Thursday, October 23, 2008

Transition Town

This blog has railed against the low mileage model of lament and finger pointing many times. During this period of turmoil the human spirit is countering with it's biggest weapons: altruism and optimism. Its the irony of human endeavour, that, we are at our best during adversity. With that in mind, we can look at historical sentiment and 21st century reality for answers.

Toward the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson realized the American Revolution had failed to provide institutional mechanisms to keep the creative spirit of insurrection alive in the populace. He wanted to institute a township system, giving more self-determination to local communities, or "elementary republics." For Jefferson, the goal of a democratic republic was to make everybody feel "that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election one day a year but every day." He worried that the representational government devised by the federalists had deprived people of a public space where their freedom could be meaningfully exercised.

Unlikely as it seems, the Jeffersonian model may get its chance in the next few years, due to the converging forces of peak oil and climate change. Richard Heinberg, author of 'Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World', calls the project that confronts us "a species-wide effort toward self-limitation." Such a project requires global coordination and cooperation to reduce resource consumption and energy use, while industrialized countries "forgo further conventional economic growth in favor of a costly transition to alternative energy sources." For Heinberg's 'powerdown' approach to work, the world would quickly decentralize food, energy and industrial production, and return a great amount of decision-making power to local communities.

We are facing a difficult transition that needs to occur at a rapid pace if we don't want to experience dire consequences. According to Robert Hirsch, author of a 2005 US Department of Energy report on peak oil, the problem is "much worse than the worst that we could think of. . . . The risk to our economies and our civilization are enormous, and people don't want to hear that." We use oil to make our food and most of our consumer goods. David Korten notes, "Without oil, much of the capital infrastructure underlying modern life becomes an unusable asset, including the infrastructure of suburbia, the global trading system and the industrial food production, processing and distribution system."

The downsizing of life is going to be a hard sell, but not necessarily an impossible one. Depending on how it is presented to us, we might see reconnecting to land and community as an improvement over our current alienated state. As Rob Hopkins writes in The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, "It is one thing to campaign against climate change and quite another to paint a compelling and engaging vision of a post-carbon world in such a way as to enthuse others to embark on a journey towards it." Hopkins proposes that cities might be transmuted from "large, bland places with a few 'entertainment' venues, to diverse places with gardens, ponds, artworks, more opportunities for meeting and working with people and generally more to see and do," where people had "less reason to travel to be entertained."

The English 'Transition Town' movement prepares local communities for the changes that are coming. It is a highly successful and well-developed grassroots initiative ongoing in over 60 towns and small cities across the UK. Transition Town groups share information, meet with local government officials and organize courses in basic skills that will be needed again as fuel supplies diminish. They have also experimented with issuing local currencies that help to keep wealth within a community. It may seem a daunting and unenviable challenge to convince people to adopt such a program; one that includes personal and community sacrifice, a downshift into reduced patterns of consumption and the surrendering of some forms of autonomy for the general good. On the other hand, previous generations of people just like you and I have mobilized for wars and performed enormous acts of service and self-sacrifice.

Hopkins, one of the creators of the program, writes, "Rebuilding local agriculture and food production, localizing energy production, rethinking healthcare, rediscovering local building materials in the context of zero energy building, rethinking how we manage waste, all build resilience and offer the potential of an extraordinary renaissance; economic, cultural and spiritual." Almost any community can make use of the Transition Town model, which offers a holistic approach and practical tools for raising social awareness about the crises we face. Ironically, the virtual Internet provides the perfect mechanism for distributing tools and practices for rebuilding local communities around the world, instantly, so they are available as soon as anyone feels inspired to make use of them. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Age of Water

For tens of thousands of years, fire has defined our civilization. It is fire that has allowed us to smelt metals, to purify chemicals, to power cars, trains and airplanes, to pave over the earth and travel to the moon. Without fire there would be no silicon chips, no pharmaceutical drugs, no plastic toys, no guns or bombs, no televisions or computers. Ours is an Age of Fire, an age which is rapidly drawing to a close.

The Age of Fire is an age of separation, during which humans have sought to dominate and control nature. From the very beginning, the circle of the campfire divided the world into two parts: the safe, domestic part, and the wild. Here was the hearth, the center of the circle of domesticity. Here was warmth, keeping the cold world at a distance. Here was safety, keeping predators at bay. Here was light, defining a human realm but making the night beyond all the deeper, all the more alien. Outside the circle of firelight was the other, the wild, the unknown.

