Blame Ecology or Ecologists?

“A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?” he asked.
Pope Francis angered by America’s ‘mother of all bombs’ name, BBC News

“What is the basis for intolerance? This book addresses that question by developing a universal theory about what causes intolerance of difference in general, which includes racism, political intolerance (e.g. restriction of free speech), moral intolerance (e.g. homophobia, supporting censorship, opposing abortion) and punitiveness. It demonstrates that all these seemingly disparate attitudes are principally caused by just two factors: individuals’ innate psychological predispositions to intolerance (‘authoritarianism’) interacting with changing conditions of societal threat. The threatening conditions, resonant particularly in the present political climate, that exacerbate authoritarian attitudes include national economic downturn, rapidly rising crime rates, civil dissent and unrest, loss of confidence in social institutions, presidential unpopularity, divisive presidential campaigns, and internal or external crises that undermine national pride or confidence.”
The Authoritarian Dynamic, Cambridge Studies in Public Opinion and Political Psychology

 

I believe that if we learn to use our words, we can avoid using our fists. Is ecology the problem or is it the ecologists? That pretty much sums up what is lurking in the background of most public conversation and policy making in America these days.

Shred the EPA, bully on through protests around pipelines, discard rules around dealing with corruption in dictatorships to allow the last big oil deals, and seal it all with a Judas kiss to the people who worked and protested for decades to bring ecology to the attention of policy makers. Give corporations a huge tax break, strengthen prisons and arrest protestors; it is rather clear which side of the authoritarian divide is calling the shots these days. It will be interesting to see how the seeds sown over the last few months look come harvest time.

I, personally, am wondering how long it will be before we start seeing the roll out of the new patriotism propaganda. That is the worst. I love my country enough to want to see it deal realistically with its actual problems. The propaganda version of patriotism though, well that is little more than using the flag the way a magician uses a handkerchief to misdirect where you are watching, so they can pick your pockets dry and spill the blood of your loved ones on their fields of profits..

Pretending there is a future for our hyper-consumerism is becoming more difficult of late. The justifications are wearing thin and the blowback is becoming embarrassingly difficult to hide. Though the misdirection of the mass spectacle has been perfected, here and there some folks still look away from the screen and out the window. Those folks see a world very much unlike the one being peddled in the public square.

The petroleum industry assures us we can power past impossible. Their latest marketing campaign, unveiled during the 2017 superbowl, gives away the whole show. The engineers working for the oil companies know more than anyone how the investments in new discovery have not kept up with the needs of projected demand. They know more than anyone that the reserves remaining are not large enough to keep international trade and industrial infrastructure powered as we are accustomed to for much longer. They also know better than anyone that the carbon that remains in those oil reserves should not be burned anyway, if there is going to be a crying chance for our children to have a climate conductive to regular crop harvests. I think it was the engineering side of the house that told the marketing side of the house, “impossible.” It is impossible, from an engineering point to view, to continue powering Homo Colossus with oil. Marketing, as marketing will do, called the engineers sad sacks and immediately came up with their own solutions. The guys over on the sales side of the house knew they could sell the last drops to fools if they could only get enough momentum to jump over the facts, and viola, the new marketing phrase for the petroleum industry was born: Power Past Impossible (.org).

Would you like some twinkle dust with that?

We are doubling down on religious wars and faith in the magic of capitalism. That magic, borrowing money from tomorrow to fund productivity today, has long ago lost its luster. Financial shenanigans are more common than production for bringing investors their required returns, and when production is occurring it is likely to be of poorly made yet overpriced gizmos that serve no human need, but do supply their owner with some token status they are denied in every other aspect of their lives under the big dogs of petro-dollar capitalism.

It turns out big oil and big capitalism were not the kind social guides their spokesmen had made them out to be. It is hard to imagine any course of events that could have shown the world their true colors more clearly than those of the last few years. The ecological evidence in that time has become solid enough to be damning to the faux innocence and naivety by which our overdeveloped countries are conducting their business – the business of big oil and big capitalism.

While we warm up the nukes and double count the ammo, this might be a good time to take a moment or two to reflect on just what it is that is happening to us. We have lost the ability to see a bright future at the end of the consumer rainbow. Those of us who have studied ecology seriously have also lost any easy transitions to an alternative tech future, it is far too late. So we keep smiling and faking it, as if we did not know our way of life has become a disaster for the planet. Meanwhile the anger grows day by day. It is being driven by our survival imperative: you cannot take the species’ future away from it.

