Category Archives: Relationship
I’ve always felt that there’s a deep connection between spirituality and politics in a wide sense. It’s all just life. The other day I listened to a podcast expressing this. “Insights at the Edge” podcaster Tami Simon of Sounds True was speaking with spiritual teacher and author Mirabai Starr about her latest book: Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. What Starr had to say inspired and impressed me, and I wanted to share the highlights of it with you, based on a transcript of the podcast (released 4-1-19).
Because Starr believes that “ultimately, truth, reality is the boundless, non-dualistic field of love,” she’s shied away from comparing the wisdom of masculine and feminine mystics. Not long ago, however, she “began to realize that the feminine is rising everywhere, and that the spiritual community needs to be involved in that discourse.” Feminine wisdom, she added, often “requires excavation, because these feminine wisdom jewels are hidden in the patriarchal overlay, since all of the world’s spiritual traditions were designed and built by men, for men.”
When Simon asked which of these jewels Starr wanted to highlight, she answered, “One is the inter-relationality of the feminine; the value of cooperation and relationship, but also the core-level, cell-level, physical way I think women and some men get that everything’s interconnected. It’s not a philosophical treatise about dependent co-arising. It’s a felt experience of inter-being that I think women have in general, and that’s emphasized in the feminine wisdom teachings. Another is care for the earth. Not that men don’t also adore our mother, the earth, and want to tend her, but there’s a way in which the feminine responds to the pain of the world that’s spontaneous and generous and non-intellectual, rooted in the body.”
TS: Yes. I thought one of the things you emphasized in Wild Mercy that I really appreciated was that our actual spiritual life is connected to the fate of the earth.
MS: That’s right.
TS: I wonder if you can talk about that, because I think sometimes people think, “Well, whatever happens politically, whatever happens with climate change, that’s not really part of my spiritual agenda. My spiritual agenda is to align with the moment and be at peace, regardless of what’s happening.”
Starr had “a couple of responses. One is that the way that we treat women is directly related to the way we tend the planet. I don’t think there’s any accident that this masculine-driven model of spirituality and society and politics has left the earth in the dust and done great damage. The male-driven model of doing things has caused great detriment not only to women, humans, but to the earth herself. The feminine emphasizes relationship, that we have a real living relationship with the earth. It’s not just an idea about climate change based on science, though I think it’s important to track the science. The feminine has a relationship with Earth as mother, lover, and sister. Feminine wisdom cultivates relationship and intimacy in all spheres, which leads me to the third kind of strong value of these teachings: inclusivity. There’s a way in which, when women come together, we include each other. I’m not saying all women are inclusive and cooperative and relational. Many women have divorced themselves from those kind of values. And many men, including the men that we all know and love, are deeply relational. But there’s a way that the feminine is now emphasizing inclusive, horizontal leadership.
The spiritual traditions that many of us were trained in, even when they’ve ordained women, are still patriarchal, still hierarchical. Even if the woman is the roshi or the rabbi, she’s still the boss, standing or sitting there dispensing goodies to the hungry people. There’s something that I really tapped into with this book that the more I said it, the more true it became, for me – that this is the time for leadership to be a communal experience. Almost everyone I know carries this seed of wisdom, and all you have to do is water it with your loving attention, and it germinates and flowers. I’m seeing that in all the groups and all the communities where I’m invited to speak or teach, the minute I make it about all of us, an incredible flourishing of wisdom happens. To me, this is deeply feminine – very much about relationship and loving kindness, and developing community by acknowledging that everyone has something to bring to the table.”
TS: This brings me to the question about the future of the patriarchal religious forms we’re currently seeing crumble. We’re in this interesting transitional phase. And when I read a book like Wild Mercy and permission is given to the individual to find their way among all of these different spiritual texts; to express their spirituality in activism, caring for their families, and loving whomever they love. It’s beautiful. But what are our future forms?
MS: The crumbling you refer to is really happening. The world’s institutionalized religious structures are dissolving and disintegrating before our eyes. And there’s a fundamentalist response to prop these carcasses up. But if you tap into the deep wellspring of feminine wisdom, the women are the ones who’ve always been the midwives and the death doulas. We’re comfortable with the messy margins of things, okay with ambiguity and not knowing. So we’re present for these death throes that are happening in society and religion and the emerging of a new kind of wild, unpredictable, radically authentic…I don’t even want to call it a paradigm, but reality. It’s an exciting time if you’re not looking for easy answers and fill-in-the-blanks.
Starr and Simon then agreed that patriarchal religious leaders want their followers to be loyal to a particular spiritual path; they criticize “spiritual dilettantism.” But, Starr said, she realized that “maybe we have a faculty of discernment implanted in our being that enables us to know what the life-giving truth is and what divisive, dualistic, separating teachings are, and that we can, in fact, make honey from gathering the nectar from various traditions. We can have a deep and profound and transformational encounter within multiple sacred spaces. From these transformational encounters we can find a way that’s deep and profound and has social relevance, as well as a path to personal awakening and personal development. That’s another thing about the feminine – the whole idea of individual awakening feels kind of irrelevant, because it’s truly about all of us. The bodhisattva vow of sticking around on the wheel of samsara, of births and deaths and rebirths, until all beings are free. Individual liberation is a meaningless concept to the feminine, as are practices like purification and perfection. Those words are alien, I think, to the feminine experience, which is much more organic and sensual.”
