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.

Late-night thoughts on human hubris

It’s 7 a.m.

Do you know where the songbirds are?

I have been struck by the silence of the woods as I take my daily walks.

Once in a while a chickadee will call in a high hemlock.

More rarely, I’ll see a nuthatch making its way sideways up a tree trunk.

Goldfinch

Goldfinch

But for the most part, the forest is eerily silent, and even at my bird feeder the once lively ranks of brightly colored birds—goldfinches, purple finches, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, juncos, titmice—have thinned.

It’s not an illusion, and it’s not an anomaly.

The Silent Spring predicted by Rachel Carson 50 years ago is well on its way to becoming a reality.

And the emptiness of the air is being mirrored in the waters.

Last week, over the protests of commercial fisherman, New England fishery management officials voted to sharply reduce the catch limits on cod, in the hope of saving this iconic Atlantic fish from extinction.

Cod was once the passenger pigeon of the sea, so numerous it was used as farm fertilizer and treated as if it were in endless supply.

cod

After just a few years of commercial trawling—a blink of the eye in relation to cod’s million-year history on the planet—the cod, along with so many other fish species, is almost gone.

“The United States has watched the near total collapse of cod stocks in Canada,” reports The New York Times. “The demise of the fish populations was hastened by the widespread use of big trawlers equipped with radar and sonar systems that enhanced the ability to catch the fish. They expanded the area and depths that could be fished and sped up the process, diminishing the ability of the remaining fish stocks to replenish themselves.

“The big trawlers also swept up other fish that had little commercial value but played important predator-prey roles in maintaining the ecological balance of the species. Today the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is at 18 percent of what scientists deem to be a healthy population; in Georges Bank, it is 7 percent.”

I well remember my sons’ disappointment when they threw some fishing lines into the glistening ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia.  Not a fish was to be had, and when we asked local people about it, they just shook their heads sadly.

The fish are gone.

Because we don’t eat songbirds, there is no “management agency” keeping track of their populations.

At best, there are conservationists and wildlife biologists trying to sound the alarm.

But the truth is that the collapse of biodiversity is too huge a problem for any one agency to deal with.  In the ocean it’s about greedy, reckless trawling; on land it’s about the relentless destruction of the forests and the poisoning of farmland and fresh water.

It’s about the continuing reliance on dirty fossil fuels, despite the robust evidence of the impact of climate change on planetary health.

It’s about the hubris of human beings, thinking that we alone can survive the biodiversity collapse we have engineered.

buffalofThe saddest story I’ve read in a long time is about the bison in Montana.

You remember, the ones that were shot and left to rot by the hundreds of thousands in the late 19th century?

The ones that were a hairs-breath from extinction, but were painstakingly brought back by breeders, and now roam “free” in national parks?

Well, the Montana legislature is proposing to restore the 19th century practice of shooting bison on sight, treating any who dare to stray onto private property as “vermin.”

The once noble buffalo herds that thundered across the open prairies and mountain valleys of North America, reduced to a tiny fraction of their original population, are now to be shot for daring to step across an invisible property boundary to eat the green grass on the other side.

In the 1980s and 1990s, reports The New York Times, “Department of Livestock officials gunned down hundreds of famished Yellowstone bison that migrated into Montana in search of forage.”

Now a group of landowners and ranchers in Montana wants their state Legislature to make this practice law.

If Americans cared about the demise of the innocent creatures of the natural world a fraction as much as they care about their oh-so-beloved Superbowl, we would find the will and the way to solve the slow-motion nightmare of extinction.

We would figure out how to live sustainably on the magnificent planet that has enabled our remarkable rise as a species.

The truth is that human beings are the ultimate invasive species.

We are over-populating to the point where everything else is being crowded out beneath our monolithic spread.

What will happen when there are no more coral reefs, no more fish, no more forests, no more birds?

I’d like to give myself some comfort by saying I won’t live to see that day.

But realistically I have to face the fact that that day is just around the corner.

They don’t play nice. Should we?

So manifestoes are all very well, in the visionary department, but things get harder when you get down into the nitty-gritty of making transformative change happen.  I thought I might take some time this New Year’s season, 2012, to reflect more deeply on what it would mean to turn my dreams into reality.

Let’s start with the first point in my recently penned Manifesto for a Sustainable Future, which is:

1. Move from a top-down hierarchical system to a horizontal, egalitarian model of social relations based on inclusivity across all of the traditional boundaries used to keep different groups apart, and also opening up the possibility for cross-species collaboration based on respect and stewardship.

People have been talking about coalition across artificial differences between humans for a long, long time, and in some cases it has worked: for instance, the privileged white folks who believed in “equality, fraternity and liberty for all” played a huge role in freeing the enslaved Africans during the 19th century, and then a later generation of freedom-loving people from various heritages worked together again in the 1960s to extend the earlier gains through civil rights, women’s rights, decolonization, etc.

It’s not that hard to get people to agree in principle that all human beings deserve equal treatment before the law, or that children should have equal access to quality education, good food and health care.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on just such agreement.  The problem is that principles and declarations are one thing–like manifestoes–while actions on the ground are quite another.

In practice, we know full well that people of color, poor people and immigrants are not treated equally before the law in the U.S. We also know that there are millions of children in this country whose public schooling is inadequate, sometimes terribly so, and who do not have access to healthy food or good quality health care.

We know this, and yet we choose to ignore what we know.

