Thursday, May 25, 2017

It won't work unless we begin to think and work within the truth of interconnection, the healing of broken relationships

It was 47 years ago that the first "Earth Day" was marked in this country. It emerged out of a deep sense that our planet was moving into a crisis mode, that population growth and unlimited consumerism was not sustainable, that lethal smog in our cities, contamination of fresh water sources by dirty industries, toxic waste, and more were making people sick, shortening the lives of our children, posing long-term health threats.

John McConnell's Earth Day flag

We started to care about the quality of the food we ate, how it was raised, how it was sourced.

47 years! It seems that as a species, as supposedly smart educated westerners, as a culture here in this country, we have failed miserably at avoiding environmental catastrophe. One chief reason that remains almost impossible to talk about (even in a workshop with loads of graphs and scientific info and dramatic photos): we refuse to give up the economic aspirations of our capitalist consumer culture.

Every movement, every social change group, every non-profit organization working to "better" the world has to stop now and then to rethink things. How are we doing? Is the work having an impact? Is the orientation of the work still appropriate for the moment? What has changed in the culture that needs attention, that may alter the work we do under our mission? Is the mission itself still relevant?

I've been doing a lot of reflecting on the work of these past 10 years to get a better sense of how that has evolved, how our roots in the intersection of ecology and spirituality have deepened but also been challenged. I've pondered this question, raised it among many friends and colleagues. It goes something like this: what is it about us that makes it so hard to let reality sink in to these resistant brains of ours, the resistance to seeing that we cannot go on like this? What is it about us that makes it so hard to break with our fantasy world to see what is happening to our planet and our future in it, to realize that the accelerating trajectories of our western lives and economic culture have already put us wildly past the Earth's carrying capacity?

We cannot be supported on this trajectory. That is not an opinion. That is as much established science as the fact of global heating, or evolution, or that the Earth is round and revolves around the sun!

Source: Global Footprint Network
Yet we go on. And each day the path out of crisis gets harder, because each day we take more from the planet than it can replenish, and put more waste into it than it can absorb. There is a fundamental truth of our age that we refuse to accept, it's the one in this graph, which I have shown over and over again for years now. It is clear, it is stark, it usually brings an intense quiet to the rooms where I show it - and it changes almost nothing. Maybe some people reflect on the need to do more recycling or buy a more energy efficient car. Almost no one wants to talk about an entire economic way of life that needs changing - and fast.

We don't want that. We don't vote for it. We don't live in the truth of it. We still think affluent consumer lives are a reward for our hard work and lifelong aspirations, and well-deserved, I might add, rather than a denial of reality itself.

Antarctic Dispatches - NY Times
It's wired into our brains. And our brains have trouble connecting the two things - the consumer lifestyle choices I make now and the melting of the ice sheets at the North and South poles that will inundate coastal cities around the world in the next century. I mean, we don't seem able to connect those choices with the regular high tide flooding in Miami Beach, the deaths of coral reefs around the world, the drowning of island nations in the Pacific, and the crumbling away of shores and villages in Alaska where our own fellow citizens live.

We refuse the connections in the face of obvious climate change signals in record droughts, monstrous storms, record wildfires, unstable weather patterns, and every year, the record global heating.

So, that's one part of this reflection. Why is this so? Has consumer culture so rewired our brains with its addictive pleasures that we are no longer able to discern threats to our own biological survival?

The other part has to do with that interconnected theme of ecology and spirituality. Like many people in the past few decades, I have been powerfully moved by what is called "the new universe story," or "the new cosmology." It is a magnificent panorama of the creation story through both space and time that has come to us via breathtaking scientific discovery. It has collapsed a lot of old belief systems and shown us the possibility of breaking through religious divisions by offering us at long last a common creation story for all of humanity, the Earth, all her living creatures, and the cosmos.

That's a big vision. And then there's the reality "on the ground" where the same divisions exist, the same violent conflicts, the same deep injustice that marks most of the world, the same racism, and, in this country, the same inability for those who descended from the Anglo-European invaders and/or later benefited from this history to see the oppression that is their legacy - in white supremacy, in racism, in degrading poverty that puts the lie every day to the supposed morality or promise of market capitalism, in certain mainstream religious institutions that from our founding days as a nation have provided justification for the ideology of "American exceptionalism."

