Truth Above Utility

Post-truth (def.) “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak… For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not… At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish…
Many news organizations have turned to native advertising as a source of revenue. By definition, native advertising tries  to sell or promote a product in the guise of a news story. Native advertising makes it difficult for unsuspecting readers to know if and when there is an ulterior motive behind the information they encounter…
More than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words ‘sponsored content,’ was a real news story.”
Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning (pdf),
Stanford History Education Group

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked

 

We have an amazing capacity to play fast and loose with the truth. For some reason it is not at all difficult for us to hold passionate opinions concerning just about everything, and in the process to allow ourselves expansive editorial freedom to cut and paste facts and fictions as we see fit. It should not surprise us that a coalition of climate change deniers have taken over the reigns of government here in the US. This type of denial is often a reaction that takes hold just about the time the crisis society is denying breaks out ferociously.

The time has come in which we must think very carefully about the circumstances we find ourselves in. The confluence of industrialized civilization’s ecological blowback and political populism denying it, looks to me like nothing so much as the cognitive dissonance we all suffer writ large. Remember, cognitive dissonance arises when one part of the mind holds something to be true that another part of the mind knows is not so. Climate change science has a very, very simple message: stop producing these outrageous amounts of carbon dioxide pollution. The message is almost too simple, it’s hard to wiggle out of the obvious implications.

The most obvious implication confronts each and every one of us every time we step outside our front doors. We know what society must do, and soon, to stop the climate from becoming hell on earth: we need to stop driving. On the other hand, this is something our societies simply cannot do. Survival is linked to driving just as driving is linked to oil. Of course the problem is larger than just driving; most all our life support infrastructures need a petrochemical energy source to power them throughout their supply chains.

For an individual these two facts create some degree of cognitive pressure: I need to stop driving for the future health of the planet and I need to drive today to procure what I need to survive. It really is this simple, there is no escaping these reasonable inferences. Since both of these statements are true they create a cognitive problem. The human mind needs to provide a consistent picture of the world and a rational explanation for our behavior in it. It becomes an interesting question, both for individuals and all of us collectively, to ask how we are to deal with this simple information and still feel ok about ourselves.

Part of what psychology has learned about cognitive dissonance might apply to the type of collective mind we find in our social interactions. The theory that coined the term was first presented in 1957 by Leon Festinger in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. In that work he presented research to show how holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously is painful and how individuals react to lessen that psychological pressure.

We avoid cognitive dissonance by remaining conscious of the opposition but using it to drive action. Staying with the painful awareness of these truths provides an energy that can inspire you to work towards whatever reconciliation of them in your own lifestyle you are able to bring about. Mindful Ecology hopes to support these types of changes by showing that they are meaningful because they are based in truth. Note that while it is painful remaining aware of the issues around driving, it is not the pain of cognitive dissonance since both of these conflicting beliefs are true. It is when we seek to escape this painful situation by denying the validity of the statements themselves that we run into the more troublesome psychological difficulties associated with cognitive dissonance.

There are two other ways to lessen the pain of conscience our ecologically informed generation must sense around driving. The mind can deny that one side or the other of these truths are actually true. It is frighteningly easy for us to make something up that is more congenial to how we want to see ourselves and our place in the big scheme of things. Once we have made something like this up, we then place our faith in the delusion and simply assert either that climate change is not happening or, if it is, our driving has nothing to do with it. Now we have entered the realm of cognitive dissonance.

Here is what to watch out for. As events provide evidence that the delusional faith is in fact unreal, it is not uncommon for those holding these beliefs to double down. The more evidence proves their belief to be false, the more their blind faith in it increases. Those who point out the truth while these conditions rule are branded as heretics, blasphemers persecuting the embattled minority of true believers.

In the case of driving, ecological evidence concerning its dire consequences lead to the CAFE laws that were designed to increase engine efficiency. More efficient fuel use was thought to address both the problem of a diminishing world oil supply and the problem of overwhelming the atmosphere’s capacity to act as a pollution sink. What was the response to these laws that were meant to alter the way cars are manufactured and sold? The introduction of the SUV. The laws applied to cars and the SUV was classified as a small truck, exempt from the regulations. The public responded to the advertising message that confirmed the true believer’s delusional story. The thought train must run something along these lines, ‘I’m basically a good person and choose to drive this oversized vehicle, therefore, either climate change science is a hoax or driving does not cause it.’ The convoluted logic of magical thinking has replaced the pain filled awareness of a difficult moral issue with the fake simplicity of a fairy tale.

