The Dark Mountain Blog

What would Qohelet do?

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You may recall the popular song from the ’60s, the chorus of which ran:

To everything
Turn Turn Turn
There is a season
Turn Turn Turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven 1

Written and composed by Pete Seeger and later popularised by the Byrds, the words of the song are largely drawn from the writings of an ancient Israelite man named Qohelet.

Qohelet lived around the mid-300s BCE, likely in Jerusalem, and his writings are preserved in a book of the Hebrew bible by the same name (in English bibles, Ecclesiastes). He probably was not a king, as is said in the book, but was likely a sage or philosopher. Referred to as the Teacher or Preacher, the editor of the book may have been one of his students.

The book is part of the Israelite wisdom tradition – a broad range of literature that is concerned very directly with life, and how to deal with the difficulties and challenges of our existence. The book of Qohelet is unique in being highly skeptical of the goodness of God and of the value of wisdom itself. Its approach is so unusual that people have wondered how it made its way into the bible at all.

While it is a lovely and melodic rendering, Seeger’s song gives a wrong impression of the book – the sense of cosmic justice and balance that is conveyed by Seeger’s song (most of which is drawn from the beginning of ch. 3) is a far cry from the sense of futility that Qohelet experiences and which pervades the book.

The Qohelet we find in the pages of his book is a serious and curious man, a sort of Hunter S. Thompson cultural explorer and recorder who, after a long life during which he had attained much in the way of status and material success (2:4-8), takes it upon himself to thoroughly examine his society. By poking and prodding into all its corners he hopes to find what, if anything, is the meaning of life.

I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. (1:16-17) 2

In his search for answers he tenaciously observes what is happening in the lives of the people around him, rich and poor, old and young. Relentlessly clear-eyed, he does not allow himself to succumb to self-delusion or sugar coat what is going on around him. He is not susceptible to spin. As Qohelet says, ‘The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness’ (2:14). And as his editor says, ‘he wrote words of truth plainly’ (12:10).

As a result of his explorations Qohelet concludes that the world can be summed up in one word: hebel. This word is typically translated as ‘vanity’, but because ‘vanity’ now almost always has the sense of being vain or conceited, the true sense of the world as it is meant by Qohelet is not conveyed. A more accurate translation of hebel than ‘vanity’ is ‘a breath, whiff, puff, vapour’ and it refers to anything that is illusory, incomprehensible, futile, or meaningless. This sense of meaninglessness is at the heart of the book – ‘vanity’ appears 38 times and is the first word after the superscription and Qohelet’s last word in 12:8. The superlative construction ‘vanity of vanities’ that begins and ends the book points to complete and utter meaninglessness. Nothing we possess, be it material goods, pleasure, or religion, can change the fact that everything is ephemeral and ultimately futile. As Qohelet discovers in the course of his inquiries, even the pursuit of wisdom itself is finally nothing but folly and ‘a chasing after wind’ (1:17).

***

The society that Qohelet lived in is an echo of our own. At the time he was writing, the Persian empire which ruled throughout the Near East had replaced Israel’s agrarian subsistence economy with a monetary economy, based on standardized currency. Epigraphic evidence from the period shows that money was being used in large and small business transactions, given as gifts and bribes, and hoarded. It is the growth and development of this monetary economy that provides the socio-economic context of the book. The book’s vocabulary suggests an audience very concerned with the economy; it is full of words like money, riches, private possession, salary, surplus, yield, account, assets, worker, and consumer. 3

A key part of the economic system imposed throughout the empire was a system of property grants. These grants gave rights over various properties to favoured individuals, military personnel, or temple communities; additionally, even more exclusive royal grants were given outright to relatives and friends of the crown. Recipients of these grants were required to collect taxes from their lands for the king, but were entitled to keep a portion.

Needless to say, under this system there were fortunate people who fared extremely well, and there were unfortunate ones who received little or nothing at all. The system benefited the political elites with friends in high places and those powerful entrepreneurs who had access to large amounts of capital; at an obvious disadvantage were smallholders, whose political influence and access to capital was limited. Not surprisingly, the gap between the rich and the lower classes grew larger, with the rich becoming extremely powerful and the poor becoming more and more vulnerable.

One option available to people wanting to get ahead in the empire was to take out a loan. Interest rates were high, however, and it was easy to fall behind on payments. In the event of default an entire estate could be seized – lands, house, children, and slaves. Based on studies of Persian documents of the period, it appears that something was occurring at the time Qohelet was writing that suddenly caused many people to lose their land holdings. Those who once possessed property had to give it up and many found themselves imprisoned for debt or enslaved.

The sense drawn from these documents is that in this competitive economic environment some people were willing to do just about anything to move ahead, and that the rich were getting around the law at the poor’s expense. Qohelet condemns this economic culture, viewing it as one in which people were deluded into thinking that ‘money meets every need’ (10:19) and driven by envy to strive for success that could not be satisfied:

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. (5:10; cf. 4:4-8)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind . Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ they ask, ‘and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business. (4:4, 7-8)

Greedy consumers could not find peace, either because of indigestion or anxiety concerning their investments. ‘Sweet is the sleep of labourers, whether they eat little or much, but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep’ (5:12).

In addition to being at the mercy of rich and powerful proprietors, ordinary citizens were victimised by corrupt courts and judges and unscrupulous priests. ‘Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well’ (3:16). He also warned against the government and its spies, for to say too much could mean being scooped up by the state security apparatus. ‘Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter’ (10:20).

As he looked around at his world, Qohelet saw a volatile and unpredictable place where there was a lot to worry about and very little of certainty. People found themselves caught up in rapid political and economic change, and most were helpless to do anything about it. Theirs was an upside-down world in which nothing seemed reliable or permanent; even people who had been given grants could not rely on having them forever. ‘I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves’ (10:7).

Ultimately, this world was a difficult place for Qohelet to comprehend. While he seems to accept many of its contradictions, he saw that the world was full of inconsistencies and even glaring contradictions that could not be explained away. ‘So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded’ (9:16). Qohelet is certainly a theist, but he saw it as pointless to turn to God for answers to his questions – like the Persian emperor, God is a distant and incomprehensible mystery, responsible for deeds both pleasant and unpleasant (7:13-14). The bottom line is that we live in an unreliable world dominated by powerful people who inevitably impose their will over others. ‘For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?”‘ (8:4). Things rarely turn out as we might want or expect and justice does not prevail. All truly is vanity.

***

As will be apparent, there is much in Qohelet’s world and writings that sound familiar. If Qohelet were alive today he would see much that is recognisable in our world – economic uncertainty, job and housing loss, huge income disparity, rampant consumerism, and social dislocation. As he says, little changes.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. (1:9)

But there is one obvious difference between Qohelet’s times and our own: Qohelet was operating on the assumption that the natural world was stable and unchanging. While he likely observed shifts in weather, the basic patterns would have seemed permanent. There was no reason for him to assume otherwise.

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:4-7)

But as we now well know, with climate change nothing is predictable. There is no longer a reliable flow to nature. The natural order – probably the one iota of stability that Qohelet could rely upon – is rapidly becoming undone. So how would Qohelet respond to our situation? What would Qohelet do?

One thing he wouldn’t do is take the human-centred position taken by some religions that places humans apart from and above nature.

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? (3:19-21).

He would not see us as detached from what is going on – whatever happens to the natural world happens to us.

Neither would he see the world as a learning ground for humans with suffering and ecocide somehow ‘for the greater good’ or fitting into a discernible cosmic plan. I very much doubt that he would deny the reality of climate change, avoid it, or succumb to any of the myriad ways humans have found to numb themselves to it. He would not buy into any spin. Rather, I suspect he would be one of those who are able to confront the dark truths of our times head on.

Neither, I suspect, would Qohelet attempt to resolve the contradictory nature of the situation we find ourselves in. He would clearly see that our economic system has put many people in a position where on the one hand they are aware of the devastating problems our actions have created, but on the other hand aren’t willing to give up what they have. He would accept the folly of this way of thinking and view it as futile to try and convince people to think otherwise.

Would he fall into the camp of those proposing resistance? Given his view that power inevitably rests with the wealthy (i.e. oil barons) this does not seem probable – he would likely view active resistance against these powerful forces as another futile endeavour. ‘If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter’ (5:8). Unlike the ancient Hebrew prophets, Qohelet’s critique of society is not accompanied by a call for social transformation. Nonetheless, pursuit of knowledge about the world is not without value. Our knowledge may be limited (10:14), and the answers he comes up with to his questions are that all is ‘futile’ or ‘meaningless’, but it seems that it is still better to know this than to walk in the darkness of the fool. It is still better to be engaged in the world than to blindly ignore or deny what is happening. And while no formula or strategy will necessarily change things, practical wisdom may still have at least some effect (10:4). Therefore, one makes sure to sharpens one’s implements before beginning a task that calls for sharp tools. ‘If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed’ (10:10). Preparation may in some cases make a difference.

I suspect, though, that ultimately, after he has let the facts of our situation register, Qohelet would probably not do much of anything. There are times when even careful preparations are not enough, and this (he would say) may be one of them. It seems likely, though, that he would continue to observe and comment on what he sees. Being a literary man, he may well start a blog (‘Nothing New Under the Sun’), or send out the occasional tweet (@Qohelet, #allisvanity). But our collective fate has been sealed; events are now out of our control and there is little that can be done. And, given our enormous capacity for folly, he probably wouldn’t be surprised that we have arrived at this juncture. In his view there is oppression and injustice in the world because there are ambitious and greedy people who simply cannot have enough (5:8-12). Society, and even the entire cosmos, is now endangered by their lack of contentment. At the end of the book Qohelet shifts to a vision of the end of humanity (12:1-8). It is not much of a stretch to imagine Qohelet enfolding nature in this description of the end of things – a casualty of humanity’s staggering greed and folly.

But Qohelet is not without advice on how to live in the world as it is. The only possible response to the fact that all is vanity is, he says, to enjoy life whenever possible. This is his most persistent counsel – seven times he explicitly exhorts his readers to enjoy life:

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8:15)

Do everything you can when you are able (eat, drink, and be merry), as in death there are no opportunities to do anything. ‘Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity’ (11:8; cf. 9:7-10). Of course, being Qohelet, enjoyment is also elusive, so do not wait for perfect conditions but be spontaneous – be sure to celebrate at any occasion that presents itself. ‘In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good’ (11:6). Given that we cannot control what is happening in the world, spontaneously experiencing joy whenever possible is an appropriate response. ‘When times are good, enjoy; when times are bad, see’ (7:14) 4. For in spite of everything, there are moments when the sweetness of life is undeniable: ‘Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun’ (11:7).

***

In the ancient Israelite wisdom tradition, there is a metaphor of a mine that contains wisdom 5.The idea is that if we dig deep enough a gem of insight will be found that will reveal the appropriate way forward through life. It is hard going finding any such gems these days – if they exist at all they seem to be hidden in the mine’s deepest chambers. Wisdom is, as Qohelet says, ephemeral and elusive. While the advice he gives to his contemporaries – ‘enjoy the moment’ – still applies, many will find it difficult not to see this as a not very helpful cliché, given the gravity of our circumstances. If he were alive today Qohelet may well agree. So perhaps the most important thing to learn from Qohelet is his modus operandi, his way of being in a world much like our own: ask questions, stay engaged, and if so inclined, record.

1 ‘Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)’, was written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s; it was recorded by the Limelighters in 1962 and popularised in the Byrds’ 1965 cover version.

2 Quotes from Qohelet/Ecclesiastes are from the Revised Standard Version of the bible (except where noted).

3 For my understanding of Qohelet and his social context I am indebted to C.L. Seow, Ecclesiastes. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

4 C.L. Seow translation.

5 Job 28. Considering the destruction wreaked over the centuries by mining, this may no longer be such a useful metaphor.

Margaret Miller works as an editor and administrator at a small non-profit environmental organisation in Vancouver Canada. She has a Masters of Theology degree from the Vancouver School of Theology.

Image: Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites, Gustave Do(Wikimedia Commons)

Mother Lode

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The morning after the day Elias left the farm, I woke and slipped out of bed carefully as if he were laying there. This is my morning routine when he visits, carefully edging away so not to wake him; so to give myself guilt-free time at the computer; so to keep my attention holding to the beautiful world he imagines in photographs of raptors flying and the picture of a cougar he begged me to buy at the wildlife festival. Elias is five and a half years old now. He and I have lived at least three hours apart from one another since January 2014 when passion and circumstance drew me away from him.

ex·tinc·tion wit·ness began with the questions Who am I? What am I here for? The questions were rather forced by emotional exhaustion from job searching a flooded market August through December 2011. Elias was one and a half years old then. At the time, I had no clue that being myself would mean physical distance from him. If I had known this from the start, I believe I wouldn’t have begun.

To begin, I cleared employment history off my resume. This left two scholastic degrees, the most recent in environmental studies with emphasis in writing and grief specific to genocide and mass species extinction. My graduate portfolio was there along with a few published essays and poems. The graduate portfolio included the Whale Memorial Dance, a multimedia performance piece produced in memory of cetaceans.

My next question came, How do I share the whale memorial? I looked for other species memorials and discovered that not only were memorials in place, but that climate change and mass species extinction were actually receiving air time. This, along with the vast number of projects and individuals I saw positioned in response, elated me.

I had in mind then to do both, bear witness to outrageous disrespect and celebrate the rapid compassionate response that such grievance inspires. Celebration for the rapid response, I learned, had been accomplished by Paul Hawken and a devoted crew at Wiser Earth. Mine then was whittled down to creative witness.

Someone said once, Be careful what you ask for. I want to add, Be prepared to receive the answer to the question you ask.

Who am I? What am I here for? are rather ultimate questions. Ultimate questions naturally yield ultimate answers.

When my work on ex·tinc·tion wit·ness began, I was experiencing the ‘virgining’ phase in my healing process from early childhood molestation. Virgining is the healing phase during which a person refuses sexual intimacy even with a most trusted partner. As the personal boundary setting part of the healing process, virgining is common to many people, some say every person, who has experienced sexual violation.

Determined to heal my mind-body completely from the psychospiritual wound, I quickly learned that my wholeness was forerunner to my being capable of doing the work at ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, which requires the mind’s access to creative energy blocked in me by fear and shame that childhood molestation imprints on the psyche. Following a spontaneous flow of Kundalini Shakti through my body near the close of 2012, most of 2013 was consumed by this devotion to heal and clear my psyche of early childhood sexual trauma and neglect. This process was made public because I was engaged with and resolved to continue the creative work at ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, the project itself an expression of the Great Divine Mother’s love.

