Be the prayer

This week has felt hard. It’s reminded me of being in a plane going through stiff turbulence, being bumped around, in possible danger, and without any way to control the outcome of the flight. You just have to hold on tight and pray that the plane is sturdy, the pilots know what they’re doing and all will be well. 

But in this case, we are in the midst of political and planetary upheavals that promise no smooth landing. 

I don’t have confidence in our pilots, a.k.a. world leaders, to carry us safely through the turbulence of climate disruption, pandemic, economic crisis and all the rest of it. 

I know that the rivets are loosening on our “plane,” a.k.a. our planet.

We are in for a rough ride.

All we can do is continue to hold on tight…and pray.

For me, prayer is not about appealing to some all-powerful higher being that can step in to save us. Rather, I think of prayer in the way Mary Oliver described it in her wonderful poem from happier times, “The Summer Day,” when she describes prayer as the act of paying attention to the beauty of the world around her. In this case, it’s a grasshopper she’s watching:

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

The grasshopper invites Oliver’s meditation on prayer:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, 

how to fall downinto the grass, 

how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed

how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

This is indeed the powerful pulsing question of our turbulent time, isn’t it? What are we going to do with the precious time we have left, before we are swept away into the maelstrom of suffering and death?

Glimmers. Photo by J. Browdy

Like Oliver, I believe that the other radiant Gaian beings with whom we share this planet have so much to teach us, if only we take the time to pay attention. 

The biggest difference between humans and other animals is in our vivid imaginations. We humans tell ourselves and each other stories all the time, and sometimes we get so caught up in the stories that they become our reality. 

For example, there I am up in the plane, imagining that any minute the turbulence is going to knock us out of the sky. We’re going to fall, flaming, to the ground! We’re all going to die! I start hyperventilating with terror, even though this is not what is actually happening…in point of fact, we are flying steadily on through the turbulence toward our destination, where, as the pilot has just informed us calmly, we’ll soon be landing.

There is no other animal that expends so much energy on worrying about imaginary future scenarios. Our Gaian relations model for us the equanimity that comes with living tranquilly in the present moment. 

We humans have the capacity to make ourselves sick, physically and mentally, with our neurotic imaginary anxieties.

To counter this tendency, we need to pray, in Mary Oliver’s sense: to ground ourselves in the calm of the natural world around us, and remember to breathe. 

This is probably not possible in the fire lands of the Pacific Coast of the USA right now. It’s not possible when one’s body has been invaded by the coronavirus. In such dire moments, any animal would be rightly terrified and suffering, as so many are at this very moment.

But you who are sitting in some quiet place reading these words…if you are still healthy and well-fed, able to breathe deep and listen to the birds chirping and the wind in the trees…your job is to ground yourself in that beauty and let yourself become not only a receiver but a transmitter for it. 

Send the beauty you inhale out into this turbulent suffering world. Let your attention to the beauty of what surrounds you be your prayer, for yourself and for others.

May our focused gratitude for this precious moment be a balm and a beacon of active hope in a world so desperately in need of the solace of prayer. 

Glory. Photo by J. Browdy

Labor Day 2020: Honoring the labor of birthing in a time of transition

This Labor Day, when I turn the word “labor” over in my mind, the image that comes to me insistently is that of a pregnant woman, laboring to give birth.  

Having been through it twice myself, I can attest that birth is the most miraculous form of labor. There is some kind of intense non-rational knowing that occurs in those final days of pregnancy, an impulsion to go with the mysterious, hormone-driven instinct that comes over a woman as she goes into labor and surrenders herself to the body’s wisdom. 

In my first pregnancy, this inner knowing was marred by the hospital system to which I surrendered my laboring self. I was summarily strapped onto a gurney, hooked up to a fetal monitor, given an epidural and then an episiotomy—all things I had said I did not want when I made up my birth plan with my woman obstetrician, who did not show that day, leaving me in the hands of a male colleague I’d never met. 

Although becoming a mother was the greatest joy of my life, that first experience of labor and delivery was terrible. The anesthesia given in advance of the episiotomy put my legs to sleep, which meant I was sent to the recovery ward  without my baby after the birth. I will never recover from the frantic misery of being separated from my baby in his first hour of life. Of course, he was frantic as well, and it took him weeks, if not months, to fully settle down from the violence of his entrance into the world. 

Therefore I was much more careful in my second pregnancy, making sure I had both a midwife and a birth doula in attendance, with a doctor to be called only if needed. 

I was on my feet or on my knees during the labor, the midwife loosening my birth canal with warm oils, the doula rubbing my back, both of them talking me through the contractions reassuringly. Within a remarkably short time, six hours from start to finish, my second baby came slithering peacefully into the air. He nestled in my arms and latched right on to my breast, looking up at me contentedly.

My two sons, c. 1998

So here I am on Labor Day 2020, more than 25 years after my first pregnancy and labor, thinking about the parallels between the everyday wonder of a woman giving birth, and the great shuddering contractions of this Gaian transition time, as we strain to give birth to a better world.

This Labor Day, as I celebrate all the women who have or will be giving birth, I also want to recognize the hard work all of us are doing as we strive, each in our own sphere, to bring to birth the new, better society that is gestating actively now in our dreams and visions. 

