Friday, May 18, 2018

Chaos and Collapse Part III - Destruction and Creation

You cannot select one over the other. We cannot finally make a world with one and not the other. Both are reality. Both are what makes creation occur. We emerged from both, and the future will always emerge from both.

So I want to start with the eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii. It's not often a writer gets offered a perfect metaphor at exactly the opportune moment. Here's what the volcano did on Thursday, May 17.

https://youtu.be/-i7qbhkFP1Q 

 Is this destruction - or creation?

The Earth is in a constant state of creating itself. It's geological history is full of enormous events, many of them far larger than this one. We live on a molten planet. We live on a planet of tectonic plates, still moving around, bumping into one another, floating across the globe. Land that is here now wasn't here hundreds of millions of years ago. And land that is here now won't be here in another hundreds of millions of years. It will have floated somewhere else.

As for humans, we are of this planet, one of its creations, subject to these same realities. Civilizations come and go. There is no such thing as permanence, stagnancy, holding in place. If there were, death would soon follow. It is only our short life span on the planet - 80 years on average - that fools us into believing that anything we create will last forever, or that the planet itself is a stable environment.

As Kilauea is proving to us these days. (Or climate change.)

The volcano is destroying a good swath of what humans created on "the big island." It is also continuing to create "the big island." Like earthquakes, these eruptions are evidence of a volatile, explosive planet. That power is terrifying, magnificent, awe-inspiring. And we need remind ourselves that, even in these moments of destruction, that power is also what makes life possible.

The tsunami had no mercy on the Sumatran village of Aceh*
Like the earthquake that created the tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed 250,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India back in 2004. One plate is slipping under another, and it's one of the ways the planet circulates the various energies necessary for the life process to continue (see: 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami). What was an incomprehensible tragedy for humans was for the planet simply what it does to go on creating itself. It has no regard for us creatures in that process. But the creatures sure ought to have some regard for it, for our Mother Earth who birthed us out of those same energies.

Every now and then, we need to be reminded. Our age of industrial expansion and technological know-how, our civilization built with steel and cement, which our intelligence figured out how to make from the Earth's resources, and our capacity for harnessing the forces of energy into war machines, bombs that could destroy human civilizations forever, also the Hubble Space Telescope and Mars Explorer, airplanes and highways, air-conditioners and furnaces, have distorted our view of the "place" of humans. We have come to believe that we have power over the planet, that our greatness lies in our mastery of nature, of overcoming the "limits" of evolution. There are even movements of people who believe humans are not only the epitome of evolution, but can now consciously determine how it will proceed - for the entire universe, no less!

Such grandiosity based on this tiny moment in the vast expanse of space and time! In terms of cosmological evolution, as we know, our human time in that history amounts to a few hundred thousand years on this one small planet within a cosmos that is already 13.8 billion years old - and the planet 4.5 billion years. Our vantage point is pretty teeny if that is the reference we use to measure our significance. And there is at least as much future for that history as there is past, that future including the disappearance of our solar system altogether. Even colonizing Mars won't save us from that!

What seems pretty clear to me at this point - because the evidence is in - is that, unless we relinquish this grandiosity, this belief in our own genius to control planetary outcomes, unless we learn again how to live on and with this planet, we are headed at an accelerating speed toward our own doom. I don't know what that doom looks like - no one can really predict or describe it exactly - but I do know that it's not something I wish to experience.

So, the volcano as metaphor: human civilizations, human economies, human societies, human cultures, are all subject to the same "laws of nature" and physics, subject to the same forces that created this planet over millions of years - a process that did not stop just because humans showed up. As the volcano is showing us, that process continues - inexorably. It will destroy everything it has made and create everything that has been and will be made until the solar system blows to pieces billions of years from now.

How's that for a grand vista from which to look at our current predicament! While we want to "fix" the chaos of our time and hold off the collapses that have begun, from this vantage point we see both the inevitability of this enormous transition underway and our need to work with it, rather than resist or deny it. We see the futility of thinking we can prevent the upheavals, or control them enough to preserve the lives we desire, the lives we have, or insist upon having.

Right. And maybe they can find a way to stuff all that now-hardened lava back into the volcano and stop it from erupting again - and again - and then again.

For people who live in its vicinity, the Kilauea eruption is not only a huge geological event, it is also a profoundly local, personal event. Reactions differ - from shock and trauma to acceptance and awe. Many offerings and prayers are being made to Pele, the Fire Goddess, who some native Hawaiians will tell you is the One who is really in charge. This is her power at work.

At the beginning of time...**
Maybe part of our western problem is that our gods became too human and we started worshiping ourselves, putting humans at the center of the story, as if we are its end, its moral center, the climax of the Great Cosmological Drama, rather than one episode in the 13.8 billion year narrative of the unfolding universe. Maybe it would be good for us to remember why earlier humans worshiped gods and goddesses of fire and storms, birth and death, fertility and harvests, moon and sun cycles. There was a greater insight there into that of which we are a part and participant, and certainly a deeper respect for these forces of destruction and creation that seem able to humble us no matter the material wonders of our techno-industrial age.

