Sunday, December 31, 2017


Honest Hope, Redux

The national political situation is a disaster, with unsettling news daily.  Besides Trump's daily atrocities, Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke are setting new boundaries for just how much ecological damage a cabinet appointment can wreak.  But for those of us who have our eye on climate change above all other issues, simply because it is the fulcrum upon which the whole human project rests, don't blame Donald Trump.  Our course was set before he was elected.

The key decision at a very late moment in the battle to temper CO2 emissions was Barack Obama's decision to prioritize health care reform over curbing climate change during his first term.  He eventually decided to make climate the priority of his second term, but by then it was too late.  Of course, the rest of the world needed to do their part, and I argued long ago in this space that China was likely to be key in that process.  They are stepping up now as the global leader in slowing down emissions, but this too is too little, too late. 

It is true that Trump has had more success in slowing down regulatory and diplomatic progress on climate than in pushing legislative change to the Right's hated “Obamacare.”  But thankfully, corporations, large metro areas, and states (especially California, the world's sixth-largest economy) have picked up the slack in leadership after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Accord. They were a significant alternate delegation to this year's IPCC convention, and Governor Brown has planned a big-tent climate mitigation jamboree for next spring. 

So if CO2 emissions are already over the limit , where now is our hope for civilization, and the remnant of the Cenozoic era?  I wrote a few years back about the difficulty of having honest hope.  Most hope these days is cheap, shallow, and dishonest, and this is true of the climate left as well as the denialist right.  But today, I received a message sponsored by Climate from the writer-activist Rebecca Solnit ("Hope in the Dark"), one of my most trusted commentators.  Though she is pitching for a small climate justice organization, she speaks honestly, saying we need to “feel the horror and the hope, and choose hope. Hope doesn't mean pretending that climate change doesn't exist or that we can erase it.  It means we fight for the best outcome instead of settle for the worst.”

Must we fight if we have hope?  The inverse holds, as the limbic system supports the link.  But as a contemplative who took to the streets for more than a decade, I have found what feels even more honest in the outlook of Paul Kingsnorth, founder of a project that is deeply searching and probing, but not fighting: the Dark Mountain Project, out of the hinterlands of the UK. Paul is author of  the seminal Orion essay “Dark Ecology.” Dark Mountain's manifesto is entitled “Uncivilisation,” essentially embracing what I feel is already happening, rather than denying or fighting it. 

In a recent audio interview, a junior editor at Orion puts the question, “Paul, people say that your message leaves them without hope. Do you hold any hope?” Kingsnorth answers, “It depends upon what you are hoping for.”  He goes on to make it clear that he does not hope for a solution to climate change, avoiding imminent collapse.  But he is not as pessimistic as James Lovelock, who envisions “Isolated mating (human) pairs in polar regions overseen by warlords” by early next century, nor Guy McPherson, who warns of a mass extinction event in the northern hemisphere by 2035.  Like most whose hope is honest rather than feathered by denial, he makes it clear that the foundations of global modernist civilization are rapidly crumbling, and the massive feedback loops of climate disruption have already engaged.  A man who owns twelve different kinds of scythes, and loves uses them, his best hope is for a chastened human presence working within a nineteenth century level of material existence (similar to James Howard Kunstler's “World Made by Hand” series).  But he acknowledges even that is a long shot. 

As for the fighting stance, Naomi Klein has written a series of penetrating analyses of global capitalism,  and I respect her research and analysis.  But when it comes to reforms which could be bolstered by honest hope, she comes up short.  In her latest major work "This Changes Everything," Klein places her hope in a global socialist movement arising before 2020 which would radically re-order global priorities and stop the emissions curve short of catastrophe.  She has famously denounced Kingsnorth as a traitor to the environmental movement. Listen to her critique, and it is clear that he makes her blood boil.  But just as our country is not ready for a socialist revolution, despite the mounting excesses of the Right, the world does not seem posed for the kind of radical change which Klein feels those excesses have made inevitable.  And the emissions curve against which she strains heroically has become much steeper since she published her latest call to arms.
Climate betrayal by conniving, dishonest Republicans and their disinformation campaign? Perhaps, if you expected them to behave like responsible politicians.  Environmentalists betrayed by a good, smart man in Paul Kingsnorth? Not at all, for  the truth is that the environmental movement has betrayed itself.  Environmentalists may not think they hold mainstream values, but by and large they live like the masses.  And, except for their laudable subsistence farming and Luddite fringe, they either openly or secretly believe that human technique will save us.  The problem is that environmentalists, as Kingsnorth argued in “Dark Ecology,” came to depend early on upon quantity, rather than quality, fully swallowing the assumption that measurement and the context of scientific data is the path to slowing down the awakening Climate Beast (Tim Flannery).  But the science of measurement should only be an accoutrement to the central work, which involves unexamined modernist values

And what is the alternative?  A couple of years ago, a young Baptist woman with whom I have worked in faith-based local environmental work was asked to give the sermon at First Baptist in Spruce Pine.  This looked to me like another instance of grudging acknowledgement of the problem, with the pastor lacking the courage to put his job on the line.  But unlike myself, who, like a good liberal,  has included climate science and even some statistics in my climate sermons, Starli spent her entire sermon describing the way her grandparents lived.  She concluded by asking where the climate change issue would be if we had continued to practice the old ways of the Southern Appalachian mountaineers.  Going even further back, we have the Cherokee and Catawba from whom we stole this land.  That is another story, but the sad point is that it is better to set your compass aright and continue to steer by it than to try to reconstitute a whole set of skills with diminished resources in a world of runaway climate change and an additional 6.5 billion earthlings.

