ANSWERS TO LIFE’S EXISTENTIAL QUESTIONS

13 01 2013

music:  James McMurtry, “Outskirts

Kate Wolf, “You’re Not Standing Like You Used To”

Last month, I took the opportunity of the Winter Solstice to reflect on the seemingly Quixotic attempt by the counterculture, which includes the Green Party, to change the course of civilization before we devastate this planet.  It seems I was not the only one working through a dark night of the soul.

Just a few days later, I read Jan Lundberg’s “solstice musings,” entitled “Waiting for Culture Change (or something like it).”  Like me, Jan has spent the last several decades pushing for, well, culture change (the name of his website/movement) and, like me, he is beginning to wonder if he (or anyone) will live to see the promised land, and, like me, beginning to wonder if he has spent most of his adult life in a futile attempt to realize that promised land, that “Earth restored.”  Jan wrote:

…here are a baker’s three-quarter dozen thoughts that came to me in reflecting on my past year, or upon the ending of an age, as we face an ever-dawning world:

• Paradoxically, this is a time of minimized solidarity — when we need it most.• It is undermined by the cherished notion that the world — nature’s womb — is forever our playground for individual gratification.

• Right livelihood — lifestyle change away from consumerism — is unrewarded except perhaps in karma or Gaia’s appreciation, if you will.

• Hitting hard with the truth that one has found is not necessarily appreciated by many people, despite creative efforts coupled with compassion, assuming you can get to them at all.

• The sharp distinction between the Earth-engaged person and the material world-engaged man or woman has not lessened, despite momentous forces and trends becoming more clear. There are the few who, while not being perfect human beings, live for more than just themselves, as they share their vision and go up against corrupt power. But the greater number of citizens just look out for themselves, being taken advantage of by the subset of sociopaths extending institutional conditioning to predation.

• A grand injustice inflicted on a front-lines “spiritual warrior for peace” and his family is nowadays only another outrage, a blip, in a world of hurt. Time was, supportive people might have rallied around such an activist, even if it were not about an issue as central as oil.

• Another paradox: as I get older and run out of time, I get slower and act more deliberately.

• If such action is not cunning and inclusive of self-interested parties, the chance of success of any given scheme or program is low. So the actions I can only do may only be dreams, if we are really ending nature’s garden and exiting life. Fortunately, dreams have power.

And, indeed, he came to a “damn the torpedoes–full speed ahead!” conclusion, saying

…I was thrilled then as I am now to be on the right side of the struggle to save the planet. “Having stuff” and property were my boring past. To focus on more possessions or wealth would encumber me in my mission……The Gift Economy is a real concept that I subscribe to. I hope that my personal trivia as told above help fuel efforts, mine and those of my broad circle of which you are a part, to encourage culture change all the sooner — no matter what happens with a gift-offering known as Culture Change!

“The  gift economy” is a powerful meme, and may indeed prove to be a far more potent game-changer than attempting to interest people in the complexities and limitations of “local currency.”For a local currency to function, participants must have either stuff or skills that other people would like, and far too many of us have neither.  A gift economy is based in the trustful view that people can grow and change, so that those who have nothing today, may well have something of great value to share as they learn and mature.

But the true clincher, the evidence of deep synchronicity, was yet to come.

music break:  Frateful Dead, “Estimated Prophet

The January issue of Orion magazine arrived in our home, and it featured an article entitled “Dark Ecology,” which, started innocently and pleasantly enough, with a discussion of the author’s work reviving the use of the scythe, a wonderful hand tool that cuts grass and weeds quickly, efficiently, and quietly, with no “moving parts” and no motor to fuel except the body of the human who is swinging it.  To my surprise and delight, author Paul Kingsworth quoted a lyrical passage about scything from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I had just read.  And then, the way a friend might swing from pleasant small talk to tell you he is getting a divorce or has just been diagnosed with a probably fatal disease, Kingsworth swerved into deep waters, saying

I’VE RECENTLY BEEN reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. Some books do that, from time to time, and this is beginning to shape up as one of them.

A writer I had never read before who, like me, is perusing both Tolstoy and the Unabomber…yeow!   Not only that, but he quoted the very same passage I cited in my solstice broadcast, the one that ends

I went back to the plateau and when I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it. . . . You just can’t imagine how upset I was. It was from that point on I decided that, rather than trying to acquire further wilderness skills, I would work on getting back at the system. Revenge.