Kundalini Shakti’s spontaneous flow occurred during orgasm complicated by grief for a giant sequoia discovered by a man chasing a wounded grizzly during the California gold rush. The tree was cut for ‘show and tell’ a year later. Grief with sequoia answered another question long in my mind, What will the next memorial be? I became consumed with desire to connect physically with this sequoia and visited the remains, known as ‘the big stump’ or ‘Discovery Tree’ of Calaveras Big Trees, in February 2013 for grief ritual. I returned April 2013 to record a ceremony with the big stump who I call Grandfather Tree.

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I knew I wanted to share the images captured by Jack Gescheidt’s lens (above and below), but was not clear on the message until an equivalent grief busted my heart open that summer. Following another glimpse of the absolute light and three days of heaving grief, I rose with a poem. The music for the film became clear in an instant as well, spurring a week of creative activity in collaboration with a filmmaker who happened to be available to help produce the first edit of Wildfire: a love story, finalised March 2015.

Though the personal healing work continued after my heart opening through to the close of 2014, the heart opening relieved me of insecure emotional attachment, releasing my creative potential. I spent autumn 2013 able to do little more than write poetry while doing my best to physically nurture Elias and myself. The inspired change in my consciousness meant that I was unable to maintain the duties of what had been part-time gainful employment cleaning houses and marketing the work of a local photographer.

By January 2014, having sailed through available credit and lost a housemate, I looked for free living opportunities and found an opening with a childhood friend in Carmel Highlands across the street from Point Lobos State Park. The next month began with devotion to lion in what would become a revolving monthly witness practice with groups being and becoming extinct. Each month’s turn of my gaze from February 2014 to March 2015 initiated a deep dive into another node of the collective subconscious.

In keeping perhaps with the darkness at ocean’s greatest depth, my own experience of the undercurrent grew suicidal, as dark as it has ever been, when I turned my gaze with whale and the dying Pacific March 2015. The experience of loneliness reminded me that I initiated ex·tinc·tion wit·ness because I knew grief inspired by mass species extinction and genocide is too much for a person to bear alone. Mass species extinction is meant to be held by the strong arm of community. Gatherings at Dark Mountain, Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, and ex·tinc·tion wit·ness are vital containers for communal grief.

Hard times are here for so many and there is more to come in the way of hardship. Renewed sense of and devotion to thriving ecological communities, inclusive of human beings and exclusive of none, does and will continue to ease the pain and difficulty. Nothing happens for a reason, but everything that happens has purpose. This mass extinction event is happening and has been happening for a while now relative to the span of one human life. Mass extinction’s purpose is to bring human beings together, to remind individuals of the tremendously compassionate beings they are in the process of reminding the whole of humanity.

Someone recently commented that ‘Scary times are coming. It is going to look like a sci-fi movie, but in real!’ To this I replied, ‘In some very tangible ways, it already feels like science fiction.’ Writing this reply brought to mind that much of today’s tragedy results from amoral science practiced by human beings who have themselves been distanced or are completely severed from their own empathic nature by way of personal trauma or traumatic schooling, all related to the subjugation and capitulation of women in patriarchal society. If human beings can accomplish the balance of science and morals, there is the possibility that our species and myriad others will successfully navigate darkness.

To be a mother infused with the passion of the Great Divine Mother during an age of impoverished morals such as this is absolute torment unless the passion is channelled creatively. Earth can be likened to a mother in labour. Human beings can be likened to midwives of this labour. Labour can birth death or being. Necessarily, death precedes being in the case of birthing a viable being during the labour’s transition phase in which both mother and child experience the shattering of what was previously thought to be possible. To embody Her is to stand in this uncharted territory of pure creative potential inspired by the edge of life.

While lamentation over a world long gone by invites despair, willingness to touch the sorrow counted in millions of human refugees and myriad others starved and homeless, opens a wellspring of the equivalent joy. When I embrace death, I come back to life. Anyone who desires to be of service in the full contribution of all they are, must tap this joy in order to be themselves and sustain their being. A person will burn out, medicate, or retreat from action if the awakened passion of the Great Divine Mother is not tempered by Spirit’s nonattachment.

Choosing to be present now, is opening to the most profound grief for an all-but-vanished beloved and bountiful world largely remembered in photographs and films that gloss over memories of what had become arduous realities of coexistence, leading human beings to desire and manifest present-day creature comforts. In addition to the need to hold and support one another in navigating sheer darkness, the dive in March with Pacific reminded me to maintain at all times a holistic perspective.

Creature comforts are not inherently negligent. Enjoyment of life needs not compromise nor cost the existence of others. And more, many conveniences intended to conserve an individual’s time or energy have largely compromised the health of both individuals and the global community. Of these, Toby Hemenway points to domesticated agriculture’s human health costs in Liberation Permaculture. After caretaking a farm in St Ignatius, Montana for the past three weeks, managing to accomplish just the basics of moving sheep fence and field irrigation along with tending a full lot of domesticated critters, I can say there is no relaxing on the farm. It is not a wonder that farm life, great as a romantic notion, has been abandoned and wants to be forgotten by most.

There is another saying, Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. To this I add, Rather than throw the bathwater out, purify the water with tears equivalent to the loss, restoring the mind that knows there is no way ‘out’ but through; the brilliant mind that listens for cues as to how to accomplish a vision given the greater body’s natural limits.

Resolution of harms is not the abandonment of what has been built; a retreat to the farm or wilderness as it was imagined and walled off by human beings raised on the farm. Resolution is the restoration of wildness to the human mind, wildness being a way of being that looks like plants and animals, including human beings, who are freely themselves and answer to no lord’s rule. Anything in keeping with everyone’s needs is possible.

Regardless of human regenerative activities that will provide the way through, Earth is in darkness like that of the birth canal. Earth is in motion. Outdated are midwives who stand around pointing fingers at others. Necessary are midwives who, themselves unarmed, protect the vulnerable by using their bodies as barriers between flesh and knife. Promising are midwives with clear minds who pay attention and act according to intuition.

The most important thing I have learned over the past few years is to surrender my own will to that of The Great Divine Mother’s. The Mother’s will is that no one starves while others feast, which means not everyone gets what they want immediately and some desires are never met. Surrender embraces death.

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While human innovation attunes to earthly limits with respect for natural creative law, human beings are asked to simplify their lives and stay home. Earth’s abundance is cyclical, seasonal. Life is not sustained at constant high speed production. Racing extinction looks not like a sprint, but a walkathon with no finish line. I must constantly still my own sense of panic, doing my best to focus and do what I do because compassion is my joy, not because of some anticipated success or failure.

So, I write the poems and push out the prose as I am compelled to do for my own peace of mind; to cool the burn. At ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, I produce at least two electronic posts per month in the revolving monthly witness and continue to produce short poetic films in collaboration with other artists while maintaining an online presence through the website and social networks.

The most recent short film, Freyja’s Promise, came through in a sprint of creative activity with my gaze on elephant and the great Norse goddess Freyja’s story. The soul seeks liberation; to know itself and let itself be known. The soul accomplishes this through relationship; encounters with others for experiences that teach lessons in love, because the soul in pure form is the Great Divine Mother’s love. Freyja’s Promise is essentially my soul’s revelation.

Freyja’s story makes sense of my entire life path, my greatest pleasure and pain, to this point. Freyja’s story also makes sense of who Pope Francis is or has the potential to be. By playing the part of ‘a man of certain spiritual status who joins the battle and conquers them all’, Pope Francis is surrendered to the soul’s will to be known despite incredible resistance.

Old deep rifts in the soul want to be aired and resolved. A person chooses whether or not to be a vessel for the divine; to forget himself so that the soul may be known. Such resolute courage, I believe, is required quite immediately of many so that there may be a peaceful crossing of the darkened threshold to something of heaven’s brilliance raised from hell.

I miss Elias and am grateful that he is safe and sound, much more so than many children today. I have seen some answers and continue to ask questions. What is there now but compassion for everyone, no matter what, as the home that provided the house human hands built burns to ash?

Megan Hollingsworth, MS, is a writer, compassion activist, and founder at ex·tinc·tion wit·ness, a collaborative art project that celebrates the spirit and supports the soul of biodiversity and cultural regeneration efforts. With a primary focus on personal and global peacemaking, ex·tinc·tion wit·ness honours chronic disenfranchised grief felt in response to ongoing extreme loss, and celebrates healing collaborations inspired by devastating loss. 

Still images from Wildfire: a love story. Photos copyright 2013 Jack Gescheidt jackphoto.com

The Green Cathedral

The Green Cathedral is a place, a series of places, a philosophy, a feeling, a mind-set, a movement, a lack of movement, a meditation. Many meditations. It is walking and running, sitting and seeing.

It is a phrase I find myself returning to and which, over thousands of miles of wandering, has risen from the subconscious to become a recurring motif in the novels, poems and short stories that I have published over the last half decade or so.

The Green Cathedral represents the sacred places, the silent spaces. It elevates the natural landscape to the respectful position it deserves.

It replaces doctrine and dogma. The Green Cathedral recognises the ruins of the past as part of present and future narratives. It attempts to recalibrate the senses and reconsider time. It celebrates the joy of the rural reverie. It is in all countries. It is open to everyone.

These images and words attempt to fleetingly capture the essence of The Green Cathedral.

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Out of the wood:
shot like a bullet
from the gun
of history –
a hare.

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Everything
begins and
ends in fire.

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Forever alive
in the corner of your eye
a salmon spins
the air.

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Chisel
beats
digital.

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Go nowhere
and
stay there.

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‘All of us have a place in history.
Mine is clouds.’

– Richard Brautigan

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A neighbour, a woman of maturing age, tells me of a childhood lived on
the edge of the moor. ‘Strange things happened up there,’ she says.
‘Once I woke to a circle of stagmen dancing around my room.
I can still see them now, as clear as day. Men, with the
heads of stags. Their breath in the air. Their feet
on the floorboards. Moonlight. Dancing.
The moors are strange.
The moors are
special.’

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Borders and boundaries
mark only impermanence.

Wires rust. Walls fall.
Fences become futile.

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‘Oh, the water, how it enfolds –
the salt, the taste,
the gorgeous undertow…’

‘Carrion’ – British Sea Power

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A soft summer
pine-drunk
sleep
in
the
green
cathedral.

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Climbing trailing
creeping binding;

Hedera helix
poison ifig

bindwood
lovestone.

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.

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…and in the cromlech,
the bones of England…

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One day
all will
be moss.

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Benjamin Myers is an award-winning writer. His novels include Beastings (2014), Pig Iron (2012) and Richard (2010). He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, UK. www.benmyers.com

Evolution on fast-forward

Skindancing by Susan Richardson (Cinnamon Press, 2015)
Ecozoa by Helen Moore (Permanent Publications, 2015)

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Susan Richardson knows her poems off by heart. She doesn’t read them; she performs them. When you hear the words, it’s easy to understand why. Her words fit together; pick one up and you pick up the whole concatenation. Not only are the vowels and consonants locked together but the ideas, too, flow as indivisibly – and refreshingly – as water in a stream.

If a lion could speak,
we’d tire of his whinges of wardrobes and witches,
of how Richard filched his heart
and how his rampant act on flags
has knackered his hips.

The ideas in Richardson’s latest poetry collection, Skindancing, are all of a piece too. They are to do with mutation or, to pick a more positive, grander word, transformation. This is a planet where change is fast and unpredictable, as if the evolution button is stuck on fast-forward. Adolescent girls change into seals (‘I found I could no longer part / my knees and thighs’), a woman changes into a doe and will ‘out-wood’ her fiancé-turned-hunter and a mother grows a beak.

As well as metamorphoses, there are new relationships between humans and animals too (indeed, one of Richardson’s poems is entitled Humanimal); there is a Harry Potter-esque hippo under the stairs, an emeritus professor translating Lionese and a porcine heart transplanted into a human.

Richardson creates new relationships between words as well. She is an expert at punning and while word play is integral to the sumptuous fabric of her poetry, this playfulness could occasionally risk distracting us from the poem’s story. Instead, we may find ourselves thinking about the flexible fun of language or the poet’s marvellous mind. For example, the enjoyable ‘Witch Fulfilment’ in which Richardson’s ‘herb-perfect’ witch has refined the art of ‘casting churls into swine’.

Yet this poet clearly wants to draw our attention to language. She is reminding us that language is a contrivance developed by humans, just as we crafted tools from stone and organised ourselves into social groups. Richardson invents delicious Carrollian words (‘closhi swush’, ‘hurble and blursh’) and beautiful words (windwhim, stillsea). She compresses words in a way that feels like a geological shorthand (‘how to happyeverafter’), as if the weight of centuries of human language has squeezed out all unnecessary air between letters and phrases (‘quicker than an ear’s fear-prick’).

There is much that is anthropological about Skindancing. The references to Waitrose, MGM, ladyshaves and Strepsils document human life as it is now. Yet when, in ‘Homophoca Vox Pop’, a photographer lies on the sand to take pictures of a seal and then turns into one, or when in ‘Zoomorphic’ someone shares a bed with an ‘insomnia llama that feels curiously real rather than a metaphor, we are being reminded that evolution is ongoing and that, although this is how we are now, there are many other ways we as a species could have developed and may still develop.

Skindancing is indeed so jam-packed with ideas, the reader can fear missing something. ‘Quappen’ is not, after all, one of Richardson’s made up words. Google reveals that it is a fish (and an articulated loader). Cernunnos may be familiar but what about Youwarkee? Not having a broad enough vocabulary – or a classical education – can feel intimidating. Nevertheless, the pleasure of the language and the accessibility of so many of the ideas means the reader doesn’t have to have a dictionary – or internet connection – at hand to be able to delight in this collection.

Deepening this enjoyment are the moments of beauty where jokiness is put aside and a more profound emotional connection can be made, arguably because language is so effectively serving the idea.

She will lick what she births
into a mix of huffs and words,

It is in these moments in particular where the human and the animal fuse, where a transformation occurs in both directions. Ultimately, Skindancing is poetry of celebration and of warning. Of knowing what we have been, what we are and what we may become.

Ecozoa
In
contrast to Richardson’s Skindancing, language is subservient to the idea in Helen Moore’s Ecozoa, at least initially. Language is used as a tool for communicating a point directly, as if there isn’t time to employ poetic devices. The message must be communicated, got across and understood:

Oil, synthetic crude
which brokers world warming, hunger, war
and ecocide, the international crime;
ecocide, destruction of life.