It’s the same thing with what is happening to animals in this country.  We know that scientific research, aka torture, is conducted on thousands, if not millions of defenseless animals every year.  We know that millions of pigs, cows and poultry are treated with total disregard for their well-being, as if they were machines being assembled for market, instead of living, sentient beings.  We know that millions of wild mammals, birds and marine life are relentlessly being pushed into extinction by the pitiless advances of human “civilization.”

We know this, but we choose to pretend we don’t know it.

Maybe that’s because if we really took this information in, the knowledge would be unbearable.  How could we live with ourselves, knowing that just by conforming to the status quo, we are responsible for so much suffering of others on this planet?

But we need to stop pretending and closing our eyes and turning away.

Because it is out of this deep knowledge of our connection with other living beings on this planet, and the inescapable awareness of the suffering we humans are causing, that a movement of solidarity, resistance and change will grow.

To bring up the term “movement” is to be clear that the kind of transformative change I’m envisioning could not possibly be the work of one person, or even a few people.  It has to be an unstoppable wave, demanding change and taking nothing less for an answer.

In the 19th century, the abolition movement ended up sparking a civil war in the United States.

A second American civil war seems rather unthinkable to most of us now, even as we watch with amazement as regimes fall to enraged mobs all across the Middle East and North Africa.

In the US, free expression is tolerated far more widely than, say, in China, where journalists and bloggers are regularly beaten up and thrown in prison for daring to speak an unpopular truth.  The U.S. was shocked–shocked!–when the government called out the military and tanks began firing into the crowds at Tiananmen Square back in 1989.

But you have to wonder, watching the ruthless way city police are now trained to deal with street protests, how much it would take to provoke a similarly harsh response from our federal government.

What if there were a real movement of people united in their demands for “equality, liberty and justice for all,” as schoolchildren in the US are still trained to recite piously every morning, hands over hearts, when the Pledge of Allegiance is played over the PA system?

What if people got fed up enough with our bungling and corrupt national leaders, our deeply unfair and wildly overpriced medical system, the outrageous skewing of entitlements of all kinds to the wealthy, the militarization of our relations with other countries, the poisoning of our environment, the killing off of the natural world–fed up enough that we were willing to take to the streets and demand change, and not back down even when they brought out the tear gas, the tanks and the guns?

Then we might just have a Civil War II on our hands.  And like the first Civil War, it would be bloody, chaotic and uncertain in outcome.  But if the vision that guided it was sure and true, it might just lead to a whole new country arising out of the ashes of the old.

In this globalized age, such a civil war might easily turn into a global war, as the 99% the world over rose up against the tyranny of the rich corporate interests that are ruining the welfare of humans and the planet as a whole.

And here’s where I need to get back to the Manifesto, where I imagined a new social order based on a horizontal, inclusive, respectful, egalitarian model of social relations, with the welfare of the poor as important as the welfare of the rich; the welfare of the coral reef as valued as the welfare of the watershed feeding a city; the welfare of a livestock animal as important as the welfare of a cherished pet.

Not to say that everyone would necessarily be treated exactly the same–a cow wouldn’t want the same treatment as a dog, after all.  But whatever it takes to give a cow a comfortable, dignified life, should be undertaken.  Whatever it takes to give every child access to a high-quality education, should be done.  Decisions should be made in truly representative fashion, with no possibility of wealthy interests buying votes, no PAC lobbies or media manipulation allowed.

The devil is in the details in putting such a new world order in place, I know.  Many smart people maintain that human beings are irredeemably aggressive, competitive and greedy, and so we are incapable of creating such an ideal world.

But many other smart people say the opposite: that human beings are naturally empathic creatures, whose first instinct as infants is to love, not to hate.  Very few children are instinctively cruel to others.  The majority of us seem to be naturally good-natured, though easily swayed and corrupted by our social conditioning.

As Jeremy Rifkin has argued, “What is required now is nothing less than a leap to global empathic consciousness and in less than a generation if we are to resurrect the global economy and revitalize the biosphere. The question becomes this: what is the mechanism that allows empathic sensitivity to mature and consciousness to expand through history?”

Rifkin’s own answer to this question has to do with what he calls the “distributed Internet revolution,” which is “changing human consciousness” by “extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history.”

Rifkin envisions just the kind of transformation in social relations that I have also been dreaming of.  His description of a new human relation to what he calls our “biosphere” is worth quoting in full:

“The biosphere is the narrow band that extends some forty miles from the ocean floor to outer space where living creatures and the Earth’s geochemical processes interact to sustain each other. We are learning that the biosphere functions like an indivisible organism. It is the continuous symbiotic relationships between every living creature and between living creatures and the geochemical processes that ensure the survival of the planetary organism and the individual species that live within its biospheric envelope. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism. Carrying out that responsibility means living out our individual lives in our neighborhoods and communities in ways that promote the general well-being of the larger biosphere within which we dwell.”

It would be nice if we could simply persuade the 1% corporate types of the necessity of this shift in human consciousness. But these people don’t play nice.

That’s why we dreamers who share this kind of transformative vision may have to toughen up, if we want to achieve our goals.

As Derrick Jensen keeps saying, how long will we wait until we realize that action is necessary to avoid annihilation?  It’s the birds, the bees and the bats who are dying now, but these creatures form the base of the pyramid on which current hierarchical human society rests.  If their populations crash, can ours be far behind?

Can we afford to wait and see?

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