And Kingsworth, like me, admits

I can identify with pretty much every word of this, including, sometimes, the last one. This is the other reason that I do not want to end up being convinced by Kaczynski’s position.

At this point, I could hardly wait to see what conclusions Kingsworth had reached about Kaczynski’s unflinching vision and tragically flawed logic.  Had he, perhaps, figured out something I hadn’t?  Did he have the key to the door in the wall?  He had certainly rattled on the latch and found it locked, writing

The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990’s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing. There is no likelihood of the world going their way. In most green circles now, sooner or later, the conversation comes round to the same question: what the hell do we do next?

Kingsworth, as befits a man who loves to cut fields with a scythe, was not in a hurry.  He examined “neo-environmentalism” and excoriated it for its narcissistic, human-centric, sucker-for-progress point of view, introducing me  to the concept of   “the progress trap”–human beings stuck in the paradigm of thinking that the next degree of technological improvement will free us from the mess that the previous degree of technological improvement got us into, starting from the time when Neolithic hunters got so good at killing wild game that they drove most Paleolithic megafauna to extinction, forcing humans to adopt agriculture–and it’s all been downhill from there.

Winding ourselves up ever more tightly in “the progress trap,” we now find ourselves staring our own extinction in the face.  What is to be done? Would Kingsworth come up with a magic bullet?

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, he had no magic bullet, only good, old-fashioned, “blood, sweat, toil, and tears.”  What follows is a slightly condensed version of his conclusion ( I strongly recommend that you read his essay in its entirety!):

And so I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time? And I arrive at five tentative answers:

One: Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance…is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.

Two: Preserving nonhuman life. … What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?

Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.

Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be. Value it for what it is, try to understand what it is, and have nothing but pity or contempt for people who tell you that its only value is in what they can extract from it.

Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. … ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm? Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?

….These are the things that make sense to me right now when I think about what is coming and what I can do, still, with some joy and determination. If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.

FOR NOW, I’ve had enough of writing. My head is buzzing with it. I am going to pick up my new scythe, lovingly made for me from sugar maple, a beautiful object in itself, which I can just look at for hours. I am going to pick it up and go out and find some grass to mow.

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8 responses

14 01 2013
Caz

Self-centeredness and personal gratification all comes under the heading of materialism which is a huge part of the problem, fostered by the enthrallment with pop culture; the remnants of a lost society. The use of political parties is one of the main avenues of deceit that keeps people separate. To wake up, we’re going to have to jump down the rabbit hole and examine the undrerbelly of the beast, which not to many are willing to do.
Don’t worry about the health of the planet, that’s another diversion. The planet will be here for quite some time and as Carlin says, a few plastic bags are not going to kill the planet. It’s human consciousness that’s at stake. We’ve bought into so many lies that we can’t decipher the truth anymore. We live on the surface of things and never dig deep enough. You have the right idea; STEP BACK: examine. We need to put down blind faith (although I liked the band) and pick up our brains. Knowledge protects; ignorance endangers as the C’s say.
After you retreat into the depths of yourself, I’ll be curious as to what comes out next.

14 01 2013
brothermartin

Caz, what’s happening to the planet’s climate is not “a diversion.” In many ways, everything else is a diversion from what’s happening to this planet’s ability to sustain complex sentient beings, especially since the only means of interstellar travel that may be available to even some of us is to “die” here and be reborn elsewhere.

14 01 2013
Caz

Stop worrying about the planet. The planet can take care of itself. We need to be focusing on the Matrix that has us entrapped. That’s a much bigger, all-pervasive issue. Fix that and you won’t have to worry about the planet.

15 01 2013
brothermartin

It looks to me like the planet’s way of taking care of itself is likely to be making itself inhospitable to us, but I would agree that the reason we are such ungrateful guests here is that far too many of us are trapped in a matrix that keeps us from understanding our situation well enough to change our course, and that the only way to insure that the planet will continue to be hospitable to complex life forms such as ourselves is to break out of that matrix.

15 01 2013
Caz

Right arm!

15 01 2013
brothermartin

I’m gonna presume that’s a humorous way of saying “right on!”

16 01 2013
Caz

Yep.

16 01 2013
brothermartin

glad to be in agreement with you on this one!

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