Coming to Terms

“In a future that is as unavoidable as it will be unwelcome, survival and sanity may depend upon our ability to cherish rather than to disparage the concept of human dignity. My purpose in writing this book has been to enhance that ability by providing a clear understanding of the ecological context of human life.”
Overshoot, William Catton

 

I fear our ignorance more than our evil. In my experience evil is self-defeating, ignorance on the other hand, seems to know no bounds.

Contemplation is the art of penetrating thought that reworks previous understanding, mulling over something until insight comes forth from its gestation period. In Eastern traditions there is a set of practices designed to train the attention and increase the length of time the contemplative state can be retained. In these traditions value is placed on the depth of an insight, on how deeply it can be “felt.” The meditative position we see in statues of the Buddha with legs crossed and body upright allows stillness to develop and it has been found a still mind follows a still body, eventually. This meditative position is also one of the most grounded a human being can take, meaning in it can you can weather shocks, you can let energy pass through your emotional body into the earth on which you sit. If an insight arises that is so new and penetrating that it rocks your world, as we say, you can just breathe through it, watch it arise and eventually dissolve. Insight after insight, ignorance is diminished.

Without developing wisdom, diminishing ignorance, we go round and round in circles. Doing the same thing over and over again even though it doesn’t work is part of our craziness. Why? It has been suggested that more often than not decisions are made in ignorance of the relevant context in which they are being made. Consideration of the whole environment in which events occur is studied in what is known as systems theory. It is the study of complex systems; how they behave, what makes them tick and how they react to changes. Basically, the way towards not just knowledge but wisdom lies along the route of increasingly incorporating the environments of events in one’s contemplations. With the introduction of the environment we have entered the field of ecology.

We are only able to think along pathways we have terms for; concepts must exist for at least the structural aspect of the act of thinking. Every subject of study has its own vocabulary, using labels to communicate the context of its understanding. In today’s post we are building up to an understanding of the key ecological concept of an environment’s carrying capacity. We will work our way towards this through a series of steps each illustrated by images worthy of our contemplation. Mass, energy and light are the fundamental steps that will lead us to this week’s larger view.

ecosystems_diagram_open-external-environment_01An ecosystem is a name for an organized unit, a logical level that is complete in that it includes all the components it needs to survive over the long term. Ecosystem models are created when a boundary is drawn around the functions of interest; a patch of garden, pond, forest or planet. As soon as boundaries are introduced a system is defined. Ecosystems are open systems which mean these models explicitly include interactions with their environment. There will be inputs, typically energy and outputs including waste heat and processed materials.

Since ecosystems model the earth’s biosphere it helps to have a clear internal reference of our planet’s position, to include the earth’s temporal and spatial environments when bringing it before the mind’s eye. In the early solar system orbiting dust grains collided and stuck together in a process of accretion that in approximately 10,000 years produced boulders and asteroids a kilometer wide. Over the next million years these objects continued to collide forming moon and mars sized objects. These baby planets crash into one another over tens of millions of years until there were just a few survivors, each in its own orbit. So far this is all standard stuff from a high school astronomy class but to begin to pierce the mist of time and absorb your ancestry in your bones it might help to contemplate two details of the process, seeing them as they might have unfolded; the formation of our moon and the arrival of water.

When the rocky inner planets form, the denser elements sink into their planetary cores. These iron and nickel cores support the less dense molten magma consisting of rocks rich in oxygen, silicon and such. Above the magma the planetary crust forms. Some 50 million years after the accretion began early earth collides with another baby planet with such titanic force that it melts the crust and sends vaporized rock orbiting our young planet. In this final major accretion event our moon was born. The vaporized rock collides and sticks until our companion is formed, roughly 25% as big as earth but huge on the horizon with an orbit only 10,000 miles away. The moon has been receding from the earth ever since. The moon, uniquely in our solar system, lacks an iron core since by the time its birth collision occurred these heavier elements had already sunk to the earth’s core. Only the magma rocks were ejected.

As the great gas giants of the outer solar system complete their formation they perturb the orbits of the meteors and asteroids. On earth the bombardment becomes extreme yet it also brings water, the essential element for life. Only objects far enough from the sun are able to contain water that is not boiled off, far enough away to form ice. Out between Mars and Jupiter today we can see one of these asteroids, 1-Ceres. At close to 1,000 kilometers across it is nearly round, a proper planetoid, but not very dense probably because it contains a large amount of water ice. The earth’s waters, covering 70% of the planet, could all have arrived here in collisions with just a few such asteroids. During contemplation picture in your mind’s eye the arrival of these bubbles of life giving water on our fiery, volcanic planet until a natural awe and gratitude arise. It is difficult to pierce the mist of time but we have a knowing, a type of intuition about what we are, as it were, built through a long chain of cause and effect. Our ancestors were titans.

the_blue_marble_nasaThe most famous photo of all time was taken December 7th, 1972 by the last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17. This picture of the earth as seen from the moon is profound on so many levels. Of interest right now is how absolutely self-contained our planet is materially. The mass of our planet was gathered ~4.5 billion years ago and aside from a few meteors here and there has not substantially changed its material content since. All life ever has had or will ever have to survive and thrive is here on the planet right now. Materials cycle. They are used over and over again without losing their ability to function. All materials have their circular paths like water as it moves from ocean to cloud to rain to river to ocean to cloud…

Materials cycle, energy does not. Energy is a one way flow which can be temporarily captured, diverted, used to build complexity and sustain life as anti-thermal dynamics yet inevitably, in total, will always drive towards an increase in entropy, towards a more dispersed, useless state. Energy cannot be reused. It can be transformed from one form to another, as we see in photosynthesis magically converting light into food, but every transformation will only proceed if there is a degradation from concentrated energy to more dispersed and dissipated.