Whether we realize it or not, we are all in labor now. My two very different experiences of birth have taught me that we cannot do this work alone. We need to plan for it with care and make sure we have allies who understand how the hard work can be made easier in community, even if in the end we must fly solo. 

This Labor Day, let’s honor the work of birthing, literal and metaphorical, and offer each other what nourishment and support we can. 

If you are interested in exploring writing as a means of inquiry and discovery, check out my upcoming workshops, including the 9-month Birth Your Truest Story By Nourishing Your Most Tender Voice series, as well as the monthly drop-in Purposeful Memoir for a Thriving Future series.

I’ve got workshops in both series coming up Sept. 13 and 20, and you are most welcome to join! Find out more in my latest WRITING LIFE newsletter, here.

Happy Labor Day, everyone. 

Whatever your work is now, may your efforts bear good fruit.

21 Questions for 2020: #18

18.  What is the message of Gaia’s call? Mother’s Day reflections, 2020.

The other day I read a lament on Facebook by a woman who was in despair over the horrendous state of life in 2020 America. If she didn’t have loving family and friends, she said, including her children and grandchildren, she would be seriously contemplating suicide.

As she worked through her complicated grief and horror, cathartically retelling the tragedy we are all living through, I heard the persistent pulse of Life beating through it all….Life, that impels us to endure and persist, to rise and do it all again under tomorrow’s Sun, no matter how difficult or impossible the way forward seems.

We humans thrive on Love; we wither and fade away in despair. We are fundamentally loving, social animals, though far too many humans have become pathologically twisted these days, seemingly incapable of the empathy and altruism that is our birthright.

Our loving nature is not just a matter of psychology; it is also biochemically wired into us, evident in the hormones that flood our body when we feel love, whether romantic love or the love of a mother for her baby. Every living being on the planet, whether or not it has an emotional nature, is similarly wired to thrive. 

This is especially easy to see in the plant kingdom: seeds crack and send tendrils up towards the Sun, while tiny roots are impelled to anchor themselves in the Earth. Figuratively, each of us begins life as just such a seed, reaching for love and light as instinctively as any other new growth.

Many cultures anthropomorphize Mother Earth and Father Sun as the lifegivers, to whom great gratitude is due. I don’t think we need to humanize our planet and our star to understand that they are our everything; each of us is just a small cell in the vast planetary body of the Earth, which itself exists as a speck in the unimaginably huge galaxy and cosmos. 

Each of us may be small, but we are far from insignificant. Just as every blob of algae and blade of grass has a role to play in creating the life-giving oxygen of our planet, every precious Gaian manifestation, from rock to raindrop, from earthworm to human, contributes to the overall vitality of the system as a whole.

Human beings, over the past 500 years or so, have been flourishing so well that we have been edging out the conditions of life for other species. We are, as I’ve noted before, Earth’s most successful invasive species. From the perspective of other life forms, we humans have been a deadly viral pandemic, relentlessly invading and destroying.

Humans have been on a suicidal path as a species, poisoning our own nest, and in the process rendering vast swaths of land and sea uninhabitable for other species as well. This cannot go on. Humans have over-populated ourselves by using up more than our share of Earth’s resources. This is unsustainable. 

Now, at the tipping point, we are faced with a truly momentous question: 

Will we use our tremendous intelligence to find ways to work with Mother Earth, to restabilize her life-support systems in a regenerative and sustainable way, understanding that we can only thrive in a thriving system? 

Mother Earth has her own ways of restoring balance to her life systems—for example, viruses and climate changes. Earth seeks to maintain the conditions most conducive for the thriving life of every Gaian. She does not play favorites, she loves all her creations equally. We humans are only just waking up to what such impartial mother-love truly means.

Mother Earth, on this Mother’s Day I give you honor and praise as the Life-giver of us all. You create the myriad beautiful forms into which Spirit pours. Each new baby that opens her eyes to meet the loving gaze of her mother repeats the miracle of life that you reanimate again and again. And at the end of life you receive each of us back again, in a ceaseless spiral dance of matter and energy. 

Mother Gaia, I know you are calling each of us to bring our strength, courage and intelligence to the task now at hand: restoring the balance of your systems so as to maximize the potential for Life to flourish. Not just human life; all life.

As we reach and grow towards conscious evolution, we humans are beginning to become aware of the harmonic dance of all beings, the great positive vibration of Life begetting Life, of Life flourishing. If we can tune in and calibrate our own beings to the great Hum of Mother Earth, we will find it impossible to do anything but join in that great swelling chorus—the choir of Angels (Spirit) singing in harmony with Gaia (Matter). 

Mother Gaia, my voice may be soft, I may be very small: but such as I am and such as I have, I offer to you. May I make the best use of the life you have gifted me. May my flourishing contribute to the vitality of all Life, in an endless reciprocal dance. 

Namaste, Mother Earth, and thank you. 

Gaia is calling. How will you respond?

I know I am not alone in feeling the keening cry of Gaia, our Mother Earth, at this time of war and wildfires, political tumult and typhoons.

The evidence of our entrance into a full-blown climate emergency swells by the day. The billions of dead birds; the “very poor” prognosis of the Great Barrier Reef; the methane boiling up out of the melting northern seas…there are so many unmistakable signs of the rapid decline in our planetary life systems.