Who is in charge here? Certainly not the puppets of history, they are just dangling on the ends of strings more powerful then they could begin to comprehend. Certainly not the ideologues and demagogues who claim to know what these nightmare-level social breakdowns are really about but prove themselves time and again to be clueless. Certainly not some invisible supernatural fallen angels, demons, ghosts or ghouls. No, what ails us is all too visible since oil is in, or involved in, just about every object we touch. The only invisible factors are those of our human psychology.

This is not about preaching to the choir, this is about sketching a picture accurate enough to be of some use. Courage uncovers phobias and airs out the claustrophobic fears by daring to talk about them. Traumatization makes absolutes out of relative facts, so talk is able to puncture their false infinities. Besides, knowing where our temptations are, perhaps we can steel ourselves against their seductions. One of our greatest temptations just now seems to be a willingness to entertain ourselves to death, literally. We want our world leaders and world events to be big and flashy, we want our world to be as exciting as a summer blockbuster.

Goodness lacks the flash of evil. It’s appeal is closer to intimate sex than to violent rape. The quite of contentment and contemplation may seem to lack the drama we have become addicted to. There are no sub-machine guns to mow down a classroom full of children with kindness. There are no love knives we can use to slit the throats of pregnant woman. There are no electrodes to hook up to vulnerable body parts to shock people into caring about what happens to their fellow man. There is just the power of kindness in the honest love between people. Is it going to be enough?

That is for you to decide. Today. While we warm up the war machine.

You should know that there are some who have decided, evidently, that it is not going to be enough. Love is not as sweet as power for these folks. They are itching for a fight, itching to take back what they feel they are entitled to but have lost. Learning to get by with less holds no appeal for them, at all.

Welcome to the war between two world views. Times are getting hard and people are looking for the cause. One world view recognizes the role ecology plays. This view understands that the expansion of giant industrialization is running into the limits of what is possible. Ecological limits to growth is what is ultimately behind the hard times and what we should be adapting to. The other world view denies that and finds the cause of the hard times to be the ecologists – it is an over regulation of business that has driven manufacturing offshore and placed unfair burdens on corporations competing in a global market.

Times are hard and getting harder. Loss is in the air. How will you react? That too is for you to decide. Today. While we warm up the war machine.

I would like to suggest that as you decide between these conflicting world views, that you make your decision using the most careful reasoning and critical thinking you are capable of. Then you will understand why you take the position you do. You will be able to articulate it when necessary, and not be easily persuaded this way or that as the crowd sways first one direction and then the other. That transparency of reason, built carefully using both logic and values, will serve you well – whatever the fates may have in store.

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.

We Know

Our time is overwhelmingly one of ecological disaster. Not one informed person on this planet has any doubt that the human ecological footprint has become huge. Some think its still not large enough to be causing as many serious problems as I do, but even these skeptics agree that the scale of our modern industrialized technology’s impact on natural resources is enormous. We are not all eating Tilapia instead of Cod for no reason. Our public conversations about our ecological predicament, however, are wholly lacking in a rational response to the circumstances. We lack the courage to face the facts; our story failed us; we have not the nerve needed to steel ourselves for embracing the truth. We are fighting maturing by denying the deep disappointment in our growing disillusionment with technological progress as a road to a better world.

The environmental movements have been coming from the position that people are not well enough informed about the ecological facts. They design marketing messages to persuade people to live with some semblance of proper concern for the health of the planet. I have come to suspect that this approach fails to recognize the social situation for what it really is. People are not lacking in ecological knowledge. People do know we are in an ecological crisis, they know it viscerally. We are not failing to talk about it, let alone act rationally in response to it, because we are ignorant. It is because we are numb with shock. The news is so bleak and so huge and so unchangeable that it has been necessary to repress it in order to carry on with the day to day chores that sustain our survival, such as it is.

We are doing the best we can.

We have known the true state of things since sometime in the 1970s. The strains on our societies since then have been enormous, yet so far international relations and market driven Main Street have not broken down. There is reason to believe that may not remain the case much longer. It is hard to see any way business as usual can continue in anything like its present form for another generation or two. It is unlikely to make it another decade or two if we are interpreting our ecological data correctly. Our institutions proved to be too frozen in their ways to adapt to the new reality. The authority of those institutions drew upon the shared mythology of the societies in which they functioned. All throughout the world this psychological symbiosis is breaking down.