Earth, our jewel in space, is continually bathed in the light of our sun, bathed by radiation about 10 percent ultraviolet, 45 percent visible and 45 percent infrared. This unceasing flow of energy provides the one way gradient on which the web of life weaves its majestic forms.

All the ecosystems on our planet depend on the energy received from the sun (aside from a few specialized ecosystems that use the energy of geothermal vents). These ecosystems structurally consist of the primary producers and the secondary consumers, the plants and the animals. The primary layer is able to fix sunlight for the manufacturing of food from inorganic materials; green plants, algae and water plants. This biotic component is called autotrophic, which means self-nourishing. The secondary layer is heterotrophic meaning other nourishing. Since heterotrophs are unable to create their own food they must acquire it by consuming the complex materials created by the autotrophs.

The secondary, consumer layer is usefully further divided into herbivores, carnivores, omnivores and saprovores. The herbivores eat only plants, carnivores feed on other animals, omnivores feed on both plants and animals and saprovores feed on decaying organic materials, detritus. Most people have encountered these terms before except perhaps the term saprovores, which is a touch ironic. Saprovores feed on decaying organic materials. Petroleum is decaying organic material. When humanity started its dependency on non-renewable fossil fuel energy sources it entered into a detritus ecosystem. These ecosystems are characterized by exuberant growth followed by a die-off crash. More about this as these posts proceed.

Today it is worth pausing with the saprovores a moment to emphasize the role of the compost heap in the larger scheme of things. When the complex biotic materials break down they do not “die” in any ultimate sense. There is no place cut off from the rest of the whole of Gaia in which the damned are cast off. There is only the compost heap, the recycling of every element in making way for new life to flourish and in its turn decay. Christian mythology has at times been understood to teach that there is a second death, one of the soul in hell above and beyond the death of the body. There is no such second death, the sun at midnight is ever the sun, and the dark humus of the compost heap is the farthest reaches of the truly existing.

The recognition of autotrophs and heterotrophs provides more than just a classification scheme. By following energy relationships through food webs it also uncovers the fundamental structure of earth’s ecosystems.

The primary trophic layer of green plants supports the herbivore layer which is known as the primary consumers. The carnivores that eat the primary consumers are known as the secondary consumers and finally in some ecosystems there are tertiary consumers dining on the secondary consumers. Each layer is able to utilize only about 10% of the energy transferred to it; about 10% of the energy is converted into biomass. This creates what is known as the energy pyramid with a large base of primary producers supporting increasingly smaller layers above it. For example in a simplified model a patch of field with 1,000 grams of wheat could support 100 mice as primary consumers. In the field 10 foxes could survive as secondary consumers on that many mice and those foxes could support 1 eagle as a tertiary consumer. All terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are structured in this energy pyramid form.

Another way to track energy through an ecosystem is to look at the respiration rate in relation to the total production of biomass. Any complex structure above absolute zero temperature requires, as Schrodinger has shown, a continual pumping out of the disorder to maintain its order. In ecosystems the complex biomass structure is maintained by the total community respiration which, we could say, pumps out the disorder. The ratio of total community respiration to total community biomass (R/B) is the maintenance to structure ratio, the thermodynamic ordering function. Nature might seek to maximize this ratio, a subject we will return to when our discussion takes up the dynamics of ecological succession.

We see there are finite quantities of material and a fixed flux of radiant energy on earth. Our planet is defined by these limitations. The thermodynamic energy laws give earth its characteristic dynamics, strictly delimiting what is and what is not possible. With these tools on our cognitive tool belt we are now in a position to begin to appreciate the concept of an environment’s carrying capacity.

The carrying capacity is the maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely. In population biology it is defined as the environment’s maximal load. Next week’s post will look at carrying capacity in more detail but I leave you with two ideas to ponder until then. For an environment to sustain a population indefinitely its material and energy needs must come from renewable sources and there cannot be significant damage to the organisms or their environment; negative impacts lower the carrying capacity. The second idea is that the carrying capacity of an environment can change over time due to changing conditions. Some of the many variables that directly affect an environment’s carrying capacity include; changes in the availability of food and water, or changes in the ability of the environment to process wastes, or changes in the availability of energy in a useable form. In today’s world all of these variables are changing in ways that are shrinking our planet’s carrying capacity. This is the larger, slower reality behind the ephemeral headlines.

Approaching Ecology

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses –
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three cows pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing flanks on the outcrop rock-heads –
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. – As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Robinson Jeffers

 

Today I want to talk about two factors I think are indispensable for an approach to the study of ecology that can bring not just knowledge but some desperately needed wisdom. One is a personal relationship with deep time. The other is the relationship between the biosphere and the planet and how that unfolds for us personally as the relationship between mind and body.

Ecology is the science that studies life in the context of the environments in which it is found. The combination has uncovered fascinating, paradigm changing insights into life, the universe and everything. Why did including the environment in our contemplations and investigations have such an outstanding impact on western thought? For that we will need to return to the roots of modern western ideas on a whirlwind tour.

The theology of the west has seen the natural world as little more than a stage scene, theatrical props supporting the real action and little more. The real action was seen as the human soul’s relationship with its transcendent creator, a creator beyond or outside the natural world. With the enlightenment the western mythology was further molded as we dared to dream of an unending ascent of man through the power of our science and technology. The enlightenment asserted that the human being reflected divine attributes in its ability to reason. Hence animals and women were accorded lesser status due to their weaker reasoning capacity than men. Mathematics was the queen of the sciences as we perceived ourselves to be ghosts in a clockwork universe governed by deterministic laws. Descartes drew the proper implications of this philosophy and asked just where exactly the invisible world of thought and emotion, vision and conjecture we immediately experience and the mindless, dumb, silent, mechanical universe touched one another. Charmingly, he suggested it was in the pineal gland that the immaterial and material universes interacted.

