Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Green Apocalypse

I know this is not the stage of my seasonal round in which I typically submit new posts, but for the sake of timeliness, I offer this one on a subject that has recently been gaining a lot of attention: the Apocalypse.  The perspective and implications may surprise you.  This essay was originally published in Dark Mountain Issue 11 (spring 2017).  

Welcome the Aftermath:

Apocalypse and Post-apocalypse Redefined

      The stratospheric ejecta from the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens took a day to cross the Columbia Plateau and the Rocky Mountains.  I was up early on the morning of May 19 when it reached Colorado Springs.  In my nine-year-old imagination, I anticipated a rain of ash thick enough to form drifts like grey snow and create a noontime twilight reminiscent of the TV footage from Yakima, Washington where five inches fell.  Instead, little more than a faint, smoke-like haze fuzzed the view of Pikes Peak and the only place where the ash could be seen at all was on the glass of car windshields.  Had I not been looking for it, I might not have even noticed it.
    Now, 37 years later, and living in a world of amplifying climatic upheaval, mass extinction and the industrial toxification of every habitat on Earth, it occurs to me that the fallout from the spread of agricultural civilization across the globe has been much the same: indiscernible unless you’re looking for it.  And even then, its cataclysmic nature remains largely hidden, obscured by the long sweep of time separating the present planetary socio-ecological calamity from its comparatively humble origins.  It is also obscured by an assumption that is almost as opaque now as it was when it first emerged as the assumption underlying civilization’s deepest guiding stories.  What is this assumption?
    That the end of the world – the Apocalypse – is an event forthcoming, and that the civilized order is the only thing standing in its way.  As supporting evidence for this view, we, the citizens of this order, proudly cite our numeric, territorial and technological expansion over the last few millennia.  But perhaps our spread — now exponential in rate and scale — suggests something else: a shared tunnel vision focused so tightly on the civilized branches of one hominid species that it has rendered invisible the apocalyptic impact of civilization on everything else in the world.
    Only now, as that impact has reached global proportions, is it possible to see that the Apocalypse isn’t somewhere out there on the horizon.  As far as the greater community of life is concerned, the term accurately describes an event that has been under way for 10,000 years. It began with agriculture, intensified with the emergence of urban civilization and reached cataclysmic intensity with global industrialization.  
    In other words, in relation to the countless lives degraded, displaced or extinguished by every forest razed, every grassland plowed and every indigenous culture extirpated to make way for a field, pasture or city, the apocalypse is not some future potentiality that can, in theory, still be avoided.  It is, at this very moment, in progress, like a slow-motion asteroid collision or volcanic eruption.  Actually, it only appears slow from the perspective of an individual human lifespan.  On an evolutionary/geologic time scale, there is no significant difference in the rates at which natural disasters and expanding civilizations devastate the earth.  We have but to graph climatic upheavals and their associated extinction spasms on a scale measured in billions of years to see that these events all appear as spikes.
    This shift in temporal perspective allows us to visualize how we are part of an agriculturally-fuelled human explosion that has swept the planet like a scouring shockwave, moving outwards from urban epicenters at far too rapid a rate to allow most other forms of life to adapt to the transformed landscapes left in its wake.
    We not only have a hard time sensing this explosion because it is slow relative to any given human generation, but also because it is not singular.  It is diffuse and contained, taking place inside millions of internal combustion engines, thousands of fossil-fuel-driven power plants and hundreds of nuclear reactors.  But add all these micro-bursts together and factor in the years — decades! — they’ve been going off without pause and you get a blast that makes the eruption of Mount St. Helens look like a firecracker.
    In this light, a post-apocalyptic world becomes not something to prevent at all costs, but rather a very appealing goal towards which to strive.  We have but to realize that the common vision of a post-apocalyptic world as a charred wasteland, popularized most starkly in the Mad Max films, is exactly backwards.  From an ecological perspective, the landscapes subsumed within the explosion of industrial civilization are charred wastelands when compared to their prior conditions (and to the rare wildlands as yet beyond modernity’s reach), and a post-apocalyptic world is a world in which the expansion of these wastelands reverses — where frontier becomes ebbline — thereby allowing the recovery of wild verdancy to commence, with humans as active, contributing participants.  Thus, Mad Max lives not in a post-apocalyptic world as we’ve been led to believe, but in the late stage Apocalypse, where the struggle continues to keep the engines burning.
    In order to invert this grim cinematic forecast and arrive at a positive post-apocalyptic awareness, we must first understand that the myriad crises presently afflicting the Earth reflect the immune response of a planetary metabolism adjusting to counter apocalyptic conditions.  When we understand this, we’ll stop trying to save the shockwave and instead seek ways for the unavoidable cultural transformation out of the Apocalypse to unfold slowly, cooperatively and attentively rather than rapidly, violently and catastrophically.
    It begins with the stories we tell ourselves.  So long as the prevailing stories continue to paint the Apocalypse as a nightmarish tomorrow rather than as a current event, we’ll continue to prolong and worsen the very thing we are trying, with increasing desperation, to avoid.  We will also continue to miss the opportunity before us: a better world.
    The Mount St. Helens blast zone shows us what we might anticipate.  Instead of the long grey centuries predicted by the experts, the scorched and leveled landscape erupted green only days into the aftermath.  Yes, by comparison, the industrial shockwave is of a whole different order, having created a blast zone on a global scale.  But the same planetary response will likely hold true.  Past mass extinction events offer supporting evidence; they tend to be followed by mass diversification events.  The present age of mammals serves as a case in point.  Were it not for the K-T extinction 65 million years ago, we would join thousands if not millions of other species in having never come into existence.
    We might find inspiration from the only dinosaurs who did survive: the birds.  And not only did they survive, they flourished, branching into ten thousand species, filling the world with color, song and unmatched beauty.  Imagine if we took their example to heart and strove to diversify into ten thousand cultures, each fully integrated into its local ecosystem and committed to the celebration of the Earth through story, art and music.  What kind of an age might we usher into being?  What kind of beauty?  
    The only way to find out is to make this our intention. Like the scientists who first set foot in the Mount St. Helens blast zone following the eruption, we will step into the future expecting nothing, but finding green shoots breaking through the ash of our assumptions.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seasonal Round