TS: So, at some point you decided to trust your own powers of discernment. “I can discern. I can be a bee and I can pick the flowers. I don’t have to sign on with one patriarchal proposition.” I think a lot of people don’t have that level of confidence. What would you say to someone who’s like, “I’m a beginner. How do I know?”
MS: It’s interesting, because I don’t just trust my own faculty of discernment, I trust yours. I trust everyone’s, as well as everyone’s ability to take what they find, that cup of water, with them out into the world.
Simon then asked Starr about the word “mercy” in the title of her book.
MS: It’s interesting. A white man, a well-known spiritual teacher said, “I don’t think you should call it ‘Wild Mercy,’ Mirabai.” He thought the term “mercy” was sappy, that it implied meekness. But this is how Mother Mary is being rescued and resuscitated, I feel, in the current inter-spiritual landscape. The term “mercy” no longer means meek. It carries this powerful energy that’s different from compassion. Compassion, to me, carries a quality of equanimity, that the feminine not only doesn’t necessarily have, but isn’t particularly interested in cultivating. The feminine is about the outpouring of the heart. And mercy, to me, carries that quality of aliveness. It’s compassion that’s been lit on fire and that melts. There’s a melting quality to mercy. There’s a warmth. I think that feminine quality of out-flowing of the heart partnered with the wildness of the feminine that’s willing to not know what’s going on, or what’s going to happen next, but is showing up for it are the core message of the book.
TS: One of my favorite sentences is “What breaks our heart is also what connects us.” I know that you’ve had that experience, and I want to hear what you have to say about the relationship between knowing the depth of loss in our lives and our capacity for mercy, our capacity to feel a loving, alive connection with others who suffer.
MS: I know a lot of people who’ve experienced great and transformational losses, and each of them has become a more open, boundless container of love and compassion. Their losses have broken them open. I’m not worried that people are going to calcify and constrict around their losses. Maybe for a time, but 100% of the people I encounter who’ve experienced loss have become more loving, more compassionate eventually. And sometimes right away, and sometimes in moments. We open and close like an accordion, in the power, the bellows of loss. Again, I believe in us. I believe in the capacity of the human heart to enlarge in the presence of unbearable experiences. And through that enlargement of the heart, serve the world in a spontaneous way.
TS: What makes a loss a transformational loss?
MS: Entering into the experience as fully as possible, even if it feels like it’s going to kill you — a feminine yielding, like yielding to the contractions of childbirth. There’s nowhere to go but to open and surrender to the experience, though you may protest along the way. When we show up for the experience of shattering loss, it becomes transformational. It’s not about transcendence; it’s about full presence. And you know, one of the things about grief and loss that I’ve found, and I think this is a truly feminine perspective, is that when we experience a really profound, transformational loss, it’s not only about us. It doesn’t make us special. I lost a child. And there were moments, in the beginning, especially, where I felt like an alien creature. No one could understand me. And then it was like, “Wait a minute, women have been losing children backwards in time and across the planet forever. So not only am I not special, but guess what? Those women, on a soul level, are my family. They’re my sisters, we’re in this together, and they’re holding me now, as I navigate this mysterious, brutal landscape of loss.” So, rather than becoming some kind of rarefied, special creature because I’d lost a child, I took my place in the human family for the first time, in a way, when my daughter died. And it was the family of women, especially, that I felt were holding me, and that I’m holding now. That’s my job going forward.
Simon then asked Starr to introduce and read the beginning of a chapter called “Laying Down Our Burden.”
MS: This is a chapter on cultivating a sabbath practice. “Here. Come here. Take a moment to set aside that list you’ve been writing in fluorescent ink, the list that converts ordinary tasks into emergencies, where ‘Feed the orchids,’ becomes ‘If I don’t accomplish this by 11:00 tomorrow morning, the rainforests are going to dry up, and it will all be my fault.’ Gather your burdens in a basket in your heart and set them at the feet of the Mother. Say, ‘Take this, Great Mama, because I can’t carry this shit another minute.’ Then crawl into her broad lap, nestle against her ample bosom, and take a nap. When you wake, the basket will still be there, but half its contents will be gone, and the other half will have resumed their proper shapes and sizes, no longer masquerading as catastrophic, epic, and toxic. The Mother will clear things out and tidy up. She’ll take your compulsions and transmute them, if you offer them to her.’ A sabbath is a revolutionary, subversive act in our consumerist achievement-driven world.
When Simon asked Starr about imagining God as the Mother, she said, “This kind of comes back to the question we opened with, where you asked about the feminine, and I felt it as a dualistic distinction I wouldn’t normally make. Philosophically, I’m more of a Buddhist or non-theist than a theist. It takes an effort for me to picture God as anything. As even God. But I feel that at this moment emphasizing the feminine in all spheres of human activity, maybe especially religion, is going to create a needed paradigm shift reflecting the feminine values of wildness and mercy, compassion and connection to the earth, relationship and horizontal leadership that can’t help but heal and mend the torn fabric of the world.