Soon after the scientific revolution of the enlightenment the earth was not the center of the universe, the ego was not the center of the psyche and Homo Sapiens were no longer the sole reason for the evolution of life. The worldview built on an unbridgeable gap between spirit and matter failed to provide meaningful understanding as the new data poured in. Everywhere we looked we encountered the need to take the environment in which the objects of our study existed into account; we needed to think in terms of systems instead of isolated abstractions.

Object + environment = system

The root of the evolutionary insight is that differential reproduction is a product of the ongoing interaction between the individual and the environment. All the bountiful diversity of life and the strength to endure through the deep time of billions of years comes directly through the interplay of the biosphere and the planet. Nothing exists apart from this interconnectedness. It is the relationship between life on the one hand, expressed as movement and awareness and the planet on the other in which mountains and oceans, forests and deserts provide the objects for life’s awareness and the landscapes for life’s movements.

This is fundamentally an expression of a pattern, of intelligence. The primary reality is the relationship. It is not possible to separate life and its environment. Mind and matter are abstractions which in the real world are not two things but one. The materialist cognitive science of our day confronts the uncanny proposition that physical nervous system tissue creates non-physical thoughts, what Francis Crick rightly called the Astonishing Hypothesis. The aspect of the so-called mind-body problem that strikes us as uncanny, from its first description by Descartes through to the Bayesian neural nets haunting the “thinking meat” of today, is an artifact of separating our abstractions in our own thinking and expecting reality to follow suit. It does not.

To see just how slippery the terms we often use unthinkingly can be, consider a simple amoeba. A single celled life form is about as simple of an example of life as can be found. Create a food gradient in a Petri dish with the food source at one end and allow time for the food molecules to disperse. Place that cell in an environment in which there is a food gradient and it will tend to move towards the food source. The seemingly random motion of the cell will form a tendency, a probability density, to move in one direction over the others. (I examine the amoeba and belief in more detail here)

There are mysteries here. We see a form of awareness of the environment, the data of the changing molecular concentrations of food being processed into actionable information and an exercising of choice, or will. Here in one of the simplest models of life conceivable a whole handful of terms are being used to expound our understanding but each term is a continuum; where is the exact demarcation of cell and environment in the “sensory” interface of molecular exchange happening at the surface membrane? Just when does the “sensory” data turn into information? Did the choice arise only for the cell or is it more of a programmed reaction to the environmental configuration so we would be more correct to say the will is in the environment?

With this last question we are approaching another way of understanding mind, awareness. By watching closely how information and data is actually formed and processed, the seemingly clear boundary we take for granted in western thought between mind and the environment gets fuzzy. This is part of what Gregory Bateson meant by an ‘ecology of mind.’ What might have sounded like poetic mysticism in this context takes on a type of scientific insight; one that values the unity found in the relationship between mind and its contents or life and planet more highly then the disunity an analysis into concepts provides.

While Descartes was able to doubt animals had any emotions or awareness worthy of the name, evolution and ecology as well as cognitive science discovers a single continuum of awareness running through all of life. It is a continuum that extends through, or somehow depends intimately on, the inanimate environment as well.

The basic, most fundamental insight of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. There is no part you can point to and say ah, this is where thinking occurs and nowhere else.

“The extraordinary patience of things!”
To begin to apprehend reality as it is, outside the narrow concerns of an individual life, is a form of worship. Your knowledge about the early stages of planetary evolution will not win you a raise and will only put you firmly in the geek camp as cocktail party banter. It does however give you a way to spend some time with a larger view of the universe; one that includes the un-human Jeffers refers to. Just to find it interesting to know how oxygen was first a poison or how the Pangaea supercontinent broke up is to show respect for the earth and the ways of planets. True there is no human interest here; no way to manipulate circumstances to avoid pain or acquire pleasure but this relief from those narrow concerns is a balm to the modern soul.

I have said before, in a sense life lives us. You are a child of deep time, a fruition of a life process that has been ongoing for billions of years, so long as to be unimaginable. We are able to capture the magnitude of these time spans conceptually rather easily but wisdom comes from deepening contemplations about them until they are felt in the body. The flow of blood is like the flow of rivers, the flow of signals in the nervous system is like the chemical communications of forest fungi tying together all the forest trees, the hard bones that give your body it’s structure are similar to the mountains and rocks, every breath you take is a participation with the atmosphere of rain and clouds – mythic metaphors, poetic analogies, scientific facts.

Gaia is the maiden of ecology. Scientifically the Gaia concept teaches how life shapes the non-living environment to create a context in which life can thrive. It is an intimate inter-penetration of organic and inorganic material flows, a dynamic summation of the biosphere plus planet. Mythologically the Gaia concept is a personalization of spaceship earth, the mother of us all, jewel in the vast darkness and emptiness of space. It is worth noting that Gaia, this earthly collection of patterned molecules, knitted together your body and Gaia brought forth your mind. In the mansions of awareness there are numerous experiences in which you get in touch with this reality in a visceral way. How could it be otherwise? In this family of experiences you are able to touch a profound rest, a snuggling into the breath body, or energy body, or heart body, or body-mind. This is the part of you that is a child of deep time and knows it.

