Thursday, August 23, 2018

Now what??

Back in the Eighties, Norman Myers, an eminent British environmental scientist, published the first Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, a richly informative compendium of maps, charts, and statistics from all over the world, illustrating diverse indicators of global ecological crisis everywhere on the planet, along with heroic efforts to imagine or design a better way to a sustainable future. Outside of James Lovelock's seminal work, this Gaia Atlas series (there were several others to follow) was one of the first widely distributed publications to use the name "Gaia" in designating our planet as viewed from an ecological perspective. I still vividly recall the concluding line from his introductory chapter that has stuck with me ever since:  "We have two choices: a Gaian Future--or No Future." I immediately adopted this as a slogan which I used repeatedly in my own essays, presentations, and publications, and which I would constantly repeat to my students.  By "a Gaian Future," I meant a future in which humanity recognizes its kinship with, and total dependence on, the rest of the biosphere.

At that time I had high hopes that such a Gaian future was just around the corner--that Lovelock's Gaia Theory marked a kind of evolutionary turning point in our collective consciousness, and that "Gaia" would soon become a household word, as all human institutions, starting with education, but moving on to commerce, journalism, politics, and even religion embraced the model and metaphor of Gaia and went on to encourage and subsidize political, technological, social, economic, and cultural innovations that reflected our awakening to our total collective dependence on the health of our unique living biosphere.

Suffice to say, I was wrong.  The Gaia concept was instantly ignored, ridiculed, and marginalized by the dominant culture--and especially the scientific community--and was embraced only by the scientifically illiterate and credulous "New Age" subculture, mostly in California--much to the dismay of its authors, Lovelock and Margulis, who were both serious, widely-respected scientists.  Christians condemned it outright as resurgent paganism.  Instead, mainstream commercial culture embraced the anodyne buzzword "sustainability," which they could manipulate easily in any self-serving way they desired, as in "a sustainable profit margin."  And "green" bccame an all-purpose advertising moniker for promoting slightly less destructive ways of doing business, as in "green laundromats."

But mention "Gaia" in polite company, and you would get little more than raised eyebrows--as if to say "but you don't look like a new-age hippie..."  Vanished utterly from public discourse is any shared understanding of "Gaia" as a serious, far-reaching scientific model to signify our understanding that (1) we are a part of, not apart from, the biosphere, and that (2) life itself has created, and continues to sustain, the thermal, atmospheric, and geochemical conditions that in turn sustain life. Yet the irony is, serious earth systems scientists have already embraced the Gaia model in its totality--they simply call it "earth systems science" and consign it to specialized graduate programs at major universities, well away from the public eye.

At the same time, Glomart--the relentlessly expansive, money-based, fossil fuel-driven Global Market Economy, run by multinational corporations pursuing the endless expansion of resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste, has gone on its merry way, plundering and polluting the planet, and sustaining itself by marketing the ethic of consumerism ("you are what you own"), brainwashing the public by constant advertising, and buying off the governments who would regulate them...

The net result, of course, is that this money-driven economy has become a terminal cancer on the Earth, for cancer can be defined as any subsystem that parasitizes and ultimately destroys its own biological support system. Because corporations know that environmental awareness is bad for business, their domination of consumer culture through mass media and advertising has caused any prospect of a Gaian future to disappear from public consciousness.  As fossil fuel-driven climate change reaches (or surpasses?) its tipping point, we are left facing the dire prospect of no future, or a future of self-accelerating social and ecological collapse so unspeakably horrible that no one in their right mind would want to inhabit it.

This leaves us with a quandary best epitomized by a book of essays I recently purchased, entitled We're Doomed. Now what? by Roy Scranton. The author (whom I recently met at a bookstore nearby, when he was on a promotional tour), is a fortyish English professor at Notre Dame and an Iraq War veteran, who is entirely convinced that our entire global civilization is about to collapse into unspeakable chaos and that there is nothing we can do about it.  His book is thus a kind of threnody for our civilization and for the planet as a whole. It is full of gloomy reflections on war, empire, popular culture, and the paradoxes of modern life, with our unprecedented affluence combined with abject despair about the future, but it is devoid of any hope or useful suggestions.

In contrast, Paul Gilding, an Australian environmental consultant and former CEO of Greenpeace, has written a book and presented a widely viewed TED talk entitled "The Earth is Full". The talk begins by making the compelling and unarguable case that our industrial civilization has already exceeded the Earth's carrying capacity, and that collapse is imminent, but his more optimistic take on it is based on an analogy with the period just before the outbreak of World War II, when the entire western world outside of Germany--Europe, North America, and Australia/New Zealand alike--was in deep denial about the threat posed by the rise of Nazi Germany. He recounts how once the catalytic event of Hitler's invasion of Poland occurred, followed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the entire industrial and economic infrastructure of Europe, America, and Australia shifted abruptly from denial into overdrive, converting almost overnight into a coordinated industrial war machine, to prepare for the now-inevitable global war with Hitler and Japan.

