Imagine 2018: Dreaming a Better Future

Although there have been countless other dark periods in human history, the particular darkness of our moment is unique in its alignment of the political and planetary.

Politically, human societies around the world are under pressure—religious, economic, social—and are more easily manipulated by dark forces than ever before, thanks to our networked global Hive Mind.

On a planetary level, all life forms, including humans, are under unprecedented pressure due to the human destruction of healthy ecosystems by over-population, climate change, chemical assault and the deadly practices of mining, fracking, logging, agriculture, fishing, etc.

Even while on a personal level many of us here in the heart of Empire are still relatively comfortable, we feel these political and planetary pressures deeply. Each day’s bad news can feel like an assault, and after a year like 2017, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty bruised and aching.

These dark solstice days, as the earth begins to swing back towards the sun, are a good time to go deep and try to fortify ourselves, intellectually and spiritually, for the new year ahead. Given a personal awareness of the frighteningly out-of-control political and planetary dimensions of our time, how can we keep ourselves centered and steady, awake and aware yet not depressed, despairing or panicked?

In terms of negotiating the Hive Mind, I try to share as much good news as I can find, and bad news only sparingly. I’ve noticed that whatever we share on social media comes back to us amplified, so if I share bad news—the Arctic is melting! the polar bears are going extinct!—the negative emotions of fear, anger and grief that come back to me simply get me more upset, without offering any constructive approach to solving the original problem.

If I share good news, even if it only offers a ray of hope, that ray is brightened by all the “likes” that others add, and our collective mood may be lightened just a little bit.

And brightness this is what the world needs from us now. Those of us who are aware and awake to the slow-motion disaster we’re living through are being called to be the beacons and the anchors for others—and not just for humans, but for all the beautiful life on earth that is under constant assault these days.

It won’t help the polar bears on their melting ice floes or the hordes of animals fleeing the wildfires to have us humans staring at screens expressing our outrage with finger taps. It may make us feel a little better in the moment to virtually scream our anguish, but it’s a howl in the wind that will do no one any good.

Instead of getting lost in the dystopian present, with which the media keeps battering our psyches day after day, the trick to staying centered and spirited in these dark times is to keep burnishing our dreams of a better future.

This requires resisting the prevailing tendency today for dreaming to be dismissed as an unproductive waste of time; for visionaries to be mocked as escapist fantasizers.

I fear that what may doom us in the end is the loss of our capacity for creative daydreaming.

We are all so accustomed to constant media stimulation that it takes real effort to simply quiet our minds and become open to whatever creative thoughts may come. I’m not talking about meditation, which aims to “think nothing.” I’m talking about creative imagination, flashes of insight, lucid dreaming, the kind of thinking that has propelled human ingenuity all through the ages.

We can’t allow our imaginations to be dominated by the “masters of the universe” who control our media. This is a particular challenge with children and young people, the smartphone generations who have grown up as consumers of other people’s fantasies and representations, rather than practicing our human birthright of creative imagination.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” sang John Lennon.

We who are aware of what’s happening around us have to allow ourselves the creative pleasure of dreaming our own utopian dreams, and sharing these visions of a better future with others, so that together we add detail and strength to the positive dream of what could be.

Instead of reacting negatively to the day’s news, amplifying the outrage and discord, we can share our proactive dreams of what could and should be.

My mantra word for 2018 is: Imagine.

Imagine what could be if your dream of how you want to live, personally, were extended into a collective dream of well-being for all life on Earth, and for the planet herself?

Imagine if the “world could be as one”—and imagine yourself doing one small thing each day to extend your dream of personal well-being out further to touch others in the world. Even small acts like filling a bird feeder, donating to a food pantry or smiling at a neighbor will ripple goodness out into a world starving for kindness.

The media hurls countless “micro-aggressions” at us every day. In your own personal sphere, imagine 2018 as a year of micro-kindnesses, and try to consciously make kindness, warmth and goodness a habit.

The more of us practice this kind of radical kindness, the more it will come back to warm and encourage us, in a positive feedback loop that really can change the world.

Imagine.

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Leadership in the End Times: Feminine Rising

“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew/Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!/How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!/Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden/That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely. That it should come to this./But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two./So excellent a king, that was to this/Hyperion to a satyr.”

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2”

You may remember Hamlet’s anguished soliloquy as he contemplates the death of his noble father, the rapid remarriage of his mother to his lecherous uncle, and the fact that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

In this male-dominated kingdom, an “unweeded garden,” young Ophelia goes mad and drowns (a possible suicide), the Queen shares a bed with her husband’s brother-turned-killer, murder plots abound and no one is safe, not even the idealistic, intelligent young Hamlet, who cannot unravel the mess of his kingdom without becoming unraveled himself.

Does this sound familiar?

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Margaret J. Wheatley

It would not be too much of a stretch to compare our own sorry political landscape in the U.S. to the “rank and gross” garden of ancient Denmark. And thus it did not surprise me to find Meg Wheatley, in her latest book on leadership, turning to history to explain our current moment: what she calls, following British historian Sir John Glubb, “The Age of Decadence.”

