Thursday, October 24, 2013

Zombie Cannibalism: Why We Should Be Concerned if there’s a Business Case for Eating People

Green Hand Blog, 2013 Halloween Edition 

I ate a few of bites of a particularly bad cut of meat last night for dinner before I had to throw the rest of it out, I’m sorry to say. I don’t know what made it taste so bad, but as I was lying awake waiting for an expected case of food poisoning, I started to wonder how to describe my abortive birthday dinner, and the best and most memorable description I came upon was: “It tasted like something out of Jeffrey Dahmer’s freezer.”

Then, it being 2am and the infinite darkness of the ceiling being something of a mirror for my mental processes at the time, I moved on to other considerations. There was way too much of that meat on sale for it all to have come from a single crazed serial killer’s Frigidaire. That left only one possibility: it had to be the product of a global mafia of crazed zombie serial killers.

What if, I speculated as my stomach churned, the on-the-bone lamb that had been labeled for purchase as originating at a ranch somewhere actually originated, say, in China? And what if it were not lamb at all, but the natural byproduct of policy of a large Chinese factory complex – perhaps a policy called, without any special attempt at irony, the Merciful Justice Program – in which slow-moving or fatigued Chinese factory workers are disciplined by having their limbs cut off and marketed to US consumers? 

This certainly seemed plausible, though admittedly my thought processes may have been affected somewhat by what I’d eaten and the lateness of the hour. Still, I reasoned, disciplinary amputations have a long history in China, and would have the effect of encouraging the slowpokes to work harder and faster with their remaining limbs. They would also serve as an effective warning to others who might want to take a break. Plus, there would be a marketable product: the severed limbs themselves.

Ok, maybe describing severed human limbs as a ‘marketable product’ goes a little too far. What I’m talking about here is a product that, with a little advertising spin, some creative labeling, and considerable effort to hide the truth about where it came from and what it really is, can be sold to unwitting consumers at a profit. Oh, wait a second…I guess that’s exactly what a ‘marketable product’ is these days. Never mind.

It’s important to note that from a zombie managerial perspective, gaining such a product in this way seems only fair. These workers, in their failure to labor at the prescribed rate of speed for the prescribed number of hours, had limited the productivity of the factory. It only makes sense, really, that their reduced output be compensated for in this way. And if such workers still don’t get the message and up the pace of their work, well then, logic says we should simply cut up the rest of their bodies for the market and replace them with new workers. I mean, for heaven's sakes, isn't that why managers like maintaining a large pool of unemployed people?

Of course, none of this really happens—that I know of. But still, it’s unnerving to think: there’s a business case for eating people.

It’s so simple it’s brilliant, really: People are farmed animals that will run straight into the slaughterhouse, and not only that, they will work to get there. The beauty of it is that a savvy manager can take advantage of human reproductive capacity and natural tendency to grow and gain skills by setting up a system in which they will of their own accord present themselves to be gathered up. And the whole thing is pure profit, my friends, pure profit! Business doesn’t get much better than this, does it? Oh, and don’t forget the organ meat! High markup if handled correctly after slaughter.

Now, I’ve gone over this and over this in my mind, and I’m convinced that we’ve reached a stage in the senescence of industrial society where if a business case can be made for a practice, even a heinous, criminal, and unthinkable one, whether it’s happening right now or not, sooner or later, it will. Mad cow disease, which spread due to the forced cannibalism of cattle fed the meat byproducts of their own species, can be seen as a template for how the current system operates. Zombie cannibalism is the new economy. Welcome to the global slaughterhouse.

For example, I’m trying to imagine the thinking that went into the decision to exempt or at least skirt the intent of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Clean Drinking Water Acts here in the United States in natural gas and petroleum fracking operations.[i] The reason this had to be done is that, like slaughtering people and marketing human flesh, the pollution that fracking generates would have been illegal if the changes had not been made. So, essentially, we’ve decided for convenience’ sake that an activity that we’d previously prohibited is now ok. Just like that. But why, then, was it ever made illegal in the first place? Forgive me, but wasn’t it because it was known that these chemicals, when they get into the air and water, cause people to get sick and die? So I guess that’s okay now, too. Yes, it’s a slow and geographically selective slaughter, but it’s a slaughter nonetheless. Most importantly, however, it generates a marketable product that can be sold at a profit -- or at least in this case a marketable business model that can drill investors.

I’ve read about how in West Africa’s cacao growing regions, children are forced into labor at picking the cacao pods. Frequently trafficked as slave labor across international boundaries,[ii] children may have to climb trees with machetes and walk around in shorts and barefooted, carrying blowers that fog insecticide and fungicide.[iii] My basic question is, when I put that chocolate into my mouth, is that a sweetened form of cannibalism? And if I heat my home with fuel that has been purchased at the cost of fracking area residents drinking industrial waste from their home water wells, is that possibly also a kind of cannibalism, warmed up for sale? Do their tears and blood have to fall in my soup for me to consider myself a zombie cannibal, or is it enough to know that my body’s warmth this winter was paid for by their bodies’ suffering, disease, and premature death? Or to take another example, if I aspire to grisly zombie mayhem, do I have to go to India and hack a poor cotton farmer to death myself, or is it sufficient to go to the nearest mall and buy a pair of jeans made from the GMO cotton that bankrupted that farmer and led to his suicide? I have to ask because, after all, the mall is a heckuva lot more conveniently located, and these jeans look great on zombie cannibals like me.  