So we are back to the moral and imaginative ground of last month's posts. Rather than trying to solve the problems of technology with more technology, expecting human nature to change, or mounting a global socialist revolution, we need to learn to live in place, guided by the old stories that places will tell us if we would only listen. And let our hope be guided by the voices of place, which we must attend, one by one.

Saturday, November 18, 2017


The Cicada, the Witch, and the White Bear

Several years ago, an idealistic ecologist from a New Age church in Asheville sparked my interest in their "Earth Team." His leading was to move beyond a group of religious liberals always planning their next action to grounding the work in serious prayer about our complicity in the web. He invited me in. Next thing I knew, he had moved to New England. Shortly later, I had this dream. I'm at the beach, going into a kind of amusement house. I approach an oracular figure, Orpheus in half-lotus, head bowed under a canvas or light blanket covering. He is tall - Bob, my Earth Team mentor. Recognizing the figure, I joke about his paradoxical nature, and he answers in effect "Since you got it, now it's your turn to be Orpheus." I am shown the seat and take it. The blanket, this mantle, falls over me, and I instantly feel the strange energy of entering an alien being.

I was the anointed, the dream seemed to say. Strange energy, alien being...the teacher-scholar would now try on the cloak of activism. Joseph Campbell once told a wonderful story about a king, exiled in remote mountains, tortured by a whirring machine on his head. A traveler comes up and says, “What's that whirling machine on your head?” The device immediately leaps to the inquirer's head, and the king is freed. The new bearer of this dubious crown will keep it until another unwitting soul makes the same inquiry.

Trying on the “cloak of activism...” I wrote these words over a decade ago, when I was indeed awakened to the need for my contemplative self to rise up out of his den and into the streets. But the dream image does not necessarily say that. If Orpheus is Bob (dream irony works here, since that is also my name), then the primary image is of a Green Man who was not given to reflexive action, but wanted all responses to be grounded in group prayer. My acts of civil disobedience, attending hearings and mass marches, were all the product of the deep searching which led me to quit the ivory tower. I also facilitated workshops and preached the climate word, ending with a deep depression a year and a half ago. I was leading a series of retreats called, after Carolyn Baker, “Collapsing Consciously,” and ended up collapsing myself. Physician, heal thyself. Learn to swim before you throw others into the tempest.

Healing. On the last day of the Southeastern Permaculture Gathering this summer, an annual event hosted by Arthur Morgan School, folks were beginning to strike their tents for the journey home. My friend Crone Patricia showed a few of us a moulting cicada, attached to an auto tire. As we looked we noticed other cicadas attached to other tires in the same way – a couple of dozen. The shell was already that rigid form one sees cast everywhere, but he was patiently straining against it, arching body green as a young spring leaf, gleaming wet, small, intensely red eyes. The old dangling shell curled forward in a permanent dowager's hump. After watching for 10-15 minutes, it seemed to still be at the same place in its moulting. It reminded me of a woman in labor, having the baby without pushing, just patiently waiting for the baby itself to come forward.

I realized in a flash, “that's me.” I was unexpectedly moulting. This was a metamorphosis, a new green life in a 71 year-old body, casting off the dross of an outworn depression, a garment still clinging by habit. This didn't happen through my practice of inquiry, but by witnessing a humble little messenger right before me though a sudden, epiphenomenal opening of soul.

Over the next month or so, I had other encounters with animal messengers. A red admiral butterfly flew up to me, hovered, and moved on. I collected butterflies as a young camper in these mountains in the Fifties, and saw many of them then. I had only seen one here since then, as lepidoptera is one of the orders hard-hit by the Sixth Extinction. When I looked up the butterfly's symbology, the meaning was not clear – perhaps a warning. The point was that this was a visitation.

One night after an exhausting day, I went out on the deck and spread my arms in supplication for peace. A hoot owl answered, hooting three times, and I was healed. I was paying close attention, day by day, finding deer jaw bones on my walks, hawks swooping down, trident-shaped buckeyes budding in fall. I was no longer in my head, fearful of the rapidly changing climate and the madness in Washington, certainly not when I was out walking in the woods.

And my dream-life, richly active in midlife, has intensified. Inviting soul in from the natural world has opened the doors to the inner world, as well. I have recorded dreams since age 19, and learned to dialogue with dream-figures during a period when I entertained becoming a Jungian analyst. Jung called this process “active imagination.” Over the years, I have used it periodically, especially when I was down or uncentered. Now, I use it more frequently, and it keeps me in touch with an imaginal, mythic reality that feels far deeper and more satisfying than following geopolitics and geoclimate events.