When I first pondered this Part III essay I was going to start in a completely different place. I intended to write about how living through the Great Unraveling underway right now, the falling part, or as Joanna Macy has referred to it, the "Great Disintegration," does not mean that we ourselves need to unravel. But we do have to make some big decisions about how we are going to live through it, and how not unraveling has a lot to do with extracting ourselves as much as possible from what is unraveling. But then Kilauea happened and my reflections went off in this direction and I wanted to share those with you, see what you think. We welcome thoughtful comments and responses.

Which means there will be a Part IV to this "Chaos and Collapse" theme, because the question of how to live through the unraveling without ourselves unraveling remains fiercely relevant and even urgent, especially as our own socio-political culture continues its own rapid unraveling. As a society, we are becoming less and less capable of a deliberate, compassionate, intentional adaptation to the energies of collapse. We may not survive as "United" States. But what will survive will be what we create out of the chaos. Our best chance at making that a meaningful future will be if we can muster the wisdom and strength needed to create communities - deliberately, compassionately, and intentionally - right where we are, in emergent life springing up from the roots of the disaster, and having learned from it.

Life returned to the land around Mt. St. Helens after the 1980 eruption that killed everything within dozens of miles of the explosion. It's a new and evolving landscape where one can witness firsthand the regeneration of life out of the devastation. The same will continue on the big island over centuries and millennia to come. Who knows what it will look like a thousand years from now. Clearly, humans are not in charge of this one. Pele is.

https://youtu.be/tA6I6hVOFu0

~ Margaret Swedish

PS: If you have the chance, visit Mt. St. Helens and see for yourself. I've been there 3 times over the decades, and the return of life from the devastation I first witnessed in 1982 is just breathtaking. See for yourself how the Earth creates life all over again out of death and destruction.

* U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Philip A. McDaniel, Wikimedia Commons
** Hubble Space Telescope, deep field image
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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Chaos and Collapse, Part II

There is no way out of our predicament, but there is a way through it.

So let's look at what experience, our own deep personal experience, is telling us - when we pay attention to it, when we can work through the fear of looking at this irresolvable mess that humans have made and begin to see clearly how dire our situation really is. Let's surface that stuff and then see what it tells us about how to live now - because that's where we begin to discover, to perceive the way through.

In the previous post, I embedded a link to this article,  Hope and Mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding Ecological Grief. It is an important reference for me these day when trying to find descriptors for our predicament. I, we, many of us use that word "predicament" because it implies the notion that there is no easy way out of this, no escape, no solution obvious to us.

One definition of the word '"predicament:" an unpleasantly difficult, perplexing, or dangerous situation.

And another, even more illuminating: a situation, especially an unpleasant, troublesome, or trying one, from which extrication is difficult. Yeah, no kidding.

I'm guessing that most of you reading this, by the very fact that you are here reading this, already know what I'm talking about, already harbor those terrors in the night that come from an awareness that we are swiftly moving into uncharted territory as humans within this planet and that it's too late to think any of this can be "fixed." It's uncharted, unknown. For that very reason, old familiar maps can't tell us what to do or where to go. The maps that directed us here (and, unfortunately still do) can't direct us out of this mess. They only know one way to go - more growth, more technology, more STEM programs, more market-based solutions.

What will it be like to live with 3-4 degrees celsius of warming by the end of the century, given the surprises we are already experiencing after 1.4? What will it be like to see ocean life diminished to near extinction, to have the U.S. west aridify and the Great Plains states run out of water? What will happen when our coastal cities become uninhabitable as sea levels rise? How will humans behave when these crises crack the financial foundations of the global economy pushing us into an economic crisis that becomes our permanent state?

How clear will our moral compasses be in those times?

There is not a path to keep these things from happening, or to avoid that question. We either tear up the map and get creative about our lives in a big hurry, or we will be in reactive mode - reacting from crisis to crisis, each one eroding more of the foundations of our global economy, our social and political constructs, our cultural institutions, and everything else built upon this western, materialist, economic, human-centered way of thinking.

What we are looking for is the way through, a way to live as we go through this breakdown in what has been our familiar world, our comfortable assumptions for, oh, you know - centuries. It is good to remember that a lot of what this way of being has produced has been extremely destructive, so giving it up has profound benefits for the planet and a lot of the human community (most of whom cannot begin to dream of the stable lives of most white affluent westerners who assume their lifestyles to be the norm).