Here is Wheatley summarizing Glubb:

“Glubb studied thirteen empires in the Middle East, Asia and Europe…from Assyria in 859 BCE to modern Britain in 1950. The pattern of the decline and fall of these superpowers was startlingly clear. It didn’t matter where they were or what technology they had or how they exercised power. They all declined in the same stages and it always took ten generations, about 250 years.

“The logic of this is very clear: each generation matures in better socioeconomic circumstances created by the preceding generation; thus, there is always a march to increasing materialism. In every generation, youth will have higher expectations for comfort than their parents. Improved material conditions create attitudinal changes that insist on still more material changes; and predictably, because of its wealth and erosion of morality, the civilization declines into decadence.” (Who Do We Choose to Be? 34).

The United States is nine years shy of its 250th anniversary. We are deep into our Age of Decadence, which Wheatley (following Glubb) describes as a time when “wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism and high levels of frivolity” (35).

The pattern is clear; the writing is on the wall–even without the added wrench of climate change and environmental destruction, which Glubb, writing in the 1970s, could not foresee.

Wheatley’s questions for our time are essential. Given the stark reality of our epoch, what should we do as leaders? How can we stay centered and grounded in the midst of social turmoil and environmental catastrophe, and work in our own spheres to create “islands of sanity” in our communities?

As I’ve become more acutely aware of the transition times (end times?) we are living through in the 21st century, it’s become important to me to reach out and try to find others who are also aware of what’s happening—those who are not giving in to despair, but who are continuing to work for positive change.

All kinds of resistance and action are needed, from protesting the unholy trinity of Fossil Fuels, Big Pharma and Big Ag; to holding elected officials accountable; to protecting our dwindling wild places and wild creatures; and working to improve quality of life for people with few resources.

It’s all urgent and important, and taken together, it’s overwhelming, which is why, as co-founder Kenny Ausubel said at the Bioneers conference last month, it’s important for activists to come together to imbibe the “good medicine” of sharing our stories and knitting together our hopes and dreams for a better future. It was great to get a strong dose of that good medicine myself at this year’s Bioneers.

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Nina Simons addresses the Bioneers 2017.

At the Bioneers, it was the women leaders who especially inspired me. It was heartbreaking but galvanizing to listen to Kandi Mosset, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, talk about the horrendous impact of the fossil fuel industry in her home state of North Dakota.

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Clare Dubois at the Bioneers 2017.

Kandi’s litany of destruction was balanced by the visionary, participatory ritual created by Treesisters founder Clare Dubois, invoking a rise of feminine consciousness to balance each of us as individuals (men as well as women) and enable us to bring our planet back into balance.

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Nina Simons awakening women leaders. 

Starhawk’s regeneration workshop echoed a theme raised by Bioneers co-founder Nina Simons in her women’s leadership session: the idea of composting what we don’t want, and focusing on generating more of what we do want and need.

But what if it’s not clear what we should compost in our lives, and what we should be growing? The way forward is murky in our times. I was reassured in my uncertainty by Joanna Macy, who ended her Bioneers session with simple but potent advice: “Cherish the questions.”

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Joanna Macy, wise elder at the Bioneers 2017.

I was also invigorated in my own work of purposeful memoir to find Meg Wheatley ending her new leadership book with a turn to the personal. From the wide historical sweep of her opening sections, she eventually narrows down to the particular center from which each of us operate: the self.

“We see the world through the powerful filters of self. The more we know our filters, the more we can see beyond them….The distinction between self-help and self-knowledge is important. There are thousands of self-help methods available to design a better you. But here, we aspire to high levels of self-awareness, not to help ourselves but to learn to trust ourselves in difficult situations….Our motivation is to be more in control of ourselves so that we don’t get in the way, and don’t give ourselves away, as we work in service to others” (275).

This is precisely the goal of my work of “aligning the personal, political and planetary through purposeful memoir.” In my workshops and online course, following the path I took myself in my memoir and laid out in my writer’s guide to purposeful memoir, we explore how our individual life stories have been shaped by political and environmental forces beyond our control.

As we learn about who we are in our particular time and place, as well as the ancestral baggage we carry, we can begin to “compost” what we don’t want to bring forward into the future, and envision “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

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Barbara Marx Hubbard, born the same year as Joanna Macy, 1929.

Yesterday I listened to Clare Dubois’ interview with the visionary thinker Barbara Marx Hubbard, who declared that we are living in the end times of a great evolutionary cycle. But in Nature, all death is also the opportunity for rebirth: compost leads to regeneration.

Ours is a moment of chaos and decay, but also a moment of great potential, when thanks to our enhanced powers of communication (the Internet) those whom Wheatley calls “Warriors for the Human Spirit” can find each other and work together to amplify our signal, increasing our collective ability to be a force for good on the planet.

In my lexicon, our task is to shift the destructive, aggressive Anthropocene to the balanced, harmonious Androgynocene. To do this, feminine leadership must come to the fore—in both men and women.

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Warrior for the Human Spirit AMY GOODMAN inspires young folks at the Bioneers 2017.