A few years ago, I had this dream: I climb up on the roof, where I see my mentor Elizabeth Sewell, a poet. I go and crouch by her, balancing on the pitch for my instruction. She points up to the peak and I see a huge white bear. He feels menacing, threatening, utterly other. Noticing my gaze, he slips over to the other side. I clamber up as fast as I am able. When I reach the top, I see him moving from roof to roof, over the gables of the city. Soon, he disappears. I go back to Elizabeth to report. She tells me it is my task to find this bear.

Now I read from Martin Shaw a fairy tale about a majestic white bear, a distinguished kingly figure pursued by a brave Inuit maiden, going through many trials until she breaks the barriers of her village life to unite with him. As I put the book down, my White Bear appears immediately. I think of the polar bear, doomed to extinction, and my teacher James Hillman's remark one evening in Dallas about the big cats going extinct, and our obligation to keep them alive forever in our imaginal lives, our souls.

I sit down for an active imagination session with the White Bear, and invite him in...
The White Bear climbs down from the roof, and looks in my window, curious now, not threatening. I greet him. He is outside the shed window. My place of retreat, unused now for over a decade.
(When you go into retreat, the Hill, the Shed, the White Bear appears, inviting you.) White Bear walks around to the front of the Shed, and up the walkway steps, waiting there. I roust myself, head for the door, no hesitation. He comes in and embraces me. I feel like a child in his embrace. He tightens it a bit to let me know this is not play, that he could easily crush me. But he is not malevolent. We sit down for coffee together at the write-desk, under Ramana's gaze.

Ramana. I have a photo of the sage over the shed writing desk, wearing his loincloth, holding a staff in one hand, a water-pot in the other. As a teen, he quickened when a relative mentioned Arunachala, the great primordial mountain at Tiruvanamalai where Siva manifested himself in mythic time. Within days, he left home to go to the mountain, which he called his Father, renouncing everything to find the Great Self. For those in the Advaita tradition he subsequently revived, place is of no consequence, and the world is a dream. Ramana affirmed the latter, but remained anchored the rest of his life at the foot of his Father, Arunachala. Was not this call, transmuted as it was by a powerful mystical tradition, not a shamanic one in some sense?

As this fall has progressed, I have found myself moving organically between the shamanic work and the vichara, moving from body through emotions through thoughts to the carrier of it all, the I-thought, arresting that inward movement to ask, Who am I? What do I designate as shamanic? Walking in the woods, ever alert for signs, watching the sun and moon rise and set, inviting in dream figures, animal totems and witches, for serious dialogue. In each of these, the ego is humbled, giving way to an Observer, who is within, and who is also without, as David Abram taught me years ago (come to a retreat and I'll show you what I mean!).

On my best days, this process happens naturally, and each practice supports the other. Just a couple of days ago, I had my third encounter with Cundrie, my favorite witch. She is a figure from Wolfram's Parzival, an old woman with a pig's face and a Parisian hat, riding on a mule. She appears in the Parzival saga whenever the knight is riding too high, and needs to be humbled. In my shamanic world, you could say she plays the role of Shiva (he of the buckeye trident), destroyer of the ego, as well as the mind-built world. When she visits me, I see her riding up my road, whipping that mule to go as fast as she can, dismounting and striding straight up the walk, in the door without knocking, up the stairs and into my study, bursting open the door to confront me. This last time, she followed this scenario until she reached my study door, where she slumped to the floor, just staring. She sat thus for two days, smoking her cigarette. When she finally came in, gently tapping me on the shoulder, and I greeted her, all the tempest of the last ten-day slide immediately calmed. I went directly into my deepest meditation in several weeks, a deep, dark peace that stayed with me for quite awhile. I did not have to repeat the sentence, who am I, for I was well beyond identification with any of the elements.

So yes, though these two paths seem very different to the analytic mind, in my own experience they can work together, even requiring each other. The integration which has eluded me so long is unfolding. I do not know where it will lead in terms of my efforts at this blog, or my work in the world. I will stay engaged with the new green cicada and my faithful Cundrie, and keep tending the soulfire, keeping my kindling dry. And I suspect that my future work will have more to do with midwifery than prophecy. Follow me here, and I will invite you into the patience of birthing without pushing.

Friday, November 17, 2017


The Shaman and the Inquirer

Two traditions have anchored my personal spiritual practice since laying down college teaching at the millennium, returning to Appalachia to work for the healing of the earth – and myself. The first set of practices clusters around enlarging my field of awareness to honor the entire earth system, Gaia, as a divine whole and in her particulars, both saying thanks for participation in the exquisite natural world in the Southern Highlands and grieving what we are losing here and elsewhere. This practice, which still feels like an apprenticeship after 15 years, grows out of my encounters and training with Joanna Macy (April 3 post) and her process of accepting the despair which we all carry for the earth, then moving through it to empowering us to help heal her.

All of this is framed by prayers of thanksgiving, both for what the earth gives us, and for the opportunity to speak and act on her behalf. Joanna Macy's training is in Tibetan Buddhism, which honors the natural world and a host of divinities who embody natural forces and characteristics. It incorporates elements of Himalayan shamanism as well as pre-Buddhist India, both Vedic and animistic. Though the modern term for this approach, following Arne Naess, is “Deep Ecology,” I name it as shamanistic: practices that awaken to and honor the divinity shot through all of creation, mirroring each aspect through our own consciousness and ritual.