However, there seems to be some controversy about that last example, so perhaps it’s best to focus on the hairless heads of childhood leukemia victims fixed atop pikes on the dandelion-free lawns of suburban homeowners and their sponsors at the local chemical company. You haven’t seen them? You should, because such deaths, while not made so public, are statistically inevitable given the widespread use of cosmetic lawn chemicals.[iv] Or the cancers reported from petroleum contamination in Ecuador[v] and elsewhere. Or cancers and birth defects among electronics workers.[vi] I mean, what zombie cannibal doesn’t like creating death and real-life monsters, especially if we can consume the results?

But the beauty of the economic system of zombie cannibalism isn’t just in our miraculous ability to use our dollars to kill and torture people at a distance, in effect consuming their bodies in the attempt to keep our own bodies whole. (And our public images intact as well-dressed motorists with weedless lawns and fancy gizmos.) No, as appealing as that is in a zombie kind of way, the real beauty of the cannibalist system is in its increasingly comprehensive structure, which guarantees universal participation in the carnage and the spread of zombie cannibalism to every corner of the earth and every nook of society.

It’s a two-step process. First, we legalize mayhem like releasing toxic chemicals via fracking, or alternately, in our zombie trance we allow people to start doing ghastly things like factory farming. Okay, that’s step one. But then, the second step is, it’s important to make protesting and organizing to stop these practices illegal – or at least suspect enough to warrant the attentions of law enforcement.[vii] That’s right – see the beauty of it? So if you organize to stop fracking in your neighborhood, or protest outside a bank that funds zombie cannibalist mayhem, or even gather in the vicinity of a government building where your legal representatives are ostensibly making the laws, or a coffee shop, you’re now a suspected “terrorist.”[viii] And if you photograph your local factory farm, depending on jurisdiction, you very well might be a criminal. Do these things and you could end up in jail, and you know what you’ll find at every step of the legal process?

You guessed it -- other zombies! Police, judges, clerks, corrections officials, attorneys and others who together will feed off of your suffering, imprisoned body.

And here’s the thing: They must have more victims. Systems will be built to encourage it. Laws will be crafted to guarantee it.[ix] The need is imperative: Bodies will be stuffed into prisons. And more bodies. And more prisons.  Zombies rule!

So, looked at comprehensively, the system of zombie cannibalism is extremely elegant. Because it’s not just that we’re practically forced to gorge on one another like mad cows, but that if we ever try to raise a hand to stop it, it’ll get chopped off, too.

So, Happy Halloween, everyone—today and every day. And thank you for your brains.

[viii] Ibid.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Protecting Higher-Order Values from the Profanity of the Market

A friend recently brought to my attention on online article about the destruction of a pre-Inca pyramid in Peru by land developers:

It’s a short article and I haven’t been able to find anything else in the news about the incident, but given that the recent Turkish protests started with another commercial encroachment on public space, I think it’s worth considering what’s going on here. Look around the world and you will see the pattern again and again in the ongoing struggles of people in Alberta to stop tar sands development, and in many other places including anti-fracking groups in New York and Pennsylvania.

Whether people are concerned with protecting a forest, an ancient site, a public space, or their water supply, this is a common theme: there absolutely must be places, things, and values that money does not touch and cannot reach. This assertion directly opposes the agenda of powerful economic interests seeking to bring everything from DNA to public lands, waters, and airwaves under market control — hence the battle.

I once looked up the etymology of the word "profane." I found that the word is derived from the Latin words for "before" (pro) and "temple" (fanus). So, that which is profane is that which is not allowed into the temple, is kept outside of it, and is unworthy to enter.

And what exactly is it that must be kept "before the temple?" What is it that must not be allowed to enter it?  What is profane?  

Answer: The market.

In many traditional towns and cities, this is literally true — the marketplace occupies a space in front of the place of worship, often in the city square. Nobody would think of hawking bananas or haggling over the price of a basket inside the local Cathedral. But this principle also holds for anything of a higher-order value: clear boundaries must be drawn that keep the profanity of the market from entering and defiling things of higher-order value. There have to be places where priceless things are protected from the instincts of market mentality to throw a number at them and determine their relative value. Whenever the market does this, higher-order values and the things they represent are in jeopardy, and every protected place is threatened with defilement: our parks, our waters, our ancient sites, our homes, our beds, our bodies, and our minds.

“Is nothing sacred?” goes the old cliché. In the market, the answer is clear: No. Where numbers and money rule, all things of higher-order value, from our children to our local rivers, are just so many things in the marketplace.

From a metaphysical point of view, I don’t see how such a system can endure. There have to be things of absolute or at least higher-order value to bring the relative valuations of the markets into right relationship with life as it is lived. But as we see, our society is remarkably schizoid in the way the eroding bulwarks against market hegemony are maintained. We hold as criminal those who exploit children in the sex trade or the market for child pornography, but on the whole we seem comfortable with and even willing to enable the wholesale commercial exploitation of children through television advertising and pharmaceutical drugs. Many people say a blessing over their meals, but much of the food marketed today by industry should be reckoned as a slow poison, and it is produced in ways that the writers of the ancient food preparation laws of great religions could not envision and thus could not prohibit.