TS: One of the things you say in the book that I thought was important is that devotion isn’t an immature inclination. Because in the kind of more militaristic spiritual traditions in which I was brought up and trained, devotion was for sissies. Kind of like, “You don’t need to prostrate yourself or make offerings. That’s superstitious mumbo jumbo.” But in Wild Mercy you reclaim the power of devotion. Tell me why that’s important to you.
MS: I’m glad you used the word reclaim, because as you were speaking, that’s what was rising in my mind: To reclaim devotion, reclaim passion, reclaim the feminine landscape of the heart. I, too, was trained in these vertical traditions, where we still our minds and leave our bodies behind. All of our bodies are feminine, incarnational, part of the earth. And if we don’t respond to the impulses of the heart residing in our bodies, we’re going to be cutting ourselves off from an entire range of spiritual experience. Devotion, for me, is the impulse of the heart that cries out to the beloved who we may not believe in in our rational minds. We may call that magical thinking, envisioning Krishna or Kuan Yin as the object of our heart’s impulse to love, but it can a placeholder for the real, holy part of ourselves that calls out for love and allows us to dissolve into those non-dual spaces.
I’m devoted to Neem Karoli Baba, the great 20thcentury saint Ram Dass wrote about in Be Here Now and all his books. Maharaj-ji’s been my guru since I was 14 years old, so philosophically it doesn’t matter what I think – I have this devotional relationship with him. When I experience Maharaj-ji, there’s something in my heart that melts. It’s like he’s a warmth, a fire, a flame. And when I come into proximity, my heart softens and the boundaries dissolve. I enter this non-dual state that other people cultivate through more cool practices that aren’t necessarily heart-centered. They’re more about mindfulness.
When I chant (I also love sacred music in all languages; in Hebrew and Arabic, especially in Sanskrit, especially kirtan), my heart softens and opens and yields, and there’s a devotional quality that’s quite ecstatic. It also has an element of pain; the pain of longing. But ultimately what happens when I allow myself to fully enter that devotional space is that I almost always taste non-dual states of undifferentiated awareness that are empty in the most delicious sense of that word. I like how Roshi Joan Halifax translates sunyata, the Buddhist term for emptiness, which is the true quality of all that is, not as emptiness, but as boundlessness. Devotional practices bring me to those non-dual states. And there’s a reciprocity when I return to individuated consciousness from those fleeting moments of resting in suchness. I have an urge to praise. Praise what? Praise who? I don’t know, but it bubbles up from my heart and my body. I experienced this terrifying sweetness of being nobody for a minute.
TS: It’s interesting that you brought up the deep pain or ache of longing, because that was also one of the sections of Wild Mercy that I appreciated. At one point, someone asked me, “Do you have longing?” And I was like, “Yes, I have all kinds of longing,” but I also felt like I’d given the person the wrong answer, that I’d failed my spirituality exam. Yet in Wild Mercy you make owning our longing part of the landscape of the heart, part of our spiritual path.
MS: And in fact, the portal. Longing is a portal.
TS: At the end of one chapter, you wrote, “What do you want from the holy one? Write a letter to your beloved stating your demands and your longings.” I thought that was a great exercise, even though it doesn’t fit with people’s conventional view of what a spiritual path should be like. I’m writing my demands to the holy one. What? My demands don’t count. Do they?
MS: You’re right – we’re not supposed to want stuff. Desire is supposed to be the problem. A more sophisticated version of that teaching is to just become aware of our desires, but either way there’s a kind of cool detachment that’s expected of us in most spiritual traditions, in which we understand that it’s okay to have desires, but it’s going to cause trouble, and ultimately you’ll be a lot happier if you can detach from them. I’m advocating that we actually connect with our desires on all levels, without making a distinction between physical and spiritual. And that we stand up for ourselves in the presence of the holy and say, “This is what I want.” Teresa of Avila, the great 16thcentury renegade nun who I’ve had the good fortune of translating, was famous for shaking her fist at God and saying, “What a minute, dude. This is not OK with me.” Or, “Why do you become present with me, enter me, inflame my heart, hold me close, and then leave me? This is not OK.” Many of the great scriptures, from the Song of Songs to the Gita Govinda to Layla and Majnun in the Sufi literature are based on lover and beloved coming together in ecstatic union, then separating. He leaves her behind, and she cries out with love longing, and her cry becomes the impetus for reunification. That reunion, I believe, is the reunification of the masculine and feminine in each of us. The love longing that our hearts cry out with is a longing for the balancing of the masculine and feminine, the godhead reforming and restoring wholeness. And our beings become a microcosm for the restoration of balance of masculine and feminine in the world.
TS: I imagine that some listeners were surprised when you said that Neem Karoli Baba, this Indian male figure, has been a guru, a teacher for you, living in your heart, and then here you are, writing about the women mystics. But at the very beginning of the book, there’s this great section where you invite men into the dialogue. And I’m wondering if you can read that for us.