What would feminine leadership look like? Simply put, it is collaborative rather than competitive; nurturing rather than domineering; empathetic rather than arrogant; generous rather than stingy; putting the well-being of the entire system and all its components ahead of the individual striving of a few.

Can we achieve this before human civilization crashes and the entire planetary environment hits the reset button?

We have a ringside seat on the action, my friends. And we don’t have to stay on the sidelines! Each of us has a role to play in nudging our world towards a tipping point, for good or for ill.

If you can get clear on what you want to cultivate—in yourself, your communities, and the planet—you can then act in your own sphere to create an “island of sanity” around you. Once you feel clear, grounded and strong enough, you can reach out to likeminded others and welcome them in to your circle.

And then, let the world know what you’re doing by sending out encouraging messages in bottles (blog posts, tweets, photos) through the Internet. You never know where the ripples will spread and who your message will reach in a time of need.

It’s important that we counter the constant mainstream litany of bad news with positive stories of the better world that is regenerating through the compost of our civilization right now. It’s happening! And the more we share the news of the new shoots and beneficial micorrhizal networks we see, the more vigorously they’ll grow.

 

Toxic Masculinity & the Power of ME TOO

The latest tsunami to hit us is a cultural disaster rather than a natural one. I’m talking about the huge tidal waves of grief and anger pouring out on Facebook pages, mostly from women, expressed in two telling words: ME TOO.

I don’t know who struck the spark that set off this conflagration (to mix water and fire metaphors, deliberately), posting the very first “ME TOO—Pass it On” on Facebook, but it is running like a California wildfire—out of control, slightly hysterical, as women who may never before have publicly admitted the shame of having been molested, assaulted, or harassed now begin to proclaim it loudly, in ALL CAPS.

As thousands of women join this mega-virtual Take Back the Night rally, you can see those virtual men looking at each other uneasily, beginning to post “Not Me,” in so many words, on their FB pages.

Harvey Weinstein, yes; Donald Trump, yes; Bill Cosby, yes; Bill O’Reilly, yes; Casey Affleck, yes…yes, yes, yes…so many OTHER men routinely disrespect and prey on women. Not me.

Although this dialogue may be new to many, it’s been going on in the fringes of our culture, in the women’s & gender studies circles where I hang out, for a long time.

A few brave men have dared to stand up to the culture of silence (from entitled men) and shame (from fearful, self-blaming women) and say, loud and clear, that MEN need to own the issue of violence against women and children, and clean up their acts collectively.

If women could solve the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault on our own, we would have done it by now.

The majority of men do not perpetrate the violence, yet by looking away from it, they condone it.

That has been the message of men like Michael Kimmel, Jackson Katz and Robert Jensen over many years now. Men need to stand up and reject the toxic masculinity that glorifies aggression, hardness and lack of emotion, affirming instead a positive masculinity that uses its power to protect and embraces its nurturing, loving characteristics.

Boys do cry, as well they should. And men should be crying now too, as they bear witness to the magnitude of the violence that their female friends, partners, daughters, sisters and mothers have had to silently absorb.

Women, brava to us for standing up in this virtual “women’s march” on social media. Now let’s make it real in our lives.

In my memoir and on my Transition Times blog, I’ve been arguing that we must “align the personal, political and planetary” to heal ourselves, our society and our world.

It’s plain to see that in our time, this bleak 21st century, violence against individuals is replicated by political violence against groups and massive violence against in the planet. And let’s be honest: in every realm, most of the violence is perpetrated by men—against people of all genders.

elemental-journey-cover-new-smIt does not have to be this way. Change must start with individuals—ME TOO—and then move out into the world. That’s why I have chosen purposeful memoir as my starting point for myself, and my offering to others.

I have a whole series of purposeful memoir workshops starting in December, and if you can’t wait that long, my new online course is available now.

Unpack those two little words. Tell the stories that go with them. And then move the fierce energy you will release in the telling out into the political and planetary spheres.

When we align the personal, political and planetary, we bring balance to ourselves, our communities and our world. And then…watch us rise!

Radical Hope in Tragic Times

I am trying to absorb the horrible news of the worst American mass shooting in recent history; and at the same time not lose the elated feeling I had after the successful October 1 launch of the Berkshire Grove of the organization Treesisters, dedicated to reforesting the tropics and rebalancing the planet’s climate, while also encouraging women to step into leadership roles in environmental issues.

22154421_620982604884_4669767767180484296_nIt was so beautiful to see people streaming on to the lawn next to Edith Wharton’s mansion The Mount in Lenox MA, where a small group of dedicated dancers and singers led by choreographer and creative designer Anni Crofut Maliki had prepared a beautiful, heartfelt introduction to the Treesisters philosophy, weaving powerful words from founder Clare Dubois together with original song and dance, in a soulful old grove of pines and maples, on a radiant fall afternoon.

22089816_10213164101109781_8490839444826224249_nIt was truly uplifting to stand together in circle, invoking the five points of the Treesisters star of change, envisioning the better world that could be if feminine energy—productive, creative, fertile, nourishing—were to come into balance with healthy masculine energy channeled into positive action and stewardship of the planet.