In the temperate mountain forest where I live, my landcestors (see the 2/16 post) followed a seasonal round.  After a high country autumn spent hunting game and harvesting wild berries (as well as many other essential staples), winter brought them together in the lowlands to pass the cold wet months in cedar plank shelters built at the confluences of the larger streams.  This was the time for firelight stories, for filling the long darkness with the nourishment of community through words and songs.

Then, with the return of longer days and the melting of the snows, the mountains called again, drawing the people into the next stage of the cycle.  The telling of stories gave way to the business of nourishing body and spirit through listening to the voices of the land and immersing in the processes of springtime renewal leading to the summer ascent into the high country once more. 

By contrast, the present age of unvarying year-long routine and entrapment in the absolute indoors — rendered a-seasonal thanks to electric lighting, heating, air conditioning and refrigerated food storage — has broken the round for most of us.  In this climate-controlled reality, stories flow all the time leading to boredom.  As a result, the healthy hunger for winter’s retellings has been replaced by an insatiable hunger for the new, the fresh, the novel an endless technologically-induced springtime.  Thus, the time for reflection never comes.  Too eager are we for the next blockbuster, or New York Times bestseller . . . or blog post.

Which leads to this entry.  As a summer seasonal in field archaeology, I still live by a seasonal round.  And though this round is different in its details from that of my landcestors, one similarity remains: story telling (essay writing, blog posting) has its time and that time is now over until the fall rains come and the darkness once again eats away at the edges of the day.   Then the entries will resume, informed by another season of listening to the voices of the land. 

Until then, perhaps consider this pause an opportunity to reflect on what is already here, in previous posts and in the side bar pagesYou may find more than enough to keep you engaged for the summer, if not for many lifetimes.
And who knows, the work of wild integration may be so thoroughly enagaging, the arrival of autumn will find you too immersed in living your own round to come back here.  Nothing would please me more!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Ecological Integrity Talk

On February 24th, I had the privilege of speaking at San Diego Mesa College on a subject that may be, at once, the most underappreciated as well as the most important topics of our times: ecological integrity.  Click here to watch the talk on YouTube. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Landcestral Threads

In Braiding Sweetgrass, a book of deep insight and gentle power, Robin Kimmerer wrote the following in reference to her effort to make a friction fire:

My struggle with the bow drill is a struggle to achieve reciprocity, to find a way that knowledge, body, mind, and spirit can all be brought into harmony, to harness human gifts to create a gift for the earth.  It’s not that the tools are lacking — the pieces are all there, but something is missing.  I do not have it.

I too have felt this same sense of ‘something missing’ ever since I returned to the U.S. after living in outback Australia for two years, from the pivotal ages of 10 to 12.  I think my sense of ‘something missing’ was born of an awakening to contrast provided by reverse culture shock.  That contrast rendered visible my previously-invisible, taken-for-granted reality, including the holes.  In an effort to fill those holes — to be whole — I began struggling with my own bow drill. 

