Literally Dying

“Global wildlife populations have fallen by 58% since 1970, a report says.

The Living Planet assessment, by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and WWF, suggests that if the trend continues that decline could reach two-thirds among vertebrates by 2020.
Dr Barrett said some groups of animals had fared worse than others. “We do see particularly strong declines in the freshwater environment – for freshwater species alone, the decline stands at 81% since 1970.
This analysis looked at 3,700 different species of birds, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles – about 6% of the total number of vertebrate species in the world…The team collected data from peer-reviewed studies, government statistics and surveys collated by conservation groups and NGOs…Any species with population data going back to 1970, with two or more time points (to show trends) was included in the study.
The researchers conclude that vertebrate populations are declining by an average of 2% each year, and warn that if nothing is done, wildlife populations could fall by 67% (below 1970 levels) by the end of the decade.”
BBC News, World wildlife ‘falls by 58% in 40 years’


Did you catch this ecological news last week? It deserves a moment of silence; it is a fitting subject for many contemplations. Where were the headlines and the documentaries teaching us about this crisis in our ecosystems? Where can we gather together to mourn, to seek repentance and swear on our honor to do better?

People have lost all respect for the earth. A bit more than half the animals are gone in less than my lifetime; 58% animal loss since 1970. We lack the courage to even speak it among ourselves with the weight it deserves. We are living through the great dying. So far our species has yet to join the great population declines, but surely our turn is coming. I wonder what will happen over the next 40 years. I don’t see us changing course anytime soon, do you? Reminds me of Chief Seattle’s apocryphal “when all the animals are gone, man will die of loneliness.”

We have been looking at being gentle. It is tested not when times are easy but when they are tough. Can you be gentle, with yourself and with the world, when they seem to spiral out of control?

We have known since the 70s that the ecological footprint of industrial society was too large to be sustained on this, our one planetary home. The shock of our knowing has disabled our ability to speak the truth. This Limits to Growth news is viscerally traumatizing, felt first in the flesh with searing sadness that immediately confirms it as true. As Bowie sang,

“News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.”

Since that time we have engaged in sociological repression through diversions. We have continued to concentrate on the many comings and goings of business as usual, but they get increasingly bizarre as the repressed knowledge grows in the darkness of the blasphemous and unspeakable. The US presidential elections center around abuse issues while wars run ever more hot and oil economic-politics, as always from here on out, sends up red flags, all the while the global financial system is being propped up by unprecedented means – all this edgy, scary international news is mirrored in the same edgy, scary content that has overwhelmingly taken over our mass media. The staccato cutting techniques, the camera shake, the sudden close ups of gore flashing unpredictable and uncontrollable; all these are director techniques of film as replaying trauma. Our repression is leaking out. We are bringing the war home.

Outside the human echo chambers the earth is really dying. Within our human communications with one another this reality is barely given voice. Instead, the collective is rehashing the tried and true non-ecological explanations for our troubles. Foremost among those is the use of religion within politics. True believers on every side are growing ever more insistent that their agendas be implemented in our societies right now. It will serve us well in the days ahead to be able to clearly identify when any faith crosses the line into toxic territory. It is not always as obvious as a beheading.

Sometimes I wonder if what really matters in a person’s faith is how they hold it, and not what it contains. It seems that the major religions are in accord in their role of assisting people through the difficult processes of maturing. All of them christen the life passages with ceremony and community. It is in this sense we could say, as the New Age movement was all to quick to assert, that all religions agree.

Within the membership of these organizations there are people who hold to the literal interpretation of the poetic and metaphors within their sacred stories and those who do not. This type of literal interpretation entails a rejection of reason. It is a regressive strategy that fails to give science the proper gravitas it has earned in the modern mind.

Those who read the stories as metaphors have cast their lot with a wholly different sort of faith. It revolves around a core commitment to trust reality as it is to be the real revelation of meaning, love and intelligence in our lives. The agnostic scientist might have a deeper willingness to let the creation be the creation, than a roomful of bible-thumping church types. In that stance the West has found its path. It has lead to some serious disillusionments about what we had been telling ourselves. We are no longer living in our 4,000 years old island-earth universe, our solar system is not even in a particularly remarkable location within the spiral arms of our galaxy.

What we have lost, however, is not the whole story. We have come to know a solid truth about how precious the individual human is in the great scheme of things. We know how empathy began in the mammals and found its fullest flowering in us as love. Long have people said God is love, I wonder if we can really come to understand what we are saying? We have also discovered a profound wisdom in the sacred stories, how they map directly onto our body-mind encounters and experiences. In these tales our species’ confrontation with the inexpressible has been clothed in images, an a-rational form. They are not nothing, far from it. It does not hurt us to pray. But the reality of what they are cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the role of metaphor in the greater field of human cognitive abilities.

