Category Archives: Face the Future
Facing and embracing the future that we’ve made: The Great Disruption/Unraveling, The Great Turning, the Anthropocene, the Sixth Extinction. These posts will sometimes feature biology research, but will focus more often on social and environmental responses, in both the practical/physical world, and our inner worlds (emotions, psyches).
Again, in lieu of any fresh songs springing forth from my own muse, I offer this recent reverie from a writer I’ve come to deeply appreciate, Brian Doyle. In an essay on the wonderful website curated by the Center for Humans and Nature, he glimpses the needle’s eye:
What is the greatest single virtue of our species? What is the one thing that we have in spades and abundance, the one thing that perhaps allowed us to prosper and multiply in such staggering numbers, to send men and machines into the sea of the stars, to fling a chirping robot past the boundaries of our very galaxy? Imagination, brothers and sisters. Imagination. We dream and then make real our dreams. And all that inventiveness, all that innovative zest, all our yearning to solve puzzles and discover secrets and worry inarguable truths from the welter of lies and distractions, all our deep pleasure in making things that were never in the world before in just that way—now that is become the thin thread of our salvation. Not to mention all the other actors in the play. Not to mention your children and their children
Following his heart and his pen through a series of powerful and poignant reflections (please do read the whole piece), Brian reminds us, and asks us:
We dreamed ourselves aloft. We dreamed ways to wrestle and wrangle rivers. We caught electricity. We persuaded plants to march in rows and give us their children to eat. We dreamed ever-faster ways to whir along the skin of the earth in steeds of steel. We dreamed throbbing cities so big and vast and high they seem unreal when we shuffle through them gawking far below. We dreamed the most extraordinary music and the most haunting deep-shared stories. We invented uncountable thousands of languages and religions and dances and sports and foods and medicines. Can’t we invent new fuels for our steel steeds, and new ways to catch and share energy, and new ways to spin detritus into fuel and energy? Have we gone stale and dim as a species, here at the apex of our population and technology boom? Were these last centuries of incredible invention and innovation and imagination all just for money and power? Or do we have a last slim door through which to send our wild holy imaginations into a future where children do not gasp and retch and duck the bullets of the Water Wars?
I am holding the hand of a small child in a yellow raincoat and orange bib overalls. His little boots have long ago filled with water. His hair is damp and smells of salt. And I am staring at my boots and thinking of what it could possibly mean to this child, to live on a planet whose life-supporting mechanisms have frayed and fallen apart.
He sucks in his breath. “Hey! Guys! Come close and look. Come close and look.” Under a blade of rainbow kelp, he has found the red, orange-spiked, gooey sea animal called the California sea cucumber, Parastichopus californicus. How beautiful it is, and how beautiful is the human impulse to be astonished.
But there’s this: Yesterday, on a beach only two miles from this one, sea cucumbers by the hundreds washed up, dead. I’d never seen anything like that before. Gloriously colored animals sagging under the sudden weight of the world, they rolled in with the tidal detritus, tangled in seaweed and slime.
What does this mean for our children, yours and mine, this dying? Can children thrive in a world where other species are vanishing as they watch? I just don’t know. And what does it mean for us, the parents and grandparents who desperately love these children?
Do read the whole thing; it’s beautifully written. And click through for links to two other recent pieces by Kathleen.
I recently discovered Michael Leunig, an Australian cartoonist whose wonderful and often-poignant work is well worth perusing; his site features extensive archives. Click through below for a few more of the ones that jumped out for me (one in every five or ten, I’d say; many others are pretty grim, if also too true).
A two-tower apartment complex in Milan is charting the way to a greener future for cities. Each apartment is outfitted with a sturdy outside balcony which will host trees and shrubs. The first trees are already being lifted into place, and once complete, “residents will retire to their apartments after a long day in the grit and grime and drift off to the sound of wind in the leaves—and muffled car horns.” Nice!!