Let’s be frank: we are hurtling rapidly into one of Earth’s great extinction events. It’s happened many times before. What’s different this time is that we are here to witness it. The dinosaurs didn’t know what hit them. We are busy measuring our downfall as it happens, in real time, in agonizing slow-motion.

We are very good at charting the physical indicators of change, but we are only beginning to understand and acknowledge how our inner landscapes are being affected.

Those who are more self-aware are starting to talk about “climate grief”; about the need for “death doulas,” not just for individuals but for communities, societies, a way of life. Guides like Malidoma Some and Martin Prechtel offer bridges to rare intact indigenous societies that still remember how to live and die secure in the embrace of Gaia.

As civilizations die, as individuals die, they create compost and space for new growth. This natural Gaian cycle is being highlighted for us now.

If we can get beyond the fear of change, we will begin to sense the wild delight of creation that is opened up for us as the old structures and necessities fall away.

For example, as the nation-state becomes irrelevant as an organizing structure, new forms of community will be imagined and manifested, more appropriate for our times. We will start organizing ourselves in locally self-sufficient communities and bioregions, redrawing the maps in alignment with the contours of the lands and the waters.

The opportunity exists now for a deep and thorough reimagining of every aspect of human society and our relation to the other life forms of the planet. Education, psychology, spirituality, economics, politics, social relations, scientific inquiry—every field of human knowledge and endeavor has the potential for a radical shift, powered by the urgency of our moment of profound change.

This is not to minimize or ignore the fact that climate disruption and cascading extinctions are already bringing widespread suffering, on a planetary scale that will only increase in the coming years.

How we respond to this, as witnesses and participants, matters.

Each of us, at every moment, stands at the crossroads of a future that is always under construction. Our choices, small and humble as they may feel to us, have a resonance beyond what we can realize.

According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s influential research, if just 3.5% of a human group focus their attention and intention on a desired change, that change will be set in motion, and will have a good chance of success.

Change starts in the heart and the mind and moves out into the world. Each of us has more power to affect the future than we may realize.

If each of us accepts and internalizes the fearful, violent, dystopic visions of the future that are constantly presented to us in the media, that is the vision that will take root in our psyches and grow.

If, on the other hand, we nurture in ourselves and communicate with others a more positive vision, we can shift the reality that unfolds before us.

All the other Gaian life forms give themselves in an unselfconscious way to the pursuit of life and happiness. You won’t find an eagle or a newt troubling itself about the future; and yet in their dedication to life they contribute to the intricate weave that sustains our planet.

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Humans’ dedication to growing our own civilizations and technological powers has made us such a successful invasive species that we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet, and a correction is inevitable. Our future life on the planet depends on whether we can learn very quickly to readjust our relationship with Gaia, reconnecting ourselves in a harmonious way with her life systems.

The changes needed are vast and daunting. But this is also an exciting moment to be alive, full of potential for positive change.

Let us admit to ourselves all the ways that human existence on the planet has become dull, constrained, anxious and ignoble. Let us admit all the harm we have inflicted on each other, on other living beings, and on Gaia as a whole. Let us perceive the potential in our moment of climate emergency, the opportunity to make real change.

So much depends on how we align our hearts and minds in the project of creating a visionary road map to a better world.

No matter what, Gaia’s steady, majestic cycles of life and death will continue. What’s at stake is our own future on the planet, and that of the other bright beings who co-evolved with us.

This is no time for paralysis or depression. It’s a time to pull out all the stops, to give all we have to the quest for a sustainable future on Earth, as Greta Thunberg is modeling for us so gallantly now.

Gaia is calling. How will you respond?

World on Fire: Rebuilding Notre Dame is Only the Beginning

We don’t know, today, how and why Notre Dame’s roof caught fire on April 15. What we do know is that it happened on the very same day that the Extinction Rebellion protests also caught fire, especially in London but also sending sparks all over the world.

These direct action protests are reminiscent of the old Occupy movement, but with added urgency, as now we are concerned not just about income inequality, but about the much broader, more looming collapse of our planetary ecosystems and the very survival of life on Earth as we know it.

Various voices on social media have been pointing out that the roof of Notre Dame was made of some 1,500 giant, ancient oak trees, harvested from more than 50 acres of old-growth forest near Paris. Some accounts put the age of these trees at 400 years, meaning that they were seedlings in the 800s AD. They gave their lives to build that majestic cathedral, and now they have returned to the carbon cycle as ashes and dust.

The cathedral will be rebuilt. But what about the trees?

It is now rare to find a 50-acre stand of old-growth trees anywhere on the planet. The Amazon, under Brazil’s Trump-like new president, is being cut down at alarming, ever-accelerating rates. The boreal forest in the Arctic Circle is also being razed for oil extraction, timber and mining, as well as under siege from climate change. The great tropical forests of Indonesia and Africa are being harvested for lumber to build houses and furniture.

It’s one thing to harvest ancient trees reverently and use them to construct a sacred place of worship, as the medieval builders of Notre Dame did.

It’s another thing to clear-cut forests with giant machines and use them to build deck chairs.

Today we know how dependent we are on our planet’s forests and other plant life. The great Amazon rainforest is the primary generator of the weather patterns that enable us to grow food in the northern hemisphere. Tree roots support the mycorrhizal networks that nourish healthy soil. With every breath, we sustain ourselves on the oxygen they produce.