Watching the video version of Kali Exorcism on YouTube, the reason for this approach falls into place. This is prose-poetry that is to be performed, almost sung. It’s a chant, a wake-up call, a call to action. This is a text for street-shouting, a handbook for getting angry and refusing to accept ‘modern-day culture, which promotes apocalypse as our most likely future’, as Moore writes in her end notes.

Ecozoa is divided into four sections: Tharmas, Urizen, Urthona, Luvah. These are the four zoas of William Blake’s personal mythology, borrowed from the Book of Exekiel in the Old Testament where zoa is apparently the name of the four creatures who pull the chariot of God’s spirit. Without a thorough understanding of Blake’s mythology, it is perhaps best to read Ecozoa with Moore’s own explanation in mind, again presented in her handy end notes. She writes that Blake’s work ‘points to the power of the imagination in addressing the ecological crisis we face.’ She notes that ‘Blake’s vision of the rebalanced “four zoas”’ enable ‘fear and limited thinking to fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and we can sense the evolving futures we most desire.’

This is the trajectory of the collection, from rant to hope. There is a shift in poetic style from declamation to ode to lyricism. In the straight-titled Earth Justice, the camera, as it were, cuts away from a court transcript where oil companies are on trial over the Canadian tar sands to a description of swans and ducks on water. The poetry, when it comes, is dazzling:

Oil, that ancient sunlight. That liquid gold
Which fuels our fast-lane rage.

As the pages of Ecozoa turn, Moore allows more story. In ‘daughter of dodmen’ we are transported into the mind of a girl in Avebury in 2,700 BC whose tale of ‘women’s mysteries and menses’ absorbs us and engages us through the sound and rhythm of language that has an ancient tone:

afterwards we fired up our beacons on the roundy hills
and gladdened at the sight of other fires distantly beyond

It seems that story will always speak to many of us more clearly than intellectual reasoning can. Almost despite its title, in Climate Adaptation, # 2’, Moore moves soon to narrative, to the lyricism of a moonlit London where the inhabitants are forced to live by night because of unbearable daytime heat.

Humour too, more effective than haranguing, is a device Moore uses with enjoyably British cynicism to engage us. In ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, well-worn phrases become exhibits in an auction.

Moral compass, 21st century, made in Taiwan.

‘The Ecopyschologist’ is one of the poems in Ecozoa where idea and story blend perhaps most satisfactorily and where poetry is not at odds with manifesto. Similarly, in ‘On Sitting for Christopher Twigg’, we are there with the protagonist ‘on the patio’ watching the artist at work and letting ourselves be absorbed into nature.

This is not to say that there is no place for rant in poetry. Sometimes you have to tell it how it is so there’s no room for misunderstanding or ambiguity. Moore’s is crisis poetry. There arguably isn’t time for anything else. In this light, what is curious is a move at the end of the collection towards prayer.

‘glory be to Gaia
for whales, phosphorescence and fish;’

Is prayer how, as Moore writes in the end notes, ‘we can sense the evolving futures we most desire’? How we can use imagination rather than rage to enter a new ecological age? Frustratingly, the collection ends – like film credits rolling before it enters this new era, but that is most likely the point.

It is in one of the final poems in the collection, ‘Apple Country, West Country’, where the narratives split into two with especially satisfying honesty: story becomes poetry and rant becomes information. One narrative describes the idyll of Apple Day when ‘our year draws its circle’. The other narrative tells us apples are sprayed up to twenty times in a growing season to produce more perfect-looking fruit. This, after all, is the age we are living in. These are the divergent stories we are telling each other and ourselves every day.

Joanna Lilley is the author of the poetry collection, The Fleece Era (Brick Books, 2014), and the short story collection, The Birthday Books (Hagios Press, 2015). Her current projects include a manuscript of poems about extinct and endangered animals. Joanna lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada where she has lived since 2006 after emigrating from the UK. www.joannalilley.com

Helen Moore is an award-winning ecopoet and community artist/activist based in Somerset, SW England. She studied French and German at Hertford College, Oxford, and got a distinction for her MA in Comparative and General Literature from Edinburgh University. Her debut collection, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins, was published by Shearsman in 2012, and was described by Alasdair Paterson as being ‘in the great tradition of visionary politics in British poetry.’ Her second collection, Ecozoa, which responds to Thomas Berry’s vision of the ‘Ecozoic Era’, is published by Permanent Publications. 

Susan Richardson is a poet, performer and educator based in Wales. Her collection of poetry, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, was inspired by her journey, for which she received a Churchill Memorial Travel Fellowship, through Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland in the footsteps of an intrepid eleventh century female Viking, and one of the themes is the impact of environmental issues on the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Her second collection, Where the Air is Rarefied, was a dazzling collaboration with visual artist, Pat Gregory, exploring environmental and mythological themes relating to the Far North, including an exhibition which toured galleries in Wales and beyond. Susan has been published in numerous journals and anthologies and is currently poet-in-residence with the Marine Conservation Society, writing poems and running workshops in response to their Thirty Threatened Species appeal.

At Play in the Comedy of Survival: An Appreciation of Joseph Meeker

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Many of our imaginations have been captured by the seemingly unalterable and suicidal trajectory of contemporary civilisation. It feels like the story arc of one of the great tragic heroes: Oedipus, Macbeth, Faust — destined to rise to great heights, attempt unprecedented levels of power over matter and life, and then fall, leaving the world’s stage strewn with the dead. But the ‘tragic fall’ is not just an affective state of mind or a poetic myth. It is, in fact, what individual civilisations have tended to do since humans began to create them 7000 years ago (unless they were conquered and absorbed into other civilisations, which then fell).

And now, for the first time in human history a single civilisation has gone global, touching every member of an unprecedentedly large and still growing world population. And also for the first time, we have all the tools: scientific, cognitive, historical — to see the seeds of its fall in development. Even the wonks at NASA have confirmed that this pattern exists and we are replicating it. And we still can’t seem to change course. The posture advocated by some who understand this is a correspondingly tragic view, which to them means acceptance of the Faustian bargain, acceptance that the human story is inevitably a story of hubris, of overweening ambition, aggression, and final destruction. And that we are living now somewhere near the climax of hubris, and must brace ourselves for destruction.

The problem comes in what this posture represents: is it representative in any way of how other living systems work? Because if we really want to vindicate the ethic of living things, wild things, uncivilised things, and rediscover their resilience and their relevance to our human life, then the tragic story arc is not the rule.

This idea was first articulated by the US scientist and literary scholar Joseph Meeker, in a small book called The Comedy of Survival. It was published in 1974, when an ecological consciousness – meaning a science-based understanding of the world as a living system in which everything was connected and interdependent – finally seemed to be on the rise within the civilisation that had been marked by its utter contempt for earth-centred religions and societies.

Meeker was a uniquely interdisciplinary man: a postdoctoral comparatist in both world literature and in ethology (the study of animal behaviour). Before becoming a professor of comparative literature he had worked as a ranger in the US National Park Service in Alaska. He has remained a committed ecologist throughout his career. (He is now professor emeritus of Union Institute and University.) His work deserves a wider audience; it can stand with many of the better-known ecological thinkers of our time: Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams. But even so Meeker’s contribution is truly unique.

In The Comedy of Survival, he proposed the idea that two of the major modes of imaginative literature might be seen, from an evolutionary perspective, as representing different adaptive strategies. While ‘cultural evolution’ in a Darwinian sense is hotly debated and the whole idea is problematic, Meeker was about something different. He saw literature as mimetic (imitative), an attempt at metaphoric representation of fundamental aspects of human life. And since strategies for physical survival and adaptation to the environment are part of the reality of any species, including humans, there was no reason why literature shouldn’t in some way reflect them too.

The two modes were tragedy and comedy. In studying world literature, Meeker found some significant differences between them. Tragedy was almost exclusively the creation of Western civilisation, arising out of its heroic myths, while comedy was ‘very nearly universal, occurring wherever human culture exists.’ Tragedy focused on an individual hero who ‘suffers and dies for his ideals, while the comic hero survives without them.’ Comedy looked at all high ideals of individual triumph or transcendence with a jaded eye, and its successful conclusion was always one where life, continuance and community – generally represented by a wedding, or several – were celebrated. Meeker wrote:

Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified […] At the end of the tale [the comic hero] manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible […] Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm [the human] capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair […] Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.

The Greek demigod who gave his name to the word, Comus, was according to Meeker ‘a god of fertility in a large but unpretentious sense. His concerns included the ordinary sexual fertility of plants, men and animals, and also the general success of family and community life insofar as these depend on biological processes.’

In taking the first steps toward the elaboration of an ‘ecological aesthetic’, Meeker declared that just as comedy could be thought of as ecological, successful ecological systems could equally be called comic: ‘Productive and stable ecosystems are those which minimise destructive aggression, encourage maximum diversity, and seek to establish equilibrium among their participants—which is essentially what happens in literary comedy.’ He viewed biological life and cultural life as reciprocal, invoking Oscar Wilde’s dictum that ‘life imitates art at least as much as art imitates life.’

Put concisely, Meeker’s ecological aesthetic (which, as he made clear, was also an ethics, another way in which his thinking was appropriately holistic and anti-disciplinary) was this: ‘Much that has been loved and admired by a humanistic culture is unfortunately incompatible with biological stability […] If cherished human traditions have led to the damage of the world, then those traditions must be revised.’

The Comedy of Survival looks at specific works containing some of the principles Meeker was trying to put forward. From Aristophanes’ proto-feminist anti-war play Lysistrata to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Spanish picaresque novels and the 20th century satirical masterwork Catch-22, Meeker showed comic heroes and comic stories embody many of the attributes of successful survival strategies in (non-human) animals. These ‘comic’ behaviours make it possible to co-exist with predators and prey, respond to threats by avoiding or redirecting unnecessary aggression, and survive and thrive in a complex, dynamic environment.

His look at the picaresque hero provides the most striking examples. Picaresque comedy is a genre not much studied, in comparison with tragedy, epic literature, and even other forms of comedy, but Meeker saw it as the chief mode in which the ‘minority report of Western civilisation’ makes its case. He presents several examples of picaresque behavior in literature: how lowborn Lazarillo de Tormes escapes the oppression of his social condition, how Thomas Mann’s confidence trickster Felix Krull ‘shapes himself to please’ society, all the while exposing its illusions, or how Catch-22’s Yossarian manages to evade the death machine of organised warfare. ‘Picaresque life,’ he concludes, ‘is animal existence augmented by the imaginative and adaptive powers of the human mind.’

Conversely, Meeker portrays tragedy and its heroic idealism not as a profound understanding of life, but rather a fatal misrepresentation. Tragedy was a product of Western anthropocentrism, which was coeval with a disastrous relationship to nature: ‘The assumption of human superiority to the processes of nature has justified human exploitation of nature without regard for the consequences[.] Humanistic individualism has encouraged people to ignore the multiple dependencies necessary to the sustenance of life.’ Meeker repeatedly emphasised that the genius of evolution is not in the perfection of the individual or even of the species, but the ecosystem, a dynamically stable condition of maximum diversity.

While he is more concerned with undermining the tragic paradigm, Meeker is also careful to distinguish picaresque behaviour from the misplaced nostalgia and idealisation that mark the pastoral mode. The picaro (or picara, who is less frequently represented in the men’s club of Western Lit) does not seek to withdraw from society to an idealised rural space. (Doomers and self-styled ‘survivalists’ take note.) Rather he or she is constantly seeking to find ways to survive and thrive in a complex and shifting environment which is created just as much by human activity as by non-human natural processes.

The picaresque metaphor for society is not the so-called simple life of the agrarian homestead, but the complex wilderness. Dangers can never be eliminated in the wild; they must be evaded or neutralised, by predators and prey alike. Meeker also wrote: ‘The way out of environmental crisis does not lead back to the supposed simplicity of the cave or the farm, but toward a more intricate form of living guided by a complex human mind seeking to find its appropriate place upon a complex earth.’

However, it is not complexity per se but a fuller understanding of what real complexity means that would be the mark of a human society worthy of the complex web of life from which it emerged. Meeker gave us this guidepost, ‘If a “return to nature” were to be based upon the model of a climax ecosystem, civilisation would have to become far more complex than anything humanity has yet produced.’
Here is a summation of his ideas about civilised vs. wild complexity:

The truth may be that civilised human life is much simpler than most animal life. We seem to have used our enlarged brain in order to reduce the number of choices facing us, and we have sought the simple way of destroying or ignoring our competition rather than the more demanding task of accommodating ourselves to the forces that surround us. We establish artificial polarities like good and evil, truth and falsehood, pain and pleasure, and demand that a choice be made which will elevate one and destroy the other. We transform complicated wilderness environments into ecologically simple farmlands. We seek unity and we fear diversity. We demand that one species, our own, achieve unchallenged dominance where hundreds of species lived in complex equilibrium before our arrival. In the present environmental dilemma, humanity stands like a pioneer species facing heroically the consequences of its own tragic behavior, with a growing need to learn from the more stable comic heroes of nature, the animals [emphasis mine].

In the third edition of The Comedy of Survival (1997), Meeker added the idea of developing a ‘play ethic’ to counter the dour and biologically destructive productivity fetish of the Western work ethic. He compared the open-ended, non-purposive nature of play with evolutionary strategies:

‘[B]oth ecological succession and natural selection are aimless processes that work with whatever conditions and forms are present in opportunistic and inventive ways to create new forms […] They are like play in their purposelessness and spontaneity. The comic way may be inefficient and wasteful, as evolution and succession are, but these processes have created the beauty of biological diversity, including humans.

(I would only disagree with the use of the words ‘inefficient and wasteful’, as complexity theorists like Stuart Kauffman have shown that layers of redundancy and elaborate speciation actually work to minimise entropy in living systems and the web of life overall. But I think Meeker was being playfully provocative here.)

In his description of the play ethic, Meeker championed increasing our participation in activities that ‘are their own reward: music, gardening, conversation.’ (This lifted my spirits greatly, as all of them are ones I treasure in my own life.) Here comedy as both an ethics and an aesthetics returns in the form of activities that are actually common to human experience, not abstract theoretical formations. Meeker discourages abstraction and encourages praxis. After all biological systems are not abstractions. They are the largest scale embodiment of the idea that ‘truth is concrete.’

