I’m housesitting in Alaska, and my return to a place where Mother Nature is in charge once again motivates me to express myself. The front yard of this house is a beautiful rock garden which is low maintenance, and fertilizer and pesticide-free. But the real front yard for this house is the back yard, which backs to 780 square miles of Chugach State Park and its pristine wilderness. That view is grounding, reminding me of what the world looked like before the fossil-fueled growth of the past two centuries. Can we return to that view after the fossil fuels are gone, with clear
air, drinkable water, and an intact food chain? Do we just throw up our hands and accept die-off? Or do we actively work towards a more balanced society? Who’s going to do that and how do we start? This post is about prosaic lawn reform as a symbol of change and personal responsibility for the environment, but first I’m going to wander in synthesis through the threads of current events, to pull that theme together.
The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address (the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen) is the central prayer and invocation for the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, Longhouse People, or Six Nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). It reflects their relationship of giving thanks for life and the world around them. The Haudenosaunee open and close every social and religious meeting with the Thanksgiving Address.
It is also said as a daily sunrise prayer, and is an ancient message of peace and appreciation of Mother Earth and her inhabitants. The children learn that, according to Native American tradition, people everywhere are embraced as family. Our diversity, like all wonders of Nature, is truly a gift for which we are thankful.
When one recites the Thanksgiving Address the Natural World is thanked, and in thanking each life-sustaining force, one becomes spiritually tied to each of the forces of the Natural and Spiritual World. The Thanksgiving Address teaches mutual respect, conservation, love, generosity, and the responsibility to understand that what is done to one part of the Web of Life, we do to ourselves.
Hopefully you’ve seen the recent movie, The Martian, a film directed by Ridley Scott and adapted from the online book by Andy Weir. If you have not seen the movie or read the book, both of which I highly recommend, there will be some spoilers for the movie in this post. The movie is wonderful, featuring Matt Damon playing Mark Watney, an astronaut-botanist-mechanical engineer, “sciencing the shit” (literally) out of extreme survival in a hostile environment while accidentally left behind on Mars.
Cultural memes in art, music, and literature indirectly reflect what’s happening in society before our conscious minds do. The explosion of zombie movies and science fiction about intrepid survivors either abandoning Earth for new planets or struggling to get back to Earth suggests that subconsciously, we know we are beyond our limits and headed in the wrong direction on this planet.
Mainstream cultural memes derived from this movie suggest the power of human technology and inventiveness through know-how and persistence. NASA may have used this movie as a rallying cry in support of more funding in general, and funding for longer-range space travel specifically. Good luck with that. It is no accident that space travel in the US peaked with the US oil peak in 1970. Viewed from my perspective of the world in descent, the movie represents something different that probably hasn’t already been said, at least in the US, where Americans’ manifest destiny still reigns supreme. I’m not sure what Andy Weir’s intentions were, beyond telling a ripping good survival yarn, but I see this movie as a symbol of what happens when we venture to the limit of what is sustainable, using extreme technology and energy. When we venture beyond the energetic limits of what is sustainable, bad things are guaranteed to happen. When they do, cascading reactions and a vacuum of Nature’s support systems for our basic needs (soil, water, air, and food) create an extreme situation where high-tech systems will not work, and we must revert to jury-rigged lower-energy tech from an earlier time to get by in an extremely hostile environment that lacks Mother Nature’s supports. Continue reading He’s told us not to blow it
Some years ago now a team of Swedish scientists proposed an interesting framework for understanding planetary environmental problems. It generated a range of responses from the environmental community, mostly positive. I had what is undoubtedly a very unusual response to their framework, and while it is perhaps old news, it may still be useful to present it here. As an anthropologist, I see planetary problems from a cultural and evolutionary perspective that could offer a different take on the subject.
First, though, I want to say that the identification of the nine interrelated environmental ‘boundaries’ has been unquestionably of great value (Planetary Boundaries). Raising awareness about the problems and emphasizing nonlinear feedbacks effects, and so the possible triggering of abrupt global environmental changes, are integral to a more sophisticated discussion of climate change and the other problems they highlight. To list them, they are climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, nutrient fluxes, global freshwater use, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.
The nine ‘boundaries’ are concisely represented in their popular diagram. The green space in the center represents the safe operating values. If the wedge exceeds the green space then it has already crossed its threshold and become a threat of flipping to a disastrous state for our human presence on the planet. Worse, the problems are interrelated and interactions are a grave threat. As an example of dangerous interactions, loss of soil moisture, degradation of land to new land types, and biodiversity loss all reduce the ability of ecosystems to sequester CO2, and thus increase greenhouse effects.
These same issues can be found today in a number of diagrams such as the one above. The Swedish authors have called our times the ‘great acceleration’, a time of rapid growth of a number of environmental problems. They have argued persuasively that now is the time that we need to ‘bend the curves’.