For me, trees have a value that goes beyond the essential “ecosystem services” they provide.

I am not a person who worships the divine in a church. When I want to connect with the sacred, I go to the forest.

Jen Grandmother Tree Small

There is something in the way trees send their roots deep into the Earth and their branches way up to the sky that symbolizes for me the role of all life on Earth—rooted here, and yet connected and energized by our Sun and the entire Cosmos, which we still barely comprehend. I go to the forest to try to understand more deeply who I am and what I am here to do.

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral reminds me of the task before me; before us as a human species. Yes, we have to rebuild Notre Dame. But even more importantly, we have to rebuild the health of our planet.

We have to mobilize to push world leaders—political, business, financial, industrial—to take immediate, effective action to reverse the existential threat of climate disruption and environmental destruction in order to avoid planetary and civilizational collapse.

We don’t have to stretch very far to imagine our world on fire.

IT IS ON FIRE.

It’s not hard to imagine the collapsing spire of Notre Dame representing the extinction of yet another species on Earth.

For now, the stone structure still survives. The rose windows are still intact. It’s still possible to rebuild.

But we will not be able to rebuild the Amazon rainforest or the boreal forest in Alaska, Canada, China and Russia. If the forests go, the climate will be disrupted beyond the point of repair. The Holocene will be over, and the Anthropocene, the brief period of human ascendancy, will also come crashing down.

Life will persist on Earth. Gaia will regenerate. But it will be the end of civilization as we have known it.

There is still time to put out those fires. This is, as I wrote last week, an all-hands-on-deck moment. Whatever your gifts and abilities, now is the time to put them at the service of Life, of Beauty, of the Sacred understood as inextricably in relationship with the Earth and the Cosmos.

Rebuild Notre Dame, yes. But that is only the beginning.

 

An All-Hands-On-Deck Moment

In reading the recent back and forth between Jeremy Lent and Jem Bendell, I have the feeling I’m watching two great intellectual stags locking horns, jockeying with each other for dominance. These two climate philosophers are quite polite as they tear into each other’s work, and I think they both mean well. But do we have time, really, for this kind of academic jousting?

Does it really matter whether we counsel “transformative hope” (Lent) or “positive deep adaptation” (Bendell)? Does it matter whether we say social/environmental collapse is “likely” (Lent) or “inevitable” (Bendell)?

Both thinkers are really going for the same outcome, which is a cultural shift into confronting the seriousness of our current predicament (as a species, but also in terms of the stability of our planetary ecosystems). Both acknowledge that we may have to take some time to work through our despair and grief over the inevitability of change; and that ultimately we will need to turn to our neighbors and do our best to salvage what we can as we power down the old western civilization and power up, hopefully, the “ecological civilization” Lent has been calling for.

I am grateful to both of these guys, along with George Monbiot and Greta Thunberg, for getting climate breakdown and social collapse out of the realm of dystopian cli-fi and into the mainstream media.

Yes, what they are saying is scary. We are living through scary times—not just because of the current occupants of the White House, but because of the increasing chaos in our planetary life support systems. The Holocene is coming to an end, the Anthropocene is beginning, and it’s going to be a hard time for most species on Earth—human beings very much included.

We have to talk about this, and we can’t sugar-coat it. We humans need a wake-up call in the strongest terms, and sometimes a little fearmongering is necessary. It’s all very well for Charles Eistenstein to say that we need to come at the climate issue from a place of love rather than fear, but let’s be real. How many of the 7.6 billion people on the planet are in a strong enough relationship with Gaia to be motivated, purely out of love, to work hard to resuscitate and stabilize her?

But if you show people pictures of wildfires, flooding, hurricanes and droughts; if you tell them that agricultural systems are threatened, that climate refugees are already on the move, and that the entire natural food chain is collapsing both on land and sea…well, you might just be able to get their attention.

Right now we’re in a kind of agonizing slo-mo catastrophe. Sometimes it’s so slow that you can fool yourself into thinking everything’s fine. That’s why the work that Lent, Bendell, Monbiot, Thunberg and other activists are doing is essential—saying loud and clear, in no-nonsense terms, that THINGS ARE NOT FINE.

Although the Gaian indicators have never been worse, I find myself more hopeful now that I was a few years ago, when even a “good guy” like President Obama was posing with fossil fuel pipes behind him and refusing to kill the Keystone XL. At least we don’t have that kind of liberal hypocrisy running the show anymore.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal make me hopeful.

The Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion make me hopeful.

Student climate strikes make me hopeful.

The worldwide interest in the Findhorn Climate Change & Consciousness conference makes me hopeful.

I find hope in my own small contributions towards waking people up and helping them find their way to what Joanna Macy calls “active hope.” For example, in the workshop I’ll be giving here in the Berkshires on April 27, “Aligning the Personal, Political and Planetary for a Thriving Future.”

I would like to see Jem Bendell and Jeremy Lent go out for a beer and work out their ego-driven differences with some good old-fashioned humor and humility. We need all hands on deck now, pulling together into the thriving future we yearn for.