Please understand this is only being used as a concrete illustration. There are a thousand other reasons people chose to buy SUVs, many of them noble such as concern for the needs and safety of loved ones. Similarly, dealing with climate change is speaking only of the most well known of the frighteningly large family of ecological breakdowns heading our way. We are discussing driving as its cause because it is the most obvious confrontation with our ecological madness most of us encounter every day.

There are others, equally obvious simple steps we need to take. The steps are simple, taking them, however, under the existing set of beliefs is all but impossible. For example, engineering investigations of the capacity of renewable energy sources are unanimous in saying that society will need to use less power. We could use less power today. It would require we prioritize hospitals and schools and de-prioritize, say, the excess light displays in New York City, Las Vegas, Shanghai and Tokyo. The fact that for most people on the planet such an idea seems nihilistic defeatism (a sin against progress!) and absolutely not ever going to voluntarily happen, shows just how committed we are to our delusional beliefs.

It might be easier to believe that with the magic of a bomb vest you can live forever, than that your life will be one of struggle in a poisoned, poor and violent world. It might be easier to believe that with the magic of a renewed trade deal you can restore fossil fueled industrialized civilization to its glory days, than that our economic options are now severely limited by resource constraints. It might be easier to believe that the magic of a little solar and wind power will wash away the oil stains on our future, than that the real road forward is one of using a whole lot less energy altogether. It might be easier to believe the ecological crisis unfolding everywhere around us is really not all that bad, than that these are the days of nightmare and mourning. It might be easier, but it is not going to help.

The ecological message, that business as usual has no future, fights to be heard in our time of globalization promoted by a mass media dominated by quarterly profit driven corporate interests. The ecological message is fighting an upstream battle each and every day. This ceaseless fight can drain the energy and enthusiasm of even the most passionate lover of earth. The one thing that can sustain people who are so outnumbered, unpopular, and shunned, is their conviction that what they are saying is the truth. No one wants the dismal analysis of the industrial world’s devastating impact on the viability of the earth’s ecosystems to be right. The picture that unfolds from an acceptance of the ecological facts is one in which the human population will wither, the land remains poisoned for centuries, abandoned cities become little more than sources for recycling materials that can no longer be manufactured, and predictable climate is a thing of the past removing food security from food harvests. No one wants this. The people, like myself, who insist on talking about it are doing so because we have come to believe this is the most probable truth.

Truth is more important than utility by my way of thinking. It might be easier to get through the day believing self-driving cars and Mars terra-forming are just around the corner, but it does nothing to help stop the juggernaut that is poisoning the air, water and land on which all future life depends.

This then is our next boulder of simplicity: we need to value truth above utility.

We are better off staying with the original pain of our opposing values than letting them drive us into the blind alleys of cognitive dissonance. Only in this way can we avoid the allure of the Pied Pipers, the ones external to us and the ones we have internalized, as they pipe temptations designed to exploit our gullibility.

Boulders of Simplicity

“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, A Sand County Almanac

“But, Master Gotama, in what way is there the preservation of the truth? How does one preserve the truth?
…if he accepts a view as a result of pondering it, he preserves the truth when he says, ‘The view I accept as a result of pondering it is thus’; but he does not yet come to the definitive conclusion: ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’ In this way, Bharadvaja, there is preservation of truth; in this way he preserves the truth; in this way we describe the preservation of truth.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Cannon

 

Last week completed the investigation of gentleness started in August when we took note that kindness is dangerous. The arc likely did not cover the ground expected but there is a reason for that. I would ask again, along with the authors of On Kindness, “What is it about our times that makes kindness seem so dangerous?” To be gentle includes use of the surgical knife instead of a rusty sword when surgery is the only hope for saving the patient. A person who can be gentle is not spineless, that comes from a popular misconception around what compassion is all about. No one escapes the family dynamics that make us who we are unscathed. How we relate to those things powerfully determines the degree of gentleness we can bring to bear when it really counts.