More than 40 crucial years have passed since The Comedy of Survival, and the modern environmental movement, appeared. The last 20 particularly have left little room for any faith that there will be large-scale eco-centric reform before a massive alteration in the basic conditions of planetary life – already underway — takes place. In today’s global civilisation, the Western tragic arc seems to be playing out, with human society replicating all the elements of its own earlier literary models: striving, unremitting aggression, hubris, defiance of limits. Ironically, in a reversal of what Meeker saw in literature, the tragic mode has become universal while more ‘comic’ types of human social formations: tribal societies, nomads, smallholders, bohemians — are increasingly marginalised and living on the edge of extinction. It’s looking unlikely that the fulfillment of the tragic arc will be forestalled from within this totalising system. (Why traditional Left strategies are failing to provide an alternative to ecocide, at least in part because of the extent to which they also reflect the tragic, anthropocentric paradigm needs to be the subject of a whole separate study.)

But if Meeker was correct, evolution’s comic strategy won’t disappear, unless the whole web of life disappears. And comic human behaviours may currently be the minority report, but they are not gone or irrelevant. Turning our eyes, hands, and thoughts to how we might practice etho-mimicry in the comic way is at very least something less psychopathic to do with our limited time and skills than remaining transfixed in dread or despair, enslaved bystanders to ineluctable tragedy, a Greek chorus of woe.

When we talk about resilience, we often forget that emotional resilience is as essential to human survival as physical. If those who feel global civilisation is irredeemable are really to represent a living alternative, perhaps we ought to embody a different emotional and imaginative paradigm: no longer the Faustian, or even the tragic sense of life, but something more like Meeker’s picaresque. Humble, smart, negentropic, playful – these are useful values with concrete behaviours we can adopt.

Even so, in the current context, it may not be possible to fully enact the comic mode in our own lives – after all, to be successful it requires reinforcement, other people we know to play along. But even as a thought experiment, the comic way offers pleasure and relief, as well as identifying exemplary capabilities humans will need, if we’re ever to be worthy of rejoining our fellow players on the evolutionary stage.

Selected Works by Joseph Meeker:

The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1st edition, 1974. Foreword by Konrad Lorenz)
Toward an Environmental Ethic (2nd edition, 1980. Preface by Paul Shepard)
Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic (3rd edition, 1997)
The Spheres of Life (1975)
Minding the Earth (1988)

Christy Rodgers writes on the blog What If? transformations, tales, possibilities, and is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice

Beyond the Single Baseline: Towards a Re-storyation of True Work

My hand fits perfectly through the neck of a two-litre mason jar. I’ve known people who couldn’t push their hand through, or those who, having forced the fit, got stuck for a few minutes. So I honour my particular luck by shoving my knuckles into strips of salt-brined cabbage and ginger-chilli paste at the bottom of the jar, ignoring the burning of spices in a cut on my finger, pushing down until the cabbage gives up its juice and packs down.

EPSON MFP image

I am making kimchi, a traditional Korean ferment or ‘pickle’ similar to sauerkraut but, in my personal opinion, much more delicious because of the ginger-garlic-chilli-onion paste added to the salted vegetable strips and packed into a jar. I also add a bit of miso paste, a Japanese ferment that takes several years in its own right before it’s ready (I stole this twist from a friend who has higher confidence experimenting with food processing than I do). It already smells delicious, but if I wait a couple weeks for the microbial magic to ensue, it will be divine. I’ll add it to cheese toast, pop some arugula and a fried egg on top, and lose my mind for a little while in the sensory immediacy of flavour.

I’ve got sweet tea for a kombucha ferment brewing in a large bowl, sourdough starter proofing for bread in the morning, eight-month old mead (a honey ferment) ageing quietly in the back of a dark cupboard, a pillow I just sewed and stuffed with raw, burr-filled cotton waiting to have its last corner stitched, and hand-spun wool yarn drying on a hook after I simmered it with red cabbage and alum and it turned a pale silver lavender colour (surprisingly, since the dye bath turned the colour you’d get if you accidentally massacred a field of beets with a shovel).

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But throughout this flurry of homesteading, I am getting more and more frustrated with myself, thinking about how I really should be getting some work done.

I seem to have decided, stringently and without much questioning, what counts as ‘practical’ and ‘productive’, what counts as work and what does not, and my parameters seem to have little to do with effort or time expended. But I have found examples of this disregard for certain efforts, and reward for others, outside of my own kitchen, in interpersonal interactions and historical trends. Have I created this unilateral definition of what counts as productive, or have I inherited it?

More and more of us live in largely industrialised, centralised, capitalist societies. By definition these systems have certain inherent characteristics that we often don’t see or notice because they are deeply ingrained in the patterns of our days, entrenched in the structures of our culture, and widely accepted as unquestionable, given truths, rather than what they are: phenotypes of human-designed systems. And these systems are built on designated narratives that convey certain value to certain things, certain people, and certain behaviours, as any human system does.

In order to function, industrialisation depends on standardisation, mechanisation, and single baselines of productivity. There is usually one type of endeavour that counts as productive — are you able to do this one motion fast, get as many animals through the slaughterhouse as possible in a given time, etc. Centralisation tends to diminish as well the diversity of things and speeds that might be considered productive, because of a funneling or pyramid pattern — the definition of value is often created far away and far up the ladder. And capitalism is by definition attached to a particular single pattern of productivity: the exponential generation of more capital.

We could debate the merits and pitfalls and ills of our political and economic systems, and wherever we came out, however we feel about the systems we live in, create, benefit from, are oppressed by, and play outside of, those systems do affect not only our external patterns, but our internal cultural and personal systems of value as well. This makes sense — we’re immersed in them all the time. And they give us a certain definition of our own value. A certain definition of ‘work’, of productive contribution, of, when it comes down to it, having earned the right to deserve to matter in our communities and in the world.

The problem here isn’t the simple fact that the narratives of our cultural systems give us our personal and interpersonal narratives of value — of course they do, because that’s what cultural systems do. And at first glance, it’s not even this particular version of value defined by these systems and their narratives that concerns me.

It’s that there’s only one.

There is one baseline for productivity, for value, for good work: how hard and fast and long can you work to produce more.

This is absurdly heartbreaking for many of us. It also makes no sense. Healthy ecosystems do not ever depend on ‘one’ anything — a single input or output, one organism, one fertility source, one speed or type of growth. Diversity is ecologically essential for systemic resilience. This is why a monoculture (single-crop) farming system requires so many external inputs of fertility and pest control substances in order to even survive, and, in contrast, why a diverse forest ecosystem can often tolerate fluctuations in weather or insect population rates without extra-system inputs, and while remaining largely intact and thriving.

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Such resilience is not optional, not a superfluous luxury, in either ecosystems or human communities. We need to have lots of different ways of contributing, of finding value in the true work others contribute, or we miss an incredible number of essential ‘inputs’ for our own health, happiness, resilience, thriving. Being resilient beings ourselves, we do find myriad ways to contribute. But often when we do, these methods of contributing go ignored or undervalued, unpaid (since they don’t fall into that single baseline of production), or are considered luxuries, hobbies, or extravagantly artisanal activities, unnecessary to ‘real’ production and survival. Humans usually create community and co-care outside of the narrow industrial definition of value, but because we’re doing so in the context of larger systems that don’t recognise these contributions strongly or at all, it depletes us. It’s untenable, a motion that cannot be sustained for long, like swimming upstream.

We live in a scarcity ecology. We use the relationship between perceived scarcity and perceived need (‘supply and demand’) to determine value — these days, ‘scarce’ connotes ‘valuable’ so automatically that we practically hear them as synonymous. When we learn about supply and demand as economic principles in school, they are taught to us as givens, as natural and inborn principals of life, rather than as chosen drivers of a human-designed system.

We’re so invested in scarcity as our driving force, in fact, that we’ve defined entire groups as less valuable, less deserving, when they do work, even if it’s the kind of quantifiable work our culture values. This can be seen in wage inequalities amongst demographics doing equivalent work, unlivable minimum wages across service industries, the relegation of certain work to the unpaid ‘home’ sphere, and beyond. We’ve decided there isn’t enough work to go around in this country (scarcity again). The single baseline should not be confused with an even playing field — our systems are set up so that privilege and profile carry immense leverage. We have defined certain genders, races, bodies, classes, ages, professions, regions, as doing work that is less valued or not valued, usually work that we at the same time depend heavily on. So there’s this single version of work’s value — do more faster — and we make more or less of that value available to certain groups, and to the work associated with those certain groups.

It shows, this single definition of value, like any single seed that goes wild in disturbed soil and becomes a weed, spiking the exponential growth curve and then crashing. It shows in our mental and emotional health, in our physical health, in our spiritual and community exhaustion.

The single baseline of ‘be as productive as possible at the same level all the time to earn value’ is not only physically and psychologically untenable, not only does it starve or cancerously overfeed our selves and our human and ecological communities, but it’s also deeply unjust. Because of this definition, we have lost our elders as a society (though this varies with background and many subcultures in the US defy this pattern with intergenerational households). Those deemed physically less productive are sidelined to the geographic and social margins. We don’t have an economics of wisdom; we don’t have an ecology of mutual support in our dominant models. Elders might have much to offer in terms of mentorship, storytelling, intergenerational thinking, community memory, cultural ethics, magic, stillness. Thriving human ecologies include these things. But those things don’t generally bring in income in the current context. If you can’t use your hands, brain, computer at a high speed, you can’t earn ‘value’. This is an extremely ableist model in general — certain bodies are ‘valuable’ only so long as they can perform in certain ways. Getting sick, in this story of value, is a sin, a failure, a discrepancy, rather than a natural state of flux, of the changing needs and offerings of any living body.

This core story of single-value baseline, and its concurrent injustices, percolate into communities and cultures even that define themselves in direct opposition to dominant cultural systems. Activist communities, organising groups, radical schools, garden education programs; the ‘what’ of what we work for in these communities pushes to change the larger systems. Meanwhile, the ‘how’ of how we do it, the containers and models we work and play within, can end up directly mimicking the systems we’d like to change. There are certain ways to show up as an activist that are often considered most valuable, most effective, most passionate. And these ways are often enabling to certain mental and physical health patterns and bodies and ages and ways of contributing, and intensely disabling and depleting to others. While fighting for just, thriving, abundant communities and systems in the larger world, we end up building unjust, starving, exhausting systems within our organisations, and ultimately within ourselves.

So this piece is in part an invitation for prefigurative politics in our communities and work — to let the ‘how’ begin more and more to be the ‘what’. To open up as wide a diversity of recognised contribution methods as possible, and to make space and value for modes of contribution to shift even within one individual over time.

There is never a time when we don’t have something to offer. While that statement may sound dreamy and cliché, it in truth stems from the very real, nitty gritty life and death cycles of ecological systems, which depend upon a vast array of interconnections, services, and yields for their functioning, and which do not appear to include our concepts of ‘uselessness’ or ‘waste’. The changes that are inherent to being an organism — to being made of matter on this planet of birth and death and breath, of constant transformation, union and then differentiation — these changes bring along with them a wide diversity in what we each offer at any given time. This variation is needed. It is socially and biologically necessary. We desperately need elders. After all, single-generation thinking has, to say the least, not done great things for our relationship with other organisms, our ecosystems, our selves or our planet. We need storytellers, homemakers, farmers, mothers, spiritual speakers, people who can cook chilli. We need slow movement and fast movement and stillness all.

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So there is never a time when we don’t have something to offer, even if we have no idea what it is or who it will impact. In the permaculture design ethos, a primary principle is faith in the ‘unknown good benefit’ of an action or element. Even when all I have to offer is a request for help, even when the gift I give is simply the act of being honest about my needs, this is an essential offering.

Articulating our needs constitutes a crucial offering because people are waiting for invitations to give their own offerings. They are waiting for ‘the ask’. Just as chronically unmet needs exhaust and starve us, chronically unexpressed gifts or offerings with nowhere to go stagnate in us. Energy and fertility misplaced or underutilised becomes pollution. Think of what happens when you dump human waste into a body of water — too much fertility in the wrong place overfeeds algae, they overgrow, block the sun, and end up starving out the ecosystem below. A request can be an opportunity for someone else’s offering, energy, to be fully expressed, fully utilised, given space, purpose, life.

So this is an invitation to widen, enrich, open up the range of what we consider offerings, what we consider contributions, what we consider valuable work.

But it is also a deeper invitation.

Because the single-mindedness, the one-dimensionality of our internalised industrial understanding of work and its value is not the sole question at play here. Deeper, down, into the subsoil, lurks the radical root, the original, underlying query: what is work? Under the ‘one way of contributing, one type of productivity’ narrative lurks not only the insidious idea that there is one way to ‘work’, with certain amounts of corresponding value available based on privilege, but also the deeply held belief that we only earn our value at all when and if we work.

This concept allows us to believe that people need to earn the ‘right’ to deserve shelter (many people without housing actually have one or more jobs which pretty much busts this myth wide open anyway). It allows us to structure our economy and our culture on the perceived necessity of working constantly in order to fight off scarcity, to earn the ‘right’ to eat, to drink clean water, to be safe from violence, to support and be supported by the people we love, to get healing when we are sick. No wonder addictive accumulation, rather than abundance, has expressed itself as the core modality of our current model: we are trying to build walls of safety, of ‘value’, of essentials, between ourselves and the threat of scarcity, of ‘not deserving’, of running out. This response to perceived danger is understandable.

But these walls cut us off from each other and our larger ecological communities, and this is in large part where our massive violence towards each other and the earth gets its fodder. We consider it ‘lazy’, within this paradigm, to believe ourselves inherently and unconditionally worthy of basic and essential things. We are really, really scared of scarcity. Our fear of scarcity fuels our belief in that scarcity’s existence, and our resulting actions, and creation of cultural structures, then result in scarcity. Instead of changing what ‘work’ means so that there are a myriad of recognised offerings and plenty of value to go around, we have kept to our commitment to scarcity by going so far as to define certain humans as not human, as not deserving of the right even to earn ‘value’, let alone to matter implicitly. So our culture defines work very specifically. Yes, we can widen that. But our culture still demands work in order to earn value at all.

What happens if we turn that ‘earned-value’ idea of work on its head? We might start with a belief that human beings, all beings, have intrinsic value. We have seen that what we have to offer can shift, but does not diminish, when we are ill, or disabled by our environment and circumstances. As we get older our offerings will shift. All those offerings are needed, but even they are not what make us deserve to be valued.

I am already valuable.

If I get rid of the old narrative, if I don’t have to earn my value, then why work? What even is work? First off, I want to work, I love to work, I need to offer, to connect, to express, engage, to gift and receive — I am not interested in avoiding work when work can have so many different ways of being defined. But my work, even when diversified, is not an act that ‘allows me’ to deserve or earn value.

My work is an expression of the value that is already there, that I already contain.