As I wrote in my previous blog, whenever money moves into a place of primary value in society, values are inverted and bad things happen. Regulation, the demon of neoliberal economic liturgy, amounts to the place where society erects a barrier between things of primary or higher-order value on the one side and the profanity of the marketplace on the other. This barrier is by necessity somewhat moveable in places as a society negotiates the tradeoffs of resource allocation to find balance. Nonetheless, our health, the safety and quality of our food, the preservation of water, air and land for future generations, the care of our children, and the ability of citizens to peacefully operate in an environment without excessive threats — these are broadly embraced, higher-order values. Where regulation is lax, tailored to industry, or badly enforced, then buildings fall down, tainted food finds its way to family dinner tables, and lakes, rivers and the air we breathe become dumping grounds.

Perhaps worst of all is when commercial interests find their way into the honorable duty of national defense. Next thing you know, people are fighting, killing and dying for no higher cause than the profitability of a given war to defense contractors and other interested businesses. While there is by necessity always a commercial element to war, the degree to which warfare is a product of commercial interests is a very good gauge of how far into our imagined “temple of higher-order values” the marketplace has advanced. If we extend our original metaphor and identify one of the “holy of holies” within this temple as being human life itself, the taking of lives and the destruction of nations for monetary gain will demonstrate how deeply into the temple that these profane market interests have penetrated. Once again: when the relative valuations of the market take the place of the higher-order values that guide our living, ultimately all values are reduced to rubble.

Bill Clinton said something during an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last year [9:20] that I thought was pretty remarkable, and which I paraphrase here: All markets tend to self-destruct. If true, this begs the question: What does this mean for a nation that has hitched its destiny to these markets?

Perhaps this sobering thought will shed some light on why the ancient Hebrews set aside a day without commercial activity or productive labor of any kind and called it “the Sabbath.” Granted, we don’t see many people in contemporary society following the guidelines set forth in the Bible, even though the text is rather specific. I’m neither religious nor a scholar on things biblical, and I certainly don’t want anybody telling me what day to work or rest. However, I think it’s worth considering why a culture with such remarkable powers of endurance made it a matter of fundamental law that one day each week the butcher should put down the knife, the farmer hang the hoe in the barn, and the lender of money turn away from business.

Part of the reason, I suspect, may lie in the fact that the knife, the hoe, the stack of shekels and the international corporation are, basically, tools. Human beings have a peculiar relationship with the tools with which they shape the world. The wielder of the knife, the hoer of the earth, and the corporate executive are in turn themselves shaped by those tools, both in body and in mind. Consequently, if we cannot let go of the tools that extend our range of influence, we in turn become mere extensions of these tools, and less than fully human.

Viewed in this way, a day without labor is a way to push back the pernicious and dehumanizing effects of commercial activity and productive work, and with them the dangerous blowback they generate if the energies of a society are entirely monopolized by economic activity. The Sabbath presents a balancing counterpoint, a day when our hands can unwrap themselves from their accustomed handles, so that we may find in that release something of greater value that may guide us in our work when we pick them up again.

Of course, I am not suggesting that this is a desirable approach to the problems we now face; I’m pointing to the larger pattern here, which is that there must be places in our lives, both public and private, from which the market is excluded if we are to endure. Getting money out of politics looks to me like a very good place to start, but wherever it is, however it is, whenever it is, and whatever it looks like, we need to protect our higher-order values and subordinate the market to those values rather than the other way around, in both our private and public lives. Otherwise, there is clearly a danger that, both as individuals and as a culture, we will become lost without knowing it in the profanity of the market, and ultimately destroyed by it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Dissociative States of America

I’ve been wondering about money lately. It’s been said to be the root of all evil, but that’s been so often repeated that even if it’s true, it doesn’t help much. Yet, money does seem to have a perverse effect on people and societies unless its influence is actively kept in check. For some time, my question has been, what’s the mechanism? Why is this so?

The answer, or at least part of it, turned out to be surprisingly simple. It came to me the night I was dismissed from jury duty a few months back. The case I would have heard, had I been seated on that jury, involved money.

I pondered why so much organizational energy would be expended on such a thing when there are potatoes to dig and clothing to sew. Money is, after all, a secondary value. It has no intrinsic worth. So what is really at issue in a crime involving money?

My conclusion is that the criminality of theft consists in that the thief values my money or possessions over our relationship, and our relationship in that moment is the local node of a more universal human connection. Break the bond of trust and the whole fabric is compromised.

The thief, the embezzler, and the perpetrator of fraud present an inversion of values. This inversion is the metaphysical underpinning of the crime. It is also an important determiner of whether or not a crime has been committed. In the case of stealing money, it is not a crime because money is so valuable, as is commonly believed within a culture that has made an idol of it. The criminality of the theft is that the thief breaks something of primary value in our relationship, trust, in order to elevate something that is inherently of secondary value: mere money. Ultimately even property, things of real value, is also secondary to relationships. Where this is not the case, relationships break down.

