The Dark Mountain Blog

The Rising of the Waters

With the latest issue of Dark Mountain now available, we wanted to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages, so we’re publishing a selection from the book on the blog. Today, we get you started off with the editorial.

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99. 

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As this editorial is written, the fifth anniversary of the launch of Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain manifesto has just come round. Five summers and five winters have passed since we first gathered forty or fifty people together in the back room of a pub in southern England and tried to explain to them what this emerging ‘project’ was about. Explaining Dark Mountain in a few sentences has always been hard work: half a decade on, all of us involved still find it impossible to agree on a succinct definition of what Dark Mountain actually is. Is it a literary movement, a cultural movement, a discussion network, a campaign, a conversation, an escape, a disengagement, a re-engagement, a means or an end? Probably it is all of these and more.

But whatever it is, the questions we are asking, the way we are framing them, and the new stories and remade stories we seek in these pages seem to feel less and less marginal each year. Something is changing. When our manifesto was first published we were mocked in some quarters as ‘doomers’ and ‘crazy collapsitarians’. Back then, the talk was still of stopping climate change and building global justice for all, and asking questions about collapse and decline and the nature of the assumptions behind these stories was the same thing as ‘giving up’, which was the worst thing of all. These days, you can read newspaper editorials that seem strangely similar to some of our early blogs, and this project is receiving glowing five-thousand-word write-ups in, of all places, the New York Times.

In his recent book Feral, the environmental writer George Monbiot makes much of a concept he calls ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. The idea is simple enough: our expectations of what is normal change so gradually that we don’t notice normality itself shifting quite radically over fairly short periods of time. So, for example, if you grow up in a landscape in which no birds sing, the rivers are polluted and you can’t see the stars at night, you assume that this is just The Way Things Are. Just a generation or two before, children may have grown up in the same landscape and it may have been noisy with birdsong, clean water and starbright skies. Within a relatively short period of time, something enormous has changed – but because the change has been gradual rather than instant, it has been barely noticed.

Once you start to think in these terms, you can see this kind of thing everywhere. In Britain, we have seen it in the increasing regularity of winter floods. Major floods here were once rare events. They happened once every few decades perhaps. Now, they happen every winter without fail: in the Somerset levels, on the banks of the Thames, in the fens of the east and on the coasts of the northwest. ‘Major flooding events’, in which hundreds of people are washed out of their houses and whole towns and villages are brought to a standstill have very quickly become the new normal. Our baselines have shifted to accommodate them, and the Winter Flood is now something taken for granted. The streets of major towns awash with water have become normal sights. The first time London floods it will be a huge event. The second and the third times, it will be just like the time before, and then we will forget it was ever anything novel at all.

What lessons can we learn from this gradual falling away? One of them is the old lesson that we come back to again and again in our work: that we – humanity, and especially civilised humanity – are not in control. In the enlightened West, learning this lesson is going to be long and hard, and we may never admit that we have learned it at all. But another lesson is perhaps an even harder one: that nature, which we thought we had subdued, was never subdued at all. For most of our history, ‘nature’ was something Out There, something terrifying and threatening: our old fairytales are dripping with this fear. Then, for a brief time, nature became something fragile and threatened which we had to protect wisely and fiercely. Now we are beginning to see that if this was never the case, it is not the case any more. Suddenly we are back in the dark forest with the wolves howling all around us, and we can see light in the distance and there is nothing to do but head for it, though we don’t know what we will find when we reach it.

When we put out a call for submissions for this book, we asked people to imagine how the world would be if this grinding-down of our control and a power continued; if the waters kept rising, our old selves and old stories floating on the new current with them. What you see here is the many currents that have swirled in response to this question. From David Kenkel’s strange vision of himself as history to Joan Menefee’s story of the drowning of Venice; from Zedeck Siew’s dragon-summoner to Chris Smaje’s look at the future of farming; from the Great Salt Lake to the mythworld of an Amazon tribe, this collection sees new visions arising from the wreckage of the old, over time, slowly, unbidden, as it will always be.

The editors,
October 2014

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 6 is available through our online shop for £12.99 – or subscribe now to future issues and get this one for £8.99

Introducing Dark Mountain: Issue 6 (and beyond)

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The sixth issue of Dark Mountain arrived from the printers a few days ago. As you can see, it is already being hungrily consumed by the target audience. Part of the attraction in this case may be the wonderful, and incredibly colourful, cover illustration by Eunah Cho. It’s quite a departure from our previous covers. But then, you could probably have said the same about any one of them.

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Our sixth anthology of uncivilised writing and art is a 270-page hardback, containing 42 essays, stories and poems, and 16 colour plates. This is the most visual issue of Dark Mountain to date: under the guidance of our art editor, Charlotte Du Cann, the photographs, etchings, sketchings and illustrations of all kinds creep from those plates and across the pages of the book. As text and images intermingle, they conjure up lordly dragons, corn masks, fire burials, water proverbs, Zen meditations, vignettes on technology, thoughts about farming, home made rafts, toxic squirrels, flocks of parrots, false windows, six deserts, seven coats, drowned cities and protest poems.

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If you’re a Dark Mountain subscriber, your copy of the new book is already making its way through the postal system and should reach you any day now.

Otherwise, you can order it from today through our online shop - or if you take out a subscription for future issues, you can get our two most recent issues for the price of one. Your support will also help to secure the long-term future of the project. If you’re interested, visit our subscriptions page to find out more.

 

BOOK 7 – A CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

Dark Mountain now produces two books a year: one in April and one in October. As this book hits the streets, we’re already starting to think about the next one. So this blog post is also an invitation for submissions for Dark Mountain: Issue 7.

With each book, we seek to go deeper into the questions that have animated this project since we published our manifesto five years ago. We are looking for writing and art which pushes the boundaries, which unsettles the assumptions many of us grew up with and the ways we are used to looking at the world, which challenges the stories our civilisation tells itself. We don’t care who you are or whether you have ever been published before. We encourage new writers and artists, and new involvement from all over the world, especially from the parts of the world our books have not yet reached.

To find out more about the kind of thing we are looking for, and how to submit to us, have a look at our submissions guidelines. The deadline for submissions is 15th of December 2014.

Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy Issue 6 as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to you.

Earth Funeral

You are cordially invited to the
Earth Funeral Memorial Service Spectacular
 

We desperately want to cancel this event, and we at the Gauntlett Institute along with millions around the world are working to fight the exploitative corporations and financially corrupted governments who are driving our biodiversity into the grave! However we can see a great need for a ceremony/ festival to end the world according to the current trajectory.

This is a way for us to express our loss, mourning and gratitude. We are expecting more than a billion people! The biggest event in history!

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Timing?

The invitation is going out with plenty of advance notice for two reasons:

There are 7 billion people and counting, 9 million species. We’d like everyone and everything to be there so we need a few years to organise ourselves!

Given that no consciously aware guests will be able to attend the event post-mortem, we have decided to bring the memorial forward, prior to the event of hominid extinction. The exponential nature of the problems facing the Earth and its inhabitants make it possible the biosphere will no longer sustain mammalian life by the year 2045. The Memorial is therefore 6 years prior to an end to allow for discrepancies in the data and ensure we get an end time service.

Ceremony/ Festival

The ceremony could take many forms. Anyone who wants to should have the opportunity to speak, play, paint, sing, wail etc. It is as yet unknown who will be present those who are will shape the event.

There could be a celebration of all that the Earth has been. A recap of the journey we’ve made together so far; 4.5 billion years of shared history and ancestry. From out of the waters, from the soil, from the air we have breathed together and died together. Feeding off each other’s death and life. A perfect beautiful and gruesome circle. We may look forward too, and celebrate what this planet can do, what wonders will grow here when we are gone.

FAQ’s

Where does my ticket money go?

50% of revenues will be directed into World Saving NGOs. The remaining finances raised via ticket sales will be saved for building the infastructure to support the multitudes (Portaloos, stages, technicians, artists…) A small admin fee will be retained by the G.I.

You can risk showing up on the day and being ripped off by a tout. It’s up to you.

What is the dress code?

Societies around the world will have broken down and the economy collapsed by the time of the memorial and so it’s a case of come as you are. By all means brush down your glad rags, spit shine your shoes, give that sari a dunk in the Ganges, bring out your celebration turban, or just wear your birthday suit!

Will the Earth be put in a coffin or cremated?

Although a collaborative global project would be a wonderful, inspiring and ironic way to finish this adventure, building and engineering a large enough casket has been abandoned. The build time exceeds the estimated date of need by nearly 40 years, plus the resources required for the ambitious operation would only encourage more intense deforestation and mining, bringing the date for a total toxic overload closer.

Fitting the Earth into the casket poses logistical problems too. Unless teams of construction workers can be sustained in created biospheres there won’t be anyone around to fit the corpse into the gargantuan box anyway.

Mourners are invited to create their own local memorials. Other suggestions have been the entire dusty rock of the Earth can serve as a tombstone to itself, akin to Mars. And the layer of noxious gaseous pollutants, a shroud.