MS: Sure. “You don’t have to be female yourself to walk through these gates. Men are welcome here. You just don’t get to boss us around or grab our breasts or solve our problems. You may sample our cooking and wash it down with our champagne. You may ask us to dance, and you may not pout if we decline. You may study our texts, ponder our most provocative questions. You may fall in our laps and weep if you feel the urge. We will soothe you, as we always have. And then, we’ll send you back to the city with your pockets full of seeds to plant.
The secret is out. The celebration is overflowing its banks. The joy is becoming too great to contain. The pain has grown too urgent to ignore. The earth is cracking open, and the women are rising from our hiding places and spilling onto the streets, lifting the suffering into our arms, demanding justice from the tyrants, pushing on the patriarchy and activating a paradigm shift such as the world has never seen.”
There’s a call now to step up in service of our fellow human beings, other creatures, and the earth herself, and anyone listening is going to hear it. And the feminine wisdom teachings, past and present, give us radically new ways to show up at a time when everything’s on fire. The only way we can meaningfully address the conflagration is together. Feminine teachings have always been singing that song: that we cannot, should not, and must not try to be lone saviors in the crazy reality in which find ourselves. It’s only by looking around and paying attention, and listening to each other and holding each other, and pulling each other in and lifting each other up, that we can possibly hope to mend the torn fabric.
The wisdom of the feminine lies hidden in all kinds of places and spaces, and we have to be paying attention to find it. That’s why I want to call out the younger women and the transgendered people, and people who fall all over the spectrum of the feminine experience, and are drawing on these deep values of heart, of relationship, of feeling, of tending, of nurturance, of wild, radical, fierce truth telling that’s required of us right now. Is a kind of ferocity that hasn’t always been associated with the feminine.
TS: Let’s end with you reading the piece that opens the chapter on connecting and community.
MS: “You feel special. Sometimes this feels like a curse, like no one will ever understand you, like you’ll always be an alien pretending to blend in with regular humans. You’ve learned to live with this gulf, but you crave community. You long to belong to the human family, to Mother Earth. Participating in the human condition can be hard. It can seem so much simpler to ride solo, slaying your own dragons and singing the ballads you wrote about yourself. Collaboration can be tedious, and the prevailing masculine value system may have conditioned you to feel like you’re giving away your power when you share it with others. Give it away anyway. The time of the singular sage bestowing his unique wisdom is over. That was a method devised by the men in charge who sought to regulate wisdom. They taught us to suffer alone in the desert for 40 years, collecting our insights in a secret box labeled ‘esoteric knowledge,’ then dispensing them stingily to those who’ve proven themselves worthy. This world is filled with special beings, grappling our way through the anxiety of solitary conundrums and tasting the occasional reprieve of connection. When you realize this, your body lets out its breath and relaxes. You come in from the cold. You hold out your cup, and some other special being fills it with sweet, milky tea, spiced with fragrant herbs. You drink.
Our way, the way of the feminine, is to find out what everyone is good at, praise them for it, and get them to teach it to others. Maybe you know something about the hidden meanings of the Hebrew letters, or how to build a sustainable home from recycled tires and rammed soil, or loving kindness meditation. You, the one who knows the Islamic call to prayer, climb that minaret and call us. You, the one who knows how to sit quietly at the bedside of the dying, show us the way to bear witness. You, the one who knows how to get us to wake up to the shadow of privilege, wake us the fuck up. It will be chaotic, all this community building, but your cooperation will save the world. Besides, it will be fun.”
Two important online books
Chance recently landed me on the crimethinc.com anarchist website, where I found two important books (click on “Books”), available for free online in PDF format. The first, No Wall They Can Build: A Guide to Borders and Migration Across North America, scrutinizes the borders that control movement on the continent. “Drawing on nearly a decade of solidarity work in the desert between Mexico and Arizona, the authors uncover the real goals and costs of US border policy, who benefits from it, and what it will take to change it.” The second, From Democracy to Freedom: The Difference Between Government and Self-Determination, makes the case for anarchy (voluntarism and mutual aid) against any form of direct democracy, which will only reproduce the oppressive state. I highly recommend both, lengthy and dense, but key books for your attention.
Here’s a quote I just found in From Democracy to Freedom that I especially liked: “It’s no coincidence that today’s revolutionary movements lack visions of other worlds, or that a great part of capitalist production supplants imagination among its consumers, offering imaginaries that become more elaborate every day – more visually stimulating and more interactive, so that people no longer have to imagine anything for themselves because a thousand worlds and fantasies already come prepackaged. All the old fantasies that used to set us dreaming have now been fixed in Hollywood productions, with convincing actors, fully depicted terrains, and emotive soundtracks. Nothing is left for us to recreate, only to consume. In the current marketplace of ideas, it seems that the only imaginaries that describe our future are apocalypses or the science fiction colonization of outer space. The latter is the final frontier for capitalist expansion now that this planet is getting used up, and the former is the only alternative capitalism is willing to concede outside its dominion. The revolutionaries of a hundred years ago continuously dreamed and schemed of a world without the State and without capitalism. Some of them made the mistake of turning their dreams into blueprints, dogmatic guidelines that in practice functioned as yardsticks by which to measure deviance. But today we face a much greater problem: the absence of revolutionary imaginaries and the near total atrophy of the imagination in ourselves and in the rest of society. The imagination is the most revolutionary organ in our collective social body, because it’s the only one capable of creating new worlds, of traveling outside capitalism and state authority, of enabling us to surpass the limits of insurrection that have lately become so evident.