Instead of a lonely outcast among the cold vacuums of space and blind, dumb planetary rocks we find ourselves at home on Gaia, our garden planet. We do not sense this if we are too caught up in the exclusively human concerns. The poet reminds us how to wake up from that dream:

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Ecology teaches us what we are. It teaches what Jeffers tried to communicate with the term he coined, inhumanism. It is not pro-human or anti-human but outside this framework entirely. The Wikipedia entry for Jeffers puts it well, “the belief that mankind is too self-centered and too indifferent to the ‘astonishing beauty of things.’ Jeffers articulated that inhumanism symbolized humans’ inability to “uncenter” themselves… [a] recognition of the trans-human magnificence.” One perhaps non-intuitive result of inhumanism is that it encourages one to look on the wisdom and folly of the human race with a more kindly eye. The distance between the street urchin and the captain of industry does not seem so large nor the morality of our quickly passing societies quite so inflexible.

These are the ideas that provide what I think are the proper contexts to approach studying the sciences of ecology. We should approach them with a type of humility that is willing to see beyond our anthropomorphism.

 

Secular Guilt

“Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere between 2012 and 2013 grew at their fastest rate since 1984… reached 396 parts per million (ppm) in 2013.”
BBC ‘Greenhouse gas levels rising at fastest rate since 1984

 

Weeks like this depress me. The worldwide demonstrations against carbon pollution on the eve of the UN conference on climate change toy with my deepest beliefs. While I would like to hope this might lead to something substantial, well, it’s hard to see the entire spectacle as anything but farce. Do you know how long we have been having meetings and talking? All the sincere, and not so sincere, attempts at slowing down business as usual so far have got us this headline at the top of this post. The article quotes Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, “The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin shows that, far from falling, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years.” In other words, we have not even leveled off the production of these toxic emissions, let alone begun the deep cuts those who study the science say are required.

I applaud the attempt to do something about the ecological crises and believe that for many involved it will prove to be powerful medicine; taking action in the face of the horrors beats apathy. What I can no longer believe in is that even if by some miracle the world really did start cutting our global carbon emissions substantially it will make all that much difference to the near term climate chaos in store. By my way of thinking so many ecological blow backs are already baked in right now the best we can realistically hope for is to lighten the load on generations yet to come. This point of view requires familiarity with the science of ecology. It is in this field that there is evidence that the human race is in overshoot and that the maintenance cost of our social complexity has exceeded the benefits we are able to derive from that complexity. It is in these sciences that we discover the true character and cost of pollution by examining it in light of the second law of thermodynamics.

More personally, it is in ecology that I find relief for my depression. Ecological thinking allows me to set aside all my only-anthropomorphic concerns in recognition that the mystery of life and planet are vast and grand. Before the raw IS-ness of “nature” spinning galaxies and spider webs I remember a more basic part of myself, a deep time self. Regardless of what fate might await us humans in times to come, the breadth and diversity of evolving life is majestic, like a dream. Even if we were to go extinct in some future year, it would not change the glory we can see in the flight of an eagle, the howl of a wolf, the jumping of the dolphins or all the rest of the exuberance of life as it is actually lived outside our human made environments.

I am depressed from a sense of missed opportunity, as if things could have turned out differently if we had made other choices. No doubt they would have but that is not what happened. Together these two interpretations of events depresses, it brings a great sadness. This sense of missed opportunity, I submit, is eating away at the heart of modern cultures.

It was with the beginnings of the industrial revolution and all the subsequent wonders of science and engineering that the human race for the first time had a chance to feed, clothe and educate everyone on earth. Instead we turned our production to the pursuit of individual wealth maximization, greed. The bloated bellies of the malnourished haunt the dreamers in the land of obesity. I believe that at some level, collectively a sense of guilt festers. It is the same story when talking about the sixth extinction event, the one happening right now because of our ways of life.

All these things have left us with a poisoned image of what it is to be a human being. As a culture we seem to have declared ourselves guilty as charged and are pursuing the death sentence.

Cause and effect rules this universe. Sorry and sentiment do not change these things one iota. The climate we are experiencing today – the wildfires, extreme storms, warmed oceans, melting ice caps, methane releases and all the rest – is the result of the pollution we added to the earth about 40 years ago. Since then we humans have been on a binge of unprecedented polluting behaviors. Those chickens are coming home to roost and to put it simply, there is not a damn thing we can do about it. Little wonder so few people are capable of looking at the reality of our situation. Those that do ask themselves just what is this heart of darkness within humankind that has lead us down this path? Little wonder too that among those who do have the courage to start to look deeply into these things many conclude the human species is a parasite and that all life on earth would be better off if we were to go extinct.

I cannot help but wonder if in some shadowy way our collective mind has reached the same conclusion. We sure seem hell bent on trying to make that particular extinction happen. Having lost our compassion for others we find ourselves without morals, standing naked in the desert of the real without a scrap of dignity left. We have a long way to journey to get home again and the path will be steep and jagged, none will escape getting bloodied. Awareness can pierce the veil of the guardians of the threshold and deliver one into the pure land of our true being, which has never changed and never will. Simple being is holy, in the heart of hearts there is a purity of the human beyond the reach of the stains but how can this insight possibly be sustained if we continue to assault our young, kill our friends and eat our future?

The Dali Lama often points out, “What was made by the human mind, can be unmade by the human mind.” Good news and bad. First the bad; our minds have a tendency toward hatred, anger, fear and pride although love, joy and compassion are just as real as well. The good news is that a not insubstantial degree of choice is within our power, we can cultivate the traits of the mind we choose and let wither those we do not. What the western cultures have forgotten is that this is a serious work, effort is required and those that succeed at it are a boon to the society.

