Friday, July 12, 2013

The Great Divide: Reflections on "The Great Work"

We cannot rely on the institutions that once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible.  The only route left is to disconnect as thoroughly as possible from the consumer society and engage in acts of civil disobedience and obstruction.  The more we sever ourselves from the addictions of fossil fuel and the consumer society, the more we begin to create a new paradigm for community . . .
We must stop being afraid.  We have to turn our backs for good on the Democrats, no matter what ghoulish candidate Republicans offer up for president.  All the public disputes between candidates in the election cycle are a carnival act.  On the issues that matter, there is no disagreement among the Republicans and Democrats.  We have to defy all formal systems of power.  We have to create monastic enclaves where we can retain and nurture the values being rapidly destroyed by the wider corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that will allow us to survive.[1] – Chris Hedges

The older tension in human affairs between conservative and liberal based on social orientation is being replaced with the tension between developers and ecologists based on orientation toward the natural world.  This new tension is becoming the primary tension in human affairs.
So too the political tension between empires and the colonies is being replaced by an economic tension between village peoples of the world with their organic modes of agriculture and the transnational corporations with their industrial agriculture.
This new alignment should not be taken as if the ecology movement were a New Left movement or a new liberalism.  For the ecology movement has moved the entire basis of the division into a new context.  It is no longer a division based on political party or social class or ethnic group.  It is a division based on the human as one of the components within the larger community of the planet Earth.[2]
 – Thomas Berry


            We are slowly awakening to the realization of our profound alienation from the basic sources of life.  Since the dawn of urban civilization and the agricultural base that made it possible some 10,000 years ago, and with astonishing acceleration since the rise of industrial civilization a mere 200 years ago, humans have been altering the life systems of the planet.  In the past, the scale of human intervention was such that any resulting harms were limited in scope.  That is no longer true, and it hasn’t been true for some time.

            Globalization, dominated by transnational corporations, now rapidly threatens the possibility of life that has flourished on this planet for some 3.4 billion years.  At the very least, the extractive economy at the heart of globalization is severely stressing the life systems and diminishing the quality of life on the planet.  Humans have altered the chemical composition of land, sea, and air, creating levels of toxicity that cannot be absorbed and altering Earth’s climate.  We are exhausting nonrenewable resources, such as fossil fuel, as well as renewable resources such as topsoil and fisheries.  We are living in the midst of the “Great Dying,” the largest extinction of species experienced since life began.

            We have entered into what cultural historian Thomas Berry names “the terminal phase of the Cenozoic Era.”[3]  Our generation is experiencing a transition to a new geological age on the order of the last major glaciation, what James Knustler characterizes as “the long emergency.”  North Americans are witnessing the first signs of the shift:  severe weather events, drought, wildfires, crop failure, collapse of fisheries, and wars to secure access to diminishing fossil fuel reserves.  Other parts of the world already are experiencing food riots, malnutrition, hunger, and lack of access to clean water. 

            The Great Recession of 2008 is the harbinger of a new normal in economic life.  The prospect of endless economic growth is dead.  We are finally bumping up against the reality of a finite planet that can only bear so much exploitation.  The “American Way of Life” was never sustainable in North America, much less for the rest of the world.  It was a function of the soon-to-end “Petroleum Interlude” and, even if it were not, we don’t have two extra planets to spare so that the rest of the human population can enjoy the American lifestyle.

            The consequences of our alienation from nature are almost unimaginable, precisely because they are planetary in scale, but they are increasingly hard to avoid.  For a long time, we were able to benefit “here” from our exploitation of people and places “over there.”  Now, we are running out of places “over there,” and the level of devastation unleashed by the extractive economy can no longer be contained within the areas of immediate degradation.  We are learning the hard way that Earth really is a single, diverse, complex, interrelated, self-reflective organism. 

Through the human Earth creature, the universe has evolved conscious awareness.  We are now responsible for the direction of the ongoing evolutionary trajectory of the planet.  Whether or not it continues to be creative of increasingly diverse, complex, conscious life remains to be seen.   What will we choose?


            It is with respect to this question that a new divide opens up in our political life.  The answer turns on whether or not we accept that humans must conform to the patterns of renewal intrinsic to the life systems of the planet.  Will we continue the anthropocentric trajectory of civilization culminating in the domination of Earth by transnational corporations, or will we return to a geocentric or even cosmos-centric culture recovering a sense of human presence to Earth in mutually life-giving ways? 

            This is the deeper question that neither of the two major political parties governing the Pax Americana is prepared to acknowledge.  This is because the parties are actually proxies for the transnational corporations benefitting (at least, for the very short term in geological time) from avoidance of the question.  In all fairness, however, the whole thrust of Western culture in its economic, political, intellectual, and religious institutions serves to justify the ascendency of the human over nature, if not the corporation over the planet, as the very epitome of “progress.”  Allowing this question even to come to awareness threatens an intolerable degree of cognitive dissonance.

            Thomas Berry describes our dilemma well.

            Here we find that we are dealing with a profound reversal in our perspective on ourselves and on the universe about us.  This is not a change simply in some specific aspect of our ethical conduct.  Nor is it merely a modification of our existing cultural context.  What is demanded of us now is to change attitudes that are so deeply bound into our basic cultural patterns that they seem to us an imperative of the very nature of our being, a dictate of our genetic coding as a species . . .