I know very few people who can imagine what anarchy might look like, and uncertainty isn’t the problem. Uncertainty is one of the fundamentals of chaotic organization, and only the authoritarian neurosis of states obliges us to impose certainty on an ever-shifting reality. The problem, rather, is that our lack of imagination has disconnected us from the world. A vital part of ourselves is no longer there, as it used to be, on the cusp of the horizon, on the threshold between dark and light, discerning, modulating, and greeting each new element coming into our lives. Our prospects, however, aren’t irremediably bleak. Imagination can always be renewed and reinvigorated, though we must emphasize the radical importance of this work if people are once more to create, share, and discuss new possible worlds or profound transformations of this one.”
I just watched a video of women and children in the migrant caravan…
and started crying. Jocelyn and her three sisters and Jocelyn’s 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old niece are fleeing Honduras because of death threats. Sometimes they get a ride on a truck, but most of the time they walk in the heat and humidity, after nights trying to sleep on concrete. Sometimes townspeople offer them bagged water or food, but often they must trudge on, thirsty and hungry, trying not to fall behind. Jocelyn fears strangers in the caravan, but most of all, she’s afraid she and her sisters and their little girls will be deported back to Honduras after she finally reaches the US border.
Damn it!! Let these people in!!!
The latest video shows a border crossing being closed and US customs and border agents tear gassing young men from the caravan trying to rush the border.
This is heartless and inhumane. These are people, human beings, who need help! If there are any “bad guys” among them, they can be sorted out later. The vast majority just need refuge and a chance for a new, safe life.
At the same time, our country needs to do whatever’s in it’s power to change conditions in countries like Honduras and Guatemala, conditions largely caused by our government’s past policies.
The answer to our fears of others isn’t violence — permanent war around the world and troops and walls at the border — but helping them obtain the safety and dignity we all deserve. A lot of the permanent war against terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and Yemen, etc. is caused by the desire of the corporate elite to maintain the profits of weapons manufacturers, the so-called “defense” industry.
Open your mind and your heart! A child can see the simple truth of what I’m saying.
Getting inspiration from utopian/dystopian fiction
I’ve been meaning to write a post about this for a long time, and reading Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (2013) has gotten me to actually do it! Womack says that in 2011 she “attended the Think Galacticon conference. Unlike the typical science fiction conference, its creators hoped to use science fiction as a platform for broader changes in society. Held at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, the conference brought activists, science fiction writers, and fans together to share perspectives on social change and privilege. Panels included talks on classism in fantasy novels (why don’t the paupers ever challenge the prince for power?), the growing black independent comic book scene, and personal growth tools for revolution.
In her workshop, noted activist Adrienne Maree Brown said, ‘It’s amazing to change the world, but it’s heartbreaking, bone-cracking work, and you don’t often see the change in real time. For me as an organizer, what gets me through has been immersing myself in certain sci-fi worlds.’ She uses sci-fi to frame an inspirational perspective for youth that she works with too. ‘Your life is science fiction,’ she tells them. ‘You’re Luke Skywalker, but way cooler; you’re trans and black and you’re surviving the world of Detroit.’
Brown began her activism work in college. She’s a former executive director of the Ruckus Socity, a nonprofit that specializes in environmental activism and guerilla communication, and is heavily involved with the League of Pissed Off Voters. A Detroit resident, she describes herself as an organizational healer, pleasure activist, and artist, obsessed with developing models for action and community transformation.
She’s also a sci-fi fan. After discovering Octavia Butler’s work, she was inspired to develop new work of her own. Brown is using Butler’s pivotal Parables series and its post-apocalyptic tale as a template for change agency in desperate communities. Her workshop at Galacticon was titled ‘Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategies.’ The workshop description read as follows: ‘“All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” These words of Octavia Butler’s have impacted people seriously on a personal level, but how do we apply her wisdom on a political organizing level? How would accepting and coming to love the emergent power of changing conditions affect our strategic planning? This session will be half popular organizational development training and half inquiry into what the future of organizational development and strategic planning will look like.’
As far as Brown is concerned, many abandoned urban communities in New York City, New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, Cincinnati, and Detroit are post-apocalyptic and ripe for community-borne transformation. Seeing supports and humanity in Detroit, her new home town, made Brown look at other cities with blighted communities differently. ‘There are people living in places that we associate with the end of the world, but it’s not the end of the world – it’s the beginning of something else. An economy based on relationships and not the monetary value you can place on someone else.’
Brown now teaches activists how to use strategies from Butler’s books (like community farming, building relationships with neighbors, and essential survival skills) to build communities in areas where resources are scarce. She emphasizes that people in troubled areas need to have self-determination over their food supply, harking back to the Acorn communities in the Parables – intentional communities, ‘places where people come in an intentional way to build a life together. They’re farming with accountability to one another. They have a spiritual community. This is a strategy that could enable people to survive a future where our resources are unsure. Another is door-to-door relationship building that’s nonjudgmental. After the Acorn community is trashed, the main character goes door-to-door and starts to build a community of believers who aren’t rooted in one place, but in a shared ideology. It’s very similar to the Zapatista ideology. They went around for ten years building relationships one by one. Now a lot of organizing is done around the internet and tweeting each other. If we weren’t able to do that, what would we do? We would work with whoever is there with us.’