Oh, and then there's all those wars, military interventions, and collaborations with some of the most brutal human rights violating regimes in the world (like Trump's recent trip to Saudi Arabia and the oil/gas/defense deals that were signed there), that is the way we defend that exceptionalism, the economic way of life that at least some majority of people in this country get to enjoy.

Yes, I have had need to ponder all of that, especially with the shifting vantage point of where this project locates itself now - in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the country, with the highest incarceration rates for black males, with some of the highest rates of poverty among African Americans, where discrimination is so much part of the DNA of the metro area that people hardly notice it - white people, that is.

Earth from inside Saturn's rings: NASA Cassini
The new cosmology has brought many to fall in love with the planet, to realize the miracle that is the Earth. I mean, if we are talking about "exception," then this is it, because we sure haven't been able to find another one like it. At the same time, the photos from space, from Earth orbit, from the moon, from the deep outer reaches of the solar system, have shown us how fragile we are indeed. As we wreck this jewel of a planet, at least some people are beginning to realize the magnitude of what could be lost.

So these days I have become more and more focused on what for me is the crucial place of interconnection, the nexus among ecology, social justice, culture, and spirituality. The interplay among these dynamisms, if you will, or energetic interactions, is the "place" or "space" where we must focus more of our attention, to see these interactions, to see how broken these connections are, and why, and what we must do to heal them. Because if we don't, all the grand cosmological visions in the world, whether based in science or spirituality or both, will not keep us from destroying the human future on Mother Earth, or at least making it a wretched one for a long, long time to come.

To make the shift we need to make it at the scale required, we need to come closer to the planet where we live, to plant roots deep in her soil, to want to get to know her as we do a prospective lover - a being we want to touch, to listen to, to get know deeply, to probe, to learn, to see just how it is we were made for each other. We need to know the place where we are located, what grows here, what other sentient and non-sentient beings share the space with us, how they interact with us and we with them. We have to want to smell her breath, hear the beating of her heart, know what she needs, what gives her delight.

And when I write that, I don't just mean the flowers, the trees, the rivers, the birds - I mean the human community among whom we live. Who are they? What are their lives like? What connects us and what divides us, as we share this space where we live - our cities, our neighborhoods, our rural areas, our watersheds? What are the needs that must be met to support healthy, dignified life in the eco-communities in which we dwell?

This is not a top-down work. This is not led and coordinated by national organizations. This is an emergent work, grounded in the soil of our lives and our places. National groups can help serve that emergence, but it is not theirs; it is of, by, and for the roots that both take in and nurture the life energies that can begin to heal this industrial, economically unjust mess that our world has become.

Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock - video
This is why what happened at Standing Rock, at the Oceti Sakowin camp, mattered so much. This was an emergence, a coalition of people and water and land and history come together to witness not only the threat of a pipeline but something of what life ought to look like when ecology, justice, culture, and spirituality come together as a force for life that encompasses the whole by caring for the place of interconnection. It is because these points of connection are so broken that things are falling apart, in this case broken by genocidal conquest combined with settler greed that has continued to manifest itself in the violent rape of the land and threat to the water that is the Dakota Access Pipeline. The entire months-long action of the Water Protectors was done in ceremony - it was done in ritual, with profound discipline, and a sharing of labor and responsibilities that was evidence of a new kind of human community that just might emerge from these kinds of uprisings.

The labyrinth. Photo: Cheri Johnson
At Alice's Garden, the urban farm where I have a garden plot, spiritual caretakers have created a labyrinth out of herbs, have led rituals with chants from African ancestors and the pouring of libations. We are growing food there, but we are also growing culture and spirituality rooted in these two acres of soil in the midst of a city deeply troubled by poverty and segregation fueled by racism and structural injustice, and high levels of trauma and violent crime - the last point a result of all the others. In this "space" we not only reject those negative energies of our city's history, but we live differently, with a different sense of community. We consider it sanctuary, a sacred space, a way to heal some of the profound brokenness and distrust that is a result of that history.

What do the indigenous and the African American communities have in common that makes this so important? They are the human sacrifice offered up to the gods of conquest and racial superiority inflicted on this continent since Columbus first set foot on it. The land had to be cleared of its native nations, and enslaved people needed to be kidnapped, brutalized and sold here to create the labor force that built this nation. This is the only way that an economic empire like this one could be constructed, by oppressive modes of nation-building. Without these strategies of raw power, this nation would never have emerged as it did.