This distinction – crime as violation of relationship versus crime as violation of property – is of immense significance, for those who would promote the idolization of money and property would have us believe that precisely the opposite is the case: that we have made a crime of theft because money and property are of primary value. Once this misunderstanding takes root, those whose power flows from money can constantly enlarge the domain of legalized criminal behavior – behavior that elevates money, a thing of secondary value, over relationships of intrinsic worth. Corporations creating and introducing chemicals and organisms with demonstrably hazardous effects on life, for-profit prisons that successfully lobby for laws that ensure a steady stream of prisoners, banks selling worthless securities to credulous pensions and would-be retirees … there are relationships being compromised by all of these activities, but the activities are profitable, so they go on.

People think it’s all about the money, and these kinds of activities seem to support that idea. But it never really is. It can’t be. Money is nothing. Its meaning is entirely dependent on the contiguity and integrity of the social fabric. This is the reason that money crimes, from embezzlement to fraud to robbery, are real crimes: they are attacks on the social fabric upon whose integrity the value of money ultimately depends. However, for this same reason, money and property are secondary to the primary injury of a “property crime.” This cannot be emphasized enough: the thief becomes a criminal not so much by taking things of value, but by breaking something of infinitely more value in people’s trust. This is why “The People of the State” have a vested interest in maintaining the trust that underlies social functioning. Distrust can reach a level that society cannot bear, as it exacts a toll on every interaction. Transparency, truth, trust, honesty, labor, and freedom: these are the things that generate wealth in the grand sense of the term.

But the interesting thing is, once enough people think money and property are the primary focus, the relationships involved and things of intrinsic worth fall into a secondary position, and then become obscured. The next link in the chain that follows from this error is that as primary and secondary values are inverted, they dissociate. Navigating by the headlights of monetary gain alone, soon enough, medicine will make people sick and dependent, chemicals will be introduced into foods for the convenience of their manufacturers as opposed to the well being of those who eat it, and livestock will live in perpetual misery and stress because more money can be made when their misery is discounted. Criminality can expand virtually unnoticed in such a society and subordinate the law to its own ends. Lacking the discipline of real relationships and intrinsic worth, false relationships rule, and it isn’t long before the mass of society is living in the throes of an amnesic, dissociative fugue.

On the other side of my tax dollars I find torture, predator drones, war crimes and crimes against humanity. On the other side of the dollars I spend on gasoline is an industry that leverages tax subsidies with political donations, despoils the environment, and hires scientists willing to lie about climate change. There’s a banana peel beside my computer – and on the other side of that purchase, often enough, are agricultural practices that abuse land and labor, as well as gross social inequality. And finally, this miraculous device on which I type these words is made by what might as well be called slave labor, except that slaves, being owned, are treated as assets, while many manufacturing workers in some overseas markets are treated as expendable.

Contemplating these realities, I can try to extricate myself from the web of moral failure connected with nearly everything I do with my money, or I can join the amnesia, allowing money to dissociate my experience from the realities on the other side of my monetary transactions.

Assuming I choose to regain consciousness, it is essential to wake up from the mass hallucination of money as a primary value. I can think of no better illustration of the nexus of this confusion of primary and secondary values than the television game shows I watched as a child. Many of these had a quiz format where the participants' production of scripted, called-for information or other performance is instantly rewarded with specific sums of money, the tally of which appears somewhere on the screen. So what is important here? Where is the value? Is it in the information, the task, the performance, the skill, the intelligence? No, it’s pretty clear that there’s no meaning to the maze but the cheese, and the cheese is the money. Drill that into people – it isn’t hard in a social construct where hunger follows from pennilessness – and soon money becomes a value unto itself rather than a marker of value. It becomes primary. Once these values have been inverted, it’s almost automatic that money will further dissociate them, altering our perceptions. We don’t see the hungry person, we see the poor person—and the response is very different. Again: first primary and secondary values are inverted, and then they split. This is highly consequential.

Because, regardless of how stuck a culture is on it, money is not primary. This is simply an error, albeit one that can remain undetected among many for longish periods of time under the right cultural conditions. Of course, the effects of the dissociative psychology of money are everywhere to be seen, for its deep genealogy of dissociation is revealed in the social fragmentation, broken people, and broken world it invariably engenders unless it is held in check.

If money holds its inverted place as a primary value long enough, eventually we reach a position where, for example, supposedly sane, reasonable people in the nation’s highest court can assert that money is speech and that corporations are people. Yes, well I can say that donkeys are daffodils, but that doesn’t make it so; I guess it’s because I’m not sitting in a special chair in a black robe. It’s as though they would do anything rather than admit the original error of putting money in the place of primary value. So much was built upon it subsequently, and the constituencies of this error became so large and powerful, that any verbal devices that are needed to prop up the false front can and will be used, regardless of how internally twisted, weak, and just plain false they may be.

However, a child could spot the absurdity of such propositions, even if a presidential candidate cannot. Not only does the emperor have no clothes, it is abundantly clear, if we are reduced to talking in this way, that neither has the empire a fitting social fabric. The pernicious influence of inverted and dissociated values ultimately shows up as socially sanctified madness, and in the blindness of that insanity, criminality insinuates itself into everything from the highest institutions of governance down to everyday acts like fueling a vehicle or buying a piece of fruit.

