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?