Friday, March 15, 2019

 

School Climate Strikes Come to the US


Yesterday, local high school students helped load my truck with horse manure from the Appalachian Therapeutic Riding Center for use in our community garden in Celo Community (six families). Banter among the boys, showing off for the lone girl present, was broadly horsey. One boy sported a full Confederate flag as his shirt. Another boy wanted to know what I thought about chewing tobacco. I said it was bad, and the girl agreed. Then someone inevitably brought up politics. The boy who likes to chew said, "I like Trump because he's going to bring the Bible into the schools." I wanted my truck filled with manure, so I didn't take the bait.

A climate strike action is called for noon today in Washington. I know teachers at Mountain Heritage, and ever since Greta Thunberg started her school climate strikes, I have written those teachers to be aware of the movement, and to support their students when the time came. That time has not come to Yancey County, NC, which remains Bible Belt, despite inroads by the liberal, citified retirees who are steadily moving in. Knowing that, none of these teachers has responded, though I'm sure we could talk off the record, given the chance.

This is a youth movement. I'm a Boomer, a worn-down climate warrior who resigned a tenured position to fight the climate wars almost twenty years ago. In that time, carbon emissions have increased hugely, with no legislation having been passed limiting/taxing them, even though many businesses are poised to change their strategy, given the right political leadership. But straight-talking Greta will have none of either. According to her, politicians have done virtually nothing, and are not be trusted. Companies will change, but only if they can continue to make money, which is more important to business interests than the survival of their children and grandchildren, let alone the flourishing of the non-human world.

It may be too late, but the youth of the world - in Sweden, the UK, parts of Europe, and Australia - have awakened to their dire plight. Seeing that education for "good jobs" or being an "informed citizens" is useless in the face of failed ecosystems, economies, and civil institutions, they are taking to the streets. Today is the first big strike date in the US, with a big action scheduled in DC, contemporaneous with gatherings of mostly high school aged youth in many cities, including nearby Asheville. We Boomers, along with a life-web on heightened alert, are acutely interested in how this one goes. And the next, and the next, growing in strength until what business and government do will be moot. That is Greta's vision, and I pray she is right. Even if it's too late, to have a display of love for humanity and the Earth which cradles us, a display of dignity and idealism in the face of widespread sordid politics, would feel like vindication of "God's" creation of a creature who might mirror "Him." Adjusted, to be sure, for immense grief and irony.

Postscript: One and a half million schoolkids worldwide left school for some "home schooling," street-learning style on Friday.  This was the biggest climate action thusfar.  Greta has her own analysis of the action and what it will take to make a difference: "we need a whole new way of thinking."  She emphasizes that we will not be able to solve the climate crisis by working within a capitalist system as currently defined (sorry, Al Gore).  She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.





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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

 

The Great Vanishing

I am not a Jain. When we arrived earlier this month in Spanish Fort Alabama, near Mobile, I noticed the gooey remains of a few bugs on my windshield. This actually gave me a modest thrill. If you are old enough to remember the moth snowstorm, you’ll understand why. It was the first time I have seen some bug remains on the car windshield in years, and it was in the same bug-rich area I first noticed them, when my family drove to the beach at Gulf Shores in the Fifties, with nothing but sand dunes, sea oats, ocean and the narrow 2-lane state highway east of Mobile Bay. I distinctly remember watching the endless sand dunes, usually being the only car, and how long it seemed to take (about 50 miles from my house on Georgia Avenue). Inspecting the clotted windshield, I noted that mosquitoes’ blood was red and moth guts were yellow. When we drove home, the windshield was plastered with bug remains. And yes, I remember night driving in a moth snowstorm, many times.


We need to be more like Jains, who take the greatest care not to kill anything, the vegan orthodox eating only dropped fruit and wilted greens, refusing to drive because of the insect snowstorm, and wearing masks to prevent accidentally inhaling tiny creatures. A friend recently wrote, explaining that he and his partner carefully removed spiders and wasps from their house, concerned not to contribute further to the insect die-off. I have long done the same thing.