Another characteristic of a contemplative life, in addition to gentleness, is simplicity.

Cognitive simplicity is where we need to start. Leopold’s Land Ethic is a crowning achievement of where we want to end up. In 25 words he captures something every heart recognizes is profoundly true; something that applies always and everywhere, at least on some level, anytime we choose to judge the justice of human activities. It is not meant as an absolute law that would ban all human use of the land, yet it gives an ethical guidance to its use that we can rely on. It has roots justifying its position that run deeply into the inherent nature of our molecular world. It is not just an ethic someone has chosen, though it is that too, for it is also an ethic that has made itself known to us as we have increased our understanding of ecology.

The cognitive simplicity that complements a contemplative life is not found in the economy of words; though beautifully expressed that is not the essence of what is important about these types of things. It is the simplicity of the insight which captures us with its almost child-like obviousness. This obviousness, this simplicity, is just that which we find it all to easy to lose track of in our very complex and sophisticated conversations around production, pollution, war and jobs.

Cognitive simplicity is where we need to start. An individual is able to resist the allures of group-think to the degree they are firm in their foundation. This means they hold to simple truths felt deeply, instead of overly sophisticated conceptual constructions which can more easily lend themselves to sophistry. There is a strength of conviction we can find that arises from our emotional nature with its intimate connections to our physiology which grounds us without making us fanatics.

Here is an example of a cognitive simplicity that has stuck in my craw since first learning about it as a child. The numbers differ but the ratio remains and is what really matters. In this world it would take, it has been estimated, on the order of 175 billion dollars to alleviate abject poverty. In this world there are, it has been estimated, on the order of 250 trillion dollars held in private wealth. Yet decades roll by and the helter-skelter of hyper-capitalism can find no way to provide “for the least of these,” as the New Testament had it. Russell Brand points out that is equivalent to having 500 pounds in your pocket and a starving, hungry child in front of you asking for 40 pence and you saying “Oh no! Not on your life, its my money!” I think, very simply, that any world system that condones this type of behavior is profoundly flawed, mistaken and dangerous.

Such a judgment is so simple our academics laugh at the naivety involved. I don’t know. I’ve read hundreds of books about the political economy, thought about these things long and carefully, including all the things I have seen first hand and heard about among friends. In all that, far as I can tell, it actually does come back to being just that simple for me. Maybe it was my being raised in a culture based in Christianity but for whatever sociological, psychological and metaphysical reasons, in my heart of hearts I believe we should love one another enough to set the needs of the poor above the greeds of the rich.

Of all the Jesus stories and teachings that molded the western ethical view none has effected me more than the eschatological ethic. From Mathew 25 NIV:

“…take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ”

The centuries of western culture have been influenced by this Christian ideal. It has produced that stream of hospitals and orphanages and other good works dedicated to assisting the needs of the “least of these” in which humankind is able to find, as Mother Teresa often said, “Jesus in disguise.” Slavery and racism eventually fell before the weight of this simple ethic which turned the powers of hierarchy and patriarchy on their head. Though today it is popular to restrict our compassion to our own, our cultural roots belie such clever means of getting our collective conscience off the hook.

So for me this is a cognitive bolder of simplicity. It is a loadstone I have found extremely meaningful in understanding who and what I am. Looking carefully, I can say both that I have chose it freely and that it has chosen me. I have chosen to make such an ethical outlook my own, accept it as a value that is true for me. It has not always rested peacefully with me; I have struggled with it, fought it, and tried to deny it or replace it – all to better get along in the world as it actually is. In the end I chose to live with the pain of a world that so often fails to live up to its compassionate potential and, as far as it is in my power, to abide by my chosen belief all the same. In coming to make this choice, as wrestling with it illustrates, there is a sense in which something larger than my ego was involved. In this sense this value has enlisted me in its ranks. In this whole process of wrestling with what I consider right and wrong in the realm of societal relations, my role has been as much a passive ‘victim’ of overwhelming emotions of compassion as it has been an active disciple of the same. I recognize that there is something about the way my ‘heart’ is constructed that insists on simple truths like this. They make up the boulders of my consciousness itself, as it were. In the simplicity I am embodied as the wisdom of age confirms the understanding of the child.

