In the between

My slow revision of Turning Signs has now reached the beginning of Chapter 6. Chapter 5 took longer than expected, but the good news is that it’s not only better but a bit shorter than it was before. The downloadable version of the complete book has been updated as of yesterday.

This revision has been sparked by the continuing dialogue between some ancient scriptures and recent reflections on the transition. I’ve been studying Robert Thurman’s book on the Bardo Thödol (known in the West as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”) – and hearing Laurie Anderson’s beautiful rendition of Songs from the Bardo as well. Thurman explains that the root meaning of bardo in Tibetan is “the between,” and the vast bardo literature reflects a conceptual scheme which ‘is used to create in the practitioner a sense that all moments of existence are “between” moments, unstable, fluid, and transformable into liberated enlightenment experience’ (Thurman 1994, 34). So wherever we are in spacetime, we are in the between.

I’ve also been reading a collection of very recent essays called The New Possible, and to give a taste of it, here’s an excerpt from Jeremy Lent’s contribution:

As long as government policies emphasize GDP growth and transnational corporations relentlessly pursue shareholder returns, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe. These practices ransack the Earth without regard to long-term effects. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices we make, but by a transformation in the very way we make sense of the world, and by a concomitant revolution in our predominant values.

The depiction of humans as selfish individuals, the view of nature as a resource to be exploited, and the idea that technology alone can fix our biggest problems are all profound misconceptions that have collectively led our civilization down this madcap path to disaster. We must recognize the destructive nature of the dominant mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming, embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services. We must emphasize core human values of fairness, justice, and compassion as paramount—extending them through local neighborhoods to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis (p. 5-6). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

It’s all one transformation.

Perennial Turning

It’s pretty clear by now that a transformation of agricultural practices will be a necessary part of any just transition to a healthy Earth community. Several people and organizations engaged in this transformation have recently posted articles on resilience.org. One of them, the Land Institute, has published an open-access book called The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field. (You can download the free e-book from that site.)

The first article (by Wes Jackson, Aubrey Streit Krug, Bill Vitek, and Robert Jensen) takes a look at the global situation in which this ‘Perennial Turn’ is taking place. One paragraph strikes me as especially cogent:

Revolutionary change in theory and practice, not minor course corrections, are needed; we cannot assume that modifying the existing trajectory of the human species is adequate. If there is to be an ongoing large-scale human presence on Earth, the energy/resource consumption that most affluent humans take for granted—and which many non-affluent humans aspire to—cannot continue.

The time we are living makes it increasingly risky to take things for granted – even things like a steady supply of energy, food, water, clean air, health care, mobility, employment and so on. If philosophers are those who don’t take things for granted that people commonly think they know, as Merleau-Ponty says, maybe this is a good time for open-access philosophical essays like Turning Signs. —That’s about as close to self-advertising as this blog ever gets … but we can all use a bit of ‘beginner’s mind,’ whatever the time.

Communion

Inkling of the day: The time has come to lower our voices, to cease imposing our mechanistic patterns on the biological processes of the earth, to resist the impulse to control, to command, to force, to oppress, and to begin quite humbly to follow the guidance of the larger community on which all life depends.
That was written 32 years ago. Is it too late now?

Outlink of the day: David Bollier has for many years been researching the commons, and the practice of commoning in many places around the world. His recent book with Silke Helfrich, Free, Fair and Alive, presents it as an alternative to the extractive capitalism which has turned out to be ecocidal and pushed global civilization to the brink of self-destruction. The book includes a glossary of terms we will need in order to shift our understanding and think like commoners. One of them is communion, an old word redefined with the help of some other key terms (rendered here in all caps):

Communion is the process through which COMMONERS participate in interdependent relationships with the more-than-human world. COMMUNION shifts a person’s understanding of human/nature relations out of the economistic framework (e.g., “resource management,” or the commodification and financialization of “nature’s services”) into one that respects the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world. This fundamental self-awareness leads to feelings of gratitude, respect, and reverence for the sacred dimensions of life in the ways that human PROVISIONING is organized.

— Bollier and Helfrich (2019, 76)

Collapse and renewal

We’re all wondering how many of us will survive the coronavirus pandemic, but in the longer term, many of us are wondering what remnants of our globalized civilization are likely to survive the collapse that is now under way.