We are the World: A Rededication of Transition Times

It’s been a long time since I’ve written regularly in Transition Times. There’s a reason for it: the calamity of Trump stealing the 2016 election. After that, the bad news began to come so fast and furious that a) it was impossible to keep returning the volley, so to speak, with sufficient intensity; and b) life became exhausting, demoralizing and depressing. It was hard enough to live through each day, let alone write about it with the depth and clear thought that I have come to expect from myself in Transition Times.

So I shifted my outrage to social media, where I could share a multitude of other people’s thoughtful writing about resistance on many fronts. I shifted my writing practice to work on a novel that allowed me to lighten up a little and play with satire, even as I also made environmental resistance the engine of the plot. I’ve continued to teach leadership for social and environmental justice at the college, focusing especially on strategic communication: learning from those I call Worldwrights on how writing can right the world. And I’ve deepened my commitment to offering purposeful memoir as a technique not just for exploring the past, but also for understanding our difficult present, and envisioning a better future.

And now I find myself here, in the early days of another spring. There are still peepers trilling in the wet woods of my home in western Massachusetts. The birds are busy with mating and nesting. These deep terrestrial cycles soothe me, even as I know how endangered these bright creatures are in the face of climate disruption and environmental destruction. Of course, they don’t know or care about the future. Their blessing is to be entirely focused on the present.

Is it our curse then, as humans, that we alone of all the other animals possess the magic of prophecy? I have written of myself, here at Transition Times,as a kind of Cassandra. Back when I started this blog, in 2011, very few people were paying attention to the threat of climate change. Bill McKibben and Al Gore were outliers, preaching to a fringe that was perceived, even in smart precincts like The New York Times, to be standing in the way of progress.

Now things have changed. Suddenly The Times has a Climate beat. It’s not only Elizabeth Kolbert sounding the alarm on species extinction over at The New Yorker. And New York Magazine, previously mostly a style rag, broke a blunt and influential story by David Wallace-Wells about the social chaos that climate disruption will bring, if not addressed immediately.

Although the news is still depressing as hell, I’m reassured that the major news media are now paying attention. I don’t feel like such a mad, lonely voice crying in the wilderness over here at Transition Times. Somehow, because there are more reporters on the beat, it feels like a good time to rededicate myself in this blog, and think about how I can best be of service in my mission of “writing to right the world.”

***

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I am co-hosting a local “hub” of the Findhorn Climate Change & Consciousness Conference happening this month in Findhorn, Scotland; we’ll be presenting some of the keynotes from the conference, along with related pre-recorded interviews, and leading discussions afterwards. My co-host, Rosa Zubizarreta, led an initial circle recently, gathering some friends to simply speak what is in their hearts and minds as they have become aware of climate disruption. It was a moving, disturbing session, as people voiced their fears and their stubborn hope that a path to a viable future can still be found.

Several women (the gathering was mostly women) spoke of their terrible grief, as they understood the realities of ecological systems collapse. I remember feeling that way and I realized that while I still grieve every day for the losses we are facing, I am now more focused on what Jem Bendell calls “deep adaptation”: preparing myself–emotionally, spiritually and in practical terms–to live on into this very uncertain transition time.

I have always hoped that Transition Times would be a place where people could come for inspiration, and I see that we need inspiration now more than ever. My plan going forward is not to respond to the day’s outrages; not to keen and wail in grief at all the destruction (of forests, of reefs, of all the beautiful creatures who have been our companions throughout the Holocene, but are now fading away as we advance into the Anthropocene). Or at least, to tell these tales of woe only insofar as they help to ignite the passion of resistance, so that we can, like modern-day Noahs, conserve what we can as the flood waters rise.

It is not that I’m going to be Prozac-cheery and pretend everything is just fine. Far from it. I am going to engage in dialogue with the Worldwrights I respect and admire—activists of social and environmental justice, Gaian warriors as I call them, after Joanna Macy’s more Buddhist idea of Shambhala warriors. I am going to look for hope where it is to be found, while at the same time being honest—sometimes bluntly so—about where we are headed as a civilization.

CoverIn Margaret Wheatley’s latest book, which I shared with my leadership students this spring, she uses John Glubb’s model of cyclical civilizational collapse to show how western society is in the classic end stages, headed for a big fall. And yet, she says, we have to do the work that is ours to do, moving beyond fear and beyond the false promises of savior-style hope.

At the end of my memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered, I said that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in circles of kindred spirits, “doing hope together.” I still feel that way, even though my understanding of “hope” has changed. I no longer hope that we can sustain this present civilization. I see now that what western society has created is totally unsustainable and so destructive, not only for the natural world but also for the vast majority of human beings.

Along with other transition thinkers, I have shifted away from the idea of “sustainability,” towards the promise of “regeneration.”

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From the ashes of western civilization something new will rise. There will be some humans left to greet the new day and start the task of creating the next version of life on Earth. Those who make it through what Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning will probably be the people who have remained indigenous through all the upheavals and torments of the past 500 years of European colonization; those who live in places not swept away by climate havoc, and who still remember how to subsist in harmony on the land.

Here in Transition Times, I will share what I am learning about deep adaptation, regeneration and how to prepare oneself, spiritually, emotionally and practically, to live through the times that are coming. I will share my own journey honestly, and hope that others will be inspired to share their thoughts too.