Gilding therefore believes that at some point, some cataclysm wrought by climate change will have the same effect on our global civilization as a whole, turbo-charging a conversion from fossil fuels to renewable resources, from rampant grown of production and consumption to recycling and frugality, and so forth.

I doubt it. For one thing, the analogy is wildly inaccurate. On the eve of World War II, we all faced a common enemy--the aggressive and brutal imperial fascism of Germany and Japan. And such an imminent, tangible threat makes it easy to mobilize public support behind a mass conversion to war preparation. Today, however, there is no comparable common enemy. We are our own enemy, in our assiduously reinforced greed, ignorance, and denial. And the threat is abstract--even when ice packs are melting, hurricanes are increasing, droughts and wildfires are rampant, fisheries are depleted, ecosystems collapse, animals and plants disappear forever, and environmental refugees swarm across distant landscapes, our daily lives, here in the comfortable, insulated middle class, go on much as usual, while our headlines focus mostly on Trump's latest outrageous tweets.

So between Scranton's gloomy hopelessness and Gilding's false last-ditch optimism, what's left?


How so?

I have no real doubt that Glomart, our global industrial civilization, is doomed to incremental collapse into chaos, violence, starvation, and despair, and that the resulting damage to Gaia, our global biological support system, may take centuries, millennia, or possibly millions of years to heal, or to regenerate into a healthy, diverse biosphere. But we still have choices about how we cope with the coming collapse. Even if we can't hope for Gilding's fantasy of a civilization-wide awakening and mobilization, we can each, within our immediate domain of influence--our families, friends, and everyone else we can reach--practice and propagate the ethics, principles, and protocols of regenerative design, as we grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness.

The more people who embrace Permaculture design principles, and work together to implement them, the better off we will be when the s*** hits the fan. That much I know for sure.

Parallel Government?

Today, I was reading an article on Alternet on all the innumerable ways in which Trump is alienating the rest of the planet--including abandoning global trade agreements, torpedoing the nuclear treaty with Iran, insulting our allies by imposing punitive tariffs, and--worst of all for the future of the planet--withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. The article enumerates various ways in which these reckless actions are spurring other nations of the world to unite against him, leaving the US isolated in a hostile world. But there is one silver lining on the very dark cloud of Trump's chaotic reign and the profound threats it poses to democracy, the rule of law, and our common global future. To quote this article,

"To the consternation of the Trump administration, the next crucial meeting, a Global Climate Action Summit, will take place in September -- and guess where? --  in California."

This astonishing development--a major international summit meeting on US soil to enforce a vitally important global climate treaty from which the US itself has withdrawn, was the work of California's brilliant and courageous Governor Jerry Brown, who has led a coalition of state governors, mayors, and corporate leaders throughout the nation in affirming and implementing their intention to abide by the Paris accord, and to reduce or eliminate their dependence on fossil fuels in accordance with the agreement.

Reading about what Governor Brown and others (including our own Governor Kate Brown) are doing encouraged and inspired me, for according to Gandhi, when all other efforts fail to reform or transform a corrupt, oppressive, or morally bankrupt regime, the final stage of a nonviolent Satyagraha campaign involves what he referred to as setting up a parallel government. That is, rather than attempt the bloody mess of a violent overthrow (which almost always backfires, leading to a disintegration of social order into bloody anarchy, internecine conflict, and horrors beyond imagining), one leads and coordinates, among principled leaders in government and the private sector and individuals, a mass refusal to cooperate with tyranny, by setting up a parallel government--which can be a virtual government, without any fixed location as a target--to take over the tasks of maintaining a coherent and just social order, and even practicing diplomacy, until such time as the tyrannical regime fails due to its own internal contradictions.

World War II offered many illustrations of parallel government, through the establishment of "governments in exile" for France and other nations under Nazi occupation, including Germany itself. But Brown is pursuing something new: a nonviolent, virtual "parallel government"--not in exile, but within and beyond the scope of the current dysfunctional regime in Washington, consisting not only of elected officials (governors and mayors) but also of corporate leaders, the media, public administrators, foreign governments, and ordinary citizens, all resisting the Trump regime in myriad ways.