Cremation has also been ruled out for the same reasons although in the same vein as the above, climate change and desertification of the Earth can be seen as a kind of inadvertent cremation. (From a Christo-biblical view point the Earth is being destroyed by fire – possibly a fire 90,000,000 miles away as our protection is stripped away Also see note below *.)

Is the Gauntlett Institute profiting from the Earth Funeral Memorial Service Festival Spectacular?

Absolutely. We project healthy revenues for the host organisers, (merchandising, branding etc.). However! Despite the potential profits, we will gladly cancel the Memorial in the event of a change in scientific forecasts. We believe it is still possible to extend the Earth’s support for large mammalian life and secure the future for our own children (see below). Nothing would please us more than short term financial reward.

*How will the Earth die?

This hidden gem of the MIlky Way Galaxy, a planet of life, third by distance from the Sun in the Solar system being killed by a combination of Man Slaughter, and first degree murder.

The cause could be described as a cancer inspired by the chronic ideas of certain humans. The driving force behind this cancer is an absurd economic system based on continual growth, with the fantastical notion there is more than one world’s worth of resources. As well as polluting industrial activities of our one species, near complete depletion of natural resources, including abuse of the limited fresh water, deforestation, reduced soils to near zero nutrient value and over acidification of the seas, this total toxic overload made (and will make) many species extinct at the macro level of the system and disrupted the cycles of atmosphere, currents and balance of temperature at the global level.**

Some examples of recent and ongoing extinctions:
Eastern Cougar, Western Black Rhinoceros, White-chested White-eye, More than half of the Earth’s rainforests have been burned up. Complete list of extinct species.

*The Earth won’t be entirely dead and is presumed to continue supporting some life; cockroaches, bacteria, scorpions and many other unexpected creatures to outlive the larger mammals, fish and birds through this period. Given the right conditions a stable climate able to support mammals may return to the Earth within 100,000 years or so.

**It’s incredible to think that such a beautiful unique spot in the cosmos could be utterly destroyed by an illusory currency system; a kind of pyramid scheme that on the one hand appears to only benefit a few, while the rest of the populace buy into it living a kind of servitude to those at the top. All of them trapped in a psychosis to maintain faith in this ludicrous concept of exploitation, commerce, unreconcilable debt and waste (of time/energy/resources).

How can I stop the Earth dying?

Let’s take the Funeral Service out of the Festival Spectacular. Let’s make it a party for generations to write stories about. A selection of the most useful and powerful on- and off-line communities, ideas, reading /viewing lists and actions will be coming soon.

Read our broad suggestions for Earth Funeral Service Festival Spectacular cancellation here:

A: Belief and understanding
I need to resuscitate my enthusiasm /compassion and breathe life into myself for a greater sensitivity, treading more lightly on the Earth. I need to examine the patterns I live while observing their effects on the natural world, and on my cousins globally. Learn to really understand that without a richly biodiverse and healthy eco system I am nothing, and no amount of technology can save us if we continue. I am a part of an incredible complex interaction of give and take. I should begin to believe the majority want the power to positively influence the outcome and we can take it if we try.

B: Personal actions
With A in mind I need to be willing to change myself, not just in how I live; using less energy, recycling etc., but also to exchanging the feedback loop of excessive consumption for a richer more people /sense-centric lifestyle. I can no longer allow my cousins to be exploited. Achieve a Degrowth trajectory for the economy while gardening the natural world and allowing it to flourish should be my priority. To live creatively in a world that needs my imagination like never before. (The foundational three fold solution to my ‘salvation’).

C: Collaborative resistance.
Alongside my fellow citizen cousins, I need to confront the corporations and governments who are the ‘ecocide practitioners’ wilfully out of control on my behalf and currently with my help. These elites have developed a financially motivated psychosis along with a belief in their style of progress. The current fiscal mechanism flows money energy upwards to those in power, siphoning the resources in what can be described as a pyramid scheme of epic proportions. The pyramid also serves to maintain distance from those cousins beneath them which in turn keeps their life plans safe. This insanity has many brainwashed via the hegemony of ideas. I may be one of them. I have at least partially bought into it. I am allowing an apocalypse reality closer to my planet’s story. I will no longer allow myself to be exploited. Read on or go back to A.

How can I get involved?

Although we will be taking advice from experienced undertaker consultants, masters of ceremony, party planners etc., we’re not recruiting for the funeral just yet. Until further notice the best possible use of our time and energy will be collectively stopping it from happening. We are inviting everyone to get involved with spiralling our collective trajectory into ‘control’.

Support the Gauntlett Institute’s research by buying a ticket or joining the movement. Or start your own.

The Gauntlett Institute is a progressive research base for innovative metaphysical and philosophical political products and services to aid a world in crisis. Originally founded in 1968 by Glenda Gauntlett and newly re-established by her nephew Professor Handlebrass of the same name. The institute is based in Hackney Wick, (East) London where a team of really special people galvanise, expand and illuminate the possibilities raised through the extensive research. The Gauntlett Institute prides itself on the notion of an accusation of producing ‘ultra pseudo post science–science goods and services’. 
 
Our genuinely attempted innovations will keep us all guessing, asking and coming back for more. 
‘Our findings are so hard to believe  that no-body believes them!’

The Gospel According to The Texas Board of Education

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CHAP. I

1 The problem with dinosaurs is that they all tasted like chicken.
2 So when you’re on top of the food chain, things can get pretty dull. Allosaurus for breakfast, tastes like chicken. Dimetrodon for lunch, tastes like chicken.
3 And God spake unto all his creatures, saying, ‘Humans taste like pork.’
4 In Persia, the Tyrannosaurus Rex Melchior heard the word of the Lord, and quoth, ‘What’s pork?’ Lo, in India the great Tyrannosaurus Rex Caspar sayeth unto himself, ‘What’s pork?’ And in Arabia, the great Tyrannosaurus Rex Balthazar sayeth unto himself, ‘I gotta get me some RIBS!’
5 And the three Rexes looked into the sky at night, and lo, a new star appeared. And the Lord spoke unto the Rexes and sayeth, ‘A Child has been born, and the Star will lead you to Him.’
6 And the Rexes each exclaimeth unto himself, ‘Baby back ribs!’
7 One by one, each followed the star to Jerusalem. They had a long road to travel and many times they got lost. It took them years.
8 And they left in their wake a trail of death and devastation. They ate every soul they encountered, yet still they could not be sated. ‘Chicken,’ they spat with disgust. ‘Always it tastes like chicken.’

CHAP. II

1 Like most children, Jesus loved dinosaurs. Of the waters, he loved best the Plesiosaurus. Of the air, the Pterodactylus, and when he heard the mighty Pterodactylus screech in the heavens, always he would jump for joy and run to the window to admire this glorious winged creature of the Lord.
2 But of all the dinosaurs, Jesus loved best the Tyrannosaurus Rex, though he had never heard one. When his father Joseph roared like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Jesus would giggle and roar back. Yet he had never seen the great T. Rex.
3 One day Jesus opened the door to their honest hovel and looked out unto the yard. ‘T. Rex! T. Rex!’ he cried, and jumped up and down. His father stopped his sawing. His mother stopped her washing. She ran to the door and swept up Jesus in her arms. She quoth to her husband, ‘The Child is never wrong. We’re going to have guests.’ And so she put up the beans to soak, mixed some sourdough to rise, and started her baklava.

CHAP. III

1 In the great city of Jerusalem, the dinosaurs met. ‘Lots of people here,’ noticed Melchior, ‘I wonder if they’re crunchy. Let’s start with the very best human we can find.’ So he went to the first man he encountered, and demanded, ‘Take me to your leader.’ The man led him to the great and glorious royal palace, where Herod awaited them.
2 Melchior asked Herod, ‘Do you taste like pork?’
3 Herod replied, ‘You are what you eat. I am the king of the Jews, and Jews do not eat pork. Therefore I do not taste like pork.’
4 Melchior was crestfallen. Yet Caspar, the wisest of the dinosaurs, exclaimed to the others, ‘He is not a child. The Lord sent us to find a Child.’
5 Herod asked, ‘What Child is this?’
6 Caspar replied, ‘He who will be King of the Jews.’
7 Herod asked, ‘Is he a Tyrannosaurus Rex?’
8 Whereupon Balthazar replied, ‘Nay! For he is a Child born unto Woman and unto God.’
9 So Herod gathered to him all his priests and scribes of the people, and asked them where is this Child who will become King of the Jews. They told him the Child was in Bethlehem of Judea, for so it was foretold.
10 And Herod bethought himself, ‘I can save myself a lot of trouble if I just send the dinosaurs to meet this Child.’
11 So sayeth he unto the dinosaurs, ‘Go thou unto Bethlehem in Judea, for there lives the Child of which you speak, and He will be tender and good.’
12 The dinosaurs were gladdened and they went together to Bethlehem.