Am I saying that we should do away with money altogether? No. However, I am suggesting that we do away with the thinking that puts money in a place of primary value, which inevitably leads us to a place where we confuse profit making with value creation and monetary wealth with personal worthiness. Granted, those who have used money to cudgel their fellow citizens down will not willingly concede that privilege. But the reality is, both individuals and nations who use money in this way are relying on the dissociative power of money and the hallucinated world it creates to hide their actions from view. The deeper truth here is that we are all collaborators to one degree or another in these crimes, but this doesn’t mean the bosses of the rackets shouldn’t go to jail.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fairy Houses

Fairy House - builder unknown
Macworth Island, Maine

            I was first introduced to fairy houses in the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then encountered them again while sightseeing in Maine on Mackworth Island.  Bark, sticks, stones, leaves, pine needles and (in Maine) shells were the construction materials.  A little online searching will reveal it’s a growing phenomenon.  Fairy houses are big!

            And small.  They’re cute little houses, and lovingly made.  Maybe that’s the reason I’m starting to think there’s more hope for the future in fairy houses than pretty much anything else I’m coming across these days.  Certainly there’s more hope in them than anything I’m seeing in politics.  The recipe is simple: Find a little place and love it.  The fact that the sticks and bark are real, things with smell and texture that came from the cycles of life and are still part of those cycles, well, that’s a bonus.  And, they’re free.  That’s a bonus, too.

            What’s most amazing to me is that, just a few years ago, such fairy house villages were largely unknown.  Now they’re popping up everywhere.  Secondarily, it amazes me that, in this age of digital multimedia glitz, people of all ages would see such beautiful worlds of creative possibility in forest litter.  So what happened? First, there was a model: somebody built a fairy house.  Then, as with the cairns that also seem to have sprouted in colonies across the landscape, so too do additional fairy houses spring up.

            Find a little place and love it: Presto! Something new under the sun.

Find a little place, and love it.

Because it’s not so much with sticks and moss that children young and old are building, but with love, with feelings, and with imagination.  The sticks were already there.  The leaves, the green mosses, the shining stones, they were waiting, they are waiting for new hands, new eyes, new heart.  The things of this world that people have built already are likewise at our disposal.  The great nations, the cities, the sheaves of legal wrapping paper that shroud the corporations, these are just moss and mineral crusted upon the earth, and fallen leaves.  We can make something of all of this.

Find a little place and love it. 

First, it becomes a mirror.  As we build with feelings, so our feelings become visible through our building.  Are we building barricades and fences for our fairy houses? What perils are we imagining? Do we really want to build this way again?  This is our world.  We can make it in our image.  In fact, we cannot do otherwise. 

This is our world. 
This is our world!  
This is our world!   
This is our World!

So we will build with awareness, with feelings, and with love.  The fairy houses we build attract attention, visitors, and emulation.  More spring up, all in different styles.  More visitors come.  Amazing how they all fit together!

Find a place and love it.  First it becomes a mirror.  Then it becomes a lens. 

We feel the intent of the builders, look into the works before us, and see the possibility of new worlds.  Same old stuff here, but with new possibilities inherent, new vision opening possibilities within the treasures and the trash.  Each example becomes a lens that brings new possibilities into focus, new ways of building, yes, but more importantly, the new feelings and sensibilities that built the buildings, even new ways of being that are implied by how things are being made.  And the world is different in the moment we are changed.

Find a little place even a moment in time and love into it.  First it becomes a mirror, then a lens.  Then, the world begins to bend around it, and be remade. 

Find a little place and love it; let it be a mountain or a stone, a river or a cup of water handed to a child, a handful of forest litter.  Let it be a business, a garden, a home, a corner of your desk, or a clear and intimate moment shared during the day.  We can build with moments as children build with sticks.  Everything and every moment holds a new world within it, bursting with anticipation, longing to expand with us.

Find a place and love it. First it becomes a mirror. Then it becomes a lens.  Then, the world begins to bend around it, and be remade. 




Thursday, June 21, 2012

Peak Oil and Climate Change: a Midsummer Night's Meditation

A lot of discussion in the Peak Oil/Climate Change community focuses on rational responses to these game-changing influences on modern societies. Along with these proposals comes much hand-wringing about how political or corporate leadership remains largely as intransigent as ever on the most pressing and most obvious of these responses, and the fact that most of them should have been implemented 30 or more years ago, or the very least, immediately. Public transportation, walkable communities, sustainable agricultural practices, renewable and reduced energy use…these are reasonable things. However, for a lot of reasons, then as now, the reasonable things didn’t happen, or haven’t happened at a scale needed to meaningfully affect the trajectory of onrushing events.

So at present it seems that with peak oil and climate change we have a collective problem without a collective response. Of course, it is true that while we may feel disappointment at failed international resolutions and the absurd theatrics of flailing governments, positive things are happening here and there. We see small victories: a city council passes a peak oil resolution, a Transition group forms, a Peak Oil conference takes place somewhere, someone starts a community garden. However, such events are mostly functioning as signs, and as every driver should be aware, an unheeded signal does not affect the motion of a motorcar. Further, it’s not clear that making the signal larger or clearer would have much effect. 

