Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Story of What Could Be

It won't be easy. (source)
I wrote this originally back on July 4. Though most of us have forgotten about the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and the catastrophic and seemingly endless oil spill that resulted, the legacy remains, and will continue to remain, for decades. This story is about what that legacy could be, if we wanted it badly enough.

In the beginning, there was an oil spill. The worst spill in the history of spills. The worst spill imaginable. Unlike past spills, this one came  from a bottomless cup: the Earth. During the worst of it -- and every day seemed the worst -- the people of the world sometimes felt the Earth was bleeding out every last drop of oil. A wound, that's what it was. Not a spill, but a wound -- an arterial cut so deep we sometimes felt the Earth itself would die. Or that we would die. We wished for death -- of ourselves, of the other, of the person responsible--

--But this isn't that story. This is not a story of death, nor murder, but of redemption. This is a story of healing. It begins with anger, rage, pain, despair, it is true, but that is only the beginning.

So we have a wound, a deep wound. It was -- and is -- a terrible thing. No one would wish for this wound, for any reason. But it woke us up to the fact that it was and is but one wound among many. It stood up alongside the raping of the forests, the poisoning of the atmosphere, the destruction of the top soil and the desertification of our souls as but one of the great crimes of Man. This wound was simply so large it finally could not be ignored, as much as we would have liked to.

It woke us up; and, like dreamers rudely awakened, we sat as in a daze, gazing at our works -- and a terrible fear grew. We had destroyed the Gulf, bled it dry. Nothing could be done, we thought. In our despair, we imagined an endless welling up of oil. We were not far wrong. Oh, these were bad times.

--Yet, I spoke of redemption earlier, and healing. Can you see it? It is germinating -- right there, in the fear and despair. Some might tell you that nothing good can come of such things, but they have this to say for them: they begin the process, the necessary process, of stripping away illusions. At first, in our fear, we tried many things. Anything we could think of to staunch the flow of oil. "Top hats", "top kills", "junk shots", giant hoses and centrifuges to vacuum it up. Meaningless to you, I know, but to us, briefly, they were everything: we placed all our hopes in these strange techniques, these magics. They all failed. When they failed, as they must have, we tried blame. We blamed the corporatists most involved in the catastrophe. We blamed the bureaucrats who let it happen and the politicians who failed in their sworn duties. All this was right, and just -- partly. In the end, we couldn't help ourselves, we continued to point fingers, pointing on and on till none were left to be singled out but we ourselves. Who purchased the oil so drilled? In plastics, pesticides, pseudo-foods, dish detergents, children's toys, gasoline for our mammoth cars and heating oil for our gargantuan, far-away homes, our make-believe castles. We purchased the oil, bought with blood and destroyed livelihoods and crippled ecologies. We burned it and poisoned the air and acidified the waters. We came to understand that, even without the endless spill, the oceans were under such aggressive assault they had mere decades left, anyway. We came to realize that we, that we were the ones. We caused the spill.

Many shook their heads, they denied, they fought, they justified... but eventually all that fell away. When the visible poison swept through the Florida Keys and on to the Atlantic, nothing sufficed. Justifications could not stand before that endless spill. It stopped mouths and quelled hearts. There was silence, but for the tide; silence, but for the weeping.


From that silence sprang a new resolve. We came to know that our only path forward must begin with a realization -- an acknowledgment -- of failure, the utter and absolute failure of modern industrial civilization to protect and preserve the foundation of all things -- the land, sea and air. That path continued with the deep determination to restore and repair. We had lost all possibilities for happiness, for happiness depends on happenstance, on chance, on good fortune, and those were nowhere more to be found. But we did find joy, the unfathomable, ineffable joy that comes from good work righteously pursued. Our work to restore the Earth -- and our proper places in it -- required almost all the energies of humankind. We began with the Gulf. As you know, children, that work continues, two and more generations removed from the final cut that woke us up. Many more it will continue -- but it progresses. We believe that one day it will be restored, and work tirelessly for that day.

Though that work took (and is taking) longer than we had initially hoped, we no longer sought the counsel of despair, and instead put our hands and minds and spirits to work elsewhere, everywhere -- repairing, restoring. What else was there to do? Nothing. But there was nothing else we wanted to do. We rebuilt the soil, planted trees, cleaned the streams, the rivers, the estuaries -- all water became sacred to us again. ...We left. That was the most important thing, in many ways. We left places we never should have been in the first place, and shrunk our right places that had grown too large. The cities became comprehensible again and the countryside had stewards again, and in between -- wilderness.