CHAP. IV

1 Mary was just taking the pita from the oven when the dinosaurs arrived. ‘We have been expecting you,’ she cried. ‘Are you hungry? Come eat!’
2 The dinosaurs were confused, because they planned to eat, but not at a table. Mary was insistent. ‘Sit down! Sit down! It is a strong bench, for my husband hath made it, and it will support you in comfort! Eat at our board, and eat of our plenty, for you are kings, and we shall do you honour.’
3 So they sat.
4 And Jesus was overjoyed that the dinosaurs had come, because he had never met the king of the dinosaurs, and now had he three right in his house! So the Child exclaimed, ‘Bless the dinosaurs, and especially bless the T. Rexes, for they art splendid to mine eyes. And bless this food that we shall eat, and bless the Lord my Father who hath given it to us.’
5 And so the dinosaurs ate of the fat of the land, of hummus and falafel, the olive and the hot pepper, and then of the baklava, dripping with honey.
6 Each sayeth unto the other, ‘Well, it doesn’t taste like chicken.’ Yet Caspar had his doubts. ‘I bet,’ he whispered to Melchior, ‘we’ll be hungry a half hour after we eat.’
7 ‘Nay,’ quoth Mary, who heard him, ‘for if thou eateth of the legume with the grain, thou maketh a complete protein, and thou shalt be nourished.’
8 But this was a little complicated for the dinosaurs to remember, and anyway they didn’t know how to cook. ‘And besides,’ she continued, ‘Food is love, and now thou art filled with love.’
9 Jesus was jolly during the meal, and sang his song. He sang, ‘I love you, you love me, we’re happy family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too?’
10 The dinosaurs were abashed, for Jesus glowed in the darkness as he sat in the arms of his Mother, who glowed likewise. They glowed with the purity of their hearts and the kindness of their souls, and lo, the dinosaurs found they did love the Child, and they did love the Mother, and even Joseph the Father, and had not the room in their hearts nor in their stomachs to eat them.
11 And when it was time to leave, the Child spake unto the dinosaurs, saying, ‘Go forth unto the world, and kill not, nor eat of thy brethren, for thou art beloved unto Me, and thou must be pure.’
12 And so it came to pass that the dinosaurs, who heretofore had lived by eating their brethren, ceased their murder and mayhem. Yet because they did not know how to cook, nor how to read a cookbook, they had naught to eat.
13 And that is why we have no dinosaurs today. Yet those who died were pure of heart, and blessed in the eyes of the Lord.

Shelah Horvitz was originally trained as a writer (Wheeler School and Brown University) but turned to painting because her writing professors told her that at 19, her work was juvenile. She spent the next 30 years painting and exhibiting in galleries and museums, until she hit the limit of the complexity of ideas she can explore with painting. She is now working on her first novel. Shelah lives in Massachusetts, USA with her husband and dog.
Image: Baby Jesus Blesses the Dinosaurs (Conté, pastel, charcoal and watercolour on paper, 42″ x 42″, 2012) by Shelah Horvitz

 

Unlearning Civilisation

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The first step in unlearning civilisation is so simple that we instinctively reject it. It is to see with our own eyes and feel with our own hearts. We are deeply conditioned to distrust ourselves, preferring the massive data banks and lavishly-funded scientific projects of the industrial behemoth. We believe that we can accurately perceive reality only through the lens provided by the latest analysis. What we see with our unaided eyes is tainted with subjectivity, thus untrustworthy. Truth can only be perceived with the aid of the most advanced sensors, after years of computer modelling by teams of specialists scowling over endless data. To the civilised, truth cannot be perceived immediately, but must mediated through a set of well-tested filters that remove the stain of subjectivity to yield the smooth objective residue of truth. That odourless residue alone is trustworthy.

Writers such as Keith Farnish in the Underminers directly challenge the civilisational narrative. But the psychological tentacles that feed its life are very deep, deeper than the Tools of Disconnection he presents, though these work exactly as they are portrayed. While his tactics may well contribute to undermining the civilisational infrastructure, more concentrated effort needs to be spent on building the psychological and philosophical underpinnings that can replace the structures of meaning which civilisation implants in its subjects.

The flimsiness of this structure of consciousness-modelling becomes obvious once we inquire into the roots of our sense of certainty, the inner proof that truth presents us. These roots come from our experience of life, instincts we have built over years to guide our actions into a path that brings tangible rewards. When we look at our path through life, we see that we trust the truths of civilisation not so much because of our faith in scientific methodology than because of the premiums that such belief delivers. Believing in a technological methodology aligns us with the forces that control this world. It situates us in a hierarchy of power. While we may not occupy a prominent position in that hierarchy, nevertheless knowing one’s position furnishes us with an easily grasped sense of meaning. One plays one’s role in in a story one has come to share with those in the same hierarchy and feels proud of that role, a pride that is constantly reinforced with material delights.

This sense of reward for our participation in the ‘story of progress’ has come to be a substitute for that instinctive sense of truth which arises from our inner being. Try as they might, the manipulators of meaning cannot expunge that inner sense even with all the perks of the social climb. In the end, the false sense of certainty with which we are infected also infects our sense of truth, the false always gaining its power from its distorted reflection of the true. But the ersatz truths proclaimed by the apparatus of language manipulation cannot attain a deeper sense of truth than that which is instinctual, because it must feed off the living blood of reality in order to give substance to its lies. Otherwise, the organs of distortion would have no referent to misrepresent and lose their power to deceive.

Before we can overthrow the external civilisational mechanism, it must be overthrown in our own minds, though these two operations are not necessarily sequential. Otherwise we don’t really understand what we fight and can easily find ourselves defeating the wrong enemy. My primary motivation in joining the struggle against the current civilisation is to end the violence that is its lifeblood – violence against the free individual, against true community, against the indigenous peoples, and against every biome that deserves to play its role in the entire web of life.

Unless we live from a moral centre larger than civilisational myths that treat breaking laws that protect corporate crime as the ultimate offence, we will not attain the freedom of action necessary to create a different world. We live within a system that treats its own preservation as the ultimate law. But resistance has to be founded on an unconstricted moral law, not the dissolution of morality. We must find a moral centre beyond the boundaries of civilisation if we are to be strong enough to mount resistance to the field of death.

We are born into civilisation and as soon as childhood’s blossom fades, we find ourselves fleeing as if from some disaster that no one can name. It is a race for position that promises the security of material abundance. But this security is dependent on measurable performance and sooner or later performance falters and the Leviathan has no mercy. Until we make real the lack of balance with the earth in our own lives, we cannot arouse the inner deadness long enough to break the increasingly implacable demands of productivity. These demands are precisely calibrated to ensure that we are barely able to emerge from work-induced lethargy. The inner energy of our being is as much their property as what bubbles beneath the cap rocks and its being drained from us just as efficiently.

Inner peace is not a commodity that can purchased within the borders of civilisation. No drug, no iPad, no vacation, no career triumph can assuage the unrest, the snake nest that keeps us in sleepless agony. What we seek lurks in death and solitude and will not show its face to us unless we are ready to accept real danger. And how could we take such risks when we are so glutted with conveniences and cheap pleasures? Yet something that will not die keeps gnawing away at every excuse we offer.

Once in a while a drop of balm falls on our soul and a sense of deep refreshment opens in us like the mighty river of justice that Dr. Martin Luther King so often invoked. We have no idea where it comes from, but the speaking waters have touched our lips and we feel a power that fills us with a sense of wholeness. For one moment, what civilisation has defiled is washed clean and we understand peace is something other than the cessation of hostilities.

After it fades, this refreshment makes us feel the sting of our enslavement all the more acutely and plants in us the seed of rebellion. But what does this refreshment consist of? From a civilisational viewpoint, it consists in the de-instrumentalisation of one’s existence. Everything in this civilisation is subsumed into the chase: raising production while creating a sustainable environment, ending violence through legislation, and getting the right numbers on the profit report. Each of these is a box that prevents the happiness it falsely promises. They are the result of a delusion that they can allay the anxiety that stutters through every decision and commitment. A reversal of this would be to feel the goal well up within us – instead of pretending to love each other for the sake of family peace, we seek peace because we love each other. We do not instrumentalise our love into a series of crowd management techniques, but find the richest avenue to express the love that waits neglected within.

In our depths, technique executes and wreaks its damage. Technique is the encapsulated experience of others long dead who once were alive and in that life, they reached out for some truth within their world. By letting go their love of comfort and routine, they grasped something new and made it their own. As they made it more and more real to themselves, they finally were able to formulate it in a way so that others could make their own as well. In doing so, these sharers extended the insight. But lurking at the foundation was an impulse both finite and mortal. It did not encompass all that we are able to become. The surge of life that once lived in the technique now has become a brutal slavery destroying the source of life. The brutality becomes more and more amplified, in a futile attempt to drown out the truth.

The lesson of the past 500 years is that if you work at technology long enough, with dedication and persistence, you can achieve predictable results. But predictability is nothing but ashes in the mouth if it doesn’t include the well-being of all our relations, as the Dakota people tell us.

The first step in unwinding the ache of civilisation is to step into silence. Once we shed our anxious need for constant distraction we come face to face with a deadness in ourselves and it is intensely painful. But if we have the courage to stay inside the pain, we will discover a healing power, a loosening of the tension that drives us. The machine has inflicted a false shape on living flesh, our flesh and earth’s flesh. It has mangled our inner being and the healing will take long, but it must begin in emptiness.