The alarm has been sounded by the Germans, who have done the world’s first extensive inventory of flying insects, using a network of amateurs similar to Audobon bird counts in the US. Two years ago German scientists reported a staggering drop of 76% in these numbers over a 27 year period, calling it “biological Armageddon.” At El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, the number of arthopods dropped 98% - before Hurricane Maria. This has led to a plunge in insectivore numbers, with some species disappearing from the forest. This data, and the numerical data which follows, I am reporting from a powerful article recently published in the online journal TomDispatch by Subhankar Banerjee, BiologicalAnnihilation: a Planet in Loss Mode.” 

Vertebrates. It’s not only the polar bear, tiger, leopard, elephant, rhino, and large sea vertebrates like manatees, dolphin, and whales that are at risk. The World Wildlife Fund reports a 60% decline in global vertebrate population from 1970-2014. Some biomes have suffered more than others. Worldwide, 83% of freshwater vertebrates have died. We have heard for quite some time about the die-off in amphibians, especially frogs, but I suspect this is true of many salamanders as well, since they are much less plentiful here in Southern Appalachia – one of the areas in which they have thrived - than they were when I moved here in the Seventies. Vertebrates only make up 3% of the kingdom Animalia, but we and much that we love are part of that family.

Birds. Three and half billion birds die annually from crashing into glass or being killed by feral cats in North America alone. With climate change, the timing of the arrival of birds in spring with the appropriate diet is off. With the passing of the moth snowstorm, species like the chickadee, whose young need large numbers of moth larvae, are in rapid decline. Softwoods in the Western US and the boreal forest of Canada are dying rapidly, hundreds of millions of them. Weakened by stress from severe droughts and rapid warming, they succumb much more readily to pest like the exploding bark beetel population. In New Mexico, 90% of mature pinon trees have died in the last four years. This, too, removes food and nesting places for resident birds.


Ocean life. Ocean life is dying. Since the ocean is our largest carbon sink, and first line of defense against rising CO2, it is acidifying (carbonic acid), making it increasingly difficult for shellfish to make their lime-based shells. Coral reefs are being bleached increasingly from warming oceans, and suffering rapid decline. Starfish on the West Coast are dying from a virus, with ocean warming rendering them more vulnerable. In some areas, 99% of them have died. Sharks, tunas and dolphins, virtually all the top predators, are in rapid decline. Whales are barely holding their own, the blue whale populatoin in particular being held in check by ship strikes. But, as on land, it’s not just the large creatures who are at grave risk. The phytoplankton, chief source of the oxygen we and other animals breathe, are suffering. Two species in the North Pacific are now reported extinct.

All of this is connected. And it is connected to us. The causes of these population collapses are complex and overlapping, but they include over-exploitation of species, agricultural practices, and habitat loss, “all driven by runaway human consumption” (Banerjee), with climate change an exacerbating driver.

The data is devastating. But unless we live these facts, as scientists, naturalists, sportsmen, hikers, and wilderness explorers do, it’s just a mental worry. It passes, and we remain comfortable within the redoubt of our human infrastructure, which has made a dwindling, diminished and suffering parkland of the natural world. So much of what we cherish still holds together, as we enjoy the fruits of civilization built up since the beginning of the Holocene: the symphony, theater, the array of sports events, plenteous food, general civic order, at least in the rich world. But we are teetering on the edge of disaster. The world we inhabit is hollowed out, our sureties misplaced, because we pretend the world of human artifacts, the built world, is bedrock reality. The truth is that the cascading effects of insectageddon and of biological annihilation will reach us, sooner rather than later. Though we have subjected the natural world to enclosure, the walls around the zoo are subject to natural law. We are not outside the system, but thoroughly embedded within it.

I’ll give Banerjee the last word: “To mitigate the crisis, to save life itself, would require not merely the replacement of carbon-dirty fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy, but a genuine re-evaluation of modern life and its institutions.”



Friday, December 14, 2018

 

Inconvenient COP

“We cannot fail in Katowice.”  So Secretary General Guterres warned in Poland last week at the outset of the COP 24 conference of parties to the UNFCCC convention, which began in 1992. Nine years ago, at the pivotal COP 15 in Copenhagen, I was among those who saw a glimmer of hope. But the politicians, those who manage the form the awakening must take for humanity to unite to prevent climate catastrophe, have provided scant leadership over these 25 years, during which CO2 emissions have increased 65%. 

It’s that time of year again, when Advent coincides with the COP.   The challenge in Katowice, which is to outline a firm mechanism for achieving the carbon reduction goals pledged by 197 nations in Paris in 2015,  is inconvenient for the nations of the world. They would rather deal with slightly less intractable issues.  And it is inconvenient to Christians who don’t yet understand that, unless we have a viable species, we can’t worship the coming of the Christ-child. 

I recently had an online debate with a colleague who claimed that “Politics is the major determinant of our lives.”  I disagreed, pointing to instances where individuals overcame the external determinants of politics through inner spiritual development.  But if we do not have a form to ensoul in, my point is moot.  So, building upon his point, I will amend it to “Climate politics is the major determinant  for the survival of our species.”  Some  people, their numbers probably accelerating as we approach the Event Horizon (not a Christianized Saturnalia, but the Incarnation as we never imagined it), will achieve enlightenment/moksha.  But the billions who will require bodies in which to reincarnate to complete their spiritual perfection will be out of options – at least in the universe as we know it.

When I carried hope for the UN-led process, Barack Obama was president. He went personally to COP15, where he brokered the outlines of an agreement with the president of China, then our biggest opponent in the process of drawing up an international treaty to fight climate disruption.  At COP 24, China is the leader of the forces attempting to drive a wedge against the Climate Beast, while the US is working with Russia  and the Saudis to weaken the framework set in Paris.  At COP 24, with Donald Trump having served notice that the US will withdraw form the Paris Accord as soon as contractually possible, the US has been further reduced from irrelevancy to laughing stock.  Our executive, executor of the international goodwill towards the US that has been built since WWII, seized the COP24 stage to sell US coal, his agents improbably arguing that the right mix of fossils would help in the climate war. This may have delighted his base in the US, but the assembled company in Katowice literally laughed at the presentation. Sadly, extinction is no joke.

“Our world leaders have been behaving like children.”  This is the judgment of my latest climate hero, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish 15-year-old who has been on strike from school in an effort to get political leaders to awaken from their moral torpor.  Greta speaks from Stockholm every Friday.  At first, she stood outside Parliament, where the cameras delivered a clear message.  Now Parliament has forced her to move over the bridge, but those who are initiated into her courage don’t need the government trappings to get her point.  In Katowice, where she has been featured in several venues, including an address to the hall of delegates, Greta has made it clear that “we” - the youth who are present in force at the conference, “are not here to beg world leaders to act,” but to serve notice that, since those leaders have consistently failed us, the people, led by those in their teens and twenties, will get the job done themselves.  

In the UK, where Theresa May has withdrawn the Brexit deal for lack of votes, and public unrest like that tearing France apart is waiting in the wing, the other wing is soaring.  The Extinction Rebellion, which means exactly what it says, was able to stop traffic in London, simultaneously occupying five bridges. Then  with a sit-in of over one thousand, they blocked access to Parliament,. In just a matter of weeks, they have over 100,000 members world-wide.  I am one of them.

Back in the US, the youthful Sunrise Movement blocked access to Nancy Pelosi’s office two weeks ago to demand that she lead a Green New Deal package as her top priority for the new Congress in January.  A colleague drives his high school daughter to the actions, and reports an impressive degree of political sophistication and passion among the youthful protesters. 

Greta Thunberg has called for a global climate strike by students today, December 14.  There are already large-scale school strikes in Australia, with Canada also gaining energy and numbers.  I sense that this is just the beginning, and my readers can help drive the momentum. Stand with Greta on Fridays at government offices, schools, and other public places. Write letters to the editor. More importantly, recored your own strike event and share it widely.  This is what an extinction rebellion looks like.


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Friday, November 02, 2018

 

Is It Even Possible to Be Green in Modern Techno-Industrial Society?


So the alienation and division of labor led to a moral anaesthesia in the youthful industrial revolution. That anaesthesia has grown, with the best modern commentary coming from Jacqus Ellul and his critique of "technique,” through which unbridled efficiency comes to rule all business operations and eventually social relations as well. The same dynamic which made pacifism difficult for Birmingham Friends holds true for the modern dilemma, likely our final one, of climate disruption, caused by unleashing stored carbon through the increasingly efficient modes of production of the industrial revolution, which was already firmly established by Samuel Galton’s time. We no longer have control of the process, and though we can influence the rate of carbon release to some degree, the thoroughgoing imbeddedness of human lives in the “infernal” - see William Blake, my favorite Christian prophet next to Jesus – techno-industrial machine has probably doomed the effort. At this point, the atmosphere and oceans already hold too much carbon, and we need to create vast new carbon sinks. Unfortunately, this requires a scale that only an industrial state can manage, with Faustian efficiency.

Case in point. I have a friend who turned in his driver’s license several years back. He lived in an owner-built yurt, grew a large garden, kept chickens and ducks, hunted and fished. As his daughter grew older, he watched as his wife chauffeured that daughter to all her pre-teen activities, feeling a heavy burden of guilt towards his family. He was a passionate ecologist, but this just wasn’t fair. So he got his driver’s license back, and drawn by the energy of commerce and the power of mechanical engagement, bought a big new truck (the first new vehicle of his life) and acquired a business, which he and his wife have grown (an ecological one, fixing motherboards for commercial dryers), doubling its workforce. They now travel around the world, and their business is booming.  I recently asked him if he still had a garden, and he answered that he didn’t have time. Same for the poultry. He does still hunt deer, which he can watch in the broad expanse behind the cabin he bought and remodeled. He does not use the high-tech gadgets that many local hunters have adopted.


My point is that, whereas my friend previously tried to live as simple and self-sufficient life as possible, he now has a busy, complex life, with a huge balance sheet of eco-sins and eco-virtues. Nothing is simple for him or his family anymore. I’ve known others who have tried to live simpler lives, subsisting in teepees, putting up food. But in every case, life’s necessities have led them into something more comfortable and economically sustainable.


When we moved back to the NC mountains at the millennium, we managed with one car. I organized carpools, and more often borrowed friends’ cars (the chief person, who had the most cars in the family fleet, called me on this inconsistency after several months). We recently acquired a second Prius, so that, with Geeta commuting for work 8 days a month, I wouldn’t need to drive the farm truck (acquired from the friend who surrendered his license; we live a in a small world out here) to Asheville to visit family and go to choral rehearsals on at least a weekly basis. That makes three vehicles. Funny, but when I asked the motherboard man several years ago if he would join me in creating a local transportation network for us rural mountain folk, he scoffed, saying that Asheville (48 miles distant) was not “local.”

The big push among enviros is to create a 100% renewable energy system. Among progressive architects, it’s to create zero-emissions buildings. Green farmers aim for even more, which is to grow carbon-negative crops, with the most exciting possibilities coming from agro-forestry. Just recently, the Asheville City Council joined many larger cities in voting to make city buildings and functions 100% renewable by 2030. Trouble is, the city controls but a tiny fraction of Asheville real estate. And there’s no farmland in WNC available for young folks who want to change modes of production.

But “renewables” are yet another industrial mode, with gains in efficiency of producing energy, still bearing industrial-level costs. The rare earth metals required in wind turbines and solar panels come almost exclusively from China, where activities associated with their mining and transport have devastated entire traditional farming communities and endangered their water supply. All of the plans that will save us from burning all the stored carbon and methane in the earth’s crust are simply redirections of the Elephant which is our techno-industrial say of life. To be embraced, they must be as unnoticeable and painless as possible. The not-so-hidden premise of all these proposals is to preserve the system. Preserving the Earth, and her “ecosystem services” without which global capitalism could not exist, remains mostly at a cognitive level. If we felt this in our entrails, then we would join Ned Ludd and his crowd  and throw off our industrial, statist chains.

Carbon costs are not simply convertible to dollars through a tax, no matter how carefully structured (a fair tax would cost many times what is being proposed, with a racheting up that would never be achieved before Doomsday, at even the most rapid rates of proposed increase). Our economic activity should be measured in carbon dioxide expenditures, the dollars be damned! But this kind of thinking is limited to a few rogue economists, anarchists, and idealists, who have not made much headway during the Climate Emergency. 

I recently read a review of William Vollman’s Carbon Ideologies, an extensive report published in two volumes as fiction, since his publishers lacked the courage to publish the facts. Among his chillingly telling points was to point out how catastrophic it will be for India to raise its standard of living even to the level of Namibia; they are dead set on becoming like us as quickly as possible, and making progress. Why shouldn’t the poor want to live with the comforts of the rich? This is the human dilemma.

In the fall of 2000 I attended a life-altering training with Joanna Macy in leading despair and empowerment groups. Her husband Fran made periodic reports to us on the news of the world, as it affected climate disruption. One morning, he announced that China had just been voted into the WTO. A poet in the group immediately burst into tears – an example of the kind of moral imagination we lack so badly. Her reaction was one of the most memorable moments of a powerful fortnight. The world has doubled its carbon emissions since that date, largely due to China’s unprecedented rate of industrial development.

In such a world, we need a total restructuring of the economic-political model. Thomas Berry said in his final book that we needed a “Re-invention of the human, at the species level.” Think tanks and fringe socialist are not going to do that. Nor are California crystal-worshippers. Social evolution is moving rapidly towards the complete embrace of technique, in Ellul’s sense. The evolution of consciousness operates at the personal level, not the group. Biological evolution takes a long time, but given the immense power evolution on this planet has shown, with niches rapidly expanding after each large extinction event, I place hope in Nietzsche’s insight that we are a bridge species, that must ubergehen - “go over,” “go beyond,” transcend itself, through traveling the immensely thin archipelago to a future conscious species, an Overman characterized by emotional intelligence and moral imagination, not just overdeveloped frontal lobes hard-wired to a reptilian brain-stem.

Make love, not war, said the bonobo to the chimp.

Recorded on a remote camera, a troupe of baboons once spontaneously sat down by a deep pool in the midst of the forest, staying for half an hour, even their young mostly stilled. Just as suddenly as they had halted, they got up and went about their foraging business. A simple life framed in silence, a possibility for highly evolved primates with a mystical bent embraced – but never fully realized – by the Society of Friends.


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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

 

Pacifist Challenges in Early Industrial Society


Among the many interesting connections for me at Geeta’s 50th Stanford Reunion last weekend was the "aha" moment I had during a lecture by the Stanford historian Priya Satia on “Samuel Galton, Quaker Gunmaker.” In 1795, Birmingham Meeting admonished Galton and his family for being gunmakers, after a quietist century of tolerating them. Galton was a central figure in the meeting, and a member of the Birmingham Enlightenment. He published a broadside in response, pointing to the naivete and hypocrisy of his Quaker peers in criticizing him for taking part in an activity in which all of them were complicit. He refused to be excommunicated, and continued to sit at his accustomed bench, coming early to Meeting and greeting his peers. He continued to give large donations to Birmingham Meeting, and they were accepted.

Satia’s analysis of the process of gunmaking in industrial Birmingham clarified anew for me the insidious nature of industrial capitalism. Galton’s foundry made several metal parts for the guns, as well as toys and sewing tool parts, nails, etc. But craftsmen made the gunstocks and others assembled the guns. The Quakers, like everyone else in England, were swept up in the “civilizing” effect of guns, which were not all that effective and mostly just brandished until they became more efficient late in the eighteenth century. Highwaymen, who would formerly cut one’s throat, were seen as “gentlemen” when they merely accosted travelers at gunpoint. Guns were just one manifestation of the bristling, burgeoning industrial revolution, and the many wars of the century were generally experienced as part of British national civilizing effort. Everything changed with the the Napoleonic Wars, and it became quickly clear aftter the British became involved in 1795 that guns were actually being aimed at living beings with the purpose of killing them, rather than ritualistic orderly firings in the general direction of the enemy. Murderous intent with more advanced weaponry made Birmingham Friends wake up to the truly non-pacifist nature of the tool.

What I realized from the historian’s careful analysis of the process of gunmaking over the eighteenth century was that the alienation of labor, as Marx put it, and its division into many different parts both removed the satisfaction of crafting one’s work s well as subtly displacing moral responsibility for one’s productions. This was true both for producer and consumer. We have inherited a hyper-evolved version of the early industrial model, with more and more steps and players, with both the sourcing of materials and the making of finished products now a worldwide web of material interactions. The process of making running shoes comes to mind, with a dizzying number of players all over the planet making a single shoe.

Galton, an intelligent and experienced factory owner, understood this process, while his fellow Quakers did not, making it much easier for them to blame Galton for his part in a process which the government had deliberately broken into many different components so this key industry could not be sabotaged by enemies. Even after 225 years, we still look at the tools of war as if they were separate from the rest of the industrial process, through which humankind is making war on the Earth (and using trade to periodically make war on others). We oversimplify, because we want to feel good, washing our hands of evildoing. But these evils are a multitude thoroughly intertwined with our entanglement with the capitalist machine.

At the end of the lecture, Geeta stood up to reaffirm Satia’s point about the complicity of all members of society in the creation of a nationalist citizenry entrained within the nascent industrial complex. She quoted John Woolman’s prescient words, “Let us look upon our treasure, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try to discover, whether the seeds of war are nourished by these our possessions.” The host for the lecture said to me afterwards that Geeta had perfectly summed up the lecturer’s point.

Woolman was a moral genius, seeing the implications of every separate action and pattern of economic behavior, and addressing those involved: Quaker slavers, Quaker owners of whaling vessels (Woolman calculated the rate of kill and said that it would not be too many decades before the whale population would be endangered), wearers of died clothing, users of whale oil. The list goes on and on. But Woolman’s life was only a small degree as embedded in the industrial complex as our own. To have the same degree of moral perspicuity as he would require us to be saints, if not avatars of moral insight, which would lead to lives very difficult to construct without a large local workforce (a large family, a good sized plot of land, and probably some animals, even if we had vegan inclinations).

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

 

The Great Filter...and Beyond


I must confess to feeling like I’ve been traversing a morass, the molasses-tarbaby into which I fell in the last post. The whole point of “Losing Earth” and its critics is to assign blame for our apparent failure to steward the Earth and to steward a future for our offspring. I found myself agreeing in some ways with both sides, thus the tarbaby.

But what if there is no blame at the level of either individual choice or social system/policy? There may well be something at the species level that dooms us to prefer maximizing present advantages to planning for a longterm future we can neither understand nor imagine. This is the position of Craig Dilworth, and I have yet to read a a cogent counterargument to his Too Smart for Our Own Good.

Another line of thinking derives from Fermi’s Paradox, the apparent contradiction between the high probability for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for them. As Fermi said, “Where is everybody?” Robin Hanson and Glen Brin have responded with the idea that the Great Silence with which we are greeted from apparently dead space is caused by the “Great Filter”: it is in the nature of advanced civilizations to destroy themselves before they get to the point of colonizing other suitable planets. This occurs either by (something like) nuclear war, ecological collapse, or simply because complex civilizations fall victim to their own complexity. One writer noted that the success of complex civilizations means that they grow until they outstrip their energy resources, and in the process doom themselves to death by carbon.

Advanced industrial civilizations extract so much from their planetary base that they eventually destroy their very conditions for life. If life on other planets – and the odds are huge that it is commonplace in the universe – does not reach the level of interplanetary communication or travel, then it is either because it never reached the level of complexity of our global civilization, or it was able to restrain itself before it reached the Great Filter. Many Hindu sages point to the legend about their ancient forebears backing off rocketry, because ancestral sages foresaw the inevitable results. This may not be true, but respect for wisdom, rather than power, would certainly rein in the potential for a civilization to project itself far into interstellar space. But look at India now, trying to be like the US as fast as possible, and using more coal per energy unit than any other nation on Earth. In the case of the lost decade in the Climate Wars, it is not neoliberalism per se that was the culprit. The socio-political structure was going to somehow manifest this flaw in hyperadvanced higher life forms.
I am a deeply spiritual person, and I agree that the spiritual maturation of the species would mean that anthropogenic climate change would never have become our endgame. Nobody wants to give up on the prospect of breaking through to the level of species wisdom for which I referenced Joanna Macy’s comments in my last post. As Thomas Berry wrote in The Great Work, we need “to reinvent the human at the species level.” But when Gary Snyder was asked about when he thought humans would reach that level, he answered with a chuckle, “ten thousand years.”

