Will the Eagle and the Condor Land Together in the New Millennium?

At the Peace and Justice Studies Association annual conference, held this week at Tufts University with the theme “Anticipating Climate Disruption: Sustaining Justice, Greening Peace,” I presented a paper entitled “Changing the narrative and crafting alliances between Western and indigenous worldviews to create a sustainable global future.”

In it, I sketched out the standard Western triumphalist narrative of technological domination of Nature and the New World, starting with the voyages of Columbus and Darwin, continuing with the Manifest Destiny doctrine of the takeover of North America, and on into the present, where we continue to tell ourselves the story of living happily ever after in the brave new world established by the subduing and harnessing of the natural world, the routing of resistance, and the triumph of a technologically advanced global civilization.

Given that the premise of the conference theme anticipates serious climate disruption that will take the story to a very different, and much less rosy kind of conclusion, it’s clear that we need to start telling ourselves stories that reflect a different kind of understanding of our relation as humans to the natural world.

The kinds of stories we need to embrace are not new; in fact, they are ancient. I believe that the indigenous peoples left on the planet, who have survived the intense onslaught of Western culture over the past 500 years, are in the best position to survive the coming cataclysms, and to teach us how we can survive too. We just need to start listening to the stories they tell, rather than remaining spellbound by our own Western narratives.

I shared with the audience the voices and visions of two indigenous elders, Rigoberta Menchu Tum of Guatemala and Malidoma Some of Burkina Faso, who have both spent much of their adult lives reaching out to Westerners, trying to get us to see our relation to the natural world in a more holistic, less destructive way.

Rigoberta Menchu

Menchu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and ran for President of Guatemala in 2007, was a leader in the pan-indigenous drive to get the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which it finally was in 2007.  She has worked tirelessly to promote the rights and improve the living conditions of the indigenous peoples in Guatemala, who are a majority in that country, but have little national political representation or power.

Central to Menchu’s political activism is her Mayan understanding of the importance of ecological balance.  “An indigenous people’s cosmovision is centered on their relationship with Mother Earth and Mother Nature,” Menchu says.  “In contrast, the majority of the world doesn’t give it a thought, doesn’t know what the source of life is.  They pollute the earth and do more and more damage.  One day the earth will exact a price for this disdain and destruction. When this happens, we will see that the earth is not just good and bountiful, it can also be vengeful.

“Indigenous people see Nature as a living mother, not as an inert organism that would allow itself to be destroyed,” she continues.  “All those who violate its laws must accept the consequences, because it is alive and will react. My grandfather always used to say that the day human beings violate our universe, they will receive signs and messages.  These messages will be very forceful, and will bring severe punishment.”

These words of Menchu’s come from her second book, Crossing Borders, in which she tried to reach out to the non-indigenous world with a challenge to the dominant narrative of “development,” which has been so terribly damaging not only to indigenous peoples, but to the ecological web of life itself. As she remarks bitterly in the book, “I often wonder why people criticize the Aztecs for offering human sacrifices to their gods while they never mention how many sons of this America…have been sacrificed over the past 500 years to the god Capital.”

These biting words would no doubt resonate with Dagara shaman Malidoma Somé, who was taken as a child by Catholic missionaries to be educated at their school some hundred miles from his village, and was not allowed to go home to visit his family or village for 20 years.

Malidoma Some

On the point of being sent to France to finish his Catholic education, he rebelled and ran away from the missionary school, somehow finding his way back to his village on foot, unaided.  Once there, he insisted that he be given the initiation he had missed out on, and he started on the path to becoming a traditional shaman, or healer.

His healing practice has taken the form of trying to reconnect Westerners with the indigenous knowledge that our culture long ago left behind and rejected as “primitive.”  Malidoma, whose name means  “he who makes friends with the stranger/enemy,” spends much of his time in the U.S. and traveling around the world, guiding groups of Westerners into a different kind of understanding of self, community, and natural world.

Both Menchu and Malidoma stress that they do not reject all of Western technology —just the way it has been used, and the narrative vision that guides and undergirds it.  “What indigenous and Western peoples have in common is the desire to understand the intricacies and complexities of the world we live in, and to harness the power of nature for certain practical purposes,” Malidoma says in his book The Healing Wisdom of Africa.

