Isn’t It Time?

I am writing a book (“Isn’t It Time?“) to highlight solutions to the myriad of issues we face today. Here’s the opening of the first chapter. I welcome comments about how this lands with you. As I write about the various solutions, I will continue to post them here.

ISN’T IT TIME?

We are alive at a unique time in human history. We face numerous, potentially catastrophic, global problems. You can name them as easily as I: climate change, peak oil, the global financial crisis, illegal immigration/human trafficking, endless war/terror, pollution, species extinction; and you’ve probably named a few I haven’t, yet. For the first time, mankind has issues that affect everyone, and every life form, while at the same time having the wherewithal to reach around the globe in search of solutions. It is, as is often quoted, “The best of times and the worst of times”. For the first time, Mankind is able to consciously affect our own evolution, as a species and as a culture.

All life on Earth today is the result of 13.7 billion years of change, of growth and of expansion. If not for the Big Bang and the death of stars billions of years before the birth of our own Sun, the fundamental building blocks of Earth’s chemistry: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, would not exist. We are literally made from the dust of stars, remnants of mighty explosions that peppered the Universe with the building blocks of life. The salmon that jump the fish ladders around dams to return to their spawning grounds, the flowers blooming in your backyard garden, your precious grandchild resting quietly on your lap after Thanksgiving dinner, all are the product of eons of evolution. Yet never before, has any being been as aware of their own path or destiny, of their own rapidly approaching extinction, as we are today.

Our own human path to this moment in time is still hotly debated. Yet some things are clear: man survived by being able to adapt to changing conditions, and by seeding ever-increasing numbers of environments with people who would learn new ways to live. These techniques of resiliency: maintaining a modular style of clans and tribes, each independent of the others until famine or drought forced a migration into another’s territory; using diversity to encourage and facilitate genetic modifications that enabled survival under extreme conditions; and using creativity to find effective solutions to never-before-seen problems; combined to ensure that our species would weather environmental changes that pushed many other species to extinction. We thrive in the balmy centuries, and even manage to live well under Ice Age conditions that can only be described as brutal.

But today, we have so embraced the idea that we live within a global village, that we are rapidly losing the qualities that enabled our survival. We are putting all of our eggs in one basket, the basket of modern technology. That basket is made from oil, with a smattering of other common and uncommon minerals thrown in as if for seasoning. Because oil offers such incredible power, we have fought to claw our way to the top of a domination pyramid, controlling other people, tribes, nations and even the natural world. Our technology offers such hope of carefree living that billions aspire to partake in the modern dream we now share in America. Yet reality shows us that this materialistic path does not lead to happiness, and many, many signs scream at us that a finite world cannot provide an infinite amount of resources for an infinite number of people to exploit. We lose the diversity that helped us survive change as we narrow the acceptable behaviors, races, and beliefs we will tolerate in our techno future, and as we base every aspect of our life on oil that will soon stop being cheap and easily obtained. Oil is in the plastic that makes the products we buy disposable. It’s in the food we eat, as fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, and in the transportation that brings tomatoes to your supermarket shelves in January, when it is –10° outside. Of course, it goes without saying that it is in our cars, and even if you buy one of those new all-electric cars, if you plug it into an outlet to recharge, you are probably tapping into another fossil fuel, coal, to enable tomorrow’s driving. It is in our medicines, our clothes, and because of the internal combustion engine, it is in our air and water.

We have become so dependent on oil to fuel our lifestyle, that techniques of living and adapting that had been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years are being forgotten. I am part of the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, and my grandparents grew into adulthood without electricity in their home. It seems like we’ve had electricity forever, doesn’t it? They knew not to throw anything away; once you’d managed to pay for something, even if it broke, it could be mended or modified, or traded for something else. They knew how to garden, to store what came out of their garden, and to gift their abundance to neighbors. They knew they could depend on neighbors when things went badly, and there were few times when they were happier than when they were at a barn raising, or a wedding, or even just a community potluck/dance on a warm Saturday evening. They knew how to turn a few chickens into enough eggs for sale, and could do the same with a cow’s meat, milk and cheese. They knew about the importance of crop rotation, and coordinated with neighbors so that someone was always growing corn while another grew peas and beans, and a third those oh-so-delicious tomatoes, for canning and just plain snacking right off the vine. They learned from their family, their neighbors, and sometimes from a master craftsman. They learned many skills that would help the family, and the village, survive unexpected changes in climate. They lived with death at every turn, and they were in touch with the natural turnings of the seasons and of Nature’s ways. They knew they had a place in the grand scheme of things, and they knew that those with the hubris to think they were at the top of the food chain would always fall farther and harder than those who didn’t.