            The norm for radically restructuring our cultural coding forces us back to the more fundamental species coding, which ties us into the larger complex of Earth codings.  In this larger context we find the imperative to make the basic changes now required of us.  We cannot obliterate the continuities of history, nor can we move into the future without guidance from existing cultural forms.  Yet, somehow we must reach even further back, to where our human genetic coding connects us with the other species codings of the larger Earth community.  Only then can we overcome the limitations of the anthropocentrism that binds us.[4]

            This is not a matter of some specific aspect of ethical conduct: whether or not to allow abortion under certain circumstances.  This is not a modification of our existing cultural context:  extending the institution of marriage to include same-sex couples.  The corporate culture can comprehend such changes within its overall project of global domination.  This is why Chris Hedges can dismiss electoral politics in the United States as a diverting entertainment.  That is how it is meant to function.

What cannot, must not, be comprehended by the corporate culture is the idea that humans were made for the Earth, and not Earth for humans.  On this point, Barack Obama and John Roberts can readily agree.  It is no longer a division based on political party or social class or ethnic group.  It is a division based on the human as one of the components within the larger community of the planet Earth.


            From where, then, is our help to come?  It will come, I think, from the “monastic enclaves” to which Chris Hedges refers.  And those enclaves are emerging from a process of conversion:  a profound psychic reorientation of the human to her place within the cosmos as Earth creature.

            The human transition to a new geological age will require a new psyche and a new culture.  This will, no doubt, be a painful and difficult evolution.  It will be a process of trial and error.  Already, however, the cognitive dissonance has become great enough to precipitate a break with the established order.  We can no longer accept the status quo in the face of our suffering Earth.  The breaking of our heart opens the possibility of a new way of being human. 
            Along with the fear and even despair that accompanies recognition of the dire consequences of our alienation from nature, there arises a deep longing for reconnection.  The awakening of this desire initiates a kind of conversion if our desire for wholeness is stronger than our fear of change.  The truth is that we desperately want to be at home in the world again – the real world, not the fantasy world of corporate culture in which anywhere can be exploited because we are rooted nowhere. 

            Our rootlessness is making us sick, and some of us know it.  It is cutting us off from the vital energies and consolations that come from knowing who we are and where we are.  Authentic creativity and care derive from a sense of place.  We can return home again.   We were made for Earth.

            As physical resources become less available, psychic energy must support the human project in a special manner.  This situation brings us to a new reliance on powers within the universe and also to experience of the deeper self.  The universe must be experienced as the Great Self.  Each is fulfilled in the other:  the Great Self is fulfilled in the individual self, the individual self is fulfilled in the Great Self.  Alienation is overcome as soon as we experience this surge of energy from the source that has brought the universe through the centuries.  New fields of energy become available to support the human venture.  These new energies find expression and support in celebration.  For in the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration.  It is all an exuberant expression of existence itself.[5]

            The energy to address the ecological crisis must come from our celebration of a new mystique of the universe.  We must come to appreciate that all elements of the universe are alive with a capacity for self-organization, individual spontaneity, and profound communion.  Our fulfillment as human beings is intimately related to the well being of the whole Earth community, and vice-versa.

            This appreciation, however, is not abstract or theoretical.  It is a lived experience that requires careful attention to our relationship to specific places and the patterns of relationship that sustain life in those places over time.  Even the “Earth community” is an abstraction.  I am not at home in the “world,” except insofar as I am at home in this valley, this watershed, perhaps, at most, this bioregion. 

            This is why Hedges’ allusion to “monastic enclaves” is so apt.  Many monastics take a vow of stability, promising to remain in a particular place for the rest of their lives.  It is understood that holiness – wholeness – requires rootedness and the wisdom derived from knowledge of how to live well in accord with the requirements of a particular place.  These requirements will be quite different depending upon the place.  

One cannot live well anywhere.  One can only live well here.  Despite the utility of standardization, the allure of cosmopolitanism, and the rewards accruing to social and occupational mobility, life can not be sustained without the wisdom acquired through a long apprenticeship of learning the limits, requirements, and possibilities inherent in a given place.

            A new national or international program imposed from above will not resolve the ecological crisis.  That is the hubris that got us into the crisis in the first place.  The ecological crisis will be resolved as people “drop out” of the global consumer culture and rediscover their home.  Sustainability will emerge as new “monastic enclaves” create local economies, local cultures, and local energy sources congruent with the local ecology.  Health, too, is local.

            At the same time, however, these local cultures of ecological renewal will of necessity need to be cultures of resistance vis-à-vis the dominant corporate culture.  It is no longer a division based on political party or social class or ethnic group.  It is a division based on the human as one of the components within the larger community of the planet Earth.  The dominant corporate culture will continue to colonize and exploit everywhere, and so will seek to crush any attempts to become at home somewhere. 

            In the end, the only thing that will save us is falling in love.  If you love your home, your family, your community, you will make all manner of sacrifices to save it.  You will cultivate the spiritual disciplines and the moral virtues necessary to sustain you in the struggle to preserve what is worth loving.  The invitation of the ecological crisis is to widen the circle of love to include the whole Earth community, and to exercise the creativity and attention required to discover loves’ unique requirements in the place where we live. 

            And then, do whatever love demands.

[1] Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Brooklyn:  Nation Books, 2012), pp. 266-267.
[2] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 1999), p. 107.
[3] Berry, p. 4.
[4] Berry, pp. 105-106.
[5] Berry, p. 170.


janinsanfran said...

I am wrestling with this, John. How to live? But certainly, yes, to love.

Thank you.

Theo said...

Yes, how to live. I'm not sure I have the practical knowledge and inner resources to live well in the way I think necessary; that is the extent of my alienation. But I live in hope that others do and will, and I can do my small part to lift them up.