21 Questions for 2020: #7

7. How can we best help Mother Nature to heal herself from the desecrations of the Industrial Revolution? 

This question hit home for me in the past week, as local officials announced plans for dredging the Housatonic River, which runs through the heart of Berkshire County, MA, where I live, and creating a 20-acre toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood in the town of Lee, MA. 

Like so many other rivers across the country and the world, the Housatonic River was polluted with PCBs by industry—in this case, General Electric (GE), during its heyday as a manufacturer of electrical transformers. 

The river has been remarkably resilient—I see bald eagles, blue herons and many kinds of waterfowl there all the time. But the PCBs buried in the sediment remain a potent carcinogenic hazard, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ruled must be cleaned up.

At a recent informational meeting, an EPA official talked dispassionately about the “biota” that would be destroyed through the dredging. As he spoke, I had visions of the frogs, fish and crayfish sleeping quietly at the bottom of the river, not knowing that soon the steel jaws of giant machines would be coming to take them away. 

The EPA’s argument, which has been accepted by town officials, is that it is necessary to disrupt and essentially kill the river in order to clean it. Once the PCB-laden mud is out of the river bottom, they say, things will get back to normal. 

But under the EPA plan, the people of Lee will have to accept a dangerous new normal: a toxic waste site the size of five football fields, 20 feet deep, rising 50 feet high, holding up to a million cubic yards of contaminated soil, right in the residential neighborhood of Lenox Dale.

Local folks are especially angry that they were not given a chance to vote on this solution. It was presented as a done deal, although there will now be a period of public comment. There is a movement afoot to bring a vote to the town meetings, which could send the negotiators back to the table. 

What are the larger issues here? 

1. No one trusts the good intentions of the EPA. Especially in the Trump era, the EPA has become the handmaiden of industries with terrible records of environmental assault. Why should we trust them when they promise that the dredging won’t result in airborne PCBs, or that the plastic-lined toxic waste dump won’t leak poison into the groundwater?

2. People trust the good intentions of GE even less. This is the same company that created a toxic waste dump for PCBs right alongside an elementary school in its hometown of Pittsfield MA, which has been plagued with cancer since the mid-20th century, as the PCBs came home to roost in people’s bodies. After having built up Pittsfield as a factory town and carelessly disposing of toxic waste in the county river, GE decamped around the turn of the 21st century, and has spent millions in resisting the responsible clean-up of its poisonous leavings.

3. Shipping to a toxic waste site in another state is NIMBYism, no doubt about it; I can’t whole-heartedly support that solution, although it does seem obvious that a dump should not be located in a heavily populated area like central Berkshire County, which is economically reliant on its appeal as a scenic tourist destination.  

4. If the towns were to appeal this decision in the courts, it is possible that an even worse solution would be mandated. Would the anti-environmental Trump courts and EPA accept GE’s initial proposal of three toxic dumps in residential neighborhoods, instead of one big one? Full disclosure: one of those three was proposed for a beautiful patch of riverside forest, just a few blocks from my house—almost literally in my backyard. 

The case of the Housatonic River clean-up is a microcosm of similar issues all over the world, as we the people of the 21st century grapple with the damages wrought by 20th century industries. There are some important lessons to be learned here. 

1. We have to think of future generations in everything we undertake.

Yes, “GE brought good things to life” as it created its lightbulbs and transformers. But it did not sufficiently account for all the bad side effects it was also creating, such as PCBs. It flushed them down the river, like so many other New England factories and mills, without understanding the longterm effects of these chemicals on the ecosystem. Going forward, we have to insist that industry be more careful—for example, with fracking, one of the huge chemical scourges of the 21st century.

2. It is always best to work with Mother Nature rather than against her.

Why aren’t EPA officials paying more heed to the possibility of cleaning the river sediments with bioremediation techniques? There are many promising test cases of bacteria or fungi that can “eat” and neutralize hazardous chemicals, without harming the “biota” of the river—a dispassionate scientific term for the fish, frogs, birds, insects and plants that call the river home.

Human beings are so intelligent. We have or can create solutions to every problem we face today—solutions that will not, like a plastic-lined toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood, end up causing as many problems as they purport to solve. 

Past generations did not realize the harm they were inflicting on innocent wildlife and people as industry grew in the 20th century. We are now reaping the results of that shortsighted negligence, and we can’t claim ignorance anymore. 

We know the harm these chemicals wreak. We owe it to ourselves and future generations, human and more-than-human, to clean up our act—and do it right.