In her 2015 book The Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Tsing addresses the question in her subtitle: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Those “ruins,” by the way, should be pictured not as crumbling buildings like the “ruins” of ancient civilizations, but as the ecosystems that have been systematically ruined by extractive capitalism.

Jeremy Lent also raised the question last fall on his Patterns of Meaning blog, ‘As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs’. Here he applies the concept of “the adaptive cycle” to human society.

Scientists have studied the life cycles of all kinds of complex systems—ranging in size from single cells to vast ecosystems, and back in time all the way to earlier mass extinctions—and have derived a general theory of change called the Adaptive Cycle model. This model works equally well for human systems such as industries, markets, and societies. As a rule, complex systems pass through a life cycle consisting of four phases: a rapid growth phase when those employing innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities; a more stable conservation phase, dominated by long-established relationships that gradually become increasingly brittle and resistant to change; a release phase, which might be a collapse, characterized by chaos and uncertainty; and finally, a reorganization phase during which small, seemingly insignificant forces can drastically change the future of the new cycle.

As many other commentators are saying, the shaping of our “recovery” from the pandemic is an opportunity to change the future of the new cycle of civilization. It is clear that many of the people and subsystems of the now-collapsing global system are not going to survive, but chances are we can have some influence on how it all turns out. For more on this cyclical pattern, including diagrams of it and my own reflections on it, visit rePatch ·11 of Turning Signs.

Gut feelings

In the early stages of writing my book Turning Signs, i was very strongly moved by the realization that the world is inside out – that the whole of your experience of the world is something going on in your brain. This activity is taking place at the cellular and subcellular levels, and not until the 20th Century was it possible to investigate in detail how these microcosmic processes actually work to generate our thoughts and feelings. More recently we are learning that the brain is only part of this microcosm.

At the same time, we have been developing the technology to explore the macrocosm, the vast reaches of the physical universe. This development began 400 years ago with the first telescope, but it was only 100 years ago that we recognized the existence of other galaxies far beyond our own. Our knowledge, our cognitive universe, has been expanding both inwards and outwards toward the micro- and macroscopic limits of our augmented perception. Our comprehension of time has also expanded in scale, in both directions: we have begun to appreciate how much can happen in a millisecond, and how long it takes the light from a distant galaxy to reach us. Our moment in cosmic time is marked by a wonderful flowering of the imagination.

Returning to the microscopic scale, this excerpt from a recent Science magazine article is a good example of that flowering:

Over the past 20 years, the recognition that the microbes living inside us outnumber our body’s own cells has turned our view of ourselves inside out. The gut microbiome, as it’s known, weighs about 2 kilograms— more than the 1.4-kilogram human brain— and may have just as much influence over our bodies. Thousands of species of microbes (not only bacteria but also viruses, fungi, and archaea) reside in the gut. And with as many as 20 million genes among them, those microbes pack a genomic punch that our measly 20,000 genes can’t match. Gut bacteria can make and use nutrients and other molecules in ways the human body can’t— a tantalizing source of new therapies.

The brain is the newest frontier, but it’s one with an old connection to the gut. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed mental disorders arose when the digestive tract produced too much black bile. And long before microbes were discovered, some philosophers and physicians argued that the brain and gut were partners in shaping human behavior. “What probably happens is that our brain and our gut are in constant communication,” says [John] Cryan, who over the past decade has helped drive efforts to decode those communications.

—Elizabeth Pennisi, “Meet the Psychobiome” (Science, 8 May 2020, Vol. 368 Issue 6491, p. 571)

John Cryan is a neuropharmacologist at University College Cork. He and a psychiatrist colleague, Ted Dinan, coined the term “psychobiotics” for the new field of research into microbe-based treatments for mental illnesses. No doubt this research is being funded by an industry hoping for profits down the road, but it contributes nonetheless to the flowering of imagination that “has turned our view of ourselves inside out.” In 2020, the virus which has turned our daily lives upside down should only add to our respect for life at the micro-scale and its effect on our human-scale lives.

On the other hand, our growing ability to conceive of (and measure) vast differences of scale in space and time is still rooted in the human scale of experiencing. We know much more about past events than we do about the future, but the past is no more present to us than the future. What is present to us is the remains of the past, the traces of what’s happened, the signs we can read in order to imagine our planet’s history with some degree of accuracy. In the same way, by reading what is present to us and puzzling out some reasons why it is the way it is, we imagine the future with some degree of plausibility.