If you can hold still within the emptiness, not seeking to ‘enhance’ it or make it your possession, you will start to feel what you have long wanted to feel, but never allowed yourself to feel. Those feelings are the limp green leaves that lay along the brook which died from the effluent that streaked through the stream. The burning poison of work discipline that scalded the leaves within. Life fluxes within us and blossoms outside. The ecological revolution happens in our hearts, then spreads into the waterways, finding unknown springs of untouched water, those speaking waters which bubble with eternal freshness.

Within emptiness is the power of change, a change not limited by the categories of a dying world view encapsulated in the prison called ‘objectivity’. To be objective means to make objects of all that is perceptible. It is to draw a circle around those resonant presences that fill us with their joy and vehemently deny that they can reach beyond the limits of their ‘object’. The ability to transcend object consciousness arises from silence because objectivity is an attempt to silence the noise of life.

And when this happens, you needn’t twist your experience into the shape of a known religion. Instead religion cracks open to reveal a fire hidden within its petrified form. Belief is shown not to be a deception, but a promise, a promise that can only be fulfilled in sidelong glances, never displaying itself bare and whole. Matter becomes the outer crust of the inner spiritual volcano.

Boyd Collins spent some of his earlier years as a Cistercian monk at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. In later years, he became a peace activist and produced the Nonviolent Jesus blog. Currently, he lives in Texas in the United States where he is becoming active in the Transition movement.

Image: Sakurajima at Sunset by Kimon Berlin

 

 

Block Power

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People know what they do.
And most know why they do what they do.
But what they don’t know is what what they do does.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx – Michael Foucault

Nobody went to jail. No one burned down the State House or forcibly removed the President of the United States from office. What a few people on our city block on the south side of Providence decided to do instead was something more radical, if less dramatic. We tried to get our neighbours to turn to each other a little bit more for personal support. As radical – meaning ‘getting to the root’ – as this idea and subsequent project were, I later discovered that one ingredient was missing from our community-building endeavour that would make it and perhaps thousands of similar trials happening elsewhere more radical, and possibly radical enough to push the world past a tipping point on the way to just, sustainable living.

The project

Before purchasing a two-family house on Gallatin St., my family lived just two streets away in a three-family limited-equity cooperative, which we had converted from a private residence owned by an absentee landlord. Like most city folks, we knew our immediate neighbours enough to greet them by name. The other block residents were mostly nameless faces. But when we purchased our new home I resolved to greet each new neighbour I bumped into, learn names and addresses and introduce myself. I met a lot of people and recorded each name on a map I created of the 36- household block. But early on I discovered that my new neighbours seemed to know each other a fair bit more than neighbours did on my old block. I learned that eight years prior to our move a college student living on the block chose to organise a block party to fulfil a requirement for a class he was taking. The party became an annual event and naturally created a greater sense of community.

A few years after our move, as I was getting to know more neighbours, and coincidentally rethinking my assumptions about social change, I became convinced that building community – local, very small scale networks – was a more radical path to social transformation and ecological sustainability than what I was doing in my vocational life. For work, I was feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, witnessing in direct action for peace and justice and trying, through coalition work, to get the government (and other institutions) to meet human needs and respect human rights. All the while I was living simply and riding my bike everywhere. These activities I was so devoted to (and still am to a degree) were important and useful, but not radical, not directly to the point of solving social problems much less of saving humanity or creating a better way to live.

Starting where I lived, I decided to take an active role in our informal, unincorporated, unnamed block association and encourage my neighbours to step beyond the more usual block activity and try to create a ‘consultation exchange’ directory. This tool would obligate residents, upon request, to provide initial consultation to a neighbour about something they are skilled at or know about. We reasoned that neighbors would enjoy sharing what they know in this way, but not be so inclined to actually do the work itself (to care for an elderly parent or replace a roof). It’s a first step to get neighbours to do for each other what many of us do for our friends and family – offer advice before seeking professional service. Of course, the initial help is sometimes sufficient and we are spared the need to spend.

Of the 36 households on our block (demographically, about 80% African-American, 10% Latino and 10% white, including working class, middle class professionals and families surviving on public assistance), 33 participated in creating the directory. Carolyn, the mom of the former college student who organised the first block party, needed herself to complete a service project toward a college degree and conducted most of the interviews. She simply asked, ‘What do you know about? What do you know how to do that you might share in some way to help out a neighbour?’ Many residents were slow to identify a skill or something they know that could be of use to a neighbour. They could make a list of needs they have or problems in the neighborhood, but they needed some prodding to name something they know about worthy of sharing. We needed to convince some that their skill/knowledge might potentially come in handy. I went ahead and listed ‘philosophy’ as something I know about, anticipating that one of our neighbours might just return from her first semester in college and declare to her parents that she wanted to major in the subject. Then I get the call and the troubleshooting begins. Unlikely, but you never know.

Project significance

We compiled a list and directory, with names, addresses and phone numbers and what each know or could do. The range of ‘gifts’ hidden in our houses – ‘unwrapped’, as John McKnight would say – provided a fresh perspective on who we were and what we could do. The survey process itself tightened the block, building relationships, bringing the block into living rooms and then back out.
In most every way, this city block is indistinguishable from the others. But the cumulative effect of the parties, exchange directory and other community-building activity we’ve engaged in makes me draw this distinction: at the very least, the neighbours on this block are disposed to come together and tackle big challenges as a group. In the 1930’s, when the economy crashed, all the economic parts were in place to meet people’s needs – the tractors, the factories, the trains, the workers. But the systems that connect all the parts and make it all deliver smoothly fell apart. If the systems fail again, and we’re all left hanging, I can imagine my old neighbours on the other block frantically using their private telephones to get relief from various downtown agencies. But on Gallatin St. block one, I imagine 120 people of all sizes standing together in the middle of the street, holding out their hands, vaguely in the direction of each other, and asking, ‘What do we do now?’ This is the kind of block environment I want my family to live in. A block of very different people, all gifted, who are disposed at the very least to come together, turn to one another, for help and support. It’s a safer and more secure living environment, and it’s a happier one.

Lessons

Radical isn’t always dramatic. And it’s not always a matter of getting to the root of a problem. Sometimes it’s about getting to the root of what we need to do to get what we most want out of life. Block parties and consultation exchange directories don’t do much, in the wider scheme of things. But efforts like these point in a direction of a life we might prefer to live over what we have now. They are baby steps in a direction. So, for example, on the Gallatin St. block of 36 households, there are four men who either live in one of the homes or regularly visit as a relative or friend whom I personally served meals and/or shelter to at the centre I worked for when I moved onto the block. They made me wonder, what if our block community provided these four men the support they needed so as to dismiss their reliance on the nonprofit agencies? What if their gifts were deployed on the block and in exchange they received the support they needed? A burden shared widely enough ceases to be a burden. And what next, if we decided to roll up the paved street and created a garden, play space and block ‘living room’ in its place? And shared cars parked on the block’s edge? What if we tried to feed ourselves?

The community way is radical because it represents a categorically different way of meeting needs and enjoying life than the systems we mostly depend on now that are grounded in relatively impersonal and hierarchically structured institutions and driven by the production and consumption of products, including service products. Genuine communities place members in a circle of support rather than in a pyramid powered by interpersonal competition for external rewards. Because wealth is defined in terms of relationships as well as place in a natural world and local geography, and in terms of affirmation, belonging and celebration, community systems are not inherently expansive. They present an organisational context that is conducive to human contentment as well as ecological sustainability.

Jim Tull facilitates workshops on community building, cultural transformation and deep ecology. He teaches courses in Global Studies and Philosophy at Providence College, the Community College of Rhode Island and the state’s prison. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island USA and can be reached at jtull@providence.edu

 

The Way I Walk is Just the Way I Walk

With thanks to Rebecca Solnit

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Our vexed relationship with ourselves as nature

When a drum beats, what makes the sound? The stick that beats or the skin that resounds?

There is a widespread assumption running through many human epistemologies of an implicit predominance, according to which we are either ‘masters’ or custodians of the earth. Whether beneficent or tyrannical, a hierarchical relationship between humans and the rest of nature is implied.

This may be an inevitable result of our ability to reify intellectually and to express the nature of our reifications on the one hand, and on the other of our vertical bipedalism, enabling us to look down as effectively as we look ahead. In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit draws attention to Wordsworth’s ‘construction of the natural’, which relativises the experience of walking in nature as a contemplative pursuit as being as ‘artificial’ as the urban ‘drift’.

But what of the sub-atomic truism of the cosmic dust of which we, the planets, and everything are composed, the corresponding narratives of golems, humans fashioned from the earth, and the curative powers of ‘holy wells’, whether generating water or mud? Equally, the Wintu, a Native North American culture change the terms used to denote the left and right-hand sides of their body according to which direction they are facing, making self-definition a relation between the person’s body and their environment. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost [whence the Wintu reference derives], Solnit mentions Hopi creation myths ‘where humans and other beings emerge from underground‘.

Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism refers to the toll of the ‘dérive‘ [urban 'drift'] ,which gives a flavour of the reciprocal nature of our engagement with our environment, and the demands it can make on us. Arguably, in part, these demands are attributable to what is involved in tracing a route carved by others, excavating the accretions of past time and the experiences sustained by people not ourselves. The cosmic immanence of our non-analytic communication between external nature and our inner nature is mirrored in this social immanence.

Naming as classification and as comfort

In naming the way stages of our journeys, from the First Australian songlines to the Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross, we create trajectories that guide us through the landscape by objectifying and marking significant events and landmarks. This interpretation suggests a degree of insecurity, that we are the golems of a self-creating cosmos, rather than ‘masters of the universe’.

Landmarks and symbols are of course mnemonics, for the places arrived at in a literal or conceptual journey. There is also a parallel with Walter Benjamin’s citation in The Arcades Project of a plan to name the Paris streets after different global locations, “the symbolic on a scale that made [it] not a scale model but a vast expanse of the world” [Solnit, Wanderlust, p. 75].

The uses and ownership of thin air

Walking is essentially political, inasmuch as it is a process based on a passage through, rather than an appropriation of, an environment. A ‘pure’ nomadism extends this anti-teleology infinitely, making a mockery of a class society predicated on settlement and surplus, and cocking a snook at the later development of nation states.

Trespassing also highlights the absurdity of property, as an act of occupying nothing more than ‘thin air’. What is stake, from the Undercroft in London to the riots stemming from the proposed development of Gezi Park in Istanbul, is who controls such space and what it can thus be used for.

The last couple of decades in London have witnessed the progressive encroachment of the walkway or private pavement on to what had previously been regarded as public space. This enclosure of ‘property’s foreshore’ has, with particular reference to the Thames and locations such as the Isle of Dogs, made the experience of walking an interrupted and discontinuous experience.

Selective blindedness

As daily life becomes increasingly confined to indoor environments, researchers have identified a progressive shrinkage of human sightlines, which for many people now tend to be largely confined or constrained to the dimensions of a vehicle or a room, and thus lose the visual poetry [in either urban or rural context] of vanishing perspective. With reference to landscape and mnemonics, maybe we should consider whether Wordsworth’s allegedly prodigious memory was the corollary or the result of the lengthened perspectives of spending so much time outdoors in ‘heroic’ landscapes.

Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is the ultimate teleological act, whose purpose and motive is defined before it is started. The goal invests the activity with meaning, and also relegates it to the status of a means to an end.

However, these means in turn could be described as sacred praxis, where the synergy between human and environment expressed in the act of walking creates a coincidence between the profane/synchronic movement though physical space and the a-chronic site of the sacred.

To arrive, for example, at Santiago de Compostela, is an act of uniting the soul with the divine. The will and the determination to realise such a destiny, enables the pilgrim to supersede the experience and effects of contingency, such as boredom, blisters, banality.

We could also argue that the Catholic and the pagan externalise and thus universalise the sacred, while the Protestant seeks revelation in the contemplation of inner space.

Walking and ludus

Solnit, in Wanderlust, draws attention to the pleasure of walking as an end in itself, which could perhaps be a minimal definition of ludic activity, shared with self-created and open-ended games and erotic non-procreative pleasure. This is, of course, a sublime waste of productive time, and thus subversive.

There is a correspondence between walking and gambling, which is not limited to the potential role of chance, but to the potential for anticipation to be as or more pleasurable than arrival. For example, the analysis of neurological patterns of gamblers’ brain behaviour sometimes indicates that ‘near-misses’ can be more pleasurable than winning. Notionally-desired outcomes play second fiddle to the playing of the game, and associated risks, even when realised, are not sufficient to erase this differential.

Sometimes, it is better to travel pleasurably than to arrive, and the anxiety generated by the possibility of not reaching our planned destination can challenge the enjoyment inherent in the experience of the walk itself. Let us then travel without maps. or with maps of terrains distinct from those we are traversing.

The human and the technological

Walking has the specific attraction of being an activity that does not require the mediation of technology, although Flann O’Brien makes a poetic and persuasive case in favour of the symbiosis of human and bicycle.

Place, space, and memory

Space as the repository of our memories: sites for future encounters with our present thoughts and experiences expressed as recollections.

Other than in the sense of mechanistic recall, Solnit is wrong to assert that ‘memory, like the mind and time, is unimaginable without physical dimensions‘ [Wanderlust, p. 77]. Perhaps the proposition should be inverted in order to challenge the limitations of what ‘imaginable’ might include, in relation to all three entities. Arguably, the lack of boundedness, infinite ‘meta-extension’, and the capacity to ‘double-back’ on themselves are the crucial characteristics that all share.

Drawing lines in space: Benjamin, Paris, and Port Bou

It appears that Benjamin’s most passionate later intellectual engagement was with The Arcades Project, an exhaustive and idiosyncratic genealogy of Paris as political, historical, aesthetic, and social space. Amongst other things, Benjamin examined Haussmann’s reduction of much of Paris to an effective extended grid, and the nature of the arcade as an interzone between the outside and the inside. Analyses of lines through space. There is thus a tragic irony that his suicide was impelled by the fear of the power of a truly arbitrary and imaginary line drawn in space – the border between Spain and France, in a territory that shared a pre-French and pre-Spanish identity as Cataluňa.

Body and mind

In Wanderlust, Solnit summarises Edmund Husserl’s view of the movement of the human organism through space as representing the fixed point [the body] in a turning world. This reduces human perception to an intellectual and visual experience, disregarding all the minor organic variations of each body in movement [including eyesight], such as heat/cold, fatigue, etc.

For some post-modernist thinkers, all that can be relied on in terms of describing mutually-recognisable entities are intellectual constructs, whereas everything else is too compromised by subjectivity to be epistemologically reliable. And so, as humans, we make our extension through space a negative attribute, and become a form of anti-matter.

There is an irony operating here, in that despite being proud inheritors of the anti-Enlightenment tradition, the post-modernists both embrace Cartesian dualism and champion the primacy of thought [and thus rationalism, however qualified] over extension and experience.

Fragmented time, activity, and space

The rise of industry impelled the acceleration of urban development and rapidly disrupted long-experienced modes of rural social organisation. And yet, nomadism as the logical extreme of a loss of loyalty to ‘homestead’ continues to be perceived as the enemy of capitalist values.

In reality, even hunter-gatherer cultures typically constrain the range of their wandering, maintaining defined, albeit large ‘demesnes’ within which to live. In contrast, the potential distribution and terminus of communities forced into diaspora by economic imperatives tends to be both less predictable and far more distant from the point of departure.

Capitalism fragments the twenty-four hour day into work and leisure, the working day into an artificial homogeny of repetitive tasks [the division of labour], and the social being of the individual into worker/parent/partner, etc.

It replaces the life of the home-proximate or home-based individual share-cropper or crafts-person with the forced intimacy of the slum-dwelling proletarian, and for the petit-bourgeois escapee mirrors the division of social roles with a greater physical distance between urban workplace and suburban home.

The apotheosis of this process of fragmentation is of course the de-pedestrianised strip mall, which reduces the home to the place in which one attempts to take some rest between work and consumption.

To re-visit Wordsworth’s fetishism of nature, the suburb is the sterile microcosm of the world of nature, controlled within the built environment. The UK, as the originally suburbanist culture was, of course, the first to comprehensively industrialise. It would be instructive to map the chronologies of industrialisation against the degeneration of national and regional cultures’ relationship with cuisines that might be described [in shorthand at least] as ‘less mediated’.

In the UK, foraged food is the province of the ‘adventurous’ middle class. In many other European societies, such as Italy and Spain, people collect snails and pick wild mushrooms because these are free resources historically associated with peasant food.

Labyrinth and maze

The experience of travelling through the city on foot more readily approximates following the labyrinth rather than the maze, at least in urban environments not completely dominated by vehicles. As Solnit notes, random encounters are more likely, and we are sometimes faced with culs-de-sac, and unexpected diversions to our route.

Spectacle and the city

The tenor of a disproportionate amount of writing about London is Gothic – de Quincey, Dickens’ Night Walks, etc. Whatever the flaws of Peter Ackroyd’s post-Reformation Catholic mysticism, he at least allows for the magical, and is inheritor of Chtcheglov’s organic sense of the city as being suffused in history and immanence.

It is perhaps no surprise that the concept of the Spectacle originated in Paris, a place not only exhaustively photographed at different historical junctures, but also subject to ‘review’ [images of the same vistas pre- and post-Haussmann, Doisneau’s visual hommages to Brassaϊ, etc], resented and represented throughout the development of capitalism.

The female sex worker and the flaneur

In Wanderlust, Solnit supplies a necessary corrective to the inaccurate and lazy correspondence that Walter Benjamin draws in The Arcades Project between the [male, bourgeois, non-working, unmolested, wealthy] flaneur and the female sex worker. Solnit also adds that, in her reading, a proportion of these women prefer the freedom they experience on the streets [despite elevated risks] to the incarceration of the brothel.

Dissolution and self-realisation

As we merge and become more fully our ‘natured’ selves in the non-built environment, so we merge identities with all the anonymous others [past and present] in the city, that most constructed ‘human’ environment, designed variously for utility, display, and profit.

