The People’s Climate March: Taking the Evolutionary Leap of Radical Democracy

The People’s Climate March in New York City is just one manifestation of a huge sea-change sweeping through our culture. Or perhaps “seeping” would be a better verb—this shift in awareness is not happening with the tsunami force of a revolution, but more with the steady, determined drip-drip-drip of water undermining rock.

Humans are paradoxical. On the one hand, we love everything that’s new and innovative, we all want to be out ahead of the curve when it comes to technological breakthroughs and new ideas. On the other hand, we hold tight to the received wisdom of our forebears, living by enshrined writings thousands of years old (the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, Confucius, etc.) or hundreds of years old (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights).

We have established elaborate educational, political and legal systems designed to hold us to a particular form of society, permitting free, innovative thinking only along narrow channels carefully defined by the interests of business and commerce.

The arts and humanities, traditionally the realm of creative, imaginative exploration, have been steadily starved in this brave new world, which can only imagine creativity in the service of profit.

What happens to a society that can only envision creative energy in an instrumental, utilitarian light?

We become a society of robots. We lose our connection to the soul of the world, the anima mundi that sustains us humans along with all other living beings on the planet.

http---pbs.twimg.com-media-ByDzJSPIYAA_RHcThe People’s Climate March, which is happening not only in New York City but worldwide, with 2,808 marches and events in 166 countries, bears welcome witness to the fact that the sparks of creative, independent thinking have not totally gone out.

There are many, many people worldwide who are aware, and aghast, at the failure of our political and business leaders to act in the best interests of the people and all the beautiful, innocent creatures who are slipping away into the night of extinction day by day due to the relentless human assault on our shared planet.

We are here, we are aware, and we are engaged. We are not going to stand by silently and let corporate greed and shortsightedness overwhelm us.

It is true that business and government have a stranglehold on official channels of communication, education and social change.

They control the curricula taught in our schools, what appears on our major media channels, and what projects and areas of creative exploration are funded. They keep us in line with the debt bondage of school loans, mortgages, car payments and the fear of not having enough money in the bank for a comfortable old age. We’re so busy running on the treadmills they’ve set up we have no time or energy to think about changing the system.

Or do we?

So far, the one social area that has not been overtaken by corporate/governmental control is the World Wide Web. It’s still a Wild West space, a place where you can find everything and everyone, from dangerous sadists to beneficent spiritual leaders. There’s room for every kind of idea out there to percolate through our collective consciousness. And make no mistake: the energy we’re seeing in the People’s Climate March is fueled in large part by the distribution power of the Web, the ability to get the word out and get people fired up to come together to take a stand.

We saw it happen in the Arab Spring, where people used cell phones and texts to organize themselves to resist oppression.

We saw those people get beaten back, the promise of their revolution squashed by the entrenched power of men with guns and tear gas.

The rise of the Islamic State, like the rise of Al Quaeda and the Taliban, is all about conservative forces resisting change.

I am just as afraid of men with guns and tear gas as the next woman. I am happier making revolution on my laptop than in the streets. But at some point we have to come out from behind our screens, get off the treadmills of debt bondage, look around us at the beauty of the world, and say: this is what I want to live for, and this is what I’m willing to die for.

Terry Tempest Williams.  Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Terry Tempest Williams. Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, in her book The Open Space of Democracy, says that the time has come to “move beyond what is comfortable” (81) in pursuit of what she calls a “spiritual democracy.”

“We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt,” she says.

“It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few” (87)

Williams calls for a radical recognition of the interdependence of all life on Earth. “The time has come to demand an end to the wholesale dismissal of the sacredness of life in all its variety and forms,” she says. “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” (86)

If we humans could step into our destiny as the stewards of our planet, the loving gardeners and caretakers of all other living beings, we would harness our incredible intelligence and creativity to re-stabilize our climate and do what needs to be done to ensure the well-being of all.

Williams calls this “the next evolutionary leap” for humanity: “to recognize the restoration of democracy as the restoration of liberty and justice for all species, not just our own” (89).

DSC_2200WIf we are able to take this leap, we will not only avert climate-related disaster on a Biblical scale, we will also overcome many of the social problems that we currently struggle with. “To be in the service of something beyond ourselves—to be in the presence of something other than ourselves, together—this is where we can begin to craft a meaningful life where personal isolation and despair disappear through the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry,” says Williams (89).