Only, I quickly found that my bow had no string.  In other words, I didn’t have access to the thread of cultural memories from an ecologically-integrated ancestral tradition.  My indigenous heritage (of some long-gone inhabitant culture of northern Europe) was swept away by an earlier front of the same wave that swept into North America post-1492 A.D..  I’m a child of the totally-assimilated, of those who survived in body only by joining the wave, becoming a part of the sweep and completely forgetting who they were, victims of a cultural amnesia they then passed on and on, right down to the present.

That amnesia has been compounded personally by repeated dislocations as an Air Force brat who lived in eight different places (Colorado, West Virginia, Maryland, Florida, Alabama, Colorado (again), Alaska and Australia) before the age of twelve.  Even so, my affinity for landscapes, combined with an intuitive awareness of a deeper continuity underlying each unique place, has helped keep me grounded.

These two sensitivities peaked in the Oregon Cascades, the ancestral territory of the Molala, a people who were swept to the reservations in the mid-1800s thereby creating a vacuum of seemingly empty lands.  I live with my family on four acres of those lands near the mouth of Horse Creek.  None of our ancestors lived here.  Old growth forest stood in this place until well into the 20th century — a few enormous Douglas fir stumps can still be found tucked among the second growth, obscured by vine maple thickets and overgrown with hemlocks whose now-exposed roots seem to be straining to reach solid ground before the rotten wood completely crumbles away beneath them.  

For many years, I felt like those hemlocks, except without the supporting stumps or the sense that there was any solid ground to reach.  I felt profoundly displaced, until I realized there are more kinds of heritage than those traced through familial, or even cultural, blood.  After all, humans — members of my species — have lived in the Horse Creek valley, in the shadows of everything from receding glaciers to old growth forest, for at least eight millennia and likely much longer.  Those humans are my predecessors in place.  I’ve come to call them my landcestors.  And by simply living here, I am their landescendant.  I join the continuum of self-identity that is inherited through this shared locale.  Thus, I have a responsibility to honor this land, to be a good landcestor in my turn, just like everyone does in relation to where they are, even if, like me, they are a recent arrival. 

With this one word, I feel more physically, conceptually and spiritually connected, grounded and alive than ever before.  As if I’m starting to remember.  As if my bow drill now has a string.

And so, I wonder if, collectively, where the idea of landcestry doesn’t exist, it might be part of the ‘something missing,’ a way for fellow immigrants to naturalize and thus gain the ability learn from the land itself “the deep reciprocity that renews the world.”  I wonder if it might offer a way to harmonize knowledge, body, mind, spirit and place, especially when the sense of landcestral kinship is extended beyond species to all our relations — forest, river, mountain, owl, salmon, cougar, cedar, moss, sweetgrass, everything. 

Holes fill in.  Pieces twine together.  And word by interwoven word, the spindle does its work.

A fire of belonging kindles.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls

A helpful visual aid for understanding the present planetary predicament is offered by the ‘alphabetization’ of our  global industrial cultural trajectory as it relates to everything from population, to consumption, to pollution.  The resultant curve depicting all of these trends (and many more) resembles the capital letter J.  Thus, we members of modernity live on the J-curve.  Specifically, we live on the vertically ascending leg of the J-curve, shooting up.  This is the pathological trajectory of ever-increasing growth/drawdown that we’ve normalized and are trying to maintain.  Clearly, in the context of a finite reality (relative to which, a spherical planet most definitely qualifies), this J-curve existence cannot long endure.  The basic nature of exponential growth confirms the impossibility of its continuation, since every increment of growth represents a doubling of all previous increments of growth combined.  At some point, the next increment will be too astronomical to fathom.  We’re near, or more likely, beyond that point.  But positive responses elude us because we’re not only physically, but also conceptually, stuck on the ‘J.’ 

That is to say, the ‘J’ is, almost without exception, the general shape of the graph statisticians are using when they make their dire predictions about pending disasters of every kind.  They all assume the continuation of present trends, thus we are given decades or less before some vital industrial nutrient is exhausted or an essential pollution sink reaches capacity, at which point, The End . . . unless we tap into our ingenuity and find yet another way to technologically postpone the prediction.  For example, the hydraulic fracturing advocates look at the massive quantity of subterranean hydrocarbons that can now be accessed with modern J-curve technologies and celebrate the extended decades (mere tens of years — less than a single human life-span) that it offers to our way of life heedless of the consequent ecological destruction that will last tens of millennia or more. 