Addressing the issues that face us requires overcoming roadblocks inherent in our modern nature: denial, our personal fear of change, and the unwillingness of cultural power structures to let go. Even today, in late 2010, people abound who deny that climate change is a problem, or that it is something that humans caused or even need to address. It may stem from the disbelief that puny beings could impact an environment as huge as the Earth’s atmosphere, or maybe it stems from scientific illiteracy, or just an inability to overcome the fear of change and to see the problem clearly. Those who claim the planet is actually cooling, not warming, haven’t visited the villages in Alaska that are being abandoned as they sink deep into the now-melted-and-no-longer-permanent permafrost. They haven’t taken a voyage on a commercial cargo ship, traversing the open ocean along Russia’s northern coastline, a route that is ice-free for the first time in a few hundred thousand years. They depend on the fact that warming always appears first and most around the edges; that the effects are magnified away from the center but are destined to eventually affect the whole, in order to claim that within their own, limited area of experience warming isn’t happening and therefore, is all a hoax. Likewise, it is easy to find people who deny the existence of slaves, people working in debt bondage or trafficked into other countries and forced to work as prostitutes, or deep in mines without any safety gear or regulations. Some deny there’s anything wrong with the focus of the world’s economy being placed entirely on this quarter’s profit. I have friends who deny that there can ever be an alternative to America spending hundreds of billions of dollars to kill people on the other side of the globe in the name of “homeland security”. Americans scream when gasoline prices rise above $3/gallon, while sipping their Starbucks special blend, purchased at $28/gallon, and while European drivers pay twice as much without comment. Is it any wonder, when you stop and think about it, that the global economic meltdown in 2008 followed oil prices in excess of $140 per barrel by less than 60 days? The deniers see no problem with species extinction, and as they doubt the studies that show our current rate exceeds the normal course of evolution by 1,000% they demonstrate their ignorance of the role diversity plays in Man’s own continued survival. We all pat ourselves on the back for passing Clean Air and Clean Water laws, and we enjoy the cleaner air in our cities that has resulted. We all deny that our legislation was incomplete; that many chemicals were not included, are not measured, and are filling our atmosphere even as you read these words. We ignore that the agency tasked with enforcing the law is under-funded and overwhelmed; that the companies supposedly held responsible for following the laws have literally created new molecules for their manufacturing processes and release them without any studies to determine their toxicity. We deny that there is any problem when mercury is found in every tested river, at levels that exceed our legal allowable limit in over a quarter of those waterways. Clearly, by any criteria, we are in near-total denial of the problems we face.

Even when we can see clearly the devastation unfolding around us, the next step is to make the changes that will ameliorate the problems. Yet change makes us uncomfortable. Very, very uncomfortable. Our brains use about 20 watts of energy, equivalent to the light bulb in you refrigerator. Evolution has led our brains to develop habits, ways of operating within the world that allow precious body resources to be devoted not to repeating common, energy-intense mental calculations, but to coping with the novel problems that crop up from time to time. In other words, we function most of the time on autopilot. Our mind scans the incoming data from our sense and matches that information to our experience. Once a match is found, the behavior that previously resulted in the best outcome is selected and we proceed to act out of habit. The more frequently a particular strategy is used, the more often it is used even in situations where it may not be appropriate. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is a new saying in our culture, and it means that repeated actions become habits and, eventually, ruts that are nearly impossible to get out of. Real change, then, becomes scary, uncharted territory: our brains haven’t any experience with this new behavior, and so we envision many bad things that could potentially result, and by focusing on those undesired outcomes, we are immobilized with fear. If the new behavior is only slightly removed from our past experience, we can see our way clear to make the change. I’ll move my money out of the multinational financial institution and into a local credit union, but a wholesale and radical dismantling of our American economy? Not likely, at least if I have anything to say about it.

Radical change has happened in the past though, so it is informative to learn the conditions that allowed that to happen. Usually, radical change is forced upon us; we don’t get to decide to make it, the environment changes and we have no choice in the matter. There is no rain, the crops don’t grow for a few years in a row, and we either have to find something else to eat, move to where there is rain, or die. Occasionally, however, change is a choice. In those cases, the individuals who lead the way seem to do so because they relinquish their own feelings of resistance by recognizing that they make this change for the benefit of others. Gandhi didn’t focus on his own liberation from British rule; he focused on the liberation of the entire country. Tibetan lamas, languishing in prison, continue to focus on drawing their Chinese captors to enlightenment as the change required to effect their own release. Vietnamese monks, setting themselves on fire to protest the destruction of life during times of war, offer their own lives as commentary in an attempt to foster a willingness to change in others.