Williams’ small gem of a book grew out of a speech she gave at her alma mater, the University of Utah, in the spring of 2003, as America was rushing into its ill-conceived War on Terror in Iraq. She describes her heart pounding as she got up to make a speech advocating a different form of democracy than that embraced and espoused by all the conservative friends and family sitting in the audience before her.

Challenging one’s own friends and family, betraying one’s own tribe, is the hardest aspect of being a social revolutionary. You have to question the very people you love most, who have given you so much and made your whole life possible.

But if we become aware that the social systems that gave birth to us are the very social systems that are undermining the possibility of a livable future on this planet, can we continue to just go with the flow, to avoid asking the difficult questions?

Or will we become change agents who work slowly and steadily, drip by drip, to awaken those around us, those we love most, to the necessity of undertaking “the next evolutionary leap” in the human saga on the planet?

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A message from the wounded heart of our magnificent Earth

This week, as in the foreground Washington politics continued as usual, a remarkable animal came like a messenger sent to remind me of the state of things in the background, where what’s really important is going on.

I’m using Mary Daly’s terminology here: she calls everything that mainstream society generally focuses on part of the “foreground,” which distracts us from the deeper and more significant issues and events going on in the “background.”

Instead of worrying about how the “snools” are jerking the country around from their headquarters inside the Beltway, Daly urges us to pay attention to the bigger, deeper picture of what’s happening on a global level to the ecological systems that keep us all alive.

Sometimes it’s hard to wrench my attention away from all the grotesqueries going on in the foreground.  This week, I had help.

***

On Tuesday, as I was walking along a trail by a small river near my house, in the gathering gloom of dusk, I looked back to see my dog Loki standing stock-still near a large object that I couldn’t immediately identify.

Afraid it might be a big and potentially dangerous animal, like a raccoon, I hurried back, and was astonished to perceive that Loki was standing nose to beak with an enormous eagle-like bird.

osprey

Both animals were calm, and Loki came to me at once when I called.

The eagle, which I later identified as an osprey, turned and looked at me keenly, with a gaze I can only call commanding.  Its huge, hooked beak was intimidating; this was not the kind of wild animal I would consider going anywhere near.

And yet here it was, down on the ground, strong and well-fed, clearly in its prime, but immobilized by a badly broken right wing, which was hanging twisted and useless at its side.

A human being in that condition would have been writhing and crying desperately for help.

The osprey merely stood its ground, calmly and regally, waiting.

It was still there the next morning when I went back to check on it.  I had called the state Fish & Wildlife Service, and as I stood there by the eagle, a wildlife biologist called me to ask directions to the bird.  He was going to bring it to a veterinarian to have its wing set, and then bring it to a shelter.

Wild raptors with broken wings almost never fly again, but there are raptor rescue centers that maintain them as ambassadors for their kind, educating the public about the beauty and importance of these magnificent birds.

 ***

I don’t know how that bird came to break its wing. There was a house not far away from where I found it; perhaps it flew into a window at full tilt?

I do know that if it had come down elsewhere, away from the trail, it would have certainly died of starvation or been eaten by a coyote, which I have seen in those woods.

In this case, human beings could be of use to this osprey, and indeed I felt very strongly, when it trained its sharp, steely gaze upon me, that it was demanding my help.

More broadly, I take my encounter with the eagle this week as a reminder to keep my focus on the bigger, deeper picture of the continual wounding of the natural world.

For every damaged osprey there are literally millions of creatures I can’t see personally, who are wounded and dying all over the Earth.

I can’t afford to lose myself in the busy-ness and distraction of foreground concerns—the headlines of mainstream media outlets, the daily housework, the struggle to make enough money to pay bills and keep my family going.

Those concerns will continue and as a functioning member of human society, I have to keep my eye on them.

But my inner eye–my third eye, my most deeply aware sense of vision–must be ceaselessly trained on the slowly unfolding planetary tragedy that is occurring relentlessly in the background.  I must stay alert for opportunities to be of help to those who cannot help themselves.

I thank the beautiful osprey for this reminder, and wish it, most fervently, Godspeed.

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Moving from suffering to pain to resistance

“Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named and then used in some way in order for the experience…to be transformed into…strength or knowledge or action.  Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.  When I live through pain without recognizing it…I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it.”

