Turning points?

Yesterday was Canada Day, but few of us felt like celebrating, after the discovery that hundreds (probably thousands) of Indigenous children lie buried in unmarked graves near the residential schools where they died. We had heard the stories told by survivors of the horrors of those government-sanctioned institutions, but this was even worse. Will this cause Canada as a whole to recognize the systemic racism that has plagued our history right up to the present, and to make an honest effort to eradicate it? Time will tell.

Time is already telling the horror story of global heating. Hundreds have died in the past week under the heat dome in Western Canada, where a town in British Columbia hit the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada, just under 50 C. (over 120 Fahrenheit). Now the same town has been almost wiped out by one of the forest fires raging in the region. Will this convince Canadians that climate change is a real emergency? Parliament has just passed Canada’s Net-Zero Climate Accountability Act (Bill C-12), which finally sets some near-term targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and even includes provisions for monitoring and enforcement, so that could be seen as a turning point. But that point should have been reached decades ago, here and elsewhere, so it’s hard not to feel that this progress is too little, too late.

Meanwhile on Manitoulin Island we’ve had an unusually cool June; yesterday’s high was about 19 C. Normal weather patterns are being disrupted in all directions. Even closer to home, my blog posting has been interrupted by another writing project (for publication elsewhere). Now I’m back to revision toward a 2nd edition of Turning Signs, and have now finished (or refinished) Chapter 16. Does it contribute anything to the the global transformation I’ve been blogging about for years now? I think it does, but only for readers who can relate it to their experience, and especially to their practice of living this time, which is the subject of the chapter.

I can’t resist copying here a couple of quotes from near the end of the chapter. One is by C.S. Peirce, about the “spiritual reality” of a human:

by action, through thought, he grows an esthetic ideal, not for the behoof of his own poor noddle merely, but as the share which God permits him to have in the work of creation.

Peirce, CP 5.402n

For me at least, this “esthetic ideal” is not some static image that one aims to achieve in the future, but a way of living the time now into the future. Eihei Dogen comes as close to expressing it in words as anything I’ve come across:

A buddha’s practice is to practice in the same manner as the entire earth and all beings. If it is not practice with all beings, it is not a buddha’s practice. This being so, from the moment of arousing the aspiration for enlightenment to the moment of attaining enlightenment, all buddhas realize and practice the way together with the entire earth and all beings.

Dogen, SBGZ ‘Yuibutsu yobutsu’ (Tanahashi 2010, 880-1)

So is this moment a turning point? Yes, but not a discontinuity in what Dogen calls continuous practice. The earth and all beings continue to turn.

Social transformation

I’m back to the blog after spending the entire month of March researching, rethinking and revising Chapter 8 of Turning Signs (and welcoming the spring of 2021). The chapter isn’t completely done yet, but in the meantime i want to share this excerpt from Free, Fair, and Alive (pp. 204-205), a book on Commoning by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich (New Society Publishers, 2019):

Geographer Dina Hestad of the University of Oxford has studied what characteristics must be present for actions and strategies to be socially transformative. She has provisionally identified the following criteria:

  • Work towards a vision which reflects the need to live in balance with the carrying capacity of the earth
  • Consider that change in a complex system cannot be controlled due to uncertainty
  • Avoid displacing problems to other locations or times, which could prevent wider system change
  • Tackle the root causes of acceleration and growth — the feedback loops that cause most of today’s ecological and social crises
  • Work towards systems that avoid unchecked imbalances of power and help avoid triggering humans’ (destructive) ancient tribal circuits
  • Promote understanding that humans are part of a much larger whole, and create possibilities for resonance and meaningful, affective relationships between people and nature
  • Develop healthy human agency at individual and collective levels for transforming and co-creating our future
  • Open up new possibilities for acting rather than shrinking our opportunities to act
  • Communicate a compelling and inspiring story of system change that names the problems and identifies commensurate leverage points and resonates with people from all walks of life and across ideologies
  • Promote social cohesion and a sense of togetherness at different levels, which includes trust, a sense of belonging, and a willingness to participate and help
  • Promote critical thinking, generosity of spirit, and openness to learn from diverse ideas and perspectives

Commoning has a rich potential to meet all of these criteria. Of course, implementation is critical! That is to say, strengthening and expanding commoning from within a market/state polity will be really difficult. But it is entirely feasible.

The flood

An article in the New York Times yesterday, based on a new study reported in Nature Communications, says that previous estimates of the effects of sea level rise due to climate change have been far too optimistic. ‘The new research shows that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury’ – many of them in large cities such as Bangkok and Shanghai. This is not a worst-case scenario but a most-likely scenario based on the current rate of carbon emissions.

For those of us relatively unaffected by flood, drought, hurricanes, wildfires, extinctions and other effects of global heating, news about them has become a virtual flood of information, and sometimes we feel as if we’re drowning in it. How are we supposed to respond?

With anxiety about our children’s future?

With guilt, because we’ve played our part in the consumptive economic system that is causing it all, and we haven’t done enough to curb our emissions, and we know that the worst effects of this accelerating catastrophe are suffered by those least responsible for causing it?

With rage against the wealthy oligarchs who buy off politicians and flood the media with toxic progaganda so they can continue to profit from their ownership of the economic engine?

With despair because there’s nothing we can do about all this?

By “changing the channel,” distracting ourselves from a painful reality?

With commitment to the cause of changing the system into something more just and ecologically sensible? That seems to me what a good citizen of the world would do – perhaps motivated by some combination of anxiety, guilt and rage. But i doubt whether such a commitment can be sustained by those feelings. Rather, the sustenance of commitment has to be something more like love. Hope helps too, if it’s something deeper than optimism. But the core of it, i feel, is not the fear of losing what we love, but the inconceivable joy of its presence to us and with us now.

Can that kind of joy be invoked or evoked or expressed with words? I don’t know. It depends on what kind of practice follows from the words. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.