Sitting on my bolder I am unshakable not only because I have made a choice among equally real potential options. The existentialists can miss this point, that just choosing alone may not be sufficient to supply our absurd life with meaning. Sitting on my bolder I experience those parts of my being that are unshakable. This experience has its origin as much in the world as it has revealed itself to me as in my choosing to ‘believe’ it. The world and I have come to this point, together. It holds it in its mountains, sings of it in its rivers, whispers of it in its soil. There is another power among us humans. We all know how the powers of greed, violently corrupt lusts, and stupidity have turned the pages of history. Still, there is another power among us humans. In every generation the joyful, awe inspiring, passionate dedication of true love among couples has always been a part of what we are. I live in America; I can almost hear the long centuries of Native American lovers in the woods, dancers in the valleys, families in the plains, honoring their elders long past who are now resting in their burial grounds just as I honor mine. This is just as real as the corporate boardrooms on our lands today.

What this love teaches us is real too. We hurt ourselves when we lack the courage to admit these parts of ourselves into consciousness, into our public conversations, into our institutions. We could talk about compassion explicitly, it is not beyond our capacity. Instead we are choosing to amp the hate and vitriol of our public discourse, with rising acts of hate crimes and attacks on women and children the predictable outcome.

For centuries, millennia, our forefathers and foremothers who knew the sweet taste of love held it close, however darkness may have tried to assault it. Everyone who has ever loved has nurtured the same flame of hope, delicate and yet invincible, that someday all people would be able to enjoy its blessings, to enjoy what it is like to be in love. If we could, we dare to whisper in our deepest heart wish, there would be no miserable poor suffering unspeakably just beyond our feast table. The feast cannot be complete until all have been invited.

‘Oh my god,’ I can hear some readers crying and gnashing their teeth, ‘this is communism!’ Well far as I can tell that is just how it goes. Consciousness is inherently individual, like a dot amidst space-time. Each individual consciousness records such unique paths through time and space there is no way we should expect concord. Whether or not that allows us to retain respect for one another depends solely on our attitudes towards the views we hold. We can hold them deep enough to die for, inspired to fight to protect what we honor and yet never need to cross that line that separates intellectual and emotional honest and integrity from sham and lies. We can learn, as Buddha taught, to hold who and what we are without insisting we are certain in what we know and that all others must be wrong.

Ethics is one bolder, one simplicity on which it is possible for each of us to arrive at our own convictions. Like a mandala, there are other boulders set equidistant from this one. I do not expect, nor insist, that the universe conform to my ethical choice. In fact, from what I have experienced first hand that certainly does not seem to be the case. Not in any straightforward fashion anyway. I have known of far too many cases in which bad things happen to good people. The ethical values are what I work to promote, want to see more of, seek to nurture when I find them and generally molds how I understand what it means to be a human being.

Another foundational simplicity is associated with my study of physics, chemistry, and biology in which the roles of atoms and molecules is front and center. This is how it all works; the explanatory power of the relatively simple atomic hypothesis is amazing.

Energy follows a one way path, creating the arrow of time. Materials cycle, the waste of one process being input into another always and everywhere. These are the ecological cognitions from which all the rest of my ecological outlook flows. They are simple, incontrovertible. To this I have added my study and experience and arrived at my view.

Contemplative simplicity is not the same as fanatical clinging to conceptual content. It is much more visceral than that. I have arrived at my view. That is not the same as saying it is the only one or that all other views are necessarily incorrect. I cannot know that with any certainty, all I can know is that I have arrived at my view. I know how I got here, how slow and careful contemplation has been open to where the deep molding of my evolution has worked its way with me and left me who and what I am.

The simplicity of our cognitive boulders serve us well when we find ourselves on the battlefield performing open soul surgery in triage tents. It does no good to panic in a crisis. Grounded in simplicity there just might be a chance to do some real good.

