Four Authors on the Path Forward
Over the past couple of weeks, these articles have made me pause and contemplate more deeply the path forward. I don't really have clear conclusions yet. It's all still simmering. Hopefully there will be some here who have the time and inclination to ponder and share in the comments. I won't have the time to participate again until the end of the day. Then I will post my own comment.
The Only Thing Stopping Us From Creating Utopia is the Fact That We Don't Truly Want it Yet
Why is it that we have everything we need to create paradise for everyone, yet we don’t do it? This is arguably the single most important question we humans can ask ourselves at this juncture in time, and in my opinion the answer is that we haven’t created our utopia yet because we still don’t want to.
I mean, think about it. What do most people do with the majority of their free time? Do they spend it collaborating, creating, cuddling, playing and making beauty, or do they spend it on conflict and competition?
On my Twitter and Facebook profiles I’ve been listing myself as a “utopia prepper”, meaning I’m doing everything I can to align myself with a will toward utopia. I’m doing my best to rid myself of anything in me that is addicted to drama and conflict, any conditioning I might have that would be bored or restless in a world where we’re not making problems for ourselves anymore.
I genuinely think this is a crucial step we’ll all have to take before we can free ourselves from the shackles of omnicidal Orwellian oligarchy. In order to create utopia, we’re going to have to want it first. As long as we’re psychologically addicted to drama and conflict, to the us vs. them mentality that keeps suckering us into supporting a way of functioning which does not benefit us, we’re going to keep marching toward extinction.
It is evolve or die time. If we want to evolve, we’re going to have to want this thing . . .
I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or in any supernatural presence. ... But I would nevertheless like to see the so-called environmental movement become a spiritual or faith[i]-based struggle — or, to invoke the main thrust of my recent essays on the Transition Movement, I think we need to bind ourselves together around spiritual principles in the face of the movement of history in directions, right now, that are putting life at great risk.
More specifically, and closer to my own spiritual home, I think that Transition is poised to become more of spiritual space-holder and that the Transition Movement should consider re-imagining itself as a sort of Earth Church — a place of congregation for people who are fighting to preserve the Earth’s natural systems, striving to maintain non-exploitative relationships with each other and the rest of God’s green Earth, and working to preserve the gentler and compassionate sides of humanity amidst a coming storm of violence and ruthless acquisition; a place where we can seek nourishment, find solace, grieve, revive hope, preserve knowledge, skills, and wisdom, and live and die surrounded by a community of loved ones.
I can’t help but wonder whether I should laugh or cry when I hear or read about the so-called people’s climate march or about most[ii] environmental protesters in general — the sort who might follow the increasingly misguided (and misleading) false prophecy of the likes of Bill McKibben, Al Gore, or Leonardo Di Caprio. For at root, they are in effect protesting one form of energy collection and delivery in favor of a different one. It is presented as a great struggle over values and vision, though it is not. If there is faith at stake in the prevailing struggle (and I believe there is) it is a fully shared faith in progress struggling only over esoteric theological details, practical differences between fossil fuels and renewable energy notwithstanding. True each side draws upon differing versions of capitalism and Liberal democracy and some (not entirely unimportant) symbolic and aesthetic differences. And it is also true that many environmentalists love and cherish nature in some way or another and would like to see it preserved. But unquestioned in mainstream environmental movements are the more fundamental values surrounding the quest for mastery and domination over the Earth’s natural systems; the pursuit of comfort, entertainment, and novelty; the securing of safety and convenience in the face of all the ravages of time and, ultimately, death. All we see are slightly differing versions of salvation through conquest and mastery.
Climate Change Mitigation, Adaption, Suffering
One of the great contributions to the climate discourse that I think John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, made was emphasizing this point that there are three responses to climate change, mitigation, adaptation and suffering, and that it’ll be some combination of those three that will make our full response to it, and the less mitigation we do, the more of the others we will do.