That violence was expressed also against the land itself - forests felled, rivers contaminated, land tamed for settler farmers, mines torn open for profit, animals hunted to near extinction, native life ripped to shreds to make way for human development. Surely it is time to take the blinders off and realize that all of this violence is also deeply interconnected. It has one source. It has roots in one basic orientation of the white western economic philosophy. And since this is the case, to think we can heal one aspect of it, like conserving forests and rivers, without healing the rest of it, like racism and poverty, is an illusion.

Which is why I believe it is crucial that we pay attention not only to "nature" and the cosmos as we try to heal the planet, but to the emergence of the peoples and cultures that bear witness as none of the beneficiaries of the economic structures of power and privilege can to the real brokenness of this world. There is an age of Anglo-European entitlement and arrogance that has played itself out. The Earth itself is screaming at us about the results of that arrogance - by way of changing climate, collapses of ecosystems, toxic contamination or manipulation of everything we need to live. Skyrocketing rates of cancer and neuro-diseases are not only practical outcomes of this way of life, but also perfect metaphors for it.

Nexus - the place of connections. This is where our work of healing needs to take place - not in isolated siloes of issues and causes, but in the places where they are interconnected. Ecology, justice, culture, and spirituality are all bound up in one another. Like time and space, where do you find the points where they are separated? In illusion, we separate them. In illusion, I can buy the smart phone and not harm the environment. In illusion, I have the mountain vacation house, and the beach house, and the SUV, and fly to Europe every year for vacation, and not keep pushing the planet beyond its many breaking points. In illusion, each member of my household can have multiple computers and smart phones and not bring harm to the places where the materials are mined, or to the villages in Africa or Asia where small children process our e-waste when we bother to recycle these things.

Only in illusion can big financial firms keep investing in the military-industrial complex and think we can stop war, save the climate, and finally get western control over everything to our satisfaction.

In a state of illusion, white people of some means can simply move out of a city like Milwaukee to the suburbs, taking their money and taxes with them, with no sense or care for the impacts this has on urban poverty and segregation practices, or on the land and waters where those developments were constructed and put under pavement. Development of suburbs and exurbs has an impact on people and places, on poverty and nature's living systems, but once they are built, who notices?

In so many ways, our western economic ways have caused us to lose our sense of just how it is that we are deeply interconnected within this nexus of life and community. Our cultural pathology is most evident in how we have tried to separate ourselves from that nexus, to live as isolated individuals unaware of the impact of our daily lives on everything around us. Coming back home to this awareness is the most essential journey of our time, because it is here that our work becomes part of what we call "new creation," where it begins to mimic nature itself. It is at the nexus of ecology, justice, culture, and spirituality - the point at which the mandate of social justice, an authentic earth spirituality, and a cosmological vision rooted in a common creation story come together as one organic whole.

There is no other way to live on this planet if our children and their children's children are to live on it at all.

~ Margaret Swedish 


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Monday, May 8, 2017

THE REAL CULTURE SHOCK OF OUR TIME: the realization that we cannot save our western affluence and power, and a human future on this planet

So, meanwhile, despite all the noise in the political culture around Michael Flynn, and DT's tweets, the election in France, the corruption of an administration whose family is freely enriching themselves by taking the notion of "conflicts of interests" to a whole new level - while all this continues and escalates, the dismantling of science and research in critical government agencies that impact our future on this planet also continues. The war on facts regarding climate change and our national parks continues. The war on nature being perpetrated by the fossil fuel corporations, now emboldened and further enabled by the GOP regime in Washington DC, proceeds.

In the morning's Washington Post, this article: EPA dismisses half of key board’s scientific advisers, Interior suspends more than 200 advisory panels. Get those truth-tellers out of the way. Get those people showing us that the world we insist on is no longer possible out of the way. Replace them with those who can reassure us, as we look backward not forward, that we can still have that old world back and everything will be okay.  "Make America Great Again" means returning us not to the days of union factory work, good wages and benefits, high taxes on wealth to support public education, highways, and parks - but rather to the days of the old robber barons, the ones that "settled" the West with their railroads, gold rushes, land grabs, and genocidal ways.

