In the Shadow of an Uncertain Future

On the homestretch to the 2017 solar eclipse over America, it seems that the shadow is already falling on this beleaguered country.

Tear gas and violence in Charlottesville over the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, racist hero of the Confederates. A president who tries to appease both sides, refusing to condemn racism and white supremacy as a failed and destructive ideology that has no place in 21st century America—no surprise, as he is busy enacting his racist anti-immigration policies and looking the other way on gender- and race-based violence.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, a trigger-happy, unstable and belligerent boy king is daring to challenge the trigger-happy, unstable and belligerent American president. The whole world watches, aghast, knowing that these two boy-men have the power to drag us all into war, and deadly nuclear war at that.

Wildfires burn in the West, floods wash out parts of New Orleans, and overhead the Perseid meteors sizzle and flash.

I can’t help but feel the portent in all of this, and to wonder why it is that most people seem oblivious.

KeyArt_LowRes_copyThe chatter in the audience this evening before Al Gore’s new film began was all about cultural doings, restaurants and vacations. Needless to say, people were more subdued after watching 100 minutes of Gore turning gray in his indefatigable efforts to wake people up to climate change and get us to fight for our future.

The movie tried to end on a hopeful note, and yet we can’t avoid the dire fact that our climate gets further out of balance year by year. This summer there are unprecedented wildfires in the previously frozen peat bogs of Greenland, releasing tons of methane, a greenhouse gas way more potent than carbon dioxide.

The writing on the bog is clear: in a relentlessly warmer world, we’d better start adapting.

51yaY7uJ07L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_In the same week as seeing Gore’s film, I also read James Lovelock’s latest book, A Rough Ride to the Future, as well as his student Stephan Harding’s marvelous book Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia.

Lovelock—the pathbreaking scientist who, with Lynn Margulis, was the first to understand the Earth as Gaia, a vast interconnected biological system—is now 98, and he’s still way out in front of the pack in terms of visionary, unconventional thinking.

His book envisions the possibility of humans taking an evolutionary leap hand in hand with our computers and robots, founding a new civilization of cyborgs that no longer rely on what he calls “wet carbon life forms,” which will not be able to withstand the hotter world we are creating. He advises that we build new, sustainable cities in areas of the world likely to remain arable, and let Gaia take care of regulating the rest of the planet, as she has always done through many great climate changes in history.

Although Lovelock calls himself an optimist, the book ends on a sober note.

“I do not envision the death of Gaia, the Earth system, in the immediate future, either through human folly or otherwise. It can sustain human life for a good while yet, and human life can be the catalyst for Gaian survival in the much longer term. But there is one snag. The system cannot sustain the present level of human population for very much longer. The future world may be a better place, but getting to it from here will not be easy, and we will not all make the journey.”

Watching Gore’s movie, with its dramatic footage of floods, fires and melting glaciers, as well as his reminders that the terrible violence in Syria started with a drought that destroyed more than 60% of the country’s farmland, while an increase in pandemics is inescapable on a warmer planet….well, you’d have to be pretty obtuse not to see that there are many paths to human population crash, and we’re rapidly swarming down all of them.

We are about to be the victims of our own success as a species, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot any of us can do about it. Even Al Gore seems pretty stumped by the end of the movie, after Trump’s decision to scuttle U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord.

I may not be much of an optimist, but I won’t allow myself the luxury of despair, either. I agree with Gore and Stephan Harding that we must use our power as consumers and taxpayers to push for climate-friendly changes at the local, national and international levels, including electing politicians who will represent the best interests of people and the planet.

But before that can happen, we need to wake people up to the necessity of profound, rapid, systemic change that goes beyond individual choices to the realm of national policy.

Harding’s vision is very much aligned with my own belief in the importance of starting from personal experience. The way to get people to care about the Earth is to help them remember moments when they were able to perceive the beauty and awe of our planet. This is the aim of my forthcoming online course in purposeful memoir, “Becoming Gaia,” and Harding puts it very lyrically in his conclusion to Animate Earth:

51w61ADyV4L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“To act well, we need to experience the Earth not as “nature” out there, nor as an “environment” that is distinct from us, but as a mysterious extension of our very own sensing bodies that nourishes us with an astonishing variety of intellectual and aesthetic experiences—with the roar of the sea and with the wonderful sight of the night moon reflected in a calm lake. Right action requires us to live into the body of the Earth, so that we feel just as comfortable with the air, water, rocks and living beings that are the life of that wider body as we do in our human-made environments. If we could only do this, our focus would shift from the endless fascination with human affairs to a wider, more fulfilling perception of the animate Earth in which these affairs take place. We would then encounter a broader, Earth-centered view in which every breath we take and every decision we make is a pledge of service and allegiance to the greater personhood of our planet.”

