21 Questions for 2020: #3

3. What can we learn from the past about how political systems can change for the better?

At least in recent history, we see new political systems emerging when the pressure of living under the old system gets people so upset that they boil over in a spasm of violence that leads to change. 

In the past 500 years or so we have not seen much in the way of peaceful evolution of political systems. It has always taken armed revolutions to force those in power to give it up. In some places this has not really improved life for the masses. Sometimes one power system is just replaced with another, as when a monarchy gives way to a dictatorship or a repressive oligarchy. 

Capitalism and communism, the most widely followed political systems of the 20th century, claim to offer citizens political participation. But in practice, both systems are deeply rigged to support the power and wellbeing of the wealthy. 

In the 21st century, the wealth gap in many countries, including the United States, is growing as extreme as it was back in the days of feudalism. We have modern-day peasants, who are bound by the circumstances of their birth to work for the overlords, accumulating nothing but debt and bad health that kills them off early. The politicians, who are bought by the big businesses that are owned by the wealthy, appoint the judges who bend the laws to favor the rich. 

In the US we go through the motions of participatory democracy, but in the end the Electoral College can, and routinely does, overturn the popular vote. No wonder there is such cynicism about the process that half the people don’t even bother to cast their ballot.

I could go on sketching this dismal picture of political systems today, but I want to get to my question, which is whether we can learn anything from history about how change happens. 

It takes a widespread popular uprising. We’ve had some popular uprisings already in the 21st century—think Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, Standing Rock, Hong Kong, One Billion Rising, Women’s Marches, Climate Strikes, Extinction Rebellion. Each of these started in one locale and sparked sympathy uprisings around the world, harnessing the power of social media to spread the message and incite others to rise up in protest too. 

Social media is key, but does not replace physical, visible marches on power centers. All the hashtags, likes and tweets in the world do not replace the power of masses of determined, focused people hitting the streets with a common purpose. 

If we Americans wanted to, we could storm the Congress and White House and throw out our corrupt leaders. But as a society, we have a reverence for the “rule of law” and a horror of violence. We want a peaceful, just transition to a society more in line with our ideals. So we wait patiently for a chance to vote, even while those in power continue to consolidate their chokehold on our throats.

I’m sorry to be so graphic, but that’s how it feels these days. I haven’t even mentioned how our current political systems are using the ancient tactic of xenophobia to manipulate people, setting poor folks—who should be united in the quest for justice—to mean-spirited infighting instead.

Once again we see people falling for those classic divide-and-conquer techniques of power, allowing the disbursement of billions of taxpayer funds to pay for weapons and border walls—money that should be spent on the education and innovation that will allow us all to survive the coming onslaught of climate disruption.

There is so much in our current reality that conspires to keep us docile. From many years of repressive education to a pharmacopeia of drugs right out of 1984; from ever-more-mesmerizing media distraction to debt bondage; from social isolation to ill health and depression—it’s no wonder so many people are just zoning out and giving up on the possibility of political change. 

I see our social, political and environmental challenges as intimately connected: at their source is the unbridled, corrupt greed (both capitalist and communist) that has been the ruling ideology of our species for the past 500 years or so, since the rise of European colonialism, with its accompanying economic expansion.

In the 21st century we have raped and pillaged the Earth to such an extent that she can no longer support our expansion. We are over-consuming what she has to give, literally eating away our own flesh, since we are no more than a conscious emanation of the Earth. We’re on a suicidal path as a species, and the worst thing is that we know it. We can see the train coming at us and predict the wreck, but we seem to be transfixed, powerless to do what needs to be done to avert the disaster.

We must overcome our ingrained inertia. That means overcoming our indoctrination in following instructions, obeying the law, and bowing before authority. It also means taking risks; giving up our attachment to our creature comforts; and being willing to put our small, soft bodies on the line.

I know that for myself, this is no small order. My ancestors fled the pogroms in eastern Europe and were so thankful to settle in the United States, where religious persecution was outlawed, and peace prevailed. My family prospered, possessed of intelligence and a fierce work ethic, as well as the unearned benefit of fair skin; and I have had a more comfortable, easy life than most Americans. It’s hard to voluntarily give up privilege. 