Given all of the foregoing, it is becoming increasingly clear that on the individual level at least, there is precisely no reasonable response to peak oil and climate change. This is an improv, a dance with emerging possibilities, and it is a dance within ourselves as well as between us and our changing world. What works for one person may not work at all for another. My suggestion here is that we must not take the fact that there is no reasonable response to be a cause for despair. It is simply an invitation to get in touch with something that is deeper than reason and capable of reforming it, difficult as that may be to describe in reasonable terms.

For example, much talk is devoted to the subject of the economic side of Peak Oil. Unless the petroleum-powered economy keeps expanding with the pace of money creation, money loaned into existence with interest cannot be repaid. A kind of generalized bankruptcy follows, in which inflation or deflation exhaust the symbol of money by attacking the roots of its capacity to signify. The symbolic medium that we have worked for, fought over, connived to get, stolen, and inherited loses meaning within our human experience as the system that supported it breaks down. What follows from the loss of a symbol of this centrality is the failure of culture: erosion and breakdown on all levels, from our inner lives, feelings and thought processes to shuttered factories, empty strip malls, and decaying concrete roads. The inability to pay a debt is but the beginning of a cascade of expectations breaking down, taking with them many other social forms and significances. It is also accompanied by the loss of the material capacities with which it was linked in our collective mindset through our social institutions and physical infrastructure.

The exigencies of climate change, on the other hand, are rightfully thought to be of a different order than those of the symbol system of world finance in a losing battle with emerging realities. However, whether it is flood or drought, the rains that don’t come or the paycheck that evaporated, on a personal level it amounts to an encounter with an abyss. Every hockey-sticking graph we’re looking at represents an abyss, but to encounter it personally is something else again. This is the thing, the thingless thing at the heart of our experience, the place where our inner chaos is drawn to the surface by the growing chaos around us. This is where our waking thoughts merge into the dream to which we awaken in our sleep. When peak oil messengers tell us to “start our collapse now,” there’s no better place to start than here, on the inside, where words break down into sounds, and the inner reverberations of those sounds reveal realities that were formerly invisible, showing us what was really inside of those words all along.

Given that our culture took the technology of combustion so far as to alter the climate of the planet in the pursuit of our dreams, it seems the poetry of burning and the power of the infinite that lies hidden in every flame should be quite familiar to us. But typically it isn’t, even as the drama plays out and we see that the very contents our minds are catching fire. This is the real “new normal,” a phrase people started hopefully intoning to come to terms with the progressive disjuncture between representation and reality. However, the expression bears the stigma of an ominously Orwellian inner contradiction.

The words of Antonin Artaud come to me now:

"Burning is a magic act . . . we must consent to burning, burning in advance and immediately, not a thing but everything that represents things for us, in order not to expose ourselves to being burnt up whole."

Reason does not fare so well under these conditions, and this is precisely the point we are heading for. We must then find our refuge in something other than reason as the culture that found such ingenious ways of tyrannizing itself and the planet with symbols and paper goes up like a trash can ablaze. This is the gift we have prepared for ourselves.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers leave the city and all they know when the reality of their love comes into conflict with the abstract mandates of Athenian law. They find themselves in a wilderness where, as it turns out, the elemental forces of nature are likewise in upheaval as the fairy king and queen are estranged from one another. In the end it is not through reason that order is restored, but through the agency of madness. My sense is that this is what’s happening to us as well, but as a culture we’re so far astray that a single crazy night in the wilderness won’t be enough to set things right again.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Feelings, Art, and the Making of Movements

I recently had the privilege of seeing performances by Lucas DiGia and Walter “Soul” Lacy at the HomeGrown Local Food Summit in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Lucas brought a powerfully articulated vision of the relationship of food, culture, and society to his raps—spiced with a bit of wry humor. Walter left me stunned with his spoken word poetry and thoughtful commentary themed on social justice and redemption.

My response to these performances could be summed up in a single word: visceral. On my way home I reflected on the words of Sifu Robert Brown, under whom I studied kung fu for a number of years: “All movement starts in the dan tien.”

For those unfamiliar with the Chinese term, the dan tien is the region of the body centered just below the navel. Of course, as a novice Kung Fu student I don’t pretend to fully understand what my teacher meant, although I think I got the basic gist of it. Today it occurred to me that what is true about body movements is also true of social movements: they start with something at the feeling level, a gut-level response. It’s here we will find our motivation, our willingness to take a stand, and our desire to turn our activism into real activity. For this reason I see a lot of value in starting off the Local Food Summit with performances that evoke such a response, and I felt a great appreciation for the performers and their talents.

Of course, given that the gut and the feeling center there is so powerful, there are similarly powerful efforts made to align people’s feelings with the prevailing power structure. And it’s not hard to do. The reason is pretty simple. Here’s an example.