In the west our forms of industrialized science led us to believe the destiny of humankind was to explore outer space. Who among us did not grow up strongly believing that our species was destined for the stars? All the other cultures of the world throughout history, that have not been industrialized, teach that the destiny of man is to explore the inner space of the mind, not the outer space of the stars. Those cultures had their shamans, meditators, spirit visions, initiations, sacred use of psychedelics and a whole host of similar forms. There are some today that dismiss all those older forms as just so much superstition but I agree with the other camp that see in them a type of science, at least as  much science as there can be for dealing with something as mysterious as the utmost depths of conscious human experience. Having made a Faustian bargain with the oily, black blood of the earth we should not be too surprised to be so completely disappointed in its feverish dreams of conquering the universe. The devil is not merciful to those he dupes, as John Michael Greer once remarked. Blind to the value of inner space we were seduced by the cold vacuum of outer space into believing the lie that somehow we would transcend all the painful limitations life on a single planet entails. Now as the 21st century dawns and there are no colonies on the moon, no mining of mars, no jet packs and all the rest, it has become obvious that outer space does not provide an endless source of resources or an endless sink for our pollutions. This creates a profound disappointment, as if the whole justification for the cruelties of the moderns was taken away right alongside the hope and reason for its existence. When this disappointment joins the collective guilt spoke of above it produces a real witch’s brew. What of our culture will survive the exorcists’ fire by which this Faustian arrangement can be undone?

The modern industrial sciences have provided a unique gift and we should be deeply grateful to all the men and women who worked so hard to bring us its discoveries. We understand so much more today about how the whole of the outer world works, how the universe works, than we did 500 years ago as to be almost unbelievable. It is as if we have become another species all together in the realm of knowledge. As incredible as this is, of more value than the contents of our science is the context, the discovery of the scientific method itself.  The challenge now is to listen to the science when it is saying something we do not want to hear.

It will do us no good to deny the reality of the planetary situation either collectively or as individuals. Since the collective is just the sum of the individuals, it stands to reason that the key to any effective action, skillful action, in the face of the current difficulties lies within the realm of the individual. Within the critique’s vision are the archetypal forces that can shift the center of gravity of a person’s psychological life out of the mindset that causes and sustains the ecological crises. What this means for the bigger picture is hard to say but as one of my teachers has remarked, “at the least there will be one less desperate, crazy person on the planet spewing their anger and hatred about, hurting others.”

Eastern philosophy includes the idea that there may have been countless earths, countless universes over endless time. If this human existence on this earth is to become extinct, in this larger view nothing much will have really happened. The Hubble telescope tells many people the same thing. In the West such ideas have opened up an abyss of nihilism in which nothing really matters so we might as well party on our children’s inheritance. We are pissed we have to die, we are pissed we get sick and old. We feel entitled to fix and change all these things as the heirs of the enlightenment and if they cannot be fixed, as has now become obvious a few centuries since the scientific revolution, then to hell with it all. Somehow we need to mature a little, just a little, to see that although everything is impermanent, this just makes the here and now more precious. If we can manage that, even this nightmare time is bursting with opportunities for us to say, from the very depths of our hearts, thank you and yes. Thank you and yes to existence exactly as it is.

Saying yes to existence, existence just exactly as it is, is the great secret of spiritual enlightenment. It is the great grace. It is the final attainment. It is the fruit of the simple things of life, the gift waiting on the breath.

As a global community we are very good talking about what we should do about the ecological crises but not so effective when it comes to actually doing anything substantial about it. Is this just another example of the general cussedness of humankind or might there be other factors at work? Are we to blame for the way in which ignorant actions in the past have created the present?  Ecology teaches that there has been precedent for the predicament we find ourselves in and that we are not as unique as a species as we might like to believe. Both the disappointment and the guilt might very well be misplaced. We will start the development of our ecological understanding with next week’s post.

More – Better – Faster

“The Most Radical thing any of us can do at this time
is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.”
Joanna Macy

There is so much suffering in the world, how can you not care? When you do care, empathy will break your heart. You will not be happy. It will seem a sin to be happy in the face of the knowledge lodged in your breast like a cannonball. Staying with the uncomfortable, it becomes even more so. Not only is there so much suffering but there is very, very little you can do about it. Very little you will be able to change so that the suffering is diminished even for just a few sentient beings, even for just a little time, even just a little bit.

It is equally true that there is so much wonderful in the world, how can you not care? When you do care, joy will overflow your heart. You will be happy for every other being that has ever been happy, in any way. It will seem a sin to be depressed in the face of the knowledge lodged in your breast like a flower. Not only is there so much wonder in the world but there is very, very little you can do about it. Very little you will be able to change so that the happiness is darkened for sentient beings, maybe for a few, maybe for a little time, maybe just a little bit.

Life includes suffering. It also is extremely precious and touched by beauty. Holding both of these at the same time is just one of many things that seem difficult, if not impossible for the conceptual mind, yet we do it naturally everyday. Perhaps we can say we understand this core characteristic of life with the heart-mind. With the part of us that breathes and feels along side our thinking.

What I am talking about is realistic; it seeks to know reality as it actually is without the illusions and delusions that blind us in ignorance. Among the most grievous blind-spots of our current worldview is failing to see the value of the natural world, our planetary environment, and our place in it. In our ignorance we have sewn seeds of destruction. Science teaches that causes invariably have effects. That being the case, running away into an ’empire of illusion’ will only lead to more bad ju ju.

On the other hand, it is realistically possible to make things a bit better. Nothing like a utopia or other fantasy lands; just better, a little. The past shows it is possible to have alternative values then those presently in the ascendancy in our culture. If we choose to again reward compassionate action above self aggrandizement, the sorrows of the coming times will be greatly lessened. The protector plays an honorable role. As things continue to go sideways perhaps they will be valued even more then a captain of industry. It is a worthy hope, worth working for.

