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.