The issues we face today are deeply entrenched in the foundations of our culture. They stem from structures that hold immense amounts of power over individuals and over Nature. If we try to discern the root causes of these problems, not just the surface symptoms they present, it is quickly clear that effective change will not be personal change, rather it will be fundamental, systemic change. We will not choose to make effective change about our use of oil without addressing the way in which our economy allows business to externalize costs; whenever possible, business pushes the costs of pollution prevention and clean-up onto society, rather than charging the consumer. We will not choose to make effective change in our use of oil without addressing land reform; the way business can buy the “rights” to drill for oil on someone else’s land; nor will we change without addressing how we currently use our national defense forces to protect overseas oil supplies on behalf of American companies. We will not change our use of oil as long as we see Nature as a resource, under Man’s dominion, not as sentience valuable in its own right. Just changing out incandescent light bulbs for fluorescents will not solve anything. Personal lifestyle choices and personal psychological growth are both helpful as role models, and as manifestations of one’s own core values and principles. But it is entirely insufficient as a way to change the trajectory of civilization; that kind of change requires that we confront power, stop power from controlling lives and Nature, and replace the power structures with institutions that do reflect our core values. We can’t buy soy burgers and buy hybrid cars and check the box marked, “Green Power” on our utility bills and buy our way to a new society that is not based on ever-growing consumerism. We can’t shop our way to sustainable.

The actions we take in confronting the existing power structures must be themselves rooted in compassion. We act for the benefit of all life, not against entrenched beliefs. What are our core values? What do we stand for? It behooves us to take a few moments, or hours, regularly to examine these questions. Can we see life in every being, every plant, and every rock around us? Science shows us demonstrably each and every day that we live within an energy matrix, that the boundaries between you and I are a moving flux that can’t be pinned down, or located on a map; instead the energy that feels like me blends with the energy I see as you. You reflect my energy back to me, what I do to you I do to myself. That leads us easily to understanding that we swim in the river of energy that carries us throughout our lives. As in aikido, we are most effective when we learn to bend the energy that approaches, rather than fight against it: we merge our energy with what is already around us. We hold pro-peace rallies, not anti-war rallies. We work for improved, universal medical care, not against the entrenched, profit-focused health insurance companies.

As we deepen our understanding of Nature and our place within it, we recognize our shared Humanity. Our actions shift from one of “us helping them” to one of “for the good of All”. The idea of “for the good of all” is the opposite of the current notion, prominent in political dialogue in recent years, that a “rising tide lifts all boats”. The latter expresses the sense that what is good for me and particularly, within the American context, what is good for my business, will eventually become good for everyone. It is a self-centered opinion that allows domination and exploitation, two integral parts of the current modern worldview. It creates a hierarchy where those at the top, those who are currently “getting theirs”, need not worry about those at the bottom, for they will surely get some soon enough, just not now. Seeing the connections that join all beings, we can create a paradigm that supports and uplifts all first, rather than just a few at the top. We are not locked into a dysfunctional, me first structure. By working for the benefit of all, even in times when I might have to give some of my own back to the commons, all of life shares in the uplifting. We confront the traditional power structures directly by offering an inclusive solution that supports life more effectively.

We can’t do this work alone, in large part because we are never truly alone. Rosa Parks was just one person going to jail for breaking the law; it wasn’t until the entire community of Montgomery, Alabama rose up to support her that segregation on public transportation was finally ended. Demonstrations by citizens of the U.S.S.R. were forbidden, yet one sign appeared, then three, and one day they managed to form a human chain stretching hundreds of miles along their European borders by holding hands. Within weeks, we watched in rapt attention as the Berlin Wall became a sieve in the span of just a few hours, to be torn down later, and ending decades of Cold War. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison, while the masses of people supporting him pulled together and brought apartheid to an end. Women from all walks of life demonstrated, protested, suffered in jails and at home, yet managed to win their right to vote. In my own generation, we have seen a few at the vanguard be imprisoned for stating their case for justice and liberty, for civil rights and women’s rights and peace, while many who stand behind them care for their families, raise awareness, and pressure the political and economic structures into wholesale, radical change. A successful movement requires people able and willing to be in the forefront, to bear any cost, while simultaneously demanding a mass of people walking behind their leaders in support roles. Surely you can find a place in bringing about the paradigm shifts we need today.

In these movements, we pattern our behavior after the changes we seek. Our actions must be holistic, Universal and non-partisan. Holistic, meaning concerned with the whole, not just one particular part. When we touch any energy stream, the entire Web of Life resonates. Our recent industrial paradigm has largely ignored that fact. A big portion of the work we are doing to create a new way of being on the Earth is learning, or remembering, how to interact with Nature and other beings with integrity, honesty and dignity. We need to recognize that action in one aspect of a situation affects other aspects, too. Throughout this book, as we focus on an economic problem for example, we will find it also affects politics, the environment, and our own spirituality. And remember, you are what you do in the dark. When people think they can’t be seen, that they can get away with something, their true self shines through. Act from your own moral foundation; show us your light without the filters we so often put in place to hide our true selves.

As we seek out solutions that restore dignity to our communities, we can listen to our hearts as well as our minds. There are neurons in our heart tissue, and in our stomach. Thus your gut and your heart can provide wisdom that arises from a different perspective than what we constantly get from our mind. Quieting the mind, through meditation or mindfulness practice, allows these quieter voices to be heard.

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