So this "parallel government" need not be a literal government, in the sense of elected officials deliberating on policy, to be administered and enforced through a network of agencies, adjudicated in the courts, enforced by police, and defended by armies. Rather, it is coalescing as a network of agreements, both explicit and tacit, that are perfectly legal, among foreign powers, state governments, cities, corporations, and citizen groups, and even among officials within the US Government who retain some integrity about their calling.  This, in turn, along with sustained nonviolent citizen resistance, may be the most effective way of creating a protective abscess around the infection of the Trump regime, until that regime is finally dislodged from power. whether by impeachment, resignation, or electoral defeat and subsequent arrest for high treason.

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).

Finally, the best answer I know to the question "Why be good?" is that our own virtuous behavior promotes the health, competence, and resilience--the three survival values of all living organisms--of ourselves, our communities, and our planet simultaneously.

Monday, July 16, 2018


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.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Gaia Sermon II--the Four M's

"We have two choices: a Gaian future--or no future."

So said Norman Myers, an eminent British environmental scientist, back in the 1980s. But what did he mean by a "Gaian future?"

First, what do we mean by "Gaia"?

Gaia can briefly be defined as a Myth, a Model, a Metaphor, and a Movement.

"Gaia" was originally a Myth--the name given to the primordial Mother Goddess in ancient Greek mythology, and the etymological root of all the words we have that begin with "Geo--"such as "geology," "geometry,"  "geophysics" and even the name "George" (which derives from the roots ge + ourgos, meaning "earth worker" or farmer). Hesiod's account of the marriage of Ouranos (heaven) and Gaia (earth) has parallels in most other indigenous mythic traditions in the world, including our own. Shakespeare, for example, begins Friar Laurence's opening sermon with the following words:

"The Earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb."

This ancient mythic name took on a new life, in the late 70s, when it was adopted by a British biochemist named James Lovelock, in collaboration with his American colleague, microbiologist Lynn Margulis, to refer to their groundbreaking scientific Model of the biogenic roots of our biosphere--that is,  that life itself creates and sustains the atmospheric and geochemical conditions that, in turn, sustain life. While the details of this theory are exceedingly complex, and well beyond my competence, it can be boiled down simply as the interaction of Fire, Air, Earth, and Water, as mediated by life. Very simply:

Fire--Solar energy--powers photosynthesis, which is the energy source, not only of plant life, but of the animals that eat those plants and the fungi and bacteria that break them down. Without solar energy, there would be no life.

Earth--Life depends on a wide array of minerals, which it draws up from the substrate to mix with dead organic matter, broken down by fungi, bacteria, and insects, to form topsoil. Without topsoil we would have no plant life, and without plant life, no topsoil.

Air--Plants take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.  But without plant life, we would have no free oxygen at all to breathe.

Water--Fresh water is essential for all life, but without life, there would be no fresh water on Earth. The reason is that biomass filters the water in lakes and rivers, preventing it from becoming saline like the oceans, and thereby making it available for more life.

In short, the Gaia model tells us that Life itself transforms the Earth's surface and atmosphere into a life-support system. Without life, the Earth would be uninhabitable.

As this Gaia model entered into public discourse, it became something deeper--a Metaphor for the holistic way of thinking that gave rise to it.  "Gaia" as metaphor refers to a whole new way of thinking that does away with the false "Man/Nature" dichotomy upon which our agricultural and industrial system is based. While we tend to think of "Nature" as something "out there"--a resource which we can exploit at will--Gaian thinking tells us that we and our institutions are a part of, not apart from, the natural world. Gaia is not only "out there" but also, in here.

This metaphor has given rise to a worldwide Movement which currently goes under many names, all predicated on this perception of Nature--or Gaia--as a system of which we are a part, rather than as merely a resource which we exploit for our own purposes. So the Gaia movement includes--but transcends--the Environmental Movement. While the latter calls for reform, Gaian thinking calls for regeneration--for reinventing our culture from the ground up. In short, it calls for Permaculture: a design methodology, applicable to all human systems from our backyard to our global socioeconomic order, based on the three core ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.  So since we all are Gaians, whether we like it or not,  I wish to leave you, today, with a Gaian Categorical Imperative:

In everything you do, strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience of yourself, your community, and your planet simultaneously.

To the exact extent that each of us adopts these Gaian ethics, we still have a chance of becoming agents of the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth.  We can still have a Gaian Future.

Still worse and worse...