And so that's where we feel need to focus this week, to remind us once again that it is up to us to partner with Nature, with the Water Protectors, with the National Parks defenders, with the anti-pipeline protestors, with local environmental justice groups, with our best scientific researchers and agencies like NOAA and NASA/Global Climate Change, in a broad, powerful unstoppable movement to impede, and ultimately halt, these grave threats to our future on this planet.

I was heartened by the enormous turnout for the March for Science - actually, many marches all over the country. By the hundreds of thousands, scientists went out into the streets (a rare thing in itself), along with their enormous fan base (people like me), to defend research, facts, science itself, an event that in its necessity marks how far we have sunk as a nation.
March for Science, Washington DC

This broad cultural descent into willful ignorance, reflected in the current political regime in DC, in my state of Wisconsin, and many other states around the nation, is a stunning reflection of our times, of the demise of a nation that, in my baby-boomer generation at least, considered education and knowledge to be source of pride in who we are as U.S. Americans. To have political "leaders" who embrace ignorance if it threatens their campaign donors, their place in a hierarchy of power, their religious beliefs - this is something that feels absurd and incomprehensible to many of us who grew up and went to school from the 1950s to the 1970s.

We must remind ourselves that reactionary movements, especially as strong as this current one, are also evidence of how threatened the old powers-that-be feel with the changes underway in the world. That's why they are called "reactionary" in the first place.

To what are they reacting? From the days of the Civil Rights struggles, the anti-Vietnam War movements, the women's movements, farmworker and immigrant rights movements, the emergence of rights groups around gender and sexual orientation, the first Earth Day that was accompanied by the first research showing we were headed toward an existential ecological crisis - all through those years, the reaction has been growing with the creation of corporate-funded right-wing think tanks, Tea Party activism, and the rise of a form of Christian fundamentalism that shifted the culture to the right - and away from science that challenged the tenets of those religious and/or economic groups.

Per US eco demand & resource supply - Global Footprint Network
In fact, the changes to culture and knowledge over these recent decades has been disorienting indeed, revolutionary, a real upending of an order marked by white Anglo-European, imperial, western economic domination that has been in place for centuries. That order considers itself superior to all others that have ever been, an aura that is collapsing in the face of reality - starting with its destruction of the living systems of the planet, its complete non-sustainability as it tries to live outside the boundaries of the Earth's own biocapacity. Add to these upheavals the imminent disappearance of the "white race," including the recent challenge to "whiteness" itself as defining anything real (I keep wishing more white supremacists would get their DNA ancestry checked to find out how mixed their blood really is), the collapse of male identity as superior to women, the collapse of old strict gender roles and identities - I mean, we could go on.

This attempt to try to reassert cultural or political "control" over this upheaval in the Western European-American order is at the very least desperate, sad, even kind of pathetic.

But it is powerful and it comes with a lot of corporate money to back it up. Perhaps Trumpism and the rise of former CEO Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State are the best examples of exactly what I mean - an aging generation of "grumpy old men," corporate titans from an old world order soon to die out, feeling their power dwindling, their old world views collapsing, but desperate to hold them in place.

Kind of like the attempted rise of the Old Confederacy as part of that dynamic of desperate clinging.

What I think a lot of them know, however, (sometimes better than a lot of progressives know) is that the Earth cannot possibly sustain the wealth of the rich and powerful while also promoting the well-being of all. This impossibility is not an opinion, this is just some of that uncomfortable reality of facts and science. It is not even remotely possible that wealth can remain this concentrated and all people have enough to eat, clean water to drink, arable land for their crops, uncontaminated environments, dignified housing and work, education for their kids. The Earth can't do it, and we can't even attempt it without destroying the planet's ability to hold us, to keep us here. This impossibility is perhaps the greatest stumbling block of our time. Most of us who benefit from the western capitalist system cannot see any way around this, and so we hedge, we retreat, we go into denial, about how profound and fundamental is the nature of the redistribution of wealth, well-being, and ecological sustainability required for our survival as a species.
Source: Global Footprint Network

Those who know these things and are still pushing forward with the agenda of the global corporate and financial powers are making a choice with grave moral implications.

