Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Utopian Fallacy

Recently I read an article by one Richard Bartlett entitled "Courage Before Hope: A Proposal To Weave Emotional and Economic Microsolidarity."  In a long and elaborately thought-out discourse, Bartlett lays out a grand scheme that depends on creating intentional communities of "people with life-supporting values" coming together to "grow our power to influence the distribution of resources." There are many interesting insights in this article, but I am afraid the author is laboring under a delusion, which I like to call "the utopian fallacy."  So here is how I commented on his plan:
You have done some careful and creative thinking about navigating the treacherous pass between denial and despair in the coming bad years. I guess my only reservation is the “intentional community” fallacy — the dream of creating a whole community of like-minded, equally aware, creative people to set yourselves apart from a dying world and create your own mini-paradise.
There are several problems with this approach:
  1. How will you protect yourselves from the dying, desperate masses who will want what you have, and be willing to kill for it? And how do you accomplish this protection without poisoning your souls and becoming vicious, mean-spirited survivalists who gun down everyone in sight?
  2. “Intentional community” is somewhat of an oxymoron, because our intentions are as individual as our fingerprints. And this inevitably leads to conflict, which must be resolved by some agreed-upon laws or authority — and enforcement.
  3. A planet-sized problem demands planet-sized solutions; nothing smaller will suffice. But these cannot be top-down (i.e. creating some sort of global political authority that everyone will respect) because we are tribal by nature, and so any such world government would have to be maintained by force against the ever-present forces of ignorance, greed, hatred, denial, and despair.
All of the above being the case, my own solution can be summed up in a simple slogan: GROW GARDENS; GROW COMMUNITIES; GROW AWARENESS. Note that I use the verb “grow” rather than “build.” To unpack these a bit:
  1. By “grow gardens” I mean practicing Permaculture (regenerative design based on ecological understanding). This is a bottom-up, rather than a top-down solution. And it engages with the planet as it is, not an imaginary planet we are trying to create from scratch. As founder Bill Mollison often said, “The problem is the solution.” That is, by looking deeply at any given problem, you can turn it to your advantage.
  2. By “growing community” I mean propagating Permaculture, by sharing the fruits of your success with your neighbors — whoever they are — and teaching them in turn how to incorporate ecological design principles into their own gardens and community gardens.
  3. “Growing awareness” is a net consequence of the above. When people have a clear choice between an adaptive, life-affirming way of living and a maladaptive, violent, greedy way, they will quite naturally choose the former.
Two books I highly recommend, both by the late Toby Hemenway, lay out these ideas clearly and cogently: (1) Gaia’s Garden (a guide to backyard permaculture); and (2) The Permaculture City. 
By doing so, we have the best chance of becoming agents of the spontaneous remission of the cancer of the Earth, by nurturing the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet simultaneously.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Things dying...Things newborn

At the midpoint of Shakespeare's visionary late romance The Winter's Tale, the old Shepherd, who has just discovered the abandoned cradle containing the infant Perdita, meets his breathless (and clueless) son, the "Clown," who reduces catastrophe to low comedy by getting all mixed up in his descriptions of what he has just seen: an offshore shipwreck in an approaching storm, and a bear feeding on a "gentleman" (whom we know to be Antigonus, the doomed emissary of Leontes court, charged with abandoning the child on "the seacoast of Bohemia" before his famous "exit, pursued by a bear.") After hearing his son out, the Shepherd remarks,

"Now bless thyself, thou metst with things dying, I with things newborn."

This is a good thought for the new year.  To be sure, we scarcely need to be reminded of all the "things dying" these days--our fisheries, our forests, our biodiversity, our stable climate (the willful disruption of which by our fossil fuel-dependent industrial civilization promises a greatly accelerated die-off in the near future), and the basic shared values, civility, and integrity without which our democratic institutions degenerate into tyranny and endemic corruption. So where is this "newborn child" who promises eventual regeneration?

There are, of course, a number of candidates.  For politically minded people, she may be incarnated as someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez--the young, beautiful, outspoken new congresswoman from the Bronx who has become an overnight superstar for the political Left, while striking fear and loathing into the republicans and their goons at Fox News. Inspiring political leadership, especially when built around new and visionary memes like a "Green New Deal," can do much to alleviate the political gloom and despair that most of us have felt since the rise of Trump.

Cultural history has shown, moreover, that real transformation starts more from the ground up than from the top down.  So even if we manage to elevate aspirational new political figures like Alexandria or Beto O'Rourke to positions of influence, they will still face a massive global corporate elite with an overwhelming vested interest in the status quo, and a bottomless supply of money to buy off politicians, saturate the airwaves, rig elections, and enforce their agenda--growth and more growth, regardless of the cost.

This is why I tend to invest my own energy and aspirations into "things newborn" at the local, grassroots level--things such as the worldwide Permaculture movement,  but also, more subtle changes like the mainstreaming of the idea of "mindfulness" (though often depleted of any ethical content) and the rising interest, across a broad spectrum of the public, in locally grown food.

When I was young, roadside farmers' markets were a common sight when my family drove out into (what was then) the "countryside."  As that countryside was paved over with bland, soul-numbing suburbs and big-box malls, farmers' markets vanished, simply because everyone drove to the supermarket...and then to superstores like Walmart...where they could get everything they could possibly want, all at once, for dirt cheap. It did not matter in the slightest that all this (mostly processed) food had been grown far away, on vast, soil-depleted, monocultural fields saturated with pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers, nor that the merchandise had been made by cheap, exploited laborers in China or Guatemala. It was cheap and readily accessible, and that was all that mattered.

Fast-forward to today. Once again, farmers' markets are flourishing--against all odds--not only in the "country" but also in towns and cities. This may seem insignificant--we still have vast big-box stores being built everywhere on acres of asphalt. But it does herald a growing shift in our collective food preferences, which can be encouraged and accelerated. And the rise of larger Saturday markets, like the one here in Salem, where local merchants and craftspeople of all kinds sell their fresh produce, art work, and other hand-crafted items, heralds a regeneration of community-scale commerce, all of which diversifies the local economy and dramatically reduces our carbon footprint (since these goods are grown or made locally and do not have to be shipped across oceans and continents to get to us).

Piggybacking onto such trends are initiatives like the City Repair Project in Portland, or the Transition Town movement, striving to reweave the bonds of cooperation and conviviality that once characterized the village life of our ancestors, but with the specific intent, today, of overcoming the legacy of mutual alienation caused by our self-centered culture of industrial consumerism, and rebuilding trust, so that we can once again build economic and ecological resilience into our communities and rely on each other when disaster strikes (as will become more common with advancing climate disruption).

Political involvement is, of course, essential, and always will be.  But given the perennially corrupting influences of money and power, we cannot rely on political leadership alone to make the vast changes we need to shift from a parasitic to a symbiotic relationship with Gaia--our global biological support system.  We need to make those changes ourselves, starting with our own minds (cultivating equanimity, wisdom, and compassion in whatever ways work best for us, in order to face an increasingly dire and frightening future with resolution and confidence), then healing and recreating our gardens, our communities, and our social and political fabric itself.