Sunday, July 26, 2020

Downward Spiral

All the news is bad.

A morally bankrupt, feckless, vindictive, delusional fascist has six more months in the White House (at least!) before we have our only remaining legally santioned way of getting rid of him: election and inauguration of a new president. And the Idiot is getting more desperate, more crazy, by the day, deploying shady, unidentified heavily armed federal storm troopers to Portland and other major cities, against the will of their mayors and state governors, to "dominate" protesters by teargas, flash grenades, "nonlethal" rubber bullets, and nightsticks--thus provoking further confrontation and outrage. Murderous violence is sure to follow...a horrific civil war of attrition as the worst, most choleric of both sides take up arms and battle it out in the streets, with no end in sight...

Meanwhile, the Coronavirus pandemic rages exponentially and unstoppably, overwhelming hospitals and sentencing tens of thousands of Americans of all ages to an early, horrible, lonely death, with their loved ones unable to come anywhere near them. And the Idiot in charge is either in total denial about this, smearing and discrediting the experts like Anthony Fauci, or else he moronically blames the rising statistics on "too much testing."

And meanwhile, hurricane season has already arrived in Texas, promising mayhem, and the wildfire season will not be far behind--both exacerbated by accelerating climate disruption from fossil fuels (another, longer-term grim reality denied and exacerbated by the Idiot). Floods, drought, and famine are spreading worldwide, creating a tsunami of desperate refugees, met--as usual--by battening up the hatches in the industrialized world, and by the rise of more virulent fascists, exploiting panic, racism, and aggressive nationalism for their own nefarious purposes.

And the Idiot in Charge is also following the time-honored advice to tyrants: "Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels"--by accelerating hostile confrontation with China (whose own new fascist leader is only too happy to reciprocate) thus threatening a vast global trade network and risking the outbreak of hostilities, which could easily trigger World War III--an unimaginable global holocaust, sucking the US, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan into a nuclear maelstrom that will leave few if any survivors.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the world steadily and cautiously reduces the infections and moves beyond the pandemic, the US wallows in panic and desperation as the cases continue to rise exponentially, with no end in sight. We are now a pariah nation, banned from traveling to the rest of the world, left to stew in our own follies and hatreds. And if the election does not go well (or is called off for some convenient "national emergency" that The Idiot dreams up in his fevered fantasies of domination), we will become a failed state--due to incremental disintegration of our economy, our political institutions, our educational institutions, our communities, into a maelstrom of hunger, homelessness, desperation, crime, hatreds, local militias, and internecine violence, as local warlords displace elected officials...Indeed, as an article I read this morning laconically observes, 2020, with all its current horrors, may soon come to be looked back upon with nostalgia as "the good old days."

How do we cope with this accelerating horror all around us?

Breathe. Observe. Let Go.  The present is all there is; the past is gone, and the future hasn't happened yet...

Both past and future are simply mental formations--intellectual constructs we have devised, either to shape and give meaning to our individual or collective memories, or to our hopes and--especially now--our fears. Only the present moment actually exists.  Take refuge there.

Be Well. Do Good Work. Keep in Touch. While letting go of attachment to outcomes, do something today that increases your personal health, competence, and resilience. Tend to your garden, and make plans for the coming season.  The more food we grow ourselves, the less dependent we will be on a supply chain that is already strained, and soon may break down.  Take care of others--your spouse, your children and grandchildren, your friends, and--to the extent you can--those in your community who are more needy and desperate than you.

Learn. Teach. Heal. Create.  Make these your standing goals in life.  To learn new skills, new ideas (especially Permaculture and systems thinking) and new ways of doing things--whatever those around you are in a good position to teach you, take time to learn it. If nobody is around, try instructional videoclips on YouTube, or books.  Make learning something useful, interesting, or inspiring part of every day's agenda.  Teach what you know to others, whenever the occasion arises. Be a healing presence, avoiding toxic contention (about politics in particular) by being prepared, at any time you encounter someone whose political views are anathema to your own, to "agree to disagree" and move on to other topics. And be there as well, of course, for others in distress--whether family, friends, or strangers, offering empathy and assistance in whatever ways you can.

Finally, exercise your creativity whenever possible, whether to solve a problem in a garden, make good use of something you would otherwise throw away, or simply write a story, draw a picture, or play (or compose) a song. Or draw up a plan or create an organization to achieve goals that exceed your personal power.

So this is my gift to the world, a gift I hope will outlive me: a simple mantra for choosing love over fear, whenever the choice arises:

1. Reclaiming the Moment: Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
2. Reclaiming the Day: Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch.
3. Sustaining (your own and others') Life:  Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Independence Day

The following are a string of posts that I offered to my local community on NextDoor, the neighborhood social networking app, over the Fourth of July Weekend this year.