(Image: Stefano Boeri Architetti and Marco Garofalo; more pics here)
From Tracking Bobcats in California by Sylvia Linsteadt, on the Dark Mountain blog
I think there is an essential heartbreak at the core of modern human life. We have made ourselves alone as creatures. We don’t remember anymore the languages of the bobcats, the black bears, the weasels and frogs, the kingfishers, crows, voles, elk and rattlesnakes who are our closest relatives on this planet (not to mention the trees and grasslands, fruits and flowers without which none of us would be alive at all). They speak and sing, love, fight, nest and rage, scream and suffer just as we do, but we don’t know how to hear them. We don’t think we are supposed to. We have made ourselves believe we no longer belong, that we are apart, that this is a good thing, and meanwhile, some ancient grief has lodged straight into our cellular tissue, our dark marrow, and won’t leave. That’s why, the very first time I came to the beach with a teacher and began to read a trail of coyote tracks, in a side-trot, through sand, I woke up later that night with my eyes full of tears.
This is part of our heritage as human beings, part of our tangled psychological and biological make-up: we were made to read the tracks and signs of animals as they move through ecosystems. We were made to do this before we ever passed on mythologies, or wrote down songs. Our brains themselves developed as we followed elk tracks through sand, as we ate and worshipped and sang to the animals that we depended on both for our survival and, I would like to argue, our sense of self.
As we turn the page from 2011, the year when the world rose up and said “enough!” and now embark on the journey of 2012, a year arriving with mythic baggage galore, I find myself heartened by big-picture reflections from several writers who often shed fresh light on our society’s struggles and dreams. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen pieces by Alex Steffen, Rebecca Solnit, Starhawk, and Michael Meade that are typically incisive and heartening; each has his or her own deeply resonant perspective on life, society, and engagement, and I recommend them all!
Rebecca Solnit sets the tone with her year-end missive, Compassion is Our New Currency:
Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement. Like those other upheavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they’re actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?
Stop for a moment and consider just how unforeseen and unforeseeable all of this was when, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, impoverished city, immolated himself. He was protesting the dead-end life that the 1% economy run by Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt family allotted him, and the police brutality that went with it, two things that have remained front and center ever since. Above all, as his mother has since testified, he was for human dignity, for a world, that is, where the primary system of value is not money.
Storyteller of the soul Michael Meade hits the nail on one of its many heads with his recent piece, Occupy vs. Nihilism: All or Nothing at All:
The Occupy movement may be an instinctive response, not just to the greatest disparity of wealth and power in the history of America, but also to the emptying out of institutions and loss of meaning at all levels of life. An underlying instinct to inhabit life more fully may be arising and taking root in different places for different reasons. The message of Occupy may be “all over the place” because the underlying message is about “place,” about reclaiming and more fully inhabiting public places, about being more present to the critical issues in each place, and about taking one’s own place in life more fully.
When mini-Occupy sites appear at individual houses threatened with foreclosure and neighbors set aside typical disagreements in order to protect each other’s homes, the roots of community are trying to resurface. Genuine grass roots movements can cross typical “party lines” and dissolve class distinctions as the deep-rooted connections between people and the underlying dreams of the country rise up from below. The difference and distance between those who inhabit the land and those who rule the nation become revealed. For, it is not simply that government has gotten too big, but that it has become so empty of meaning and devoid of the values that sustain common humanity.
The future that my parents’ generation warned us about forty years ago looks an awful lot like our present. The ice caps are melting, deserts are spreading, the planet is thick with people, most of the world’s primeval forests are gone, the seas are in crisis, and pollution, famine and natural disasters kill millions of people a year. Compared to the world we might have had, had the progress of the early 1970s continued steadily through the following four decades, we live on a half-ruined planet.
That half-ruined planet, though, is our home. People old enough to remember the first Earth Day can well grieve for that other, healthier Earth we might have had if only older generations had made different choices. Kids born today won’t have that luxury. This world is the only one they’ll ever know: they’ll have to make the best of it; life goes on.1970 is the same distance in time away from us now as 2050: that’s how close the future is…In an amount of time about equal to that from the first Earth Day, we have to remake the world.