21 Questions for 2020: #6

#6. How can we live in better relationship with all the living beings with whom we share this planet, and learn from them about how to live in harmony with Gaia?

I find it interesting and telling that the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) mention animals only in the context of ritual sacrifice or agriculture. I’m no religious scholar, so correct me if I’m wrong, but the only exception from Biblical times that I’m aware of is the story of Noah, who saved not only domestic animals but also wild animals from the terrible flood. 

Contrast this to older human religions and mythology, in which wild animals figure significantly, sometimes even merging with humans, as in the Greek centaurs and gods like Pan. Even the major gods of the Greek pantheon often assume animal form to accomplish certain missions, and sometimes turn each other into animals for fun or spite. 

The twin Enlightenment gospels of Christianity and Science have wrenched western humanity away from our ancient respectful relationships with the more-than-human kingdoms. 

I don’t think I have to tell you how damaging Darwin was to our reverence for wildlife and to our understanding of natural relations. We are only just beginning to recover from the imprint of the “survival of the fittest” and “tree of life” doctrines, which dovetailed so nicely with the rise of corporate capitalism and racist colonialism in their valorization of cut-throat competition and hierarchical social relations, with rich straight white men always at the top and wild animals way, way at the bottom, just a rung above the insects and microbes.

These early years of the 21st century have seen a shift in understanding, at least among thoughtful people who are tuned in to what is happening with the more-than-human realms of our planet. It started in the 70s, with Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry, Joanna Macy, Arne Naess and many others, who understood that collaboration is the watchword of our biosphere, with each living being and natural element of our planet contributing to the wellbeing of the Gaian whole. A better metaphor for life would be a spiraling cycle, not a vertical tree. 

We are coming to understand now how absolutely the larger, more visible denizens of the Gaian community rely on the far more numerous but less obvious members. We humans, like all the larger animals, could not exist for a moment without the plants whose specialized cells make our oxygen every day from the abundant sunlight of our planet. The plants rely on the soil microbes and the fungi to complete their process of growth. Without the bacteria, the entire system would crash. And then there are the insects, whose value we are only beginning to realize now that we have almost exterminated them. 

Along with our newfound scientific respect for the more-than-human creatures and elements of our planet, we need to return to a spiritual relationship with them. Imagine if we humans approached plants, fungi, microbes, insects, animals, fish and birds with an attitude of curious respectful inquiry, a sincere desire to learn from the wisdom of these ancient fellow travelers on the planet, who survive and thrive without any of the external tools we humans require—flourishing without fire, combustion, electricity, computers and all the rest of our modern civilizational necessities. 

In their free, natural state, these more-than-human creatures do not accumulate more than they need; they do not know cruelty or hatred, and do not oppress others; they are never depressed or anxious about the future. In short, they are healthy—something that we humans have not been, as a species, for a long, long time.

In order for us to regain our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual health, we are going to have to learn to learn from the other Gaians on our planet. Not by imprisoning or dissecting them but by observing them in their own natural habitats, and more than this: by connecting with them in the psychic landscapes that underlie the physical world we can touch and see. 

Contemporary cultures that have managed to retain their pre-Christian, pre-Science troves of wisdom, often called indigenous or shamanic cultures, still remember the ancient ways to journey into the psychic realm and connect with other travelers, many from the more-than-human realms. It’s no accident that so many contemporary western people, in deep distress, are seeking shamanic guides who can lead the way to the wisdom of plant and animal medicine. 

Humans may be the most successful invasive species on the planet, but like all species that overstep their bounds and are not in balance with their environment, our population is heading for a contraction, which may take the form of a civilizational collapse. 

I still believe there is time for us to consciously guide humanity back into respectful relationship with the Gaian system of which we are an integral, though currently cancerous part.

The cancer that must be cut out is largely composed of human arrogance—what the Greeks called hubris. We must free our hearts and minds from the myth of human superiority and the ethos of competition, devising economic systems that are in in harmony with the entire Earth system and slowly but steadily scaling back our numbers to a level our planet can support. 

Our more-than-human Gaian neighbors are already living this wisdom. Can we learn from them, before it’s too late?

21 Questions for 2020: #5

5. Can sacred plant medicine help us overcome our alienation from the wisdom of Mother Nature, which we so need in this troubled time? 

As philosophers like Jeremy Lent and Andreas Weber have shown, when we humans became agriculturalists, we established dominion over land and animals, and women became property; the patriarchal religions taught human supremacy, a rigid hierarchical way of thinking about our place in Nature that was carried over into the modern religion of Science. 