For an anthropologist like myself raised on stories of the Nuer and Dinka (and the other tribes in the region), the latest news from the Sudan is jarring. These men fighting each other are not ‘soldiers’, they are warriors. They live in ‘tribes’ or ‘local groups’ ruled by kinship. And they fight each other in terms of historical animosities. But they are now armed (who armed them?), and the big players (the US, China, others) have oil ‘interests’ in the region. So the language has changed, this is a ‘state’, it should follow the ‘rules’ of international law, people can be charged with ‘war crimes’, etc. The US has soldiers stationed nearby to protect ‘facilities’. Thousands of UN ‘peacekeeprs’ as well as ‘attack helicopters’ are coming. All of this, clearly, is not for the building of ‘democracy’ or for some other higher moral purpose, but to create ‘stability’. Continue reading When cow love meets car love
The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves. –Oscar Arias Sanchez
It is easy to get distracted when the world appears to be falling down around our heads. This week, the Emergist reports that he has gotten waylaid by intrusions at the personal scale, and relates those intrusions back to the principles of emergy and transformity. Here’s a snippet below from his blog this week about the transformity of his education, his feelings about his competing needs of parenting at the personal scale, and the urge to give to actions at the larger scale, and the relative value and costs of education in our society. The post is warm, funny, and something that I’ve been thinking about this week, too. Go read it, please, and I’ll wait right here while you do.
The Emergist Attacked by Two Toddlers
This blog has gone quiet for sometime, not that I haven’t had anymore topics to blog about, but because my oldest toddler has learned to turn off the computer. I actually have two posts fully thought out and half written. Further complicating the process is that the older one grabs the tip of my nose whenever he wants my attention, which is all the time, while his sister sneak attacks by smearing saliva on the screen with her hands. This all significantly ups the ante to write anything. Continue reading The transformity of personal action
Everything pulses, and pulses maximize the flow of power in systems. I pulsed in a big way this year. After too much time spent thinking, reading, and writing (and sitting in a chair) during the first half of the year, I put down the keyboard and took off on some physical, slow travel adventures for the summer. One of these adventures was a 2,000-mile bike tour, from Bellingham Washington, to Glacier National Park, to Yellowstone National Park, and then ping-ponging around Yellowstone on an event ride, Cycle Greater Yellowstone. We had beautiful, hot, dry weather, and a great trip. I cleared my head, I lost over 15 pounds, and I lived a simple, basic, Spartan life of biking, eating, sleeping (we camped). Touring the national parks by bicycle turned out to be an ideal way to see the crowded parks during summer. Our summer bike tour was purging and restorative, and there was time to think about my life at the personal and the larger scale. Reentry has been a bit disorienting—I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Continue reading Stranger in a strange land
Our university has an eccentric, bow-tied math professor who is extremely fond of the quote from Piet Hein, “Problems worthy of attack, prove their worth by hitting back.” He uses the phrase to scold students who give up on a math problem simply because it seems difficult. After surviving a fair number of quantitative courses, I have felt the type of mental bruising that accompanies more worthy assignments and the satisfaction of defeating them. The realms of blackboards and quad-ruled notebooks also make fairly safe battlegrounds, but as much as I like to hide in that world, the Real World tends to find me anyway. That reality seems to be defined by its most immediate crisis – a never-ending stream of problems. These problems have always hit me, but I generally decided I was not equipped to solve them and surrendered to a ruse of apathy. Recently, my studies have exposed me to new people and ideas, and I have retreated from current issues less often. I still feel unprepared to deal with most global problems, especially those about politics or economics. They have become divisive to the point that calm discussion tends to be uncomfortable if not impossible. I have decided I am most concerned with and optimistic about environmental issues because society is already actively developing potential strategies and solutions, but I am frustrated by the collective indifference common among my peers. Continue reading Young Voices–Generation iDontCare
This post is about how gender roles might change in descent. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, but Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article this month in The Atlantic instigated this post. Ms. Slaughter makes the point that women cannot keep up with the demands of work and home in the current American culture, even with the many adjuncts that the hierarchy created by fossil fuels provides, such as day care and fast food. Slaughter states, “Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men.” But Ms. Slaughter fails to recognize an even more pressing issue going forward. All of us will need to work cooperatively to become more self-sufficient as we restructure of our culture post fossil fuels, which requires more time at home, making the juggling all the harder if we refuse to give something up. And women are not good at giving things up, as evidenced by our current quandary of too many roles to play. As Ms. Slaughter found, I have finally found a way to live that is true to myself, rather than the expectations of others, expectations reflecting corporate values. Taking back control by working less was positive in many ways. This is my story, but you can find broader coverage of this topic and the header poster in a Fall 2011 issue of Yes Magazine. And I see that Sharon Astyk is on a similar wavelength about gender roles; maybe it is the dog days of summer that refocuses our thoughts on family. This post is a bit shorter, because I have lots of questions and no answers, and I’m interested in hearing what others think. Continue reading Gender roles and descent