Brown is also a big advocate of teaching basic survival skills, including gardening, care for the sick and wounded, and midwifery. ‘I’m also looking at building homes and bathrooms. How do you make a bathroom where there is none?’ Her main point is to generate solutions. ‘We shouldn’t spend the majority of our time trying to get someone else to be accountable for what happens in our communities. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you; provide the solutions yourself…
What is the biggest story we can imagine telling ourselves about our future? It can be a utopia or a dystopia, but we want to get a perspective from people who are actually trying to change the world today. What do they think will happen? What’s the best-case scenario? How do we get people to think of themselves as the creators of tomorrow’s story?’”
I’ve been inspired by Butler’s Parable novels too, and many others, including Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy. In the next few days, I’ll put notes on these books and a list of utopian/dystopian fiction in the Resources section (see top menu bar).
Let’s get inspired!
Kotke’s ideas on the destructiveness of “civilization” and what we can do about it
The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future by William H. Kötke, 1993
Agriculture began the destruction of our natural earth wealth, and industrial society, which will begin a swift collapse in the 2020s, is providing the finishing blow. The human trend toward empire, which travels under the euphemism of civilization, has been in existence for 10,000 years, only 1% of human existence. The culture of empire is characterized by ecological imbalance caused by cities, centralization, hierarchy, patriarchy, militarism, and materialism. We find aspects of this cultural form among the Aztecs and Mayans of Mesoamerica, the Incas of Peru, certain African kingdoms, and the Egyptian dynasties, but the most virulent strains of this cultural pathology developed in China, the Indus river valley, and in Central Asia among Indo-Europeans. All of these areas are now ecologically damaged.
Many of the Greek wars of conquest were to gain new forests for use in building warships. Greece and Rome, then the Arabs and Turks destroyed the ecology of North Africa. At one time 600 colonial cities stretched from Egypt to Morocco, and the area provided Rome with 2/3 of its wheat. Now much of the area is barren and eroded and can barely support goats. It’s no accident that the diet of these former empires is now based on goats, grapes, and olives. This is ecological poverty food (goats, grapes, and olives can subsist on denuded and dry soils).
In pre-industrial days plowing vegetation back into the earth and manure from draft and food animals slowed the soil’s depletion. When artificial fertilizers become too costly to purchase, and/or the easily extracted petroleum from which they’re made is exhausted, the world will face starvation, because its soils are dead. If chemical fertilizers were eliminated at once, world food production would drop by one-third.
Compaction of soils is another problem. When weight is put on soil, its pores are crushed, interfering with its ability to breathe and hold water. Water runs off as compaction increases, causing the erosion of topsoil. Plowing with heavy equipment causes much compaction, as does trampling by confined livestock. Plowing also dries out the soil and increases salinization.
The failure of water to infiltrate to underground water supplies affects the hydrology of entire regions. Even in a semi-arid region, if the topsoil is intact and vegetative cover exists to absorb a large percentage of the rainfall, water will seep into the subsoil. When soils are abused, and the spiral of deterioration is triggered, the flood/drought cycle begins. Floods occur when water runs off rapidly rather than infiltrating, followed by drought because springs haven’t been fed. As the planet deteriorates, droughts and floods increase. Erosion, desertification, toxification, and non-agricultural uses will eat up one-fifth of the world’s arable land between 1975 and 2000, and another one-fifth will go by 2025.
Wild herbivores don’t overgraze – they migrate, and each species eats different plants. Large herbivores never existed in Australia until they were imported by Europeans. When aborigines decided to return to their lands in the outback near Ernabella and Papunya recently, they found that 60% of the food plants for which they had traditionally foraged were extinct, and the rest were greatly diminished in numbers because of overgrazing by feral cattle, horses, camels, goats, and rabbits. The manure of these animals is wasted, because there are no native insects or microbes to break it down.
Deforestation and overgrazing eventually produce desertification. While the natural undisturbed deserts of the earth are healthy, thriving, diverse ecosystems with many types of plants and animals, deserts created by poor land use are damaged ecosystems comparatively devoid of life. Deserts are usually created by destroying the vegetation of formerly semi-arid lands, but sometimes they’re the result of deforestation.
Sixty-one percent of the world’s drylands are desertified (defined as a loss of more than 25% soil nutrient with consequent decline of the productivity of biomass). In 1980 the percentage of some dryland areas that had become desertified were: Mediterranean Europe: 30%, North America: 40%, South America and Mexico: 71%, southern Africa: 80%, Mediterranean Africa: 83%, west Asia: 82%, south Asia: 70%, the USSR: 55%, and China and Mongolia: 69%. Desertification threatens a third of the world’s land surface. While deforestation and devegetation caused by clearing land for the plow contribute to desertification, as does firewood gathering, the chief culprit is overgrazing. In every area of the world where herding is a significant industry, desertification is spreading.
