Thursday, December 27, 2007

Any Economic System That Fails To Benefit The Natural Communities Upon Which It Is Based Is Unsustainable, Immoral, And Really Stupid

Carolyn Baker has an amazing article posted at The American Muslim that deals with the coming global-climate-change-induced collapse of society. Whereas James Lovelock focuses on cushioning the crash, trying to arrange conditions so as to preserve as much of civilization as possible, Baker, in what seems to me to be a much more Pagan approach (and one that somehow smacks of Ursula LeGuin) to the situation, focuses on embracing the collapse, changing in ways demanded by the situation, and transforming ourselves in order to reap good from it. What she says is so important that I hope you'll indulge me if I quote her at length.

I occasionally receive hate email but more frequently receive ones like this: “I’ve just unsubscribed to your email list. Your website is filled with negative stories and articles, and I need to keep a positive attitude and do what I can to make my world better.” . . . I think that righteous is the word I would use to describe this reader’s perspective. [T]he problem with a righteous attitude is that it often leads to detachment from reality-not unlike Barbara Bush’s comment that she doesn’t want to trouble her “beautiful mind” with statistics about troop or civilian casualties in Iraq. It’s all so American/Judeo-Christian-and, of course, Dale Carnegie: keeping a positive attitude so that we never feel badly about what’s actually happening.

. . .

The addiction to a “positive attitude” in the face of the end of the world as we have known it is beyond irrational-even beyond insane. . . . Usually, having a “positive” attitude about collapse implies wanting it not to happen, believing that it may not happen, and doing everything in one’s power to convince oneself that it won’t happen.

. . .

Derrick Jensen in Endgame, Volume I, states that “The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of any economic system.” (127) He continues:

Any economic system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and really stupid.(128)

Explaining human disconnection from the rest of earth’s inhabitants, Jensen describes the various layers of resistance among humans to their innate animal essence. One of the deeper layers is our “fear and loathing of the body”, our instinctual wildness and therefore,
our vulnerability to death which causes us to distance ourselves from the reality that we indeed are animals. In fact, this is one of civilization’s fundamental tasks. Have not all modern societies disowned and genocided the indigenous? And for what purpose? Not only for the purpose of stealing their land, eradicating their culture, and eliminating so-called barriers to “progress”, but because native peoples (you know, “savages") as a result of their intimate connection with nature, are such glaring reminders of humankind’s animal-ness. They are embarrassingly “un-civilized.” Thus, modernity must “civilize” the savage in order to excise the animal, inculcating in her a human-centric world view. For more on this last topic, see Barbara Ehrenreich's Dancing in the Streets.

The consequence has been not only the incessant destruction of earth and its plethora of life forms, but the murder of the human soul itself. Benjamin Franklin said it best after returning from living with the Iroquois: “No European who has tasted Savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.”

Any person who wants to “maintain a positive attitude” in this culture-the culture of civilization that is killing the planet-killing people and things that we all love-that person is not only irrational and deeply afflicted with denial, but he is exactly like a member of an abusive family system in which physical and sexual assault are occurring in the home on a daily basis, but that family member insists on “thinking good thoughts” and resents anyone and everyone who says what is so about the abusive system.

So let’s admit two things: 1) Humans are fundamentally animals. Yes, we are more than animals, but civilization with its contempt for the feral has inculcated us to own the “more than” and disown everything else. 2) The culture of civilization is inherently abusive, and it is abusive precisely because it has disowned the animal within the human. Indeed animals kill other animals for survival, but they do not conquer, rape, pillage, plunder, enslave, pollute, slash, burn, and poison their habitat-unlike those “more-than-animal” beings who seem incapable of not doing all of the above. Conversely, the “more-than-human” creatures respect their surroundings because they instinctively sense that their survival depends on doing so.

. . .

[A] British study at the University of St. Andrews confirmed that elephants keep track of up to 30 absent relatives by sniffing out their scent and building up a mental map of where they are, research suggests. Herd members use their good memory and keen sense of smell to stay in touch as they travel in large groups, according to a study of wild elephants in Kenya. Dr. Richard Byrne of St Andrews noted that elephants have two advantages over humans - their excellent sense of smell and, if their popular reputation is anything to go by, a good memory.