Yes, we can do it, we all felt, standing together. We CAN make this shift and save our planet from destruction. Oh happy day!

And then in the middle of the night I was woken from a dream by the flashing white light of my cell phone, notifying me of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. I didn’t look at it then, but was greeted by the news first thing in the morning.

Another man gone berserk. More handwringing and horror on the news, the president mouthing simpering teleprompted sympathy messages, all those media personalities milking tragedy for ratings, and watching the stock market spike—perhaps in anticipation of yet more gun sales?

I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the shock, the numbness, the carrying on. Sick of how violence has become normalized in this country. No matter how high the numbers climb, we seem to absorb the news and move on like automatons. 49 dead? 59 dead? As some commentators are reminding us today, more people than that die every day in America from gun violence.

And then there are the opioid deaths, the car accidents, the homicides, the suicides, the police brutality, domestic violence, the rapes, the self-destructiveness of eating disorders and self-harm.

Yes, we are proud to be Americans, aren’t we? We live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the best country on Earth.

I used to believe that. I have not believed it in a long time, and each day brings new sadness and outrage to further puncture whatever remnants of the American dream might remain to me.

Since there seems to be no hope of legislative solutions to the multifarious problem of gun violence in America, I choose to shift my focus elsewhere, on change I can control.

I can support the work of Treesisters and other organizations working for environmental sanity and the empowerment of women’s leadership. I can support and cultivate creative people whose vision points us towards a better world.

Through writing, my own creative outlet, I can try to alchemize my shock and sickness into something more productive, something—if only words—that I can offer the planet in these desperately difficult times.

We have to beware of being sucked into the negative whirlpools that inevitably swirl up like black-water vortexes in the wake of mass tragedies like this one.

Yes, we must pay homage to the victims and berate the negligent legislators and courts that have turned our country into an armed camp of vigilantes.

But don’t let all that negative energy pull you down. Keep your spirit burning bright and focus your energy not on what has been, but on what could be. Gather with others and share your dreams and visions for a better world.

This is what I call “doing hope together.” Nothing and no one will stop me from stoking the fires of my radical hope, with other like-minded people and with the planet herself.

And you? Will you come with me?

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What do we do now, in this bleak autumn of 2017?

Autumn in New England is a beautiful season, when the trees delight us by transforming into brilliant torches of color—gold, red, orange, each tree seeming to compete with her sisters to be the most beautiful and eye-catching of all.

Not this year.

It seems fitting, symbolically speaking, that in 2017 the leaves are simply browning off: shriveling up and falling to the ground in the tree version of heat exhaustion as we plod through a September oppressed by record-breaking high temperatures. In the photos below, the colors on the left belong to October 2016; the almost-bare maple on the right was photographed in mid-September, 2017.

We can no longer talk about climate change as though it were a concern for the future, something our grandchildren will have to contend with.

It’s here.

The monster hurricanes hurtling up out of the super-heated ocean; the millions of acres of dead trees in the West, victims of heat-loving pine bark beetles; the dangerous wildfires consuming all that dead timber; the heat surges in places that used to be reliably cool, like the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the Canadian Arctic…the only natural disasters we can’t blame on climate change are the earthquakes, and those just seem like angry shrugs from Gaia, the earth goddess, ready to dislodge the invasive hordes of humans that have so disrupted her smooth, harmonious ecological systems.

If, as I’ve perceived for some time now, the personal, the political and the planetary are interlocking systems, overlapping rings in a Venn diagram of human existence, then of course it’s to be expected that the imbalances in the natural world are being mirrored and echoed in disruptions in the political landscape and in our personal lives and awareness.

You feel it, don’t you? To tune into the news is to receive a jolt of anguish, like a powerful electrical charge running through a downed wire—dangerous, unpredictable, out of control.

So a lot of us are tuning out, in self-protection. There is just too much bad news to absorb, and all the disasters are blurring together—the terrorist attacks, the natural disasters, the political horrors that daily revive prejudices and hatreds we hoped were long dead.

Those of us who still have the privilege and luxury of sitting on the sidelines—in safe, intact homes, with enough food and clean water, electricity tamely offering itself in sockets and gas at the ready on our stoves—we watch the bedlam going on elsewhere with dread, knowing that any day it could be our turn.

We’re frozen in the headlights of an inexorable future, just waiting and watching those brown leaves fall.

There have been other times in history when it was possible to see the storm clouds brewing, and people had the time and the choice to act. Germany in the 1930s, for example. With Nazism on the rise, some Jews and other targeted people saw the swastikas on the wall and made the decision to get the hell out while they could, even if it meant leaving behind all their worldly possessions. They chose life, and their descendants thank them for it.

There are eerie parallels with pre-war Germany in the United States today. Zombie haters rise again, and don’t even bother to hide their faces—why should they, with one of their own squatting brazenly in the White House itself?

But now not only is the political landscape roiling, but also the natural landscape. It’s a double whammy, the political and the planetary way off balance, and sucking all of us into a vortex of hurricane strength.