"The worst is not--so long as we can say, 'This is the worst'"
 --Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear

For more times than I can count, since the Catastrophe--that is, the ill-fated election of Donald Trump as President last year--I have been reminded of this gloomy quote from Edgar, Shakespeare's bellwether figure in King Lear.  With every passing day, we see horrific headlines about yet more unprecedented outrages from the White House, and it has become clear that the morally bankrupt Republicans who control Congress are nothing but callow and shameless enablers who will do nothing to stop Trump's thuggish power grabs and assaults on democracy, on the planet, and on the rule of law. We could well be heading into a new Nazi era, a new Great Terror, instigated by this power-mad psychopathic fascist and his cronies on behalf of the corporate oligarchy and the Military Industrial Complex. All bets are off, and the worst may be yet to come--whether nuclear war, economic collapse, resource wars, runaway climate destabilization and ecocide, and the unraveling of the social order and descent into chaos and violence altogether.  To quote Shakespeare again,

"Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into Will, Will into appetite,
And Appetite, a universal Wolf
So doubly seconded by Will and Power,
Must make perforce a universal prey,
And last eat up itself."

So once again, we ask, plaintively, "What can we do?"

Social activists, young and righteously indignant, will naturally cry "Hit the streets!"  But in truth, what good will that do these days?  While mass demonstrations feel good for the participants, they do precious little to change anything.  The corporate-controlled news media largely ignore them unless they turn violent--and then these few violent incidents then become an ideal tool for Fox Noise and the Republican noise machine to loudly marginalize and condemn all protesters as "terrorists" who should be rounded up en masse--and Trump will be only too happy to oblige. They have all the money, after all, and all the big guns, tanks, and hired thugs they need to wreak bloody mayhem on even the biggest mass demonstrations. China, after all, got away with this at Tienanmen Square, and the memory of this bloodbath has been effaced from the younger generations of Chinese (much as Douglas MacArthur's bloody assault on the peaceful Veterans' Bonus March of 1932 was never mentioned in our history books).  Likewise, who even remembers the mass protests of the Occupy movement--which were likewise squelched by raw force and brutality? So storming the castle on the hill, whether peacefully or violently, is not a viable option these days for confronting tyranny and corporate domination.

What is? More thoughtful people will advocate Satyagraha--nonviolent mass resistance and noncooperation with evil--but this tactic--however effective and morally grounded--calls for charismatic moral leadership (e.g. Gandhi, King, Mandela, Chavez, Havel, Wangari Maathai, and Vandana Shiva) but also systematic grassroots organization and strategic intelligence to target the leverage points of the power elite and to use mass media effectively.  There is much to be said for this, but Satyagraha campaigns also require patience for the long haul; the courage to endure humiliation and abuse without lashing out in rage and hatred (and thereby becoming your own enemy) is a rare human trait, and generally requires extensive inner training and discipline to even attempt.  So while I would never discourage this nonviolent approach--and we may well need to be ready for it, as the Trumpian tyranny becomes more naked and brutal--it is well to remember that any Satyagraha campaign, to succeed, must be mindful, strategic, and relentless.

So what is left for all the rest of us ordinary folks, who may lack the moral courage, the charisma, and the organizational skills to mount an effective Satyagraha campaign? Where can we find refuge from the Trumpian insanity that is destroying our nation and planet simultaneously?

Obviously, our planet being an "inescapable network of mutuality," there is no escape from the ramifications of a dysfunctional mass society or a dying global empire morphing into pervasive corporate tyranny.  But there are useful and healthy things we all can do to cultivate the health, competence, and resilience we will need to become agents of regeneration, no matter what happens in the big world. And these (for me, at least) fall into the three general categories of Tonglen, Satyagraha and Permaculture--the three essential disciplines.

Tonglen--the powerful Tibetan meditation technique for cultivating universal compassion--becomes an even more important starting point as the world becomes more chaotic. It can be done either in formal meditation or "on the spot" (as Pema Chodron puts it). It consists, briefly, of an exercise of the empathetic imagination: taking on the vast suffering of all living beings on the inbreath, owning it and transforming it, and then, breathing out healing, love, and compassion to all beings.  

There are numerous techniques for doing this effectively, but my favorite formal approach is the "expanding circle" approach: begin by taking in--embracing with your inbreath, as it were--your own inner pain and anguish, whether physical, emotional, or mental--and--imaginatively contacting the "diamond in your mind,"--your Buddha nature, Christ nature, Witness, Still Small Voice, Peace of God, or whatever you choose to call it--and then, breathing out healing, comfort, and peace to your own inner afflictions.  Then do likewise, first for those closest to you (significant other, family, close friends), then gradually expand your circle of compassion to include your acquaintances, whole categories of people, all people, all living beings, anyone in particular distress--whoever. Use your imagination to make it vivid and personal.

