21 Questions for 2020: #10

#10. COVID-19 is trying to tell us something. What is the message in that virus-shaped, ever-replicating bottle?

Much like climate disruption or computer viruses, the rapid global spread of COVID-19 is showing us just how interconnected we are. What happens anywhere in the world, to any of us, concerns all of us, everywhere. 

Like heat waves, viruses do not discriminate, although it is true that the most vulnerable will always be disproportionately affected. On Earth these days, this means not only poor humans, but also all non-humans. 

I have been thinking about the bats and the pangolins, which are suspected of being the initial carriers of COVID-19. They have been suffering lately—bat populations have been crashing worldwide (along with the insects they depend on), and the poor pangolins, which look something like golden armadillos, have been hunted practically to extinction by the Chinese. COVID-19 is making it clear that what happens to other species matters to all of us. Their suffering will come back to haunt us too. 

Pangolin

Within the human realm, COVID-19 is teaching us the hard way about the dangers of outsourcing manufacturing supply chains to faraway countries. When the Chinese got sick, their health crisis reverberated around the world and hit global investors especially hard. Corporate executives had imagined that they could profit endlessly from reliance on “cheap” labor, and turned a blind eye to the effect this has had on the American working class. The opioid crisis and ever-rising suicide rates bore witness to the despair in America’s abandoned manufacturing communities. 

COVID-19 is showing corporate chieftains and investors that in the age of climate disruption and pandemics, exploiting some people and neglecting others is a losing strategy. Local resilience and self-sufficiency is essential, and will pay a “happiness dividend” as it puts people back to meaningful work in their own communities. 

COVID-19 is shining a light on the tattered state of the American social safety net. People are at the mercy of the health insurance industry, which can and often does bankrupt sick people with inflated health bills. The number of workers in the part-time gig economy, from adjunct professors to Uber drivers, continues to swell, and not only are these people less likely to be insured, they rarely have paid sick leave or any job security. COVID-19 is making it clear how this sorry state of affairs for millions of Americans affects all of us. 

COVID-19 is also weighing in on the question of air travel, forcing us to recognize that just because we can hop on a plane does not mean we should. Burgeoning air traffic is not only spreading pathogens around the globe, it’s also a key driver of climate disruption. But we now have technology that makes it quite possible to travel virtually. Though I can’t imagine that virtual reality will ever be able to match real live experiences, there are many cases where face-to-face interactions could be accomplished via video-conference. Many global gatherings could take place online. COVID-19 is urgently suggesting we reconsider the benefits of armchair traveling.

In my own field, higher education, the coronavirus is pushing faculty to think more creatively about how to deliver course content and evaluate student work online. While MOOCs (massive online courses) have not worked so well, it’s possible that smaller groups of students, under the attentive guidance of faculty, could learn just fine online. In fact for some students, it might even be better that way. 

Classrooms are often fraught, anxiety-inducing spaces, and the whole experience of living on-campus has in many ways lost its allure for young people—not to mention being very expensive. If we reconfigured education so that most content was delivered online, students could meet in person to focus on social skill-building, like how to deliver an effective presentation, or how to have a respectful, dynamic discussion. Or simply to have some old-fashioned fun together!

If there is a bright side to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: we are being pushed to become much more thoughtful about how we live and work together on our crowded planet. COVID-19 is forcing us to recognize that there is no way humans can flourish in a world where so many animals are abused and suffering; so many people are exploited, sick and unhappy; and where the Earth herself is over-crowded, contaminated, diseased and dying. 

In this interconnected world, what we do to others (whether other humans or other species and the natural world) will come back to us in spades. COVID-19 is telling us loud and clear: It’s time to clean up our act. 

21 Questions for 2020: #9

#9. Do we still need “women” or “feminine qualities” in this brave new post-gender world? 