 I. The Declaration.

The Declaration of Independence is not only a historical document; it is our national charter--that which defines us as Americans. Without it, we would be just another tribal, idiotic nation-state. Whereas all other nation states are defined merely by territory, shared history, and ethnicity, ours alone is rooted in a Logos--a universal idea, that transcends territory, shared history, AND ethnicity. So let;s take a look at the core passage of the Declaration, which articulates its main thesis:
"WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT, THAT ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL..." This is a claim of value, not a claim of "fact." We know, of course, that we vary widely in talents and abilities. So the authors (Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Rush) go on immediately to define what THEY mean by ":equal." "THAT THEY ARE ENDOWED BY THEIR CREATOR WITH CERTAIN INALIENABLE RIGHTS, THAT AMONG THESE ARE LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS." Note that they say "All men" (and in the 18th Century usage, "men" meant "humans"--not just males). They also did not say "All Americans,,," They were not writing a nationalistic screed, but a universal philosophical claim--that applies to everyone on the planet. "THAT TO SECURE THESE RIGHTS, GOVERNMENTS ARE INSTITUTED AMONG MEN, DERIVING THEIR JUST POWER FROM THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED." This is, in my view, the most important sentence in the whole document, because here they set forth the theory of government, for which all before it is their major premise, and all that follows derives from it. So let;s parse it: 1. "To secure these rights..."--that is, the universal, inalienable rights that all people (regardless of ethnicity, gender, or nationality) have to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 2. "...Governments are instituted among men deriving their just power from the consent of the governed." This is the sole legitimate purpose of government--to secure the rights of all people to life, liberty,.and the pursuit of happiness. And their power is "just" only if it is based on the "consent of the governed"--that is, the voting and active participation of the population. And this alone, and above all, is worth celebrating. It is who we aspire to be, if we are truly to call ourselves "Americans."

II. Nationalism vs. Patriotism

Most people confuse nationalism with patriotism, in part because, in most countries, they are indistinguishable. But we are an exception. Nationalism is simply tribalism writ large. And there is nothing dignified about tribalism--it is what we have in common with all the other apes; the need to identify with a "leader" and with one's own clan, and demonize and/or kill everyone outside of your tribe as an enemy. In that respect, nationalism is no different, in essence, from being a football fan--except that rather than simply "beating" the other team, you want to kill them or subjugate them. This is what drove the Nazis to subjugate Europe and kill all who opposed them; it is what drove Stalin to annex the Baltic states and subjugate Eastern European countries; it is what drove the Chinese to trample Tibet. And what drove Bush to invade Iraq as well--in direct opposition to the UN Charter (which we ourselves sponsored, back when we still had the integrity of our founding principles) So that is nationalism, for which I have nothing good to say. Tribalism is, unfortunately, an innate tendency for our species, as Dr. E. O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, has often pointed out. But it CAN be transcended. It just takes some thinking--some introspection. However, all the greatest and wisest people of our history throughout the world have encouraged us to transcend petty identification with our own tribe--including Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, and even the Founders of our country--especially the author (Jefferson) and editors (Franklin, Adams, and Rush) of our glorious Declaration. For us, this means that true patriotism is different from nationalism. It consists in adherence, not to "the flag" nor to "Americanism" but to the universal founding principles that brought together 13 very different and often quarrelsome British colonies to lend their unanimous support. Otherwise, patriotism is no better than nationalism--and as the 18th Century British savant Samuel Johnson wisely said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

III. An Asymptotic Goal

The Declaration sets forth an asymptotic goal, not a statement of "reality." "Asymptotic" is a word from mathematics that refers to a curve that starts horizontal, but then curves upward to the vertical axis gradually, such that it constantly draws closer to the vertical axis, without ever fully reaching it. So an asymptotic goal can be defined as a goal for which one constantly strives, but can never fully achieve. Once such an ideal is defined, our policy decisions and/or collective behavior, whether in domestic or foreign policy, can be evaluated only by whether it draws us closer to that goal, or farther away from it. So again, the asymptotic goal articulated in the Declaration is that of a government which exists to secure the inalienable rights of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and which derives its "just power" (i.e. legitimate authority, based on legally defined constraints) from the "consent of the governed" (expressed by voting and free expression of ideas). And the Constitution was a carefully crafted, intensely debated and discussed, blueprint for a government that pursued this goal. It had, built into it, a mechanism for its own evolution with the times (i.e. the Amendments). So nothing in the original Constitution is set in stone, but only the asymptotic goal which the Constitution was designed to implement and pursue--a system that balances unity and autonomy, and exists to secure our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. From the start, the reality on the ground fell far short of this goal, as we all know--the two most egregious examples being the intergenerational crime against humanity that was the institution of slavery, and the genocidal subjugation of the native peoples. And of course, the entrenched patriarchy that barred women from any meaningful participation in the public sphere. But as time has gone on, not smoothly, but with frequent setbacks and conflict, we have edged closer to that asymptotic goal--through emancipation of the slaves, women's suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, the environmental movement, et al. But we are currently, of course, in a major setback, due to corporate domination, the extreme upward concentration of wealth, the rapid erosion of the middle class, and the consequent resurgence of toxic nationalism and racism. Still, as long as we keep our eyes focused on this adamantine, asymptotic goal of a government whose purpose is to secure the rights of all human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we can recover, not only from the pandemic, but from the toxic resurgence of racism and partisan tribalism and rancor that is afflicting us today.