Finally--and this is most difficult--we breathe in the suffering of our enemies, of the perpetrators of violence and bigotry, from irritating people we know all the way up to Trump and his maligant ilk.  For Buddhist psychology teaches that all hatred, all meanness and cruelty of whatever sort, is ultimately rooted in a deep inner suffering of the perpetrators themselves, which, unless it is alleviated by genuine, selfless compassion, only becomes worse and worse, creating greater and greater harm to others.  (This is why a figure of the Buddha appears in each of the six Samsaric realms in Tibetan iconography).

Extending your circle of compassion to your enemies is very challenging and difficult, for in order to practice with authenticity, we need to acknowledge and cut through our own hatreds--those parts of ourselves that are most Trump-like, which we often do not want to face, in order to generate authetic compassion for Trump. This is what the Buddhist story of Angulimala is all about.

Angulimala is a vicious, thuggish serial murderer--the worst imaginable kind of person--whose name derived from his habit of stringing the fingers (anguli) of his victims around his neck like a necklace (mala). The story goes that when Angulimala encounters the Buddha, he has 999 fingers around his neck and is eagerly looking to score his thousandth. But the Buddha's total lack of fear, his equanimity and boundless compassion, disarms Angulimala, who then hears the teachings, joins the Sangha, and becomes a devout and caring monk. But due to all the bad karma accumulated by his many savage murders, Angulimala must nevertheless endure beatings and abuse wherever he goes.

So by generating compassion (against the odds) even for the likes of Trump, Bannon, Bolton, and all the other craven thugs currently in his orbit, we are paradoxically embracing and healing those aspects of ourselves that we don't want to admit, that are most like those we detest.  But nobody ever said this would be easy. The commandment to "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you..." is always by far the most difficult one to achieve. But it is also the most transformative.

Tonglen--meditating and imaginatively cultivating compassion for ourselves, our friends, all life, and our worst enemies while our nation collapses into tyranny and the world careens toward apocalypse--may seem like a waste of time, a trivial, self-indulgent way of avoiding reality--but in actuality, it is a direct and mindful way of inoculating yourself from despair by embracing the horrors directly, such that whatever the world throws at you, you take it in, embrace it, filter it, transform it, and turn it into loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

The other two essential disciplines, Satyagraha and Permaculture, I have already written about extensively through this blog, so I will leave them alone for now. Suffice to say that a serious Tonglen practice provides a solid foundation for both nonviolent noncooperation with evil, and for sowing the seeds of a Gaian future from the ground up by growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Earth Day Sermon

Recently, Rick, the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem which I have recently joined, invited me to collaborate with my new friend and fellow parishioner Angela, who is in charge of the landscape committee for the church, in preparing an Earth Day service next April. Pursuant to this, here is a draft of a possible sermon I might deliver on that day:

Working Title: "A Gaian Future--or No Future."
If you saw the title of my sermon this morning, you might reasonably ask, "What do you mean by 'A Gaian Future?'"  Or more briefly,  "Huh??"

"Gaian" is a recently coined adjective or identity label--which is, in fact, the only label with which I am fully comfortable, since it excludes nobody at all.  I am a Gaian, and so are you. And so is every living organism on the planet, from the simplest bacterium to Donald Trump. (Yes--even Donald Trump is a Gaian, whether he knows it or not!)

So what is a Gaian?  The broadest definition I know is the one that includes everything from bacteria to corrupt political leaders. It is a living, breathing being, an inhabitant of Gaia, which is the ancient Greek name for Mother Earth.  This name has more recently been recycled by both scientists and visionaries, starting with British biochemist James Lovelock and American bacteriologist Lynn Margulis, to refer to the theory, now generally accepted among Earth scientists, that life and our planet coevolved--and that the processes of life create and sustain the conditions that, in turn, sustain life. For example, without plants and photosynthesis, there would be no free oxygen available on the planet--it would all be bound up with carbon, as it is on Venus and Mars. Without topsoil, there would be no plants or fungi--and vice versa. And without plants or fungi, animals--including ourselves--could not exist. Gaia--powered by solar energy and interweaving earth, air, and water into a miraculous and self-regenerating web of life--is our biological support system, the condition of our very existence.

So if we are all Gaians, what use is the term?  Quite simply, it is something that we, in our global industrial civilization, have forgotten. We are taught to think of "nature" as either a resource or a refuge--but not as a system of which we also are a part, interacting with every breath. If we think of nature as a resource, we think it has no value at all until we transform it into commodities, whether by mining, clearcutting, or pesticide-soaked monocultures. If we see it as a refuge, it is still "out there"--remote from our daily lives. So I think we need this new name Gaia to refer to what we have forgotten--that we also are a part of, and not apart from, nature. And unless we find a way, not simply to remember this fact, but to incorporate it into every decision we make, we have no future.