Audre Lorde,  Sister Outsider, 171

Too much of the time, we who are sensitive, aware human beings on the planet feel the burden of suffering, the “nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.”

For example, when I read in the current National Geographic Magazine that 25,000 elephants have been killed this year in East Africa by poachers and even government soldiers who want to make money on their tusks, the nightmare of suffering descends upon me.  When I hear that the president of Kenya has declared that “elephants must pay for their room and board with ivory,” I begin to feel physically sick.

The same kind of nausea descends on me when I hear about the melting of the ice in the Arctic or the permafrost in Greenland—even more so when the loudest response to this calamity comes in the form of rapacious, competitive cheering and jostling for position to be the one to extract the greatest amount of riches now revealed beneath the ice.

Or when I read about the ongoing sexual abuse that is occurring rampantly on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a kind of externalization, upon the defenseless bodies of small children, of the unmetabolized suffering of generations of Native peoples trying to survive in unspeakable conditions.

Brooding over all the news of suffering that comes my way each time I take a look at the daily news, I can quickly feel myself overwhelmed with a sense of my own powerlessness.

That is where I need Audre Lorde’s fierce courage to pick me up, dust me off and send me on my way again.

The challenge is to remain open to the suffering, in order to, as she says, recognize, name and use it “to fuel some movement beyond it.”

For many of us right now, the greatest challenge is the awareness that we don’t know what to do. And maybe, even, that there is nothing we can do.

I cannot heroically save the elephants, any more than I can refreeze the polar ice caps or swoop in to rescue the frightened child who is being raped right at this moment.

No.  But what I can do is to try to leave myself open to the suffering—in other words, to not turn away, not deliberately turn off my empathy in order to try to hide from a reality that is hard to confront.

It is my belief that if more of us were to commit to recognizing and naming suffering when we see it, we would find the strength and the right channels to collectively metabolize suffering into the kind of pain that leads to action.

Each of us needs to become a vortex through which the pain can be transmuted first into resistance, and then into an active seeking for alternative paths.

It is not necessary that tens of thousands of elephants die.  It is not necessary that we see the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity to extract more fossil fuels and heat up the atmosphere still more.  It is far from necessary that the children of Spirit Lake are tormented by their elders.

Do not turn away from this suffering.  See it, name it, and turn the pain that these events awaken in you to a righteous force for change.

You don’t need to have all the answers or know what to do with the pain.  Just allow yourself to feel.  Allow empathy to flow.  And then see what happens next.

Swept Away

There are times when I wish I had the skills to be a political cartoonist, and this is one of those times.

I am imagining a huge hurricane bearing down on the huddles of Republicans and Democrats, each hunched in conspiratorial circles around their own little campfires, plotting away about TV ads and televised speeches, while the lightening sears the electrical grid, huge ships get washed up on the streets of coastal cities, and homes are blasted and flattened. Those crazy strategists don’t even look up until the pouring rain puts out their fire, and by then the storm is on them and it’s too late to run and there’s nowhere to hide.

Reading the latest political blog from The New York Times “Caucus” column makes me feel sick.

Here comes a storm that may cost lives and billions in property damage, and all the brightest minds in Washington DC can think about is how best to play it politically?

If that is the way all threats to our wellbeing are treated by our politicians, it is no wonder that we’re in such trouble today.

I expect better from the Democrats, but as so many of my readers have insisted vociferously lately, maybe I need to take off my rose-colored glasses and see my party for what it is.

Just another political party whose main goal and raison d’etre is simply Power.  Politicians who try to play by more humanitarian rules don’t seem to get too far in Washington.  Once they get into the clutches of the political strategists, their lives and minds are not their own.

There must be another way.

I can take off my rose-colored glasses as regards what we have now, the players currently on the ground.  But I refuse to let go of my hope that the system can be better.

True, the Marxist experiment has not worked, and nothing has come along to offer another vision of a more ideal socio-political-economic system.

But there are some interesting ideas brewing on the margins now.  The Living Economies movement, the Green Party agenda, the whole ethos of sustainability as opposed to limitless growth.

Maybe the real end to that cartoon strip I’m imagining is what happens the day after the storm.

The Republicans and Democrats are standing on soapboxes making speeches about how much they care about the damage, but no one is listening to them. People are going about the business of clean-up with determination and good cheer, and it’s quite clear that they have no use at all for the out-of-touch pols.

