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 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.