We need to be entering into this nuanced territory where it’s not all of one or all of the other, but more of a both-and, and holding attention between not just two points but three points, you know, of the policies for mitigation, the policies for adaptation, but also the social and personal and spiritual response of learning how to deal with the suffering that I think will be unprecedented and a huge challenge for our society, dealing with that suffering in a way that doesn’t abandon our humanity, that doesn’t pit us against one another, that doesn’t bring out the worst in us. That’s a whole new front that needs to be explored and engaged, as we maintain the work that needs to happen in terms of mitigation and in terms of adaptation.
It’s still too early to tell what the response will look like there, but we have two models that are on different ends of the spectrum of what that response could look like.
One, with Hurricane Katrina, where in the response, the corporate power structure really flowed in to fill the void. As everybody got driven out of the city and everything got disrupted, that void was filled by the power of corporations and by neoliberal economic policies that decimated the public sphere, that took over public housing, that took over public schools and pushed them towards charter schools. We saw massive privatization, a further concentration of wealth, in the response to that.
That can be contrasted to some extent with Hurricane Sandy, where the immediate force that flowed into that void immediately after the hurricane hit was Occupy Wall Street, which became Occupy Sandy then, an organized, grassroots, people power-led movement that had just spent a whole lot of time working together, talking together, building relationships, building trust, and building a sense that it was our society, it was ours to shape according to our common values, and it was ours to take responsibility for each other and for our communities.
I think that’s not yet fully internalized on the left, that we are in and increasingly moving into a radically different world where disruption and climate chaos is the norm, and where collapse is looming in front of us and where we’re going to be facing contraction. I don’t think that’s really been internalized yet, and so we talked about that at the Democracy Convention in our breakout group as well. It seems like even in spaces like that, most folks are still talking about how we can build this plane of democracy that takes off, when our real need is to build the parachute of democracy that can help us land more softly.
We had the conversation of what it would take to actually sustain an ongoing, longer-term strike in our community, and we were just looking for our little area in the smallest state in the country, in Rhode Island, and talking about what it would take, what kind of resources would be necessary, what kind of structures would be necessary for a strike like this to be something that could be widely participated in.
It would almost certainly not be everyone in the state. That would not really be workable or strategic, but a significant portion, and how could it not be just those who already have the economic security to be able to take a month or two or three months off of work and not have to worry about it? How could this really be an inclusive effort to build our power? We looked at the needs of folks in our community, the basic needs, from food, from shelter, water, things like communication and medical needs and that sort of stuff, and what we had to be able to meet those needs, what kind of structures we would have to build to meet some of those needs.
Frankly, it was a pretty daunting conversation. You know, it was overwhelmingly obvious to us that we were really far away from that degree of self-reliance that would be necessary for us to have that kind of political leverage. There were some hints of that, some ideas on the table that had been used at an experimental level like time banks and things like that, that could serve as alternatives for the capitalist system that people would be stepping out of for a time, but they would need to be ramped up in a pretty major way.
We were pretty daunted by that conversation, but one of the things that also came out of it was that a lot of these efforts that it would take to sustain a strike were things like a local food system, things like alternative currency systems, whether that’s a literal currency or whether that’s something like a time bank or a sharing economy, things that make our communities more resilient anyway, things that we know we have to do in order to replace the capitalist system, things that we know we have to do in order to respond to the climate crisis and make our communities less vulnerable.
They were all things that, even if we didn’t get to that goal of being able to pull off a sustained national strike, we would still be in a stronger place as a community, as a movement, as people engaged in that struggle. All of those efforts would pay off, not only with the goal we were working towards, but in and of themselves they would pay off.
I realized that that was a real contrast to the way that we normally operate with leftist NGOs, where we’re very campaign-oriented and we sort of look at our needs and our strategies in isolation, of like what would accomplish getting this policy out there, what would accomplish getting this corporation to change the way they do things, what would accomplish this piece of legislation. We engage in a lot of strategies that don’t get us any other side benefits. We see a lot of leftist organizations that spend a lot of money on lobbying and lawyers and things like that, that don’t actually strengthen the movement, don’t actually strengthen our communities, and that if we fail, we’re left with nothing.