So what might a "Gaian future" look like? And how would we get there?

I think of a Gaian future as one in which it is axiomatic, and generally recognized by everyone, that--as Martin Luther King once said, "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."  And that this understanding of our global interconnectedness informs all our institutions, becoming the foundation of our educational system, from Kindergarten to graduate study.  We can't possibly know what a Gaian future would look like--we can only know, today, that it is our only remaining alternative to oblivion, whether through climate change, nuclear war, societal collapse, or whatever. The creature that parasitizes its own biological support system destroys itself.

So how to we get to a Gaian future? I don't pretend to know in any detail, but I am quite sure that it starts in the same way that ecosystems start: by planting seeds, both literal and figurative, from the ground up, not from the top down.  And it starts with each of us, and radiates outward, building upon itself--just as an ecosystem is self-regenerating and self-diversifying. So here is one such seed of thought, which I like to call the "Gaian Categorical Imperative:"

In every decision, we must strive to assume responsibility for the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

Health, competence, and resilience are the three survival conditions of every living organism, from bacteria to blue whales. We all need to eat food, drink water, and breathe oxygen, in order to maintain the internal homeostasis of our bodies. Second, we need to develop and hone skills to survive and prosper within a specific ecological niche, whether that niche is a wetland, an organization, a city, or a nation state.  Finally, we all need the resilience--the flexibility--to adapt to unpredictable changes in our niche--whether from a warmer climate, a threat from others, or a catastrophe.  In short, we all need to eat, survive and reproduce--not only ourselves, but also our communities and our ecosystems.

Since we are part of larger communities, whether families, organizations, or cities and states, we also need to preserve the health, competence, and resilience of these. If a person promotes his own interests at the expense of the community, he will probably end up in jail. But if a corporation promotes their own interests at the expense of the community or the biosphere, they become rich and powerful. Obviously, this is the mark of a dysfunctional civilization, a civilization that is parasitizing Gaia.

To restore the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our community, and our planet, and to create a Gaian future from the ground up, I therefore recommend three essential disciplines, that we can all undertake, starting this moment:

(1) Meditation; (2) Satyagraha; (3) Permaculture.

Meditation, practiced by every authentic spiritual tradition on the planet, takes many forms, but these forms all boil down to three simple injunctions: Breathe, Observe, Let Go.  And repeat as often as necessary. By this means, we recharge and restore the inner equanimity and compassion we need to become healing agents in our community and on our planet.

Satyagraha was Gandhi's term for becoming a healing agent in a dysfunctional culture and society. It consists, he said, of three practices: Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj.
    Ahimsa means doing no harm--practicing absolute, unconditional compassion for everyone and everything. In the political realm, it means nonviolence, and a nonviolent disposition in a politically charged environment is best maintained by regular meditation practice.
   Satya means speaking truth to power, mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. We may recall, for example, the magnificent courage, eloquence, and integrity, under duress, of any of the great Satyagrahis: not only Gandhi, but also King, Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Wangari Maathai. (And of course, most recently, the courageous and articulate students at Parkland High, standing up and speaking truth to the NRA and the politicians in their pocket).
   Swaraj means "self-rule" or "self-reliance," which Gandhi symbolized with his spinning wheel; that is, unplugging from dependence on the forces of greed, oppression, and ecological degradation in every way we can, and creating local self-reliance.

Permaculture, then, is Swaraj in practice: a design methodology and a cultural movement, catching on at the grassroots all over the planet, that is predicated on three interrelated ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. It is a systematic and flexible Gaian approach to design, whether of gardens, farms, or cities, that is based entirely on ecological principles.

By adopting such principles, precepts, and practices, I am confident that we can be the change we seek to make, and co-create a Gaian future for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


In recent months, since I retired from teaching and moved across the country to Oregon, I finally have gained the leisure time I need to pursue my aspiration--to transform my own small, suburban property into a model Permaculture garden, to take the Permaculture Design Certification course offered online by Oregon State University, and to use all my communication skills to help others propagate Permaculture theory and practice throughout my new community of Salem, Oregon, and everywhere else as well, right up until my last breath.