Like many in my position, I find myself in a holding pattern of waiting and worrying, deeply unhappy with each day’s news, but not willing to take the risk of giving up what I have for an uncertain future. 

But here’s the truth: the future is always uncertain. Do I really value my own small life, with its little creature comforts, more than I value the health and welfare of Mother Gaia and all her children, for generations to come? Am I really not willing to take the risk of disrupting my own life to make things better for everyone?

The cynic in me responds with a sneer: what do you think YOU can do, one small puny aging woman standing up to an entrenched corrupt capitalist oligarchy? 

And the idealist answers: that is how change has always happened, with one little person launching themselves at power, creating the spark that ignites a movement. 

In our time we see it happening with Greta Thunberg, who set off youth-driven environmental protests that are gaining at least lip service of the politicians. Octogenarian Jane Fonda has been leading a charge among older folks, getting herself arrested every week in Washington DC to shine her celebrity light on the need for change. 

If the elders join hands with the children, the most fragile in our society going up against the oligarchs and their goons…we can make change happen. All we need is the will to manifest our vision of a thriving future for all life on Earth. Where there is a will there is a way. 

21 Questions for 2020: #2

  1. How can we draw on the positive aspects of the human propensity to tribalism?

In these early years of the 21st century, we are talking a lot about how our sense of community has become fractured, or even “polarized,” meaning that people have retreated into opposing ideological camps that are pitted against each other for dominance, influence and power. 

Looking into history we can see that this is a common pattern for humans; we seem to gravitate towards social relationships based on in-groups that depend on out-groups for their social cohesion. This was as true among the pre-colonial indigenous tribes of the Americas and Africa as it was for the warlords of early modern Europe. 

Within the in-groups, in the past we seemed to have naturally formed clans based on family ties, with careful rules governing marriages that prevented too much inbreeding. In patriarchal societies, girls and women became property to be bartered and sold in marriage. Boys were trained as the heirs. 

Today, in the United States at least, we live with an uncomfortable mixture of these ancient social practices and the new nuclear family anomie. We still have in-groups and out-groups, but in our widely diverse society they are based on differences like race, ethnicity and religion, as well as class and social customs. 

Women may no longer be bartered and sold in marriage, but we still wield less social power and command less respect than men. There is a lot of physical and sexual abuse of women and children going on today, the isolation of the nuclear family leaving women and children without ancient sources of clan and tribal support. 

In an every-person- (or at least every-small-family) for-themselves world, we face a crisis of isolation that manifests in: 

  • the turn to intoxication (the opioid crisis); 
  • the rise of online groups demanding ideological allegiance (the far-right white supremacists); 
  • the acting out of blind rage at a hostile world (the mass shooting epidemic); 
  • the self-destructive turning inward of rage and frustration (the anxiety/depression/eating disorder/cutting/suicide crisis); 
  • and people constantly crashing through the frayed social safety net, leading to the ever-growing legions of homeless encampments and prisons.

In short, we live in a grim world. 

Is it worse than in the past? All of the elements I’ve mentioned above have always been present, at least in the recent history of the dominant western culture that has given rise to the present-day USA. Scrooge’s famous 19thcentury line when confronted with poverty, “Are there no workhouses?” could be said irascibly by any number of wealthy social conservatives today, starting with the tycoon currently in the White House. 

What those tycoons would prefer that we don’t realize a rather simple truth: that today in America, there is enough wealth to feed, clothe and house every citizen. There is enough money to create new eco-friendly housing, agricultural and transportation systems. There is plenty of wealth to rethink and renew our educational systems, adapting to the current reality of the 21st century. 

The wealth is there. The problem is that it’s being hoarded by a few individuals and their families; and what’s left in the public treasury is being disproportionately funneled into the military industrial complex, which increases the wealth of these few individuals and families, who control the industries. 

That’s capitalism at work in a society governed by fear, greed and corruption.

I am well aware that there was never a rosy golden age of humanity, when we all sang songs together around the campfire and made love, not war. I know that there are bonafide evil types out there against whom defenses must be erected. 