What should we be doing now? I think you know the answers.

Get to higher ground, literally and symbolically. Try to get yourself and your loved ones out of harm’s way, even as you acknowledge that in 2017 nowhere on Earth is truly safe.

In the dystopic futures that so many of our writers are imagining for us lately, it doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, or how big or well-furnished your house is. It doesn’t matter how successful you are in your career or where you went to college.

What matters, ultimately, is what has always mattered: the quality of our relationships. Our love for each other, and the way we express that love and caring. We don’t need electricity for that, or credit cards.

This is what John Steinbeck was showing us in the heart-wrenching final scene of Grapes of Wrath, when a young woman whose baby has just died offers her streaming breast to a starving old man.

Grapes of Wrath wasn’t science fiction. Steinbeck was describing the world as he observed it, to an audience that hadn’t yet felt that kind of dire need.

There is not much we as individuals can do to alter the future. The hurricane of climate change is already on its way; the political tornadoes spawned by the Republicans are already wreaking havoc.

Of course, we can stay engaged politically and work for a change of leadership in 2018. But we have to be clear-eyed about the fact that even under Democratic leadership, the U.S. has drifted into ever-more-dangerous waters.

Maybe it’s time to lower the lifeboats and try to get away from the mother ship while that’s still possible. By which I mean, lesson our dependence on nation and build up independence and resiliency on the local level, for ourselves and our communities.

If that sounds like libertarianism, well, we live in strange times.

We humans are located in the sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram of personal, political and planetary. What we do in our personal lives radiates outward, with real, palpable effects.

The message in the sad brown leaves of autumn 2017 is this: now is the time to cultivate love at home, build up your resiliency and make friends with your neighbors. What else are we alive for, in these turbulent, discomfiting transition times?

 

 

 

 

Coping with Non-stop Catastrophe

I can’t help feeling a bizarre sense of surreality as I enjoy a lovely, peaceful, golden September afternoon here in New England while at the same time being deeply plunged into virtual reality, watching the slow but inexorable progress of Hurricane Irma across the Caribbean and up the Florida peninsula.

It’s like living life in a constant state of split-screen.

On the left, there’s my ordinary life, which (thankfully) is at the moment moving forward without much drama.

On the right, there are the dark clouds, howling winds and rising seas of the storms—literal and metaphorical—that are sweeping over other parts of the USA and the world.

The hurricane is an apt weather-metaphor for the tumultuous weeks since the American solar eclipse on August 21. We’ve had more intense news packed into these few weeks than seems possible.

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How are we to maintain our balance, focus and peace of mind when we’re being whipsawed from a Nazi/KKK riot in Charlottesville to an insane dictator in North Korea playing with nuclear missiles to an epic flood in Texas to the racist anti-immigrant president pardoning a known criminal (Sheriff Arpaio) and preparing to deport nearly a million hard-working Dreamers to record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast to the biggest, meanest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic to a once-in-a-century earthquake in Mexico…and it just goes on and on and on.

Compared with figuring out how to survive a hurricane, or how to clean up a city devastated by one, my split-screen dilemma is trivial. But it is a strange polarity that I must navigate every day: staying aware of all the dire circumstances people are living through, while not getting so caught up in that virtual reality—other people’s lives—that I neglect my own, or become immobilized by anxiety and depression.

41DVsVYbnRL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_I wonder if this will be a new diagnosis for the psychiatrists to label and record in their DSM? They could call it virtual reality anxiety syndrome, with complications of depression and insomnia.

Part of the anxiety comes from the awareness that it’s only a matter of time before the camera comes swinging around to me and my part of the world. Right now all is peaceful…but the big one will be heading my way soon too, whether it’s an unprecedented snowstorm or a New York City bombing or car attack or water poisoned by chemicals or a crazy man going amuck with a semi-automatic rifle. All of this has happened already, and will continue to happen…there is no escaping the rapid and deadly beat of life in the 21st century.

So the question becomes how to live with this knowledge while remaining open, empathetic, curious, upbeat—how to live each day as a marvelous gift to be unpacked with delight, while sending love and concern to the other half of the screen—the people who have the misfortune to be dealing with the storm systems now.

How do we keep enjoying life without being overcome with guilt, sorrow and rage at the way others are, at the same exact minute, being forced to suffer?

I am doing the best I can. How about you? I’d be very grateful for any suggestions you may have about how to manage “virtual reality anxiety syndrome” better.

And now, back to you, Irma.

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“Houston, we have a problem.” Heeding Harvey’s Message for Humanity

Water is Life.

Unless it’s coming at you by the trillions of gallons, blown on hurricane-force winds. Then water can be death. And death also lurks in the water that lingers after the storm, contaminated with chemicals, fossil fuels, sewage and decomposing bodies.

Although evangelical preachers may be tempted to blame the storm on the sins of individual Texans, the blame must be spread much more widely, and it has nothing to do with conventional Christian understandings of sin.