Until we speak with straight words about the reality of our ecological overshoot our societies will remain prey to pied pipers. Some will claim the elite are to blame and if only we could get them to pay their taxes all will be well. Some will blame everything that is no longer working well on foreigners, immigrants and ethnicities in the tried and true march towards the sacrifice of the scapegoat. Many will be enthralled by the dark simplicity of apocalyptic fundamentalism and, certain the time of their god is near, perpetrate all manner of atrocities. Colorful cults will rise up here and there promising all kinds of cosmic trips into the inner worlds as an escape from the dismal, shabby, crowded and violent environments we have made for ourselves.

It goes without saying that none of these predictable responses will be designed to have the slightest impact on the real causes of our problems. But they will. Every one of the social madnesses just described will also have an substantial impact on the environment and its populations. Through it all the reality will remain the ecological facts: overshoot due to reliance on the phantom acreage fossil fuels provided. Societies that begin to include straight talk about our constrained position may also find themselves better prepared to make choices that have a good chance of actually helping their people deal with the changing circumstances. So much for societies, what about as individuals? What does accepting the ecological critique offer us? Individuals who use this simple analysis might be able to resist the pied pipers and even convince some of their neighbors not to sign up with the latest Coo-Coo de jour.

Eventually some disaster of failed infrastructure or diplomacy will be large enough to tip the majority of the population of one overdeveloped country after another into a configuration more in keeping with the resources that are actually available within its own borders. Resources, it should be noted, sorely abused by the reckless and frankly brainless way in which they have been exploited for the last few hundred years.

Accepting the truth is hard. It does however bring with it more than a few blessings. It provides clarity. We have to relearn to be gentle. We need to walk on the earth more lightly. We will do so when we walk among one another with less fear.

Our greed is born from the emotional and physical security modern life has removed from the human experience. For our long evolutionary history our species thrived, one might even say delighted, in our extended family arrangements. We were assured that there would be someone there who cared about us, to watch over us when we were sick, and to bury us when we died. Those same people had watched us grow up, marry and work as the years of our lives went by. The extended family was not the only feature of our long evolutionary history modern societies have unmoored themselves from. Living on the scale of villages and tribes, the extended family had a relationship with the place in which it lived we moderns no longer comprehend. The land and its flesh supported one another directly. The relations and community offered a context in which the provisioning of life’s necessities and the celebration of its stages was a shared phenomenon. Modern societies have all too often replaced this human touch, which nurtured us and gave our lives meaning, with faceless bureaucracies where an individual is little more than a number. And now our numbers threaten to destroy us.

Our greed is also born from the cognitive and spiritual security modern life has removed from the human experience. Naked spirit is exposed to the infinite universe of our space age cosmology. (TV and movies arose to aid us in clothing the nakedness of our spirit with images, the language of the soul, in such myth making as Star Wars.) In our rockets our Icarus dreams mock us even as they fall back to earth like fallen angels. None-the-less the technological peak of achievement they represent is something we should take great pride in. The Hubble telescope and what it has taught us alone is an accomplished fact with truly cosmic implications – we have gazed upon the heavens. Even so, we should not allow nostalgia for what was not meant to be, this space age vision of endless technological progress in space, “the final frontier,” to sicken us of the future we do have. The question before us now is not whether or not our children will be able to survive shooting from star to star but whether or not they will be able to survive right here on earth.

Can we live knowing what we know? Let’s take a mind healing metaphor. We are somewhat like a patient in analysis who has recognized the truth of formerly repressed material. From now on their view will include the new realization, often one that is very painful. We say the process has irreversibly expanded their consciousness. Mankind has long been facing Epicurus’ Atoms and Void view of its place in the big scheme of things. At times this wholly naturalistic view has been more repressed than at others, equivalent to the individual patient’s varying degrees of consciousness. I think most educated people would agree the sciences have advanced a picture of our place in the grand scheme of things that has now become impossible to dismiss out of hand. We have currently been forced to hold a number of astonishingly unexpected revelations in our collective consciousness. It is an open question whether or not we will be able to maintain this degree of awareness or not.