Starhawk’s most recent missive addresses one of the key human challenges facing those currently engaged in this attempt to remake the world, which involves finding ways to compassionately respond to and provide for the needs of some of our most outcast citizens, the homeless and neglected people who tend to become a major presence at most urban Occupy sites. The inclusiveness and compassion at the heart of the Occupy movement creates social dynamics we’re not used to: the marginalized people are welcomed rather than ostracized, and in most cities have become a significant presence in the social reality of the camps and the General Assembly meetings (rather than being limited to their normal role as a tiny sliver of our daily lives, easily – and unfairly – discounted as merely drunks or freeloaders or lacking in ambition). In the occupy camps, they are seen in their full complexity, as human beings with their own particular backgrounds and perspectives and wounds. It’s manifested in the dynamics between the drum circles and those working to accommodate neighbors living near encampments; it’s also common to hear of General Assemblies being disrupted and pulled far off-topic by verbal outbursts from folks who react badly to any structure, planning, or authority. The challenging dynamics this creates has been the focus of some media features, and crops up in the reflections of most facilitators:
Even more than troubles with the cops and city authorities, the biggest challenges the Occupy movement faces seem to be internal. How do we make decisions together? How do we resolve our own conflicts within our groups? Once we’ve said “We are the 99%”, how do we set standards of behavior and say what is okay and what is not? Once we’ve renounced force and coercion, how do we enforce those standards when we do set them?
None of these are easy questions to answer, (and) the Occupy movement poses them in a form more stark than I’ve ever encountered before, in four decades of horizontal organizing. Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together.
After the break: Steffen’s insightful breakdown of the heartfelt worldviews pulling against each other in this time, Starhawk on questions of strategy and the need for linear thinking guidance in horizontal consensus process, Solnit on the depth of the movement’s heart, and Meade’s evocation of the soul of the movement, of America, and of each of our lives. (Thanks to Riyana’s always-compelling Wild Serenity blog for the three color images in the strip above, and to Alex Steffen’s post for the black and white one.)
Well, it’s been a couple months of dabbling in this new creative/vision/writing outlet, and I find that I’m having a hard time getting started with one of the key themes I want to be addressing here: facing the future that we’ve made for ourselves. We’ve seen it coming for decades, but haven’t managed to turn the wheel. Yet still, and always, there are glimmers of hope, light shining through the cracks, viable paths to a future that is more caring, balanced, and connected to the greater pulses of love and truth and beauty from which all this emerged. This is a era at’s been described as The Great (economic) Unravelling, The Great (environmental) Disruption, and The Great (social) Turning; all of these hinge on the question of whether we’ll allow the present course to continue relatively unchecked, or find our way toward a new set of priorities in greater balance with natural systems and with a deeper sense of shared responsibility for the wellbeing of all.
But can be hard, so hard, to find our way through the sorrow, the fear, the anger and despair about where we’ve gotten ourselves to. It’s just as hard to even acknowledge the sorrow and its brethren that lurk there, in each and every breath we take as we walk through our days in this troubled world. Yet once we do, once we allow the emotional and soul-level responses that follow from all the horrors that we see and know and imagine, we then have a ground from which we can move in a way that’s more able to engage both the wounded world and the widespread efforts to lift each other up in the midst of this time of such great uncertainty.
This aspect of Bright Blue Ball won’t be detailing the troubles; there’s plenty of places for that. Instead, I’ll share here some of the voices that speak from the heart in ways that acknowledge our dire situation while holding a larger perspective in which there’s room to move and act and care and engage. For starters, I want to share fairly recent messages from two of the great elders of our time, Wendell Berry and Joanna Macy.