This is what “doing hope together” looks like to me now, here on the edge of what some are calling planetary systems collapse. To look out into the world with love and with courage; to say resolutely that we stand for the best values humanity has developed over these past few millennia of recorded history; and that we stand against the greed, shortsightedness, aggression and hatred that has been ascendant too long in western civilization.

As Arundhati Roy put it, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Stop. Listen. Can you hear the better world that is laboring to be born now? Send her strength with every breath you take, knowing that the world breathes you as you breathe her. There is no separation. It’s become a cliché but it’s true: We are the world. And in the cycles of deep time, we will rise again.

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In a violent time, we need a revolution of love

Here’s the thing. Violence exists on a continuum. You can’t live in a militarized society where the sale of weapons is a major source of social wealth and expect that violence won’t come back to haunt you. You can’t live in a society that tolerates the killing of wild animals for sport, the torture of animals for food, and chemical assaults on insects, birds and marine life, and expect that you can somehow remain safe yourself.

What we put into the world comes back to us. We humans are not separate from the rest of life on this planet. We have to give up the delusion of our own exceptionalism and power. No living being on this Earth is immune to the violence humans are wreaking—not even us.

Violence begets more violence. When we look at a grown man filled with such hatred that he’s willing to send pipe bombs or murder people in their houses of worship, we have to peer more deeply into him and ask: what created this monster? What traumas did he survive, that warped him from the instinctively loving infants we all are (with the possible exception of those traumatized already in the womb or through epigenetics)? How was he damaged by the brutality of American culture?

I am not by any means implying that the crimes of these men should be excused. I am suggesting that their hatred must be seen in light of the broader cultural environment of violence and abuse that we are all swimming in, and that we all co-create if only by our tacit acceptance, our allowing it to go on.

Americans, our country was founded on revolution: on people saying ENOUGH: we will not be intimated and forced into compliance by a distant colonial master.

It is time, as Charles Eisenstein says in his brave new book Climate: A New Story, for another revolution, this time against our own homegrown masters: against the self-interested greed of the men who run the military-industrial-weapons-petrochemical-pharmaceutical-insurance-finance-agricultural-engineering-electronic sectors of our society.

It is time to understand that there is no such thing as “trickle-down wealth” in a society that creates wealth by killing life, because in such a society the violence eventually comes back around to attack its creators.

The climate crisis and ecological collapse are the signs of the limit of this ecocidal/suicidal worldview. The billionaires who have laughed all the way to the bank as they have devoured the planet cannot survive on a dead planet. And the dream of a rocket to a distant planetary colony is just science fiction.

If these masters of the planet will not understand that humans are here to serve Life, not death, and if we the people truly value Life (not just our own little lives, but all Life on the planet) then it is time for a revolution.

I do not say this lightly. Revolutions are going to be met with violence, and hence will increase violence for a time. I fear and detest violence. But I don’t see another way, other than going quietly into the night of death along with the greater part of the current inhabitants on Earth, human and non-human alike.

We can’t just reel from one disaster and tragedy to the next indefinitely, without fighting back.

If our warrior energy comes from love, it will unleash a different kind of battle. Acting out of love for Life, we can begin to reorient the way we live. Because money and wealth are so important to humans, a big aspect of the revolution can come through a shift in how we direct our wealth. Are we supporting the weapons industry with our investments? The fossil fuel industry? Big pharma, big agriculture, and the financial sector that supports them?

Ultimately, we have to not only put our finances, but also our bodies on the line. We have to turn out in protest, and not just on sunny Saturday afternoons.

We have to resist the cultural conditioning that says nothing an individual does matters. We have to get back in touch with our childlike instinct for love—and not just love of other humans, but love of the whole beautiful world that gives us life.

I am sick to death of living with so much mind-numbing violence and destruction. We are all sick of it—as in, it is making us all sick.

To heal, to feel well again, we have to heal our society and our world, because we are all interconnected. Nothing happens in isolation on this planet. We can’t ignore starving children in one part of the world and expect that the violence being visited on them won’t come boomeranging back to us in our supposedly secure gated communities. We can’t watch passively as the insect kingdom collapses worldwide and imagine that this won’t affect humans, perched smugly at the top of the food chain.

The climate crisis and Sixth Great Extinction drive home this message of interconnection globally. Gun violence is a symptom of the much bigger violence going down in myriad ways every day.

If you want peace and harmony, you have to live it and support it everywhere, in every human interaction, and not just with other humans, but with all living beings.

That is the meaning of a revolution of love. Step into it now. We have work to do.

Gilgamesh vs. Noah: The Epic Battle for the Future

We are living in epic times. Mighty planetary changes are underway, and perhaps our pop culture is so obsessed with superheroes because only legendary heroes could successfully battle the dragons we face today.

I have been writing Transition Times for seven years now. When I started this blog, I was following the lead of environmental activist writers like Bill McKibben, Mark Hertsgaard, Elizabeth Kolbert and Derrick Jensen, who were sounding the alarm about climate change and biodiversity loss, translating the sober measurements of science into terms a lay audience could understand.

In the climate change movement then, the watchwords were “mitigate” and “adapt.” We could mitigate the damage that climate change would cause by reducing carbon emissions, trying to keep things more or less under control while we busied ourselves with adapting, by, for example, shifting to renewable energy sources and hybridizing flood- and drought-resistant grains.