What if humankind will never go to the stars? What if earth life is all there is and we humans are the only self aware life form in our galaxy? What if there is no escape, if death is just pure embodied consciousness and we all come back to taste the fruits we have sewn? “For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depend on it.” Ms. Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass mentions the missing key; that our spiritual life depends on the land. In one stroke this insight moves beyond the duality of the Cartesian splitting of mind and matter into a whole new depth about what it means to be alive right here, right now.

Earth is where we experience all our tears and joys. On this one planet we share with every other sentient being we have ever known anything about, it is undeniable that every experience of living includes some sunshine and some rain, some joy and some pain. Astonishingly, even the Nazi gas chambers were not able to stop the young from falling madly in love when the soldiers came home.  All of history’s torture chambers, pedophiles, rapists and killers are unable to stop the laughter of a mother and father with their child, a child with friends, old folks gathering around the family table or any of the other countless millions of expressions of caring and love and joy, happening right now, all over the world. This very instant the devils are dying from a thousand-million strokes of laughter.

Yet are there not a thousand-million tears as well, right now, this very instant?

I believe it is most probable that a century or two from now the human population will have shrunk considerably from the 7+ billion alive today. The coming decades promise to be bitter ones, with an increase in suffering all around.

I believe in the long descent, centuries of undoing as history again escorts human beings through the collapse of a civilization. This time the civilization in question is world wide and has the unique characteristic of having powered itself with hydrocarbons. Acting like a mechanical lever these fuels have magnified our reach. The extractive industries in particular, and the footprint of all of us generally, is now of a size out of all proportion to our surroundings. Instead of homo sapien we have become a prosthetically enhanced new species, Homo Colossus.  It is obvious but needs to be said; that which is not sustainable will not be sustained. This new type is not long for this earth.

These projections about the course of the near future are hardly mainstream. Those who argue with the thesis are buoyed by a cheap optimism nurtured in the corporate culture of the industrial nations. No one wants to hang out with a gloomy Gus and gee, just look at all these neat things to buy and do, how could anyone be anything but ecstatic? Life got you down? Perfect: we have Prozac, Disneyland, 500 channels, slick magazines, pornography on demand, fast cars, fashionable clothes, bright city lights, celebrity diets and gossip, movies and movie stars, tomatoes in the wintertime and don’t look now but it there just might be another SALE on! Put on a non-happy face and it will not be long before someone suggests you need counseling, drugs, an affair – anything to fix the pathos. We have indeed been ‘Bright-Sided‘ by the pushers of the more-better-faster religion of our times.

It leaves us Ill prepared when the day comes, as it must, when the tides turn less cheerful. In the West we have inherited from our so-called enlightenment an unfailing belief in progress. For the last few centuries that hope has guided the struggling lives of people all over the world. History, it was believed, had a point; time proceeds in a linear fashion leading to us, the highest pinnacle of earth’s history and yet not the highest it will ever reach because tomorrow will be even better. It is taking a long time for the tide to life all boats but the boats are coming up.

For a materialist culture that cannot seem to find a way to place any value on clean water and air, unpolluted food or stewarding our topsoil for our progeny, we sure are convinced we are not blinded about this either, this central conviction of our times, this belief in secular progress. With all the fanaticism of a fundamentalist we hang on to “growth is good, growth at all costs” even as the complex systems of our societies and environments unravel all around us.

Did you catch the trick? See the slight of mind in the persuader’s rhetorical flourish? More-Better-Faster. They hide better in the middle of more and faster, as if it belonged there. As conscious beings we all want what is better, seeking it is the way towards a meaningful life. Nothing wrong here. It is the company it keeps that is suspect. Many thinkers in the past have insisted that the better human life is to be found not in acquiring more but in desiring less, not in going ever faster but in slowing down and noticing the moment. No wonder such heresies are so swiftly scorned. The whole house of cards would come tumbling down if the economies of the world were to all get smaller and go slower. Panic!

It is very probable that in our one-sided, obsessive pursuit of better, as defined in the materialist way, we have wove ourselves into a cognitive delusion. This is a powerful delusion made all the more so as it is shared collectively. It is actually very difficult to think along any other lines. Without growth, the economists ask, where will the money come from to pay back loans? Where, caring parents ask, will the chance for my children to have a better life come from? These are valid concerns, real in the context of the systems we have created. This does not change the fact that they could still be delusional, out of touch with the reality of our finite planet, our single home.

I started by pointing out the paradox at the very heart of human life; the awareness of both glory and suffering. Perhaps, just perhaps, there are better ways to live that do not couple themselves to anything like the concepts of more and faster as we understand them in our times. It is possible that the better life has more to do with relationships, intellectual, physical and spiritual, then it does with more stuff. It is possible that the better is known by those who have the time to appreciate the good things of life, refusing to run around harried and tiered, desperately chasing the Joneses.

At this stage of collapse most of us remain involved in the Homo Colossus systems for putting food on our tables, it is an inescapable part of our here and now. Dedicated practice to contemplative science provides a way to live that supports moving beyond the meaningless business as usual habits that are so toxic in our culture. If your vision into the ecological crises is insisting that your life reflect alternative values, then a meditation discipline provides a way to walk the talk. This is a daily practice providing an alternative to both extremes of seeing the only meaningful responses to the ecological crises in protests or in retreats from the world.