One may argue that an elephant could [not] design a computer, but I ask: What is more consequential, the ability to design a computer or the ability to protect, sustain, and nurture the planet on which one resides? Of what value is the computer if none of us is here to use it?

Civilization, which has never ceased soiling its nest since its inception, has also never understood its proper place on the earth: that of a guest, a neighbor, a fellow-member of the community of life. As a result, everything civilization has devised and which is “unsustainable, immoral, and stupid”, as Jensen names it, is now in the process of collapsing. I ask for an honest answer here: How can anyone tell me with a straight face (or a righteous attitude) that that reality is “negative”? Would the seagull on a Southern California beach with her feet entangled and bleeding in plastic netting left behind by “more-than-animal” life forms tell me that the collapse of what created her plight is “negative”? Would thousands of dead spruce trees in Colorado ravaged by beetles as a direct result of climate change tell me that collapse is a bad idea? Would the plankton and bleached coral at the bottom of the sea which are fading and dying with breathtaking rapidity as a result of global warming, tell me to keep a positive attitude and do everything in my power to stop the collapse of civilization? I think not.

Fundamentally, what all forms of positive thinking about collapse come down to is our own fear of death. Thanks to civilization’s Judeo-Christian tradition and its other handmaiden, corporate capitalism, humans have become estranged from the reality that death is a part of life. Human hubris gone berserk as a result of a tumescent ego, uncontained by natural intimacy with the more-than-human world, believes humanity to be omnipotent and entitled to invincibility. Therefore, from the human-centric perspective “collapse should be stopped” or “maybe it won’t happen” or “somehow humans will come to their senses”. Meanwhile, the drowning polar bears inwardly wail for the death of humanity as the skeletons of formerly chlorophyll-resplendent Colorado spruce shiver and sob in the icy December wind. Our moral, spiritual, and human obligation is to flush our positive attitude down the nearest toilet and start feeling their pain! Until we do, we remain human-centric and incapable of seizing the multitudinous opportunities that collapse offers for rebirth and transformation of this planet and its human and more-than-human inhabitants.

News flash: We are all going to die! Or as Derrick Jensen writes in Endgame:

The truth is that I’m going to die someday, whether or not I stock up on pills. That’s life. And if I die in the population reduction that takes place as a corrective to our having overshot carrying capacity, well, that’s life, too. Finally, if my death comes as part of something that serves the larger community, that helps stabilize and enrich the landbase of which I’m part, so much the better. (123)

Now, I hasten to add that I am not suggesting we select our most intense emotion about collapse, move in, redecorate, and take up residence there. Feel one’s feelings? Yes, and at the same time revel in those aspects of one’s life where one feels nourished, loved, supported, comforted, and in those people and activities that give one joy and meaning.

Had civilization not spent the last five thousand years attempting to murder the indigenous self inherent in all humans, we would not have to be told, as native peoples and the more-than- human world does not, that most of the time, life on this planet is challenging, painful, scary, sad, and sometimes enraging. What our indigenous ancestors had and still have to sustain them through the dark times was ritual and community. Our work is to embrace and refine both instead of intractably clinging to a “positive attitude” in the face of out-of-control, incalculable abuse and devastation.

. . .

Th[e coming collapse] now has a life of its own and is most likely, out of our control. Attempting to abort it or blame other humans is a waste of time and energy.

The question for humans is not: What do we do about collapse? but rather, What do we do with it? It holds inestimable opportunities for rebirth and intimacy with other humans and the more-than-human world, but only if we open to it. Opening to it means opening to our own mortality, which as Derrick Jensen insists, may be part of something that serves the larger community. Perhaps one opportunity collapse is putting in our faces is that of moving beyond our human-centric perspective-our hubris and addiction to invincibility, begging us to humble ourselves and crawl behind the eyes of the more-than-humans as Joanna Macy poignantly writes:

We hear you, fellow-creatures. We know we are wrecking the world and we are afraid. What we have unleashed has such momentum now; we don’t know how to turn it around. Don’t leave us alone; we need your help. You need us too for your own survival. Are there powers there you can share with us?