The Age of Fire is also an age of domination. The original technologies of fire mostly employed wood, thereby removing it from the normal biological cycle and preempting the natural flow of matter and energy. No longer did it nourish generations of insects, fungi, and soil. Today we burn oil, not wood, but the mentality of burning is the same: the arrogation of stored energy to human purposes of control, accompanied by the degradation of other phases of the cycle in an unsustainable pretense of eternal linear growth.

The unsustainability of our present system derives from its linearity, its assumption of an infinite reservoir of inputs and limitless capacity for waste. Fire is a fitting metaphor for such a system, for it involves a one-way conversion of matter from one form to another, liberating energy-heat and light-in the process. Just as our economy is burning through all forms of stored cultural and natural wealth to liberate energy in the form of money, so also does our industry burn up stored fossil fuels to liberate the energy that powers our technology. Both generate heat for a while, but also increasing amounts of cold, dead, toxic ash and pollution, whether the ash-heap of wasted human lives or the strip-mine pits and toxic waste dumps of industry.

The end of the Age of Fire promises a reversal of the course of separation and domination that fire has fueled. Immersed as we are in the ideology of separation, it is hard to conceive of a mode of technology that does not involve the objectification, domination, and control of nature. Yet such technologies exist, even if we hardly recognize them as such. They are based not on fire but on earth, water, light, sound, and the human body. Rooted in an ancient past, they nonetheless carry the promise of a "new age." Who knows what unconscious wisdom has named it the "Age of Aquarius"?

Water carries metaphorical connotations very different from those of fire. Water denies linearity: cycling endlessly, it is also the agent of nature's cycles, nourishing both growth and decay. Similarly it resists separation: named the "universal solvent," it tends away from purity to partake of its environment. Water is also the nemesis of control. Seeking out the tiniest crack, nothing can hold it in. As waves in the ocean, it destroys any bulwark. Whereas fire burns clean and purifies what it touches, water makes a mess. Hence the key to preserving anything - houses, books, food, clothes, metal - is to keep it dry.

Water, with its cycles and flows, its unruliness and its ubiquity on earth, could be called the essence of nature. Our dependence on water, the fact that we are made mostly of water, denies the primary conceit of civilization; that we are separate from nature or even nature's master. No more nature's master are we, than we are the master of water!

Yet for centuries we have tried to persuade ourselves otherwise. In science our pretense of mastery manifests most fundamentally in the supposition that water is a structureless jumble of identical molecules, a generic medium, any two drops the same. That any two samples of H2O, or graphite, or ethanol, or any other pure chemical are identical is a dogma with enormous ramifications. It implies that the complexity and uniqueness of objects of our senses is an illusion, that they are mere permutations of the same standard building blocks. Such a view naturally corresponds to the objectification of the world, which makes of it a collection of things, masses.

The opposite view sees every piece of the universe as unique. No two drops of water, no two rocks, no two electrons are identical, but each has a unique individuality. This is essentially the view of animism, which assigned to each animate and inanimate object a spirit. To a Stone Age person, the idea that water from any source had a unique character or spirit would have seemed obvious. Modern chemistry denies it and says any apparent differences are merely due to impurities -- the underlying water is the same. Animism say no-to have a spirit is to be unique, irreducibly and intrinsically unique. To have a spirit is to be special.

One consequence is that we cannot escape the effects of our thoughts, words, and actions. Released into the universe, they leave their imprint there, in effect reconfiguring the reality in which we live. In an Age of Water we will understand this principle. In contrast, today's ideology of the technological fix assumes that we can forever avoid the effects of our depredations, like an addict making the pain go away with another drink. But eventually, when the fixes stop working and the costs become unbearable, we will understand that, like water, all things eventually cycle back to their source.

An Age of Water will imitate the water cycle in its economics as well. Fire is the epitome of consumption, as indeed we have experienced in our millennia-long incineration of social and natural capital. Today, though, we are already seeing the precursors to the cyclical economy of the Age of Water. Waste recycling is only a start, as is zero-waste manufacturing, full-cost accounting (eliminating externalities), and non-interest currency systems. Eventually, all will coalesce into what Paul Hawken calls an "industrial ecology", mimicking the ecology of nature in which "waste is food."