We have brought this destruction down on ourselves by our actions and inactions—that much is true. And we have the power to right the wrongs and avoid or at least lessen the catastrophes still to come.

I don’t know if anyone has done a “budget analysis” of which country, on a per capita basis, bears the most responsibility for climate change, but I bet America is right up there at the top.

On a deeper level, Americans have been the great influencers of the 20th century, especially the post-World War II era when the fossil and chemical industries really took off. In trying to keep up with the Americans, the rest of the world followed suit, and everything seemed almost too good to be true, for a while.

What gave us the arrogant notion that Mother Earth would endlessly tolerate the warming of the oceans, logging of the forests, chemical dousing of the prairies, wholesale destruction of millions of species and industrial-scale torture of domesticated animals? Did we really expect to be able to mine and drill and burn and drain and pave without any consequences?

I don’t believe in “Mother Earth” as a Kali-like goddess bent on vengeance; but as Gaia, a living system striving to stay balanced and flourish through every living particle of her being, our planet will naturally seek to return to the steady state that humans have destroyed in the past fifty or so years.

Gaia has her own ways of curbing an invasive species. Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts, earthquakes, epidemics…these are not acts of a vengeful God but the natural biofeedback methods of our planet, seeking stasis and harmony.

This is no comfort to Texans going back to destroyed homes and neighborhoods this weekend. It’s no comfort to the rest of us on the East Coast, keeping a wary eye on the next hurricane churning in our direction across the Atlantic, Category 3 Hurricane Irma.

 

In the old days, a preacher could look out at a grieving, distressed congregation and offer the solace that death and disaster were part of God’s plan. The message was to bow our heads and humbly accept the suffering as part of the human experience.

But these early 21st century “natural” disasters are neither divine retribution nor a cross we must bear as the price of being human.

The mind-blowing tragedy of Houston and the surrounding area is the simple result of human arrogance, shortsightedness, greed and stupidity.

  • Build petro-chemical plants on salt-water marshes along the ocean and see what happens.
  • Build housing developments on low-lying land along rivers and bayous and watch them flood.
  • Burn fossil fuels as fast and hard as you can, even when you know the consequences of over-heating the atmosphere—can you really feign surprise when storms come up out of the hot oceans?

Harvey was preceded by Sandy and Irene and Katrina…it will be followed by more and more staggering storms, until we finally get the message: we cannot continue to live as though the world were our sewer.

We cannot continue to focus our intelligence on developing ever-more-destructive weapons and toxic chemicals, on engineering feats that ride roughshod over natural habitats and drive other members of the Earth community over the cliff of extinction.

Our intelligence is desperately needed now, but in the service of Life, not Death.

Water is Life. Air is Life. Earth is Life. The good Fire of our Sun is Life.

But only when these elements are balanced and respected. Out of balance, rendered toxic, they spell our doom.

It is late, but not too late, to pull our planet back from the brink of the major reset she’s tracking towards.

If the preachers want to send a useful message, how about reminding people of our responsibility to steward the Earth? When the floods came in Biblical times, Noah built an Ark, not just for himself and his family, but for all the creatures on Earth.

We must recognize our entire planet, our Gaia, as a precious, sacred Ark of Life, for which we are the pilots and tenders.

She is sending us wake-up call after wake-up call. Are we awake yet?

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Hurricane Harvey from the International Space Station, 8/25/17. Credit: NASA European Pressphoto Agency

What Lies Beneath: Of Mushrooms, Mycelia and Interconnection

On these warm, humid days of late summer, I have been walking the woods looking for mushrooms. There are so many to be found, and of such a marvelous variety!

Mushrooms mean more to me since I began to understand them as the visible fruits of the vast underground network known as the mycelium.

From Animate Earth by Stephan Harding: “Mycelia can grow at prodigious speed and explore space with phenomenal density. They can extend several centimeters a day and can infuse a mere gram of soil with over a kilometer of their intensely networked pipe-like cells….Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on Earth is a 2,200-year-old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon.”

FullSizeRender 3Especially fascinating to me is the symbiotic relationship that has developed between trees (and other plants) and the members of the fungi kingdom. The photo-synthesizers turn sunlight into sugar, which they share with the fungi in return for a functional extension of their roots further and wider than the plant could achieve on its own. The fungi exchange valuable minerals and water for the precious sunlight-sugar, and in a healthy environment all prosper and do well on our rich Mother Earth.

I walk the forest moodily these days, spying mushrooms and thinking about what lies beneath. It seems like an apt metaphor to be exploring in our social landscape as well.

What lies beneath the visible expressions of life that seize our attention day by day?

What lies beneath the constant eruptions of violence in the world, from Orlando to Charlottesville, from Aleppo to Barcelona, from Nice to Mosul?

What lies beneath the visible evidence of climate dysfunction—wildfires, floods—and the inexorable biological die-off known as the Sixth Great Extinction?

What lies beneath the naked greed and egotism polluting the American political system? Where is this ugly cancer of racism and hate coming from?

Humans now have the neurological equivalent of mycelia, the vast extension of our nervous system through the World Wide Web. Information is our sugar, and it seems we are quite dependent on it—even addicted, you might say.

