Pied Pipers

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethic


We have been looking at our times through the lens of the Limits to Growth study and asking how these trends might unfold in the reality of our molecular world. To strengthen ourselves for the battering of history’s bitter headwinds we took some time to review the core values that inspired many of those involved in the founding of the U.S. as a democratic republic. We found our Deist forefathers were dedicated to creating a political space in which reason and debate might play a larger role than bullying force and conflicting claims to divine revelation. It was my contention that this governing apparatus had been so thoroughly taken over by business interests it no longer reflects any of the other values we still find in the will of the people. What is in the will of the people? Items like protecting our children from rampant gonzo pornography, violence worshiping video games, schools overrun with guns, and news of world events loaded with psychologically manipulative “spin.”

To run the risk of gross oversimplification to achieve a good summary statement we can hang our hat on as we think about these things, how’s this: the United States government, from the lowest bureaucrat to the highest office in the land, has put the needs of its businesses and financiers before the needs of its families and specifically its children.

There have always been competing interests between workers and owners, the highborn and the lowborn, but our time is characterized by an unprecedented inequality bearing witness that the balance of these competing interests has been lost. It is within this context that the malignancy of the politically dogmatic true believer grew cancerous on the body politic. Uncompromising, this new breed of American politician has no need for dialog or debate since they have no intention of compromising at any point. The most common outcome has been a stalemate that is keeping our country from effectively addressing or even discussing it’s ever increasing bundle of serious issues that are leading us to social and economic breakdown. Stalemate, by definition, ends the ability to bring intelligent adaptation to changing circumstances. It perpetuates the status quo, the current arrangement of power that places the needs of a rich CEO before the needs of a poor child every time.

It should go without saying that there are more than a few things we really should be working hard to adapt to just now. A few come to mind worth calling out just to remind us what the 3D reality of our molecular world is looking like these days out beyond our bewitching 2D screens. Changing weather patterns threaten the global food supply; if both the Russian and American breadbaskets have off years at the same time there are no contingency plans. The pressures leading to real bullets now being used in the race/class war are not being relieved nor is the desperation born of the decay of our inner cities. Any substantial disruption to the oil markets would send the global trade system into a tailspin and with that, who knows how many vital services would be found to no longer function? Perhaps most serious of all for our long term prospects is that with each passing day most people feel just a bit more cheated, taken advantage of and used by the powers that be. I won’t add to the list the many, many specifically ecological issues around depleted resource sources i.e. the over fished ocean, or the overwhelmed pollution sinks i.e. the tens of thousands of gallons of fresh water being poisoned every few minutes in the fracking fields and left to slowly seep into our aquifers.

It is not hard to understand why the Donald Trump campaign has been so popular in our time. Against this atmosphere of stalemate he comes presenting himself as the great deal maker. Against the political system dominated by wealth he comes claiming to be unbeholden to any special interests. It is not hard to understand how his campaign can be seen as a last ditch effort to save these democratic institutions of our forefathers by allowing him to execute a sort of radical reform from within. Who doesn’t hope for such a thing?

Bernie Sanders’ ‘socialist’ campaign was also offering the idea that a radical reformation from within the system is still viable. The criticism of Hillary Clinton is that while she claims to have absorbed Bernie Sanders’ message, she is a known entity with a long track record of fighting for her causes well within the confines of the status quo.

Donald Trump of course is just the opposite; a completely unknown political entity with little or no political record by which we might judge what his presidency might actually be like. He is an ink blot on which we are projecting our hopes and fears. Because the needs of our time are so great and the viable options so few, there is a very real danger that we might elect him for what we think he represents and find it has little or no relation to what a Trump presidency factually delivers.

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. A vote for the status quo is a vote to allow the socially debilitating inequality to continue growing. A vote for the ‘change agent’ is a huge, unknowable wager on a person who at least seems to be a violent misogynist racist but also bears some of that coarse but honest manner we prize in the ideal of the American character; his refusal to kowtow to the scions of political correctness has struck many citizens as a breath of fresh air.

Which brings me to the point I want to make about our time for those of us who have struggled to obtain some grasp of the most probable outcomes of our current trends in light of self-evident truths. Our past choices have limited our present options. Eventually such a process leaves you with no good options, just a choice between lesser evils and sometimes it leaves you with no real choice at all. One of the most important points I have been trying to make is that the ecological crisis is the largest context – the one in which the crisis of civilization, of politics, economics and war will all play out. Here is the thing. The ecological crisis is a predicament we need to learn to live with, not a problem with a solution.

Far as I can tell this election year is just the same dynamic. Within the framework of acceptable political discourse there is, as yet, no way to discuss relevant adaptations to our most fundamental challenges. As long as we insist “the American lifestyle is non-negotiable” we will be unable to have any serious discussions about the most critical features of the changing reality we find ourselves in.

The alternative of course would be to begin to have a serious world-wide conversation about energy use, similar to what Jimmy Carter once tried to start. We would discuss what quality of life and a just distribution of goods might look like in an age of diminishing material throughput. We would discuss contingency plans for cases when natural disasters or acts of war cause large life supporting infrastructures to fail. Perhaps the biggest subject of all we really should be discussing this election year is the one James Kunstler tried to get us to start when he published The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape in 1993; how will our nation of suburbs function once the cars run out of gas?

There is nothing we can do to get our single earth to supply the resources the industrial world wants to use to maintain its economic growth and technological progress. Whine, cry, stomp our feet, and pound our fists as we might, nothing is going to supply us with a second earth to use up. That is what it means that the unsustainable will not be sustained. As long as we are foolish enough to think this is a problem that can be fixed we will remain, personally and socially, susceptible to Pied Pipers promising us what we want to hear.

The good news is that the future will not fit in a box; not the economist’s or the ecologist’s, not yours, not mine. It will be fresh and full of surprises. Bleak as things might look at times, that is never the final word. The other good news is that leading a happily meaningful life is usually available to each of us the moment we choose to make it so. As contemplatives we do not wait for the world to be fixed before allowing ourselves to find peace within it. As contemplatives we do not shy away from the hard truths but use them to feed our compassion. What then is there to fear?

This is the Age of Ecology. To walk the path of beauty today necessarily entails embracing some form of Leopold’s land ethic. Serving the land aligns an individual with substantial alternative forces alive in the present moment, including the living heart of indigenous cultures everywhere, those we dismiss as “the poor.” Serving the land roots one in a value system that reaches far deeper than anything the ephemeral electronic culture can offer. Serving the land teaches one to think like a mountain.

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