As shoppers we see a can of food on the shelf in the grocery. The can has a label with a design we recognize from our childhood, when our mothers may have opened a can with the same kind of label and served it to us. Now we are adults, and of course, we really want that image and design on the label of a canned food to mean it’s safe to eat and serve to our families. Discovering that “gender-bender” BPA is being used by many manufacturers in the canning process and that this hormone-like substance could affect our body systems is unsettling, to say the least. It’s even more disquieting to consider that there are corporate offices where people calculate that the risk of human reproductive cancers is an acceptable cost of doing business. Since we want to believe it’s safe, even if our reading of the research suggests it might not be, it’s easier to side with those who would have us believe it is safe.

There’s an awful tendency to forget what we’ve just read or learned about because it’s easier to convince ourselves we are safe than to really engage with the information and the feelings it provokes. However, when we separate our knowledge from our feelings in this way, we stymie our ability to act on that knowledge. Without our feelings, we will have no gut-level response. No gut-level response, no movement.

Given the way it gets embedded in us, to unplug our blind faith in industrialized food and then build food systems based on real relationships with people and the earth, we have to get over our viscerally linked loyalties to food brands and generationally engrained consumer shopping habits. The package design and other aspects of the marketed product identity of a brand of tortilla chips or bag of french fries are consumed along with the industrial food itself, and in a way these images are just as deeply assimilated. Once they’re a part of us, there’s a tendency to defend them.

As behavioral scientists are well aware, food is a powerful reinforcement. Each time a food is perceived and eaten without immediately producing ill effects, a deep conditioning happens. We see the package of processed cheese or a hamburger with a certain brand stamped on the wrapper, and we literally salivate like Pavlov’s dog. This is another way of looking at why changing dietary patterns and habits can sometimes be difficult.

One saving grace in all of this is that the human body is wiser and more ancient than any particular culture a person inhabits, and we can allow ourselves to help this wisdom make our true needs known regardless of the local customs or the prevailing personal and cultural conditioning. We can learn to listen to this wisdom and notice whether a particular food or a certain quantity of it is weakening us or strengthening us. We can connect with our gut-level responses and untangle them from the conditioned cultural overlay.  We can even re-train our conditioned responses, refurbish our food aesthetic, and create a food culture based on conscious participation rather than mindless consumption.

Doing this, however, requires that we wake up to food, to the voice of the body, and to the need for change. And to really move toward change, we must connect with our feelings. By feelings I mean both physical sensations and emotional responses: How does drinking a liter of soda make us feel, really? And, what does it emotionally feel like to have food handed to us in a paper bag through a car window?  Conversely, what feelings show up with a meal thoughtfully prepared and eaten in a social context that brings it meaning, or a plateful of potatoes grown, dug, cooked, and served with care and love? My experience is that just one such food experience can undo a lot negative conditioning as we connect with a new set of feelings. In this way it is quite possible to develop an appetite for ways of eating that really nourish us.

To make a movement, we have to connect with all of our feelings, and with our capacity to think reflectively about them. Since artists model this connection and help create a culture where it can happen, one place to start is by looking to our artists to help us make our own inner connections. This is why I’m grateful for people like Lucas DiGia and Walter Lacy, who can articulate a message and get it through to a place where I can actually feel my own truth in what they share. If we can feel it strongly enough, we can find both the motivation and the right path of action to move with it, and ultimately we may also be able to help others make connections in turn to build a larger movement.

To learn more about Lucas DiGia's Rap for Food visit: and 
Contact poet and spoken word artist Walter "Soul" Lacy at:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Cultural Renaissance of Free Gooseberries and Outlaw Dandelions

I love giving plants away, and I hold that the sharing of vegetative abundance is the foundation of a sustainable culture. Every time that seeds, cuttings, runners, crowns or rootlets change hands among friends and community members, powerful things can happen.

Let’s start with the miracle and freedom of the plants themselves. Soon after the purchase of our first home, I surveyed the back yard and counted 70 ornamental and fruiting perennials that had come into our hands through friends. Some of these had moved with us from the rental property where they had lived for a year prior, then new plants were added during the summer of our move. These plants had been mere surplus to my gardening friends, freely given. There was no cost but transportation and labor. 

But there’s something more important. For example, when a currant start went in on the south side of the compost pile (it turned out to be an excellent location, by the way) suddenly a new being was inhabiting our space. I had no idea that in just a few years the shrub’s luxuriant growth would lead to an abundance of fruit, or that my daughter would suggest making ruby-red jars of currant jelly as a home-school project. Making the jelly ultimately became an annual family ritual, and the homemade treat a classic holiday offering to friends and family as the years went by.

Nor could I have known how important the gift of three crowns of ostrich ferns would become as in succeeding years they spread and softened the air in the back corner of the lot beneath the trees from which ultimately hung a hammock, the fronds grazing us with cool touches on summer afternoons. Likewise, how could I have guessed the cumulative and overall effect of these and all the other plants in this community: the German chamomile in profuse sprays, the spring displays of primroses, or the long-lasting waist-high backdrop of biennial Black-eyed Susans gracing many backyard gatherings?

In essence, these plants, these inscrutable earthly beings living in our back yard, had rooted themselves not only in the soil, but in our lives. Further, their beauty and abundance both merited the care required to sustain them and motivated me to share them with others.