Truly, a pledge of allegiance to the planet is called for today.

To those who have been tasked with carrying out the ecocidal will of the fossil fuel cabal now in political power in the United States, I say: you have a choice.

  • If the mad president tells you to pull the trigger on a nuclear weapon that will incinerate a nation, you can say no.
  • If the energy transfer company wants you to put a gas pipeline under a river or over an aquifer, you can say no.
  • Even if you are offered a lot of money for staying silent, you always have the choice to say no.

“The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” Your resistance may be vilified in the short term, but it will eventually be understood as heroic whistleblowing that saved millions of lives, in service to our shared sustainable future.

Gore compares the fight to head off climate destruction to other morally based American movements: abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights. The climate justice fight is bigger than any of these—it’s global, and it goes way beyond humanity. We are fighting for all the beautiful members of our Earth community who came up with us through the eons, the plants, animals, birds, insects and marine life that evolved together into the complex, perfectly balanced system of water, oxygen, carbon and sunlight that makes our planet such a living wonder.

An Inconvenient Sequel ends on a defiant note. “Fight like your world depends on it,” Gore says.

Because, of course, it does.

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Becoming part of Gaia’s cure, instead of what ails her

Milkweed-with-Monarch-ButterflyI will never forget one hot summer day when I was about eight years old, and a Monarch butterfly took it into its head to land on my arm and delicately lick up my sweat with its long, probing tongue.

I froze, wanting the Monarch to stay with me as long as possible, and watched with total fascination and delight as it balanced on my warm brown skin and enjoyed the salty treat I had to offer.

Eventually, with a graceful swish of its elegant wings, it rose up in the air and twirled off to land on a nearby stand of sweet-smelling pink milkweed flowers.

I felt blessed by the encounter, and ever after, when I see a Monarch I approach cautiously and respectfully proffer my arm, hoping to feel again the light touch of those fragile black legs and tiny tongue.

My childhood connection with Monarchs came to mind this week as I read the deeply disturbing news that “the number of monarch butterflies that completed an annual migration to their winter home in a Mexican forest sank this year to its lowest level in at least two decades, due mostly to extreme weather and changed farming practices in North America.”

Mexican conservation authorities report that “The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December,” which is “a 59 percent decline from the 7.14 acres of butterflies measured in December 2011.”

So now, along with the bats and the goldfinches and so many other species that I have known and loved in my 50 years on the planet, I must bid farewell to the Monarch butterflies too?

Carolyn Baker

Carolyn Baker

Trying to find a way to cope with the pervasive sense of grief I feel on a daily basis, I turned this week to the works of Carolyn Baker, who has self-published two books that have been striking a chord with thousands of people.

In 2009, she published Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, followed in 2011 by Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.

Baker comes out of a psychology background, having served as a consulting psychotherapist for many years, but she draws on a wide range of sources that I too have been poring over in recent years, from Joanna Macy to Derrick Jensen to James Lovelock and many more.  Andrew Harvey, author of two books on “spiritual activism,” wrote the forward to her second book.

What all these folks have in common is the strong, level-headed recognition that human civilization is headed for a collapse.

The butterflies and the bats may be going first into the void, but we will not be far behind.

The current noise and controversy over questions like “to frack or not to frack,” “to build wind turbine generators or deep-sea oil rigs in the Arctic,” or “to erect solar arrays or thousand-mile oil pipelines” are just that—so much noise, which obscures our ability to focus on what is driving the debate on all these issues: the fact that our planet cannot and will not support 7 billion people at current levels of consumption.

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

The eminent eco-scientist James Lovelock, who, with Lynne Margulis, developed the theory of Earth as a complex living system he calls Gaia, has just published what may be his final book (he was born in 1919, making him now just seven years short of 100 years old).

Grimly titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia, Lovelock sadly predicts that global heating will force the die-off of much of humanity, and a retreat of the survivors to “lifeboat” places on the planet that will remain habitable on a subsistence basis for those able to live close to the land.

Lovelock uses the metaphor of disease to describe what is happening to our planet these days.  This passage is worth quoting in full:

“When we are first infected by fatal disease organisms, they grow in our bodies without our noticing.  We call this the incubation period, and it can be as long as several weeks.  Then at some stage in their growth, or in our bodily reaction to it, we feel unwell, with fever and pain.  Soon, a matter of hours with the most virulent influenza, homeostasis starts to fail and we collapse and die.  This is when physicians speak of massive organ failure.  In the whole course of fatal disease there is no tipping point but instead a downslide that starts imperceptibly and then grows ever steeper until we fall.

“We became the Earth’s infection a long and uncertain time ago when we first used fire and tools purposefully.  But it was not until about two hundred years ago that the long incubation period ended and the Industrial Revolution began; then the infection of the Earth became irreversible….