A huge example of that is the effort in 2007 that was called “Design to Win,” where a lot of foundations that fund climate change all got together to come up with this big strategy of how to pass climate legislation when a new president came in in 2009. From 2007 to 2009, those foundations spent $700 million on the strategy, and a lot of the other big organizations in the climate movement [also] spent a lot of money as well on this strategy. [It] led to the Cap-and-Trade bill that ultimately failed, and that fractured the movement and didn’t help us build any real power, didn’t strengthen our communities.
When it fell short, when it fell short of the Senate vote, it had nothing left to show for that $700 million, and that’s an amount of resources that could do incredible things if we put it into really building our power from the bottom up, building our self-reliance as communities in a way that gives us more tools at our disposal, both for pushing our political system and for making us more resilient to the challenges that we know we’re going to be facing. I think that’s the kind of strategy that we need to be moving towards as a movement, the things that even as we fail, even as we fall short, even as the new challenges come up, are things that are going to make us stronger towards that next fight.
Teilhard for Troubled Times
First of all, Teilhard reminds us that “deep hope flows over deep time.” From his perspective as a geologist and paleontologist, he reassures us that evolution has not changed direction; it has always been and always will be “a rise toward consciousness” (HP 183), moving irreversibly toward its consummation at the Omega point. But its span is measured in eons, not decades. When we try to “cinch up on the bat” too tightly or lose sight of the cosmic scale, the result is anguish. If we measure human progress only by our usual historical benchmarks—the last eight years of Obama initiatives, the eighty years of FDR social safety nets, the not-yet 250 years of the American democratic experiment—or for that matter, the “mere” 2500 years of Western civilization; we are still only catching the inevitable play of what Teilhard calls tatonnement, or “trial and error,” part of the necessary play of freedom. Even the emergence of human consciousness itself, he reminds us, reaching its present configuration a mere 125,000 years ago with the stunning debut of homo sapiens, was preceded by a 10,000-year ice age, in which it appeared that all that had been gained prior to that point was irreversibly lost. It wasn’t. No sooner had the ice receded than the first irrefutable paleontological manifestations confirm that human beings were now using fire and tools— unmistakable evidence that beneath the ice and apparent desolation, the evolutionary journey was still unperturbedly marching forward.
Perhaps that feels like a false hope. Perhaps it is bought at the cost of all sensitivity to individual suffering and pain, by setting the scale at so vast a magnitude that human lives register as no more than as tiny pixels.
But he knew that to capitulate to anguish was to lose the thread, and this he would not permit. The deeper ley lines of resilience and hope were alive and well for him, safely sealed within the deep, telluric memory of the earth itself and the Christic impulse beaconing from the future. But the road rises on the other side of despair. Allowing oneself to be engulfed in either anger or grief amounts to a fatal loss of moral nerve and hence a betrayal of the evolutionary task entrusted to our species.“
I want to conclude by making clear that I do not see this “deep hope” as an excuse to relax our vigilance in stewardship for the planet earth. Teilhard does not permit himself to be used that way; his sense of the oneness of the earth and of its dynamic interwovenness pervades everything he sees and writes. But he realizes as well that Mother Earth has an intelligence and a resilience that meets us far more than halfway, and that frantic efforts to “save the earth” are likely to be more about saving our own skins. Over the millennia our planet has endured meteor strikes, the rise and fall of sea levels, ice ages, the continual shifting of tectonic plates, the appearance and disappearance of species. We homo sapiens may indeed become one of those “lost species” if in our greed and arrogance we bring about planetary conditions that no longer support the uncomfortably tight tolerances in which human life is actually sustainable. But even if that unthinkable should occur, evolution itself will not be derailed. The earth itself, infinitely adaptable, will continue on, and the species that inevitably arises to replace us will bear in its cosmic memory the trousseau of all that consciousness has attained in this evolutionary go-round.
For sure, we need to fall on our knees every morning and beseech our mother Earth to help carry us through this latest dark time of human greed and destructiveness. But our real task at this evolutionary cusp is not to lose sight of what is coming to us from the future, the vision of our common humanity that is indeed “groaning and travailing” to be born.