“Where we have taken different routes, however, is the context within which we have developed our technologies and the purposes for which we have used them.  In the West, technology is oriented toward industrial, commercial and military uses; among indigenous people, it serves to heal and help people remember and fulfill their purpose in life.”

Malidoma continues, “Individuals, as extensions of Spirit, come into the world with a purpose. At its core, the purpose of an individual is to bring beauty, harmony and communion to Earth.  Individuals live out their purpose through their work.  Thus the human work of maintaining the world, to indigenous people, is an extension of the work that Spirit does to maintain the pulse of nature.  The villager’s quest for wholeness is an extension of nature’s wholeness.”

Both Malidoma and Menchu describe a human relationship to the earth rooted not in dominion and conquest, but in a cyclical give and take that takes ecological balance as a core value.

I believe that theirs is the vision that must animate the narrative arc of our future as a species on the planet, if we are to survive the environmental challenges that are speeding towards us now.

The good news is that though you won’t find much about this in the mainstream media, there is a quiet but forceful movement building on several fronts that is heeding the call to craft a different kind of human life story.

There is the Transition Town movement, which is imagining communities that are less dependent on multinational corporations, and more interdependent as individuals and cooperatives working together to meet needs on the local level.  And there is the Pachamama Alliance, which I talked about in my Tufts presentation, which has been partnering with indigenous peoples to, as they put it, “change the dream” of Western-style domination, development and destruction.

The Pachamama Alliance is quite remarkable in that it sees itself as a solidarity movement guided by its indigenous partners, the Achuar and Shuar peoples of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.  It grew out of the connection with indigenous shamans established by John Perkins, who began in the 1990s to bring small groups of Americans and Europeans into the Andes and the rainforest to meet with indigenous shamans to learn a different way of understanding our relationship to the natural world.

Ecuador is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but is also one of the places that has been most devastated by the plundering of oil companies, specifically Texaco and Chevron.  Millions of acres of rainforest have been polluted by oil spills and the byproducts of unregulated drilling—and a landmark case has just been won against Chevron, ordering the company to pay $18 billion in damages to Ecuador for a clean-up.  The case is still in litigation, and meanwhile the people there are coming down with cancers and birth defects in astronomical numbers.  It is truly a place where you can see the worst conclusion of the Western narrative of development in action.

But it is also a place where another story is being told, and broadcast out into the world with increasing urgency.  It is a story that has been told by indigenous peoples of South America and beyond for hundreds of years.

According to the ancient prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor, which animates the work of the Pachamama Alliance, we are at a moment in history when the Eagle – representing intellect and the mind – and the Condor – representing wisdom and the heart – must come together to ensure the continued existence of humankind.

The human intellect and heart must realize that without the natural world we are nothing.  All the computers and synthetic chemicals and megawatts of electricity in the world will not enable us to survive in a world without plants and insects and animals.

It is that simple, and we know it scientifically, but we have not yet absorbed it in our hearts, and put our knowledge into practice in a different way of relating to the natural world.

So the question going forward, as Menchu so pointedly asked, is:

Will we sacrifice ourselves and most of the life forms currently on the planet to the great god Capital?

Or will we begin to understand wealth in a more balanced, ecologically sound way?

Will we have the strength to build a groundswell of resistance to the top-down hierarchies that hold such sway over our lives and the narratives we live by?

I believe we can do it.  I want to believe that we will.

Rio+20: Fiddling While Earth Burns

I am having trouble summoning any enthusiasm over the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference, which will begin on June 20.

When you go to the conference website, everything sounds so benign, forward-looking and responsible.  For example, talking about food security, the conference framers call for the promulgation of sustainable agriculture, meaning “the capacity of agriculture over time to contribute to overall welfare by providing sufficient food and other goods and services in ways that are economically efficient and profitable, socially responsible, and environmentally sound.”

It sounds marvelous.  But we all know that during the last 20 years, since the first Earth Summit in 1992, industrial agriculture has only gotten bigger and badder, more focused on profit at the expense of social responsibility or environmental stewardship.

Food security for the majority of people on the planet has become a pipe dream, and even the most privileged of us are growing increasingly vulnerable to disruptions in food supplies caused by climate change, monoculture and the superweeds and superbugs that have developed resistance to our chemicals.