However, in this day and age, the evil is erupting within our own borders. We have a president who calls white supremacist thugs “very fine people” and thinks nothing of tearing babies from their parents’ arms and putting them in cages. This is happening now, in our America. 

And there is much more cruelty going on, less visibly: the dismantling of the food security system for the poor; the debt bondage of college and graduate students; the radical, perpetual insecurity of the gig economy; the outrageous over-pricing of the health care system, sending sick people into bankruptcy. Not to mention the rampant destruction of the natural world. 

Those who want to succeed in this society—‘success’ measured as earning enough money to keep your own family secure—must turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. A hardening of the heart is necessary, simply in order to function in this cold, cut-throat society. 

It is very possible that everything I’ve described above is only going to get worse as the 21st century progresses. The squeeze on individuals will produce more outward- and inward-facing anger and despair, leading to more violence and suicides; there will be more repression in the form of “workhouses”: prisons and detention camps, and schools that resemble these more and more. It’s possible that the natural world will continue to be trashed, leading to the massive destabilization of the climate that will bring us all down.

But I want to give myself permission to dream of a different future, building on the positive aspects of our propensity to tribalism. 

Let us imagine a world where the wealth that is provided for us by our Mother Earth is fairly divided among all her children, including the more-than-human world who have just as much right as humans to live a good life. 

Let us imagine a world where the weak are cared for by the strong. Where laws fairly protect everyone, including Gaia herself. Where nurturing is valued as highly as warring, and children are raised to be responsible stewards of the world around them, instead of takers and destroyers. 

I imagine that people will continue to gravitate together based on family clans, geographic and cultural bonds, and/or ideological affinity, just as we have in the past. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we can overcome repressive customs, such as the subordination of women, along with the tendency to enrich ourselves at the expense of others. 

The Earth and the Sun freely offer enough energy and material resources to support all of us. What’s needed is a new social system for equitable distribution and protection of those who are currently being left out in the cold and abused, including our four-legged, winged and finned relations. 

Can we imagine a new tribalism for the 21st century, with a tent and a net big enough to support us all? 

And can we move swiftly from imagining it to making it happen, at least in our own corners of the world? 

21 Questions for 2020: #1

1. What do we do with our negative emotions, which can so often be either paralyzing or panic-inducing as we live through such turbulent, upsetting times?

When I think about how human beings have treated other animals and all life on Earth, I am quickly moved to shame, guilt, anger and despair. If this is what it means to be human, then I don’t want to be human! Let me come back as a butterfly or a blade of grass! 

But the wise ones say that negative emotions like shame, guilt, anger and despair don’t help anyone or anything. We live in a vibrational universe, and whatever emotional vibration or signal we send out, we amplify that tone in the world. 

This is not to say that I should be merry as I wake up on New Year’s morning to horrific scenes of destruction in Australia, fires destroying the habitat and outright killing millions of innocent creatures.

But my being upset won’t help them, and it ends up being paralyzing for me. Sadness and despair simply breed more of the same, when what is needed now is strong, positive, energetic action. 

We must ramp up rescue efforts for those immediately in harm’s way—how is it possible, for example, that Australia is still depending on volunteer firefighters with fires burning out of control on millions of acres and closing in on its largest cities? 

And we need to work with determination and clarity on mitigating the harm of climate disruption, and adapting to the rapidly changing conditions of the 21st century. Politicians, media influencers, the global judiciary and governing agencies, and all the ordinary people on the frontlines must not be allowed to look away from the looming existential threat of the climate emergency of our time.

The burned koala bear accepting a sip of water from a straw won’t know or care what richly clad senators or board members decide in an elegant paneled conference room half a world away. But those decisions will determine the fate not just of that little bear, but of all her relations, and whether her kind will still exist in the 22nd century. 

As far as we know, humans are the only animals on the planet with the magical ability to see into the future. Thanks to our highly developed communication skills, we can keep records of the past and present, allowing us to predict the future with remarkable accuracy. 