I am in my 50s. I think I can say with George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life that I have never been much of a praying man. I’m learning in my old age, but that’s the truth of it. When I was taught about praying the act was real wordy, full of requests and needing a special ritualized form to be effective. The truth is that the things I want most, the dreams of my deepest heart, are all about hoping the lives of those I love will be blessed; that they will be free from unnecessary suffering. It is not a request made in ritualized moments, so much as it is a never ending part of my every heartbeat. It is not a sycophantic request to some patriarch in the sky, full of a bunch of words. There is no fawning like a slave. Words do not even begin to touch how deeply the hope is felt. It is who I am, not what I say. A guilty conscience is the same, it remains a burden no ritualized magic spell is ever going to fully remove. Our shadows have a role to play in the creation of our character and will remain ever with us while we remain who we are. From the eyes of the elderly among us, many things that look to be religious and righteous are childish. Sometimes even harmful.

There is an eternity in the mystery of time. Science found it. There is a universe in a grain of sand. Science found it. There is a resurrection of the dead in the living. Science found it. Contemplate what these mean: relativity, quantum mechanics, and evolution.

If we were created in the contingent play of universal forces, are not those forces something we can reliably trust? True, it is not like we have any real choice. True, that which created us also destroys us with equal intent.

We have cast off the wisdom of our elders and gotten lost in cartoon religions of GDP growth and Jesus marketing. The idols do not nurture the culture. This is what the old records of scriptures the world over have documented. We mistake some of the meaning of these cultural stories when we read them only as religious tales. Many are also warning about what leads to cultural breakdown when economic and military forces get out of hand. Man’s folly has lead to his rise and fall, throughout the long historical seasons, from time out of mind. Along the way a few things were noted, here and there.

These cultural messages were so important that the ingenuity of mind found a way to assure they would get transmitted over the generations. It clothed the knowledge in stories of myth and magic. These stories are carefully crafted. They make unreasonable assertions and juxtapositions in just such a way that the human mind cannot leave them alone. It makes them memorable. Like a tongue searching out the bad tooth, our thoughts whirl around concepts like the haunted broom that features in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Here is a thing, a broom, which means it belongs to the conceptual category of ‘objects’ defined as those things that do not have a will of their own. ‘Things’ are not alive. This broom, however, does chores and as a magical broom it is an image that we cannot soon forget. It was designed that way.

Apply the same analysis to sacred stories and we see how the wisdom of our inherited psychological strategies exceed any conscious planning on the part of our species. They are inspired. Yet, they are also simply a characteristic of how our minds work. More specifically, it is a characteristic of how the power of reasonable conclusions work within our consciousness. Namely, by cloaking the unreal in the awe of the numinous. But, of course, there is more to it than this. Without our imaginations it is unlikely our psyche could bear the burden of its self-reflective awareness at all. Without our stories we could not share our emotional lives, for isn’t it so that fiction often expresses our truest emotional selves? Our minds swim in the sea of stories, and not only those in the scriptures, great novels and the blockbuster films. We are all story tellers and do so like to tell memorable tales.

There are two ways we can tell our stories. The fundamentalist values the revelation of the story above the revelation of their own lives and the lives of others and is uncomfortable with the ambiguity involved in more spiritual readings. The metaphorically inclined, following St. Augustine, think that is the height of folly and is willing to give tradition its due alongside the revelation in the story.

Right now our earth is being threatened by cultures that place more value on money than air, water and soil. We have here, evidently, another bewitching image. Loosing sight of the metaphorical nature of our exchange systems, we bring a fundamentalist faith to economics. We act as though we literally believe in the power of money above the needs of the flesh. It has become easier for us to imagine WWIII than to choose to turn away from endless growth economics. That has all the earmarks of a dangerous cult that has used witchy images to gain undue influence over a human mind. We need to be deprogrammed. We need to find the courage to think blasphemous thoughts. We, and our societies, will remain slaves to our fears until we do.

We suffer from a terrible case of cognitive dissonance. We know the existing industrial processes are using up resources faster than four earths could continue to supply. Yet, the dominate public conversation insists that the best thing we can do to solve our problems is to grow the GDP, aka increase the rate at which these industrial processes use up those resources.

There is no escaping this dilemma.

What I would like to know is this: when we lose our faith in money, and we will, will we also lose our faith in science and reason? It seems to me this is not inconceivable. Those who will stand up for reality now, in the face of the onslaught of irrational claims made in our day both economic and religious, just might be participating in the most critical arenas where this is going to be decided for many generations to come.

We know where the regressive impulses lead societies. The way into racism, brutality and war is well trod. Superstitious people make paranoid decisions. We do not know where the trail of ecological knowledge might lead us. It is my hope that more than just a few will be curious enough to want to find out.

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