The second set of practices grows out of Advaita Vedanta. Historical circumstance threw me into the midst of a religion that accepted and accommodated every practice in South Asia, including yoga, animism, as well as priestly brahmanism and polytheism. Though I was taken by everything about the Hindu culture in 1968, it was self-inquiry as taught by Ramana Maharshi that affected me most deeply. He took the ancient practice of the jnana yogi, neti, neti – which recognized the ineffable quality of the divine by saying [It's] “not this, not that” to every experience or formulation of God, and turned it into the simple inquiry, “Who am I?” For every experience, including the customary practice of dividing experience into body-mind (the “self”), the world, and god, is at root only the emanation of the Self, (Brahman), the ultimate creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. The I thought is primary, and no other thought or image is possible without it. This primal thought itself arises as an epiphenomenal miracle from the Self, which is all that exists.

After a couple of years of intermittent practice as a young adult, I quit self-inquiry, frustrated with my lack of progress. Then, a few years ago, I discovered, virtually in my backyard, a community that trains folks in the Maharshi's method. It turns out that the practice which the ashram authorities forbade transmitting at Ramana's ashram in South India has been taught since 1978 in NC, first in Greensboro at a storefront, now at a rural ashram near Asheboro, home of the NC Zoo. The center calls itself AHAM (Association for the Happiness of All Mankind), and its training in self-inquiry is authentic, augmented by a highly supportive structure, which is modeled on Alcoholic Anonymous, for thoroughly incorporating the teaching in one's life.

Since re-encountering self-inquiry through the AHAM community, I have prioritized this practice. As the Maharshi said, one must always come to this in the end, no matter what practice one follows initially. But I sense that I am not sufficiently honoring the Tibetan-shamanistic practices I learned from Joanna. I am not moving through despair to an affirmation of the essential joy of our true creative nature that the Maharshi says is our natural state, and which I usually re-experience when I do the deep ecology exercises. Instead of using the sympathetic identification of shamanism, I merely glance outdoors and retire to my meditation cushion, where I struggle with the endless stream of thoughts. They occasionally cease long enough to dive within to the questions, who's experiencing, who's thinking, to the gateway question, “who am I?” There is rarely very much energy in the process (maybe I should do more yoga first, or pranayam {breathing exercises}, I ask myself). I struggle to get beyond a deadening apathy, stalked by despair over the state of the earth that I hold at bay long enough to engage in the effort at meditation.

Occasionally this works, throttling despair by letting it in, going through it, and simply cutting off the feeling by retracing the I-thought, undoing karma. Despair, and any other feeling or thought, is totally destroyed as soon as one asks, “who's thinking...who's feeling? But when the vichara is working, even with the eyes open, the world feels unreal, like an image, a mirage. When the shamanistic practice works, on the other hand, I enter into identification with the world as plant, creature or natural feature, and what starts to feel unreal is experiencing myself as a separate entity. The practice takes me outside of myself, beyond experiencing that self as encapsulated in my body, breaking down boundaries, rendering them more fluid. I expand my identity, beginning to experience what Naess called the ecological self - a process of expanding self-awareness into the biosphere.

So it feels like the two practices are moving in opposite directions. It is true that each of them moves beyond the ego, the little tyrant who converts everything to his dominion. Shamanism moves beyond the ego through identification with wider and wider circles of being. I am that too. Advaita, especially through the Maharshi's self-inquiry, moves beyond the ego by going through it more deeply within, moving into identity with the Self who creates the world, including Gaia in all her multifaceted being. The “I” disappears into its source, like waves into the ocean. I am only That.

I deeply honor both of these practices, and have had remarkable experiences using each method. Shamanism feels closer to my experience, because I am an embodied being. But Advaita feels fundamentally true, however fleetingly I experience its core: I am that I am. To choose one over the other feels fundamentally wrong. What has long eluded me is integrating them.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


The Sun Dims, Three Billion Years Early

The eternal silence of these infinite, vast spaces frightens me.  Thus wrote Blaise Pascal, aged thirty, in Pensees (1669).  He was less impressed with human power than the infinite, which bounded it.  The great apes who have inherited the earth are a fulcrum without a niche in the natural world, capable of catapulting us beyond our planetary home into that frightening vast space.