Meanwhile, wildlife biologists were keeping track of the grim march of the Sixth Great Extinction, already well underway—not only for animals but also for marine life and plants on land and sea.

Seven years on, the scenarios I was absorbing with shock, outrage and fear at the beginning of Transition Times have come true, and then some. Monster storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, melting glaciers and tundra at the poles, staggering biodiversity loss, climate refugees (both human and non-human)—all of this has moved out of the realm of science fiction into the daily headlines.

Hence our desperate casting about for superhero help.

In the United States, the Gilgamesh crowd is in power—you remember Gilgamesh: the brawny young king who murdered the guardian of the cedar forest and cut it all down to build his grand city. Later in his epic he wanders around the world searching unsuccessfully for a route to immortality, strangely symbolizing the downfall of all humans who think only of short-term gain: you can’t take it with you.

Those at the helm of the U.S. economy today are willing to cut it all down. Who cares about helping endangered species? Who cares about national parks or ocean sanctuaries—drill, baby, drill! Who cares about the national debt? Print some more paper, acquire some more debt, let the suckers who come after us figure out how to pay.

And pay we will. The entire Earth community will pay for the savage destruction of climate and environment underway now. It’s not just the Sixth Great Extinction, it’s also a planetary reset we’re witnessing in these early years of the 21stcentury, on the scale of the shift from the Mesozoic to the Cenozoic eras, when the dinosaurs went extinct.

But this time, it’s not a meteor shaking things up on Earth. It’s the planet’s most successful species, homo sapiens—the smart apes—ruining things for everyone.

I am not proud to be a human being these days. I am not proud to be an American.

But I do cling to a tattered shred of hope in remembering the much-vaunted ethical, moral compass of humans, and the legendary innovative ingenuity of Americans.

If climate change, habitat and species loss continue unabated, we will be the first species on the planet to knowingly bring about our own destruction. For make no mistake, humans will go down with everything else on the planet. A few may survive—but civilization as we have created it, a la Gilgamesh, will go down.

Is this something we are really willing to have on our collective conscience?

Especially when we could have prevented it?

I take hope from the fierce rhetoric of Pope Francis, and other activists who are firing up environmental protection with religious fervor: Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a great example of a scientist who is appealing to the faithful, and also using pop cultureto reach the masses.

What’s needed now is a dramatic shift in cultural worldview: from Gilgamesh to Noah, from swash-buckling drill-slash-burn to the moral and technological leadership that gets an Ark built before the floods come.

Because the floods, they are a’comin’. They’re already here, along with the wildfires and droughts and heat domes and all the rest of it. The wild animals are feeling the stresses as much or more than humans…there’s no AC or helicopters coming for them.

Meanwhile our politicians are still busying themselves with archaic ideas like national borders and tariff tit-for-tats. Climate change knows no borders. Noah didn’t ask to see passports as he loaded the climate refugees, human and non-human, into his ship.

We are all Earthlings now. If there’s any upside to climate change, it may be that the fact of our global, interspecies interdependence is now blazingly clear and undeniable.

In the epic of the 21stcentury, we’re at a crossroads. Who will we follow, Gilgamesh or Noah? If we want to save ourselves and as many other beloved Earthlings as possible (plants, insects, birds, animals, marine life), there is no time to waste.

Noah is in all of us, and we’re all in this together. If we have the will, we can find ways to mitigate and adapt and survive what’s coming.

Can we find the will?

Every day is a cliffhanger lately…tune in next time for the next chapter of “Gilgamesh vs. Noah: The Epic Battle for the Future, No. 2018.”

Mother Earth and the Art of the Deal: Doing Hope in Dark Times

On trade, as with immigration, the 45thAmerican president is not only an embarrassment, but a danger to world peace and prosperity. But we must take into account the deeper layers to both issues, which he understands only in the most superficial, self-serving way.

On the G7 and free trade: let’s admit candidly that globalized free trade of the NAFTA and TPP variety have been boons for corporations and Wall Street financiers, but disasters for most workers. The policy of freeing corporations to seek the lowest possible taxes and the cheapest, most compliant workers has resulted in unemployed, impoverished, unionless American workers and exploited, slave-like workers in places like Indonesia, China and India. The depression and rage of these screwed-over American workers is what propelled Trump into office, and he knows they will crow in glee as he shafts the ministers of free trade in the G7.

But of course they don’t realize, or refuse to see, that Trump is a wolf in sheep’s clothing (a corporate magnate in worker’s garb) when it comes to trade. All this talk of tariffs or no tariffs is just a smokescreen to throw his trading partners off guard and negotiate better deals for American corporations.

Trump is not interested in the welfare of American workers. If he were, he wouldn’t be protesting so loudly about the Canadian dairy industry, which is a good case in point as to the value of socialized industry. The Canadian government protects its dairy farmers from competition with the American dairy farmers who have been gutted by the free market and have been going out of business and committing suicide in record numbers as a result. Canadians wisely realize the value of nurturing their farmers, and so far Justin Trudeau is refusing to cave to Trump’s bullying, though it’s worrisome that a Trump-lite politician just won high office in Ontario, Canada’s most populous state.

Canadians look south of the border and see a nightmare: civilians waving guns in the streets and at schools, politicians regularly going out in handcuffs, an addicted, depressed, unhealthy, scared-as-shit population too ignorant and distracted to understand when it’s being shafted.

