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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