“The disease that afflicts the Earth is not just climate change—manifest by drought, heat, and an ever-rising sea.  Added to this there is the changing chemistry of the air and the oceans, and the way the sea grows acidic.  Then there is the shortage of food for all consumers of the animal kingdom.  As important is the loss of that vital biodiversity that enables the working of an ecosystem.  All these affect the working of the Earth’s operating system and are the consequences of too many people.  Individuals occasionally suffer a disease called polycythanemia, an overpopulation of red blood cells.  By analogy, Gaia’s illness could be called polyanthroponemia, where humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good” (232-33).

Lovelock sees the demise of the current terrestrial epoch as inevitable.  But he also reminds us that Gaia is a tough old planet, who has survived many other total collapses of biodiversity in her past.  “After every one of these catastrophes Gaia recovered, taking her own time—sometimes as long as millions of years,” Lovelock says.  “During these periods of convalescence there was always somewhere on Earth a refuge for living organisms, a place where the climate and the chemistry still favored life.  And so it surely will be when polyanthroponemia resolves” (235).

Lovelock faults our human tribalism and the selfish, competitive shortsightedness of a predator species for our current predicament, quoting the biologist E.O. Wilson, who said towards the end of his life, “How unfortunate that the Earth’s first intelligent social animal is a tribal carnivore” (239).

This is “our agonizing condition,” Lovelock says; “we have the intelligence to begin to expand our minds to understand life, the universe and ourselves; we can communicate and exchange our deep thoughts and keep them outside our minds as a permanent record.  We have all this but are quite unable to live with one another or with our living planet.  Our inherited urge to be fruitful and multiply and to ensure that our own tribe rules the Earth thwarts our best intentions” (240).

Lovelock ends his book by looking ahead to a mythical time in the future, when the survivors of the collapse of human civilization “evolve to become as beneficial a part of Gaia as were the photosynthesizers and the methanogens,” who “might serve within her as our brains do in each of us.  We would be an important part of what had become in effect an intelligent planet better able to sustain habitability” (248).

It is our duty, he says, as human beings living through these great Transition Times to ensure that enough of us survive to pass on our genes to the future, in the hopes that future iterations of human beings will overcome our tribalism and selfishness and put our remarkable creative intelligence to work for the good of the planet and all her denizens.

The question becomes then, what should we be doing now to prepare for the future that awaits?

This is where Carolyn Baker’s work becomes so important.  Navigating the Coming Chaos is nothing less than a workbook for inner and outer transition where the focus is on strengthening one’s resilience and connection with a sense of purpose and meaning in a world gone increasingly mad.

“I am not a survivalist,” Baker says.  “I have never believed that the prime objective in preparing for the Long Emergency is to remain alive.  None of us is enthusiastic about death, but we will all die.  To deny this fact and focus primarily on survival is to embrace the heroic perspective and, in my opinion, to miss the point….

“I believe that navigating a collapsing world will entail constant observation of various forms of death—the death of infrastructure, the death of abundance, the increasing absence of goods and services that we now take for granted, the death of institutions, the disappearance of employment and shelter, the increased scarcity of food and water, the death of landscapes and yes, the literal deaths of people and animals.  The collapse of industrial civilization and the lifestyle it has provided is a catastrophic death of a paradigm and a way of life.  While we may look ahead to the ultimate blessings unleashed by this death, it will nevertheless be traumatic to live through the magnitude of losses it will manifest.

“If, however, we can begin now to make friends with death, as the Buddhist tradition has taught for thousands of years, we may be better prepared emotionally and spiritually to navigate a civilization dying on myriad levels….

“Simply put, the essential question is not: How can I survive the collapse of industrial civilization?  But rather: Why am I here, right now, in this place, at this time, experiencing the end of the world as I and my species have known it? (166).

Much of Baker’s book, like Starhawk’s most recent book The Empowerment Manual, is dedicated to prompting self-reflection leading to the recognition of what we are here on this Earth to do—and how we can successfully work with other awakened humans to accomplish our purpose.

The biggest challenge seems to be how to learn to work together harmoniously with each other and with the other living elements of our planetary home.

Gaia callingFor me, it seems clear that what I need to be doing now is to rekindle the instinctive sense of kinship I had with the natural world as a little girl; to find ways to become a channel for the love I felt, and still feel, for the gaudy Monarch butterflies who sailed regally through the fields of my childhood.

Sooner or later I will be following them into oblivion. But let it not be before I’ve had a chance to do my utmost to wake up my fellow travelers on this planet to the state of emergency we now face, and to help create the community structures that will enable at least a critical few of us to survive into the distant future.

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