If personal and corporate wealth are incompatible with preserving the living systems of the planet, if we are already living outside the boundaries of the Earth's biocapacity, how do we proceed in the Age of Trumpism, of corporate control and financing of our political system? How do we move forward, instead of backward, in this Age of Ignorance in which we refuse to see our demise even in the face of floods, firestorms, record heat, and rising seas? How do we find any hope in the efforts we make in the face of daunting challenges like the yawning gap between rich and poor, the growing desperation of populations facing war, terror, and mass dislocations, and the rise of dangerous tribalism and racism all around the planet, a defensive reaction to the social, cultural, and economic changes underway - everywhere?

This is big stuff, and more than can be addressed by the actions of any single one of us. It will take broad collective effort, movements and strong coalitions, education and action, advocacy and political engagement, deep cultural and spiritual work. While none of us can do all of these things, all of us can do some of these things. But crucial to effectiveness is that we not act in isolation, that we avoid "silos" and bubbles, that how we engage this transitional era mimic the way Nature itself works.

The inescapable nature of reality is that there is no such thing as an isolated, individual act. We exist within a complex web of relationships in which everything we do or do not do has impact beyond us, reverberating along the threads of that web. Do too much damage to it, and the web can no longer hold. And we have been doing a lot of ripping away at that web in the age of industrialization and models of endless economic and technological growth.

In the framework of our current political culture, we are seeing an aggressive push against the knowledge and wisdom - the truth - of how Nature works. And I don't mean Nature "out there" among the trees and rivers, I mean Nature that is the trees and the rivers and also human beings interacting with them at all times. We are not a separate silo'ed life form outside Nature that gets to use it for our pleasure, even when that pleasure is a nice hike in the woods. That means that we have to see ourselves and our impacts within the truth of our interrelations with all other sentient and non-sentient beings. 

Part of our challenge is to look at the work we do as expression of the interrelatedness of all those threads that hold, repair, strengthen the connections that hold the web together, meaning that hold us - all life, all the communities of life working together. It is not a matter of feeling the pressure that we must somehow address the whole blessed crisis in order to save the world, but rather to SEE each effort we make, project, or action, or story, or poem, or workshop, or community gathering as part of that web. We need to offer our lives and our efforts not just for the sake of ourselves, our ambitions, or our organizations, but for the sake of the whole, for the health and well-being of the whole of life.

It is from that conscious awareness of the whole that the new cultures and spiritual expressions are emerging that can serve to propel us to the new experience of what it means to be human within this planet. We saw glimpses of this at Standing Rock, now an inspiration for the work of Water Protectors all around the continent and beyond. We saw this in the unprecedented step taken by scientists to walk out of their labs and research institutes and out into the streets as activists for facts and truth. We saw glimpses of this in the two People's Climate Marches (2015, 2017) that put millions into the streets to advocate for the Living Planet - because that's where we all live, and she is in serious trouble.

Earth from inside Saturn's rings. NASA/Cassini
What is emerging is a new experience of what it means to be human within the living whole of this precious little dot spinning in dark space within an unfathomable breadth and depth of cosmic reality.

The new age in which we are living involves this unsettling, even terrifying, awareness - that the age of a certain form of economic culture is bringing us to the brink of planetary disaster and we can't keep doing this anymore. We cannot have wealth accumulation based upon capitalist systems of economic growth and survive much longer. We have set in motion, and continue to set in motion, the conditions for our own demise - if not extinction (and probably not that) at least a future of terrible suffering and want on a devastated planet that could take centuries to fully recover.

These are thrilling times to be on the planet, yes? Here we are at the threshold between eras. Humans have been here before, but never at this scale, never with this much at stake. What I think I want to remind us of with this post is that reaction is not only not the end of the world, but is often indicator of an old world dying and a new one being born. It's just that we U.S. Americans have been at the top of the western economic culture for so long that for us this looks like disaster coming. For a lot of the world, and for Mother Earth herself, this may look indeed like an obstacle beginning to get out of the way. As the dominant economic culture loses credibility, new ecological cultures are rising up.

So as we confront this unresolvable conflict - that we cannot keep our way of life and preserve a human future on this planet - we are going to face the choice of despair or hope, depending on which of these paths we choose. We cannot have them both.

Margaret Swedish  - Check out my bio at our old website.

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