So what do we do now? At what point does one realize that his or her paradigm isn’t working anymore, and give up and walk out on empire? How do we start walking, and where do we go? Here are some quotes from notable people who are choosing to turn at the crossroads and walk away from empire and then to talk about the transition. These quotes highlight some of their answers to the question of “what now?” Continue reading Walking out on empire
“Bruegel’s paintings of the Seasons and his Fall of Icarus celebrate peasant life for an industrious harmony with nature. This view of peasants is particularly clear in the Icarus where the sweeping panorama is anchored around the heroic figure of the plowman. . . . The husbandman was a familiar paragon of industry, moderation, and moral integrity, both in classical and early Christian writings. . . . Virgil’s account offers intriguing parallels to Bruegel with its extensive description of the peaceful, moderate plowman ignorant of the bellicose, avaricious ambitions of city dwellers seeking “kingdoms doomed to fall.” Horace, Columella, and Pliny also contrasted a past, moral country life to the present immorality of cities. In the golden age, even urban life was guided by the virtues of rural existence. Thus Pliny wrote of Republican Rome. “The agricultural class produces the bravest men, the most gallant soldiers, and the citizens least given to evil designs.” . . . The introduction of a setting sun may also suggest the timeless cycles of a golden age and a natural order indifferent to folly. See thus, the whole picture emerges as a cosmological panorama which goes on with its elemental rhythms, its husbandry and commerce, its life and death, its labor and folly, until the final day when those who have “plowed diligently” enter the harbor of God’s kingdom. With its elemental contrasts, the picture would have also suggested to its educated viewers one of the central questions of Renaissance humanism: what was human nature and how did it relate to nature’s wider orders.” (Baldwin, 1986, p. 101).
Thanks to Gail at Wit’s End for the Baldwin/Bruegel links above. The painting represents the tensions between agrarian and urban society that has occurred over and over in civilizations throughout history, as we pulse up into civilizations that later fail. Bruegel’s good plowman, sensible sailors, shepherd, and fishermen in the painting above are symbolic of a culture that harnesses earth, wind, and sun to live within the restraints of nature, in contrast to foolish, ambitious Icarus. Early scholars associated Icarus with urban technologies of “kingdoms doomed to fall.” What symbolic culture will represent us as empire wanes? Continue reading Symbolic culture clash at the end of empire
Do you want to live more efficiently and reap the benefits of a closer community? Cooperative living is a great strategy for getting and staying out of debt while building community, resilience and security in a tenuous economy. But it requires a change in attitudes, and a return to more communal ways of living. You don’t necessarily need to relocate into a brand new cohousing situation; there are a range of options. While we live in a close-but-separate multi-family dwelling, by design and by chance, we’ve achieved some important cohousing benefits – shared space and sense of community. So here’s our cooperative living story, as told from the perspective of both top floor and bottom floor residents–I’m going to refer to the people who live with us as our nearest neighbors, as we don’t really think of them as tenants, but as friends. Living together with extended family is nothing new, but here in Anchorage, we are often far from family, and friends are the family we choose for ourselves (Edna Buchanan). Continue reading Cooperative Living
We put away many kinds of violence that we would act out in the natural world beyond the city; in order to inhabit cities we put away actions…Inside these cities we need writers, we need artists, like myself…Nietzsche said, ‘we have art so that we do not die of reality.’–Ray Bradbury
Ever since the beginning of man’s oral history, our cultures have taught lessons, stored memories, and guided group values through stories. Stories are a safety valve, and the linchpin of civilization, according to Bradbury. Whether it is transmitting the virtues of hard work through Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the good fortune tale of Cinderella (as told by Vonnegut) or the Inuit legend about Raven the trickster, allegories, fables, and campfire stories have been passed on from generation to generation, using elements of truth, disbelief, myths, allegories, and wisdom to pass on important cultural knowledge. I’ve recently encountered stories with an Alaskan theme of opposing sides–environmentalist vs. resource extractor–told at three different scales of global, national, and local scales. These stories serve as excellent reflections on how we relate as people within nature and what we need to relocate in terms of connecting with nature and with our community. I will share them below in my own crude attempts at storytelling. Continue reading Connecting with Community through Storytelling
Professor Dave Tilley suggested a review of Richard Sennett’s new book, Together; The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. The book was thoughtfully written. Sennett traces the nature and evolution of cooperation in society, and examines the reasons for the lack of cooperation in current society, and how we can reclaim it. He examines the relationship of cooperation to solidarity, competition, and ritual. Sennett views cooperation realistically; he understands that cooperation is not innately benign, and has its own problems, as people who are bound together can then do harm to others. He discusses the need to rebuild cooperation using the metaphor of repair work embodied in a social workshop, as suggested by the book’s cover painting at right, Making a Staircase by Frances Johnston. He makes a number of fascinating points; for example, he describes the institutionalization of cooperation in the form of solidarity as the Left’s response to the evils of capitalism. Sennett ends the book with a quote from Jacob Burckhardt about modern times as an “age of brutal simplifiers”. Sennett suggests that: Continue reading Cooperative Culture–Energy Characteristics