Such an absurd incongruence between cost and benefit will continue to pass for common sense until we realize the J-curve is actually a segment of a larger curve, a curve with which almost all of us are familiar — the standard bell curve.  This curve describes phenomenon common in nature, particularly as a representation of population dynamics demonstrated by many species.  To imagine that the J-curve reality for our population is somehow exempt from the bell curve pattern is not only misguided, but dangerous due to the false hope it offers and the consequent failure to see and prepare for what is to come. 

As soon as we accept where we are, not only on a J-curve but also on a bell curve, the next essential alphabetization of our trajectory becomes clear: a lower-case ‘n,’ where the bottom of the left leg of the ‘n’ abuts with our position on the J.  Seen this way, the J transitions smoothly into a curve that will take us not only to the peak (the moment of sustainability), but down the other side of the bell into a reality of ecological recovery.

The paradoxical aspect of the n-curve is its recognition that growth/drawdown will, for a time, continue as part of the overall healing process.  How can continued growth/drawdown be a part of the healing?  Instead of continuing at an ever-accelerating rate as has been the case for the last ten thousand years right up to the present, growth/drawdown will continue at an ever-decelerating rate.  Deceleration is the key.

As soon as we embark in earnest on the n-curve, all the dire predictions (and the corresponding sense of tyrannical urgency they engender) suddenly cease to apply for the simple reason that the new trajectory does not maintain the sharply increasing angle of ascent on which the predictions were based.  Immediately, the curve is not as steep as it was when the extrapolations were made and so, we enjoy more time and breathing room.  

And in response, the curve continues to become ever more gentle, thus the total destruction of say, a forest, initially predicted to occur in ten years (on the assumption of the J-curve) will, (on the n-curve) take twenty years to destroy, then forty, then eighty, then 160, then 320 etc. until the curve peaks, at which point the forest, though reduced, will never be destroyed.  But the good news doesn’t stop there because the curve doesn’t level off at the peak.  It continues to arc back toward balance.  In other words, once the peak of the n-curve is attained, the forest immediately begins to expand and grow healthier again . . . at an accelerating rate!  And we are an integral part of it!

To help envision what I mean, pretend our global industrial civilization is an airplane at 30,000 feet with only ten minutes of fuel remaining and at the same time, it is pulling into an ever-steeper climb.  Clearly, this situation is not good; we all know what happens when a multi-ton jumbo jet exhausts its fuel supply at high altitude. 

Yet, even so, we actually do have more than ten minutes to correct the situation.  How?  To gain the crucial extra time, we need only begin tipping the nose forward.   Every degree away from vertical reduces the fuel consumption rate and thereby extends the duration our plane can remain aloft.  If we pass that duration engaged in an intentional leveling, followed by a deliberate descent, we will gain the additional minutes, if not hours, necessary to finally touch down, possibly with fuel left in the tanks, fuel we will never have to burn thus keeping it out of the atmosphere indefinitely. 

The most important point in the flight is the moment we commit to landing rather than the landing itself.  In terms of the bell curve, that point is the inflection point where ‘J’ transitions into ‘n.’  This inflection point is the critical point, because it represents the moment where the landing actually begins.  The peak, on the other hand, is but a step along the way — it is the median point on the n-curve, but does not initiate a new curve as does the inflection point.  

What this means is that the important moment — the transition from ‘J’ to ‘n’ — is not some distant hypothetical future event (like the peak is), but is under way right now.  The growing socio-ecological tensions all across the Earth and the growing existential tensions within our own souls are reflections of the tension between the immature, global J-curve culture convulsing in its death throes and the many mature, local n-curve cultures struggling to emerge. 

The sooner the transition is complete, the better for all life, humans included.  The fact that growth/drawdown has to continue (that the hypothetical plane has to climb a little higher to complete the arc leading to descent) may seem to contradict this claim, but if we keep on our present accelerating (steepening) course, drawdown will continue nonetheless at a far greater rate taken to a far more degraded (possibly terminal) extreme until it falters on nature’s terms and plummets.  This will yield an n-curve as well, only the speed will be so rapid that when graphed it will look less like a bell than a spike.

Realistically, any scenario in which growth/drawdown ends abruptly is either a product of fantastical thinking (if it ends well) or is reflective of a horrific all-too-possible catastrophe of the kind I do not want anyone (human or otherwise) to ever have to endure.  But so long as we’re committed to the n-curve, nobody will have to endure it.  It won’t happen. 

A key awareness, and motivator, will be the awareness that initiation of the n-curve actually represents the point of cultural maturation even though in its details most facets of our lives will look much as they do now on the ‘J’.  That’s the beauty of the gradual bell curve.  The changes from moment to moment are no more extreme than those that led us inexorably across the last ten thousand years to this culminating global crisis.  Again, what is critical is the trajectory.  An n-curve trajectory (if we give it our unwavering commitment) will lead us inexorably to health at every scale from the molecular to the planetary (and perhaps even beyond) as surely as the J-curve led us away.  Recovery of the optimum may take more than ten thousand years, but if we’re on the curve, we are, in a sense, already there.  We’re living in an ecologically sound manner. 