Speed and movement

High-speed travel radically compresses pace into progressively smaller pockets of time, and depends on our physical immobility and psychological passivity. The primal referents that define out corporeality, our size and physical capacity, are rendered irrelevant, in much the same way that a hospital in-patient is immobilised in bed.

Get lost!

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit enumerates the characteristics and possibilities associated with getting lost as an active decision, rather than an error or a mishap. These might be summarised as:

  • Allowing ourselves to live with/living with uncertainty/contingency
  • Seeking that with which we are not familiar
  • Allowing for self-transformation through the incorporation of new perceptions

The fruitful loss of certainty

In an anxious and acquisitive culture, loss has a primarily negative association, namely as a diminution. In contrast, the apparent absurdity of Zen koans throws down a challenge [as did the Dadaist attack on language itself], namely that to learn the reality behind the agreed appearance, we have to cast aside the certainty of the notionally ‘rational’.

Multilingualism makes the truth other than an essentialist and invariant ‘eternal verity’. However, ‘shades of the truth’ retain a relationship across languages, to the extent that the reality being described is recognised at some level by all parties to the conversation. Equally, ‘within’ a given language, inference and allusion act as elliptical references to a given things, in order to minimise [for any number of possible reasons] the sharp edges associated with the direct expression of a term.

With the right tools, human interaction is a liminal space, not Babel, as some post-modernists might rather have it. As such, subjectivities are not unmoored and discrete, but retain a cultural specificity, within the overall range of human experiential possibility. What we lose in translation is balanced by what we gain in terms of new understandings of human perception.

Loss, gain, retention, and colonialism

The implantation of familiar practices within the colony by the coloniser is used as a form of compensation for the loss of certainty represented by migration from the ‘homeland’, and acts as a form of rejection of the potential gain that could be derived from such change. The alternative strategy to deal with this scenario is of course to allow oneself to become absorbed by the new and to ‘go native’.

The unanswerable ontology of death

Ultimately, two things prohibit us from fully being able to consider a world from which we have been expunged. Firstly, it is conceptually impossible to imagine an entity that lacks our consciousness as a constituent element, when it is that consciousness that is the mechanism by which we perceive the wider entity.

The second is a more emotional factor, summarised in Leszek Kolakowski’s phrase ‘the phenomenon of the world’s indifference‘. The waters will close over us.

And so we walk the earth in order to reassure ourselves of our continued present reality, reflected in our consciousness of the world around us.

Jim Fearnley used to reach for his gun every time he heard the word ‘culture’, but inevitably his trigger finger got rusty. In any event, time is running out for him to witness the revolution in his lifetime, and it can all be a bit tiring for the senior gentleman.

Nonetheless, his varied interests and arguments, as discussed online and elsewhere, still conform to the satisfyingly glib injunction to ‘live without dead time’.

Offers of paid gigs involving the exchange of used notes [not consecutively numbered, please] will always be given due consideration.

Image by Nick Hunt

Is the World Living or Dead? Or, the Trouble with Science

Orbit diagram for the solar system, showing Sedna and 2013 VP113

All myth, all deep insight, means the same as and no more than the falling of the solar system on its long parabola through space. Kenneth Rexroth

I spent the beginning of this year immersed in works of popular science. Completely absorbed, the way I have been by few works of fiction. Hours spent poring over books and articles on chaos theory, cosmology, string theory, stopping only to try to imagine some consequence or take note of some insight. Why, I had to ask myself, do I care so passionately about the arcane world of theoretical physics? Science had never been my talent or my discipline; my math was poor, my academic studies were in that softest of all subjects: literature. But for many years I had had these bouts of real absorption with the ideas of science, particularly physics. I realised it had something to do with the need to understand the reality in which I lived to the fullest extent, in a particular way that nothing else but science seemed capable of now.

As a student of literature, I favoured the idea that stories and storytelling were the chief means through which we attempted to convey our understanding of the cosmos, and what our place was within it. And this had always been the case, at least since humans developed complex language. Highly specialised societies became the norm, and with them we lost myth as the organising narrative of our lives, but we still looked for narratives and rituals that filled its function. In every area of human activity and thought, we continued to develop stories that served to position us with respect to other beings and to fundamental principles at a cosmological or near-cosmological scale.

But one after another, the disciplines we had fractured out of myth had seemed to fail at doing justice to this role: theist religion, politics, history, and the arts had mostly downgraded or dismissed the non-human world, the vast majority of reality. And either they withdrew from the ultimate questions about the nature of the cosmos and the idea of our purpose and belonging within it, or else considered them patly resolved by some suspiciously anthropoid superpower.

But not science. I grew up with the ideas of two great humanist popularisers of science, Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man) and Carl Sagan (Cosmos), intimately beamed into my adolescent brain by television. The story they told was exhilarating and beautiful. Modern science was a hard-won triumph over bigotry and ignorance; it was the ultimate homage to nature. It had discovered many of the laws that governed the physical world, and yet there was so much more to know. Science was a great adventure, and there was room for us all to join. Carl Sagan told us that humans were ‘star stuff’, grown to be able to contemplate itself and the cosmos, and now longing to return to the stars.

saganCarl Sagan

Together with evolutionary biology, theoretical physics was the only contemporary endeavour seeking to present a complete picture of the cosmos and explain how it is and why it is as it is—without closing off the process at some point by attributing it all to a metaphysical dimension or super-being. I understood enough of its methods and conclusions to see that physics was striving, without any social coercion, through a union of observation and speculation, for a fundamental, all-encompassing, coherent, and beautiful picture of reality. Which was exactly what I was looking for. And with increasing urgency, in recent years, as the society that surrounded me became more fragmented, disconnected from the living world, and apparently unconcerned with any deeper understanding of it.

But now there was a problem that became clearer to me the more I read.

The picture of reality that physics has been developing since the last quarter of the 20th century is troubling: it is not coherent, it is not all-encompassing, and it cannot say what is truly fundamental. And at the same time, one of its most elegant attempts to produce a unified picture of the basic physical forces is retreating from the idea that observation and experiment are even necessary to the establishment of scientific truth.

Instead of illuminating ever more of the cosmos, theoretical physics now seems to be making it disappear in a cloud of unknowing: it proposes that the universe is almost entirely made up of matter that we cannot observe and do not understand, and that it is being torn apart by anti-gravitational energy in quantities unpredicted by any theory, whose source is also unknown. Intensely violent releases of electromagnetic radiation (observed, but again, previously unpredicted) are attributed mostly to unobservable, exotic objects whose internal physics are paradoxical. And (according to string theory) the universe is dependent for a unification of its major forces on the existence of infinitesimal extra dimensions that can never be observed or completely described because they are infinitely variable, and generate an infinity of hypothetical universes that can never have any meaningful relation to ours.

The universe described by physics today is an obscure, turbid, conflicted place, where reality at the smallest scales essentially disappears in paradox, and cannot be made continuous with reality at the largest – or even at the size of the molecule. Organic life is considered a freakish anomaly, and apparently doomed to remain so. Isolation and disorder will inevitably dominate the universe as it expands and degrades, finally becoming total and eternal.

If Dante had lived today, he might have found this the perfect description of the structure of hell.

And yet, ironically, the deeper we look into space, all of what we actually see is beautiful, dynamic, multiform, filled with light and the possibilities for life – and grandly structured, with all visible matter connected in a great web that stretches across unimaginably vast distances.

But the more I read, the more I saw that the trouble with science went beyond the bizarre speculative cul de sac that theoretical physics seemed to have entered.

To most of us today, what physics talks about is really no different from science fiction – except that the plot is thinner. The Big Bang, black holes, wormholes, multiverses, superstrings, dark matter, dark energy – not one of us can independently confirm the existence or non-existence of these, or even grasp more than dimly the means scientists have used to hypothesise them. They are like mythological entities revealed to us by modern priests with hieratic knowledge.

This is not just because there has been a failure to teach science adequately in schools, or because our mass communications media have no incentive to convey complex information, although both of those things may be true. It is simply characteristic of societies that are highly specialised that extreme concentrations of wealth, power, and knowledge emerge. And those who possess them seek to retain their elite status, and have disproportionate leverage to do so, so the distance tends to increase.

At some point – but the big question is what point? – the anti-social effects of such concentrations of knowledge come to outweigh, even compromise, the value of the insights gained, however compelling they are. I would give you the example of the Mayan priest class’ astoundingly complex and elegant understanding of time, which could not save their civilisation from the perpetual war and ecological overshoot that brought about its collapse.

I discovered that a few contemporary scientists, from within their disciplines, had begun to call out that something was wrong with the current picture. Not with the scientific method per se, but with science as it was actually being practiced in the 21st century. It was at risk of turning reductionism, abstract mathematics, and pet theories into dogma, of violating its own spirit of open-ended inquiry. While internal critics like biologist Rupert Sheldrake or physicist Lee Smolin approached this with their experience in and love of both theoretical and experimental science foremost, they were outriders nonetheless. They had largely been ignored or even insulted by their colleagues both for their chosen scientific approaches and their concern with the sociological ramifications of science. This was at least in part because they were saying that science, and scientists, were not immune to behaviours that characterised the larger society.