Yes, those elected officials do control the purse strings of “disaster relief.”   But that’s our money they’re parsing out!  Our tax dollars, far too much of which goes to blowing things up in the military, rather than in constructing a solid, sustainable economy.

The question I am mulling over this morning is, what will it take to achieve fundamental political changes in our country?   Can we do it by reform, or is it going to take all out revolution?

Or will Mother Earth do it for us, sweeping it all away to make way for a new epoch?

Floods, drought: the Earth needs us now

floods in southern Russia

I could hardly believe it when I read in the paper today that major floods in Russia have caused nearly 200 deaths this week.

Floods?

It is bone dry here in the hills of western Massachusetts.  It is so dry that if I did not water my vegetable garden every day, all my beautiful plants would be drying up in the merciless drought.

When I walk by the half-dry river in the afternoons, I am struck by all the yellow and brown leaves on the path—the forest has the golden cast of September now, the dry spell fast-forwarding us from mid-summer to fall.

The first veiled hints of trouble have made their way into the mainstream media, with crop losses due to drought expected to push up the prices of food in the U.S.

Barely a mention of shortages yet.  No rationing.  Just higher prices, which will make it harder for those of us on fixed incomes—not to mention all the unemployed—to afford to buy what we want to eat.

Clearly there is a shocking imbalance between the torrential rains in Europe and the parched drought here in the US.

Clearly it’s anthropogenic climate change rearing its scary hydra head.

I have heard tell of Native Americans calling on the rain gods to bring rain clouds to a dry landscape.

Our own techno-engineers talk about seeding the clouds to provide rain.

In both cases, it’s a matter of human beings applying our great brain power to find solutions to problems that threaten our existence.

Each of us has some gift to contribute to the common cause of survival—remembering that the survival of human beings is entirely intertwined with the survival of every other life form on the planet, from plankton to trees to bees.

Truly, this is no time to wait shyly on the sidelines to be invited, or to wait for others to take the lead.

As the saying goes, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. If ever a time called for brilliant and dramatic solutions, that time is now.

Hocus, Pocus, Focus

I don’t know if it’s that I’m moving ever nearer to that psychologically significant boundary line between my forties and my fifties (I’ll turn 50 in November), or that summer is upon us here in the Northeast, or that I am on circuit overload, but this week I just haven’t been able to get up a good head of steam for a substantial blog post, and thus have stayed silent.

It’s been quite a while since a whole five days have gone by without my posting a single word.

It’s not that I’m not thinking.  And I am certainly keeping abreast of events out in the wide world.

But instead of the steady churning of thoughts and the relentless input of news raising my hackles and prompting me to send another blog-post-bottle out into the high internet seas, I just feel like pulling the covers over my head and rolling over for another hour of sleep.

I find myself longing for a silent weekend retreat, in which I had no access to the internet or phone, and no one around who expected me to speak or respond.

If I could have some good quiet time, maybe I could focus my thoughts, ideas and projects, and figure out which of them are worth carrying with me, and which can be jettisoned.

Perhaps that goes with the time of life I’m in, where every moment seems precious and limited, and you know that you really don’t have that much time to accomplish everything you came here to do in this lifetime.

If I could just figure out where to pour my energies and talents, I have no doubt that I could be very successful—with my success measured not necessarily in money or goods, but in positive impact on the planet.

That is what I am most trying to figure out right now.  Where should I be funneling my limited time and energy?

Generally speaking, there seem to be four spheres in which I am operating at all times, simultaneously:

  • the very up-close-and-personal realm, where my thoughts revolve around such mundane but important matters as my responsibilities to my two sons and the rest of my family, endless house and garden maintenance issues, and how I’d like to reconnect with such-and-such friend next week;
  •  the professional realm, where I am wondering what the outcome will be of my current contract review, feeling guilty because I am months behind in the essay I promised an anthology editor a year ago, pondering how to teach my classes scheduled for the fall, and wishing that I had the drive to get up at 5 a.m. and work on my book project;
  • the broader community, regional and national realm, where I am thinking about how to encourage the adoption of solar panels in my town, wondering about the impact of the new immigration legislation on friends and students, and concerned about the prospect of rabid Republicans gaining control of all three centers of power in Washington, and wondering how I can support both the Democrats and their more radical critics, whose platform is much closer to my heart;
  •  and then there’s the planetary realm, where I see with such pain the big picture of how destructive human beings are to every other life form on Earth, and ask myself how long it will be before the planet gives a big methane burp and sends us all to over-heated hell.