IV. Self-Evident Truths

Now, to go a little deeper, I would like to consider the notion of "Self-evident truths." A lot of contemporary "postmodern" thinkers scoff at the idea that there even is such a thing. Current postmodern dogma holds that abstract, generalized language can refer only to itself in an infinite regress. (Ironically, they consider this claim to be a "self-evident truth" since it can be neither proven nor disproven!) I beg to differ. While it is entirely true that human equality is a claim of value, rather than a claim of fact, and that there is no such thing as "natural rights" (a concept dear to 18th Century thinkers), I take my viewpoint from Aristotle's claim that "Man (Anthropos) is a political animal"--that is, that the values that sustain us arise from our participation in a community--and hence, communication. And again, modern biologists like E.O. Wilson would agree that we are quintessentially social and political animals. That is both our greatest weakness (tribalism) and our greatest strength (the ability to collaborate on complex tasks). So whence do these "rights" arise (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness)? I would argue, quite simply, that people are happier when they are treated with dignity by others, rather than being devalued or oppressed. So a system of government that is based on an assertion of human equality and basic, universal rights will likely conduce to a stronger, more resilient civil society than one in which one part of the population is free to bully and devalue another. And this, to me, is self-evident. As the Dalai Lama constantly reminds us, "Everyone wants love and happiness, and wishes to avoid fear and suffering." And this is why I am a democrat (with a small "d"--not referring to a political party, but to a belief in democracy) rather than an autocrat or a fascist.
20 hr ago

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Promised End

In these desperate days, when the Coronavirus pandemic is surging out of control in our country, and we have no leadership at all--or even worse, a pernicious "leader" in utter denial about the reality of what we are facing, who encourages irresponsible behavior from his cult followers--in such times, we all would do well to start facing what we all prefer to avoid--our own, inevitable death. I have not written about this topic so far in this blog, but I'll see what I can do, here, to make some sense of the great mystery facing us all, whether sooner or later.

At a purely intellectual level, of course, it is quite easy to embrace the idea of Impermanence--the idea that everything in the universe is a space-time event with a beginning, middle, and end, including our own lives. But at a deeper emotional level, we resist this idea, in large part because, as living organisms, we have the same basic vested interest as every other living organism, from bacteria on up: to keep on keepin' on; to eat, survive, and reproduce.  And for those (like myself) who are fated by circumstance not to reproduce biologically, we (or at least I) do my best to reproduce myself within the sphere of information and ideas--by writing, or by finding ways to propagate Gaian thinking and its practical manifestation in Permaculture. This is why I felt so gratified, so fulfilled, yesterday morning when my interview with Andrew Millison, my Permaculture teacher at OSU, aired on KMUZ radio here in Salem. I was "reproducing" myself in effect, broadcasting seeds of information out into the public sphere.  And it is a lot easier, I find, to face mortality, when we feel we have accomplished a purpose in life that is unique to us, that carries the stamp of our identity into a future we will never know firsthand.

Still, the big question arises: what will become of this "I," this keenly felt sense of unique identity, looking out from behind my eyes, after I die? After, that is, these same eyes are simply dull, gelatinous blobs floating in an inert skull that serve as tasty morsels for maggots and nematodes? Will this "I" persist in any form whatsoever, or will it simply evaporate as an abstract mental formation, in the same way that all the information in a computer evaporates if the system shuts down, and if its components are scattered to the four winds?

Of course I don't know the answer. Nor does anyone else, despite what they may passionately believe. This is why self-serving religious ideologies have such a tenacious hold on so many of us. If we can find a community who reinforces a belief system, (along with the threat of horrific sanctions for "nonbelievers" like "eternal hellfire") it acts as a hedge against the yawning uncertainty, that "cloud of unknowing."  A quick scan of Afterlife mythologies throughout the world shows that they have practically nothing in common (very much unlike the core ethical teachings of the world's religious traditions, which are virtually identical). This diversity of beliefs suggests that these myths are all motivated, above all, by a need to believe, a way of fending off fear, doubt, and uncertainty.  It stands to reason that our unique, carefully nurtured concept of self--that thinking being residing somewhere behind our eyes--simply recoils from any idea or notion of its own extinction.

So what is that mysterious "self" that we all so carefully conceptualize and will do anything to protect?  A number of Buddhist contemplative practices encourage us to look for it, somewhere in our bodies, knowing that such a quest is futile. The conclusion of the deepest of these teachings is that the separate "self" is illusory; a mere mental formation, a kind of moire pattern of interference, caused by innumerable, converging flows of information from our past, from our bodies, and from our world. Yet it is a lived experience for all of us, all the time.

So again, what will happen to this me-ness, this unique point of view on the world, with its thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, intentions, dreams, and fantasies--when its platform--our body--is extinguished? Will it just wink out, and that's that?  Quite possibly. A few years back, I was put under general anesthesia briefly during a colonoscopy. When I awoke, it was as if the hour or so when they were operating simply did not exist: as if the moment before I fell under the anaesthesia came immediately before the moment I awoke from it. The interval when I was "out" was...nonexistent.

