Sunday, February 10, 2019

Dancing with Ulysses

"While it is yet unknowable if humans have the capacity to actually reverse climate change, a small number of activists have already shifted the conversation."





Last night I was watching a performance by young schoolchildren in the central park of my rural village. They stood in a line and sang as a teacher coached them to remember the words. Most were singing, and some were loud and boisterous while others were muted and shy. One little boy drew my eye because he was just standing still. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look. He was looking out from this stage, arms flat at his sides, staring into a large crowd that included his family and all his neighbors and knowing he was expected to perform but he was just frozen.

Sometimes I feel like that kid. It doesn’t happen to me during public speaking anymore. It comes in quiet times, when I am alone with my thoughts.

I recall one such moment in particular, and the date — October 16, 2007 — because the Eureka revelation came as I was driving to the airport in Houston, Texas to pick up a friend who would be attending the ASPO Peak Oil conference with me. In some of my writings I have called it my Houston moment. I was not struck with a light from a flying saucer, although perhaps thousands of others around the world were at that moment undergoing a similar experience, but rather, in the quiet of that drive, it came to me that humans would soon be extinct, possibly as soon as this century. I felt no fright or dread. No personal sense of blame. Yet, I was convinced there was no escaping it. Perhaps it had been determined before I was born. It was now merely something that would happen. It could be delayed for a bit, but not prevented.

In this world of universal information, all of us, at some point in our lives, may get to have our Houston moment. One of my friends, who sat next to me the following day, committed suicide after his. He had not yet had his revelation when we were together that time in Houston, nor did we discuss mine, because he was not attuned to the climate problem then. His mind burned brightly and when he finally had his moment he unwound fast. He never got to the next phase, accepting and choosing to act with full knowledge. Another friend at that conference was Jan Lundberg, whose own moment had come before my own, and who was for me a model of unalterable activism in the face of impossible odds.
Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour
and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor — let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,
before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.
Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re worthy of you and real.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Dear Darkening Ground, Book of Hours, I 61

The deer-in-the-headlights experience is brief and what happens after that can be more meaningful if you are willing to let it play out. I observe that for those prone to depression (get more sunlight, friends!), the post-moment period lends itself to morose introspection that can be disabling, even fatal. But if, like Professor Guy McPherson, you are blessed with a sense of humor, you can compensate by making fun of the predicament, which is not a bad way to go through life. It is more fun, anyway. After the peak moment you should not enjoy life any less than you did before. Life as a planetary process continues. We shouldn’t take ourselves, the two-legged naked apes, too seriously.
Tennyson said, through the voice of his Ulysses:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea
Ulysses is an incurable wanderer and seaman. He will drain his vital essence until he reaches the sediment at the bottom, regardless of whether his friends and family like it, or whether his path has become more difficult and dangerous. Bold adventure is his calling.

For ones to whom a life of political or social activism is their calling, you do not retreat to a cave merely because you have glimpsed some storm clouds. You advance “through scudding drifts;” you plunge ahead and work without the prospect of tangible reward or hope for success. The game is the reward.
Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared beneath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known you’d ever say goodbye
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have to miss the dance
Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I the king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know I might have changed it all
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance
Yes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.
— Tony Arata, The Dance, performed by Garth Brooks

Those of us who have left behind our frozen moment and chosen the path of Ulysses have, over these last few years, changed the conversation in the corridors of power. Regenerative systems designer Daniel Wahl, in his interview for the ecovillage web summit this week, observed that in UN climate summits in Paris, Marrakech and Bonn prior to 2018, the main words being used to describe the way out were still “adaptation and mitigation.” In Katowice in 2018, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez for the first time adopted the words of Project Drawdown, the International Biochar Initiative, the Commonwealth Secretariat and others, and began speaking of “reversing climate change.” With that shift of language, the studies of negative emissions technologies and natural climate geotherapies (agroforestry, permaculture, biochar, aquaculture, etc.) suddenly moved from offstage to stage center.

While it is yet unknowable if humans have the collective capacity to act quickly enough to actually reverse climate change, what can be said is that a small number of activists in the ecovillage, bioregional, and permaculture worlds have already changed the conversation.

If there will be salvation for our kind, it must pass through that reversing door. We have set a lantern there. Wahl quoted (without attribution to Herman Kahn or Al Gore) the aphorism, “We must do the impossible because the probable is unthinkable.”

This too we know: each and every one of us will have our deer-in-the-headlights moment when we realize we really did blow up the Holocene and it won’t be coming back and that could be all she wrote for homo sapiens. Then arrives, in the echo of that thunderclap, the realization that accumulating property, saving historical mementos, writing books, making films, or building companies or concepts to outlive yourself are all meaningless activities when placed into a context of Near Term Human Extinction. What matters is… What? What matters is what happens next to each and every one of us.