It is a range of expressions of what is already in me, or what is growing. It is an ecological and communal act of interdependence. It is connective and relational, it is iterative. Diverse in their manifestations, and rooted in expression rather than fear, work offerings generate abundance, rather than serving as a reaction to scarcity. Work weaves a dance of asking and offering, of curiosity and openness to the wild diversity of ways to meet needs. It is also about power, about moving from the internal self to action and change in the world, the capacity to walk that bridge and connect to others’ offerings, needs, to move into collaboration, from the act of self-expression into the larger self. It’s not easy. It’s often really hard. But it’s not, at its best, something that has to feel desperate. It’s the kind of difficult that generates strength, the kind of tired where you’ve run hard and your muscles are growing, not the kind where you’ve sprinted uphill against the wind and broken something in your ankle but you have to keep going so you don’t fall backwards into the chasm of scarcity.

I work in order to express and connect my value into, and in conversation with, the world.

So what does healing look like in this world of work? How do we shift our internal narratives, as well as those of our culture, towards value-expressing, abundance-generating work? I don’t have an instant answer, which is probably a good thing, since instant answers from single perspectives seem to be a symptom of the very ‘do-more-quick’ privilege-based model I’m asking that we let go. Mostly I have queries. Offering gifts and requests, putting what feels good, even if it’s a jar of fermented cabbage, into conversation (or co-eating) with others, playing with informal economies of abundance, reconsidering ‘need’ as a potentially connective trait rather than a label for a source of shame, hearing from others on these questions — these seem like some places to start. Want to come over for kimchi?

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Rachel Economy is a land-centred educator, poet, and permaculture gardener based in Berkeley, California. Currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Social Innovation and Sustainability at Goddard College, with a focus on the place of story in resilient systems design, Rachel teaches creative writing, garden and wilderness skills, and place-based poetry to all ages, emphasising safe space, justice, and play. She often writes about bodies that think they are landscapes, or vice versa. You can find her teaching work at wildwordworkshops.wordpress.com and her written musings, as well as the recently launched ‘Index for the Next World’ story collection project, at gatecitygardener.wordpress.com.

Green Bang

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$54 trillion a year

— Estimated upper value of the world’s natural capital and ecosystem services, according to ecological economist Robert Costanza

It was a warm autumn day, and the ecosystem service providers were buzzing in the natural capital. The foliage was consuming the light. Anders was sitting in his usual chair. Sophie and Sasha were on their way, and this afternoon he would go with Sasha to an area of outstanding natural beauty to forge a closer familial connection while recreationally walking.

No, that was not correct. Anders rubbed his head with his thumb. It wasn’t an area of outstanding natural beauty, it was twelve hectares or thereabouts of medium to low quality indigenous fauna habitat, but Sasha need not be concerned about that. Sasha was nine years old. The place was pretty – yes, it was pretty – its cultural and recreational value was adequate for their purposes, and such qualitative definitions, he thought, were not of importance to children.

Such definitions were not of importance. Anders closed and reopened his eyes. He gazed at his trouser legs stretched across the patio, and then at the pebbles around the lawn and the trees beyond the garden. The trees were mostly rowans and oaks, and during a night of sleeplessness that had occurred some months ago he had calculated the value of each to about six hundred ecos a year – taking into account such factors as sequestration of atmospheric carbon, electricity conservation through shading and wind reduction, interception of particulate matter, and raising property values through leaf surface area. He looked at them now, doing their part. It was a ballpark estimate, and something about it bothered him now. The leaves were moving in the light. He rose from his usual chair and took a few paces, frowning.

He had woken up with that ache again, the one behind his collarbones. Every morning for the past few weeks – a dull, familiar bruising. He took a few paces and stopped, absently rubbing around his neck, and then checked his phone to see the time. They would be here any minute. He turned to go back into the house, wondering if he should change his jumper. He thought the last time had gone quite well. Sophie had cooked them all a meal, and then he had taken Sasha to the multiplex to watch a film. The film had been a good idea, because it had given them shared points of reference. Even if they hadn’t discussed it – her mother had wanted her home straight after – Anders hoped the experience might connect them still.

The film had been about cartoon animals fleeing the effects of a supervolcano, but his recollection of the plot was vague. Some had escaped and some had perished, but he couldn’t remember how, or why, or what situation the animals had been in when the film ended. He thought back to Sasha’s face, impassive in the light of the screen, the way he had strained to look at her without her knowing he was looking. He hadn’t really been able to tell whether or not she’d enjoyed it.

He found himself at the end of the garden, and suddenly realised he was crying. Well, perhaps he wasn’t crying – but water was coming from his eyes, and he didn’t know how he had got there. He’d thought he was going into the house. He was going to change his jumper. Wiping with the backs of both hands, he realised he didn’t feel sad, could think of nothing to be sad about. Confused, he retraced his steps, and by the time he had reached the back door the phenomenon had ceased. He looked back towards the trees, the rowans and oaks holding and slowly increasing their value year by year, converting energy from the sun into fungible units of worth, diligently running through their economic functions.

Ironically, it was an economy he was no longer useful to, practically no longer part of. After all he’d done, he was finished now, relegated to the role of consumer – and these days, hardly even that. His consumption levels were negligible. When she had first visited here, a sort of preparatory check ahead of Sasha’s visit today, Sophie had accused him of being a hermit. Actually it felt as if every word she spoke to him, since she’d started speaking to him, was an accusation of some kind, and he’d long since abdicated the right to defend himself. He was in the house now, moving through his possessions. Evidence of former worldly engagement was displayed haphazardly: dusty flatscreen monitors from the days when he still traded from home, a few framed photographs dating back to the early Bang, technology he no longer noticed but most of which was worth many times the value of the trees outside. His jumper was draped on the back of a chair. He pulled it over his head and walked through the room putting it on, bumping into furniture. They would be here any minute. He checked his phone again.

There wasn’t much to do inside, so he returned to the garden. There was something about those trees, something he hadn’t yet got right. It bothered him and he didn’t know why. His collarbones still ached. He went to where the trees began and laid his hand on the nearest trunk, feeling the coolness of the bark and thinking automatically of the process of evapotranspiration cooling the air around his home, the calculations that flowed from that – suddenly he felt tired. He pressed his forehead to the trunk. An ecosystem service provider was fumbling a path through the branches, colliding with the lower leaves, heading to its next pollination event. He watched it stagger drunkenly, and felt a small surge of affection. As a younger man he had made, and lost, a large amount of money on pollinators, buying forest habitat credits on behalf of tropical coffee plantations – until commodity prices had plunged, the coffee was replaced by pineapple groves to which pollination services were an active hindrance, the forest ceased to serve any purpose and the credits had depreciated in value by tens of thousands of ecos. But he was young then, starting out – he bounced back from things like that. Was it affection he felt, or nostalgia? Sometimes he missed who he had been. The service provider went on its way. The day was warm, but wet weather was coming. Soon it would be redundant.

He realised he had got distracted, and retreated to the middle of the lawn in order to look at the trees as a whole. Six hundred a year, a rough calculation. But the oaks were surely worth more than the rowans, both in terms of services rendered, due to their greater size, and their leaf surface area appeal – maybe even cultural appeal. How to quantify that? He took a few paces back. One and a half rowans, say, might equate to a single oak – was that a permissible starting point? The canopies were starting to brown. A couple of leaves detached themselves from the branch he was looking at and made their slow way down to earth, and that was when it jolted him: never mind the conversion rate between trees, what was the value of a leaf? He felt a tingling of nerves. The sensation was deeply familiar but had the effect of making him nervous. Rapidly, as if to get the whole thing over with, he selected a sample branch and estimated the number of leaves on that, multiplied that by the number of branches – an even wilder estimate that gave him one hundred and eighty thousand – then divided six hundred into that. Point zero zero three three ecos, or point three three cents, per leaf. Approximately three leaves to the cent. Three hundred leaves to the eco. He felt slightly sick in the warmth of the day. He might have to take off his jumper. Stooping around the lawn he began to sort them into a pile, counting under his breath as he went, fifty-eight, fifty-nine… one hundred and twenty-six, one hundred and twenty-seven… two ninety-eight, two ninety-nine, one unit of natural capital… then he straightened up, feeling ridiculous. He knew he should turn around.

‘Dad.’ She was in the garden, wearing wellies and a purple coat. Sophie was watching from the door, and Anders had the immediate impression that Sasha had been silently coaxed to utter the first word of greeting – he imagined a series of urgent mimes taking place between them, Sophie encouraging, Sasha refusing, until her mother’s will won out. Now she had accomplished her task the girl was staring at her feet, her face vaguely worried.

‘What are you doing?’ Sophie asked.

‘Tidying leaves,’ he said. There was a moment of silence, during which he dropped some leaves. ‘How did you get here?’

‘We drove,’ Sophie said.

‘No, in the garden.’

‘The door wasn’t locked. We rang the bell, but you didn’t come. Sorry to barge in.’

‘Hello, Sasha,’ he said to his daughter. He bent at the knee and hugged her awkwardly, conscious of Sophie’s critical eye.

‘Hi,’ said Sasha again. She created a small smile.

Sophie came out, but there was no hug. Instead she touched him on the arm. ‘Shall we go inside?’ she said. ‘I’ve got stuff to make sandwiches.’

‘I bought her a present.’

‘Tell her, not me.’

‘I bought you a present.’

‘Thank you,’ said Sasha. But once they were inside the house he forgot where it was – even what it was. He was feeling unpleasantly warm again, but didn’t want to remove his jumper for fear his shirt might smell of sweat. Sophie had gone into the kitchen and was slicing bread for sandwiches. Her apparent familiarity with his home seemed less personal than professional, like a social service provider doing a house call.

Sasha sat on the edge of the sofa, her wellies dangling over the floor. Anders liked seeing her there, but he didn’t know what to say to her.

‘How are you?’ he asked, hovering near.

‘I’m okay.’

‘How’s school?’

‘It’s okay. I like Mrs MacGregor.’ She thought for a while. ‘I don’t like games.’

‘We’re going for a walk.’

‘I know.’

‘Are you driving there?’ asked Sophie, bringing a carrier bag full of sandwiches and other things. She was facing him, but he knew that her eyes were peripherally focused on the room, evaluating the conditions of his life. He wished he’d remembered to clean up a bit.

‘No, it’s just along the road. An area of low quality indigenous… outstanding… natural habitat.’ The words were getting mixed up before they reached his mouth. Sophie was looking at him oddly. ‘A woodland, woods,’ he managed to say, but it came out strangled.

‘Are you alright?’ she asked at the door, when Sasha had gone on ahead. ‘You seem a bit… distracted, or something. If this isn’t a good time…’

‘I’m fine. It is a good time.’

‘We can do this another weekend.’

‘Really, I’m looking forward to it.’

‘Try to relax. She’s just a bit shy. She wants to like you, you know.’

They felt like the nicest words she had said to him for a long time, but immediately he wasn’t sure. What did that mean, exactly? Anyway, there were no more concessions, and when they parted at the car her eyes were distant and alert. She kissed the top of Sasha’s head, told her she’d be back at three, nodded to Anders in a manner that seemed exaggeratedly formal, and a moment later the car was gone and father and daughter were standing alone.

‘Right,’ said Anders, pointlessly. A helicopter rattled overhead. Brown leaves descended from the trees, economic units that had served their usefulness.

***

They walked together side by side, Anders holding the carrier bag, Sasha scuffing in her boots which were a little oversized, past the golf course, the ice hockey centre and a pre-developed development site, until they reached the start of the trees. Protected Natural Habitat Area was displayed on the entrance sign, and a system of green stars indicated its biological, cultural/recreational and sequestration values, none of them especially high – in fact, Anders thought some were lower than when he last came here. Beyond the car-park two square posts indicated the starting points of the Common Toad and Hedgehog Trails, each with its cartoon representation of the indigenous creature in question, along with statistics about the various services they provided. The common toad wore sunglasses, and the hedgehog had a little hat. Wood-chip pathways sliced through the trees in two different directions.

‘Which way shall we go?’ asked Anders.

Sasha shrugged.

‘Which one do you like the look of most?’

She pointed to the one in the hat. ‘Are there hedgehogs?’ she asked with hope.

‘Theoretically there could be,’ he said as they set off down the path. ‘That is, it’s a suitable habitat. But I don’t know much about their habits or current distribution. We might not actually see them.’ Sasha didn’t respond to this. He wished he was better at talking to children. The path was wide enough to walk abreast but she seemed to want to walk slightly behind him, and they progressed like this for a couple of minutes without saying anything more. He analysed the quietness, and didn’t think it felt so bad – it was better to walk in silence, at least, than sit in silence in a room. The ache beneath his collarbones seemed to have subsided.

They wouldn’t see hedgehogs here, he knew. There weren’t enough green stars. These woods were less than ten years old – some of the smaller trees still wore protective mesh cylinders, though what they were protection against he wasn’t entirely sure. These twelve hectares of medium to low quality habitat had been forested by a soft drinks company, offset against a single hectare of rare/endangered species habitat somewhere in Spain, he seemed to recall, which the company needed to develop – he couldn’t remember the species involved, but thought it was some kind of snail. He knew this because he’d taken an interest when the deal went through. He’d long been out of the game by then, but the existence value of a natural habitat area near his home had been higher than he’d anticipated – although of course there was no telling how long its existence might actually last. Like everything else in the world, it was only waiting its turn.

One hectare for twelve, he thought to himself. It seemed scarcely credible now. He couldn’t even begin to guess what the rate might be in today’s climate, the markets booming and crashing with increasing randomness, positive feedback mechanisms kicking in all over the place. He couldn’t keep up with it any more. It wasn’t like in the early days, when things had at least been predictably unstable. It was a different market now. It no longer made any sense.

The woods were quiet, apart from the sound of traffic rushing down the nearest road. Service providers of various kinds were active in the undergrowth, and intermittent birdsong added further bioacoustic appeal. He realised he had dimly imagined the little girl would be somehow running, jumping over water features, chasing fritillaries. He felt very anxious all of a sudden. He listened to her dutiful footsteps on the path behind, the rustle of her jacket as she moved her arms. What was she thinking?

‘Do you like it here?’ he asked.

‘It’s pretty,’ she said.

Anders felt a wave of relief quite out of proportion to her words – he felt almost dizzy with it. ‘It is,’ he said. ‘I’m glad we agree. Pretty places are very important. They have high recreational value, some might even say spiritual value. The world would be a worse place without them.’