On the other hand, back when I was young and in my second year of graduate school, I experienced a profound "awakening of faith" after a night of insomnia (wallowing in self-pity and existential anguish because my housemate and best friend had once again seduced a woman we both were interested in, and had spent the night at her place). I construed this "awakening"  in Christian language--the Prayer of Jesus--a kind of deep acceptance and letting go--a "Thy Will be done" moment, and I thought at the time that I had somehow embraced Christianity.  But in my subsequent efforts to make sense of this moment of awakening, I discovered that the language of Zen Buddhism made just as much sense to me as the language of Christianity.  But however vain, laughable, and maudlin my circumstances were (at least in retrospect), my "awakening of faith" was a genuine turning point in my life. I felt a deep, pervasive sense of peace and equanimity, an unshakeable trust in God, a sense of the "rightness" of everything.

That very afternoon, my friend (with whom I had reconciled, due to my new "awakened" mind of compassion and forgiveness) and I were bicycling to visit friends across town, when we came to a fairly busy intersection from a residential street.  Being young and reckless, we simply kept pedaling out across the main road, ignoring the stop sign--when a car came roaring around the bend to our right and was on the verge of hitting us.

At that moment, which is firmly etched on my memory, I clearly recall a kind of bifurcation of my identity.  My body--my physical self--went into panic mode (like any other animal), adrenalin pumping, as I firmly gripped the handlebars and pedaled furiously to avoid the oncoming car.  But all the while, my blissful, awakened mind seemed to float above the scene, looking down with amused compassion as my body lurched into action. At that moment, I saw clearly that it did not matter if I lived or died; that my mind (or soul or spirit--whatever) transcended life and death altogether. This was as deep, compelling, and trustworthy experience as any I had ever had; I saw clearly that life and death were both illusory. I had a vivid sense of continuity, right across the threshold of death, and was deeply at peace.

Since that day, I have never had a primordial fear of death--the kind of choking anxiety that many I know have about it, so that even talking about it makes them uncomfortable. The feeling I had at that crystalline moment was entirely trustworthy, and still is, when I revisit it now, some 45 years later.

So in answer to the Big Question, "What will happen after you die?" my answer is quite simple: (1) my body will be recycled, just like that of any other organism, whether plant, animal, fungus, protist, or bacterium; (2) the mental formation "Tom Ellis" will be just a memory for a few other people, for a while; (3) I have no idea, but--due to the above experience--I am not afraid.  And I am completely at peace with these three answers. And as long as I strive to act with wisdom and compassion in all I say or do, it doesn't matter whether I die in the next hour, or in the next 25-30 years, or any time between. Thy will be done.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Civility and Community

Civility and Community:
The word “civility” is cognate with “civilization.” And the word “communication” is cognate with “community.” Both civility and communication, I would argue, are essential, if we are to sustain our community and civilization, and thereby avoid endless tribal warfare, in our locality, in our nation, and on our planet as a whole. When civility and communication are undermined by bad faith, sneering, and rancor, it threatens both our community and our civilization. This is one reason why learning how to communicate ideas clearly, with civility, is so important—especially during an unprecedented global crisis.

The words “civility” and “civilization” both derive from the Latin world “civitas,” which means “city.” And cities, as opposed to small towns, are places where people of many different backgrounds—ethnic, social, religious, and ideological—are in constant commerce and interaction with each other. In order to do business, and in order to get along, people in cities had no choice but to learn how to communicate with people unlike themselves in a civil manner.

I have lived long enough now to remember when civility was the norm in our national political discourse. When I was young, there were only three television networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS. These networks were staffed with the top tier of career journalists—people like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, Howard K. Smith, , and later, Robert McNeil and Jim Lehrer, with a solid liberal arts education and backgrounds in both radio and newspapers, who had internalized norms of civility throughout their careers, and promoted critical inquiry and thoughtful debate among their guests. They also selflessly served the public interest, holding both Democratic and Republican administrations and elected officials accountable for their actions and words, and their newscasts were followed by everyone in the country.  And so, at that time, widespread public demonstrations like the 1963 March on Washington, or Earth Day 1970, were covered extensively by all three networks. At these times, America was the envy of the world, emulated by everyone else (except, of course, their ideological foes in totalitarian countries like Russia and China).

