Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reflections on Community and Sustainability

Recently, my friend Al Markowitz, a local syndicated journalist who writes deeply reflective and insightful articles on current political issues, asked me for some reflections on the topic of "sustainable communities," which he is working on for his next article. As a long-time admirer of Al's writing and thinking, I am happy to oblige.

As I pondered this topic, it brought up my long personal history of reflections on our global crisis from a lifetime dedicated to environmental advocacy and the elusive quest for eco-sanity. In my younger years, back in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, my thinking on the plight, and fate, of our planet was infused with the idealism of those times. From the time, in 1970, when my youthful hero Stewart Brand published the Whole Earth Catalog on the premise that a truly global, ecocentric community was emerging, I saw myself in the vanguard of this movement, dedicated to pursuing personal and planetary regeneration and empowerment in tandem.  In  1980, I was living a brief but idyllic existence in a geodesic dome in an olive grove on the outskirts of Athens, Greece when I received as a gift the 10-year anniversary volume of the Whole Earth Catalog (called "the Next Whole Earth Catalog" after the "Last" one in 1970). This second volume first introduced me to the Gaia Hypothesis, formulated by independent British biochemist James Lovelock and his colleague, American microbiologist Lynn Margulis.

For me, Gaia theory was a revelation--it struck me then, as now, as the central metaphor we had all been looking for: the Earth as a single, dynamic living system of which we are all a part. Coupled with the iconic image of the Whole Earth from Space, it seemed at that time to be a new nodal idea that heralded a worldwide quiet revolution, a shift of polarities, which would inevitably displace the toxic ideologies of nationalism, militarism, and global corporate industrial consumerism--the "Cancer of the Earth"--with a compelling new cultural sensibility based on identification of Self with Planet, of Humanity with Nature. In short, I dedicated myself to the prospect that Gaian consciousness would go viral, bringing with it a worldwide transformation of cultures, as we all learned to live within our ecological means and restore the health and resilience of the only living planet we will ever know. I heartily embraced a slogan coined by environmental scientist and activist Norman Myers at that time: "We have two choices: a Gaian future--or no future."

Needless to say, the Gaian future never happened. After the brief flowering of global, ecstatic Gaian consciousness in the 70s and 80s (mostly on the West Coast, where I then resided) the Empire struck back--big time--first with Reagan and Bush, then with the rampant consumerism of the Clinton years, and then with the hijacking of our democracy by the toxic and hegemonic, oil-industry dominated, virulently anti-Gaian Bush regime, and now, under the bought-out Obama administration, with the Trans Pacific Partnership threatening the corporate takeover of the entire planet and the end of any real democracy altogether.  Meanwhile, of course, fossil fuel-induced climate change has risen to the tipping point where it is now self-accelerating and irreversible, dooming our entire planet to a hideous future of global ecological collapse, swarms of environmental refugees, violence, and starvation, while our fished-out oceans revert to jellyfish--their original inhabitants (prior to the Cambrian Period, some 550 million years ago).  In such a bleak and desolate world, any further talk of a Gaian future or of "sustainable communities" begins to remind me of a sad line from Lennie, the simpleton in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men":  "Tell me about the rabbits, George!"

So is "No future" our only remaining choice? While our past (and present) collective greed, ignorance, and denial have badly foreclosed our options for the future, they haven't eliminated them. When I face the grim prospect that our present generation may see the final days of human civilization before our global support system, Gaia, collapses into a whole new hostile climate regime that no longer supports humans or any other large vertebrates--a possibility that Lovelock and other Earth system scientists no longer discount--my only refuge is that of any condemned man: to let go of the future and fully inhabit every present moment of my life.  After all, the future itself is just a mental formation--it has no real existence, and it is rooted in the decisions we make in the present moment.