My thesis is that despair, while it might seem warranted, is an important place to visit but a damaging place to live. My thesis is that one does not need to sacrifice intellectual integrity, nor deny the gloomy knowledge, to find a personal way through the dark woods to a golden dawn, through the horrifying facts to another set of facts equally real and equally important to experience which leads to happiness. These alternate facts concern a) what it is to be human, a child of the cosmos and evolution’s long creativity and b) the depth of meaning to be found in the opportunity to serve other sentient beings (human and otherwise) through offering aid to the animate and inanimate world that is right outside your door.

It seems obvious that life has a lot more to do with this question of happiness and suffering then with more faster. It seems obvious that kindness and compassion, in spite of their current unpopularity, are equally valid guides for how to be human as those currently on our pedestals; greed, selfishness and getting ahead. I think a lot of people are noticing the same thing and it is giving our culture a serious case of suicidal depression. We will start to take a look at where it comes from and how it manifests itself next week.

Open Soul Surgery

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast…a part time crusader, a half hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore forests, climb mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for awhile and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
Edward Abbey

 

Have you heard the one about humanity’s near term extinction, NTE? It’s all over the parts of the blog-o-sphere that concerns itself with the current ecological crises. It can really take one on a roller coaster of emotions. Or what about the one about how the decades of treating the ocean as a garbage can is removing the fish that countless millions depend on to survive? Or the real knee slapper about the kinds of world we are working real hard to create for our progeny; the one with sea levels rising, droughts in the bread baskets and all the rest of the wicked confluence of problems treating our atmosphere as an aerial sewer are sewing into the future of the planet we share.

Eventually the human comedy of errors is just not all that funny anymore. Then watch out. The whole house of cards can come tumbling down faster than you can say Limits to Growth. There is a real rabbit hole here, a real red pill – blue pill kind of thing going on. There was a saying in the ol’ 60s that ‘we would open no mind before its time’ but here in the new millennium it seems all kinds of minds and hearts are running headlong into this new ‘door of perception.’ This door is polluted, black, the guardians on this threshold are eating people alive.

I think there is a need to develop skillful means for dealing with the deep anger and hate that accompanies learning about the ecological crises. This is the best Rx I can offer, my two cents. This blog is going to range over all kinds of territory, seems best to include it right at the get-go.

The meaning of the secular society the western nations have created weaves itself around a promise of material fulfillment. The costs to the environment and the psychological health of its members have been, for the most part, seen as justified. The food security, advanced health care, entertainments and the whole host of status symbols have joined the galleries and theaters, museums and universities to deliver an abundance unprecedented in all of history. The PR of the day never tires of singing this same old song and we listen, not because we are fools or wicked but because it has been true – at least for many. But now there are dark clouds on the horizon and no-one who gives it any serious thought at all really believes things can continue as they are for another century. There simply is not enough planet earth to go around; not enough water, not enough good farm soil, not enough fish in the ocean, minerals in the ground, not enough good will for the  crowded conditions. Business as usual is a car screaming towards a brick wall – and we know it.

Once meaning is drained out of a society its members become susceptible to the types of disease Carl Jung called a loss of soul. It is as if the heart sickens and the world becomes full of cardboard people playing out selfish and deadly charades, as if the very food and water and work by which simple survival is obtained have become poison. In less poetic terms suicidal depression, anarchist rage, self-abuses from cutting to anorexia and the senseless violence of kids shooting kids are among the prices being paid for the moral bankruptcy of our times.

There might have been a time, a few decades back, when one could have asserted all was well, that the rising tide was bound to life all boats eventually, that the acceleration of the resource-to-waste industrial cycle was an unvarnished good for mankind. Though there is certainly no lack of the hawkers of the same lines today, their screed is sounding hollow. Look around, we are in the midst of the twilight of our idols, ringing louder than ever across cyberspace and into every living room; from the browser to the TV, from the smart phone to the tablet, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the clarion call.

So what is an individual to do once their heart is caught in the grinding of these wheels of our times? That is the $10,000 question isn’t it?

I do not think there are any pat answers, nothing to be said or done that will work for everyone. Each of us as individuals will need to grope our way along the rough path. Each of us brings our own characteristic pains and hopes born of all the experiences we have endured and the individual ways we have processed them into the identity we are today. There are a few guideposts though, a few archetypal forces that all of us on this journey might encounter which gives us something to talk about. In talking who knows, perhaps a piece here and there might resonate, might even open a little space in the constricted halls of horror and give the reader a little breathing room just when it is needed most.

Disillusionment with the world is the first step on the mythical hero’s journey. No wonder the experience of the pain of the ecological crises seems to be so overwhelming; it is a sharing in the collective consciousness of the whole species. Individuals tuning into these concerns are touching upon the great archetypal forces of the unconscious mind with all their power and perversity. It helps to recognize such experiences for what they are; a call to wake up, a call to courage, a call to change. Framed in this way your experience is no longer an isolated disease but an incarnation of the very problem of your generation. Instead of an isolated individual with symptoms you can learn to see yourself as an embodiment of life’s self-awareness itself unfolding in you in a unique way. With a graceful surrender, the true nature of things becomes more evident. In a very real way life lives us, we are servants of powers and forces far beyond what we are able to capture in our conceptual nets, but we are able to feel them, experience them in our bodies.

Where is the courage to take the journey going to come from? Where is the energy source when the burdens are crushingly heavy and the depressions do not go away? This is indeed a Gordian knot and unraveling it is a process that a few paragraphs would never be able to capture. There are signs posts on the path though and they are worth sharing.