What happened? There are, of course, multiple causes for the decline of civility into the kind of divisiveness, sneering, blatant lying, malice, paranoia, and rancor that have contaminated our public discourse to the point where people are afraid to even discuss politics unless they know ahead of time that the person they are talking to is “one of us” rather than “one of them.” One could blame the Internet, of course, for creating a situation in which everyone can create their own information bubble, where giant media monopolies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon use algorithms to develop profiles of users and feed them only the news and views (and misinformation) they want to hear.
But this decline in civility and decency, at first gradual, became more precipitous with the rise of Fox News, the malignant brainchild of Australian media mogul and scandalmonger Rupert Murdoch and master Republican propagandist (and convicted sexual predator) Roger Ailes. These two evil geniuses—there is no other word—created a worldwide media empire by abandoning all the norms of decency and civil discourse, and appealing instead to sensationalism, and to the fears, hatreds, and prejudices of the lowest common denominator of their audience. In so doing, they outdid both Hitler and Joseph Goebbels in poisoning the well of public discourse in order to create an unholy alliance between the interests of the corporate elite, on one hand, and the uneducated, embittered, easily manipulated,  lumpenproletariat (i.e. suburban and rural white working class) whose communities were hollowed out and demoralized by globalization, due to multinational corporations exporting manufacturing jobs overseas in search of cheap labor.
Their agenda is to turn the growing rage of this population—not against the corporations that had once provided them secure jobs and a decent lifelihood—but against “the government” who has allowed this, and especially against the “lib’ruls” whom they demonize as “elitists” who pose a direct threat to all that is godly and American. Their logic is simple and deceptive: ethnic minorities and foreigners, supported by “lib’ruls,” are taking away their jobs—while the corporations (that abandoned them) are their friends and will come back as soon as enough corporate tax breaks are given and environmental regulations are lifted.   Through the brazenly partisan 24-7 propaganda of Fox News, led by scurrilous, sneering hatemongers like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Ann Coulter, these angry, frustrated people are worked up into a lather of resentment and paranoia against anyone who supports taxing the rich or  legislation or regulations in the public interest—rather than against super-rich corporate interests.  Republican operatives call this “energizing the base”—a term whose double meaning should be an obvious indicator of their actual contempt for those they are manipulating.  And oil-funded billionaires like the Koch Brothers planned and subsidized so-called “grassroots movements” like the widespread “Tea Party” protests to defeat an Affordable Care Act that ironically benefitted the protestors themselves.

Yet as late as 2008 and 2012, basic civility between the parties was still evident at the highest levels. I well remember the dignity of John McCain, promptly and firmly suppressing the ugly sneering and catcalls of many of his supporters during his concession speech in 2008, saying of Obama, “He was my political opponent, but now he is my President, and we must all congratulate him.” 
Then came 2016, the rise of Donald Trump, and the end of all semblance of civility in public discourse. In the words of Matthew Arnold, “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Monday, May 11, 2020

The time has come...

This morning, my wife told me that J.C. Penney's--a renowned, century-old chain of department stores--has declared bankruptcy. And unfortunately, many other large, corporate retail outlets will soon follow in its wake--simply because the still-accelerating Coronavirus pandemic, and the social distancing it requires for our survival, has paralyzed commerce all over the world--and commerce--the buying and selling of commodities--is the lifeblood of what I call "Glomart"--the global market economy--upon which our national economy and our consumer-capitalist culture depends. So, as this grim article portends, the American economy is already into free-fall, self-accelerating collapse, and following shortly thereafter will be the corresponding collapse of democracy, any sense of the public good, and the social contracts that make affluence possible for all but the super-rich.

But despite the pronounced contempt that this European writer has for American culture, our collapse into poverty, tyranny, and chaos will likely be followed by the break-up and collapse of every other industrialized nation on the planet, starting with Britain (because of its foolhardy "Brexit" move).  In a pandemic and global depression, there are no "winners." Even the most intelligent and adaptive nations, such as South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Canada, will face a rapidly shrinking GNP once global commerce has broken down.  And because the flow of capital always gravitates toward the top, these countries will likewise face systemic unemployment, increased poverty and homelessness, and the breakdown of public support for the social safety nets like universal health care and free education, once people are too poor to pay the taxes that it requires. Tyranny--driven by nationalism and xenophobia--will likely follow in these countries as well...

And yet, as Bill Mollison famously quipped, "We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities."
A crisis--even a terrifying existential crisis like this one--becomes an opportunity when we look at it through new eyes.  Here is one attempt to do so, by mapping the three core ethics of Permaculture--Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share--onto my own homespun slogan, a generic recipe for these challenging times:  "Grow Gardens, Grow Community, Grow Awareness."

Earth Care - Grow Gardens:  In these (or any) times of growing scarcity, the first thing we all need to do is to start growing our own food, as much as possible. This, of course, is easier said than done!  Gardening is difficult, and requires an array of skills and experiential knowledge that few of us suburbanites have any more. And in our affluent Glomart culture, whose major premises are alienation from nature and consumerism, our default sense of "gardening" involves monocultural lawns, attractive but inedible hybrid flowers (that are useless for pollinating insects), and neat, monocultural rows of vegetables, all nourished by external inputs of bagged topsoil (gleaned from the surface of new suburban developments), chemical fertilizer, designer mulch (often dyed for attractiveness), and of course, herbicides and pesticides galore. But if we combine the injunction to "grow gardens" with the ethic of "Earth Care" we get...Permaculture, which includes saving our "yard waste" rather than having it taken away, composting and nurturing our own topsoil rather than buying new soil, and cultivating biological controls for pests by lots of pollinating plants and shrubs that are attractive to insect predators, rather than spraying toxic herbicides and pesticides.  And this is only a start, for permaculture gardening involves lifelong learning, teaching, healing, and creating.  And this, in turn, leads to...