Here’s a snippet of Joanna, about embracing the uncertainty of our time:
We’ll hear more from Joanna here, in the weeks to come. If you can’t wait, check out this video of a passionate presentation at Bioneers in 2009, which will be featured here before long.
And now to Wendell, voice of the rural soul. This is one of his “sabbath poems,” written in 2007, and published in his most recent collection, Leavings.
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
I’ll admit to having a hard time winnowing my lists of online reading; I want to, I really do, but new wellsprings of worthy writing keep appearing. One of the latest is a spin-off of Killing The Buddha, a long-established fount of reflections on spirituality in our culture. On the new site, freq.uenci.es, which I glance at once a week (it’s part of my “Tuesday” tab set), this hit me like a ton of bricks:
The present epoch is historically unique in that the spirit-side of life can no longer be taken for granted. It appears both in innumerable fragmentary shapes and as massive blocs of fundamentalist and totalizing conviction, and quite often it seems to not exist at all, as though there were some kind of systematic power at work to drive it out of our lives.
Indeed! Call it consumerism, media overload, mechanistic thinking, or simply lives too full of things to do and places to go; the end result for too many of us is a fragmentary relationship to spirit, and for more still, a disengagement from what has been, for most of human history, the central unifying thread of individual and community lives. But what do we mean here by “spirit?” Joel Kovel begins this essay, entitled spirituality, revolutionary by laying it out out about as concisely as I’ve ever seen:
In all places and all epochs human beings have used some such word as “Spirit,” to designate the animating, world-moving force within them; the relations with ancestors, demons, totems, ghosts and other “spirit-beings”; and the Supreme Being, the godhead that permeates the universe and creates the world and is bound together in our religions. In sum, what has been known as spirit relates the human self to the universe and all its beings and forms of being. Spirit is no residual category, then, but an ontological potential of humanity, a vital part of being human. It is as essential for human nature as building a web is for “spider nature.” For all creatures are inserted into nature at a certain point and with a certain internally articulated set of relationships. These frame the possible arrangements that creature has with the rest of nature.
No doubt one reason Kovel’s piece hit fertile ground in me this week is that I’m currently re-reading David Abram’s most recent book, Becoming Animal, which can be seen as taking that final thought above and running with it: into the wilderness, around the world, and deep inside our own engagement with the landscape around us. Abram reminds us of one way back to spirit: by coming alive in our bodies within the larger body of the earth. And more than that: he questions our cultural conviction that our experience of the world is somehow an interior thing, each of us with our own skull-encapsulated mind, which may be just an ephemeral consequence of purely mechanical neural activity. What a lonely and hollow way to experience this essence of what it is to be human! Reflecting on the obvious communicative interactions among all the living things of the world, Abram suggests:
Mind is not at all a human possession, but is rather a property of the earthly biosphere—a property in which we, along with the other animals and the plants, all participate. The apparent interiority that we ascribe to the mind (may) have less to do with the notion that there is a separate mind located inside me, and another, distinct mind that resides inside you, and more to do with a sense that you and I are both situated inside it—a recognition that we are bodily immersed in an awareness that is not ours, but is rather the Earth’s.
Never fear: Abram’s “mind” is far more than our thinking selves. His renewed animism aims deeper, reminding us of traditions, science findings, and direct experiences that suggest a deep coherence, a world in which the western split between spirit and matter is rejected, bridging the great divide created by Descartes’ declaration that the human mind (and spirit, the “I am”) stands apart from the entire material world. Instead, we are invited into a remembrance that our local habitat is a “diversely differentiated field of animate beings, each of which has gifts relative to the others. And we find ourselves not above, but in the very midst of this living field, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape.” All the miraculous wonder of our earthly creation (and in a subtler way, also the sun and cosmos beyond) sharing a fundamental commonality of reciprocity and mutual engagement in which “our own sentient organism is…an intensification or fluctuation within the sensitive flesh of the world.” This is an embodied spirituality both ancient and utterly revolutionary in our modern world.
More after the break: (image above right: Lydia Larson)