Indeed there are powers they can share with us, but not until we can let go of our current definition of “positive” and, feeling their pain, finally comprehend that the collapse of civilization may be the best thing that could happen to all of us.

The Judeo-Xian repudiation of our bodies included patriarchy's hatred for women's bodies, the notion that women, feelings, bodies, earth, matter, life on Earth, reality was degraded, while men, thought, souls, heaven, spirit, life after death, and theology was elevated. It was the rejection of precisely this patriarchal dualism that led to the re-energization of modern Paganism, especially the Dianic branch of Wicca.

It is a particularly witchy question to ask, not: What do we do about collapse? but rather, What do we do with it? At the heart of all magic is the ability to ask the important question, to name the actual issue, to face and reclaim the gift that lies in the Shadow. And the question: "What do we do with collapse?" does, as Baker suggests, hold inestimable opportunities for rebirth and intimacy with other humans and the more-than-human world, but only if we open to it. But Baker is also correct that, as in all magic, Opening to it means opening to our own mortality, Magic, it's said, is the ability to change consciousness at will. Occasionally, as my dear friend R. noted this morning, the universe helpfully provides our will with a "clue-by-four."

How can you dance with the coming collapse? What gold is waiting for you and for humanity in that coming Shadow? What would you do if you knew that you were going to die and you weren't afraid of being afraid?


Aquila ka Hecate said...

This is animportant post. Thank you.
Now I'm going to go away and think for a bit.
Terri in Joburg

madamab said...

I don't think we can definitely say that the environment as we know it is going to collapse, but while attempting to prevent it from happening, we need to acknowledge the fact that it could still happen, and plan for that eventuality.

Any other approach is unscientific at best, and criminally negligent at worst.

Anne Johnson said...

If you apply this to politics, you'll understand why I vote Green Party.

Robin said...

I talk to my kids about this frequently. They aren't thrilled with the topic, but I think they are getting the idea that I want them to think along the lines presented in this post. My son is looking at studying medicine b/c he thinks that those skills will be helpful no matter what and will be valuable to others as well. I want my daughter to look into designing sustainable architecture but she's only 12 and would rather imagine a career centered on the pleasing placement of throw pillows. My baby is only five. His current challenge is learning to read :)

Thomas said...

One of the difficulties with embracing a collapse is that we have very little practical idea about what the world will be like afterwards. We cannot predict with any accuracy what parts of the world will be habitable and to what degree. We don't even know if the same skill sets that enhance native living today will continue to be relevant then.

The best plan is to maximize one's survival and indigenous skills today and to be prepared psychologically for the degree of change that is to come, to ride the collapse like a wave, ready to change location or develop new skills quickly and fluidly.

Ruth said...

An aspect of collapse that really worries me, tho, is what our Great Leaders will do to keep their powers, including as my House Rep. threatened recently, going to war with other countries to take their oil. ugh. We may have to deal with our country's rapacious powerful as well as nature.

Matthew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew said...

James Howard Kunstler ( sorry, I tried to make an html link, but it got goofy) has a very interesting post up this week called "A Christmas Eve Story". His post almost exactly mirrors this post, except related to finance, the American economic system, and peak oil. Here is a quick quote:

I was content to let is drop, but G then said. "You know, you've been predicting all these catastrophes for years now, but we're still here, the cars are all rolling down Broadway out there, and life is going on. You're beginning to sound like a crazy person." It didn't bother me especially that G thought my my ideas were outlandish so much as being comprehensively written off by an old friend as a crazy person, someone who... I dunno... rummages through dumpsters and talks to himself on the street without any sign of a cell phone in hand. I didn't hasten to defend myself. G obviously needed to feel that the world would continue functioning like a well-oiled machine now that he was responsible for an operation that employed a hundred other people. We parted agreeing to acknowledge a difference in our view of things.

I see this all the time, and it depresses the hell out of me. If one actually acknowledges that things are dangerously our of whack right now (whether in politics, economics, or the overall condition of the world in general), and that perhaps we should attempt to understand the situation and maybe even DO SOMETHING about it, one is laughed off, a "crazy person," someone who is just too depressing to bear. People like Kunstler, or politically, Arthur Silber, are mocked for attempting to raise very important issues. Thanks Hecate for this post.