People Care - Growing Community.  In our Glomart consumer culture, we have all grown accustomed to simply buying what we need and hiring contractors to do what we were unable or unwilling to do--whether they were (ruthlessly exploited) housemaids to clean our houses; groundskeepers to mow our lawns or weed our gardens; plumbers, electricians, and other contractors to do what we lack the specialized skills to do around the house.  But in a contracting economy, such services will be harder to come by, and more expensive as well. There are two ways of coping with this increasing scarcity of commodities and of skilled labor on command.  The first, of course, is to make do with less.  But the second is to reach out to our neighbors--to grow community, whether by direct hire or barter (exchanging services, commodities, or skills) when cash gets short.  And then we may well find that our neighbors are willing to teach us skills we need to know, in return, perhaps, for services offered. Unlike the cash economy, which tends (especially in big box stores) to alienate buyer and seller, an informal barter economy tends to build community and solidarity. But we can take this further, of course, by creating organizations to learn, teach, and propagate knowledge and skills. And in this way, we take a giant step toward...

Growing Awareness - Fair Share Once people in neighborhoods and communities get to know one another and work together, and once they learn mutual respect in the process, it becomes far easier to grow awareness of what is happening in the larger world, and how that affects the local community. And by propagating permaculture, we also grow awareness of the social and ecological consequences of everything we do, so that sharing our surplus with the hungry and needy in turn becomes the first step in teaching them, in turn, how to grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness. By such small steps, a new, localized, regenerative Gaian civilization can evolve, predicated on a culture of learning, teaching, healing, and creating.

Finally, awareness begins with self-awareness. None of the above can happen without a reservoir of good will; otherwise, in hard times, fear and hostility can all-too-easily take hold, and lead to truly ugly outcomes. As President Roosevelt aptly warned us, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  And the first place to master that gnawing fear is within ourselves--by learning and teaching the time-honored skills of breathing, observing, and letting go. A good, simple "starter" mantra for this skill was recently given to us by the Dalai Lama:  "Breathing in, I cherish myself; Breathing out, I cherish all living beings."  So knowing that "we are tied in an inescapable network of mutuality"(the living Earth) let us all renew our Bodhisattva vow to "take care of everyone, and abandon no one" and to condition our minds to do so by breathing, observing, and letting go of whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise in our minds--and then, being well, doing good work, and keeping in touch.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Coming back to Earth

Good morning, friends.   This week, as you may know, is the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day.  It originated in 1970 as a great national and global awakening of environmental awareness--the awareness of the immense damage wrought by our industrial civilization on our life-sustaining planet. I was in college then, a junior at Ohio Wesleyan University, and like most of my peers, I was caught up in the enthusiasm of that moment, attending rallies, marching, watching the news.  We were full of hope that finally, our nation and world would commit--as we put it then--to "cleaning up the environment." How naive we were!

For a while, of course, the promise of Earth Day seemed to be coming to fruition, as our President--even a Republican like Nixon--established the Environmental Protection Agency, and our Congress passed landmark legislation like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and so forth. What we failed to recognize at the time, however, was that the monied interests in their corporate boardrooms quickly realized that environmental awareness is bad for business.  Despite the efforts of people like President Carter to encourage us to save energy, develop solar and wind, and curb our reckless consumerism for the sake of future generations, the captains of industry--especially the fossil fuel industry--galvanized Congress and the media to reverse course.

And so, a mere decade later, in 1980, that first era of progressive environmental legislation came to a grinding halt with the election of corporate backed Ronald Reagan, who immediately set to work encouraging greed and consumerism, and slashing funding for every environmental protection program he could find. With a few exceptions, under Clinton and Obama, it has been downhill ever since.  Earth Day has been reduced to little more than a sentimental children's holiday for celebrating pandas and recycling bottles. Meanwhile, the use of fossil fuels throughout the world continues to expand, wreaking havoc on our climate, while plastics choke our oceans, species disappear in record numbers, natural migration cycles are disrupted, wildfires rage across Australia and California, ice caps melt, fisheries are depleted, and our elected officials are so thoroughly bought out by corporate interests that legislation in the long-term public interest becomes all but impossible.

 I do not need to remind you that we are all facing an existential crisis these days; a time when both a medical and an economic cataclysm with no clear end in sight is now crashing down on us at accelerating rates throughout the world. This is especially the case in our country due to the abysmally bad leadership of Donald Trump.

So here we are. As an unstoppable virus ravages the world, the global industrial and commercial civilization whose abundant fruits we have all enjoyed throughout our lives is paralyzed and is on tenuous life-support. Both medically and economically, our future is uncertain, but we can be sure that it will never be the same again. As Shakespeare writes in King Lear, "The worst is not/So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

For many years before this happened, I was well aware that our global market economy was doomed. There are many convergent reasons for this, but they all derive from one fact: an economy and civilization based on the endless expansion of commerce is fundamentally incompatible with a finite living planet. 

Glomart--my coinage for the Global Market Economy, or the order of money--is the world we made. Gaia--the order of nature--is the world that made us. To survive, we need both: Glomart provides our livelihood--the money we make, the food we eat, the goods we purchase. But Gaia provides the very foundation of our lives: the air we breathe, the topsoil that grows our food, the water we drink, and the diverse ecosystems that both sustain and enrich our lives.

The major premise of Glomart, of any system based on money, is that More is Always Better. This is assumed without question by every corporate board room on the planet, and promoted by every ad you see on television. It follows that nature has no value in this system until it is transformed into commodities: forests into board feet, mountains into quarries for minerals, prairies into monocultures, land into real estate, and so on.