For many years I taught an introductory gender studies course in which I divided the semester into thirds and spent equal time focusing on women’s issues, men’s issues, and LGBTQIA issues. The last time I taught it, a few years ago, the students had little patience for talking about the issues of men and women—categories they considered so passé, so last-century. They were excited by the fluidity of gender identity and felt the best path forward for humanity would be gender-neutral, leaving the travails of gender-based discrimination and male privilege behind. 

Gender-neutral rest rooms have sprouted on many college campuses, including mine, but the realities of life in gendered human bodies remain pretty much the same. The same old issues that women have been dealing with for centuries—equal pay for equal work, equal access to leadership roles, freedom from sexual harassment and assault, equal participation in childcare and housework, for starters—are still unresolved. 

I don’t cling to gender identity in any conservative way—I wrote my BA thesis, many years ago, on the trope of androgyny in the novels of Virginia Woolf, and I don’t think men or women are best served by the extremes of gender identity. 

But look closely at today’s “gender-neutral” or “androgynous” type-casting, and what you see is a default towards masculine identity. It seems that the whole idea of gender-neutrality is just another way of eroding respect for women and femininity, yet again. 

So why do I think it’s important to maintain the categories of male and female, masculinity and femininity, when so much harm has been inflicted in their names over the years?

It’s the body, stupid. Sorry, I don’t mean to be crass. But we inhabit bodies that are not the same. 

As far as spirit goes, once we are free of our bodies, I don’t believe sex and gender are relevant. But while we’re here in embodied existence on Earth, just like all other mammals and almost every other life form, we have specialized bodies that are adapted for certain biological tasks. 

Feminist theory shied away from acknowledging this reality, calling it, pejoratively, “essentialism”: the reduction of women to our bodies. In the spirit of “we can do everything men can do” feminist politics, it did not serve us to call attention to our biological differences. 

Nevertheless, such differences persist. Even in a post-gender world, women still menstruate, get pregnant, have babies, and nurse babies. Women, especially young women, are still the primary targets of sexual assault by men. Women have higher amounts of hormones like estrogen and oxytocin, which predispose us, biologically, to be nurturing and relational. 

These basic biological differences affect us at home, in school, in the workplace—in every aspect of our lives. We cannot just wish them away. And more importantly, we should not wish them gone, in some kind of brave new post-gender fantasy.

Human differences are glorious and precious. Imagine how boring the world would be if we were all clones of some genderless, colorless, characterless human. 

Rather than trying to flatten out gender differences, we should be working to cultivate the best in each one of us, elevating the human potential that exists in equal measure in every human embodiment. 

I believe that gender identity is a fluid spectrum, not a static binary opposition. Every human has qualities that we have been socially conditioned to think of as “masculine,” as well as qualities that society has told us are “feminine.” What has happened for too long is that the so-called feminine qualities, like nurturing, collaboration and emotionality, have been considered less valuable than the so-called masculine qualities, like aggression, competition and intellectual prowess. 

We can see what our society values in very stark terms in the national budget. How much do we spend on the military, vs. how much we spend on education and the wellbeing of children? 

Societal decisions like where to put our money are not gender-neutral. Choosing to spend more on weapons and warfare than on parental leave and high-quality day care, not to mention food security and education, have consequences for men and women. The financial pressures most American families endure are not the result of individual choices, but social policy. 

Why are our divorce rates so high? Why are so many women struggling to raise children alone? Why is it so hard for women to succeed professionally in a climate that demands 110% commitment to the job in the child-bearing years?

The answer to these social problems is not to do away with women as a social category. We should be celebrating and supporting women’s remarkable biological ability to give birth and nurture young children. This is not to say we want to return to the days when women were confined to the kitchen and the nursery. Not at all. 

If women got more social support for their role in those critical child-bearing years, as they do in the more advanced countries, we would be able to take our important relational skills into politics and the professions and make every field a warmer, more nurturing place. This would result in a better world not just for women, but for all humanity. 