Is it any wonder, with all this (and much more!) churning through my mind day after day, that I end up just wanting to tune out and sit on my porch with a glass of wine on a summer evening and CHILL OUT?

I envy people who can focus all their energy in any one of these spheres.

I seem to be an incorrigible multitasker, and I know it’s not particularly healthy for me, or productive for my goals.

If there is one thing I really want to work on in the coming decade of my fifties, it’s learning how to prioritize tasks, concentrate my energy and GO!

Opening to the energy that can change the world

In the course of any given day, I swing from hope to despair and back again at least three or four times.

On the one hand, it’s such an amazingly hopeful and alive time in terms of communication and discovery.  We are constantly learning so much more about our relationship with the natural world and with each other.  Every day brings fresh evidence of the myriad ways in which we are deeply interconnected with all Earth systems and with other Earth-based creatures.

On the other hand, that knowledge does not seem to be adding up to practical change in the real world.  Every day thousands of acres of virgin forests are cut and bulldozed.  Every day drills open up new spigots for deeply buried oil and gas deposits, which can only be extracted at great risk to the surrounding environment. Every day more chemicals are wantonly spread over the landscape and taken up in the bodies of mammals like us, as well as birds, fish and all the other creatures of the land and sea.  Every day hundreds of species, including us humans, move inexorably closer to extinction.

Why is it that despite all we know about the crucial importance of protecting our planetary home, we continue to desecrate and destroy it at ever-increasing speed?

Maybe the answer has something to do with that “we.”  Maybe the “we” who know that our survival as a species depends entirely on our responsible stewardship of the environment just isn’t the same “we” that is out there with the chain saws and the bulldozers.

Maybe the great challenge of our time is getting through to those other people, the destructive ones, the violent ones, the ones who do not seem to be able to perceive the bigger picture and how urgent it is now that we—as a global human civilization, united in our desire to survive and thrive on our finite planet—begin to practice radical sustainability at an accelerated pace.

The stakes are huge.  At this week’s international “Planet Under Pressure” conference in London, the stark statistics were rehearsed yet again.  They’ve gotten so familiar to me that I probably mumble them in my sleep every night.  The new video “Welcome to the Anthropocene” does an excellent 3-minute job at summarizing what we’re up against.

Still image from "Welcome to the Anthropocene"

But knowing the statistics and seeing what’s wrong is not at all the same as knowing what to do to make things right.

It’s so hard to know where to put one’s energies.

Do I go full-bore at the sustainable energy issue, following Bill McKibben?  Maybe a hunger strike in front of the White House would be an effective protest against the Keystone XL pipeline?

Do I go chain myself to a tree in the Amazon or in the rainforest of Indonesia, to protest the deforestation that is depriving us of the vital lungs of our planet?

Should I use my skills as a teacher to try to rouse the young people from their media stupor, using whatever scare tactics are necessary to get their attention and galvanize them to action?

Should I just be out there practicing “re-skilling,” in the Transition Town vernacular: relearning the old skills of surviving off the grid, living leaner and closer to the land that sustains us? Is it time to learn to keep chickens and pigs in my backyard, and finally set up the bee hives I’ve always wanted?

Or maybe I should be up on a mountaintop meditating and communing with the natural world, seeking the vision that will eventually show me the light?

What is it that I should be doing with this one wild and precious life I’ve been granted, in this fast-moving, tumultuous, unpredictable time in our planetary history?

Asking these questions is all I can do right now, just keep asking them and pondering and feeling my way towards my role in what lies ahead of us all.

I want to make an offering of my life.  I want to be a channel through which the positive, loving energy of the universe can flow out and make things right again with our world.

Shaking the crystal ball: the future is what we make it

As I slept on my last post, the ominous words “civil war” kept resounding discordantly in my mind.

Am I really advocating for civil war?  Me?  I’m so non-violent I won’t even let my kids bring an x-box or a Wii into the house, for fear they might play violent video games.  I’m so non-confrontational that when I get angry I get quiet, not loud.  I find violence of all kinds so abhorrent that probably the only thing that would get me enraged enough to fight back is, precisely, violence, especially if visited on the defenseless: animals, children, trees.