Consider a few. Quantum mechanics has taken pictures of the atoms, settling once and for all the debate that has rang out around Epicurus observations for millennia. We live in the world remade by chemistry, the molecular manipulations we have crafted atop the quantum nature of nature. Evolutionary theory uses the chemist’s molecular world’s ability to create a molecule capable of reproducing itself with variations to explain the diversity of life throughout the biosphere. The animal making all these theories finds itself situated on one branch of this enormous history in which 99% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Even so the variations of adaptations throughout the biosphere, the living 1% that is here right now, simply strains credulity. This 1% is time’s cutting edge where all that has gone before is currently being expressed. We locate ourselves within a biological vastness. Ever curious, we also turned to the stars and found it was a turtles all the way down; a molecular universe every direction we pointed our instruments. Astronomers also took a hint from the chemists. The Periodic Chart had established that there are only about one hundred elements, only a limited number of basic building blocks available to build a universe with. Reading the chemical signature of stars confirmed it, even as it opened our eyes to a host of phenomena stranger than wildest speculations of our imaginations – quasars, black holes, and galaxies other than our own. With the Hubble Space Telescope the universe became infinitely larger once again, unfolding a vision of billions and billions of galaxies surrounding us in every direction. It is against all this, and more, that our species now finds itself confronting the results of our ecological ignorance.

This is what I mean by our spirit is naked before the cold light of the stars. There is no escaping the revelations of ourselves as yeast’s close cousin. And like the therapeutic revelation, knowing has brought pain. Yet we have also awakened to our place. Can we take our seat? Will we find a way to incorporate what we know with how we see ourselves and conduct our affairs? The old ways of explaining the human experience are buckling under the weight of these new revelations. The seals have been opened on the final scroll, as it were. The god or nature of Einstein, Spinoza’s god, just might be the voice of reason bursting forth from the pearly gates of our cosmic story.

To live through all this feels so traumatic, little is assured and much is likely to be lost. We are understandably still in a bit of shock. It will take time to learn to live with what we know. It helps, I think, to look at the whole thing from the perspective of thousands of years to respect the gravity of what we are discussing. How might this nugget of demonstrable understanding of our place in the universe, as revealed by our technological sciences, evolve within our ever adapting traditions? It is a particularly interesting question now that the industrial foundation of those technological sciences is coming undone.

We should be gentle with ourselves. To carry the precious gift of human consciousness within this vast and grand universe ,while living on the planet of the apes, is not easy. It is not easy at all. It is, however, inexpressibly…

Earth Love: Phenomenon

BlackSludgeLake(Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Have you seen this man-made toxic lake before? This phenomenon is a small token of the price we are willing to pay to have our smartphones and other high-tech gadgets. The BBC recently wrote about The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust. We outsource the pollution, hire the cheapest labor on earth we can find and then decorate our pockets and wrists with the products of so much suffering.

Don’t take my word for it. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has been touring universities in the United States for the last few weeks. He stated at Stanford, “…we only see what we have in our hands when it comes to technology. We only see the new iPhone that we have acquired. We do not see directly with our own eyes all the natural resources and all of the human hardship that went into the production of that iPhone. Our attention tends to remain just at the surface with what we can see with our own eyes even though all the information about what went into the production of the iPhone for example is available to us… we seem to get stuck with just seeing what’s before our eyes and not looking at the larger picture of where this is all coming from.” (Time ~35:00)

At Harvard he stated, “Interdependence is not just about the sharing of information or an understanding we might arrive at in our brains, in our heads. It is about sharing the feelings in our hearts and about our real experience.” (Time ~24:00) At Yale he taught, “I think that in order to understand the necessity of environmental protection we need to understand how connected we are to one another and to our environment… We often feel at some distance from our environment, we divide the world into subject and object and we feel that the external environment is an object separated from us by some kind of boundary and at some distance from ourselves as subjects. We need to dissolve this artificial boundary and decrease the distance between ourselves and our environment.” (Time ~27:00 and ~30:00)

While on this tour he also mentioned that we humans are “shockingly selfish.”  Those words have haunted me, tearing away at the veil of normality my culture tries so hard to hide behind. Phenomenon created by our overdeveloped greed, like that toxic lake in Baotou China, does not disappear because we cover it up in slick advertising jingles and corporate logos. In today’s post I want to look at what kinds of phenomenon someone who carries a deep love for the earth in their hearts can become mindful of. Please do not take this as a holier-than-thou tirade; I own an iPhone and spent my engineering career in the computer business. The point is we are all in this together.