The thing is that our Web has grown up in a spiritually impoverished time, in intellectual, technical soils that are superficial and incapable of providing us with the nourishment we need to turn the sugar of information into harmonious, beautiful, ethically strong philosophies and ways of living.

When soils are constantly bombarded with chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and anti-fungals, they produce plants that are weakly rooted and susceptible to diseases and infections.

So too, when we humans inhabit social landscapes that are constantly saturated with negativity, devoid of hope and inspiration, we are susceptible to being taken over by campaigns of hate and sloganeering. We fall prey to violence, whether self-destructive (the opioid crisis, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, physical illness) or against others (domestic violence, sexual violence, hate crimes, gangs, economic bludgeoning and the brainwashed othering that results in racial profiling).

Our World Wide Web could be, and sometimes is, a nourishing network. The places I go on the Internet are places of reflection, ethical courage, and humility. I strive to dig my roots deep into this rich soil and at times make my own thoughts visible, mushroom-style, as I do in Transition Times.

But we learned in the 2016 American election that the hateful, spiritually empty areas of the Web are growing quickly. It’s like a Roundup Ready crop, fast-growing and seemingly robust, yet devoid of true nourishment for the spirit.

What are those boys who brought hate to Charlottesville doing this week, in the aftermath of their eruption into plain view? What nastiness are they readying for the weeks and months ahead?

Harding: “When ready to reproduce, previously invisible mycelia gather their hyphae together to form fruiting bodies such as mushrooms and moulds that sprout into the air….They can emerge quickly because the underlying mycelium is immensely effective at supplying concentrated hydraulic power to a specific point in the network on very short notice. Fungal fruiting bodies release spores tiny enough to ride on swirling currents of air, and thus they find new places fit for colonization. Vast numbers of spores are released—some bracket fungi growing out of trees can release some 30 thousand million spores each day.”

These days, we who believe in equality and justice for all must work harder to make ourselves visible. We must be outspoken and forceful like never before. We must send the spores of our clear understanding of love and inclusivity far and wide, becoming beacons of hope and monuments to “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

The mycelium of our movement must dig down and go far and wide, creating a rich substratum of thought and practice that counters the shallow, hostile soils of hate that have been spreading on the Web.

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It will be important, in the days and years ahead, to consciously work on building our connections in the real world, as well as in our virtual landscapes.

We have to remember, and teach our children, how to enjoy creative collaboration in real life. It can be as simple as sitting in thoughtful conversation or working together to make a good meal.

We all have the potential to create beauty in our lives, and to share what we have created with others.

As we tend to our social landscapes, we must also remember to value the often unheeded planetary systems without which none of us could survive for an instant: the plants that make our air, the clean waters we all depend on, the rich microbial soils and the vast fungal networks that provide the silent steady pulse of harmonious interconnection.

A task for these August eclipse days: pay attention to what lies beneath the surface of your life. Dig your roots down deep, and work with your neighbors, real and virtual, to build a healthy, vibrant community—for all life on Earth. Stand up tall and send out those positive spores.

A Paean for Interdependence

It’s so clear, by the sea, how interdependent every living thing on our planet is. It’s clear in the mountains and forests too, but somehow everything is stripped down to its essentials by the ocean and you can see the remarkably calibrated food chain in all its exquisitely complicated simplicity.

AIR, WATER, EARTH, FIRE. Take oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, drench with sunlight, and watch life pour forth.

Death too is a necessary part of the cycle. But not the death of innocent babies caught in the crossfire; not the death of majestic animals shot for greed or sick pleasure; not the cataclysmic death of the Sixth Great Extinction, with billions of life forms, some not even known to humans yet, all being choked out at once.

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say that, because these great extinction events are also part of the natural cycles of this planet. We are moving rapidly into the sixth such event, after all. If you take a longer view, as the Mayans did in predicting that 2012 would be a historic end of one cycle, beginning of another, you can see once again the elegance of the great pulses of life and death on Earth.

Although I have written before about how I believe that “Independence Day” should be converted to “Interdependence Day,” in 2017 this shift seems particularly urgent.

Not just because we need to become more aware of our ecological interdependence with all other life on the planet, from the bacteria and worms to the fish, vultures and wolves, but also because the whole idea of celebrating a colony’s independence from a colonizer seems quaint and outdated today, when the colonization process actually runs so much deeper and is so much more intense.

Nation-states as markers of identity are fading, which may be why we’re seeing a paroxysm of violence from those who want to preserve this failing political form at all costs.

Now people are being organized into two main groups—those who are connected to the World Wide Web, and those who are not. The connected ones belong to a kind of virtual nation, and we are controlled not by physical borders, but by information (aka propaganda).

The current American president got where he is because he understood the power of media to manipulate people. He is doing his best to confuse and discredit the whole idea of a news media dedicated to reporting “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” because he knows that if people can’t tell truth from falsehood, they are all the easier to manipulate. Colonization goes internal, we police ourselves and each other, and the warlords make out like bandits.