Our ability to imagine the deep-time context of the present moment enables us to feel its presence all the more deeply. That’s the gift of this brief moment in the history of the universe. But our acceptance of this gift, our experience of it, seems to depend on the myriads of microbes inhabiting the psychobiome. We begin to see with our high-power microscopes how much of our mental life we owe to gut feelings.

Creation Evolving and other stories

I’ve been busy exploring some of the information about the transition accessible on the Net now, especially from the Post Carbon Institute – more on that below – and looking into ways to enhance the resilience of my local community here on Manitoulin Island. But i’ve also been busy revising the last chapter (19) of my book Turning Signs.

I’ve been growing more dissatisfied with that chapter since i first published it in 2015, but not until now have i come up with a version that seems to work as a culmination of my whole 19-chapter argument. It’s called ‘Creation Evolving’, it’s online now, and i’d appreciate any comments on it from critical readers. (Since it frequently refers back to previous parts of the book, i’ve included lots of links back to the key concepts, but i don’t claim that it’s an easy read!)

This reflects my habit of going back and forth from a local focus on current practice to a more global contemplation of “deep time” and the deeper practices of nature and cultures. It’s like my other habit of alternating between silent walks in the woods and spells of wrestling with words. (The photo below was taken by Pam during one of our November strolls. Note the rare patch of blue sky reflected in the puddle.) I feel that the two practices enhance one another by alternating, somewhat like sleeping and waking. (After all, how can you wake up if you haven’t been sleeping?)

Anyway, this sort of back-and-forth seems to help me keep my balance in this Era of Upheaval. I’ve lifted that phrase from the title of a Post Carbon Institute book, The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval. You can buy this book from the usual sources, or you can get access to it online for free by registering with the PCI.

Another relevant book you can get for free, thanks to the generosity of the authors, is Your Post has been Removed: Tech Giants and Freedom of Speech, by Frederik Stjernfelt and Anne Mette Lauritzen. This new book delves into the roles of the ‘tech giants’ (especially Google and Facebook) in the current cultural/political upheaval. I’m halfway through it now, and although its main focus is ‘freedom of speech,’ it also throws light on the role of social media in the ecological/economic crisis.

As Stjernfelt and Lauritzen point out, ‘freedom of speech’ includes freedom of access to information, so it’s appropriate as well as fortunate that they’ve allowed open access to it. Like Turning Signs, it comes with a Creative Commons license. At this traditionally hyperconsumptive time of year, it’s good to see the Commons growing!

Finally i’m really happy to see the website of Local Food Manitoulin. This is the kind of community initiative that can address all four sides of the current crisis: ecology, energy, economy and equity. It doesn’t ask you to indulge in either optimism or pessimism about the climate emergency, because it can work (locally, of course) toward both prevention and mitigation of the worst effects of global heating.

At our latitude, we’re sinking into the darkest part of the year (for those of us who are solar powered, at least). But we have the winter solstice coming up in less than two weeks, and things are bound to get brighter after that. In the meantime let us carry on with the upheaval, or transition, or whatever we call it. And keep in touch with the Earth.

Novemberpuddle
photo by Pam Jackson

Mission Possible?

Sometimes you have to rest in silence for awhile before you can start again with something to say.

When I describe Turning Signs as a ‘philosophical essay,’ this is what I have in mind:

Philosophy is systematic reflection on our existence, seeking to answer questions like “What is our place in the cosmos?” or “How should we best live our lives?” For many philosophers – very much including the Greeks who stood at the beginnings of western philosophy – the asking and answering of such questions was part of a philosophical way of life: that is, philosophy is not confined to abstract, intellectual pursuits but is implemented in one’s daily life.

— Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (2017, Kindle location 407)

This is also what I had in mind when I started Chapter 1 of Turning Signs:

Suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission.

Supposing means imagining a certain situation in order to see what follows from it. It doesn’t commit us to believing that you really are in that situation. You are free to imagine other possible situations. Maybe you have no ‘mission’ in life, no specific “role” to play in the world drama, no “destiny” or destination pulling you in any particular direction. Maybe ‘missions’ are nothing but figments of the human imagination. Or maybe you do have a ‘mission’ but it’s no secret: you know exactly what it is and you could spell it out in 25 words or less. Maybe you were born to do exactly what you are doing to “make a living,” as we say. But I didn’t invite the reader to suppose either of those situations, because they don’t seem to generate the kind of philosophical questions that Angle and Tiwald refer to above, the questions that seem most real to me (and, I suppose, to any reader likely to get very far in Turning Signs).