European countries currently use three times more water than returns to natural sources. In North America the groundwater outtake is twice the replenishment rate.
Forests are the lungs of the earth, exhaling oxygen and inhaling carbon dioxide; they also build soil, absorb moisture, and translate sunlight into biomass more efficiently than any other ecosystem on earth. Forests create rain, as trees send moisture into the atmosphere. Native forests provide habitat for the largest number of species per acre of any ecosystem, except possibly a coral reef. The few native agriculturalists remaining in tropical rainforests can easily grow more food per unit of energy input than the modern industrial system. Swidden agriculture, which rotates small clearings in the forest, is one of the most energy-efficient food-producing systems known. And there’s no damage to the environment, because of area rotation and because domesticated and semi-domesticated garden plants feather off into the mature forest, creating no real break in the ecosystem.
More than a third of the earth was forested prior to the culture of empire, and only about a tenth of these forests remain. Mexico was originally 50% forested. It’s lost one-fourth of its forest lands in each century since the conquest, much of it to fire mine smelters. No Mexican forests remain in their original condition.
Acid rain is killing forests, and, in time, whole ecosystems as the growth and regeneration rate of trees slows. Northeastern United States, southern Canada, areas around Mexico City, areas of Russia, Scandinavia, and Europe are most affected. Acid rain also lowers the productivity of many crops and causes human allergies, emphysema, and heart disease.
Forests balance and moderate meteorological systems. Without them we can expect heat and aridity interspersed with torrential rain, unusual winds, tornadoes, and cyclones.
The tribal Tsembaga people of the New Guinea highlands raise sweet potatoes at an expenditure of 1 kilocalorie of energy for each 16 kilocalories of food produced. Approximately 20 kilocalories of energy are required to produce one kilocalorie of food in the industrial system, and this doesn’t include the deterioration in the food’s nutritive value and disease caused by pollution.
There are basically 10 food plants grown in the world today when looked at on a volume basis. Wheat, rice, and corn make up half of the food consumed on the planet, with barley, oats, sorghum, and millet making up the next quarter. If we add beans and potatoes, these 10 species of plants are the essential basis of world agriculture.
As of 1989, one in three U.S. citizens will have cancer in their lifetime. In 1900 cancer was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., responsible for 3% of deaths. Today it ranks second, and causes 20% of deaths.
The United States destroyed almost 5 million acres of tropical rainforest in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (more if other parts of southeast Asia are included). Bomb craters destroyed the topsoil of over 300,000 acres, and half of the country’s biologically rich coastal mangrove swamps were destroyed as well. In 1943 44% of Vietnam was still forested, in 1975 29%, and in 1983 23.6%. Because of deforestation the country, whose population has doubled in the last 40 years, now experiences drought/flood syndrome.
Fishing is down globally, and the phytoplankton of the ocean that produces 70% of the world’s oxygen is being adversely affected by pollution and the thinning of the ozone layer. The continental shelves produce the basic populations of life in the sea, with bays, wetlands, estuaries, mangrove swamps, coral reefs, and other coastline sanctuaries incubating that life. Garbage, sewage, chemical poisons, and oil spills concentrate near coastlines – 85% percent of ocean pollution originates on land. The run-off of heavy metals from the continents into the oceans is now 2½ times the natural level for mercury; 4 times for manganese; 12 times for zinc, copper, and lead; 30 times for antimony; and 80 times for phosphorous. Toxic wastes have been found in the deepest part of the ocean and in most ocean habitats. The United States, some European countries, Japan, and others have dumped radioactive waste into the ocean. An estimated 6-8 million tons of petroleum reaches the ocean each year from leaks in refineries and drilling platforms, runoff from land, dumping from ships, and the breaking up of tankers. In the United States 8 billion gallons of municipal sewage is dumped into coastal waters per day. One-third of the shell-fishing areas of the country are closed because of toxic contamination. Commercial fishing fleets dump 52 million pounds of plastic packing material and 298 million pounds of plastic fishing gear, nets, lines, and buoys into the ocean every year. Shoreline garbage accounts for millions more pounds of plastic. 100,000 marine mammals die each year from entanglement in and ingestion of plastics.
Ecological sinks, areas where life function has broken down completely, include extremely desertified areas, bodies of water where eutrophication has used up all the oxygen, and lakes killed by acid rain. Ecological sinks are now being created within the oceans, particularly along coastlines and in enclosed seas. Huge algae blooms and dead fish, seals, and dolphins washing ashore in many areas signal the approaching death of the oceans.
People are concerned about larger life forms, many of whose remnants are “saved” in zoos, but few know that microorganisms, insects, and microscopic plant species are going, too. Mammals are only 1% and vertebrates only 3% of all species, and they’re all dependent on microorganisms. Europe has hosted industrial society the longest. In France 57% of the remaining mammal species are threatened with extinction, as are 58% of the bird species, 39% of the reptile species, 53% of the amphibian species, and 27% of the fish species.