The world has failed at the task of CO2 mitigation. It is a consequence of a conceptual split from the natural world which many would argue goes back to the neolithic, when we became settled farmers with stores of grain to guard and distribute.  Out of this came the fortified granary -the polis - the treasury, and a new, more complicated sense of us and them, beyond tribalism - though it persisted as well. Hamilton cites Jacob Burckhardt (198), who wrote that history is “the break with nature caused by the awakening of consciousness.” Or in biblical terms, the Fall.
It is “inconvenient” to curb greenhouse gases in our greedy pursuit of a status quo which now consumes all of the Earth's annual output by early August, as of last year. We ignore it, but every act has a moral component, and our failure to wean ourselves from fossil fuels is a moral one. Our split from nature, which began as conceptual, has become reinforced until it is also a moral stance, consciously chosen (baldly stated in several Renaissance-era texts and speeches).  Amazingly, the 2012 London Olympics dramatized this in the opening ceremony, where the figure of Caliban comes to the stage and speaks poetically of his love for his island, its beings, sounds, breezes, and textures, only to be rudely replaced by Industrial Man and his smog-belching factories.  The 2012 Olympics celebrated this.  We are conscious of our vaunted  exceptionalism, blessed in the book of Genesis when its author says that Y-hw-h loves us above all creation. 
But as the Bible also tells us, we are only creatures of clay, adamas, and as such, subject to the same natural laws as all other living things.  And now the petri dish on which we live, this poor Earth, is overcrammed with humans, and we are not only reluctant to check our numbers (be fruitful and multiply), but our covetous hunger for food, the built environment, and toys.  Believing in the infinite power of our intellects, fired by god-like imaginative powers, we now dream of mass-producing steaks without the cows, and our most fashionable philosophers speak of a human realm that has no need for the natural world. 

The distinction men have drawn between “natural history”- a series of events that occur on the scale of millions of years – and “human history”- a series of events that occur on the scale of years, decades and centuries – has collapsed (D. Charkabarty).  “With the Anthropocene, humans have become a geological force so that the two kinds of history have converged...”(Hamilton, 198). Anthropogenic climate change affects the atmosphere, the chemical composition of the oceans via acidification, the biosphere, via habitat loss and species extinction, the cryosphere, melting ice mass, and the lithosphere itself through vast mining projects and mountaintop removal (and the now-flooding New York subway system).  If you're not yet convinced that we are, in the words of Brian Swimme, a “planetary power,” consider this: geologists project that unchecked global warming will cancel the next Ice Age, perhaps three of them, altering the planet's climate for up to 500,000 years. 

Since we have known for decades now that fossil fuel burning causes atmospheric warming, anthropogenic climate change is now deliberate, even if the effect of our action may not be. (161)  Anthropogenic climate disruption is creating biospheric and social problems, but instead of accepting the challenge of changing behavior, “we live in societies predisposed to seek technological answers to social problems.” (174) And the technocrats have a huge backing among the economists, who see geoengineering as far cheaper than restraining our fossil fuel consumption. Newt Gingrich is typical of political figures on the right in his summation, “Geoengineering holds the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year.  Instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific invention...Bring on the American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.” (168)

As an example, Hamilton outlines in detail the efforts of governments and large fossil corporations to create carbon capture and storage (CCS), which was initially considered quite feasible. As with the Vietnam War, the effort was continued (and continues still) long after it was apparent it would not be workable.  In doing so, companies like Exxon hoped beyond hope to assuage their guilt for being complicit in creating the conditions for climate disruption. The result, Hamilton notes, was a “lost decade” in working for emissions reductions.  The dilemma now is that  pursuing climate engineering will similarly make emission reductions less likely to be pursued, and the lost decade will quickly turn into three. Hamilton sums up the issue succinctly: “But if climate engineering is inferior to cutting emissions (in the sense of being less effective and more risky) then merely by choosing to engineer the climate instead of cutting emissions we succumb to moral failure.” 162

Our moral failure is huge, and we would atone for it by playing God on a scale beyond the many precursors to the ultimate move of managing the global climate. My question is, when have we ever looked at a new technology and refused it?  I have already reviewed at this site a book which emphatically answers “never”: Too Smart for Our Own Good.  But there have been hesitations along the way to our status as the “God Species.”  Hindus claim that they discovered rocket science during the Vedic era, but that the brahmin priests decided it would create too much mischief. More recently, the NYRB reviewed a collection of letters between the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and his wife, in which the scientist describes how he and his colleagues passively resisted Hitler's pressure to develop the atomic bomb after discovering nuclear fission in 1939.  Heisenberg was a brave and thoughtful man. 

So German physicists, like their “Aryan” forebears in Vedic India, did refuse to pursue a technology.  Fatefully, our scientists did not. Robert Oppenheimer, observing the first nuclear test from a bunker in Nevada, compared the mushroom cloud  to Krishna revealing himself as an infinite series of beings in the Bhagavad Gita. But the genie was out of the bottle; Oppenheimer's flash of insight was after the fact.  Indeed, several of the men who created the bomb were unsure the earth's atmosphere would survive the shock. The Manhattan Project was a technical success. We built the bomb to save Europe – and we used it. 

On the micro scale, science is busily sequencing multiple genomes, redesigning DNA in cells by selecting for traits and swapping out genes. Though some called for public debate, there has been essentially none.  In Siberia, scientists are busily re-engineering the modern elephant to have some of the traits of the extinct woolly mammoth, so that the spruce forests invading the tundra might be turned back by a pachyderm herd jealous of its own food source – grasslands. This would restore the albedo effect of the vast northern tundra to help mediate the loss of sea ice.  Other scientists are keen to create designer genes to meet would-be parents' desire for perfect offspring. As Hamilton puts it, “Life is reduced to a manipulable genetic code” (179).