Thus we understand that the massive climatic changes taking place on Earth now have not happened on this scale in at least 10,000 years, and it’s been even longer since die-offs and transformations of habitat like we’re seeing now happened so quickly. 

Our foreknowledge is both a blessing and a curse. 

Unlike, say, the koalas and the coral reefs, we have the time and the ability to adapt to the changes underway. 

But we also go wide-eyed into this transition time, understanding that in the 21st century all that has been familiar may be swept away, from institutions to cities to the forms of social organization that have served us, for better or worse, these past 500 years or so.

So yes, as I sit with my crystal ball (or illuminated touch screen) and contemplate the future not just of humans but of all the innocent animals, birds, insects, fish, sea creatures and plants—as I take stock of the destruction of the beautiful lands, waters and atmosphere of our Mother Earth—I can’t help but feel sorrow and anguish. 

I know that I have contributed to this desecration. I am complicit, and therefore I also feel shame and guilt. 

These emotions are a mark of my humanity—we call those who perpetrate violence without remorse “inhuman,” and there seem to be far too many inhuman humans running around the planet these days.

As we enter into a new decade, the 2020s, I bow to my sorrow, rage and guilt, knowing that they are powerful emotional signals that all is not well. 

Our emotions are like built-in gauges, designed to help us navigate our world. Right now, my emotional alarms are on high alert, warning me to wake up and take action.

But I am also aware that my “fight-or-flight” fear mechanism is not going to serve me well right now. Fear is understandable, given the circumstances we face. But we can’t run from this climate emergency, and our best approach to fighting it is calm, focused determination.

We may decide strategically to unleash the always-effective human power of mass protest, as Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Climate Strikes did in 2019. 

The key word here is strategically. We must be clear about the what, when, why, how and where of our protests, to give this effort maximum visibility and effectiveness. And of course, we must harness the power of social media to amplify and extend live actions. 

2020 is sure to be a turbulent year on the political and planetary fronts. This year, even our negative emotions must be focused and directed like fire hoses on the wildfires of change overtaking us. As we act, we’ll find that our fear and depression turn to clarity and determination. 

To be human on this planet now means to hold the power of life or death over all life on Earth. We humans have created quite a mess on Earth, and we are the only ones who can clean it up. 

If you value life, you must accept the responsibility that comes with being human. And then raise your vibration, strap on your jumpsuit, and get to work.

21 Questions for 2020: Introduction

I begin this New Year with gratitude for a solid enough perch on life to be able to sit in warmth on a cold winter morning, tapping away at my computer, a mug of steaming dark coffee at my side and a candle bringing light to the great blue dawn around me.

I no longer take any of this for granted, aware as I am of the fragility of everything that makes life predictably comfortable from one day to the next. Each day brings its tidings of suffering: so many beings, human and more-than-human, are wounded, traumatized and suffering their way to death each day. Knowing this, I cannot relax into the ease of my life. I am aware of my complicity as a citizen of a country that has cushioned some of its citizens at the expense of many others, both internally and around the world. I know the moral price I pay for my comfort here and now.

I have so many questions about life in this period I call our Transition Time: these early years of the 21st century when our Mother Gaia is laboring to birth a new, healthier world order. Being of a scholarly bent, I have been reading and researching, looking for answers. And being trained to read as a Comparatist, my quest has been broadly interdisciplinary, ranging widely from the sciences to the humanities, as well as out on the fringes of conventionally accepted thought, where I’ve found some of the most interesting characters and ideas hang out.

Most of my questions lead to more questions, as is to be expected in a time when our learning curve—as individuals and as the collective “hive mind” we are externalizing through our Worldwide Web—is growing in leaps and bounds. This is not a time to settle on new dogmas. It’s a time for experimentation and innovation—but in my view, the adolescent eagerness of western science must be tempered with and informed by ancient indigenous forms of wisdom. Earth-centered spiritual traditions are now re-emerging all over the world, after centuries of repression, offering what Joanna Macy calls “new and ancient ways of seeing”: pathways into a more balanced, harmonious human relationship with the Earth and all her beings.