In other words, once an omnipotent Church had tried to stifle science, but in the 21st century, science was at risk of becoming a new Church, filled with careerism, narrowness, arrogance, and orthodoxy – and now it stifled itself.

In 1996 a physicist named Alan Sokal had perpetrated a hoax that gained him notoriety throughout the academic world. He submitted an article to the journal Social Text called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The article, published as written, was gibberish, purporting to Sokal that the triumph of postmodern approaches in the humanities made it impossible to distinguish profundity from tripe, or privilege the kind of falsifiable claims to truth that science prided itself upon. His demonstration was meant to prove that science would never stoop to such obscurantism or lack of rigour.

But when I read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics (2006), I noted that he also spoke of physics entering a ‘postmodern’ phase – by which he meant that the elaborators of theory, particularly string smolintwptheory, had developed such an insular arrogance about their convoluted mathematics, and were so sure it was right, that they no longer felt constrained to defend it scientifically. In fact, he said, the mathematics produced a model of reality that was incapable of generating unique predictions testable by observation or experiment. There were also a functionally infinite number of potentially valid string theories. String theorists had unleashed a cosmological mise en abîme. It ironically bore some resemblance to that apocryphal little old lady’s remark about the ancient myth that the earth rested on the back of a giant turtle. What did the turtle rest on, then? It’s ‘turtles all the way down, I suppose,’ she responded.

So Smolin was claiming that physics too was guilty of postmodern obscurantism, and of succumbing to making non-falsifiable pronouncements. Sokal had scoffed at the idea that science was simply one more way humans had devised to tell themselves stories about the world. But Smolin said that the founders of quantum theory, upon discovering what’s called the ‘observer problem’ at the sub-atomic level, also became social constructionists in a way. They decided that it simply did not matter if the presence of an observer always determined what could be said about quantum states; the theory was too good to jettison. So they would give up looking for what Smolin called the Real World Out There at the smallest level, and simply keep on cataloguing the behaviour they could observe. Making Sokal seem wrong again to deride only non-scientists for saying that truth was ‘merely’ a human construct.

But even Smolin seemed not to understand just how determinative our ‘sociology’, as the frustrated scientists dismissively call it, really can be in determining what stories get told. He was an avowed believer in human progress, and surprisingly, for someone with a capacity for deep comprehension of highly complex systems in physics, it was of a reductively linear kind. He presented a thoroughly damning picture of an entire culture, and then expressed a vague hope it could all be sorted out by slight modifications in behaviour here and there.

Yet there’s considerable evidence that human social behaviours, even in the most specialised and highly technologically mediated societies, have not really evolved much in sophistication and may even be said to have regressed in some ways, compared with the prior understandings of peoples living at a much lower level of specialisation and technological intervention. For we have accepted monstrous imbalances of power and seem to have lost the determinative notion of reciprocity that gave some earlier forms of social organisation their stability. And sadly, it is science, aiding and aided by capital, which has actually been key in dismantling the idea of social and environmental reciprocity and instead justifying a profoundly anti-social and anti-ecological set of behaviours.

Above all, science is complicit because it presents us with the consensus idea that the world, at almost every level, consists solely of non-living, non-conscious material, which can thus be acted upon without the consequences of acting upon conscious living things. In fact, experimental science has shown that even other living things can be acted upon by humans in any way, exclusively for our own benefit, without the need for reciprocity of any kind. This is said to be ‘progress’ over the old, unenlightened view that the cosmos and everything in it was alive.

The model of nature accepted by the majority of contemporary scientists is that of a highly complex machine, something that – once certain unchanging laws and basic parts are identified – can essentially be manipulated at our will. Everything in the physical world also functions this way, including ourselves. The parts are separable from one another and the whole is reducible to the sum of its parts.

The reductionist consensus in biology and neuroscience, for example, sees human emotions as window dressing, basically remnants of primitive survival behaviour, now mostly just a way of gauding up our lives. They have no epistemological function and can get in the way of rational understanding. Our sensual experience is reduced to a simplistic pleasure/pain binary – instead of being a legitimate path to understanding and participating in complex, dynamic relationships without requiring the intervention of technology or oversight from the rational mind.

The scientific method must dismiss anything that anything that cannot be measured with ever-increasing precision (with the exception, perhaps, of those unruly quantum states). Anything that persistently confounds measurement is considered irrelevant, a so-called epiphenomenon. This includes all subjective experience, not to mention human consciousness itself, for many evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists. All the more so, then, any other types of consciousness there might be in other types of matter.

This view, of course, will continue to alienate us from ourselves, as it bears no relation to life as we actually experience it. ‘The one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know,’ says science journalist Jonah Lehrer, defending art (including the storytelling arts) as a way of knowing, in Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2011).

Some scientists, like the world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, complain about the irrational fear of science. He is right that a blanket rejection of science is an enemy of understanding and has become a tool of dangerous reaction, particularly in the US, where it has played right into the hands of powerful backers of an ecocidal status quo. As the existential threat denialism poses becomes clearer through the haze of sponsored lies, the champions of science are gaining ground. But fighting dogma with dogma, as Dawkins does, misses the real issue: is ‘faith in science’ any more likely to get us into right relationship with the living world than faith in the supernatural?

For what, precisely, is irrational about fearing something demonstrably capable of erasing reality as you know it, something whose processes and mechanisms are in the hands of others who are largely unknown and completely unaccountable to you? Is it only our ignorance, or is their hubris also to blame for that fear?

Great scientists are among our modern heroes. Yet 20th-century physicists created the first weapon capable of extinguishing all life on earth. Chemists developed poison gas. Psychologists have been involved in refining torture techniques. Biologists are exuberantly manipulating genetic material in ways that could be bringing about the collapse of large-scale, complex ecosystems. They do not say no, even when the stakes are that high.

We have mapped and measured, we have formulated to degrees of complexity beyond the capacity even to measure with the tools we have – or possibly ever, in the case of some cosmological theories. And yet none of that captures essence in any way – nor, the most humble and righteous scientists will quietly allow – is it meant to. The more arrogant scientists would have us give up the idea of essence, or say that it lives Platonically in mathematics alone. But mathematics, no matter how eerily well it reproduces patterns and gives holographic representations of many aspects of the physical world, is still a human language. Our formulae do not exist in the Real World Out There any more than does Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ or the subject-verb-object construction of a sentence.

Ironically, of course, in climatology and zoology scientists are trying desperately to warn us of major, irrevocable changes in the biosphere, but their graphs and models have so far proved no match for the power of unimpeded flows of capital, and the unleashed infinities of human desire. Here, at the opposite end of the methodological spectrum from string theory (which achieved a kind of mainstream scientific consensus without any physical evidence whatsoever) climatologists have been laboriously accumulating data for decades and developing rigorous standards for testing theories – but nobody really wants to believe the story they are telling, because it is not about infinite possibility but about the dreary, real constraints of living systems, even at the largest scale we know.

Capital, having perfected the art of buttering its bread on both sides, thus somehow manages to benefit both from the triumph of science for the production of consumer products or infrastructure, and from the fear and resentment it induces in the mass imagination when it comes to the need for system-wide behaviour change.

While the scientific method is a great tool for many purposes, including an understanding of aspects of the physical world, the practice of science, like any human activity, is neither intrinsically beneficial nor destructive. Science as it is practiced today is patently not sufficient to guide humanity to a socio-ecology that is dynamic and harmonious – one that can mimic a complex ecosystem capable of thriving for hundreds of thousands of years, like a forest or a coral reef – or even the tens of thousands of years that some indigenous peoples managed without any reliance at all upon the scientific method.

On the contrary, the triumph of scientific hubris could just as well lead to our extinction. The scientific method gave humans an unprecedented power over matter – and we used it to make possible the relentlessly efficient machinery that is already facilitating climate change and the earth’s sixth great extinction of species. But somewhere else in our minds we know that unchecked aggression and hubris will destroy us too. We have a short history relative to the cosmos, but it is long enough to have given us the lessons of great failures. In fact, mythic stories recounted those truths for millennia. But a reductive materialism has degraded the meaning of myth to ‘a counterfactual belief’.

At every step, in every field, since the late 20th century, the unbuilt, pre-existing world of nature has been telling the physical sciences how far ahead of them she is. Even the mind-boggling (and beautiful) infinite recursions and bifurcations of chaos theory produce only drastically simplified approximations of common dynamic processes in nature, ones that you observe by watching a flowing stream or the passage of clouds.

Their own mathematics warns scientists that their solutions to complex or ‘non-linear’ problems can only be so approximate as to be useless in most cases. A more profound insight that can be derived from them is how a finite natural system can contain and be bounded by almost infinite complexity, and thus, how sensitive it is to change. Emerging systems theories, like biologist Stuart Kauffman’s, are just beginning to sketch the minority report on irreducible complexity – while the reductionist consensus, with vast resources to back it up, gallops on towards the machine dreams of its venture capitalists and ‘visionaries’.