I have long been disturbed by genetic engineering and dismayed over the lack of public debate.  Where is the landmark court case turning back the hubris of great apes playing God by reshuffling the gene pool on a cross-species basis? Where are the preachers citing the magnificent text of Job in the face of our smug hubris (Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?)? And now, after splitting the atom and altering the blueprints of life itself, we are on the brink of managing the entire earth climate. We would re-engineer the global climate to save the “Earth”  from global warming – but on our terms, for us, our civilization.  

With atmospheric CO2 concentrations headed for 550 ppm and beyond (the upper limit of “safe” climate perturbations is 350-450 ppm), it seems only a matter of time before we have sufficient  motivation to start the application of sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere.  The big question is, who will have jurisdiction over this effort?  Will it be an extension of Cold War military gaming? How will the interests of poor vs. rich nations be adjudicated? Will it be overseen by the UN Climate Convention? What could the rest of the world do if a large rogue nation that is not a signatory to the convention decided to go it alone to create a solar filter? 

At the very least, there should be widespread debate on the need and feasibility of these plans, including a thorough discussion of the considerable risks (which are on a scale comparable to the risks of a nuclear exchange).  But if we have these discussions too soon, then one probable result would be that all efforts at mitigation would cease.  The Promethean and Soterian forces remain in opposition, with the Soterians arguing for using this technology only as a last resort in the face of climate emergency. Soterians (I am one) would continue to push hard for emissions reductions, for if we reach the 85-100% reductions needed from current levels (403 ppm), we could ground the planes indefinitely. The question is, how do we determine when we are in a state of climate emergency, given that the process leading to such a state is one of multiple tripping of tipping points, each of which leads to others. Once the process begins – and some scientists argue it already has – it is essentially unstoppable. 

Prometheans, who hold the power now, would argue to create the filter as soon as possible, to save money and avoid unnecessary (human) suffering.  With this shift, their goal of having the entire earth system under human control would be met, and geoengineering would be a permanent alteration of the heavens.

Any public debate should include scientists, ethicists, public intellectuals. And it shouldn't just be about saving the two-leggeds.  It will require as well folks who can speak for the voiceless: poets, artists, musicians and spiritual folk. Perhaps, after such a debate, we will still take the best available option, but at least we will do so with our eyes wide open to the enormous risks.  And we will have set the stage for  memorializing the earth we leave behind, the whole magnificent biosphere.
Once we engineer the climate, second-guessing the Sun, the first god for much of Earth history, we will have completed the process of circumventing wilderness, the Great Commons that once surrounded our human dwelling-places. The End of Nature, which Bill McKibben published in 1989, will be essentially complete, usurped by a full-blown, but not fully matured, Anthropocene. Ultimately, morality and beauty join as our bedrock values, and both will be displaced by a “functional” Earth engineered by our Promethean overlords.

If the distinction between natural history and human history fully collapses, then the sublime, that which gives humans awe and humility in the face of the unknowable and unimaginable will similarly move one step away, into the vast reaches of space over which we still have no control. But the sublime will haunt our move to control the planet.  The ”silence of vast space(s)” which Pascal feared will remain our destiny, postponed perhaps for a bit.  But the Earth, our home, will be eclipsed.  Oh terrible, sad, smudged fate!

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Thursday, June 01, 2017


Exposing the Geo-clique

Nobody knows what the system-wide effects of these techniques will be, because we really don't understand how the complex earth system works. All the scientists can do is model the known variables and see what the computers predict. Over the years, they have gotten better, but the models are still somewhat crude. So the scientists involved have met in secret for decades, knowing that the public would be skeptical or hostile to their plans.

The silence was broken in 2006 by Paul Crutzen, the same man who suggested the name anthropocene for the new geologic era earth scientists now agree has begun. Crutzen is skeptical of climate engineering, but he realized a backroom juggernaut was forming, and thought public scrutiny was overdue. The danger is that, once people believe that climate engineering can solve climate change, then our old fossil madness might be embraced with even greater fervor.

Hamilton's account of the history of the formation of the global geo-clique is fascinating – and chilling. Almost every climate scientist in the West worked at Lawrence Livermore Lab, including Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, and a hugely confident proponent of climate engineering. From Lawrence Livermore, the hot spot shifted to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was in charge of the failed Star Wars project which besotted Ronald Reagan. Today, a “Bipartisan” Policy Center is the key organization for sorting out the various schemes, keeping climate engineering squarely inside the Beltway.

The momentum for all this built while we were not paying attention. With all the uncertainties, and the enormous hubris of taking on god-like powers, solar radiation management is almost certain to be deployed, either early on as a preventative measure (within twenty years), or as a last-ditch effort to save civilization (whenever climate disequilibrium hits an emergency level). For this reason, the way what looks sadly inevitable is regulated, and by whom, becomes of huge importance. Since it has been part of war games for quite awhile now, the danger is for unilateral action, or that allied blocks of nations will deploy SRM without consulting the rest of the world. The best outcome would be to have a world body like the UN oversee the research and deployment of this tool.