I was not surprised to find in my inbox this morning an eloquent position paper from La Via Campesina, seeing right through the rosy language of the “sustainable development” engineers to recognize that “beneath the deceptive and badly intentioned term “green economy”, new forms of environmental contamination and destruction are now rolled out along with new waves of privatization, monopolization, and expulsion from our lands and territories.”

Here is how La Via Campesina, which represents indigenous and peasant farmers worldwide, but particularly in South America, sees the “green economy”:

“The green economy does not seek to reduce climate change or environmental deterioration, but to generalize the principle that those who have money can continue polluting. Up to now, they have used the farce of purchasing carbon bonds to continue emitting greenhouse gases. They are now inventing biodiversity bonds. This is to say, businesses can continue destroying forests and ecosystems, as long as they pay someone to supposedly conserve biodiversity somewhere else. Tomorrow they may invent bonds for water, natural “views”, or clean air.”

I am afraid that this analysis is right on target.  The whole premise of the REDD agreements, under which communities were to be paid for conserving their forests, has only resulted in a land rush to purchase the forests so as to collect the international funding.  And to add insult to injury, REDD has allowed the destruction of virgin forests and replanting of, say, palm oil plantations, to “count” as forest conservation.

So the international capitalists make out like bandits, and the local people who have lived peacefully and harmoniously in the forests for thousands of years suddenly find themselves given the boot.

In the first anthology I edited, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean (South End Press, 2004), I included an essay by Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Guatemala, who has become a major voice for global indigenous rights and environmental stewardship.  The essay describes Menchu’s unofficial visit to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum

“I had gone to find out what their idea of the earth, plants and nature might be, and what I found was a commercial version of ecology,” she said.  “There were T-shirts with tigers, lions and parrots painted on them, and plastic bags with animals’ faces.  It was a case of businessmen making money out of the environment.”

Although Menchu ended on a more hopeful note back in the ‘90s when this essay was first published, I have no doubt that today she is less optimistic, given the way events have played out over the past 20 years.  It is no exaggeration to say that the capitalist assault on the natural world combined with the human population overload of the planet has brought us to the brink of civilization collapse.

The calm, rationalist language of the Rio+20 architects reveals no sign of awareness of the dire state of the planet.  They seem to have constructed their conference materials in an air-conditioned bubble, through which the voices of the billions of ordinary people on the ground cannot penetrate.

La Via Campesina is calling for a return to small-scale agriculture as the solution to the Earth’s problems. They argue that a relocalization of agriculture is necessary, with indigenous and peasant farmers given cooperative control over their lands, as it was for the thousands of years preceding our own unfortunate era.

We will never get the diplomats, technocrats and financial oligarchs in the air-conditioned conference halls to agree to such a simple, unprofitable solution to food security.

But the feedback loops that have made our planet stable since the last Ice Age are now becoming severely disrupted, and so Earth may take matters into her own hands, forcing a relocalization in which only those who still remember how to subsist in small groups close to the land will be able to survive.

Is this the great transition prophesied by the Mayans long ago?  The end of the age of technocratic capitalism, and the return to a simpler way of life?

Global meetings such as Rio+20 should be occasions for making plans, together with the small-scale farmers on the ground all over the world, for intelligent transitions to truly sustainable communities. There is still time to prepare for the coming ecological shocks so as to prevent mass misery.

Instead, governments are using this precious time to build up armies and police forces to ensure the control of ever-shrinking resources by the wealthy, and selling small-scale arms to local gangs to encourage violence and terror outside of the gated communities of the rich nations.

This is a strategy that keeps us all in line—we in the wealthy nations are terrified of the violence we see outside our borders, and so we docilely do as we are told, which is to say, continue to participate in the aggressive policies that are bringing us all to ruin.

I see the twin monsters of the weapons and the chemical industries as the most destructive forces on our planet today.  If these two industries could be stopped, and their destructive products destroyed, imagine what a different world we’d be living in.

We may not be able to put those evil genies back into the bottle ourselves.  But the planet will take care of it, sooner or later.

Right now, it’s looking like it’s going to be soon.

Call to Action in Dark Times

This time of year in New England is cold and dark: short days and long, starry nights.  As the planet wheels towards the winter solstice, human beings, for thousands of years, have huddled around fires and turned to storytelling as a bridge back to warmth and the coming of springtime.

