas, the Three Dharma Seals, the Twelve Links of Codependent Origination, the Five Skandhas, and so forth. All these numeric schemes help practitioners to reinforce their understanding of, and grounding in, the Dharma.

In my own life, I seem to have been endowed with the mission to propagate Gaian Buddhism, the wonderful synthesis of Buddhist Practice and Gaianity, or global ecological awareness and commitment, that has been initiated by masters such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, and propagated by an array of eminent Gaians, such as Joanna Macy, Elizabeth Roberts, Gary Snyder, and (closer to home) my own friends and role models, John Croft in Australia, Chris Maser in Oregon, Dick and Pat Richardson in Texas, Evan Eisenberg in New York, Ian Prattis in Canada, and Martin Ogle in Virginia.

And so my own Gaian thinking and teaching has come to be organized around similar numeric patterns, particularly triads and tetrads. So here is a partial list of the triads and tetrads that have become the "strange attractors" in my own thinking:

1. Eat, Survive, Reproduce.

This triad of verbs I originally took from a cartoon I saw (I forget where) that showed a series of creatures in an ascending evolutionary sequence--a paramecium, a fish, a salamander, a dinosaur, a mastodon, and an ape--all with thought-bubbles saying "Eat, Survive, Reproduce."
The last frame showed an early human, but he was looking perplexed, and his thought-bubble was "What am I supposed to do?"

The implicit answer, of course, was the same as the above:--"Eat, Survive, Reproduce." So this first, foundational triad reminds us, from the start, of our kinship with all the rest of life--that our basic agenda, however clever and complex we have become, is the same as that of every other living being. From this common agenda we share with all life, we may logically derive all the others.

2. Health, Competence, and Adaptive Flexibility. This triad describes the basic survival values of all living beings, and can be logically derived from the above three injunctions.

  • Health is internal homeostasis, maintained by the influx of matter/energy from Gaia through food, water, and breath, the elimination of waste, and the autoregulation of these processes. It is, of course, the prerequisite of the others.
  • Competence is, quite literally, the ability to compete--that is, the ability to function effectively within a given, generally predictable niche, whether ecological or sociocultural. For a rabbit, competence consists of alertness to potential predators and the ability to find a safe hiding place for her babies; for a feline, competence is the ability to stalk prey effectively and all this entails. And of course for any human job or profession, competence is the ability to deliver the goods for which you are being paid, as well as or better than your competitors do. Competence, then, depends on specialized skills adapted to a given, relatively stable environment.
  • Adaptive Flexibility refers, conversely, to the generalized ability to adapt to unpredictable changes in one's environment. In the natural world, as in the social world, there tends to be a trade-off between competence and adaptive flexibility: the more highly specialized we become, the less able we are to adapt when the conditions we mastered through specialization change too quickly or dramatically. Evolutionary history is littered with extinct organisms who were admirably specialized for one environmental niche, once that niche changed. Those organisms that have survived the longest, conversely, tend to be those that are highly adaptive and flexible. This is why, for example, coyotes far outnumber wolves, in the dramatically changed environment induced by human civilization. Wolves were highly competent within their native niche, as running social predators in wide-open northern woodlands and prairies. But coyotes--solitary, devious, and diversified in diet--have been able to thrive much more effectively on the fringes of the civilized world, despite the relentless efforts by farmers and ranchers to exterminate them.
  • Self, Community, Planet. With this triad, we move into the exclusively human realm, in the present generation, as members of a species which, through language and culture, has come to dominate the entire planet, and whose numbers and resource consumption now directly threaten the survival of that planet as a habitat for life, human or otherwise. This triad specifies our shared obligation in this altered world we have inherited, creating what I like to call a new, Gaian Categorical Imperative: To assume responsibility, in every decision we make, for the health, competence and adaptive flexibility of ourselves, our community, and our planet simultaneously.
  • Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch. This wonderful triad, which I have borrowed from Garrison Keillor, specifies the means to the end implied by the above Gaian Categorical Imperative. It is a good, generic daily agenda, and as such forms the centerpiece of my Dharma Gaia Mantra: Breathe, Observe, Let Go; Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch; Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create. Note also the correspondence in these triads:
  1. Eat - Health - Self - Be Well
  2. Survive - Competence - Community - Do Good Work
  3. Reproduce - Adaptive Flexibility - Planet - Keep in Touch.

  • Good Buy, Good Work, Good Will. This triad translates Garrison Keillor's generic daily agenda into the language of Gaian social engagement. It can be unpacked as follows:
  1. Good Buy means to assume responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of the money we spend--to think of each dollar we spend as a "vote" for all of the processes that went into the product we have bought. Some general guidelines for "Good Buy" therefore include, whenever possible, buying locally produced food and other items, buying organically grown food, investing in renewable energy such as solar and wind, and deliberately boycotting corporations whose profits derive from damaging Gaia or exploiting workers. In general, the food that is best for our bodies--local, organic, nutrient-rich--is also best for our communities (in that it creates local employment and promotes local agriculture) and is therefore best for Gaia as well (in that it involves redirecting our money away from Glomart and all the agribusiness firms like Monsanto that profit from destroying our topsoil and genetic diversity.)
  2. Good Work means to assume responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our livelihood. In general terms, this means avoiding livelihoods that increase the net level of suffering for Gaia and her creatures, and embracing livelihoods that promote the health, competence, and adaptive flexibility of ourselves, our communities, and Gaia. In general, such work involves learning Gaia, teaching Gaia, healing Gaia, and creating Gaia.
  3. Good Will means to "keep in touch"--to assume responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of our own mental attitudes, our behavior toward others, and every other choice we make.
Considered thus, these triads link up very nicely, forming an arc of associations between the basic survival needs of every organism (Eat, Survive, Reproduce) right through the engaged Dharma practice of individual humans to promote our health, competence, and adaptive flexibility (Breathe, Observe, Let Go, Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch) to the ongoing Gaian praxis of planetary healing: Good Buy, Good Work, Good Will.