Remembering the sensation that Alan Watts called The Wisdom of Insecurity, or that Arnold Mindell describes in Sitting in the Fire, — living fully in the moment, not knowing, but being content with unknowing — is a better skill to develop than trying to know everything or to be constantly battling boredom while surfing channels on your phone. This complex, living, dynamic system of which we are part and which we co-created with our actions or inactions, is too complex to be predicted and controlled anyway. Indeed the very act of attempting control, such as with AI, changes it enough to make it unpredictable again.

By accepting our own mortality, and the termination of our line, rather than becoming catatonic or despairing, we can continue to function in a positive, healing way. We may even change how the story ends. If enough of us abandon aspirations for self-aggrandizement and join with neighbors to plant trees and grow food, we could, dear friends, reverse climate change. My point is that it may take each of us coming to terms with annihilation for that to happen, and the sooner those moments come, the better for us all.

That little boy on the stage with the deer-in-the-highlights look will get over it. The next time he will be singing as full-throated as anyone, and maybe the little girl next to him will be the one who is frozen. It goes around.

The frozen moment has an inevitability for each of us but is a transient phase. In what comes next resides all hope.



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2 comments:

Don Stewart said...

Human Extinction, Carlyle; Jonathan Edwards; Christopher Lasch

Mr. Bates observes the peace and calm that can occur when one seriously accepts the notion of Near Term Human Extinction. I have a suggestion for those seeking peace and calm in these uncertain times. I suggest getting a copy of Christopher Lasch’s 1991 book (republished in 2019), The True and Only Heaven: Progress and It’s Critics. To cut to the chase relevant to NTHE, begin on page 239 of the 2019 reprint:

'For Carlyle, culture is the cloak of custom that makes the world seem familiar and thus stifles the capacity for wonder….means by wonder the acknowledgment of dependence’. Think for a second about our culture of digital diversions.

A few pages later Lasch takes up the arguments of the American Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards:

‘Edwards attack is directed not against ordinary selfishness but against our expectation of happiness, our assumption that happiness belongs to us as a God-given right….benevolence towards the whole world of mankind, or even all created sensible natures throughout the universe.’

I’ll contrast Edwards theology with the common ideas of ‘buying indulgences’, or ‘rewards for good behavior’. Carlyle had emphasized ‘seeing reality for the way it is’…and just suppose, for the sake of argument, that we cannot buy indulgences and our good behavior will not necessarily be rewarded with our own personal happiness. ‘impossible to reconcile their expectations of worldly success and happiness…with the idea of a just, loving, and all-powerful creator. Unable to conceive of a God who does not regard human happiness as the be-all and end-all of creation’.

A Vegan frequently thinks that by refusing to eat cattle, they are minimizing suffering. But a realistic view would perceive that if there were not cattle in the grasslands, then they would be populated by bison who would die rather miserable deaths from natural causes or being torn apart by predators. Cattle CAN be killed by the most humane methods Temple Grandin can devise. Most Climate Change analyses begin with the notion that humanity can surely figure out a way to deal with the issues without diminishing our ability to manipulate the world for our own pleasure. Many Democrats think that virtue signaling can solve our problems, and the 16 trillion dollar federal debt can be safely ignored. The New York Times thinks that war with Russia is the answer. In short, there isn’t any ‘true and only heaven’ which does not involve tragedy.

Once we accept the notion that a God who cares deeply about human happiness would not have waited 15 billion years to send a savior into the world, and is not likely to be interested in selling us indulgences, we come closer to the theology of Edwards. As Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, Edwards morality is more suited to angels than to human beings.

‘Curiously enough, the concept of happiness may explain as well as any other why the virtue that enables us to live in peace with our neighbors matters so much less, in Edwards scheme of things, than the virtue that ‘softens and sweetens the mind’ and thus enables us to live in peace with God—who ‘himself is in effect being in general’.

Don Stewart

Ian Graham said...

Good piece Albert, and apparently from the context the timeline from inspiration to publishing was 24 hrs. And you reveal that you have had the, call it, premonition of human extinction since Oct 2007. Ive been reading this blog long enough to recognize the ebbs and flows of your outlook in that regard, but you never revealed the Moment.
I had my 65th birthday today and my family surprised me be gathering together at our mother's home to salute me, (I suppose). In the course of conversation I had the floor and shared why now at this late age, I've become committed to environmental action, through the Extinction Rebellion movement. A rebellion for Life. Maybe I gave them some at least, their deer in the headlights moment, as you have done for me.

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