The first relates to what was said about surrendering to the truth that life is a whole lot bigger than just you and I. Why do you care? Why do you care enough to hurt? Spending time with this question uncovers a wound that is so sensitive we are almost incapable of sensing its actual depths. In our heart of hearts, in the very foundation of our being there is a gratitude for being alive. The simple gift of each and every breath bringing awareness through the gates of the senses and the mind swirls energy within us like the joyful abandon we see in a child at play. Over the years our bodies have hardened around this sensitive core of our being, creating the character armor that has become our prison. The reason you hurt is because you care so much, the core is still there. Learning to touch it, to spend time sensing it without lots of thoughts about it can become like sitting before a welcoming warm hearth of Mama Gaia herself. It is the same core heartbeat and breath that animates the animals as they care for their young or leap across waves or howl in the moonlight. It is your inheritance.

Now that the source of strength is close it is possible to turn to the rest of the picture with a bit more awareness. Life is a gift but it fundamentally exists on a plane far beyond the concepts of good and evil with which a human life can become endowed with meaning. In the Buddhist view of things there is no inherent meaning in the universe, it just is. It is however possible to create a meaningful life by skillfully serving all things with compassion and wisdom.

It helps to recognize the true state of things. The massive pollution our Western way of life creates in the external world is reflected in equally massive pollution of our internal worlds. The mass media has almost become a caricature of itself in its ever more extreme efforts to shock and titillate. Appealing to our basest desires the non-stop onslaught of sex and violence endows advertised products with a kind of numinosity and certain cultural rewards such as fame and riches, with a luster of the sacred. Few, if any, are able to resist these allures. After all, they work on the level of Darwinian evolution, you know, the four Fs: fight, flight, food and, ah, fornicating (trying to be a family friendly blog here).

So recognizing the true state of things includes seeing how you yourself share in this pollution. To aid in the developing ability to sense the heart of gratitude go on a stimulation diet. Put your revulsion towards the culture into action and limit your exposure to its most corrosive elements. Most guys learn eventually that pornography just feeds the fire, increases the hunger of the sexual urge without bringing it to a state of final satisfaction. It’s the same basic pattern everywhere. The act of violence you watch on the news or in the movies that stirs up the energies of your nervous system (the four Fs again) brings a sense of being alive but it takes increasingly more explicit violence to break through the character armor the next time. Buying that status symbol clothing satisfies for a little while as you “feel” like you have finally made it in this highly competitive culture but then someone comes by with a nicer status symbol (and there is always someone with a nicer status symbol) and off you go again chasing after the brass ring without any peace of mind or sense of heartfelt gratitude for simply being alive. Cut back on the amount of stimulation you allow the culture to push into your sense gates and nurture the non-consumer alternative. The consumption of goods is but the outermost reflection of the consumption of thoughts and images the advertising machine produces.

If you bought their line about tobacco being cool, or that drugs are needed to relax, or unhealthy foods are the only ones that can satisfy your cravings, you might want to consider beating them at their own game here as well. Reclaim your power and quit. These things can be like pouring gasoline on a fire when going through depressions. There is a tendency to think the mind is separate from the body in Western thought. Neuroscience doesn’t bear this out considering how hormones and how the neurotransmitters work with the rest of the biological systems. It is also not an opinion that Eastern cultures ever put much stock in. Future posts will have a chance to explore this idea in more detail, for now just remember- if you commit suicide the bad guys win.

On this diet it will soon become rather obvious that all those serious concerns about the direction our species is heading are very abstract, conceptual constructs. Take a breath and notice what your senses are reporting right now. Right here and now. There could very well be a collapse of Western civilization in the wings but today, did you eat? Was there water to drink? Did you get a chance to share something significant with another human being? Then rejoice. The core of the dis-ease is created by living so much only in the head that the energy of life in the body has become dissociated from your everyday experience. Maybe try sitting really still for awhile, meditate. As the body grows still so does the mind. As the mind grows still a surprising thing happens. We expect that we will become bored, that there will be less stimulation but what we find is just the opposite. The more still, the more an awareness of all that is in the present moment arises. The only nirvana is that which is found in the here and now, or it will never be found at all.

Get out into nature. It is not so far gone that rich, living ecological systems cannot be found. Edward Abbey had it right, don’t let all those who just do not seem to get it drive you crazy.

Basically revulsion of the world is occurring, the first step on the hero’s journey. Not as a mental construct but welling up from deep in the unconscious, felt in the body.  We share the environment in our body / mind and ours is deeply scarred and polluted.

It might also be helpful to think about previous generations and the challenges they had to face. Consider, for example, those who lived through the world wars and the great depression. Their challenges to daily life and mental health were quite extreme and yet most of our grandparents and great-grandparents found some measure of peace and happiness. Or consider the value of the individual. The human race is not great because there are 7 billion of us; it is great because of the preciousness of each and every individual as a unique expression of self-consciousness within the universe. Each person is a center of thought, perception and feeling unlike any other. So if fate or karma has it that in time there will only be say, half a billion of us, what sorrow is that? It is only from a clinging to our times as the only good times, clinging to our life as the only valuable life, clinging to our friends and families as the only important ones, that we could conclude collapse and even a die off are unmitigated evils. It is the road between here and there that calls us to compassionate action even while it breaks our heart.

Then there is the point that you as an individual are not a savior, nor is every action you take or do not take deciding the fate of the future of the species as a whole. There is a very dangerous temptation towards hubris here, all the more so if it is unconscious. We are children of the enlightenment and as such it is easy for us to insist the ecological crises is a problem which must have a solution. There are ethics in the ecological world view, but lighten up a bit. Getting back into your body, wholly incarnated, reintroduces a sense of proper proportion. Like it or not we are actually rather small players in an enormous event unfolding over vast reaches of time and space. Ultimately we can come to trust in this larger set of forces. We do so by recognizing we really are a product of them and not a product of ourselves. Then something that might seem inconceivable right now becomes possible – it becomes ok to be happy, even joyful, in the midst of the horror.