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.

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