Gaia--our living planet--is a complex adaptive system based on regenerative, ecological networks, where the guiding rule is the exact opposite: Enough is Enough. Too much or too little of any biological value is toxic to the system; if we get too hot or too cold, we die. If we get too fat or thin, we die. If our population outgrows its carrying capacity, we die. And if we trash the matrix of our lives--our lands, waters, air, and biodiversity--we also die.

So in effect, Glomart is a cancer on Gaia--a subsystem of our living Earth that is parasitizing its own biological support system, in order to keep growing and growing. So the collapse of Glomart is--or was--inevitable.

Still, this knowledge is small comfort in these early days of Glomart's inevitable collapse. So how do we cope? How can we turn this crisis into an opportunity?

My short answer, formulated long before this current disaster, is a simple slogan: Grow Gardens; Grow Community; Grow Awareness. 

To unpack this slogan a bit: 1. Grow Gardens. Our global agriculture and food distribution systems are under immense strain as a consequence of this pandemic, so it is essential that we localize our food system as quickly as possible. We can start today by planning to turn our lawns and ornamental beds into food growing areas. We can study and practice Permaculture methods to regenerate our topsoil with compost and mulch, turn our yard waste into hugelcultur mounds, and dig swales to retain water in the dry season. (I highly recommend GAIA'S GARDEN by the late Toby Hemenway as an excellent guide to backyard Permaculture.) Learning to garden with Permaculture methods will not only ensure and diversify our own food supply; it will also diversify our skills, provide healthier food, reduce our collective reliance on toxic fertilizers and pesticides, save energy and water, sequester carbon, and regenerate our topsoil. In short, growing gardens with Permaculture methods is good for us, good for our communities, and good for our planet. 2. Grow Community. In our Glomart consumer society, we are defined by our possessions: "to be is to buy." So we are constantly urged to go shopping at impersonal, big-box stores, and to enclose ourselves within privacy fences, but this has greatly eroded and attenuated any sense of community with our immediate neighbors. So we need to get to know our neighbors, whether they are "people like us" or not. It is often the people who are least like us that have the most to teach us. And this is especially true with gardening and other practical skills. Reaching out to our neighbors can be a challenge, but it is a challenge well worth pursuing, because in a traumatic crisis--e.g. the breakdown of the food supply system--the neighbor we know can be our best friend, while the neighbor we don't know can be our worst enemy.
But growing community goes well beyond the basic skills of getting to know, appreciate, and work with our neighbors. It also involves getting more actively engaged in our larger communities--including (and especially) UUCS, but also local nonprofit and charitable organizations, and our city and state governments. Glomart thrives when we are passive consumers, sitting in front of our televisions or driving our cars to Walmart. But we must instead relearn the art of active citizenship--of our neighborhoods, our city, our state, our nation, and our living planet. 3. Grow Awareness. This injunction infuses all the others. I do not mean trying to win others over to our political or religious views--that is utter folly, and will only make enemies. I do mean chatting with people casually in our neighborhood, whenever we see them, learning from them, teaching them useful skills, helping them when they need it, and engaging in collaborative creativity to solve collective problems and challenges.
So growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness are all intertwined. Each strengthens and encourages the other. The more gardens, the stronger communities, and the greater levels of awareness we have in our neighborhoods, the better off we will be, if and when the larger systems that sustain us start collapsing all around us. So let us practice the arts of resilience, of neighborliness, and of compassion, to help each other survive this global ordeal, and to build the foundations for a localized, resilient, and regenerative economy and a culture that knows itself to be a part of, and not apart from, the life of our sacred living planet. As Glomart crumbles, let a true Gaian culture rise like a phoenix from its ashes--starting in our own backyards.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Black Swan: Thoughts on the Pandemic

"Black Swan" is a metaphor introduced to me by my friend Mark. According to Wikipedia and other sources, it refers to 

"The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology, 

coupled with "[t]he psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event's massive role in historical affairs."

With the recent emergence and rapid proliferation of the COVID-19 ("Coronavirus") pandemic, a true Black Swan has landed, right at our doorsteps. An entirely new strain of severe respiratory virus is engulfing our entire planet. It has a high death rate, no vaccine, far too few adequate testing instruments, a slow (and often invisible) incubation, and exponential transmission through respiration, and it is threatening shortly to overwhelm our hospitals and medical facilities, crash our economy, and plunge us into unimaginable chaos within the next few months. Yet our poisonously incompetent and corrupt so-called "president" and his morally bankrupt cronies are in complete denial about this, have slashed funding for research into preventive measures, and are concerned only about the stock market and about putting on a good face for the next election.  We have no leadership, and hence are on our own, facing what may well be the most catastrophic global public health crisis ever.  (For reliable information on all of this, check out Chris Martenson on

When faced with such a global catastrophe, especially one where enforced isolation ("Social distance" is the term du jour) is the only known way to slow the exponential spread of this entirely new strain of respiratory virus (for which there is no immunity and no known vaccine), most of us (who are  not still in denial) are dealing with varying levels of panic, justifiably so.  This could be IT--the collapse of the globalized, industrialized, market-based world we have always known into utterly unpredictable chaos, starvation, violence, and mass die-off--starting with the elderly (that is, me and my wife, among others) who are most susceptible. (We may count ourselves lucky to die first, in fact!)