So what decisions can or should we make, right now, regardless of whether or not we have a future? Many, of course, will take a "carpe diem" approach--abandon any thought of sustainability, go to the mall, run up their credit cards, get drunk...But such an approach is an admission of defeat, and can lead only to despair. If we assume nothing can be done, nothing will be done.  My own option therefore, and the one I try to pass on to my students, is for us each to become agents of the spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth.   To do so, we must embrace and transform despair--not into hope (which is illusory) nor into anger (which is corrosive and futile) but rather into  mindful courses of action that promote global (or Gaian) awareness, understanding, and responsibility, while also following Gandhi's advice to "renounce the fruits of action"--that is, not to be concerned with whether we succeed or fail, but simply to do what needs to be done--mindfully, strategically, compassionately, and relentlessly.

One way to do this is to understand that all living organisms, for survival, depend on three values: health, competence, and resilience. The next is to understand that we all depend on communities for our survival, and that our communities all depend on a healthy ecosystem and planet for theirs. Knowing that, we can deduce what I like to call a "Gaian Categorical Imperative:"

In every decision you make, strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience or yourself, your community, and the planet.  Any benefit to ourselves that is harmful to our communities will ultimately harm ourselves as well (and usually get us thrown in prison); any benefit to our communities--including benefits conferred by multinational corporations--that is harmful to Gaia may make us billionaires, but is equally harmful to our own and our children's survival.

Such an ethic embodies the enlightened awareness that what is best for our planet is also best for our communities and ourselves. That is the starting point of true sustainability.

To take but a single example of people who are living out this Gaian categorical imperative, consider Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, the urban farm market cooperative in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Living in an urban "food desert," Allen, a lifetime gardener, used the skills he had inherited from his sharecropper parents to buy a few old run-down greenhouses in downtown Milwaukee and convert them into a thriving farm market that has made him nationally famous, and that has enabled him to hire hundreds of local citizens, grow topsoil from compost gathered from area restaurants, and provide fresh, organic produce to citizens while providing both hands-on education and volunteering opportunities for their children and youth, while teaching them, in turn, the skills they need to start their own gardens, and starting up a national network of urban gardeners (including our own Bev Sell in Norfolk.). He is one of thousands of such Gaian visionaries, well below the radar of corporate media, who are out there today, growing gardens, growing communities, growing awareness, and thereby--as the name of his cooperative suggests, "growing power."  With a present like that, who needs a future?

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Three Poisons

In Buddhist philosophy, the “three poisons”—that is, the three underlying causes of all the distress and suffering in the world—are identified as Ignorance, Greed, and Hatred. These are common tendencies within all of us—though with practice, these tendencies can be brought to our awareness, seen for what they are, and let go, leaving space for our innate capacities for benevolence, compassion, joy, and equanimity to flourish.

Ignorance is the root of our problem—but ignorance of what? Above all, it is ignorance of the plain, readily observable fact that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… [where] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In simpler terms, whatever goes around, comes around—especially on a finite planet!  And this goes not only for our use of resources, but for our concern—or lack thereof—for others.

Greed arises from ignorance—it is simply the toxic belief that we ourselves are more important than others, that more is always better, that there is no such thing as “enough.” Unfortunately, this toxic  ideology is embedded in our economic system, for money is nothing but an arithmetical transform of information about the relative value of commodities—of things that can  be separated from their matrix in order to be bought and sold. And the money system operates according to only two basic rules: (1) more is always better; (2) what is mine is not yours.  On an infinite planet, an unregulated free-market economy would work exactly as those on the right claim that it does—fostering innovation and creativity, rewarding the most talented, and causing a rising tide of affluence that lifts all boats. But on a finite planet like the one we inhabit, where “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” the money game behaves exactly like a monopoly game—wealth and power are concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, until finally one player has everything and the rest—nothing.

When Greed and Ignorance combine, they create Denial—which is willful ignorance, a refusal to acknowledge facts that threaten one’s self-serving ideology.  Denial takes many forms, such as racism—the belief that one “race” is superior to, and therefore entitled to rule over, enslave, exploit, or oppress another “race.”  Another form of rampant denial today is refusal to accept overwhelming scientific evidence that threatens your interests, such as the reality of climate change, or the simple fact, validated by every law of physics and confirmed by irrefutable evidence, that on September 11, 2001, the sudden and catastrophic collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7 had to be caused by controlled demolition charges planted in advance, not by terrorists hijacking airliners.

The other spawn of ignorance, greed, and denial, of course, is hatred, especially of those who hold the mirror up to our ignorance and greed—like black people who refuse to play the subordinate role to which they are assigned, environmentalists who reveal the horrific biological consequences of my greed, or “lib’ruls” who would take my money away to provide food, health care, and education for the poor and destitute, or even “terrorist sympathizers” who question the ongoing policy of invading and brutalizing the Muslim world (and therefore are unpatriotic because they don’t “support our troops”), or who realize that the official story of 9/11 is arrant, unscientific nonsense.  

Today’s Republican Party, with the  aid of their corporate-funded propaganda machines, Fox News and Clear Channel Radio, has therefore adopted Greed, Ignorance, Hatred, and Denial as their party platform, and is busily sowing these poisons into the minds of ignorant, resentful white people everywhere, spawning the insurgent, neofascist “Tea Party” movement that has hijacked democracy itself in order to enforce its will on the rest of us.

So what can be done about this appalling situation? First—and whenever necessary--breathe, observe, let go, and abide.  As equanimity is restored,  remember that our nation and world order, just like our bodies, are impermanent, and are of the nature to get sick, grow old, and perish—that we will lose everything we cherish sooner or later, including our democracy, our freedoms, our security, the topsoil that grows food we eat, the water we drink, the biodiversity that sustains us, our families and friends,  the beauty that surrounds us—all are impermanent.

By embracing impermanence fearlessly, we embrace and transform our despair and rage, regaining the equanimity, hence the courage, to practice Satyagraha—the  discipline practiced by all the great Gaian Bodhisattvas of our past century—Gandhi, King, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Aung San Soo Kyi, Wangari Maathai,  Vandana Shiva, and many, many others. Satyagraha begins, as Gandhi said, with renouncing the fruits of action—doing what needs to be done, without worrying about success or failure; that is, letting go of the illusory future and focusing on the present moment, which is all that ever exists.  Satyagraha consists of three strands of discipline:

1.       Swaraj, or self-rule. This means beginning with ourselves, casting off the ignorance, greed, and hatred in ourselves, and cultivating the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet, through relocalization—growing gardens, growing communities, and progressively withdrawing our money from Glomart  (the corporate order that thrives by promoting Greed and Ignorance) and re-investing it in Gaia (a healthy garden, healthy local economy, and healthy planet).

2.       Satya, or truthfulness. This means the ability to speak truth to power, and do so mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly—calmly and skillfully, without hatred or resentment. This is easier said than done, but when done, it can be immensely effective. It demands a high level of self-discipline, which means constant practice, honestly investigating our own motives before we say anything. All of the great Bodhisattvas have cultivated the patience to master this difficult art of speaking truth to power until power could no longer resist the truth they spoke.

3.       Ahimsa, or resolute nonviolence.  This is the difficult art of resistance without hatred or attachment. Contrary to the opinions of many, nonviolence is not simply a tactic to be abandoned for guns, knives, or rocks when it no longer works.  Rather, it is the foundation for effectively subverting the three poisons—Greed, Ignorance, and Hatred—both in ourselves and others.  In political terms, nonviolent direct action campaigns are always a last resort, after all efforts at negotiation have failed.  And their purpose is to create pressure on those in power so they have no choice but to negotiate. Any other purpose is futile and self-indulgent. To be successful, a nonviolent direct action campaign involves four distinct steps, outlined by Martin Luther King, Jr.: Investigation, Negotiation, Self-Purification, and Direct Action. Investigation establishes both the existence and the nature of the harm being done; Negotiation is the good-faith effort to persuade those in power that it is in their self-interest to right the wrongs that have been revealed by investigation.  Only when negotiation fails do the latter two steps become necessary. Self-purification, through meditation or collective spiritual practice, is an essential prerequisite to leading an effective nonviolent direct action campaign. Without it, rage and frustration can quickly set in, leading to hatred and self-defeating acts of violence or sabotage.  And Direct Action should violate laws only when absolutely necessary, for there are many forms of direct action, such as sit-ins and boycotts, that do not violate any law, but still apply the needed pressure for negotiation.

But above all, Satyagraha direct action campaigns must be disciplined and strategically intelligent in order to be effective, and they must be conducted mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. However, most of us are not called to such courageous activism, nor do many of us have the courage to speak truth to power—for power can and will bite back when threatened.  Nevertheless, the rest of us can do our part by practicing Swaraj or self-reliance through three simple practices:

·         Good Buyassuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of the money we spend. Seeing money for what it is—a transform of information about the value of commodities—of information about what we actually value. With this knowledge, we start to see the dollars we spend as a vote, and we start “voting”—every day--for locally produced, sustainably grown food, local enterprises that recycle our money into the community in order to create jobs for our friends and neighbors, and sustainably produced, fair-trade merchandise—whenever possible. Remember that a dollar invested in Gaia is a dollar denied to Glomart;  that every time you spend money in a socially and ecologically responsible way, you make it easier and more cost-effective for everyone else to do likewise.

·         Good Work—assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of the money we earn and the work we do.  This is the next step—it is what the Buddhists call “right livelihood”—finding ways to earn a living in ways that regenerate the health, competence, and resilience of our community and the planet. The Benefit Corporation concept, for example, is an excellent approach to this, but Good Work can be any livelihood that involves learning, teaching, healing, or creating a better world. If the work you do does not involve these, and if it merely enriches the super-rich while despoiling the planet, it is a form of slavery to Glomart—and you should emancipate yourself from it as soon as possible, no matter how little or how much you are paid.

·         Good Will—assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of your attitudes toward others—including those you resent or despise.  In Buddhist theory, there are four adaptive attitudes we can cultivate toward everyone, all the time: (1) Benevolence and gratitude; (2) Compassion or caring awareness of suffering; (3) Sympathetic joy, or quite simply, a good sense of humor; and (4) Equanimity, or the ability not to let people or situations “get” to you.  You can practice these at any moment on the four parts of any breath, using the following guided meditation:

o   Inhale (“Breathe”—with benevolence toward all you see and gratitude toward all who have made your present living moment possible);

o   Pause (“Observe”—with compassion and understanding, realizing that all bad behavior originates in inner suffering of some sort, so both perpetrators and victims need your compassion and understanding);

o   Exhale (“Let Go”—with joy and humor, “breathing out” good will toward all around you.)

o   Pause (“Abide” in equanimity—the “peace that passeth all understanding.”)

You can also use these four adaptive attitudes as a repertoire of behavior toward anyone you encounter:

1.       Your default mode is benevolence and gratitude—simply smiling quietly and authentically—without any agenda--toward everyone you encounter.

2.       If the person you see is obviously suffering, do what you can to alleviate it with active compassion—initially, just by listening and acknowledging their humanity, but then by seeing what you can do to help.

3.       If you see someone who is beautiful, happy, overjoyed, or full of fun, smile again, this time participating in their joy and validating it—again without any personal agenda (especially sexual—it is important for men especially to keep a mindful oversight on their own testosterone!).

4.       If someone gets in your face, snarls at you, or otherwise offends you, maintain your dignity and go back to your breath immediately, so you resist the temptation to lash out, and abide in equanimity until you have let go of your hurt or anger, so you can resolve the issue peacefully, if necessary. Don't repress your anger or seethe in resentment; rather, observe it, acknowledge it, and let it go, one breath at a time.

None of these practices are easy—they all require continual reinforcement and scrupulous honesty with ourselves, to prevent self-deception or self-aggrandizement. But our larger agenda—triggering the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth—makes it all worth it, no matter how long it takes.