There is a warning bell ringing loudly now in our ears: reality eludes all efforts to reduce it too much, or to use only formalisms to describe it. It seems to be trying to tell the scientists who will listen that things in connection with one another, evolving in time, are not just different in scale from things studied in isolation but fundamentally different in kind. Time has lost all fundamentality in mainstream theoretical physics. And yet time not only rules our human lives and everything our senses can perceive, but its flow is somehow essential in creating this qualitative difference.

If scientists took time seriously enough, they might even find it to be capable of altering the rules by which physical change happens (Smolin is one of a small group of theoretical physicists considering this idea. And Sheldrake has also proposed that ‘nature may have habits rather than laws’). But the scientific method constrains science to isolate things in space and remove them from the passage of time in order to make statements about them, to act upon them. It’s highly unlikely that a discipline thus constrained will be able to permit the notion that the cosmos itself is alive, for life is characterised not just by a set of molecules but by its particular relationship to the flow of time.

Humans remain on a trajectory that is predominantly profoundly anti-social, hubristic, and mechanistic. But if we fail as a species, it won’t be because our theoretical physics wasn’t good enough, or our theories of consciousness, our engineering, technology, medicine – or even our art, music, or literature. It will be because the stories we accepted as most profoundly true, the ones that determined our social behaviour, dismissed the idea that treating the world as dead would ultimately be deadly to us too.

In a mountain village in Peru once, I met an old man who was introduced to me as an Inca priest. (The Inca civilisation is long gone, of course, but like the Mexica and Maya, those who call themselves its descendants continue trying to keep its philosophy alive.) The priest was baking bread; that was his daily work in the village. In his view the mountains that towered over our heads were just as alive as the birds that sang in the scrub trees, the loaves of bread he pulled from the clay oven, or any of us. I was with a group of people who were interested in what they called spiritual questions, and someone spoke wonderingly of the fact that there were so many religions in the world.

‘But the Truth is One,’ the priest replied.

That raised an old anti-theist red flag: it sounded too nice and easy to be true. I wanted to see more evidence. I find I want that more than ever, nowadays. I still appreciate the power of science to take on the ultimate questions, and the rigorous beauty of some of its hypothetical answers. I’m inspired by the scientists who are challenging the reductionist and mechanistic dogma of their disciplines. But I’m afraid they may always be the minority report. If science remains dominated by the lure of power over matter, or the belief that its own abstractions are the ultimate reality, it will never be able to find the evidence I seek, or weave us back into the story of, a single, living world.

Recommended Works:

Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics; Time Reborn

Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion (US title: Science Set Free)

Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe; Reinventing the Sacred

James Gleick, Chaos: The Making of a New Science

David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order

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

The Light Extraordinary

Northing

Dunwich

Shrike girdled the
Slit eyed
Marsh hallows, the feather beaten
call to gallows

Worth a deft pass
Enshruddled mist
Lickered craw, now the tendons stick
To thumps of silence raw

Slinking moon permits
An autopsy
Revealing sin, rotted planks tarred
Long seaborne scarred

Through marram threads
The noose
Permits, flightless mud dweller skips
And under slips

Dittany

Eidolon

She is the seed-knowledge in the ravines
Under concrete, soft-headed sleeper
Dreams beneath gum patina and feet tramp
Ignored static bleeds angry stamp
Seeps through seams
Where a shadow forest creeps
Under the glum fabric of man
All her whispers are leaf brush
The delicate fan of night branches
Her speech is the soft dirge of mush
Preaching forgotten implores
This army of lurking shades
Phantoms in paving slabs
Viridian certainty, poised potential
Chasms in her skin boil with life
Ruts in the valleys,
Thunder-claps on the peak
Bats in the grammar, sly as the adders
Wound about her roots
Each a tendril, tender seeks
There is no turning the head
Unfound, the eyeless thief
Cracks every question of your heart
And answers them, piece by busted piece

These poems are taken from a wider collection called ‘The Light Extraordinary’, the first poem of which was featured in a short film shown on Channel 4. Daniel is writing a book, Wildonomics, ten social experiments to connect humans with nature. See more of his work on danielcrockett.co.uk. @dancrockett

Kleifarvatn Lake

800px-Kleifarvatn_3

People say there’s only one main road in Iceland. It’s not true, of course – there are plenty of them – but there is one in particular that goes right around the perimeter of the island. At points, along this road, there are gravel tracks leading off and sometimes into the interior. We took one of these and it led us to Kleifarvatn Lake.

Kleifarvatn is a volcanic lake, the largest in Iceland. It lies on the southern part of the peninsula on the fissure zone of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, although when we arrived there I hadn’t seen it on any map. We were three. I was travelling with Georgie, a friend and ceramicist from England, and we’d met Haraldur, a friend of a friend and artist living in Reykjavik, a couple days before. He’d heard we wanted to explore the island and had offered to take us to the lake.

The lake is big. It stretches further than any distance I can judge by seeing, and sits within a crater of rock that is black, or dark brown, or dark brown with flecks of grey and red in. You look around and feel strangely contained – in a place – although the place is huge. And still. There is no movement anywhere you can see. You can see three things – Rock. Sky. Water. There is nothing else. There is the light, which shifts with the wind over the water, so that sometimes it might be moving towards and at other times away from where you stand and look. Cliff becomes rock becomes the sand under your feet that stretches and then slips down into the water. The water is clear like the sky, and bluer. There is no trace of time here except the slow burning of your face and the slippage of tidemarks at your toes. There are no rivers running into this lake and it makes no contact with the sea; the level changes according to the groundwater below.

But I can’t describe this place without also describing how it hit me.

All that week we’d been seeking experience. We’d gone after heights, swimming holes, staying out, going further, the sun, wind, rising steams. When I got out of the car at the lake it was different. Something changed direction, an experience found me; I wasn’t seeking it out. I walked very slowly to the edge. I was looking ahead, but the further I got the more I was struck by a feeling. I felt so sad, to see that place. ‘Sadness’ is the wrong word for the strangeness of it. Maybe a kind of alone. The lake was huge and stretching, it was beautiful, and I felt opened; but through the silence came this impossible feeling. I’ve been wondering about it, and about the lake, ever since. Trying to work out what it was, where it came from, whether it belonged to anyone/thing. What it was about that place that called it up in me.

Would someone else have called it ‘awe-inspired’? I thought that was about God, or at least a kind of presence. But I felt nothing else in that place. There was no life. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere so stripped of connection. No plants growing between things, nothing muddied, no movement or signage or any kind of direction – only things in their most mineral forms. It was bare, unlifted. I felt wrong to be there, in all my layers and coverings. Exposed, to be from a world that has built so much up around itself.

I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d been there alone. Maybe I would have nodded my head at the vastness, or sat on the beach a bit. But I wasn’t alone, I was with two others. Georgie had gone off in another different direction and I was walking with Haraldur. Our feet made a slow rhythm in the sand and the rhythm made us close, so that as I looked out at the vastness I also felt an intimacy, and I think perhaps that these two things combined were what opened me to the feeling. What opened the feeling to me.

My Dad is ‘a bit low at the moment’, my Mum says. Which might be a way of not saying Depression. I don’t think I mean depression in a medical way. I’m thinking of rocks and surfaces, about what it is to live in a place that tends towards sunkenness. How you move through a place like that. What effect it has on the kinds of lights and landscapes you start seeking.

Volcanic lakes can result from three quite distinct processes. A caldera lake is formed where the slow subsidence of a thin crust creates a depression in the earth’s surface that then fills to form a lake. A second type is created through the blockage of waterways by mud, lava flows or ash. Crater lakes, by contrast, are formed when a volcanic explosion opens a crater in the earth’s crust to form an enclosed basin in which water accumulates.

I haven’t been able to find anyone who can tell me how the lake was formed, so it is only a hunch, but I don’t think Kleifarvatn was about subsidence or blockage. It was low-lying, but I felt no sinking feeling. I saw something bright down there, a shocking lucidity. This is something I’ve been wondering about recently. What it is to be brought down, stripped back – to come close to the ground, your feet, the rock. How to keep a very tactile and moving relation to things, eyes unblinkered and skin exposed. It is challenging, to me, to think about.

We drove a little further along the track and then stopped for a banana sandwich lunch, hunched in a crook of rock, crumbing an apple cake we’d made without any of the right ingredients. A coach-load of American geology students pulled up, out of the nowhere. The teacher told me that the black rock we were standing on was formed of volcanic ash and is being constantly eroded by the wind. The whole landscape is changing all the time, he said. ‘Just not at a rate we can see,’ I said, thinking I’d got it. ‘Well, yes,’ he nodded. ‘But it could erupt again at any moment.’ Everything here could be transformed, changed, thrust apart. He pointed to the skeleton of an old geyser that had dried up, and to other geysers still active and shifting like eczema across the mountainside. All stillness is deceptive, and so is my perception of change as well as time.

We found Haraldur chatting with the bus driver. ‘What were you talking about?’ I asked, as the kids started climbing back into the coach. ‘I was asking him about the road.’ ‘What did he say?’ ‘Yeah,’ he shrugged, ‘he said the road is good.’

Helen lives in Oxford and runs an arts programme for the homelessness charity, Crisis.

image courtesy of Christian Bickel