This is the sad state of affairs on the Fourth of July, 2017. Ordinary American politics is so diseased that celebration is impossible.

So perhaps it’s time to embrace a bigger vision, going beyond the fiercely contested territories of the nation-state and the Internet to think creatively and positively about our presence on the planet.

This Fourth of July, I celebrate Gaian life in all its diversity and glory. I resist separatism and meaningless violence incited by arbitrary boundaries and manipulative colonizers, whether of the corporate or nation-state variety.

Human beings are just another animal in the vast ecological web of life on the planet—a very successful and destructive invasive species, to be precise.

Because of our ability to remember the past, forecast the future, and use technology to chart and change our environment, our natural role as a species is to tend, steward and manage our planet, for the benefit of all. Not just all humans, but all life, because we cannot thrive unless the entire ecological web is healthy.

This is how it works:

Take a deep breath. You are breathing in the trees, the flowers, the cool seaweed in the ocean and the pale lichens on the rock. Exhale and know that you are sending sweet nourishment to all life on the planet, in a perfectly balanced symbiosis.

Interdependence. So simple, so complex, so profound. There’s nothing better to celebrate today, is there?

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Solstice Dreaming: Detaching from the Nightmare to Feed the Spirit of a Better World

Right now my homeland, the United States, is a very sick place.

It’s a sickness that expresses itself inwardly through epic rates of depression, anxiety, addictions, self-harm and suicide. Outwardly we see it in the constant assault of violence: civilian shootings and trucks driven into crowds; endless wars; and the relentless violence against the natural world, driven by greed and indifference to suffering.

Watching what is happening in American politics is like watching a 21st century version of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Or we could compare it to the French monarchy just before the Revolution: let them eat cake!

It is not clear yet whether the pendulum will swing back towards the center again; whether the electorate–mangled, abused, furious and ill as it is–will summon moderates back to the halls of power in D.C.

With a good half of the electorate tuned out to the political process and millions of trigger-happy armed civilians; with an ever-more-militarized police force, a punitive criminal justice system and the biggest prison system in the world…it’s easy to imagine the U.S. descending into dystopian nightmare in the next decade.

And that’s even without factoring in the wild card of climate change, predicted to disrupt food supplies, cause massive storms and unbearable heat waves, and flood the coastal cities.

The U.S. is like a sick, wounded, colossal monster, thrashing out dangerously in its agony, whipping its barbed tail around in ways that are wrecking everything in its reach—and its reach is vast, encompassing practically the whole world.

Collectively, human civilization is approaching a breaking point on the planet. The scientists warn us blandly that we will exhaust the resources of our Earth in August, living the rest of the year on credit that we can never repay.

It’s easy to feel despairing.

And yet.

Sitting here, on the peaceful windy shores of Nova Scotia, the warmth of the people and the steady rhythms of the elements remind me that the nightmare of the U.S. is not all-encompassing. As Arundhati Roy put it long ago, there is another world…and if we’re quiet, we can hear her calm breathing.

Mother Earth has survived cataclysms before. She will survive humans—even dangerous Americans. She has eons to regenerate, reset and create anew. She’s already doing it, everywhere we look.

We who are alive to bear witness to this extraordinary transition time on Earth must resist the dark pull of despair, with its madness of violence and lethargy of indifference.

Remembering to think in the long term, the way Gaia does, can help us focus on what is beautiful and creative in our world. It’s our task to do what we can, wherever we are, to add to the beauty and to help others to do so too.

This is what I call doing hope together. We resist the dark magnetism of the constant parade of horrors that passes for “news” these days. We turn our attention elsewhere:

  • to the small radiance of a wildflower, lifting its head to the sun for the sheer joy of living;
  • to the delighted laugh of a baby sitting in a strawberry field tasting sunwarmed berries for the first time;
  • to the sweet trill of a bird sitting by its nest, teaching its fledglings to sing.

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Yes, there is darkness, cruelty and suffering in our world, which can’t be ignored and must be addressed. But the danger in our times is that we become so overwhelmed by the darkness that we can no longer summon the light in ourselves. The flames of our own spirits start to gutter.

It is not selfish or uncaring to feed our spirits by focusing on beauty. Just as nursing mothers must remember to eat and drink so that they can better feed their babies, we who are acting as doulas—helping our dying civilization let go so that a better world can be born—must also remember to nourish ourselves, so that we can continue to serve as beacons of hope and positivity for others.

My advice to you on these sunny Solstice days? Turn off your screen, leave your phone behind, and get outside to enjoy the bounty of our Mother Earth. Take some time alone in nature, quieting the blare of the headlines in your mind, and tuning in to the music of the birds and the bees. Find some water to sit beside, and let your mind wander as you stare at the sun glinting on the surface.

We plugged-in humans are in danger of forgetting how very important daydreaming in nature is to our personal, political and planetary well-being. Now is a wonderful time to slow down and remind ourselves to let the dreams back in to our waking lives.

We can’t fix everything that’s wrong with our society if we can’t imagine a better world. And for that, we need to detach ourselves from the nightmare, and create a better dream to live into.

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