To illustrate what I mean I offer the following extreme comparison.  Imagine, 5,000 years ago in Sumeria, the life-style led by any given citizen of Ur consisted of a vast majority of behaviors and beliefs that we would classify as sustainable.  No Urish urbanites worried over (or even experienced) a dependency on the technologies of industrial drawdown most of us utterly rely upon today: automobiles, televisions, airplanes, computers, air conditioners, refrigerator/freezers, microwave ovens, or anything else powered by electrical current generated largely through the burning of fossil fuels.  And almost everything of importance in Urish life could be found within walking distance. 

Large extended families and functional communities with local markets provided far more bodily, emotional and spiritual sustenance than almost everyone in the industrialized world presently enjoys.  And the population of the Sumerian ‘world’ fell short of seven billion by several orders of magnitude.  Really, the Sumerians lived on a scale and at a level of environmental integration only a few of today’s most radical environmentalists would entertain as desirable, let alone possible.  Yet, using 20/20 hindsight (which we currently enjoy in unprecedented abundance), look at the long-term trend or tendency of the Sumerian life-way.  Little by little, generation by generation, the Sumerians and their cultural descendants replaced those largely healthy, viable beliefs and behaviors with the beliefs and behaviors that led inexorably to the global mess we find ourselves in now.

By contrast, an ecologically attuned and responsive New Yorker in a modern downtown high-rise exemplifies the opposite situation.  Nearly all the New Yorker’s behaviors and beliefs encourage — actually, they demand — consumption, waste (drawdown) at just about every level.  Almost all activities engaged throughout an average day rely on the combustion of fossil fuels in some way.  Only a miniscule fraction of the New Yorker’s existence could pass muster as sustainable.  Yet, if we extrapolate over time, given what we can realistically expect based on the most reliable evidence at our disposal regarding the limits of the Earth, the future of fossil fuel dependency and the physical, emotional and spiritual changes demanded by the kinds of ecological imperatives we are just beginning to face, the trend or tendency exemplified by this New Yorker is preferable to that of the Sumerian.  So long as the New Yorker maintains a life-long commitment to that trend — the n-curve — and passes the commitment and its consequent expression on to the following generations, the way of life he/she is leading can be called sustainable, right now.

The end-times so long foreseen will give way to a different era, an era of unexpected and lasting prosperity, an era we might call the n-times.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Possible Versus the Probable

There is no shortage of dire predictions these days, yet I can’t help but wonder how much self-fulfilling prophecy there is to them.  Other options are available, though they will require life-affirming changes to be consciously chosen and enacted.  Admittedly, the life-affirming possibilities may be highly improbable given modernity’s present momentum in the terminal direction, but if we focus on probability instead of possibility, we’re much more likely to miss transformative opportunities.  I fear some of the prophets of cataclysm may even want to miss opportunities so as not to be proven wrong. 

By contrast, I’m reminded of a story I heard about Jerry Franklin who was one of the first scientists to enter the Mount St. Helen’s blast zone following the 1980 eruption.  He and his colleagues had anticipated a barren wasteland, a wasteland they predicted would last for centuries.  Instead, he was greeted by a fireweed sprout poking up green through the gray ash.  His response was to cry out in delight, “We were wrong!”

Relative to the mounting socio-ecological crises of our times, how many opportunities to be similarly ‘wrong’ are we passing up because we’ve resigned ourselves to the probable instead of the possible. 

Needless to say, I don’t share the view of the prophets.  Too much resilience is yet left in this world and in the capacity for human hearts to align with the way the world wants to be.  Our challenge is to change the climate of our hearts in the face of the changes under way around us.  This represents more than merely adapting to our surroundings, because it acknowledges the mutual influence — accordant or discordant — of internal and external realities.  It leaves room for a different kind of self-fulfillment; of ecological integrity, despite the fact that the world is in a state of profound flux.  

Consequently, even in the face of great upheaval, our agency remains potent, grounded and meaningful, which for me is a far more satisfying and realistic position than that of modernity’s prophets who may have the statistical projections of present trends to back them up, but not the imagination to envision a different predictive curve altogether, a curve shaped like an ‘n’ instead of a ‘J’ (stay tuned for my next post), a curve to which we can commit our personal and collective energies at any time.  The sooner we do, the greater our surprise and delight will be.  “We were wrong!”