There was silence again after that. He wished she would start a conversation for once, so it wasn’t always down to him. But that was ridiculous, she was only nine years old. He tried to picture himself through her eyes: an awkward stranger who was attempting, for reasons she probably didn’t understand, to fit himself inside her life where he hadn’t fitted before. Uncomfortably dressed, unapproachably tall, seemingly incomprehensible. She wanted to like him, Sophie had said. And he wanted her to like him too. If both of them wanted the same thing, then surely it couldn’t be so hard. What had Sophie said about him? Did she know the mistakes he’d made?

He was pretty sure she knew nothing about him – about who he was, or who he had been. How could she be expected to know? Her rubber boots scrunched on the path. There was a pigeon somewhere. The trees were spindler round here, the foliage less mature – through the regular spacing of trunks, the ice hockey centre was visible metallically looming past the woods. He had walked this path dozens of times, and never noticed it before. How many visits, he wondered, to a medium to low quality habitat might equate to a single visit to a pristine boreal forest? Was there a qualitative rate of exchange – the way that, in a bygone age, two pilgrimages to certain shrines had been worth one pilgrimage to Rome? It was the kind of thing he’d once have discussed in the bar after work, a half-forgotten lifetime ago.

Twenty years ago, even ten. He found it almost impossible reaching his mind back to those times. His daughter might see him as shabby and odd, but he’d been part of something great. Someday, when she was older, he’d explain it all to her – how his generation had opened the world, how they’d changed everything.

Seized with sudden urgency, he opened his mouth to tell her this – but could find no starting point. He cleared his throat instead, squeezed shut his eyes. The problem was, his head got so full – he had to make a conscious effort to simplify the complexity. He found that his breath was short. The ache had returned.

Presently they came to a stream, not much more than two foot wide, with a sign that detailed its provisioning, regulating and recreational services scored by the usual green stars, which he didn’t look at. The water was spanned by a little bridge, and as they stepped onto the bridge Anders, in a kind of desperate inspiration, reached down and took his daughter’s hand. He amazed himself with this action – he had done it without thinking. Sasha’s fingers stiffened in shock. She didn’t pull away, at least. He realised his heart was beating fast, pounding beneath his shirt – this is ridiculous, he thought. But he felt very pleased.

‘It’s nice to see you,’ he said. ‘It’s nice to go for a walk with you. I know you don’t always… understand me. I mean, I try to make myself clear. But you’ll get to know me, and I’ll get to know you. Our relationship will progress. It will get better and better…’

Silence. Of course there was silence – what possible answer could she give? Her shyness and embarrassment were like a cloud keeping pace with her, as his own kept pace with him, moving at the speed of travel. But she didn’t pull away. They walked on for a while like this as the trail looped through the planted woods, and, not wanting to say any more, he silently counted the steps they took. It averaged at one and a half of hers to every one of his.

***

They ate their designated picnic in the designated picnic area, where wooden tables and benches were set alongside recycling bins shaped like hedgehogs and common toads. They were near the edge of the woods again, within proximity of the road, but the trees were rustling with wind energy so the traffic was less audible than it had been before. Anders sat on one side of the table, and Sasha on the other. The picnic was comprised of cheese and pickle sandwiches, trail mix, chocolate bars, banana yoghurts and carton drinks. Anders wasn’t remotely hungry, but Sasha consumed her share with quiet diligence. He offered her his chocolate bar, but she shook her head and averted her eyes in a manner that seemed almost chaste.

‘It’s meant to be for you,’ she said.

He put it in his top pocket.

Despite the fact he had held her hand, which made him glow when he thought of it, he still didn’t know what to say to her, how to keep a conversation running beyond the initial sentences. He had no practice with her at all. She looked so much like her mother, so little like him – although perhaps he didn’t have the ability to judge. He hadn’t known her for the greater proportion of her life. He had sent cards, of course, birthday and suitable seasonal presents, and he had paid the appropriate legal share towards her upbringing. But until very recently, when Sophie’s force of will had impelled them back into contact, he had accepted the fact of his daughter’s existence only in the abstract. Part of him had assumed he deserved this – part of him had been happy to escape. Now the gratitude he felt was rather startling.

It was already too late, he supposed, for his presence to ever seem normal to her. She understood the world through his absence – this condition was fixed in her now, and probably could not be changed, no matter how many recreational walks they might engage in. Shifting baseline syndrome was what they called it once. What you consider normal as a child is what you consider normal as an adult, whether your background habitat is severely degraded or anything else. Certainly his own baseline had shifted more than once in his lifetime – for two decades he’d managed to keep pace with it, the peak and plateau of his career, before that grand systemic wobble that had ended everything. He could hardly claim to be keeping up now, keeping up with any of it – a hermit, Sophie had said. Was that a joke? He supposed it was funny, considering the intricate involvement of his life before. But the system had grown too complicated. His course over the last few years was less a retreat than a simplification.

He watched his daughter as she ate, secretly, as if looking for clues. She was a self-contained unit, an existence entirely separate from his. She was wearing a purple coat. She had banana yoghurt at the corner of her mouth. The merest fact of her sitting there was astonishing to him. He felt a small pulse of despair: surely he would never understand her life, as she would never understand his. Today he might be obsolete, a historical irrelevance in the Green Bang’s fading afterglow – but, once upon a time, he had added value to the world. That was the worth of his life, no matter what her mother might say.

It was the last great liberalisation, deregulation’s final frontier. He had started off in carbon credits, like most of his contemporaries, buying and selling the right to emit sanctioned units of pollution. It was hardly groundbreaking work, but the theoretical sleight of hand that such an industry involved – transforming a negative externality into a tradable asset – had put him in a good position to expand into the other derivative markets taking shape at the time: pollination service provision, biodiversity offsetting, riparian and wetland banking, endangered species credits. He had been in the right place at the right time. All he had done, along with perhaps a thousand other bright young things in no more than half a dozen fortuitously placed companies, was to take the next logical step. The dominant global trend was comprehensive deregulation – the climate was highly favourable. He made good money. He travelled a lot. It was around this time he’d met Sophie. There was a sense that the world was changing, that he was a part of that change. How many people could say that, looking back on their lives? Once natural units were quantified, once they were fully fungible, it became possible to trade across different markets – to exchange endangered species credits, say, for carbon equivalent or peat bog futures, depending on the market rate. As more and more assets of natural capital were absorbed and integrated, there was exponential expansion. A critical mass was achieved: the green economy exploded. He and Sophie were living together. His office overlooked the Thames – itself transformed, in the new paradigm, from a greasy tidal river to a super-prime provisioning and regulating water service provider. He was one of the Men Who Sold the World, as the media unimaginatively had it. He and Sophie argued a lot. The market grew to include streams and mountains, icecaps, wetlands and high chaparrals, every conceivable biotic unit from apex predators to bottom-feeders. Speculation had even begun on complex systems such as ocean currents, forest biomes, mycelium networks, wholesale ecosystems – there was no upper limit. He was a high-net-worth individual. Of course, there were warning signs. Was Sophie pregnant around then? It was all a little disordered.

When things had gone wrong, they had gone wrong fast. Anders couldn’t actually recall… he felt very tired all of a sudden. The day was warm, and leaves were falling. Sasha still had banana yoghurt at the corner of her mouth.

‘Dad?’ She was glancing down into her hand at what he realised was a mobile phone. ‘Mum wants to know what time we’ll be back.’

‘Oh.’ It was an effort to think. ‘What… what time is it now?’

‘It’s twenty to three. She’s coming at three.’

‘Oh. Yes. We’ll be home by then.’ He watched as her thumbs tapped out a message. It made her look unexpectedly older. He noticed, for the first time, that she had earrings in her ears, and wondered if they had been there before. ‘You have yoghurt…’ She raised her head. ‘Yoghurt, just beside your mouth.’

She wiped it away with a solemn expression, which made her look like a child again. She put the phone in her pocket. Anders slowly put the rubbish in the bag. A yoghurt pot. A small plastic spoon. It felt too soon to leave.

‘Sasha?’

‘Yes?’ Her solemnity grew, as if she sensed they were nearing that time – one of those adult conversations she’d probably learned to dread already. A siren whooped once, far away. She sat there very still.

‘There was a time, before you were born, when a tree was just a tree… that’s all it was, just that. And it was the same for other things. A mountain, a waterfall and a blade of grass were once just a mountain, a waterfall and a blade of grass. A bee was once just a bee. There was no reason for them.’

She gazed at him with worried eyes. He knotted his hands on the picnic table and concentrated on the words, on simplifying the complexity.

‘And even longer before you were born – before there were any bees, or dinosaurs, or single-celled organisms, or anything else you might have heard about – the world itself, the planet we live on, that had no reason either. It was only a ball of minerals waiting for something to happen to it, for something to give it meaning.

‘Then people came along, and for a long time they had no meaning either – they just happened to exist, like all the other things. But eventually, people gained reason. They learned how to value each other. Then they learned how to value the things around them – the trees, the waterfalls, the bees, the very world they lived on. Everything was given a purpose that it didn’t have before. Now, nothing exists for no reason, everything is working together – it’s a functioning part of a system that makes people happier. Of course, things go up and down, that’s part of the natural cycle – you’ll understand this some day. But the world has gained… a kind of reason, just like people once did. They used to call this Gaia. Well, we gave Gaia currency. Sasha, do you know what value is?’

It wasn’t a question, and she didn’t answer.

‘It’s another word for meaning. The higher the value, the higher the meaning. The meaning of the world is the total value of the world, all its units added up – all its leaves, its blades of grass, its reserves and its carbon sinks, its networks, systems, processes… everything together.’ Anders took a steadying breath. His hands felt rather far away, and something was happening to his eyes – a familiar throbbing. Sasha hadn’t spoken, hadn’t moved. Wind energy was stirring the trees, rustling the natural capital. Everything would be alright. ‘Sasha, value is the same as love. How can we love what has no value? That is to say… what I mean…’ The phenomenon was occurring again. Water was coming from his eyes, turning the world into rainbow prisms, yet once again he did not feel sad – instead, he felt quite elated. He wiped and snorted, and managed to say, ‘I value you very much,’ before covering up his face and breathing wetly into his hands. He stayed that way for a while.

When he had taken his hands away, Sasha was no longer at the table. But she hadn’t gone very far. Blearily he made her out, over by the recycling bins. He rose a little unsteadily and made his way to join her.

Hey. It’s alright,’ he said.

‘I know.’

‘Everything will be fine.’

She shrugged unhappily. She looked even more like a child.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Clearing up. It’s ten to three. Mum’s coming at three.’

‘Yes, we should be getting back.’ He watched as she separated the rubbish and fed it through the appropriate mouths, paper and cardboard in the hedgehog, plastic in the common toad. The colours stood out bright and strong. The hedgehog looked very brown, and the toad looked very green. Even after this natural habitat area had been exchanged, its services transposed to another sector of the world, Anders knew this was one of those moments that he would always remember.

***

Sophie’s car was in the drive, and she was sitting by the door. She gave Anders a funny look, but didn’t say anything. They went inside, and Anders made tea. They drank the tea in the living room. Sasha had a fizzy drink instead. Sophie asked Sasha if she’d enjoyed the walk, and she said that she had. The woods were pretty, she said again. They talked about this and that.

‘I’ll ring you,’ Sophie said as they left. ‘Look after yourself.’

‘Thanks for having me,’ said Sasha. They hugged on the step.

Two minutes after they’d gone, Anders remembered the present he’d bought. But by the time he’d located it, in a bag hanging on the kitchen door, the car had disappeared from the drive. It was a woolly hat and gloves, with animals knitted in – bobbly penguins and polar bears, grey things that were likely seals. It would have to wait until next time. Anyway, it was too warm.

He went upstairs and had a shower, then dressed again in the same set of clothes. There was mud on the trouser legs. He made his way back downstairs. He felt something against his chest and discovered the chocolate bar in his pocket, not melted yet, but on its way. He unwrapped it standing up, gazing around the familiar room. Dark, heavy furniture, expensive but a little worn. On the shelf, a squeezy rubber globe he’d once had on an office desk. He wandered to the garden again and took a seat in his usual chair. The rowans and oaks bordered the lawn. He slowly consumed the chocolate bar, watching the trees and the light.

He hadn’t finished the story, of course. Sophie would probably do it for him, one of these days when Sasha was grown – when their relationship involved more than watching cartoon films and going on recreational walks. She would tell the other side, if Sasha didn’t know it already. But at least he had attempted to give her the bigger picture.

It was all a little disordered. When things had gone wrong, they had gone wrong fast – or perhaps they’d been going wrong for a while. He’d already moved out by then. A temporary thing, as he recalled – they couldn’t be in the same house together. The baby was due in several months, and he couldn’t think of that. There was a downturn in floodplain banking that was concerning, but manageable. A few analysts were warning that rainforest credit ratings in certain sectors of the market were unrealistically high, that low quality assets had been parcelled up with higher ones, but these concerns were ignored. There had been warning signs, but he hadn’t paid attention.

It was commonly said that no-one saw it coming, but that wasn’t entirely true. Some people had seen it coming, as some people always did. Some people made outrageous fortunes, as some people always did. A few canny hedge funds made a killing – humans were an infinitely adaptive species, after all. He just hadn’t been one of them when positive feedback mechanisms turned millions of square miles of rainforest into tinder in an astoundingly short space of time, wiping billions of ecos off the market – sequestration, species, services, existence, the whole portfolio. The Amazon Basin Credit Crash, as it was later to be known, precipitated the other collapses: icecap reserves, coral reef futures, a whole raft of obscure derivatives like Sahel desertification mitigation credits, some of which he’d never even heard of – everything was interlinked. He hadn’t moved fast enough. He had been wiped out.

Of course it wasn’t the end of the world. A rush immediately began on remaining forest credits, in what was left of Indonesia and Congo, while the released option value of the desiccated Amazon created entirely different bubbles for a new generation of bright young things to make their fortunes on. That was part of the rise and fall, the natural rhythm of capital. Even then, with everything gone, Anders could have got back in the game. But something fundamental had changed. The Amazon crash spelled the end of that phase of multiplying possibilities that seemed to have no limitation, and expansion had been replaced by horse-trading over what was left. It was a new financial climate, one he did not understand. Once-dependable carbon stocks disappeared in a puff of smoke, species banks of least concern suddenly plunged into negative value, speculation grew ever more wild – things were not predictable. The baseline had skewed too far, and he had not adapted.

Anders removed his shoes and his socks, spread his long toes on the lawn. The blades of grass tickled his feet. His generation had opened the world. No-one could take that away from him. He stared at the lawn, his vision drifting from the nearest blades of grass to the grass that spread beyond his feet, softening and widening, speckled with lurid dandelions, until his focus slipped and all he could see was green. The effect was a bit like going blind, or what he imagined might be the first second of the realisation of blindness occurring. The greenness was entirely abstract, not a colour but a sensation – stripped of meaning, stripped of value. It was the outermost edge of panic. He held it as long as he could.