My first discovery, of course, has been that I have a steep learning curve in all of this. Although I had my own modest summer vegetable garden for many years in Virginia, I know little to nothing about gardening, since I spent my professional career as an English professor, doing little with my hands besides typing on a keyboard!  So I decided, before I attempt a Permaculture Design Certification course, to take a crash course in basic gardening knowledge and skills through the OSU Extension Service's Master Gardener program--a rigorous curriculum consisting of 12 weekly all-day classes, followed by a comprehensive exam and some 66 hours of volunteering in various capacities before I can be certified as a Master Gardener.  And this has been well worth the effort: I am learning a vast array of conceptual, procedural, and contextual knowledge of basic botany, orchard pruning, weed control, plant diseases, water management, beneficial insects, and all sorts of other skills necessary to be able to offer others sound, research-based advice when they call into the Master Gardener's hotline. I have also made a lot of new, knowledgeable friends, with lots of good advice.

I have also volunteered, in March, to team-teach a free six-week course offered by the local food bank, called "Seed to Supper"--a basic course in Vegetable Gardening 101 for low-income residents--and I have made friends with the manager of a community garden near my home as well.

But now that I am gaining a footing in serious gardening, I have another practical challenge: in order to achieve my dream of converting my lawn into a full-fledged Permaculture garden, I face a lot of heavy lifting--digging up my lawn, laying out flagstone paths, creating keyhole gardens and raised beds, composting, mulching, building Hugelcultur mounds, etc.  In a Permaculture design, most of the heavy labor comes upfront, in laying in the "hardscape" or infrastructure for the thriving, integrated garden to follow.  And at 68 years old, with declining upper-body strength and a bad back susceptible to painful spasms when overworked, and with little to no experience or manual skills, I face a fearsome uphill battle.

This is where the delightful concept of "Permablitz" comes in.  It is a recent coinage--I don't know who invented it, but etymologically, it is a felicitous oxymoron, meaning, roughly "Permanent Lightning."  And it refers to the Permaculture community's equivalent of a barn raising among the Amish: an event where a large group of "Permies" converge upon one person's garden, to pitch in and help take up their monocultural lawn and lay the more complex infrastructure for the Permaculture garden to follow.  In return for this service, the beneficiary agrees to participate in Permablitzes for others to follow. Here is a delightful videoclip from New Zealand that illustrates a Permablitz in action. Note how they begin by laying out a set of specific tasks, and then the participants learn and teach each other by doing, throughout the day, so that everyone is enriched with new knowledge and skills, even as they help one of their members get off to a running start.

What I love about the Permablitz concept is that it is a vivid illustration of the truth embedded in a slogan I came up with some time ago:

Grow Gardens...
Grow Community...
Grow Awareness...

In short, the minute you undertake, seriously, to grow a garden, you start creating community almost immediately. First, you get into conversations with neighbors and passersby, who are all too willing to share insights and information about local growing conditions--what grows well, what doesn't, etc. And a Permablitz will accelerate this process of community-building enormously, as participants learn and teach one another the skills they are implementing on behalf of one of their members.

Finally, through such bonding and community-building, everyone's awareness is raised of both the guiding ethics of Permaculture (Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share) and of the challenges they share in healing the landscape and community. In effect, a Permablitz is a practical and visionary way of creating a convivial Gaian culture from the ground up, for the fruits of it will be more thriving Permaculture gardens along with greater reciprocity, shared problem-solving, and conviviality throughout the community--taking care of everyone, and abandoning no one.

It is a vivid illustration of the benefits of reciprocity--of sharing knowledge rather than hoarding it, of working with one another rather than for a boss or employer. A Permablitz illustrates the truth embedded in the Chinese concept of Guanxi --their traditional social network of reciprocal gifts and obligations within an ever-expanding community. As a Chinese proverb goes, "Guanxi is better than money."  Likewise, through the expansion of Permaculture, people may yet discover as well that Gaia is better than Glomart--that working together, sharing ideas, and restoring topsoil, ecosystems, and bioregions is far better than competing, exploiting, hoarding, and polluting. As Permaculture guru Geoff Lawton put it, "You can solve all the world's problems in a Garden."

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Renewal--A Fantasy?

Imagine, as Western Industrial Civilization goes into its terminal phase, with corporate oligarchy displacing democracy, workers' rights giving way to corporate slavery, hordes of environmental refugees destabilizing societies, and gangs, militias, and warlords battling it out on the streets in every city, and hateful, vicious demagogues like Trump running rampant, all while climate change wreaks ecological havoc and starvation sets in--as the rich and powerful recede behind walled and gated compounds, fiercely defended by security guards, while swarms of the poor and destitute besiege their walls...

As our earth careens toward ecological, economic, and social collapse...