From a Gaian perspective, this virus could be nature's way of ridding the biosphere of a cancerous subsystem--agro-industrial humanity--which directly threatens its future viability. After all, "blooms"--the rapid expansion and subsequent collapse of algae or other organisms when a temporary new energy source becomes available--are a commonplace occurrence in nature. For many species, such boom-and-bust cycles are commonplace, when a population expands beyond the limit of its carrying capacity, and viruses may thus be part of a complex Gaian regulatory apparatus for dealing with pathogens like ourselves.  But this awareness, needless to say, does not do much to quell our current dread and anxiety.

What does?  Here I would begin with an often-quoted proverb coined by Bill Mollison, the founder of Permaculture, who had a deep, intuitive understanding of the way of nature, as it applies to our own necessary agenda (i.e. staying alive and building healthy human habitats that are symbiotic with, rather than parasitic upon, our biological support system).   And that proverb is "The problem is the solution."

At first glance, this may seem like a trite, almost frivolous cliche, given the gravity of our current situation, but when contemplated more carefully, it reflects an insight of great depth and resonance.  Our problem today, in a nutshell, is not only the virus itself, but also, the essential response to it that virtually everyone is practicing: cancelling every public event and retreating into isolation.  But that isolation--that "self-quarantine"--carries its own set of problems: when we are out of touch with each other, we fall prey to all of our inner demons at once--panic, depression, fear, short tempers, dread...
And this in turn can lead to larger pathologies of alienation--fear and mistrust of others, hoarding, stealing, rumor-mongering, etc.  How could there be any "solution" in such a "problem"?

Throughout history, in every wisdom tradition on the planet, those who reached the highest levels of insight and compassion were those who went into long periods of isolation, to facilitate soul-searching and/or inner development (call it what you will...)  Think, for example, of the ancient Hebrew prophets, Jesus confronting his demons in the desert, the Buddha abandoning his princely life to wander the world in search of enlightenment, Mohammed going out into the cave to encounter Allah...these stories are all variations on the same theme: isolation gives us the opportunity, if we choose to take it, for the kind of inner development that can spawn whole new cultures, new ways of looking at life.  So in this respect, our current, agonizing isolation may be a blessing in disguise--if we choose to accept it.

How so?

Each of us, of course, must answer this for ourselves, based on our own preferred spiritual practice. But here are a few tentative suggestions:

For Christians, Jews, Muslims, and all other monotheistic faith traditions, prayer is the thing. As the grandmother of one of my students once told her: "You can either worry or you can pray. You can't do both."  And prayer is definitely preferable to worry.  I can't claim to be an expert on prayer, since my own inclinations have lead me to embrace Buddhist practice (i.e. meditation) but I'm quite convinced that the two disciplines--meditation and prayer--are not all that different. They are really two different ideological frameworks for achieving the same goal--inner peace, equanimity, and compassion.  All of which are desperately needed these days.  For Christians, a good prayer to start with is the centerpiece of the Prayer of Jesus--"Thy will be done." Either that or the Gesthemane prayer--"Lord, please take this cup from me--not as I will, but as Thou wilt."

For Buddhists and other practitioners of Dharmic religions, or others attracted to these Eastern wisdom traditions, there are myriad meditative techniques to choose from. So I wish to share my own. It is compatible with any belief system--or none at all.  It goes like this:

1. Allot yourself time for 30 deep breaths--about 10-15 minutes will do. (The deep breaths, incidentally, will help your lungs stay healthy--which might be important these days to fend off the virus!)
2. For the first 10 breaths, in and out, focus consecutively on contemplating the value, to yourself and others, of each of the following verb phrases:

(a)  Breathe...Observe...Let Go
(b)  Be well...Do good work...Keep in touch...(with gratitude to Garrison Keillor, who coined these).
(c)  Learn...Teach...Heal...Create...

3.  Repeat these 10 phrases a second time, this time focusing on practicing them as you are doing so. In other words, look upon the words as "windows" describing what you are actually doing at that moment. Try turning them into gerunds if it helps (i.e. "Breathing, Observing, Letting go...") to keep yourself in the present moment.

4. If you can do so authentically, try repeating the 10 phrases a third time, this time vowing to stay with this practice regularly. Renew your vow every time you practice it, until it becomes habitual.
("I vow to let go...")

5. At any time, once you are centered. you can simply drop the words and focus on your in and outbreath all by themselves, for as long as you wish. It might also help to start with a poem or invocation, and end with a blessing, such as "May all living beings benefit from this practice." But that, of course, is entirely up to you.

It might also help to keep a journal, in which you jot down your own thoughts about what each of these verb phrases means to you personally. This practice can be combined, as you wish, with any other contemplative or meditative practice that you already use, in any faith tradition.

I hope and pray that this inner work in solitude helps you maintain a measure of equanimity and compassion in this time of crisis, so that you can be an agent of global healing thereafter, as we return to growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness.