Tuesday, April 25, 2006



Ah, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.

The human precognition of death has long had a philosophical-religious counterpart in an awareness of the death of material creation. This came with the same flourish announced by the elevation of a tribal chariot-god, Yahweh, to King over all other gods, King of the Universe itself, Creator-God who had the power to end what He had begun. The Creator ex nihilo brought with Him the escathon.

It took twentieth-century scientific cosmology to flesh this out in terms of linear expectation. The same calculations that have given us astounding accuracy in assessing the age of the universe, 14.5 billion years, with radio telescopes penetrating back now under the first billion years since its birth in the Big Bang, predict the coming end of the universe in several billion years. Long before that, the earth and our local solar system will die with the heat-death of our sun.

I remember my alarm a few years ago when I misremembered the projected death of the earth as half a billion years. "That's too soon," I thought. I was relieved when I reread the book chapter, correcting the date to 4.5 billion years. Death will certainly come, to us and to the earth herself, but we want it to wait as long as possible. The immediacy of the one century that Lovelock gives our species is much scarier (see "Riding the Fearsome Wave of Now", my last post). I look at my new grandson and start calculating the generations left, no longer numberless as the sands, but scant indeed. Now the Damoclean sword of personal death expands to family death, tribal death, national and multinational death, species death. Due to our powers of self-reflection, we are the first species not only to face personal death, but the death of our material form, homo sapiens sapiens.

Material form I say, contemplating Plato's theory of Forms, echoed in the Book of John with Jesus the Word containing the form of man, Adam/Jesus. The more practical Aristotle would say that once extinct, our form is essentially dead. Even Aristotle's famous acorn no longer contains the oak if there is no suitable soil to plant it in. No soil for the oak, no viable earth for the seed of man, the homunculus. No functioning earth-system, no entelechy. Extinct, no form.

Still, I have hope. My hope comes not from aspirations of a transcendent heaven, but from recognizing that Gaia will outlast us. But Gaia, like the rest of material creation, has a finite life, bounded by the limits that Western science's powerful model places upon a universe whose enormous energies are subject to the second law of thermodynamics, the theory of entropy which sentences the whole magnificent dance to ultimate heat-death. Western physics has been superb at taking us back to the Big Bang as point of origin for our universe. But observing its methodical rules, its priests go on to say that this moment, which our radio telescopes are zeroing in upon, was the birth of everything: time and space, as well as the mysterious hidden elusive Driver of the whole dance. Everything is chance. The universe suddenly appeared out of nowhere, is going through it's life cycle and will die. As the Budweiser commercial has it, "You only go 'round once," the trademark of Yahwist, western cosmology.

But Gaian hope, which gives me a huge context to imagine beyond the limits of what our species has wrought, is not the boundary of my hope. For me the mysterious power that created this universe preceded it and will outlast it. And it has the power to do so again and again. The Hindu sage Aurobindo, who lived during the same era in which the basic cosmology of western science was being revolutionized by Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg, explained the birth and death of countless universes in terms of a divine cycle of introversion and extroversion. During the introverted stage, the divine sinks into its own essential nature, and the universe rests as potential form. During the extroverted stage, e.g. the Big Bang and its aftermath, it displays itself in a magisterial panoply of material forms in evolutionary flux. Aurobindo merely restates what ancient Hindu sages had intuited, but he does it with an elegance that matches the theorems simultaneously being produced in the West (See the Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo). The point of Hindu cosmology, given to us by the same culture which first conceptualized zero and the idea of infinity, is that divine creation is not constrained by the limits that Western science carries like an escathalogical seed, a terminator meme within its elegant, but severely bounded theories.

As the wave swollen by feverish carbon burning begins to break upon us, ending a magnificent geological era in which our species arose and upon which all our earthly hopes rest, my Gaian hope is for complex life to continue to evolve in earth's remaining time. We know that the earth will outlast us and endure until her time, too, ripens. But it took a universe and time to evolve the magnificent Cenozoic. What kind of progeny will an aging earth have who has been blasted by a thankless, reckless child? My hope centers upon Gaia, and if I am faithful to what I know, living with integrity, then I will live as if to sustain the fabric of the Cenozoic, even as it tatters and collapses.

Beyond this field of dharma, Kali Yuga, the end-time of Earth's Cenozoic era, my deepest hope and faith are in the unquenchable and infinite possibilities of the Source of this universe, which even now prepares its rest from the battlefield of cosmic striving. Entropy is a universal law, yet it is matched by limitless Creation, implicit in the very fabric of possibility, even beyond space-time.

But if it is humans that you love, and other mammals, and the wildflowers of spring, and the fishes and frogs, and the birds and magnificent forest remnants of this earthly time, then look upon those faces and forms you love best, with the gaze of a dying man hungry for every moment of consciousness, and commit them to soul-memory. And if the soul transmigrates not only between lives in this bounded universe, but between universes, perduring through the long sleep of Brahma in between, then she will remember, however inchoate the form in the consciousness of another being totally unlike us, and our images will be everlasting in a way the seed of our species can never be.

Rest well, oh Brahma. May your great works continue to prosper, in universe after universe. And you, my loves, my children and grandchildren, live the best life you can, as if this world would always remain in pristine, balanced perfection. As the itinerant rabbi in Palestine said 2000 years ago, the Father's Kingdom spreads out upon the earth, if we would only see.

Monday, April 03, 2006


"It's the end of the world as we know it..."

Indeed it is. Global population is rapidly outstripping resources, farmland is degrading or being turned into malls, factories, and housing, a massively disruptive global warming trend has begun which can be stabilized only by an immediate 70% reduction of CO2 emissions. The myth of progress is in its final manifestation: global economic growth masking greed. We are rapidly bringing to a close the Cenozoic era, the greatest efflorescence of species the Earth has ever known. The sixth of the great extinctions in the 3.5 billion year history of life on this beautiful planet is human﷓induced, and is happening far faster than any of those preceding us.

Some of us know this cognitively. Intuitively, we all do, as
do all creatures on earth. So why don't we act?

"...And I feel fine."

Most of us shrink from the awful burden of this knowledge and
are in denial, which results in blocked feeling, manifesting as
indifference and cynicism - the Greeks called it apatheia. For
many years I have followed the work of a remarkable woman, Joanna
Macy, a Buddhist religious scholar who began her work as a global
activist in the context of nuclear holocaust fears. In the nineties, her focus turned to the global ecological crisis, but the approach remains the same: she guides people in facing the fear, feeling the grief and despair through to the other side, reframing the situation to gain a sense of personal empowerment to act.

In fall 2000 I joined a 12-day intensive retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains which she led with a remarkable group of people from all over the world - activists, teachers, artists, housewives, scientists, poets, African wildlife wardens, therapists, monks. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, confirming a new direction for my life﷓work.

Joanna is a consummate teacher, making such ideas as systems theory (which is at the heart of the analysis and a key to understanding the ecological web) accessible to a general audience. Above all, she is a master ritualist, employing ritual to take us
places we could never access through head﷓work. A translator of Rilke, she often deepens her point with poetry (and invites us to do the same), which works to break through our defenses in startling ways.

The learning cycle which this work repeats in spiral form
moves from gratitude through despair and grief to reframing the
situation in a new light, ending with an action plan. It seems
that the catharsis of the second step, which includes expressions
of rage, grief, fear and deadening apathy, leads to clarity of
mind, a fresh point of view which opens to hope and possibility,
thus fresh gratitude. If we go into the grief, we become connected
to the beings in pain, and feel the energy with which they are
trying to survive: we connect to a life-force beyond our own meager
means, and are empowered to be our warrior-selves, if only a little

I knew that the heart of this work would be getting in touch
with grief - grief about species loss, loss of forest cover, clean
water and air, loss of human cultural diversity, of stable, viable
social forms, and of ways of life like small farming. What I did
not understand is that the process is cyclical and unending.
Opening myself to the Earth's pain, I came down with a bad cold
which threatened to become a sinus infection. When I came home I
immediately was hit with the worst back and hip pain I have ever

Through all of this, I struggled to widen my experience of personal suffering to embrace the earth's suffering - species fighting for their survival, the redwoods two canyons away that were being cut on a 70 degree stream slope, my sister's bouts with chemo after a mastectomy this summer. Compassion has never been my strong suit; by nature and training I lead with judgment. But I found myself correcting initial judgments of my fellow retreatants, moving to empathy for their situations. Unexpectedly, this released energy, opening me up to possibility, rather than shutting down behind a comfortable sense of superiority.

Yes, this is difficult work, and the more deeply we understand
the degree of breakdown in the web of natural systems, the longer
the odds appear of any hope of changing the situation. If I try to
carry this burden alone, I am immediately overwhelmed. But Joanna
works from a deeply spiritual base (Buddhism) and insists that if
we are going to stick with it, we must stay in touch with these
depths, each according to our tradition or conviction. Another
dimension of her teaching genius which I find unique is "Deep Time"
work: getting in touch with our ancestors and with future beings -
inhabitants of a world we can make possible through our action,
awareness, and prayer. We also created a "Council of All Beings," where each of us took on the persona of a non-human form of the Web and had the chance to plead our case before a captive jury of humans. All of these beings live deep within us, and energize us when we awaken to the gift and challenge of our historical moment.

Where I have engaged this work in particular is with the churches in Western North Carolina, beginning with those most aware of the need to shift to an earth-based spirituality, then moving on in widening circles. Each of has a work to perform in what Joanna calls, with immense hope, "The Great Turning," a holonic shift which must occur in our lifetimes if it is to happen at all. Remember, if you know the truth and don't act upon it, it works as a poison and corrupts you from the inside. If you deny the truth, then you are shutting down the life-force in you, refusing the full joy of existence by excluding the pain and grief of our historical moment.
It's the end of the world as we know it...and I feel energized to save remnants of it as possibilities of renewal in a future we need dare imagine.

Readers' Note: this is a repost of my blog preceding "Net Loss" on dying coral reefs. Somehow it got deleted. It remains an island of hopeful response to the "Long Emergency."

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