But the problems are enormous, since there will be winners and losers no matter how the application of sulfate aerosols is tweaked. All the modeling thusfar indicates that the Indian monsoon would be severely affected by lessening solar radiation striking the oceans. And China is so big, that any alterations we initiate in the climate will help some areas and hurt others, exacerbating regional and ethnic tensions there. Climate engineering's problems are immense, and deserve careful public scrutiny, which no rebranding as “climate remediation” can skirt. I will turn in my next post to the ethical dilemmas it poses.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Brave New World: Geo-engineering

The world has failed at the task of CO2 mitigation. Principally driven by a massively funded campaign of disinformation in the US, along with the capitulation of the Republican Party to Big Fossil, the will to reduce carbon emissions has been battered down. The science, so clearly laid out by Al Gore in his 2006 film, convincing a large number of viewers, is now lost in the liberal-conservative divide, and we are nowhere near the necessary rate of reduction in greenhouse gases required to keep climate change within the boundaries of a habitable planet. With the assumption of the elected tyrant Trump, this politicized tragedy now has the US on the brink of withdrawing from the hard-fought Paris Accord. In fact, today's news reports that he has decided to withdraw. From reluctantly rising to the level of co-leader with China of the mitigation pathway outlined in Paris, the US is now in the role of a rogue state.

But the US is very good at technology, especially the kind of tech that bends the earth to do our will. We led the way in developing the atomic bomb, and during the Cold War, competed with the Soviets not only for nuclear superiority, but control of the weather as a weapon to be used against our enemies. The long tradition of modeling ways to tinker with climatic forces is now on the threshold of physical experiments with the atmosphere and the oceans, and a “geoclique” has formed to make sure that global civilization will not perish at the hands of the Climate Beast. We missed our chance to save Earth, under her rules, and now we will make her follow ours.

Earthmasters – Australian public ethicist Clive Hamilton's latest book – lays out this emergent Brave New World of geo-engineering. In his last book, Requiem for a Species, he powerfully analyzed all the forms of denialism that brought us to the brink. Here he picks up these threads to show how the "Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering" (his subtitle) is being woven from the very same cloth. The supreme irony is that conservatives in the US and elsewhere are strongly in favor of climate engineering, without ever admitting the human-driven climate change which forces us to consider such a dangerous experiment. They side with the techno-elites who are confident that humans can and will completely colonize and control the Earth, so that “nature” is a zoo or farm within the over-arching domain of the human. And global capitalism, riding on the back of Big Oil will continue its hegemony. We will be as gods, for better or worse. Hamilton calls this faction the Prometheans, after the titan who stole fire and brought it to humanity.

Those of us, including many scientists, who oppose the hubris of climate engineering, prefrering to safeguard and keep God's Ark, Hamilton calls Soterians, after the Greek goddess of safety, salvation, and preservation from harm. Soterians are folks like Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and EO Wilson, who would have us do everything possible to reduce emissions, preserve habitat, and encroach on the ecospheric commons as little as possible – admittedly a huge task for our overdeveloped, overpopulated world.

But before we go further into the political and social ramifications of the huge divide at this crucial moment in Earth history, I will quickly review the range of climate engineering techniques under development. Geo-engineering methods can be best divided into two strategies. The first entails the removal of excess CO2 by extracting the gas from the atmosphere, depositing it somewhere safer. This strategy would manipulate the great carbon cycle, which continually exchanges carbon between the atmosphere, oceans, and the biosphere. The second technique is solar radiation management, which would cool the planet by reflecting a greater proportion of incoming radiation from the Sun back into space. The two chapters in which Hamilton lays out these two distinctly different strategies are very well researched and clearly written. I will only review the highlights.

CO2 removal is probably the only widely known climate engineering strategy. It has been under development since the 1990's in the form of carbon capture and storage, or CCS. It has been held out as a necessary technology of great promise, permitting the continued consumption of “clean coal” as a fuel for the world's growing demand for electricity. Unfortunately, the process of burying the extracted carbon deep in suitable geological formations has proved much more difficult than thought, and far more expensive. Both the EU and the US terminated their pilot CCS projects after a few years. The only successful experiment has been in Finland, in a perfectly sited formation, but at great expense. Essentially, CCS from power plants is dead.

Other strategies have emerged for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, including ocean fertilization with iron particles, liming the oceans, mass planting of trees, fast-growing algae, and biochar. Small experiments on iron fertilization, aimed at increasing the rate at which CO2 is carried to the ocean floor, have been tried, and were hugely disappointing. The ocean system is much more complex than the experimenters realized. Liming would require a huge infrastructure and be energy-intensive. Tree planting and growing algae take too long. Biochar is similar, plus scientists are not convinced it will stay intact for as long as enthusiasts proclaim. All of these would need to take place on a massive scale at huge expense.

Turning to solar radiation management (SRM), climate engineers see more promise. Brightening the low-lying stratocumulus clouds that cover a third of the ocean would increase the albedo effect that the Earth is losing at the North Pole due to melting ice. Tiny aerosol particles could be injected into the clouds, which would increase their reflectivity. Many types of particles could be used, including the silver iodide used in cloud seeding, but sea salt works just fine, so a fleet of special vessels could roam the oceans continuously recycling seawater 30 meters into the air, whence the air currents would do the rest of the job.