Another phenomenon to consider: the recent earthquake in Nepal. Close to one million Nepali workers are virtual slaves to the companies that employ them throughout the gulf region. Many would like to return home to check on their families and properties, but most cannot. They must seek permission from the corporations employing them to leave the countries in which they work, a feudalism-like law clause known as kefala. We don’t much care to know the details of how the oil infrastructure of the world works, just so long as gasoline comes out of our pumps and our store shelves remain properly stocked. It brings to mind Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy in which she investigated how the Lisbon earthquake was a manifestation of evil for eighteenth-century Europeans. Her point was that it shook their conviction that the world made some sort of sense. Part of my haunting wonders what might be in store for the overdeveloped world if the countries less enthralled with greedy consumerism are paying such horrendous costs in seeing their traditional monuments crumble and centuries of traditional lifestyles overturned.

A final phenomenon to consider; a letter published last month in Nature Climate Change updating research first published in that journal in 2013. The research concerns the disconnect between many of our climate models and the surface temperature increases as they have been measured in the last 15 years or so. The climate models have been agreeing that the mean global temperature should be warmer than what we are experiencing given the current carbon content of the atmosphere. Skeptics and denialists have made much of this discrepancy while those seeking understanding have worked hard to find what factors are not being properly included in the models that might explain the discrepancy.

Model makers have added numerous factors to their models in the attempt to have stronger correlations between their simulation runs and the temperature data. Simply put, the models track well for close to a century of data but then around the year 2000 something goes a bit awry. The models find that we should be suffering an even greater degree of mean surface warming than we are. Does this mean the science has been crying wolf and we can all forget about those dark and dismal prognostications and go back to increasing our numbers and shopping at Wal Mart forever? Not quite. As so often happens when dealing with fallible human intelligence, what first seems one way turns out to be another. In this case what seems to be some slightly good news, that the warming is less drastic than our best science considers most probable, is most likely not good news at all. Quite the contrary.

Which illustrates the first point I want to make about waking up in our age of ecocrisis as it concerns our relationship with the phenomena unfolding in the world around us. I have mentioned before that I think those who let their despair over the depressing reality of a civilization committing suicide to commit suicide themselves are making a mistake. Humility suggests we should be wary of any one way decisions like this since however much our current analysis might support our conclusions, it is the nature of intelligence to evolve and change.

Here is not where I insert “the happy chapter” and anyone who thinks I might needs to read our kitchen table conversation. What I am getting at is more subtle, perhaps something only us older folks can really appreciate. It comes from looking back on all those things we were so certain about in past decades and how, if we avoided the temptation of shutting down thinking through one fundamentalism or another, those certainties changed from one decade to the next. When considering the meaning of the phenomenon our earth presents we would do well to recall the wisdom in the Taoist tale of The Lost Horse:

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

As told by Ellen J. Langer, in The Power of Mindful Learning

To return to the climate modeling – a few weeks ago the mystery just might have been solved. The researchers examining oceanic factors knew these great bodies of water had the proper magnitude of influence on climate to cause the variations encountered but could not figure out just how such an influence might be accounted for. Most people have heard about the El Nino in which the temperature of the Pacific Ocean changes for a year. There is a similar phenomenon that causes variations in the surface temperature that stretches across decades. It is known as the ‘Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation’ (IPO) and when it’s known variations were added to a climate model the researchers discovered it explains the temperature discrepancy between the simulations and the measured data. They were able to model back to 1920 and found the fit significant.

Frighteningly what this means is that as the IPO ceases, once this natural reprieve from our climate forcings ends over the next little while, the most probable outcome will be a rapid acceleration of warming. Quoting the abstract, “Recent history suggests that the IPO could reverse course and lead to accelerated global warming in the coming decades.” In other words our time right now – this time since the year 2000 characterized by record breaking drought and wildfires on the west coast and storms like Sandy and Katrina on the east and south coasts, not to mention bark beetle infestations, accelerated species extinctions and the rest of the list of horrors – this time has actually been a moment of mercy. It is as if we had been given one more opportunity to slow down the train heading over the cliff. That same period saw the global peak in conventional oil production which now looks to have occurred around the year 2005. Not unrelatedly, global financial games desperate to prop up currencies that require growth in a world where the oil-fed engines of growth have stalled have dominated the headlines since 2008. At a time when we know it is unsafe to burn the oil and coal we already have, we indulged in an orgy of tar sands and shale oil development, new coal trains and pipelines, and now new deep sea drilling in the Arctic if Shell gets its way.