In the meantime, what do we do now? E.O. Wilson keeps emphasizing conserving hotspots (his latest, perhaps bravest book is Half Earth, arguing for putting half of the Earth aside for other species). We will not be able to preserve coastal cities, grainbelts, and fisheries. Conserving genetically diverse hot spots will help prime the evolutionary pump for the next efflorescence, the rapid speciation which will follow, when the time is ripe, the current Sixth Extinction.

Even if it is too late to save civilization, which has not been so kind to the Earth community, even if we have broken our covenant with the Unnameable, those of us who are faithful need to avoid cynicism and despair. (Not easy, my friends!) We need to live and work as if we were in covenant relationship with God. We need to work to restore the covenant, recognizing that this will not bear fruit in this incarnation of higher life. The end is near, and the future will unfold, but living in affirmation of that future, preserving what we can of gene pools and best practices, even as the culture for those practices heads into its death spiral, is the task. This is the huge role of spiritual leaders, conservationists, traditional culture bearers, teachers, and honest, caring writers and artists.

It is unutterably sad to observe that the desperately needed transformation of humans simply has not happened quickly enough to avert climate catastrophe. I mourn the end of the holocene period and the splendid, diverse array of life the era which has been our home, the cenozoic. But the basis for true hope lies in the regenerative potential of evolution on Earth. In the end, we must not read Biblical hope locally in terms of life in the holocene, or even in terms of Earth. history The Creator is not simply a middle eastern sky god hanging out in an Islamic Paradise Garden trying to manage his wayward children. “He” is the Unnameable, creator and lord of worlds upon worlds, with no limits. Not only does She (It) not look like your grandfather; God isn’t even a noun, which is form of hypostasy and idolatry. Godding (GK Chesterton) is the process by which the indwelling Source manifests itself throughout Creation.

I have many conversations these days with folks where we agree that those of us alive today will neither save nor lose the Earth, for she will endure. The biggest fault in the Nathaniel Rich piece is in the false title, chosen for dramatic effect, “Losing Earth.” Balderdash. As I have posted here before, there are one to two billion years of evolutionary history ahead of us on this sweet spot in the Universe. And now astronomers and astrophysicists are realizing another insight of the ancient Hindus, that the universe is not a one-time event. It is not a Big Bang as much as a Big Bounce. The cosmological theory that has reigned during my lifetime is fast being replaced by one that fits the facts better. The universe appears, ends, and reappears. It is regenerative. That is another story, one which both reinforces a sense of covenant stewardship towards the Deep Future and helps us forgive ourselves for failing this time around.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

 

The Covenant is Broken: What Now?

Over the past year, the self-censorship of climate scientists has begun to thaw, and the timid predictions of  the IPCC are being questioned ever more robustly.  Academics from allied fields peering into the abyss are no longer fearful of losing their careers, and elder scientists no longer fear losing their grants. Catastrophic climate change either has already begun (see accompanying firemap), as some researchers argue, or it will be upon us in a matter of scant years. The popular article announcing this sea-change is the recent NYT Magazine piece, “Losing Earth.”

In this richly researched piece, focusing on a few key figures (James Hansen and Rafe Pomerance are the good guys; John Sununu their chief nemesis), Nathaniel Rich argues that “we” had a chance during the pivotal decade for climate science and public policy (1979-89), but blew it. He sums his argument with this: “Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties, or as individuals are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” It seems we are wired to "obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the longterm out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.”

Naomi Klein, the brilliant and passionate ecosocialist journalist, replied furiously that it was the neoliberals who “lost the Earth,” not the royal “we” of Rich’s piece, because the masses are disempowered, even in so-called liberal democracies.  Climate research arrived at the moment between two political and economic paradigms, with the remnants of the New Deal, augmented by Rachel Carson,  Earth Day and the Nixon Congress, replaced by neoliberalism.   Any “deals” on the climate, would have to work within the new framework, viz carbon trading, carbon taxes, and that ugliest of terms, “ecosystem services.” Klein’s analysis - see her full-blown argument in This Changes Everything-  is astute and well-researched, though her solution to the climate dilemma – a global socialist revolution by 2019 – is a progressive’s fantasy. 

Though neoliberalism arrived during the Reagan presidency, it continued into the first Bush presidency, Clinton, and the presidents serving since the pivotal 2000 election.  The Republican Party remains its primary champion, but it has captured the political elites of all sides and in all countries. I remember the amazement with which I read a short newspaper piece reporting on an Asian economic summit where Bill Clinton called the Market a “force of nature.”   Here's an excellent history and critique of neoliberalism.