The garden came into focus again, dazzlingly sharp and defined. Nothing had changed. There was no going back. He watched the trees. He watched the light. He finished the last of the chocolate bar. The ache was behind his collarbones, and the leaves were falling.

This story was originally commissioned by TippingPoint Weatherfronts: Climate change and the stories we tell, supported by the Free Word Centre. You can download the full PDF of the Weatherfronts commissions here.

Nick Hunt is a writer and storyteller, co-editor of the Dark Mountain books, and editor of this blog. His website is nickhuntscrutiny.com

Sheds and Stars: Another Sideways Look at the Housing Crisis

trees 2

Life is exactly the way I want it. I get up early and sit on my own all day scratching with a pencil and typing and running and reading and not answering the telephone. Thanks to a grant from the Society of Authors worth six months of gardening, I am donating the next portion of my life to writing about my shed and other shed-related issues. Like ecological obliteration, the housing crisis and stars.

I haven’t actually seen the shed in months. I have no way of knowing for sure if it exists. I am holed up animal-sitting on a small farm in Wales, being so existential I sometimes wonder if I exist. The geese seem to think I do, and the chickens, and the peacocks. They queue up outside the kitchen door every morning and honk at me until I get to my feet and chuck stale bread at them. Sometimes I accidentally hit them with it. They jump and squawk in shock. I seem to be trying to kill them. On the other hand I have bread. Life is risk. Even at breakfast.

The animals belong to a pair of doctors who are volunteering in Africa. As well as animals, they keep books. There are several whole rooms full of them, arranged by subject. There are books on philosophy, religion, chess, Marx, self-sufficiency, stars. I accidentally picked up a book on stars. It began with the following sentence:

Every atom in our bodies was once part of a star.

Another once, when I lived in a tent and was nursing a broken heart, I had temporary ownership of a rusting bucket somebody had found on the beach. Every night I put it in the doorway of the tent and lit a candle in it. The shadows of the light through the holes in the bucket made stars on the canvas above me. I loved that rusting bucket. I couldn’t sleep without it.

While I was living in the tent and crying my way through time somebody tried to comfort me. They said life was nothing more or less than a long process of letting go. I was in my early twenties and wanted to punch them. Then the person who had found the bucket came home and took it back and lost it.

These days I can’t sleep for the ache of time passing.

moon

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I get up and go outside. From inside, outside seems scary, like the black darkness on the edge of the ring of light made by a torch. But if you turn the torch off you can look at the stars. Or the stars can look at you. They can beam their light into your eyeballs from outer space until you can’t stand it anymore and go back inside.

From a certain angle starlight is the ache of time passing. Some of the stars that are watching me are actually dead. Burnt-out wrecks, like cars at the bottom of a gully. The past arriving through infinite space and parking in my eyes while I’m trying to keep my balance on the icy surface of a ball of fire as it hurtles the cutting edge of nothingness at 67,000 miles per hour. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Nobody said anything. Here we are.

Inside it’s tomorrow.

My mind can go great distances while my body is sitting quietly at a table. The table itself is a whirling constellation of atoms. In their electromagnetic way atoms resemble miniature solar systems, the nucleus lording it like the sun in the centre. Atoms cannot be cut, but they are easy to draw. Drawing atoms is one of the few things I remember from school science lessons. It’s been very helpful.

I can draw stars too. I am terrible at drawing. But I can draw how space and time and death and the endless conservation of energy look on the inside of my own eyelids, in a way that you will recognise. But you’ve been there. We’ve all been there.

Every atom in our bodies was once part of a star.

This is a matter of fact. A fact of matter.

I have no idea what to do about my new-found stardom. I have animals to feed. The stars are glowing above me in the sky. Beneath me, packed into the ice, are more stars. Stars trapped inside bubbles. Bubbles trapped inside ice. The bubbles reflect the starlight back to the stars. I’m stuck in the middle with you.

I go to try to shut the geese in so the fox doesn’t eat them. All three of us fall over and slide comically down the hill towards the frozen pond. They have wings, which helps, but not much.

This afternoon I went skating on a frozen puddle in the mountains. I’ve never tried skating before. I could only do it when I didn’t think about it. If I thought about it I tensed up and fell down. On our way back there was a magnificent burning sunset. We stopped the truck and got out and stared at it for a while, helplessly.

The sun is our nearest star. We would fry if the sun was a fraction closer and we would freeze if it was a fraction further away. The ecology of the sun is very delicate. A weirdly precise gravity/temperature/pressure love triangle that somehow stops it collapsing in on itself. The sun has been burning for four and a half billion years. We’re not exactly sure how, and we have absolutely no idea why.

But it was a fun afternoon trying to walk on ice, balanced on the edges of knives.

The horses can’t walk on ice any better than I can, or they won’t, unless I grab them by the hair and pull them. Then they come easily, metal-shod feet sliding outwards like a cartoon. They think I know what I’m doing. I try not to fall over where they can see me. I don’t want them to feel unsafe.

I have never touched a star. I hear they shine even when there are clouds and I can’t see them, or when I’m facing the wrong way. I hear they’re still up there, shining. Friends tell me my shed is still there, too. Still standing. This is good to know.

Back at the table in the house of books I keep scratching pictures of stars. It’s easier than trying to make sense of anything. Easier than trying to unravel the socio-political context of living in a shed. Easier than the long process of letting go. Easier than Life on Earth.

Earth is inhospitable in places. She floods and storms and shakes herself like a wet dog and trees fall down and crush lorries. She pukes magma and cracks open in awkward places and buildings fall into the cracks. She’s wild and beautiful and economically outmoded, insisting that decay is worth as much as growth. She’s a dream and a trip and a cold-blooded killer. She proliferates disease, grows cacti and laughs in the face of Health and Safety.

My shed is inhospitable at times. It blows like a treehouse and clatters like a horse. Rats chew their way through the thin walls when they think I’m not looking. It rots and leaks and forces me to keep a cordless drill and a broken air rifle, which is not safe for anybody. You can’t lock it in summer and the door won’t open in winter. But none of that matters very much. What matters is that I have a home, and that I can see the stars from it.

My shed-home is part of my love triangle of freedom/security/growth. One of the forces that stops me collapsing in on myself while I’m hitch-hiking round the galaxy on a pair of imaginary wings and a bucketload of prayers, hoping not to be chucked off until I’m old enough to deal with my own disintegration.

Confusing home with money represents a lack of intelligence. The housing crisis is just another manifestation of our massive collective blind spot; a loss of ability to read what is written in the stars. ‘An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth – in short, materialism– does not fit into this world’ wrote Schumacher, who also noticed that ‘The stillness following liberation – even if only momentary – produces the insights of wisdom which are obtainable in no other way.’

My shed shines with stillness.

Into the stillness comes the first star I see tonight. I wish upon that star that you too may have a shed. To write your books and bring up your children. To store your rusty buckets and pin up your star drawings. To feel the ache of time passing and be humbled by the setting of the sun. To rest your weary dreams and wash your dusty feet.

This is not, as a matter of actual fact, too much to wish for. As a matter of actual fact, this isn’t a housing crisis. It’s a hoarding crisis. A crisis of trust and power and politics, not supply. Like all our man-made crises. Earth may be volatile, but she’s generous to a fault. There are more than enough houses to go around. According to a recent article in The Guardian, there are about 700,000 ‘long-term empty’ homes in the UK, calculated from local authority council tax data. Overall, and not counting sheds, there are roughly 66 million bedrooms to be shared between 55 million people, and you’d hope that at least some of them would be having sex.

And so, when I later see a shooting star, I wish that those who have taken too many sheds may be granted the wisdom to understand that no amount of extra sheds will ever make them safe. In fact it’s the exact opposite. The more the gulf widens, the more the social fabric cracks apart and the ecological carpet is worried to threads, the more time we spend gazing at bank statements instead of stars, the more likely it is that we will break our cosmic love triangle and collapse into the black hole of obliteration.

And that would be a shame.

Because it’s quite fun trying to walk on ice.

Until it melts away.

skate 3

Catrina Davies is a writer, songwriter and surfer based in Cornwall, UK. She is the author of The Ribbons are for Fearlessness and the accompanying Ribbons EPShe is currently deep in the writing of her second book, a non-fiction fairytale about living in a tin shed – Walden for the twenty-first century – which will also be accompanied by an EP. She is the recipient of a K.Blundell award. catrinadavies.co.uk @_CatrinaDavies

Activists (what the hell do we do?)

In October 2012, Greenport Forum, a neighbourhood climate action group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, met to discuss an essay written and distributed in advance by a member, Steve Wineman. Each activist responded in turn to the essay and to his focal question: How do you feel about what’s happening to the world?

The discussion was videotaped and transcribed by Lydia Eccles, participant-observer/test human for Universal Aliens, a transcendental phenomenological research entity that studies the human experiment. 

The following is an edited transcript.

0 Steve Wineman

Steve Wineman: My intention is not to disparage climate activists who believe it’s still possible to avert catastrophe and are putting enormous energy into that. It’s simply to put out a different perspective. Here are some of the major things I see on the ground.

Atmospheric greenhouse gases measured by carbon are now approaching 400 ppm [As of May 2015, this benchmark has already been reached — Ed.]. The uppermost safe limit that climate scientists have identified is 350 ppm. It keeps going up. And it’s not even clear that 350 ppm is safe.

Even as carbon and greenhouse gases are going into the atmosphere, carbon sinks are shrinking. So the capacity of the earth to pull carbon back out of the atmosphere is going down.

The already-drastic climate changes we currently see are impacts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere roughly thirty years ago — around 350 ppm. Even if we reversed direction on a dime, negative impacts on climate would continue for another thirty years. This time lag, coupled with positive feedback loops, is dire.

Arctic ice is melting. White ice reflects sunlight, dark ocean water absorbs it. The more Arctic water, the more heat you’re absorbing, which furthers warming, which furthers melting, which furthers warming. Another critical feedback loop is the thawing of permafrost, which seals in huge amounts of carbon and methane — two, three times as much as the total emitted in the last hundreds of thousands of years. Permafrost is melting. Scientific expeditions — the first in 2008 — are finding methane bubbling up in huge swaths of the Arctic. While methane has a much shorter lifespan than carbon, it is roughly twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas. Feedback loops, potentially far more potent than our current emissions, also keep escalating over that period of thirty years.

This summer there was record heat, record drought and massive ongoing fires. Two thirds of this country was in drought conditions with severe impacts on food production; there are ongoing issues with growing water scarcity worldwide; and record melting of Arctic sea ice — in expanse and density; record surface ice sheet melt on Greenland. Just off the chart! If the Greenland ice sheet goes, projections in the rise of sea level are twenty feet, which clearly puts us — and many coastal areas all over the world — under water. I think that’s probably enough… [laughter] …to paint the picture, at least to my understanding, of the facts on the ground.

One thing has happened in the last — I don’t know how many — decades that has reduced carbon emissions globally: the great recession at its peak in 2009. That’s it! 2010, without even a robust economic recovery, emissions went back up 10%. For all the efforts so many of us — not just in this room, this state, this country, but globally — have been putting into fighting climate change, the only thing that has actually fought climate change effectively has been the biggest economic meltdown since the great depression. The idea that we could mount a movement to contract economies globally to fight climate change has no traction anywhere.

In my essay, I contrast constructive denial with destructive denial. Constructive denial is, in the face of terrible news, a determination to fight: Nelson Mandela in prison for twenty-seven years; people given death sentences by their doctors, who say, ‘No. That’s not my reality. And I’m going to beat this.’

In the heyday of print journalism there was an article in the Boston Globe about a guy who’d been given a death sentence by his doctor, some horrible cancer. He fought it; he took every drug, was willing to face any side effect. And he beat it. I was so moved that I cut this out and put it on my wall.

People who take that attitude now to climate catastrophe say — for everything I’ve ticked off — it’s not time to give up. Yes, it’s dire, maybe our chances are half of 1%, but if we, as climate activists, say ‘No, it’s impossible,’ we’re putting the last nail in the coffin.

The challenge I would put out to them is, absolutely! And what’s your strategy? What’s a scenario that still makes it possible? What’s a strategy that could mobilise the efforts that it would take, given the thirty-year lag, the positive feedback loops, the political climate? Help us understand how it is still possible! Constructive denial is not denial of reality. It’s a determination, given that reality, to find a way to beat it.

A few weeks after the story about the guy who beat cancer, there was a story about a woman with end-stage cancer who had made peace with death. She was getting ready to die and was just OK with it. I was so moved by that article that I cut it out and put it on the wall right next to the other one. So to frame our discussion tonight: when’s the time to keep fighting, and when’s the time to realise, fighting this is not in my interest?

What makes denial destructive? First, when we lie to ourselves. In terms of climate, saying, ‘I don’t care what all these facts are, we’ve still got to do this!’ How can you fight effectively if you’re disregarding the facts on the ground?

Second, being dishonest with others: ‘We can’t tell people how it really is — they’d get so discouraged they’d just stay home.’ In 2008 when methane was found bubbling up in the Arctic, Bill McKibben put out a mass email saying, ‘The Copenhagen conference at the end of 2009 is our last chance.’ It was a total bomb. Then he put out a piece saying, ‘If we don’t turn it around by 2012, we’re gone.’ Then Keystone was our last chance. And now fighting the oil companies is our last chance. You see what I’m saying! If the target keeps moving, the story keeps changing, you begin to feel manipulated. He’s a great guy, but he’s desperate and he’s just going to say whatever will mobilise people.

0A McKibben KeystoneBill McKibben

Third, depriving people of the opportunity to grieve.

How can we figure this out? When’s the time to keep fighting and when’s the time to start grieving? And if we accept catastrophe — how should we live the rest of our lives? Not only as individuals, but as a community? Because there are a lot of ways we can go down.

There are many scenarios for fighting over scarce resources, warlords, roving bands of displaced people… But there are other ways that we can go into catastrophe, if we mobilise ourselves to support each other and share resources and really, to do it right.

When I became fully aware of the horror of what we were facing, my son was in his teens. For six years I was in the place ofWe can’t let this happen.’ We had individual clusters of successes — we got the city council to recognise climate emergency and the mayor to call a climate emergency congress — we’ve done so many great things — but emissions keep going up! When that finally moved me to say, ‘It’s not going to happen,’ I thought I was going to go into a horrible depression. And I didn’t. It was the most unexpected thing. I actually felt better. And I am not a glass half-full kind of guy. At all.