Couldn't resist.
The work goes on, and will continue forever. What is to be done with the toxic waste, the radioactive poisons? Nothing but to guard forever. Sufficient cause to continue to exist. What is to be done about the upended mountains? Nothing, but to wait for the Earth to shrug her great shoulders. More than sufficient cause to continue to watch and protect. The cleared forests? We plant trees wherever we can, always with great consideration for their placement in relation to others... but we know it will be many generations -- hundreds if not thousands of years -- before they can truly restore themselves. We certainly cannot do that, yet we can help, we can speed the process.

This, as you know, is our joy. It is our reason. Our Great Purpose: the Restoration. What else is there? Nothing. What else could we want? Nothing.

Go now, children, play; an old man needs his rest.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Both Damned and Saved; or, The Inner Transition

I hope not. (source)
There are many types of transition we must go through to reach the better world we all believe -- or want to believe -- is out there. I consistently return to the conclusion that the most important, most fundamental transition, is the internal (psychological) one. Using less energy, walking and bicycling instead of driving, eating locally and more efficiently (i.e., having a higher vegetable/meat ratio), reducing waste, and composting (etc.) are all important, yet they're all insufficient. Completely. Even all together, they will not even come close to sufficing in the face of everything we know is happening in the world. To me, the true value in these actions lies not in the actions themselves, but in the mindsets or worldviews these actions help to foster. Riding a bicycle, while valuable as a money-saving, pollution-avoiding and health-promoting endeavor, to me finds its true worth in re-introducing us to the joy of using our own bodies and the beauty of the changing seasons -- and to the understanding that the fundamental crime of driving a motorized vehicle is its quiet theft of these experiences from us. It's theft, in essence, of our humanity.

When you know the joy of bicycling, the inner tranquility that a healthy diet promotes, the satisfaction of a near-empty garbage can, you begin to realize how unnecessary are so many modern "conveniences". Not just unnecessary, but actively obstructionist towards a fulfilling life. And that is when Transition becomes truly possible.

Part of the transition is facing up to very difficult facts. In an ideal world, we would have no urgency and could simply amble along the road towards a better world for the simple fact we saw it as a better world. But in the world as it is, we must, in fact, run towards this better world because the one we're leaving behind is crumbling, and threatening to take us with it. I speak, of course, of the twin drivers of the Transition Towns Movement: peak oil and climate change (with a dash of economic crisis thrown in for fun).

This particular post derives much of its motivation from two forces: a speech by Mari Margil of the PA-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) on the harsh reality of the state of the global biosphere, as well as a recent special issue of the Royal Society (the world's first scientific body) on the effects of a mere 4°C (7.2°F) of global warming, which could happen as early as 2060. As a practicing planner with an undergrad degree in math and physics, I am well aware of (a) the stark scientific case for why we're all (almost) screwed and (b) the pathetic political case for why (almost) nothing can be done about it. In a fit of depression, I wrote a short, sarcasm-rich version of this post which I have since deleted. I had made the cardinal sin of forgetting to look at things holistically -- looking only at our collapsing biosphere, I had forgotten about peak oil! You see, most of the worst-case scenarios with respect to climate change and global ocean death require something called "business-as-usual" emissions, which rely on a business-as-usual economy. Thank God for peak oil! Without growing oil consumption, the economy can't grow, and without a growing economy, emissions can't grow -- and, in fact, the prime likelihood is for some deepening economic depression that leads to global economic decline if not outright collapse; in this tangled web we call the global economy, the collapse of one major player can only lead to the collapse, sooner or later, of all the others. So we're saved! By collapse. But maybe there are other options....

It is fitting that we should be both damned and saved by our profligate use of polluting fossil fuels, particularly oil. But the extent to which we are saved rather than damned depends utterly on our willingness to make smart decisions now, while other options remain, rather than wait for the unsympathetic laws of physics to decide for us. It is a guarantee that we will not like the ways in which Mother Nature unilaterally restores the natural balance of things. I would like to believe she'd prefer us as active partners in that restoration, rather than passive victims of our own malign neglect. I know I would.

We have fallen under the influence of the strange conception that "sustainable" means "what I'm doing now, but better", where "better" means "more." What we're doing now -- collectively -- is the problem. What we desire is inconspicuous, painless incrementalism, where what we need is radical transformation. 4°C warming by 2060 -- that's a death sentence for the human race. And the fact that the only politically feasible option we have for averting that cataclysm is political collapse points to the extreme level of dysfunction we have reached as a people.

So what are the other options? I return to where I began with the imperative of the internal transition. The major problem is our expectations for the future, which are out of all sync with reality. They are also all out of sync with ourselves -- our hidden humanity. We've allowed ourselves (collectively) to be lulled into false notions of how the world is. The extent to which we are saved rather than damned depends on our ability to make this internal transition, to deny what we think we know and accept the truths of the world as it is. All else follows.

Transition Lancaster Newsletter #51, with much interesting news.