Scientific philosophers like Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin reinforced the separation from Nature, not only in the human relationship to the outer world, but also within ourselves. Our “lower nature” was to be banished (a theory that dovetailed nicely with Christian ideas of sin and hell), while our intellect was exalted.

The so-called Enlightenment, with its accompanying savage colonialism and the spread of corporate capitalism, sealed the deal, setting up the fatal oppositions of Light/Dark, Mind/Matter, Man/Woman, Human/Animal, Culture/Nature, and establishing them so deeply in every human endeavor that for a long time we weren’t even aware of how they were conditioning our way of life on the planet and driving us down the road to ruin. 

Fortunately there have always been some stubborn independent thinkers who have refused to be indoctrinated into this way of thinking: indigenous peoples, pagans, artists, so-called geniuses—ordinary people who are open to new ideas. Many have worked in quiet obscurity. But every so often we get a genius like Einstein or Jung, who gives us a great leap forward, helping us see our selves and our world in a new way. 

In these early years of the 21st century, such independent thinkers are few and far between. But there has been a sudden resurgence of interest in the wisdom offered by “sacred plant medicine,” which has been used for millennia as a sacrament among those scattered tribes that successfully resisted the onslaught of colonialism and managed to hold on to their age-old religions and customs. 

The late psychonaut Terence McKenna posited that sacred plants were basis for the Christian “tree of knowledge” in the Garden of Eden. In the Christian myth, humans were expelled from the Garden when their thirst for knowledge grew too great. But all over the world, many other people kept right on eating that apple—i.e., consuming the sacred plants and learning to work with the psychic insights and healing power they provided. 

McKenna goes so far as to hypothesize that the collective psychosis of the modern western world is a result of our outlawing, in the 20th century, open access to sacred plants like psilocybin mushrooms and cannabis. This goes along with some other major 20th century decisions that turned out to have serious negative consequences: investing in sugar, alcohol, oil, gas and cars, for example, rather than in healthier alternatives. 

Modern capitalism runs on speed and efficiency. The system needs us to be productive workers; we can’t be opting out and taking time for psychic explorations. We can get drunk on Saturday nights, as long as we’re sober in time for work on Monday. Most people limit their focus on the divine to a quick bow in church on Sunday mornings; and there is no time anymore for the lengthy explorations of psychoanalysis—just take a Prozac and get on with it, honey. 

But how many of us are satisfied by this workaday world? We are not ants or termites—we know ourselves to be more than simply drones. We want to understand more deeply who we are, why we are here, and how we can make our lives a positive offering to the world. 

Sacred plant medicine reminds us that we are not just cogs in the superficial capitalist wheel; that there is more to life than accumulation of wealth and the selfish pursuit of pleasure. 

Over and over, people who have tried plant medicine report back versions of the same message of divine unity: we are the world, and the world is love. That was the mantra of the 1960s psychedelic generation, and it’s coming back around again in the 21st century, in a world that has only gotten more hostile and alienating during the intervening years. 

The powers that be are threatened by this message because it challenges the philosophical basis of capitalist civilization: the idea of our “God-given right” to dominion over the natural world. If we are all one, how can we continue to turn Mother Earth and her children into commodities, to be prostituted, bought and sold?

Plant medicine is emerging widely in the U.S. and other western nations because we so desperately need its wisdom now. Unlike alcohol, which numbs us and puts us to sleep, psychedelics wake us up—and this is a time when we need to be awake, alert, and cognizant of our potential to take an evolutionary leap forward and survive…or watch our civilization collapse, like so many others before. 

Psychedelics synthesize the wisdom of eastern philosophy, quantum theory and depth psychology, showing us in a visceral, direct way that reality is perceptual; that matter is energy; and that on an energetic level, everything is interconnected. Sacred plant medicines allow us to perceive the multiverses of the quantum, and voyage in the spiritual landscapes that open up in our psyches, beyond time and space. 

Science has refused to embrace full implications of quantum theory, and Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, accessed through the dream world, has given way to “cognitive neuroscience,” which ignores the psyche in its focus on the brain. But slowly the ripples are spreading out from the first few western plant medicine adventurers, like Terence McKenna and John Perkins, who learned from wise indigenous shamans about love as a force of nature, and brought this wisdom back to their western tribes.