Social change comes very slowly. We won’t be voting for a woman president in the 2020 U.S. elections. We still have a long way to go to achieve equality. 

For the sake of future generations, not just of humans but of all life on this planet, we must persist in proclaiming the value and worth of the “feminine” qualities of nurturing and collaboration. Let’s honor every human being who embodies these qualities and brings them to a world so badly in need of loving attention. 

On this first International Women’s Day of the 2020s, in the year that commemorates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, let’s  celebrate the remarkable resilience and courage of women, worldwide. The crucial fight for gender equality is still very much game on

21 Questions for 2020: #8

#8. From pandemics to politics to melting poles and wildfires—how are we to understand the rapid-fire changes sweeping over our planet? How should we respond? 

I know I am far from alone in feeling battered by the constant deluge of shocking news. There is no time to ponder and assimilate; we are like human shock absorbers—take a punch and keep on rolling. 

2020 started off with the wildfires burning millions of acres in Australia, and has moved on rapidly to the uncontained spread of the COVID-19 virus, followed by a global stock market slide so steep that we are suddenly hearing the R-word—Recession. The poles are melting dramatically, while the usual political processes are melting down in the wake of Russian intervention designed to sow distrust and chaos. 

What in the world is going on? 

The transition of our planet is speeding up and intensifying. We are all feeling the pressure of the birth canal now, and it’s far from comfortable to both witness and be part of such rapid and profound change.

The fires and floods; the climate disruptions; the pandemics and the economic and political upheavals—all are part of the vast interconnected system called Gaia, and she is working now to return balance to our planet. The first task is to check the growth of the invasive species called Homo sapiens, which has been responsible for the overheating of the planetary atmosphere, the loss of so many other species, and the contamination of soils, seas and air.

We know that humans have pushed the planet beyond her carrying capacity—not so much in numbers as in consumption. The planet could support billions of people, if we lived in harmony with her life support systems, rather than raping, pillaging and destroying our home. 

Take a look around. You are living in a very rare moment on Earth—a slow-motion tipping point, with the luxury of time to apprehend what is happening, and perhaps even time to affect the outcome. 

Are you going to hold on for dear life to the old ways that brought us to this crisis? Or are you going to let go of the past and let the winds of change propel you forward?

The Democratic primaries have been an exercise in precisely this kind of decision-making. Will the electorate choose retrograde candidates, or politicians who are not afraid of change? 

Each of us is a like a tiny cell in the vast organism that is our planetary home. Like the trillions of cells and bacteria that compose our bodies, every element of this planet has a role to play in creating the health and well-being of the greater living system. The choices we make matter. Every day is an opportunity to contribute to the greater good. 

The one thing certain in life is that we will die. One day we will be released from what Ojibewe elder Mary Lyons calls “the shell of the body.” Paradoxically, transformation is what creates stability on Earth. 

When you look into the world and see the rapid changes taking place, steady yourself with the knowledge that they are signs of Mother Earth seeking to stabilize her life systems to better serve the planetary organism as a whole. 

The long historical arc of human innovation known as the Industrial Revolution is bending towards its finish line. A new cycle of growth is already underway, rooted in an ecological understanding of the interdependency of all life on Earth.

Let’s grow! Let’s go! Let’s let go of the past and embrace the new with all the exuberance of a wild meadow bursting into flower in the springtime. Life is calling us all to dance. What are we waiting for?

I leave you with a favorite poem by Mary Oliver, who, as always, gets it just right.

When death comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

© 1992 by Mary Oliver, from New & Selected Poems: Vol 1. Beacon Press, Boston

21 Questions for 2020: #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the larger issues here? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for 2020: #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for 2020: #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for 2020: #4

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

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

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

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

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

We can get lost in this waking nightmare of negativity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for 2020: #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for 2020: #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, we live in a grim world. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 Questions for 2020: #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our foreknowledge is both a blessing and a curse. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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