Perhaps the G7 should become the G6 unless and until the United States pulls itself out of its current morass. Thanks to Trump and the Republicans America has become a rogue nation, led by a corrupt strongman who seems to have his opponents, including the Justice Department, by the balls.

Meanwhile, along the southern border with Mexico, Trump has also taken a wrecking ball to a long-established relationship. Free trade was also a terrible deal for ordinary Mexicans—to take one example, thanks to NAFTA their corn industry was totally swamped by dumped cheap corn from American farmers, a lose-lose for all the workers involved.

But of course, the welfare of ordinary people is not Trump’s motivation. If it were, instead of talking about building the next Great Wall (a boon for the construction industry) to keep desperate Mexican and Central American families out of the United States, we’d be talking about investigating and improving the conditions that are forcing families to leave their homes and make the dangerous trip up north. The U.S. destroyed the economies and societies of Central America during the 1970s Communist scare, NAFTA and CAFTA splayed them open to American exploitation, and ordinary people are still paying the price.

This is a “workers of the world, unite” kind of moment, particularly in the face of climate change, which can only be tackled by a unified global effort–but instead the Trumpites are sowing distrust and discord everywhere they go. Fox News and the rest of the rightwing media, not to mention Trump’s own Twitter feed, feeds his followers a steady diet of carefully calibrated misinformation designed to brainwash them into cheering for their own evisceration.

With Bolton at his side, Trump is on the road to undoing the post-World War II world order that has maintained peace and prosperity for the elitessince 1945. If Trump & Co. were of the Chairman Mao variety, we might be looking at a new kind of Cultural Revolution. But no—these men want their elite status to last and grow. They don’t care about the costs—to the planet, to people, to the future.

Instead, we are seeing the rise of a new oligarchy, with Putin its shadow leader and Pompeo its enforcer. The generals go along–war and terror are their stock in trade after all–and business follows the generals with their lucrative military contracts. Next we’ll see Dick Cheney raising his ugly pate out of the swamp looking to rebuild Syria and modernize North Korea.

The truth is that for most of the planet–from marine life to forests to insects, and including poor people everywhere—this is nothing new. Most of the world has been living through a nonstop crisis all during these so-called “boom years” after 1945. Ask an indigenous person in the Amazon rainforest how the past 70+ years have been. Ask the butterflies and bees how they’ve enjoyed the rise of Monsanto.

It’s just that the carrying capacity of the planet is now maxxed out, so in order to preserve and increase the wealth of the elites, they must find new people and places to exploit. The ruthlessness of those in power, which has always been used to bludgeon the rest of the world, is now being turned on our trading partners, as well as on ordinary Americans, who are nearly as weak and easy to screw over as the Central Americans. Witness the fracking rigs in school yards and neighborhoods; the gutting of fragile health care protections for the poor and the sick; the adunctification of the higher education industry; the undermining of unions of every stripe.

The constant stream of unbelievably bad news coming down the transom is like one of those overwritten movie thrillers where you leave the theater shaking your head, wondering why the writers felt they had to cram every single violent act they could think of into a shortest possible time. But something’s wrong with this picture.  Where is the resistance? Where are the plucky Luke Skywalker types who can take on the Dark Lord and his henchmen?

Although rarely visible in the mainstream media, it turns out that the indigenous people of the Americas, for whom this crisis is nothing new at all, are leading the way—slowly, painfully and without great success, but with absolutely rock-solid determination. Everyone who cares about this planet should be standing with them; we need a Standing Rock movement in every state and town, to demand the health and welfare of all living beings on the planet and to insist that protecting the web of life is our most sacred duty as humans on Earth.

Trade and immigration are important issues, but they’re not as important as preparing to deal with the ravages of climate change. The worst thing Trump has done was to thumb his nose at the Paris climate accord, and then to put another wolf in charge of deregulating industry via the so-called Environmental Protection Agency.

Pope Francis gets it; bless him for calling the big oil chiefs to the Vatican for a lecturing on the importance of transitioning to clean energy, and fast. We need more independent, clear-sighted leaders like the Pope to focus our collective attention on what’s really important, and everything that’s at stake in our actions now.

It would sure help if the super-rich like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg would decide, like Tom Steyer, to throw some of their billions into climate change solutions—and I don’t mean inventing rockets to allow the elites to escape to Mars. They should be standing with First Nations leaders like Winona LaDuke, who has already successfully defeated one Midwestern oil pipeline, and is working to make her own reservation energy-independent and self-sufficient.

Despite the shitstorm that surrounds Trump (he reminds me of the Peanuts character Pigpen, perpetually surrounded by his own filthy stench), there is still hope to be found. Do yourself, and our world, a favor: seek out, focus on and amplify every small ray of hope you can find.

It only feeds the dark side to constantly marinate yourself in bad news and share your outrage with others. Feed the light with all the hope, good will and visionary creativity you can muster, and seek out others who are doing this too. Do hope together, and watch it grow.

It may help to remember: Mother Earth is on our side, if by “our side” we mean the side of life, abundance and well-being. If we’re as smart as we like to believe we are, humans, we’ll work with her, not against her. For in the end, she won’t be trumped. She will win this deal, with us or without us.

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