Indigenous wisdom keepers have kept this sacred knowledge alive through the dark times that began with the so-called “Enlightenment”: the long period of alienating monotheism and capitalist, extractivist science and industry. Now, knowing that the suicidal tendencies of western civilization threaten to bring the entire planet into a massive evolutionary reset, they are offering plant medicine to westerners as a gateway to sanity and a livable future.

The Bioneers tagline points to the word LOVE hidden in the word REVOLUTION. Revolution also means a turn of the wheel, a new cycle. In the 21st century, will we have the courage to step boldly into what Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects calls the “new and ancient story” that teaches us of the interconnection of All That Is? 

It remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: this is a revolutionary time. It is not a time to be timid. 

21 Questions for 2020: #4

4. Is there any silver lining to the dismal political and planetary events of our time? 

A dilemma I wrestle with daily is how to stay politically engaged and attuned to the troubles of our time, while not being so dragged down by all the negativity that I become paralyzed by fear and despair. 

I believe that each of us contributes to the general mental, emotional climate of our society, and ultimately our planet. 

If, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggested, there is a planetary “noosphere” or collectively created “sphere of the mind,” it is now being augmented by our incredible World Wide Web, which spreads the news of the day wider and faster than ever before. And it is sadly true that “if it bleeds it leads”: bad news always seems to be amplified, while good news lost in the furor of the day’s disasters. 

Thus, in our age of “hive mind,” the planetary climate is being flooded with negativity. Each bad news headline assaults our psyches, snowballing and compounding the negative drag on our collective spirits, ultimately affecting the health and vitality of the planet overall.

We can get lost in this waking nightmare of negativity.

Given this scenario, my question is: How can we engage with the day’s disasters without being dragged down by them? If we don’t want to tune out entirely, escaping to la-la land (a choice only available to the most privileged), what is the best approach? 

One thing I know is that we humans are herd animals—intensely social—and each of us acts as a beacon for others. If you see me despairing and fearful, your own light is likely to dim as well. So the importance of keeping our spirits up goes beyond the well-being of the individual. 

One way we can do this is by acting with positive intention in everything we do. Putting our values and ideals into practice as best we can, in our own little lives, has larger ripple effects than we can know. 

I am also trying to understand our current political and planetary challenges as necessary transformations that will lead to better days.

On the political level, our old systems have become too rigid and need a serious re-invention. In the past, such political overhauls have only come about through violence, as happened when the French and American Revolutions successfully threw off the tyranny of the monarchy. 

Theoretically, humans are capable of transforming our social systems through mutual accord and agreement. That is a slower process, more akin to the natural rhythms of biological change. 

But in 2020, we are in a period of great acceleration. Climate disruption is happening faster and faster as the biofeedback loops are set into motion: witness the Australian fires and the rapid melting of the polar ice caps. Political disruption is also happening in sudden leaps and bounds: Trump losing the public vote but gaining the Oval Office anyway; Britain, in one vote, set on a course to leave the European Union. 

In each case, what happens in one part of the planet reverberates all over the world, through our individual and collective responses, and picks up steam.

When we respond with fear and anger, the collective fog of fear and anger builds, creating storms of negativity in our social climate that may indeed lead to violence and the sudden collapse of our current social systems.

The dark vision of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” seems aptly matched to our time, though it was published 100 years ago in 1920.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But I disagree with the “blank and pitiless” vision of the second half of the poem. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In contrast to Yeats’ nightmarish vision, I propose that the “Spiritus Mundi” coming towards us now is not a “rough, slouching beast,” but a radiant new incarnation, a Second Coming bringing light and freedom to a world that has become dark and stagnant, and is desperately in need of transformative change.

We can look to Nature for inspiration here. When a natural system collapses—say, a million acres of forest go up in smoke—Nature doesn’t sit around bemoaning her fate. She simply gets busy and starts creating again, anew, from the ground up—a cooperative activity involving every living particle she can muster. 

The opening provided by the absence of trees is an opportunity for new, different life forms to develop: instead of trees, grasses can grow. Flowers and shrubs will follow.

We may not be able to head off the violence and turmoil that are coming at us with the speed and force of a psychic tsunami these days. But we can change how we view it. 

We can see the silver lining in this time of “things falling apart,” knowing that out of the ashes of the old, new life is always born. We can focus on the opportunities and blessings that will come with the transformation of old, outdated systems. 

By keeping our spirits high enough to counter the prevailing drag of the deluge of bad news, we can imagine ourselves as free, light-hearted creatures, full of positive potential, dancing toward Bethlehem to be reborn. 

Change starts from the creative spark of the imagination. If we can dream it, we can make it so. 

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