It’s no different now, except that now most of us burn oil for our heat, and hang up strings of electric lights to symbolize the return to light.  We watch movies, read books or play video games instead of listening to clan storytellers.

In America, as in much of the world, the dominant religious stories of this time of year have to do with keeping hope and faith alive in dark times.  Jews remember, with the lighting of the Menorah candles, the preservation of their faith in the 2nd century BCE, after the destruction of the Second Temple; Christians celebrate miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer who would bring the word of God to the people.

All of the traditional religious stories document a continuing human saga of light against dark, with light representing life and good energy, while dark represents death and possible danger.

More contemporary mystics also point to human life as a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

Rudolf Steiner, for example, the influential psychic who reported many out-of-body experiences where he made direct contact with metaphysical beings, routinely talks about angels and demons in his copious writings, with angels representing the good forces of light and life, and demons being the dark forces of destruction.  Freud too, in a more secular register, described Eros and Thanatos as primal human drives that align along the same lines: light/life/love, dark/death/hatred.

Is there something to all this?

In a scientific age, it’s hard to write with a straight face about angels and demons.  We are trained to see them as figures of speech, metaphors for empirically definable natural phenomena.  To whit: Human beings tell stories about angels and miraculous births at the darkest time of year as a metaphorical way of talking about the winter solstice and the return to light.

Yes.  But there have always been persistent voices telling us that this is not just metaphorical.  That there really are forces of dark that are destructive and forces of light that represent goodness, and that human beings, as the most self-aware sentient beings on the planet, are able to recognize the grand struggle between Good and Evil playing out in our psyches, and on our battlefields.

For instance, take Derrick Jensen‘s latest book, Dreams, in which he talks about his growing belief that there are metaphysical realms that human beings access in dreams, and that in the dream world there are “sides”: the side of life and the side of death and destruction.  As humans, we have a choice, Jensen says; we can choose which gods to worship, those who represent the life-giving energies of the planet, or those who represent the blood-sucking zombies that are leading us down the capitalist/imperialist road to doom.

Even further out along the spectrum of contemporary metaphysical thinkers is Alex Kochkin, who has been sending out dispatches through email and Web for some time now, warning that the end times are coming.  One could mistake Kochkin for an Armageddon-spouting Christian fundamentalist, except that, like Jensen and Steiner, he has no religious scaffolding framing his ideas.

All of these thinkers agree with indigenous shamans the world over that there is much more to human beings than our physical bodies, and that we can interact with higher powers through individual psychic work–paying attention to our dreams, meditating, being open to the realms of human consciousness where, they say, we can connect with what Steiner called “higher worlds.”

Alex Kochkin: “”You” are the result of a portion of your larger being extending something of itself into this level of density. In this case, it is a human bio-vehicle that comes equipped with basic firmware and an operating system. Flawed as the whole package may be, it is still a viable and valuable way for individuations of The All of Creation to reach into its own deepest recesses, even those that have become overwhelmed by the disease of the Dark.”

Derrick Jensen gives the “disease of the Dark” more concrete names: capitalism, imperialism, and the science that justifies and extends the reach of these destructive ideologies that have, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, been rapidly reducing bio-diversity and inexorably altering our eco-system.

Jensen recalls the Aztec sacrifices to their gods, and speculates that we too are unthinkingly making sacrifices to our contemporary gods of Science and Capitalism.

This is an idea that one of my mentors, Rigoberta Menchu, suggested years ago, talking about how destructive the Euramerican ideologies and technologies have been to the natural world and indigenous peoples: “I often wonder why people criticize the Aztecs for offering human sacrifices to their gods when they never mention how many sons of this America, Abia Yala, have been sacrificed over five hundred years to the god Capital,” Menchu said in her second testimonial, Crossing Borders.

Whether or not there are “higher powers” involved in the life-and-death battles we are seeing played out at ever-accelerating speed in these dark times, it is true that we human beings are the ones with the power to change the course of events we have set in motion.  The fish and the birds and the great bears cannot change what is happening to their environments because of human short-sightedness and greed.  The ancient forests that have stood for thousands of years cannot withstand the bulldozer and the chain saw.  The river that has flowed for eons cannot resist the concrete dam.

Only we have the power of reversing the “disease of the Dark.”  If there are higher powers involved, they are not going to do it for us–they will only work through us.