Time to Tell a Tale

“When our time is in the dark confusion of Golgotha one need be only a degree or two off course, left or right, and one is kneeling before a thief.”
Insearch: Psychology and Religion, James Hillman

 

The election process in the United States has been a reflection of acrimonious will across the political spectrum. Kindness and respect are out of fashion; our higher impulses are all suspect. By constellating the fear of a very uncertain future, both campaigns left their people feeling as if the end of the world as we know it was coming if the other party won the election. Regardless of how the election’s transitional days play out it is safe to assume that about half the country is going into an emotional tailspin. Fear places a cold hand around the throat, chills the heart, and constricts the vision of tomorrow’s potential to a narrow band of unwelcome outcomes. For the losers this great anxiety eats away at their sense of security, but the winners are not wholly immune to the tenor of our times.

Back in March when the Academy Awards featured a performance by the sexually abused I wrote about the Spotlight on Rage involved. Perhaps the movie treatment of abuse in the Catholic church prepared us for this election season featuring, for the first time in history, sexual abuse. Hours of talking heads took up the subject, some sincere, others not so much. Just here is another well of fear and pain left in the wake of these historic elections: the trauma among survivors triggered by all the lose talk.

Imagine, now, what fear has grown in the minds of our children as they have watched all this unfold. How do you think it feels for them when they hear talk about sexual attacks on defenseless women and children? This from an adult generation handing them a world burning up its breadbaskets and melting down its ice caps.

Remaining mindful of ecology, it is hard not to see parallels between how we abuse people and the way we abuse the earth. In the enraged, abused child we are looking into the eyes of ecological blowback. This child has no respect for the two-faced authoritarian dark father figure or the scapegoat sacrificing dark mother figure. If depth psychology can be any guide to how these things play out when whole societies are caught up in them, we can expect the constellation of this child archetype to manipulate circumstances in such a way they allow the child to take its revenge; to show the father for a fool, an emperor with no clothes, and the mother for a bewitching mystagogue with a taste for blood.

So far only a few people are able to call a spade a spade, cut through the enchantments of non-ecological will-o-wisps, and offer realistic assessments of our existential circumstances. These are the voices insisting on spreading the most unpopular of messages; that we must place restrictions on the  madness threatening everything we hold dear. Mistaken notions of power have blinded modern societies from their total dependency on the functions of the biosphere in which they are embedded. In a parallel fashion modern notions of identity have blinded us to our psychological dependency on the non-dysfunctional family unit. We can walk all over the earth’s fragile ecosystems with Jack Boots, just as we walk all over poor and powerless people in our families, but it would be the height of folly to believe a day of reckoning would never come.

Last week I mentioned sometimes I think it is not the content of our beliefs that can lead us astray but the type of faith people are bringing to that content. We looked at the difference between literal and metaphorical readings of scriptures as one way of differentiating between those who are committed first to reality as it really is and those who are committed first to a story. It is a good model. It explains some important things for us to understand in our time of rising fanatic desperation.

Other times, however, I think it is the content of our stories that matters a great deal. It matters that the airwaves are filled with sensationalist treatment of such sensitive human issues as sexual abuse. The way we speak of these types of things matters a great deal. The actual content of our conversation determines much about its psychological impact. The rating chasing sensationalizing just adds to the cheapening of human dignity in our time. Where were the carefully crafted documentaries covering abuse issues with care and counseling advice? Where were the science programs sharing what neuroscience has learned about the effects of abuse on the nervous system and the biology of violence? Did we take this as an opportunity to have a national conversation, long overdue, to educate ourselves about these issues that run so deep within the human breast? Or were we satisfied just triggering the herd and getting its fear-fogged mind to accept another round of demagoguery?

Content matters as well when we turn our attention to existential questions of ultimate worth as found in our religions and philosophies. There are some tales designed to give an individual freedom, to guide them to the creativity and independence of thought that is their birthright. There are other tales, sadly, designed to enslave individuals. When an abused and hurt person turns to those tales for emotional and philosophical comfort, they become little more than the twice damned. In Hillman’s words, they end up “kneeling before a thief” who robs them of their very souls.

I would like to share with you an explosive truth in the most gentle way I know how, through the means of a story. Regular readers may well recall our discussion of overcoming childhood gullibility in the Parental Unkindness posts. This is not wholly unrelated. Don’t be too impressed that the unscrupulous can build such fine traps. Without the power of fear which deep time evolution bestowed on us within our biological inheritance, their tricks wouldn’t work at all. We do, however, have such an inheritance and as such their dark arts can cause real harm. As our grandparents used to say, it pays to keep one eye on the Devil lest he catch one unawares…

I invite you to read a telling of the ancient Sanskrit story The King and the Corpse.