Imagine a soft-spoken, gentle, but intense young man or woman leading a weekly Dharma Gaia Circle, a meditation/study group whose members work together, practicing the Dharma Gaia Mantra (Breathe-Observe-Let Go-Be Well-Do Good Work-Keep in Touch-Learn-Teach-Heal-Create) and studying the Three Essential Disciplines: Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture...

And this group catches on and buds off, creating similar Dharma Gaia Circles elsewhere, all of whom stay in touch...

And they manage to pool their money and buy land, creating Dharma Gaia Practice Centers, where other people are invited to learn the Three Essential Disciplines in concert, and train others in them as well...

And as time goes on, Permaculture projects begin to restore devastated communities to flourishing, as Satyagraha practices neutralize aggression and convert antagonists to supporters, one by one...and some form of mindfulness practice becomes embedded in the lifeways of every civilization, coupled with the threefold Permaculture ethos of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.

And in good time, even their most resistant enemies--Republicans, or Christian and Muslim fundamentalists--begin to see the immediate and long term benefits of Gaian practices and adapt them to their own ideological purposes.

Could it happen?  Perhaps something like this could happen, with luck. Similar mass movements have transformed the consciousness of whole civilizations before--e.g. Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam--and even (for a while) Communism. But could this happen without polarization--without "us" vs. "them" arising in any form, with predictable violence and bigotry to follow?

Even the devoutly Buddhist culture of Burma, after all, is currently engaged in an appalling genocide campaign against their own demonized Other--that is, the Rohingya Muslim refugees whom they see as a threat to their culture.

Is it possible for people to call themselves "Gaians" without the tribal instinct arising, in which they pit themselves against, and demonize "Anti-Gaians" (or perhaps they might be called "Glomartians")? Even if we build into a Gaia movement the idea that we are all Gaians, conscious or unconscious, this differs little from the core idea of Buddhism--that everyone has a Buddha nature within--or Christianity (loving our neighbor--whoever he is--as ourselves). Yet this deep spiritual insight of Oneness common to most religious cultures has done little to curb the factionalism, the bigotry, or the violence that these religious cultures inflict on one another. Perhaps, as humans, we are simply not good enough to live up to our own highest ideals, when we feel threatened.

Gandhi, after all, had scarcely succeeded in peacefully throwing off the long, oppressive yoke of British imperialism before a nasty schismogenic split arose between Muslims and Hindus, the former breaking off to form Pakistan, and all involved in bloody, persistent intercommunal violence. And when he tried to make peace between the warring camps by traveling to Pakistan, he was assassinated by one of his own--a Hindu ideologue for whom peace with Muslims was treason.

So perhaps such tribalism is in our genes indelibly. The minute we posit an "us" we simultaneously must create a "them" by which to define ourselves (and of course, vice versa--the "them" would then demonize "us" in turn).

This raises a larger question: if an ideal (such as universal brotherhood, sisterhood, tolerance, and care for all living things) may be impossible to achieve in actuality, does that negate the value of striving for it?

The short answer, for me, is NO.  We all routinely strive for what I like to call asymptotic ideals--that is, ideals which, like an asymptotic curve in mathematics, are an approximation to which we can draw ever closer without actually realizing it in full. I would go even further in saying that ALL ideals, worthy of our striving, are inherently asymptotic. For any one of them, there are likely, and inevitably, to be setbacks--periods in which we backslide from that ideal, rather than drawing closer. An obvious example is the recent regrettable transition from the Obama era, when Dr. King's dream--the image of a nation that had finally abandoned racism--finally became conceivable, to the current, toxic Trump era, when ugly, vicious racism has crept out of the shadows and is cropping up everywhere.

Yet when a nation backslides so grievously from its own highest professed ideals, that is all the more reason for us, as individuals, to recommit ourselves to those ideals, with mindful, strategic, and relentless determination. But real change happens, not from the top down, (as with Obama) but from the ground up. Even if Trump destroys our American democracy, the ideals at the founding of our nation remain inviolable, and always available to us as individuals both to proclaim and practice.

But I would go further than this.  The rise of Trump and similar hateful demagogues throughout the world, and the retreat of liberal democratic values, may also signal that the era of the nation state itself has reached its horizon of efficacy, and that as our nation and its institutions dissolve into corporate-sponsored tyranny, violence, corruption, and chaos, we must plant the seeds of a worldwide Gaian culture close to home--in our own backyards, and in reaching out to the destitute, threatened populations within our own communities-- refugees, immigrants, minorities, and all threatened and demonized "others"--to stand in solidarity with them, to teach them how to garden, and to create communities based on the three core values of Permaculture--Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.  America is (or may well be) dying; long live Gaia!