When I ask you to suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission, I am not asking you to believe that any person or agency (divine or human or corporate) selected you for your ‘mission’ or your ‘mission’ for you. You might have selected it yourself, consciously or not, or your situation might result from a process of natural selection. Of course, being a user of language (and probably other symbolic media), your mission is also rooted in cultural selection. But a culture is itself an outgrowth of nature. Cultural systems evolve just as biological and ecological systems do, following the same natural principles – with the addition of an emergent level of consciousness that enables deliberate choices to be made. A crucial part of that cultural selection process is supposing that imagined possibilities can be “realized” and anticipating the consequences that would follow.

Another crucial part of the cultural selection process, especially for those of us living the time of the 21st Century, is reflection on how our cultures have developed the forms and core concepts which are now dominant on this planet, and how those core concepts might need to change in order to avoid the collapse of the natural systems that sustain us all. This kind of reflection is implicit in Turning Signs, but I’ve just been reading another book which addresses the question more explicitly: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent. It’s inspired me to reflect on some of the core concepts of Turning Signs in future blog posts. Maybe it won’t make a difference to the future of humanity, but maybe that’s not my mission anyway.

Real economy


Here’s one iconic symbol we ought to be turning to. You can read all about it in Kate Raworth’s blog and book on Doughnut Economics. The doughnut is an icon well suited to “accounting for what really counts” (the slogan of gnusystems).

Economists and politicians, including our Prime Minister, are still chanting the old mantra of economic “growth” as if it were the panacea which would solve all our problems and improve all our lives. But as soon as you ask what the purpose of an economic system is, as Kate Raworth did, you see that growth does not always serve that purpose, and sometimes works against it. And what’s more, the politicians who have relied on this mantra to manufacture consent for their programs have used it mainly to increase the gap between rich and poor.

Kate’s latest blog post presents the choice between economic “paradigms” in its simplest terms. The old one is based on the belief that people are greedy, insatiable and competitive. The new one is based on the belief that “people are greedy and generous, competitive and collaborative – and it’s possible to nurture human nature.” You’re invited to decide which belief you want to live by.

Living Earth

Eugene Gendlin wrote that ‘the living body is an interactive process with its environment and situation’ (Hendricks 2004, 8). Its life is its withness.

We could say this of the whole biosphere, as suggested by John Palka in his blog post Is Earth Alive?, which reconsiders the “Gaia hypothesis” originally proposed by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. John Palka, “a neuroscientist who loves plants and ponders big questions,” quotes from a recent book by planetary scientist David Grinspoon:

Margulis and Lovelock proposed that the drama of life does not unfold on the stage of a dead Earth, but, that, rather, the stage itself is animated, part of a larger living entity, Gaia, composed of the biosphere together with the “nonliving” components that shape, respond to, and cycle through the biota of the Earth. Yes, life adapts to environmental change, shaping itself through natural selection. Yet life also pushes back and changes the environment, alters the planet. This is now as obvious as the air you are breathing, which has been oxygenated by life. So evolution is not a series of adaptations to inanimate events, but a system of feedbacks, an exchange. Life has not simply molded itself to the shifting contours of a dynamic Earth. Rather, life and Earth have shaped each other as they’ve coevolved.

Palka’s article gives several specific examples of life changing its environment on this planet. Grinspoon’s book, Earth in Human Hands, is about the “Anthropocene epoch,” in which “the net activity of humans has become a powerful agent of geological change.” Here’s another sample from it:

I think our fundamental Anthropocene dilemma is that we have achieved global impact but have no mechanisms for global self-control. So, to the (debatable) extent that we are like some kind of global organism, we are still a pretty clumsy one, crashing around with little situational awareness, operating on a scale larger than our perceptions or motor skills. However, we can also see our civilization, such as it is, becoming knitted together by trade, by satellite, by travel, and instantaneous communications, into some kind of new global whole—one that is as yet conflicted and incoherent, but which is arguably just beginning to perceive and act in its own self-interest.

— Grinspoon, David (2016-12-06). Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Kindle Locations 158-163). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.