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 their sacred stories and those who do not. The 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. The literal reading of virgin births and resurrections, walking on water and flying through the sky, ignores both the evidence of how the molecular world works as it presents itself to our senses and the fact that the same mythological images occur throughout all our human cultures throughout recorded history. To insist all the others but your own were demonic illusions is a paranoid view of creation.

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 the apple of the one god’s eye 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. 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.

Wasn’t it the Gospel of Thomas that quotes the Christ as saying the kingdom of god is spread out on the earth even now, but people do not see it?

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 ever cyclic 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. It is 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. We can relate what really happened and how we found within those experiences the meaning of what our sacred tales are all about. Or we can relate a particular sacred tale and force our experiences to conform to its plot and expectations. This is akin to the different ways of approaching the stories; the literalist values the revelation of the story above the revelation of their own lives, the metaphorically inclined think that is the height of folly.

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.

Morphing Stories

The pursuit of greed at the cost of destroyed ecosystems is not worth it. This is the simple truth global society has had to face since at least the 1970s when Limits to Growth was published. The ecological news captured the imagination of the world in that decade that saw the first Earth Day, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the rise of the environmental non-profits. Last week we looked at David Bowie’s song Five Years to get a sense of the emotional reaction that went along with the “terrible news.”

It is important to acknowledge the emotional factors inseparably linked to the ecological data. Since the 70s the trickle of terrible news has become a torrent. It has played a role in the social developments we have seen since that is hard to underestimate; we have been running away, terrified. The United States recoiled from Jimmy Carter’s sweater message from the Oval Office that it had an oil problem straight into Ronald Regan’s Great America. We then fascinated ourselves with the virtual reality of our high tech, frittering away precious years of opportunity, only to come around full circle and be talking in this election about making America great again.

Now, of course, it is late in the day. Another bit of evidence that this is true, to add to the mountain of it already gathered, came out last week from the United Nations. The State of Food and Agriculture 2016 Report studied the probable food crisis heading our way due to climate change and the need to reform our agricultural sector. Same reforms we knew we needed half a century ago.

The psychological price we pay for denying the ecological facts is a war on our children; taking their land is also taking their hearts. This is something that the Native American’s understood but was lost. Another bit of evidence that this is true, to add to the mountain of it already gathered, is Amanda Ripley’s How America Outlawed Adolescence report in November’s Atlantic. Remember the 16 year old girl thrown from her desk by the school police officer on the video that went viral? Amanda investigated. She found that 22 states have now passed laws that make predictable adolescent behavior illegal.

Running away we have run into a wall. Ecology is the black death of our times, tearing away our hope for the future and replacing it with a dark shroud. It is also like the Lisbon earthquake in that it has made us question our worth, our god, the power of evil and the power of good. These are religious questions.

Socially, it sometimes seems to me, there are two faces to religion. One face is the positive one in which the stories and symbolism nurture what is best in us and aid us in our difficult journey to maturity. Religion increases our compassion for one another. Western religious tradition, particularly in its Evangelical form, has earned a reputation for being there when a personal conversion experience takes place. More than a century ago William James wrote about these powerful, life changing psychological-spiritual encounters with conscience in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Group hysteria aside, the sacred has helped many, many people through very troubling times and brought true peace of mind and healing to some who were suffering in the deepest, darkest nights of the human soul. The angry atheists, in my opinion, do not give this aspect of religious life sufficient weight when they rightly condemn its dark side.

On the other hand, it is remarkable to me that the Evangelical population of the United States has thrown in with Donald Trump this election. They reason because the Supreme Court appointments are up for grabs and because he takes the pro-life stance, they have to vote for him. It is hard to imagine a less Christ-like character than the one portrayed throughout the many years The Apprentice was on the air. In my opinion this is a sign of seriously confused religious impulses.