Across the disciplines, we are in a period of increased awareness of the great mysteries of life—of all we don’t know. In science this is represented most clearly in physics, which has discovered that some 98% of the universe is composed of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—so named because we have no idea what they are. Thus, what we can see, touch and at least superficially understand is only 2% of All That Is, according to physicists. Perhaps the parallel worlds of the multiverse posited by quantum theorists have their place in that “dark matter” sector, beyond linear time? And could it be that every night we humans, along with all life on Earth, access that quantum realm—also known as the domain of Spirit—when we range far beyond the confines of time and space in our dreams?

I am increasingly convinced that the greatest mystery of all has to do with the relation of Matter to Spirit. In our Transition Times, it seems urgent to understand this relationship better, including in its basic earthly guise as the cycle of life, death and rebirth. As the human population has exploded into the multi-billions, the familiar species we grew up with have been going steadily into the night of extinction. Our scientists tell us that we humans have thrown the entire global ecosystem out of balance, pushing us into the Gaian reset mode we call “climate disruption.” Is our current predicament entirely about matter—a situation for the earth scientists to study, diagnose and solve? Or is there also a component of spirit involved in the vast global changes we are living through now?

To ask such questions is to open oneself up for the possibility of radically new answers. Too often our best and brightest minds are being trained to look for answers within disciplines, and thus they miss the potential for leaping beyond the frameworks that have led us inexorably to this extremely pressured moment of transition. What is needed now is a new synthesis of knowledge that opens its arms wide and is not afraid to admit how much it does not know. We need a new human humility that is not a servile crouching to a “higher authority,” but an acknowledgment that our hubris has not served us well, nor the many bright beings, our fellow Gaians, whom we have tortured and sent to their deaths unnecessarily in these past 5,000 years of what we call, euphemistically, “civilization.”

It’s a time that calls for an alchemical union of opposites: the heretofore dominant masculine-intellectual-competitive-hierarchical-separation modes of knowledge joining with the feminine-emotional-collaborative-horizontal-inclusive approaches. Not either/or, but both/and; with the heart-mind perhaps the most important union of all. Westernized humans have to reconnect with our heart’s knowing, and use our emotional intelligence to guide the blazing smarts of our intellect. Imagine if the men who unlocked the energetic potential of atoms had been tapped into their hearts as they made their startling discoveries. Would they have weaponized that fiery power? Or instead worked on it quietly until they understood how to use it for good, including solving the intractable problem of waste disposal?

So many human inventions have proceeded in the same way as nuclear power, guided by short-term thinking and greed, without sufficient attention to consequences. We need to become better longterm thinkers, hyperaware of how every choice we make impacts the entire web of life, of which we, as physical, earth-based creatures, are an inextricable part.

It is important now to keep a positive, life-affirming outlook on all the changes coming rapidly upon us. This is not a time to succumb to fear, or to panic over the unpredictable future. The fear-mongers are out there, but I’m not buying their wares. There is no point in spending my precious days on Earth freaking out over the future. There is huge value, on the other hand, in using this time to search for understanding that can help humanity navigate the tumult of our era with a heart-centered balance that can guide us through to better times.

This approach is neither easy nor common in a time when so many of us wander around with heavy hearts, plodding through our days, looking forward to the release of intoxication and distraction. But I’ve become aware that keeping our vibration high is essential to accessing what I can only call higher knowledge. We are moving from a heavy, dark, low-vibration time—what historians call “the industrial age”—to a light, airy, high-vibration time, a time of transition to a new, lighter way of being on Earth. In this moment, the calm before the storm, we are poised on a tipping point. The wave of change is gathering strength. Will we ride it with exuberance and grace, or will we roll and tumble painfully in the pounding surf?

To the extent that I can choose, I choose Grace. And with these initial reflections in my backpack, I’m setting forth on this journey of 21 Questions. My promise to myself is to keep a “fool’s mind”—free of dogma, open to new ideas, with a certain spring in my step, looking for pleasant surprises.

I’ll be posting a new question, and my own mini-essay response, every week for the next 21 weeks. Come along with me, and bring your own questions and ideas! Your company will be most welcome as we set off into this new year of a new decade, 2020.

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