How one perceives this time has a lot to do with one's vantage point. For those at the peak of western economic well-being, it all looks like loss, diminishment, a rapid downward slide. But we have to also live with ourselves and our consciences. The truth is that we live in a world where we now know as clearly as the facts and science and economics reveal to us that this high-end well-being has come at the cost of living communities all around the planet. Indeed, it is the main driver of our ecological crisis. Therefore, there is no way around this great moral challenge - that this is not only no longer sustainable, but is profoundly unjust and cruel, and therefore those cultural expectations of affluence by right, or hard work, or chosen professions must be radically redefined - downward - toward a more just, humane, survivable, redistribution of the pain and suffering that survival through the predicament will require.


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To which I throw in quickly - also the redistribution of community, simple lifestyles, true security for all in our care for one another, rather than in collapsing economic institutions, of culture and joy and meaning that brings us together, rather than tearing us apart.

Sadly, "meaning" is a driver of fragmentation right now as more and more of the culture foments the notion of meaning as individualistic, based on one's own personal beliefs over against others', and in mere self-interest or self-promotion. We must keep in mind always as we go through this transition that we are NOT at root a fiercely competitive species bent on destroying one another. Competition is not our natural state, only what we have become because we have embedded ourselves in an economic culture that has distorted our view of who we are. It's like not being aware of the air we breathe, or the fish not aware of the water in which it swims. We are not aware that we are SHAPED by capitalist individualistic materialistic economic thought. It is not the natural state of the world. If it were, it would not be destroying the natural world, tearing ecosystems apart, and endangering our survival. 

We need another body of water. We need some cleaner, more refreshing air to breathe. We need to get out of this toxic environment.

Toxic algae outbreak, Lake Michigan
There is a survival instinct embedded in most living beings. Many humans seem to have lost touch with theirs. If the air we breathe, or the water in which we swim, is not healthy, not good for us, we need to clear it out, SEE the environment that surrounds us, become aware of how it has shaped us - so that we can get free of it and create living cultures that can shape, or form us, differently.

How do we do that? Well, not all by ourselves, though some rich contemplative solitude is definitely called for. I think the work we are called to do has a deep interior aspect to it because we need to become conscious of those forces, influences, that have shaped us, shaped our perceptions and how we approach the work of social change. If we don't become conscious of these things, we will bring those same paradigms and psychological influences into what we do next. To quote the pitcher in a favorite baseball movie, "For Love of The Game," who is working on a perfect no-hitter, we need to "clear the mechanism." 

What does that mean? It means to allow ourselves to bring to the surface the insights, the perceptions, the ways of seeing that come to us once we have "cleared the mechanism," cleared out the formations, distortions, and influences that have led us to see our world from one narrow vision, that placed blinders around that view and blocked our peripheral vision, our perception of the greater whole of who we are and where we live and of what we are a part. We need to clear away the mess so that we can see clearly how we have been shaped by those cultural influences passed down for generations. 

Community gathers at Alice's Garden in Milwaukee 2017
And this is where community comes in. It is important to create "safe spaces" where people can come together to share what happens when we do this work, what we begin to see, what begins to fall away. Alone, it can be terrifying and depressing. With others, in shared community, it can become liberating. In the space of that liberation, that freeing-up, incredible energy is released. One begins to realize how oppressive this way of thinking and being has been. 

Along with this internal work comes a new capacity to see beyond "what is" to "what can be." And by that I do not mean that we can find a way to keep the bad things from happening or to affirm that everything will be okay, when we know it will not. That's the old way of thinking, this belief that humans are clever enough to avoid the disasters that come from this way of life. Disasters are already occurring, and collective "cleverness" has yet to be their outcome. Rather, what I mean when I write, "what can be", is that it is possible to make choices about how to live while the chaos is swirling all around us, that we can lay the foundations for new cultures to emerge even in the midst of the unraveling. 

There is so much to learn here, so much this crisis reveals to us. Among the most obvious is the self-deception of the mechanistic individualistic view of the human world, the denial that everything is interconnected, that all life exists in community, and that care for those connections is crucial to the health and well-being of all living communities, including the human one. By masking the truth of this, the economic/materialistic/individualistic view of the world has allowed humans to tear apart those interconnections to the point where everything is falling apart. The fabric that holds life together is fraying and soon will not be able to hold us, and certainly not the ways we are consuming the life of the planet, for much longer.

My invitation then is this - to let the old distorted lens fall away, to remove the blinders from around our view, to allow ourselves to feel what this is, to allow our own experiences of the crisis, what we feel, what we know deep inside, to come to the surface in a trusted safe space of community where we can see it, hold it, allow ourselves to surface the innate knowledge we all have to understand how we got here and what we need to do to end our participation in the unraveling, to begin to wean ourselves from an alienating economic culture that is ruining the planet and corrupting the soul.

That doesn't mean it won't unravel. That means that "we" won't unravel, that we will begin to find the wisdom, balance, inner core of strength, spiritual insight to determine "right action" in the midst of the chaos.