This dark side is the second face religion shows a society. Then it is little more than a dangerous patriarchy, that thinks it owns women and children, writ large. The gods become little more than the final, ultimate stick by which to bully people. It is not called the bully pulpit for nothing. Threats of hell are the ultimate threats. What else could strike fear into the heart more than the idea that you will suffer physical and emotional torture for eternity? The very concept of hell is the most cruel invention the cognitive mind has ever conceived. As such it is the best barometer of someone’s compassion; who do they assign to hell? Hell is used to persuade people that the preacher’s bill of goods must be purchased, that the preacher’s intellectual philosophy must be adopted, that the preacher’s set of social and ethical opinions must be accepted as the final truth. Or else.

People acting from a place of fear do not make the best judgments.

Hell is also the image that captures the horror and pain of our suffering. Suffering seems to go on forever, that is one of its characteristics. The Buddhists have hells too. Each is described in graphic detail, providing plenty of images by which the emotions encountered along the contemplative path might be given flesh. Each and every life in these Buddhists hells is said to go on for eons, or multiples of. This is one of those mythic areas that seem so odd to Western sensibilities that are used to the island-earth universe only 4,000 years old. The point of the Eastern teachings, I think, is the same one about impermanence that is always the Buddhist observation. Each of those hell realm lives do come to an end; there is no eternal damnation. I think that defuses the stick the unscrupulous are using in their bully pulpits.

We are making a hell on earth. It is right in front of our eyes but we cannot see it because our fear shrouds our perceptions. It is not fear that is the problem, that is a survival signal. It is that we fear the wrong things. We fear images of the mythological imagination divorced from their intellectual and emotional moorings. Re-rooted the images can train fear and strengthen reason, but that requires the courage to walk into the hell our imaginations have conjured up. Don’t fear to face the gods acting like scarecrows. We gain this courage by trusting that whatever reality lies behind our hellish images, it is a reality we cannot ever be truly separated from. We fear ghosts. We do not fear poisoning our ground water. We are very confused.

Churches mark the coming and going of the stages of life. This is their role in our society. This remains true even today when most people are married and buried. Traditionally churches kept the village records of just such things. Why? Because this is where the reality of human lives takes place and this is the referent for all those sacred stories. The church graveyard teaches the human animal as much as the church altar. The stories are not there to point us to some far away place over the rainbow where things are more real and true than they are right here and now. No, the meaning of the stories is what counts. The meaning is carved into our flesh.

This being the case, when a culture’s stories fail them, when they are no longer able to capture the truth of the lives being lived, people are without guidance. A search for meaning becomes desperate as a sickness of soul spreads. As this process progresses the society’s stabilizing features weaken until a collapse of business as usual takes place. One could say that the search for a new story is taking place but, at least for me, that minimizes the experience. The way we experience this is by dissecting the previous story intellectually. It is exactly what we are doing right here. The fact that I find it easy to do this type of analysis of the Christian tradition’s cultural effects is itself a sign that the story is no longer speaking effectively to the needs of our time.

You have a chance to work directly with these stories that are morphing into something new in our times. It is not helpful to simply allow them to absorb your individuality; dehumanization through cult membership is not the goal. It is not helpful to simply ignore them as impractical concerns in a world of hard nosed business; they hold necessary ingredients of your individuality if it is to resist dehumanization through persuaders pushing fear buttons. To join the work of dreaming these stories forward you will need to engage them in whatever fashion you can in order for them to speak meaningfully in your own life.

Engaging the search for the very best understanding of ourselves in a time of ecological crisis cannot ignore what we have learned about the role of reason and mythology in the workings of the human soul. This is a time of science. Neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology are profoundly relevant to the crisis we find ourselves in. The apocalyptic symbols are constellated in the collective mind just now because what we are involved in while wrestling with our ecological crisis is also a spiritual crisis.

A spiritual crisis is one in which the inversion of our mythological tales overcomes their upright meanings, as it were. Put plainly – we are sorely tempted to write ourselves into the role of the villain. We are sorely tempted to blame our rabid exploitation of fossil fuel’s highly concentrated energy source on our moral nature having an irredeemable flaw, instead of accepting it as an inevitable outcome for an animal as clever and curious as ourselves. Yeast overshoot given the chance. Humans do to. The question is to what degree will we be able to incorporate this new knowledge about ourselves? Will it make us wiser or will it destroy us? The moral position is a non-starter: judge and jury has passed sentence as soon as the premises are accepted. A natural position grounded in ecology holds out the hope that we might retain our compassion under pressure.