Instead I found relief. I’d been carrying this impossible burden that was lifted from my shoulders. I started grieving, which wasn’t fun, but compared to the gut-clench of ‘We’ve gotta stop this, we’ve gotta stop this, we’ve gotta stop this…’ I started finding thoughts running through my head like, ‘I don’t know what my son’s life is going to be like in thirty years, but right now he’s having a really good life.’ It focused me on making the best possible use of the present.

We’ll have a go-round focused on a simple, straightforward question: How do you feel about what’s happening to the world?

1 speaker one

Speaker one: I’m a scholar of the deep state — the secret state-behind-the-state made up of elements within the Pentagon, the CIA and the multinational corporate elite. In the last half-dozen years the deep state has built fifteen or twenty large concentration camps in the US under FEMA’s administration.

Last year they issued the first Requests For Proposals for providing food services, supplies and all you’d need to operate a concentration camp. A law was just passed giving FEMA extraordinary powers for controlling and herding the population in the face of big, undefined disasters.

It’s my belief that the most powerful elements in the world agree completely with your remarks. And they don’t plan on sitting on their hands about it. They’re not about to institute solutions that would remove their power. But they will be perfectly willing to introduce solutions such as eliminating a third of the world’s population by untraceable diseases, or doing whatever the hell they think is necessary to save their own bacon.

Among the most powerful people on the planet, there are people drawing up contingency plans — right now! — for what they’re going to do about this global climate collapse that they think is coming. And it appears they think it’s coming in the not-too-distant future.

2 speaker two

Speaker two: It’s like science fiction when I let my mind run to what could happen; all I can really think about is how to do things locally. I have a one-year-old grandson, and I’m concerned about his life. That’s why I came tonight, just to see what people’s ideas were. I absolutely agree, I’m sure it’s out of all our control, actually…

Speaker one: I don’t think it’s out of our control at all…

Speaker two: Well, I do. And there’s one seemingly young person here; you all may be young at heart, but… So I’m also not sure what that means. We should be the first to go, shouldn’t we? Maybe we have to embrace it even more quickly to make room.

3 Leo

Leo: The essay drew me into finally seeing the thing as simply just another iteration of the problem of fruit flies in a jar. Our jar happens to be the planet, and we’ve fouled it. Well gee, what would — what should — an animal do when it has fouled its habitat? Does it just do whatever it wants, which is what any other animal does? What’s the right evolutional thing to do to save the species? Do you even want to save the species? It raises very interesting questions, some of which are addressed in a certain way by the first speaker’s comments.

4 speaker four

Speaker four: Leo and I have these conversations at breakfast almost every day. I’m more the Mrs. Half-Full and [he’s] Mr. Half-Empty. Just in that I act very locally and feel very strongly about some of the things I’m working on in a local capacity, particularly issues of access to food.

5 Lester

Lester: When I started with Greenport several years ago I was pessimistic about the big picture, but I felt it was important to do what we could locally; and I still feel that. It makes sense to both do all those little things to make our homes efficient, and maybe to do psychological preparation, as you talked about. Yet by my nature I tend to be optimistic, nevertheless, in the face of… whatever! Because of my engineering background, I have some optimism in solutions we maybe haven’t found yet. And human beings have a real hard time with predicting what’s going to happen in the future, so that leaves me a bit of room to be optimistic, in spite of all these difficulties.

6 speaker six

Speaker six: When I think about how complex this is, if you look at all aspects… Wow! [laughs] I don’t even know where to start! It’s scary to be aware of that; to feel I will never really understand this, grasp this… I do think it’s very important to work at the local level, still. Even if I don’t think we can avoid the biggest problems to come.

7 Rosalie

Rosalie: I’m not sure there are a lot of activists who still believe we can avert catastrophe. There’s this ‘How huge will the catastrophe be?’ kind-of-thing, and a lot of the so-called mitigation efforts are related to trying to lessen the catastrophe, not deny it.

It’s extremely important that we get in touch with our feelings. I’ve been focusing on providing opportunities for people to get together to mourn and express anger and let those feelings come out in a group situation; to breath through those into coming up with action based on reality. It’s related to the Buddhist model: take in sorrows and let them pass through you. That’s a healthy way to deal with it psychologically.

Because it is going to be really hard. Yeah, this is big, and it’s coming. The US Military thinks this is the biggest threat we face!

8 Sue

Sue: I never considered myself an activist and I never thought it was going make a big difference, so I’m not that cast down. However, I think the mitigation is really important. Because if you accept it’s going to happen, or is happening, then mitigation is vital to… make it better. And who knows what might be discovered? I’ve read far-out news articles about people thinking they’re going to reverse this by putting things in the ocean to sop up the carbon and stuff like that. It’s not like I think that’s really going to do it, but it’s not like I think it absolutely won’t do it either.

I don’t know where the neighbourhood comes in on this. It seems like a really global thing, and I just don’t know what a neighbourhood is going to do — besides come together to help each other — yes. But to do that in any circumstance; it wouldn’t just be around climate change.

9 Paul

Paul: One possibility is that there will be these positive feedback tipping points, but it’s also possible that we’ll get to a tipping point in public opinion, where it’s strong enough to cause effective political action. There’ll be a series of tactics to try and deal with this as the situation deteriorates. A lot of people are never going to give up, even when things seem irreversible. Drastic strategies! People will be working on drastic strategies, like the one you mentioned about the oceans. These could be done by a nation — China could do it — and even if other nations disagree, these solutions would still be tried. So it becomes very complicated.

But a lot of mitigation strategies are the same strategies we’d use to delay catastrophe, because that would give us more time to adapt — renewables, photovoltaics, things like that — and if done widely enough, might even avert it.

10 Sarah

Sarah: Historically I’ve been very discouraged about climate change. Your essay, Steve, made me start thinking about it in a different way. We’re building an energy efficient house out in the Berkshires; it will be net zero. And we’re getting a generator. Part of me resisted that. But when you have a well, if you don’t have electricity you have no water… except what happens to be in the pressure tank at the point when the electricity goes out. I didn’t want to have to worry about that.

We were driving around one night while electricity was out there, and only one house in the neighbourhood was lighted up — they must have a generator. I realised, if electricity went out for an extended time, if things start falling apart, we would have water… and that was something we could share. And I need to find more things like that.

11 Joanna

Joanna: For four years I focused on the coming climate change and then backed off from that; because what seems most important is to change the way people take responsibility for how things are working — the economy, the government. I don’t see much change happening in this country until we have a sort of a people’s revolution.

I’ve been working with the Green Rainbow Party. I don’t think the program our presidential candidate has, Green New Deal, is going to make a huge difference, but we also have ideas about localisation and people taking control of things themselves, delegating the government to do what they want it to do.

The thing in general is sad. But my actions no longer much relate to it.

12 Janet

Janet: We just moved and we’re really near the river. [laughter] And what can I do about that? Also I just came back from visiting my grandchild in California, who’s six. How to think about the world and the future with her in it? Is there going to be a future for her?

And not being able to talk — really — about what we’re all talking about, because I’m not sure how much the parents want to talk about things like that when they’re bringing up a little girl.

I wish our national leaders would realise they need to say something — publicly — because if they did people would mobilise. Like they did in the early seventies about the fuel shortage, when Nixon said, ‘I want everybody to carpool.’ My remembrance is that everybody tried to do that. So I bemoan the fact that hasn’t happened.

13 Ellen

Ellen: I refer to the first speaker here, about ominous schemes that are in process for troubles… national and local troubles, municipal troubles, national security taking over. Boston is advancing quickly on its adaptation studies and Cambridge has one ready for 2015. Unless we do the neighbourhood work, unless we are very bonded — calling it neighbourhood or just calling it enclaves of people who have a lot in common — national security will determine our future when we begin to have collapses and shortages. I don’t see our cities and towns coming up to the bat as they should.

We had a wonderful Cambridge Climate Conference that did not go anywhere. Still maybe we can have another one, now that we’ve come further along and realised limitations in how much we can change things. We have Hansen, the whole scientific community, now on board as to where we are headed. It’s still worth struggling, but that neighbourhood common group thing is absolutely going to be essential.

I recommend Norman Spinrad’s Greenhouse Summer. Talks about some of the things that have come to pass now? And it’s now not so much science fiction.

14 Bette

Bette: What we’re doing is radical in American culture, which forces us to always be upbeat. To actually be able to come out — come out! …interesting choice of words — is very liberating, because otherwise we’re forced to continually — at least I have felt forced to keep all this to myself.

In my regular life I’m not in a situation to introduce this topic to people. If there were a couple of us chatting, it’s just totally — you don’t want to mention it! Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Bright Sided. She tears apart the American culture of happiness and denial of anything unpleasant. To actually be able to sit together and deal with something unpleasant is a good place to start — and very supportive. I hope this is the beginning of a new grasp of reality.

15 Carolyn

Carolyn: There’s this wonderful effort on the community level, Cambridgeport. What’s the bigger picture? Since the presidential candidates have not dared mention the environment, and many conservatives deny that there is a problem? How are the people in this room connected to a larger, nationwide effort? Is there even a statewide effort of groups such as this? What kind of action is going to come out of a group like this, other than just telling our feelings?

I’m a person who likes to see some kind of an action plan, measurable objectives and a progression of some kind. It needs to be in the spotlight, on a national level, in a big way.

16 Polly

Polly: I appreciate everyone who’s come and shared their vision. It’s way too scary, this topic, to think cogently by ourselves. I can’t do it. I dare to hope that with a group like this and the connections we already have, we can discover ways a growing band of people can have the safety to actually face this. Then be open to the real mitigations that can happen.

17 Adam

Adam: What’s helped me is studying anthropology and the history of civilisations and how people have reacted to their varying human conditions. We’re perfectly capable of predicting what’s coming, because the pattern is consistent. Civilisations have always collapsed. They may have felt invulnerable up to that point, full of hubris and fascination with their own power; but it’s really laws of nature that say what you can do, where, and when.

Ecological overshoot is a common human condition; cultures large and small have done it. They’ve exceeded the capacity of the world that they’re in — their habitat — to support them. Then things fall apart. It happens over and over again. It’s a predictable pattern.

We aren’t in any way any different about that. Technology is, as far as I can tell, mostly fluff. It is part of the problem. Global warming is a technological phenomenon. And we’re stuck in it.

I take comfort in knowing everybody’s been through this. Cultures have collapsed. Some have had a great time on the way, but that’s the way life on earth is. I thank my billions of forebears for paving the way; and I’m part of that family.

18 John

John: People’s inability to deal with the emotional aspects of what climate change means is an important phenomenon. In public, you bring it up and people wince — not because they deny, but because you hit a nerve. I feel a responsibility — because I have grandchildren, or just as the kind of person I am — to do as much as I can to mitigate before I die.

But… what is that, that I do? I think — I wonder and I almost believe — that emotional connections are the most powerful way we can influence people. Where there are these deep emotions, if we don’t figure out how to use them to reach others, we’re missing an opportunity. A conversation with a daughter who’s just had a child — that’s the most difficult conversation I can imagine having. With two daughters who just had children, I think about this!

There are positive ways to tap our emotions, not just simply make people give up. Part of it is the belief that useful things can be done. Resolve — that’s something we can build together. That might be comforting to people, to see that there are others who are resolved to do what they can.

The fighting we’ve thought of has been associated with anger — being mad at the oil companies, mad at this person, mad at that. But there’s another aspect of fighting and that’s courage. When you’re afraid — historically and in many situations — the only way you can act is to have courage. Perhaps we can think how to cultivate courage; collectively or individually.

19 Randy

Randy: I’m 100% convinced that Steve is right about the direction things are going, in the short term. But I’m a person who tends to see the glass half-full, and I’m an engineer. Climate change is happening, things are going to get bad, but in a fluctuation way. It’s not going to go off a cliff immediately. It’s going to get bad, then a little better, then worse, then a little better.

I’m hoping the world will respond to one of the first bad things that happens; that we can switch away from these climate-intensive fuels to renewables. But it’s going to take a tragedy before people will wake up — an economic tragedy or a human tragedy. That will cause a reaction in the world.

It’s important to continue to act now, locally, to be in the vanguard for when the rest of the world is willing to follow. Which they’re not at right now.

20 Steve Wineman

Steve Wineman: [reading his essay’s epigraph]

Logic and sermons never convince.
The damp of night drives deeper into my soul.
(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so. Only what nobody denies is so. )

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Steve Wineman is a writer, retired mental health worker, and a long-time social change activist. In 2006 he co-founded GreenPort, a climate action group in the Cambridgeport neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. After distributing his essay, Crossing the Chasm: From Denial to Acceptance of Climate Catastrophe, he received numerous requests for a public discussion of the ideas in the essay. In response, GreenPort held a forum on October 16, 2012 titled ‘Climate Catastrophe: Let’s Talk About It.’ Contact: steven.wineman@gmail.com

Lydia Eccles videotaped/edited the GreenPort conversation to create a booklet and 30-minute video entitled ACTIVISTS: what the hell do we do? She is test human/participant observer for Universal Aliens, a transcendental phenomenological research entity. Her recent documentary, COLLAPSE INTERVIEWS: A Gathering of People With Nothing In Common (2013, 127 min.) features interviews with non-activists as part of the UA Collapse Studies inquiry, ‘What is the human experience of living against an evolving backdrop of warnings of impending catastrophe?’

To contact or request DVDs, email universalaliens@hotmail.com

COLLAPSE INTERVIEWS poster

Choosing Living Over Life

For Kate

Liminal Scrim

In the morning,
to the deeply resonant sound of the Vedas,
they go looking for prints.
To place their fear.

But no trace can be found.

The night before,
the sound of the wolf,
yards away,
made a tear in the liminal scrim.

Bringing them closer to Her.

The next day,
the foxes grainy bark, grates.
Later that night,
the local dogs sound like wolves.

***

The Owl is Nothing Without its Prey

At the moment of death I am yours.
Without my surrender your claws grasp only the yew.
Without me your hollow screech echoes through the snow blasted pine.
Claim me!
You starving, lonely, bitter huskofabird.

***

Where the Breath Turns

The doe lowers her head to drink at the stream,
giving only her mouth to the water.
The rest of her inhabiting the land all around.

Only sleepy humans see all of her down by the stream.

Doe and wolf already feel her in his belly.

After the death of David’s wife, nearly three years ago, poetry began to pour out. A portal opened… a spring appeared. He writes in and through nature… birds, especially black birds, are ever present. He attempts to live in this mythopoetic reality in everyday life… a daily spiritual practice.

David is a father to three children and also works as a psychotherapist and teacher.