I have something more to say about that, but will save it for Part III next week. Please feel free to share thoughts and comments by clicking on the headline to activate that function.

These are troubling times. These are times of great challenge. These are also times that could very well bring out the best and most creative in each of us.

~ Margaret Swedish

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Chaos and collapse, along with some seriously crazy weather - Part I

The chaos I'm pretty sure I don't have to tell you about. That our nation's political culture has become defined by chaos, dysfunction, unraveling is not news. It is a continuing unfolding, one that began before the most inexperienced, corrupt, and undoubtedly criminal enterprise in our recent history came to occupy the White House. As I have written or spoken elsewhere, this shocking political occurrence is not cause, it is outcome, effect, of forces at work in the sociopolitical culture for a long time.

The breaking-apart of that culture is accelerating. As we have also written before, that unraveling is unstoppable, the playing out of one of the basic laws of physics - the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Or, in other words, the energy that arrived on the eastern shores, especially in the 1600s, with the intention of colonizing the continent in the service of European monarchies, and that brutally conquered the tens of millions of people who already lived here, that brought slaves from Africa to do the work of actually building the nation, that built empire and military might and an extreme version of western capitalism, is entering the last stage of that process - which is collapse.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Warriors

Not everyone likes that word, but I have seen plenty of warriors lately, and I don't just mean in the week-long training retreat for Warriors for the Human Spirit from which I returned 6 days ago, the beginning of what I think will be a long journey for me and for this work we do under the umbrella of our non-profit.

It will take "warriors" to lead us through this time. It will take the best of spiritual warriorship, the training, discipline, balance, equanimity, and, above all, compassion, necessary to see reality clearly and re-learn how to live - even in the face of calamity and catastrophe.

Like living through the massacre of your high school friends, holding their hands as they bleed out on the floor of their classrooms, and emerging with a clear, prophetic, compelling moral voice that puts the meekness and passivity of this culture to shame.

From the deck of the retreat center
But before getting to that, first a few words about the retreat.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Preparing to become a "Warrior for the Human Spirit"

[On Thursday March 15, I head out to a retreat center in Crestone, Colorado, for the first part of an 8-month long training program called, Warriors for the Human Spirit. This marks a significant turning point in the work I've been doing for at least 14 years now on the ecological crises of our times - what it is, what's actually happening, what it means for us as life as we've known it unravels all around us. How will we live? Who will we be? What choices will we make as we walk through these times?

We begin and end with week-long retreats in Crestone, while in between we work by teleconference, in small groups, and in our daily disciplines. The point of this is not for personal benefit, although there will be plenty. The point is to gain skills to help us maneuver down the path of uncertainty, crisis, risk, letting go the familiar and embarking on the new adventure before us - like it or not.


This post is in anticipation of this journey. Donations to support the Center for New Creation as this writer takes up this commitment will be enormously appreciated.]

When I first started to write a new post a couple of weeks ago, still reeling from the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, this was the headline I had chosen: "We cannot make new creation while armed to the teeth." Certainly felt, sounded, about right. Still does. It is a profound truth, and one hardly knows where to begin to figure out how to grapple with that. I often think we need to accept that we can't do "new" creation here, not as a nation, at least not now, and that it will come from other places in our world. Collapse feels inevitable, something that has to play itself out in a culture truly coming apart at the seams.

Monday, January 29, 2018

State of the Union - greasing the skids for collapse

Hard not to believe that most of what comes from the politics of the day is doing exactly that - greasing the slide for the accelerating pace of our cultural and ecological decline. Sometimes I get a kind of brain freeze trying to fit together alternative realities - like how well the economy is doing, how low unemployment is, how insane the bull market in stocks continues to be (creating lavish amounts of paper or digital-only wealth), how strong we are, how powerful, how bright the future...

...with the record rates of suicide, especially among middle aged men, the national crisis of opioid addiction and overdose deaths, the gun violence (several mass shootings already this year), the open white supremacist and antisemitic rhetoric, the rise in poverty rates, the numbers of low-wage workers supplementing their nutrition at food banks and soup kitchens, and on and on.

We are a nation seriously lying to itself.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Warriors training: learning how to live in 'THIS' world

It's the only one we have. And while we may have wished, and wish every day, for a different one, this is the world within which we live, the one humans have made. Every day we have to live in the only world that exists.

And most every day, as 2017 ended and 2018 began, I have been reflecting on how to do that - because we can't change this one, not at the big scale, not the one where smartphones are in the hands of more than 77% of the U.S. population and Amazon.com will deliver just about anything to your doorstep, with free shipping and lots and lots of paper and plastic packaging, not when millions are planning dozens of plane trips for business and vacation, not when automakers are filling an endless hunger for bigger and bigger personal vehicles, not when all the signs are that the human world is driving the ecological systems of the planet to the brink of unraveling.