But leavergirl‘s comment this morning has got me thinking again.

She says: “We don’t have to toughen up, but we do have to get more cunning. No street demonstrations will bring a better world. Such things force surface changes with more or less the same problems underneath. The system knows how to coopt, and knows it very well. What will bring about a better world? Living the changes at the local level.

“It’s mindboggling that people think they can “force” changes via demonstrations and protests. After all, the people in power don’t know how, even if they wanted to. We all have to invent it as we go!”

Just as it doesn’t make sense to try to fight big money with more money, it doesn’t make sense to fight violence with more violence.  And she’s right that change has to happen at the local level–that is the whole “be the change” idea.

But can we afford, in this age of globalized capital and planetary climate change, to focus locally and ignore what’s happening on the national and global scale?

It seems to me that we have to do both.  We have to do our utmost in our own homes and backyards and town centers to push for the principles we believe in.  But we also have to keep an eye on the big picture, and add our voices to the chorus calling for a change in the grand narratives that drive social policy in boardrooms and legislative chambers.

Standing up and being counted in a protest does matter.  Voicing public dissent to master narratives, as I’ve been doing in this blog, also matters.  Practicing non-violence and respect in one’s home and community is also important.  That’s what the fourth point in my Manifesto is about:

4. Model egalitarian, collaborative, respectful social relations in the private sphere of the family as well as the public spheres of education, the profession, government and law.

Thoreau’s model of civil disobedience, like Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s high-minded non-violence, were effective tactics of resistance that had real, tangible results.

So no, I am not advocating for civil war.  I don’t want to see it come to that.  I am, however, saying that we cannot afford to sit back and hope for the best, or wait and see, or let others worry about it.  We just don’t have that luxury anymore.

I look around me and see so many of my friends who are parents investing so much time, energy, thought and care in the raising of their children.  We worry over every test score, we make sure they eat their organic vegetables, we carefully shield them from violence and pain.

How can we be so focused on the local care of our children that we miss the big picture, which is that the world we will soon be sending them out into is in crisis? How can we not take it as part of our parental duty to do all we can to ensure that when our children grow up, their planet will be intact and able to support them?

On New Year’s Day I had a conversation with my son that keeps ringing in my ears this week.  He expressed his anger at previous generations (including me, of course) who have so degraded our environment that as he now looks out into his own future, he cannot be sure that he will have any chance of realizing his dreams.

We talked about possible future scenarios, including one that seems to be coming up in various conversations lately: conditions of scarcity leading to armed gangs marauding in the streets and taking whatever they can find.  “We would be fucked,” he said bitterly.  “We don’t even have a gun in the house!”

There it is again.  Would having a gun in the house make us any safer?  Isn’t the problem precisely that there are too many guns in too many houses?

And is it inevitable that conditions of scarcity would lead to violence? Maybe it’s likely, but are there steps we can take now to promote a different outcome?

Back to the importance of the local.  Strengthening local communities can head off a dog-eat-dog mentality.  We are all in this together.  Together, we created the present moment we now stand on; and together we will create the future.

What future do we want?  We all want abundance; peace; stability; security.  I don’t think anyone in the world would argue with those general goals.

We have the knowledge and the technology, right now, to achieve these goals, worldwide.

We do!  If we turned our best and brightest minds to the task, we could drastically reduce our carbon emissions within a decade, while still enjoying electricity and heat through solar, geothermal and wind.  We could drastically improve energy efficiency and get rid of our wasteful consumerist mindset.  We could stop making bombs and missiles, and instead refocus those trillions of dollars into education and social welfare, including intensive sustainability efforts on all fronts.

We could do this.  But again, we need that unstoppable groundswell of demand for change. Locally and globally.  NOW.

 

The inimitable Pete Seeger, always out in front….

Here’s something bound to give you goose bumps: Pete Seeger, the great man himself, leading a huge spontaneous crowd at Columbus Circle in singing “We Shall Overcome!” last night. Listen:

Pete apparently left Symphony Space and starting walking downtown, accompanied by a big crowd that quickly got bigger, and sang along with something like reverence, and a deep sense of longing.  Shall we overcome?