There are 70,000 different artificially produced chemicals, with at least 1,000 new ones produced each year. The industry-dominated US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies 35,000 of these as harmful or potentially harmful. Only a handful of the more popularly known toxins have been thoroughly tested for their carcinogenic, tetragenic (producing fetal deformities), or mutagenic (producing inherited mutations) properties. Most toxins that have been approved for use in the U.S. haven’t been tested for their cancer-causing or birth defect-causing properties. Years ago the U.S. Congress ordered the agency to begin testing already approved compounds for these dangers, but by 1990 only 6 had completed the process. Complete health hazard assessments have been done on perhaps 10% of the pesticides produced, 2% of the cosmetics, 18% of drugs and drug excipients (binders), and 5% of food additives.
Seventy percent of hazardous waste comes from the chemical and petrochemical industries. Production of plastics, soap, synthetic rubber and fibers, fertilizers, medicines, detergents, cosmetics, paints, adhesives, explosives, pesticides, and herbicides either produces toxic by-products, the products are toxic themselves, or both. As with radiation exposure, cancers after exposure to toxic chemicals often don’t appear until 20-30 years after exposure, so it’s difficult to prove what caused what.
Underground aquifers are being poisoned with industrial toxins by the deliberate injection of waste into wells, a common industrial practice, by percolation from the surface, and seepage from landfills and nuclear installations. Agriculture also poisons aquifers.
Toxins come to us in water, air, and food. In the World War II era one in 30 Americans died of cancer – now it’s between one in 4 and one in 5. The rate of birth defects has doubled since 1950.
“Civilization” represents a lowering of living standards, using the values of longevity, food, labor, and health for people outside the elite class. It’s the ultimate in materialism to say that we’ve made great progress because we invented airplanes, computers, and satellites, and went to the moon in a rocket ship, when billions are dying on a dying planet.
With agriculture, humans began to take more than their share and live as parasites on the earth. Eventually they believed it was their role to control the cosmos. Conquest is piracy, and ownership and differential profits are theft, according to Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.
We live in a culture of such limited psychological rewards that children kill themselves rather than grow up in it. (Suicide is the number one cause of death in the age group 15-25.)
We must cease investing in civilization and create a positive and adaptive new culture.
It may be conservatively estimated that during the 150 years between 1780 and 1930 world tribal populations were reduced by at least 30 million as a result of the spread of industrial civilization. A more realistic estimate would be 50-100 million, as diseases raced ahead of the conquerors. This incredible mass murder occupies little space in history books. The genocide of native tribal hunter-foragers continues today in India, Bangladesh, southeast Asia, Paraguay, Chile, and the Amazon jungle – carried out by militaries, industrial interests, and settlers.
Book Two: The Seed of the Future
The self-regulation of each species gives the ecosystem its balance. Balance and cycle are the basic processes of the cosmos, as are diversity and symbiotic relationships. Relationship is a matter of individual responsibility, founded in intuition that precedes the analytical mind. Most natural cultures believe that we are conscious participants in world processes, that the thinking, intention, and balance of each person has an effect on the whole.
Spend time in nature, opening your self to its communication. Have this experience as often as possible, and gather these images into your memory. Set up land-based seed communities outside the money economy. Decentralization and permaculture, living in balance with nature. Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution describes ‘do-nothing’ farming – no plows, no chemicals, no weeding. Seeding and harvesting follow natural patterns. The process builds the soil, so that ¼ acre can support 5-10 people with little work.
Books serve as an introduction, but there’s no substitute for observation.
The natural history of one’s area may be difficult to discover, depending on the length of its colonization, but understanding it helps you gauge the land’s potential and identify its climax ecosystem (which probably no longer exists). Understanding the lifeways of native people in the area is equally important, including tools, materials, migration patterns, ethnobotany, sacred places, and myths. Get identification manuals for plants, trees, birds, animals, mushrooms, fish, and other life forms, and watch their habits. Where do plants grow? What soils do they like? Examine the soil carefully – smell and taste it – in different areas and at different times. Keep track of moisture through the seasons. Study undisturbed areas. Begin to create seed inventories. Store them carefully with notes on plant description, place of residence, date, etc. Your goal is to create a facsimile ecosystem as close to the complex original as possible, and let Gaia do the rest in terms of healing and growth.
Our solutions aren’t political, religious, or ideological – they’re simply the patterns of life.
One of the most fundamental concepts of permaculture is to arrange plants, animals, insects, and whatever life one can find so that each provides services for the other, allowing a self-energizing pattern to begin. Beavers are the hydrologists of nature, so help them resume their rightful place on the watershed (at the top, or they’ll be flooded out lower down). Fence riparian habitat off from grazing. Plant trees, bushes, and grasses. In general, the most efficient grass seeding is to seed the ridges, and let the grass move down the slopes. Know the healing succession of plants and help it along. Small depressions, organic material, and soil aeration help seeds germinate. Dam gullies so plants can become established and spread. Sandy soils can be fertile (the sand acts as a mulch). If animals come and eat your crops, eat them.
Permanent agriculture (permaculture) is based in perennial plants and plants that can easily reseed themselves.
Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Arid-Land Permaculture, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for A Sustainable Future, and Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation by Gary Paul Nabhan
Cornucopia: A Source Book of Edible Plants by Stephan Facciola