That finding in climate science should have dominated headlines world-wide. The deafening silence in the media brings me to the second point I want to make about phenomenon in the age of limits. The overdeveloped world inherits a combative attitude towards the natural world; the wilderness is to be tamed, the frontier to be settled. Our Faustian cultural ambition of increased scientific understanding is based on the belief that knowledge is power. Not just any power but power over, as illustrated in the uses we have put our sciences to in our technologies. We have already looked at how we turned away from appropriately human scaled use of technology to embrace that which has made us Homo Collosuss.

Events are conspiring to teach us that in this hubris we were quite mistaken. The ‘forces of nature’, the ‘acts of god’, the ‘phenomenal world’ is much larger than we are and farther beyond our control than we imagined in our feverish dreams fueled by the oily devil juice. Phenomenon will proceed along the ways of cause and effect as it always has, regardless of what we might think about it. We can choose to focus on the latest Hollywood scandal and ignore the ecological sciences but phenomenon like the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation we have been discussing will inevitably run their course.

As practitioners learning to transform the poison of this ecological darkness into the nectar of an enlightenment, this humble assessment of our true position seems to me very fundamental. Our lives and those of others are as threads in a tapestry. They will be shaped by, and of necessity will need to deal with, the phenomenon of their environment.

Seen rightly, fully accepting this allows us to set aside a crushing burden that was nothing but delusion anyway. Our job is not to save the world. Our job is to spread kindness and happiness as opportunity presents itself. Whatever phenomenon appears moment by moment is our path. There is already enormous suffering in our world and rational analysis can only conclude much more is probably coming. Collectively we have chosen not to take advantage of this time which could well turn out to have been a lull before the storm. Due to interdependence you and I and everyone else will have to deal with that. Yet ultimately, what is more important is how we as individuals choose to use this time. I suggest we use it to strengthen our skills of empathy and personal freedom of choice. In this way we are properly preparing for the trials to come.

The future holds sickness, old age and death. These are coming to the globalized industrial system just as assuredly as they are coming to each of us and our loved ones. Making peace with that, perhaps we can teach one another a better way to live than this endless and futile flight from death we enslave ourselves to. Those who can be happy even while accepting the world of phenomenon just as it is have plenty of work to do.

The battlefields are spreading. We need people trained in triage.

The Music of the Spheres

Ecological thinking embodies explorations of relationships between living things and those living things and their environments. The living things can be as large as a blue whale or as small as a bacterium. The environments can be as small as a drop of pond water or as extensive as the whole universe itself. With the proper use of the right tools these relationships can be explored in great detail. Part of a contemplative’s satisfaction and wellbeing comes from spending the time that is needed to really enjoy these details.

Spending time with mammals leaves little doubt that there is awareness behind their eyes. It is a commonplace that our cats and dogs have personalities we come to love. Many people take this obvious acknowledgment of awareness as just a first step and extend the same recognition that there is some sort of awareness to the birds, insects, invertebrates and all the rest of the species populating the biosphere with such endless forms most beautiful.

This living world is in contrast to the deadened one too many of us habitually inhabit. The modern industrialized environment is so dominated by human artifacts that it is all too easy to forget to take even a single moment for mindfulness; for remembering how special it really is to be alive for the few years we are each allotted. This is why it is so helpful to have tools to support our efforts at remaining awake. The tools remind us that we are not isolated freaks of nature persecuted with self-conscious awareness of our mortality but are actually bearers of human dignity within a large community of life.

The dead world is the other way of viewing existence: that the pessimistic, nihilistic, thoroughly reductive materialism where only the dog-eat-dog of selfish, cruel, competitive power seekers all tragically and robotically unfree is “really” real. Many think that this is the necessary view that science teaches us, many more fear that this might be the case and refuse to look long and deep into the ways of the deadened world. They fear a silent universe. In the classical contemplative teachings all these insights are welcomed as the courageously clear analysis of samsara, the way the grey world really is. There is suffering involved in birth, sickness, old age and death, a suffering that is both individual and planetary. For you as an individual, things can look rather bleak. Our running away from this truth only makes us more haunted and hunted, more susceptible to the snake oil salesmen offering relief through a new purchase. The ancient advice is to stop running away, to look directly on the ways of being. Then you might have the power, the inspiration, to find the cracks where the light and magic can get in. The rumor is that there is a world of rainbows hiding just below the surface of the grey.

