Friday, August 27, 2010


Earth's Tragic Wound and our Collective Denial

At first it seemed that the demise of Deepwater Horizon was a grim present to the environmental community, to the earth herself, reeling from the assault of a global capitalist juggernaut growing more efficiently rapacious every day. With climate legislation hanging in the balance, and only a matter of years at best before major tipping points become irreversible, here was the event to awaken us all, finally bringing together partisan politicians, the business community, enviros, and Main Street.

The terrible truth is that, despite a situation that should lead to a total rethinking and scaling back of our petroleum drilling plans in deep waters, politicians and oilmen alike are pushing for more, not less drilling. Even Obama is only asking for a six-month moratorium (which a federal judge in NOLA with oil investments overturned). After months of negotiations, waffling and compromises, Democratic leaders in the Senate decided not to push for a comprehensive climate bill after all. Then, more surprisingly, Harry Reid decided not to even bring an energy-only bill to the floor.

But even as we have watched the ugly hemorrhage 24-hours live, our eyes have already glazed over, and the main argument is whether or not BP remains a good investment and how to get on with the business of extracting oil. After all, if we don't do it someone else will, and get ahead of us in the process, leaving us in the dustbin of defeat. Just last week, BP said it still may drill in this lode, and oilmen speculated that was why the bottom kill was on hold. BP could just start drilling anew using the relief well.

In a recent post I spoke of the imperative to awaken from our collective dream. If this calamity doesn't awaken us, what will, for Godsake? Why isn't the conversation changing? In fact, the deniers have made significant headway since the wake-up response to “Inconvenient Truth.” This only makes sense if we are 1) depraved at base, ruled by an incorrigible Barbaric Heart; or 2) basically a decent lot, simply addicted to the comforts afforded by oil. Addicted so deeply that we could be shown the imminent destruction of the earth and then go right back to doing everything we can to extract the last drops of ancient sunlight, behaving like crack addicts.

The Old Dream has a tenacious grip, and Business as Usual has all the momentum, despite recent setbacks. It may well be that only global industrial collapse will stop this runaway train, which hasn't really tested its brakes (i.e. becoming “sustainable” by maintaining our present speed rather than accelerating). But if the train is already out of control, actually over the cliff, “sustainability” is a meaningless fantasy.

So what awakens the addict to his addiction, and how does he then change?

We need, now more than ever, to engage the moral imagination – as individuals, and as communities planning what the Transition Town movement calls an “energy descent pathway.” Lovelock calls it a “dignified retreat.” Such an engagement is the first step towards prophecy, which begins with asserting the truth, eyes wide open, actually seeing what is going on and admitting it. The emperor is stark naked, drip lines attached to deep veins of petroleum.

Many of us have had moments of realization, recognizing in a flash that we cannot keep the juggernaut going. Just yesterday I realized that I needed to find honest ways to enhance my retirement income, which includes a modest SS check, rather than persisting to buy penny stocks that might make my margins more comfortable. But this morning I compulsively checked into a lead on a small company with the license to sell efficient refrigerator-sized South Korean nuclear reactors in North America. I may entertain ending my addiction to petroleum, but not to growing my portfolio.

After these moments of awakening, the key is not to go immediately back into the Mainline Dream, mainlining our energy-and-stuff addiction, but to follow the insight with a step towards its realization. Instead, like crack addicts, we resume stealing, something we practice as a civilization, but long ago stopped noticing: archaic mining, mercantile trade, colonial extraction (also slavery, stealing labor and souls), and now global industrial mayhem. Such moments of realization are not truly moral unless they result in action. If we are to preserve a gradual slope to the energy descent pathway, then we continue to need oil. But the moral necessity, what Bill McKibben calls the “moral math”, is 350 ppm CO2 - and we're already at 390. Thus we have more than enough reason to stop deepwater drilling – likewise for flushing out shale oil deposits, blowing up mountains for coal and fracking for methane

Cross-species empathy lies at the core of the mammalian brain. If we were not so removed from the interspecies experience of our ancestors, insulated by our comfortable enclaves, we might well experience this empathy so regularly that we would be incapable of destroying more habitat. I recognize that we have more affinity to the chimp than the bonobo, solving disputes through violence rather than having sex. (Remember Make love, not war?) But we also have an ability perhaps unique in the universe: self-reflection., enabling us to become aware of the divine at our core, indeed at the core of all things. Thomas Berry wrote that we represent the universe's capacity to see itself. So however chimp-like we may behave as a norm, we have within us a radically different way of seeing, and thus living.

So why can't we take it in, the horror in the Gulf from the perspective of all of its inhabitants? Is it simply that the healthy psyche protects itself from imagined pain of this magnitude? Or is that, if we did, we would be given the moral task of ending our dependence on oil - not only for our comfort:
personal autos, air travel, credit cards, foam mattresses, tv dinners...

but the very fabric of our material existence?
running shoes, polyester, nylon, plastic utensils, shopping bags, toothbrushes, computers, CD's, DVD's, bike pumps, insulation, PVC windows, paints, varnish, glue, carpets, pharmaceuticals, most commercial food inputs.

The moral imagination is the uniquely human faculty that connects our divine root, what we Quakers call the Light within, with our lives in the world. Activating that connection, we would see that our material lives have thoroughly intwined us in the entire earth, our mother, poisoning and strangling her. If we were to stay acutely morally awake while continuing to behave as ordinary modern industrial people, the daily contradiction would drive many of us to sacrifice our lives. Such a sickness unto death would expose the moral lie inherent in the “happy (industrial) family.” William James, writing during our industrial adolescence, called those rich in this kind of moral sensitivity sick souls, contrasting them with the “healthy-minded.” But as RD Laing famously pointed out at the end of the sixties, when the world itself has gone mad, the psychotic may be the sanest person around.

There is a moral alternative, though immensely difficult. It is to break the addiction to fossil fuels and the comfortable, option-filled lives they have afforded us, living like kings. How? By forming self-sufficient communities, places to realize that it's not about comfort and endless choice, but about re-experiencing closely interwoven human community - its simple joys, and inevitably sorrow and tragedy as well. The Transition movement is a good place to start. Thse communities can grow where you are, rural or urban. If enough of these form quickly enough, then we will have a shadow society, something to build upon after industrial collapse. And I repeat the growing prophecy. Collapse will come, and it will be soon, when you have it least in mind. Il faut cultiver nos jardins – et nos amis.

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