Which stories are we listening to now as we huddle around our mechanical fires?  The old stories of dominion and destruction, “manifest destiny” and technological prowess leading to “progress” have held sway long enough.  It’s time to listen to stories that are older and wiser than the Judeo-Christian myths, stories that remind us of our deep connection to the natural world that sustains us.

Let every candle lit this solstice season be a call to action on behalf of the life energies of this planet.  And then, let us act, before it’s too late.

Empathy: Igniting Force for Social Action

Now that the mainstream media has finally caught on to the importance of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I feel like I can go back to using this space to explore some other questions that have been niggling at me lately.

Last week there were not one but TWO op-ed pieces in the NY Times about empathy–both responding to Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  I haven’t read Pinker’s book yet, but I gather that he argues that humans have become more empathetic of late, and thus less violently aggressive towards one another.

Honestly, I haven’t noticed any decline in violence recently, have you? We still haven’t had a year go by without war erupting somewhere on the planet, and usually in many places at once. Men are still raping and battering women in alarming numbers all over the globe.  Suicides are up, and that deadly malaise I’ve talked about before subjects many of us to a constant low-level form of self-directed aggression.

But what I really want to think about are the two reactions to Pinker’s book, published last week in the Times by columnists David Brooks (conservative political pundit) and Benedict Carey (science reporter).  Both were extremely negative about the potential for empathy to be a positive force for social change.

Brooks argues that “Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear that it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action….

“Nobody is against empathy,” he says. “Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments.”

Brooks ends his column by proffering “sacred codes” as an alternative to mere empathy.  “Think of anybody you admire,” he says. “They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them.”

The problem with this formula is obvious.  Sacred codes are all very well, as long as they don’t direct their adherents to, say, “exterminate the cockroaches,” as was the cry both in Nazi Germany and in Hutu Rwanda.

Benedict Carey comes up with another objection to empathy as a trigger for social action: people are much more likely to feel for and want to help a single victim whose story is well-told, than to reach out to help in a major disaster involving millions of unnamed victims.  We get “compassion fatigue” pretty quickly, and if we are fed enough sad stories, we begin to get “psychic numbing,” where we lose our ability to feel any empathy at all.

Carey ends his piece by suggesting that psychic numbing may actually serve a useful purpose.  People charged with trying to help victims of disaster or tragedy are better able to function, he says, if they are not wallowing in empathy.

“In his book “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima,” the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton argued that rescue workers at Hiroshima were able to function at all only because they succeeded in “turning off” their feelings of compassion. He called that process “psychic numbing,” too, and it’s a reminder that empathy may be a limited resource for a reason.  Real action, when it’s called for, often requires a cool heart, if not a cold one.”

So here we have, within the space of a single week, two well-respected intellectuals arguing that empathy may be overrated. Both maintain that empathy can actually get in the way of constructive action.

I have thought quite a bit about this very issue, since so much of my teaching over the years has involved exposing young people to narratives of political struggle with the goal of awakening their empathy as a first step on the road to positive social action.

Very rarely have students complained to me that the narratives of testifiers like Ismael Beah, Fadumo Korn or Rigoberta Menchu have caused their circuits to bust into “psychic numbing” mode.

And while it may be true that the experience of empathy is not enough in itself to produce the kind of social change called for by the testifiers in these narratives, it is still an important and necessary first step for potential allies from outside the given cultural context of the narrative.

In her closing essay to my first anthology, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, Julia Alvarez invoked the simple, hopeful expression of human connection exemplified in the phrase, “Here, let me help you with that.”

Gloria Anzaldua also wrote about the importance of situating oneself in the liminal space between self and other, which she named “nepantla,” the space of the borderland.

Those of us who have been blessed with privilege may never venture into that borderland space of connection and social change unless we are jarred into awareness by a jolt of empathy.  It may just never occur to us to reach out a helping hand.

I teach literature because I believe in the power of stories to provide this crucial explosive charge of understanding, which Simona Sharoni, who visited the Simon’s Rock Junior Proseminar today, calls “compassionate resistance.”

It’s true that this is a starting point, not an end in itself.  But it’s a critical ignition stage, not to be under-estimated.

I wonder about the subtexts of these two Times columns this week, both putting down the value of empathy a means towards social change.  Just what are these guys afraid of?

Whatever it is, Rachel Corrie found out how dangerous that fear–or lack of empathy–can be.

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