The stakes seem even higher now than when Pete sang this song for the Civil Rights and Vietnam War protesters of the 1960s.  It’s really the same struggle, though: for peace and social justice, against the militarized forces of capitalist greed.

Thank you, Pete Seeger, for always being there out in front of us, leading the way.  Thanks to you I am a little more hopeful tonight that yes, we shall overcome, someday….

Empathy: Igniting Force for Social Action

Now that the mainstream media has finally caught on to the importance of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I feel like I can go back to using this space to explore some other questions that have been niggling at me lately.

Last week there were not one but TWO op-ed pieces in the NY Times about empathy–both responding to Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  I haven’t read Pinker’s book yet, but I gather that he argues that humans have become more empathetic of late, and thus less violently aggressive towards one another.

Honestly, I haven’t noticed any decline in violence recently, have you? We still haven’t had a year go by without war erupting somewhere on the planet, and usually in many places at once. Men are still raping and battering women in alarming numbers all over the globe.  Suicides are up, and that deadly malaise I’ve talked about before subjects many of us to a constant low-level form of self-directed aggression.

But what I really want to think about are the two reactions to Pinker’s book, published last week in the Times by columnists David Brooks (conservative political pundit) and Benedict Carey (science reporter).  Both were extremely negative about the potential for empathy to be a positive force for social change.

Brooks argues that “Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear that it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action….

“Nobody is against empathy,” he says. “Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments.”

Brooks ends his column by proffering “sacred codes” as an alternative to mere empathy.  “Think of anybody you admire,” he says. “They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them.”

The problem with this formula is obvious.  Sacred codes are all very well, as long as they don’t direct their adherents to, say, “exterminate the cockroaches,” as was the cry both in Nazi Germany and in Hutu Rwanda.

Benedict Carey comes up with another objection to empathy as a trigger for social action: people are much more likely to feel for and want to help a single victim whose story is well-told, than to reach out to help in a major disaster involving millions of unnamed victims.  We get “compassion fatigue” pretty quickly, and if we are fed enough sad stories, we begin to get “psychic numbing,” where we lose our ability to feel any empathy at all.

Carey ends his piece by suggesting that psychic numbing may actually serve a useful purpose.  People charged with trying to help victims of disaster or tragedy are better able to function, he says, if they are not wallowing in empathy.

“In his book “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima,” the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton argued that rescue workers at Hiroshima were able to function at all only because they succeeded in “turning off” their feelings of compassion. He called that process “psychic numbing,” too, and it’s a reminder that empathy may be a limited resource for a reason.  Real action, when it’s called for, often requires a cool heart, if not a cold one.”

So here we have, within the space of a single week, two well-respected intellectuals arguing that empathy may be overrated. Both maintain that empathy can actually get in the way of constructive action.

I have thought quite a bit about this very issue, since so much of my teaching over the years has involved exposing young people to narratives of political struggle with the goal of awakening their empathy as a first step on the road to positive social action.

Very rarely have students complained to me that the narratives of testifiers like Ismael Beah, Fadumo Korn or Rigoberta Menchu have caused their circuits to bust into “psychic numbing” mode.

And while it may be true that the experience of empathy is not enough in itself to produce the kind of social change called for by the testifiers in these narratives, it is still an important and necessary first step for potential allies from outside the given cultural context of the narrative.

In her closing essay to my first anthology, Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, Julia Alvarez invoked the simple, hopeful expression of human connection exemplified in the phrase, “Here, let me help you with that.”

Gloria Anzaldua also wrote about the importance of situating oneself in the liminal space between self and other, which she named “nepantla,” the space of the borderland.

Those of us who have been blessed with privilege may never venture into that borderland space of connection and social change unless we are jarred into awareness by a jolt of empathy.  It may just never occur to us to reach out a helping hand.

I teach literature because I believe in the power of stories to provide this crucial explosive charge of understanding, which Simona Sharoni, who visited the Simon’s Rock Junior Proseminar today, calls “compassionate resistance.”

It’s true that this is a starting point, not an end in itself.  But it’s a critical ignition stage, not to be under-estimated.

I wonder about the subtexts of these two Times columns this week, both putting down the value of empathy a means towards social change.  Just what are these guys afraid of?

Whatever it is, Rachel Corrie found out how dangerous that fear–or lack of empathy–can be.

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