To help in this work, and it is work, there are tools of escape. The grey world is no more “really” real in any absolute sense than any of the other many conceptual castles we are capable of constructing for ourselves. The tools are everywhere once we are clear that the task is lessening our self-absorption. The first one I recommend for your consideration is kept on the person: a simple hand lens that fits easily into a pocket or purse. This is a simple tool that unlocks a whole new world within the world. Examine the ice on the pond, the weave of your clothes’ fabric, the luminous sheen on a dragonfly wing, the multiple eyes of your friendly neighborhood spider and any of countless other items populating your immediate environment. An appreciation for the intricate intelligence within forms naturally arises as we become more acquainted with their details. Unfortunately the human nervous system can quickly become numb to any stimuli it encounters repeatedly but with a hand lens always close you train in looking again, in really seeing the individual form in front of you and not just the conceptual label that normally accompanies perception.

PocketMagnifierKorzybski taught us in the 1930s that the menu is not the meal. His master work, Science and Sanity, is well worth spending time with if you have a scientific bend to your intellectual curiosities. In this work he points out how quickly our nervous systems can label this living, green stuff under our feet grass and by this very move miss all conscious perception of the individual, unique blades. He goes on to point out that those individual, unique blades have a reality to their existence that the abstraction “grass” does not. The simple expediency of using a hand lens every day in all kinds of places to examine all kinds of things helps wake us up to our senses again and slip out of the too settled grey zone of abstract conceptual thought. This simple hand lens acts to focus our curiosity outward, out into the world beyond our immediate personal concerns.

So as you are out walking under the sky with your hand lens in pocket, what other practice might we participate in? One I find fruitful is taking on the chore of picking up the human garbage I see along some part of my walk. Find some part of the environment you frequent regularly in which it is possible to see the natural world, however slight such a glimpse might be. Take a moment to pick up any human made pollution scarring this experience of the natural world, or at least a bit of it. The hope is that others might enjoy a view of Gaia and find relief from their grinding, daily concerns in a moment of appreciation of the world’s beauty. I live in an urban area so choose a park walkway for this practice. I have found the world readily cooperates, providing new trash to work with most every day. Sure it is a small thing and certainly will not save the world but that is just the point; it is a practice that embraces the reality of what I can do which is not much, but it is something.

The next set of tools is for the home. I was taught that every well-appointed home should have a few basic mind tools; a microscope, a telescope and a set of encyclopedias. Perhaps the last is now passé with the arrival of the internet but the others are all the more needed in our time of experts. In the same way that the hand lens widens the world one lives in, the wonderful (and for the most part affordable) basic microscope and telescope delivers whole new worlds. The thing is, it is just not the same to see a photo of a cell or the rings of Saturn as it is to gaze on these things with your own eyes. Of the many foolishness’s of our times perhaps none is more destructive of a zest for living then the pervasive sovereignty of experts. Somehow most of us have been left with the impression that if we are not able to contribute some new insight into a science or invent a new math or algorithm, then there is nothing for us in exploring the marvels of the world on our own. Here is the secret – encountering reality is beneficial to our mindstream, our souls if you will. It is not an exclusive club for the wealthy and powerful, the smart and genius but a very democratic feature of the human experience. It is yours for the taking.

For example, I have had quite awe inspiring experiences playing with the spectrum of light revealed by a prism. Sure I had read in my physics books that sunlight consists of all the colors of the rainbow, even saw the photo.  But when I got my hands on a water prism and reproduced some of the experiments of Newton, Boyle and Goethe… something deep inside me changed. The world became a more magical place. All these tools can work the same way. All it takes is an alert awareness, a relaxed curiosity. The microscope, telescope, hand lens and prism can unite with rational studies to educate the imagination, the inner senses. How this in turn works out in practice will occupy us for the rest of this post.

Consider how contemplation of geese flying overhead can lead to a rich sense of being at home on the earth. In the presence of this event, these migrations, your consciousness is participating in an ecological and evolutionary adaptation that has been going on for centuries, millennia, and if you allow for all that has ever flocked across the face of Gaia, for hundreds of millions of years. It is just a single detail within the biosphere yet a necessary one. As they glide by in the sky and within your awareness, are you able to sense the timelessness of the event? How innumerable individual animals have come and gone yet the pattern remains? What is important is that the role be carried out, that this particular niche in the manifold exuberance of life’s anti-entropic explorations is wholly filled. If there were no geese another species would have evolved to take advantage of the same resources.