Peter Sawtell, whose Ecojustice Notes is a welcome weekly invitation to ecospiritual dialogue, also challenges Rich’s assertions about human nature, linking to a rich series of articles from the liberal press.  More than one of them points out that, whereas Rich tries to show that some Republicans in Congress were ready to act on climate even before their Democratic colleagues, and that Exxon did early research which corroborated the claims of climate scientists, the Republican Party, above all other political forces on the planet, and the Big Fossil oligarchy, headed by Exxon, have done more damage in the political climate wars than any other players. 

So, are Klein and Sawtell et al correct, that it is social, political and economic structures at work here, rather than something called “human nature?”  From a broadly Marxist perspective, they are. But I’m afraid that both personal psychology and social behavior are aspects of the all-too-human.  Industrial capitalism, which has extended its reach beyond liberal democracies to the state capitalism of China, has magnified the terrifying power of our crafty minds and vastly extended hands. Yes, Naomi, just as the necessary conditions for grappling with the dreadful awakening of the Climate Beast (Tim Flannery) came together, the perfect storm of the neoliberal inflection of economics, industry and politics arrived as well.  

In This Changes Everything, Klein makes the case for a simmering global socialist uprising, which is the only thing that can save us.  She is arguing for structural change, and she’s talking non-violent revolution.  Precisely.  The powers that be, even if they have a vise-grip, remain in power only as long as the masses tolerate them.  Change must be born in the hearts and minds of human beings, which are immensely malleable, however noble their capabilities at the highest range. My mentor Joanna Macy has identified the key problem, which is that the self-reflexive consciousness that humans and a few other big-brained mammals have achieved, has not broken through to the level of social systems.  We do have “esprit de corps” in various organizations, though it’s probably declining, and orators can stir mass passions  - for good or bad.  But the whole social system responding as one to all the feedback necessary for survival has not happened yet.  The history of consciousness is full of such breakthroughs at the level of the individual personality, all the way to God-consciousness. Joanna suggests that the current crisis for the survival of higher life on Earth could be what engenders “self-reflexivity on the next holonic level,” that is at the level of social systems.  She wrote this twenty years ago.

Rich’s focus on individual personalities satisfies our hunger for and identification with the hero’s quest – and James Hansen, who I have met twice, is one of mine.  But this model is inadequate for the terrifying global moment in which we stand.  As Larry Rasmussen says, we cannot solve anthropocene problems with holocene tools of imagination and morality.  Some of these are part of the problem, especially our enduring tendency to measure everything in terms of its effect on humans alone, rather than the whole Earth community.

A perfect storm stopped effective climate action just as it was crystallizing. It was more than just “human nature” that caused humanity to miss the chance in the 80’s to prevent climate catastrophe. Neoliberalism both 1) undermined the devotion to social welfare of a world order where Keynesian constraints (“embedded liberalism”) reigned in unfettered capitalism and 2) led us more fully into the all-too-human characteristics of procuring as much as we can for ourselves and our tribe.  Indeed, the “end of history” now has the ironic ring of the end of global civilization, rather than the triumph of the capitalist West.

However, underneath political and economic theory, anthropologists and primatologists have identified patterns which make escaping the endgame of civilization unlikely, and the exhaustive polymath Craig Dilworth has written a longterm history coming to the conclusion that we are Too Smart for Our Own Good (and too Dumb to Change), which I reviewed in this blog. Though it’s not fashionable these days, there is something one could call human nature, rooted in the genetic and behavioral matrix of the primate order.  Evolutionary breakthroughs which might refine that nature may be more frequent at moments of great stress, but it’s getting awfully late in the game.

After the Flood, the Unnameable made a rainbow sign in the clouds signaling his covenant  “between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come,” to preserve Creation (especially to not send the floodwaters again).  Generations have felt comfort from these words in Genesis (12-16).  But with the oceans beginning their now inexorable rise, anxiety creeps in among the faithful who pay attention to Creation, and dread certainty among those of who are awake.  We have broken our end of the covenant, upon which the theology of stewardship has been built.  But this is not the end of the story.

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