However, a cheaper method, more susceptible to fine tuning, would be to distribute sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere from airplanes, especially at the poles. Air currents would do the rest, and the effect would last much longer than sea spray. The global average temperature is already 1 degree C less than it would be without the sulfate pollution from industrial processes. If we cleaned it all up, then the temperature would immediately rise that amount, effectively bringing us to a 2 degree C rise, the very brink of runaway climate change. There are many dangers to this proposal, not least being how easy it would be to do. Another is that it would delay the repair of the ozone holes at the poles, which are closing due to the first successful international treaty on emissions in the Montreal Protocol, eliminating fluorocarbons from refrigeration. Sulfate aerosols at the poles is the climate engineering plan of choice for scientists working on the problem.

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Friday, March 31, 2017


From Healthcare to Earthcare

Many voices from various parts of the political spectrum joined to defeat the ill-considered replacement of the Affordable Care Act in the House this past week. This unity of moderate Republicans with the Freedom Caucus and House Democrats was the result of a vigorous outpouring from constituents during the recent congressional recess. Once the contents of the bill were actually mooted, and people understood that it was not just “other folks” - including the forgotten poor – who would lose their healthcare, but a significant number of those in the middle class as well as the working poor,, then the bill was dead.

The President, impatient with congressional politics, decided to move on. Having already severely weakened the EPA earlier on, he followed this major defeat a few days later with a barrage of executive orders, combined with a draconian [proposed budget designed to cripple environmental protections of all sort. This “sledgehammer” has unified the environmental community for a terrific fight. Such a fight, however, will not be won by an outcry from Greens, but by forging a new national consensus, much as progressives feel that the Trumpcare bill's defeat opens the door for a single-payer system like the rest of the developed world.

Healthcare is important, but we desperately need to care for the health of the earth, what the faith community calls Earthcare. Only with a minimally healthy Earth system can we have not only personal and community health, but all the advantages, comforts, opportunities, and approachable challenges that together make up civilization. Organized society itself depends upon Earth health, as the increasing number of failed states due to climate change (especially water shortages, and, increasingly, regional famine) starkly illustrates.

Slowly, definitely not fast enough, our country has been approaching a consensus on this. As I pointed out here, both parties acknowledged climate change in their 2012 platforms. Despite the denialism that has been a hallmark of the GOP and the corporate disinformation campaign they have abetted,behind the political smokescreens and cartoons, folks are finally starting to get it . The last national poll on global warming found almost 60% of Republican voters accepting its fact. The united front of Republican denialism was starting to crumble before this election, and even after that cataclysm, the number of Republicans in the House climate caucus has grown (they actually lost one in the Senate, due to NH Senator Kelly Ayotte's defeat).

Yet now we have the ongoing Trump disaster. Only it's not just one terrible bill, but a whole host of things, much of it pivoting upon the choice of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. This past week has seen a series of executive orders attempting to cancel much of Obama's environmental legacy – the Keystone Pipeline now has a green light, CAFE standards are being dropped, and the Clean Power Plan gutted. All this accompanied by a presidential 2018 budget proposal that eviscerates environmental protections and climate change regulations. A budget is a moral document, and this one lays it on the line: this President does not value the Earth or the well-being of its inhabitants, human or otherwise.

To take one prime example of the folly of all this, relaxing CAFE standards, which have been a bi-partisan effort through multiple administrations, will actually weaken the US auto industry. Dropping these carefully ratcheted increases in efficiency, combined with Trump's proposed cross-border tariffs, will signal global customers that the future is elsewhere. That future includes electronic vehicles, whose sales are booming worldwide. Rather than helping the auto industry reduce costs, it will collapse demand for its products, which will be retrograde. Not only does this proposal damage the atmosphere, it will undercut the very business it purports to help. This is not a matter for a real estate moghul, abetted by ideologically-charged pseudo-economists to recklessly wade into.

Similarly, Obama's Clean Power Plan works in favor of several regional economies and of some big states, including Red Texas. A trio of western governors, from Oregon, Washington, and California, have come out with a joint statement stoutly defending it, and committing their states to meeting those standards. I expect this will be true of the New England consortium of states, and Gov. Cuomo of New York came out with a joint statement this week with Jerry Brown affirming the plan as well. This aspect of Trump's defiance may help some states economically in the short run, but it will not revive coal, which has been left stranded by economic forces stronger than any faux-populist America-first language. And both of these attempted rollbacks must pass several bureaucratic hurdles before implementation. It will be a long fight.

As for the Paris Accord, the prevailing position within the administration is that we should nominally stay in the UN protocol network, but drop our commitment towards emissions reductions. This would give us political leverage, while cynically washing our hands of the moral commitment. Our leadership in this crucial global effort will be dead, and our biggest competitor, China, will assume that compromised mantle. It is clear that, under Trump's broad assault, the world's tiny sliver of a chance to keep warming below 2C is doomed.

Sadly, our efforts as a nation, and the concerted effort of the UNFCCC over decades, were already insufficient to halt climate disruption. Unless Trump's broad assault is reversed, the next chance for global cooperation on climate will be desperate geo-engineering projects. It is time to put this immoral, incompetent regime under total siege. The Earth's health depends upon it, as do our communities, civic order, and any remaining possibility for sustainable life for future generations.

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