In the same way there seems to be a role for self-conscious beings given our particular human apperception of existence. Poetically, our thisness meets the other’s thusness as we ask, what makes the grass green? Who or what makes that which is real, seem real to me? Final, complete introspective investigation uncovers the most intimate ‘this’ is simply ‘thus’, beyond perceiver and perceived as two. All the contemplative tools are designed to provide an entryway into this insight, whether they are tools to hold in the hands or tools to hold in the mind.

Perhaps one way into a taste of this non-duality and the way our sense of reality mixes with it in high contemplations is through thinking about what is known in the west as the Music of the Spheres. This is said to be the harmonies the planets are making as they follow their celestial movements and is a fine example of a tool held in the mind. The music of the spheres is like a Zen koan. Sound is the label we give to the human sensory neuron-firings stimulated by vibrations in the earth’s atmosphere which cause the delicate bones of our inner ear to move. Where is any objective sense of sound in all of this? Really apprehended, one experiences an unmovable silence in the heart of all sounds, an emptiness of the element of the absolutely real in sound that seems to exist in sound until we take full awareness of its processing. In this state of mind, now consider the Music of the Spheres as a profound not-sound since there is no atmosphere in space to carry the vibrations we label sound. Yet one could say the planets sing as their orchestrated movements unfold across the spacetime of relativity and vibrate using the most fundamental macrocosmic force of all – gravity.

Just as there is a kind of silence in sound when apprehended with due weight given to the role of our nervous systems, there is a kind of sound in what we perceive as silence. Perhaps we are so constructed as to be deaf to the rest of the orchestra of existence outside of our atmosphere; we are after all wholly children of our Mother Earth. Perhaps all things in all scales, from the collision of galaxies through the spinning and orbiting of planets, on down to the molecular world’s non-stop shaking and the quarks ceaseless vibrations (to say nothing of strings) are all producing “sound.” The Music of the Spheres indeed!

What good is training with such thought experiments? It is not to assert dogmatically that there is such a sound and what we experience as sound is just a delusion. Nor is it meant to assert the opposite. In becoming open to the possibility that there is a Music of the Spheres that we can hear though the faculty of intuition and insight one also entertains an awareness of the larger, cosmological context in which an awareness of “sound” is taking place. The context of galaxies through to quarks is that on which our sense of what is “really” real selects a slice due to the construction of our nervous systems.

The reason tradition says to train this way is that from this view it is possible to recognize the inescapable dream-like quality of all conscious experience which in turn alleviates suffering by transforming it from something “really real” in an absolute sense and hence life as hell, into something “real, but not quite how it seems” which can open one to experience life as sacred world here and now. These are advanced teachings, hard for the conceptual mind alone to grasp since they are about awareness itself, that more fundamental feature of mind all sentient beings share and on which our conceptual thoughts themselves depend.

The Music of the Spheres is the koan for hearing. Similar contemplations can arise for the other sense as well. Both techniques – sharing the deep time role of geese overhead and looking deeply into what hearing is – are ways of shifting the center of gravity of one’s awareness outside the ego. They are part of what I understand the Buddhist teachings on no-self to be about. Ego is this apperception we have that we are really real the way we seem to be to ourselves; unchanging, singular and independent or separate from everything else. There is self and other, the perceiver and the perceived and far as ego is concerned never the twain shall meet. The yogic view differs, insisting that we are not separate and so are ever-changing and multiple. It holds that however painful it might be for ego to see through its delusions it is worth the effort. Yoga means to yoke, union. It unites self and other by recognizing no-self; that what we actually are is mystery yet we can be assured it is a wholly natural fruition of all that is, a bud on the flowering process of life, a wholly owned expression of causes and conditions written in deep time and across deep space.

Softening the boundary between self and other, one’s allegiance can become increasingly aligned with the side of all living things instead of narrowly focused on your life or your species alone. You will find yourself rejoicing in another’s good fortune and saddened by another’s misfortunes. Equally, taking good care of yourself respects the sliver of the divine other in the budding of life you happen to know most intimately. I suggested in a previous post that when we hear mindful we think heartful. In the same way I suggest that when we hear other we think other-self or larger-self or rest-of-self. In ecology we learn we cannot really discard garbage, that it cannot really be thrown away because there is no away away. This is similar – there is no other that is wholly other. Again, ecological concepts weave well with concepts from the contemplative traditions.  Next week we will look at the contemplative traditions most recognized tool, meditation.