Perhaps the most profound transformation of the Age of Water will be in our spirituality; how we relate ourselves to the universe. Above, when speaking of animism, it was said that each water droplet or other object "has a unique spirit," but that is not quite correct. The conception of spirit as something to be "had," and therefore extrinsic to matter, is a metaphor of separation and of fire. What animism actually implies is that each thing is a unique spirit, that matter itself is spiritual, sacred, and special. Spirit can no more be abstracted out from matter than structure can be removed from the water that carries it. The Age of Water, then, is an age in which we treat the earth and everything in it as sacred.

At the same time, water teaches us that the unique spirit of any bit of matter is not discrete and separate from the rest of reality. Like all things including ourselves, water takes on the spiritual qualities of everything that surrounds it; thanks to its ubiquity and receptivity, it is also the medium of this communion of all with all. Unique we are, each one of us, yet no more separate than two drops of water in the ocean.

Divine Pratfalls

Elezier Sobel shares his cosmic humor:

I once heard a contemporary spiritual teacher declare quite emphatically that in order to get anywhere on the spiritual path, one has to be “deadly serious” about waking up and being free. It seemed to me to be an odd admonition, given that enlightenment means, among other things, “to lighten up,” and every enlightened person I’ve ever met has also been outrageously hilarious. Stewart Emery, the founder of Actualizations in the 70s, used to say that one sure way to know you’re off course is if you’ve lost your sense of humor. When you come across a spiritual group whose adherents seem to “haunt houses for a living,” he said, it should tip you off. Being grim and joyless is not all it’s cracked up to be.

The enlightened ones kept saying there is no solution because there is no problem, which they seemed to find endlessly amusing, but if I understood that, I wouldn’t have been seeking a solution in the first place. I hated when Buddhist teachers would make gleeful pronouncements like “No self, no problem,” because as far as I could tell, I did have a self, and hence “many problems.”

But in fact the awakening process is about untying that illusory knot of self, a transcending or relinquishing of one’s identification with that voice in our heads that keeps calling itself “I” and “me.” The moment of spiritual epiphany reveals that one’s true identity is not merely this “feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances,” as George Bernard Shaw put it, but rather, one is in actuality and essence an infinite blank slate of primordial awareness. And if that’s not hilarious, what is? Of course, there’s nothing worse than when the infinite blank slate of primordial awareness has to perform ordinary life tasks, like buying pants, or worse, earning a living. That’s usually where all the trouble starts.

So although I have perhaps been too seriously pursuing a path towards wholeness for three decades, thankfully a lot of funny events happened along the way to keep things in perspective. Short of wearing a pyramid on my head while chanting in Swahili on one foot, they don’t come much flakier than me. I mean, I got rid of my microwave because I was told it made my chakras spin counter-clockwise; I’ve had the coffee enemas and the decaf colonics; a Feng Shui expert came to our house and told us to paint everything salmon, and a Pet Psychic came to the house and told us to re-spay our cat. (But here’s the really scary part: we did.) How many people do you know had an 8-foot long isolation tank installed in their living room, containing 800 pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in ten inches of water? I ordered one the day my wife and I got engaged, because I figured I might need some alone time.

It goes on and on. I sat alone for 40 days and 40 nights on a secluded mountaintop with no power or plumbing, took ancient shamanic potions in middle-of-the-night arcane rituals in the forests of Brazil, did a ten-day retreat at Auschwitz. After trying to wake up for so many years, I took a workshop with a guru who specialized in “waking down,” but I wasn’t any better at waking down than I had been at waking up. I went swimming with the dolphins in the Bermuda Triangle but they completely ignored me while frolicking with everyone else.

In the end, as Wavy Gravy famously put it, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny.” In “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the Woody Allen character cures himself of suicidal despair by watching a Marx Brothers movie, and it just might be that a good Seinfeld episode can be as spiritually rejuvenating as prayer or meditation, possibly more so. Aldous Huxley had his priorities straight on all this: when he was asked at the end of his life to sum up what he had learned from all his spiritual studies and practices, he said, “Just be kinder to one another.” That’s the Dalai Lama’s approach as well. And while I don’t know if Huxley was a barrel of laughs to be around, surely the Dalai Lama, whose people have faced enormous hardship and suffering, has retained his light-hearted nature and is well known for his enlightened chuckle. So after 30+ years of spiritual searching, maybe it really does come down to a few simple things like laughter and kindness. I’ll take it.