The depth of all this points to another powerful sphere where sharing plants adds value to life: human relationships and community. Sharing in the mystery of plants serves to remind us of the ultimately mysterious interface between us as human beings. Personally, I think it works this way: whether it’s a handful of heirloom morning glory seeds of unlimited potential, or a dozen leafless raspberry canes in a bucket of dirty water soon to meet the earth again and spread in a friend’s back yard, human relationships that touch upon the plant world draw from it both the rootedness and the cosmic connections of the plants themselves.

At a certain point we may even wonder who is serving whom in this dynamic where plants, friends new and old, and happenstance encounters can combine and lead to growth on all levels. At my nephew’s graduation party a few years back, I was asked by a neighbor if I’d like to visit his vegetable garden around the corner. There I noticed some mature gooseberry bushes and obtained permission to take a couple green cuttings.  These cuttings soon rooted, and six years later those bushes have reached enormous sizes and their self-layered progeny grow in the back yards of more than a half-dozen friends. Who else, unknown to me, might ultimately also have gooseberry pies and preserves as scions are shared, and what children might connect with something primal in themselves by plucking the blushing fruits on a hot summer’s day – this is impossible to know. I do know that I will remember the gardener who shared them, and that those friends of mine whose yards are bearing new fruit because of those two cuttings also now have living memorials to our relationship that weather the seasons along with us.

Friendships can take on an expansive quality and a touch of immortality when we share our plants.  

Finally, by combining the grace of the plants themselves and the magic they can bring to human relationships, sharing in this way also revives an ancient cultural narrative and creates a beachhead for life-sustaining values to emerge in a culture that lately seems hell-bent on running headlong in the other direction. Plants, after all, provide their services for free. In our culture, anything free is devalued. This is true whether we’re talking about the pure water that used to run freely, on the one hand, or the flow of energy involved in parenting and childcare on the other. We do not value these things unless we start to pay for them, and the fact that we do now pay for such things, if we really feel into it, has already devalued them at a much more basic level.

Putting a price on everything ultimately means that we too are bought and sold, yet this remains in the blind spot of a culture where commerce has become the central focus. It doesn’t have to be that way, but in a classic case of the servant becoming master, the markets that were intended to follow the needs of life and the living somehow took the reins and started driving. The term, ‘free market’ is, when we stop for a moment and think of it, an oxymoron, for the things we find in the market are seldom free, and many of the costs do not even appear on the price tags.

This is why freely giving plants just as they freely give of themselves is a paradigm-changing act. And it’s interesting to see how people inured to a market mentality sometimes respond to a gift. With everybody selling everything, gifts freely given can meet at first with misunderstanding and incomprehension. Good, then! That just shows how much they are needed. Ultimately, I suspect, the biggest gift is shifting the mindset that assumes our self-interests are achieved at the expense of others.

When operating in a balanced system, plants don’t do it that way. A dandelion that sprouts up in a vacant lot, for example, is in every way a pioneer and an entrepreneur. It’s also anarchical, however, in the sense that it pays no rent and holds no title. The dandelion is a squatter at best, a trespasser and an outlaw if we stop to consider. It claims its freedom and it holds the land, and in so doing it claims also a place for itself and its progeny in the world.

But look more closely and we see that just as the plant has taken its place without title, it yields up a host of benefits that are likewise unfettered and untaxed. As rain patters down on the disturbed earth, the dandelion and its companions work together to blunt the impact and slow runoff. It does this for its own reasons, of course, and as a result erosion is mitigated. With its taproot reaching down into the subsoil and funnel of leaves directing the water its way, the dandelion furthers this process by channeling water deeper into the earth – again for its own use later, but this also benefits the other plants and trees that would find their water there.

That taproot also draws nutrients up from the subsoil for the dandelion’s own use, but these nutrients in turn are deposited on the topsoil as the plant loses leaves to growth and herbivorous animals. From the resources it procures in sun and soil, the dandelion plant also offers up food for nectar and pollen eaters as well as a profusion of airborne seeds that can multiply all of these benefits as they colonize other areas.

Operating in parallel from the human side, being an agent for the propagation of plants can, when pursued with consciousness and care, give the living system a push in the direction it’s already seeking to go, and gently shape it to bring enhanced benefits to us as well. For example, lettuce seeds travel on airy puffs like dandelions, yet sharing my heirloom seeds with friends miles away helps to ensure that if I had a crop failure, other sources of seed might be available to begin again. Note that this is in direct opposition to the “market” strategy of withholding seed, patenting it, inserting genes to prevent it from reproducing, and otherwise making seed scarce and controlling it.  

The abundance principle also applies every time I share food species and their garden allies in a world of increasing food insecurity. In a food crisis, I don’t want to be the only person in the neighborhood with fruit hanging from my trees or knowledge of how to garner calories from the soil. Real security rests on my neighbors having the resources and ability to so as well. Thus I share liberally, and in my own self-interest…just as plants do.

How values got so out of whack that many people in our society fail to see this option is an important question, but outside the scope of this essay. For now, I would suggest that human life, like plant life, holds the possibility of expression as a celebration and an offering if we choose to participate in this way. Vegetative generosity is the foundation of an abundant life for all earth’s inhabitants, and it’s well worth sharing.