Once in a blue moon: thoughts on death and the hereafter

It’s a clear, warm night, breezy and calm with a languorous quality to the air.  A night for strolling arm in arm along the surging beach; a night for hiking to the top of the mountain to gaze out at the moonlit landscape below.

It’s a blue moon night, the second full moon of the month–a rare occurrence, like a leap year, that feels like a gift of cosmic significance.

Such a night makes me want to take a chance and send out into the world some ideas that I have been holding close, not daring to share for fear of—of what?  Being scoffed at or ignored, I suppose.

But once in a blue moon, it’s important to reach beyond those fears and write from the heart.

So here it is.


On this quiet, moonlit night, I am thinking about death.

Every near-death experience describes a peaceful opening up to the light in the seconds after death—a state of rapture, a sense of leaving the body with all its frailties behind and moving into a new state of consciousness.

If death is just a transition into a different relation to matter and spiritual consciousness, then it is not something to be afraid of.  It is a change, but not a negative one, except to the extent that we remain attached to those we love and our dear, familiar places.

No other being on the planet frets so over death as does humankind.  All others simply pass, unworried, into the next stage of existence, whatever it may be.

If there is no reason to fear or worry about our individual deaths, then maybe there is no reason to fear or worry about the coming planetary cataclysm.

All of us living beings on the planet now will simply transition into whatever comes next, as we have many many times before in our cosmic journey from stardust to our current terrestrial physical forms.

Even the fear that we have of destroying our planet to such an extent that it will become unlivable is not tenable.  I don’t believe we could do such a thorough job of destruction as to make the environment completely and irrevocably toxic.

It may take millennia, but eventually, as it has in the past, the Earth will regenerate and give birth to new life forms.

And we, because we are part and parcel of this ecological sphere, will be part of those too.

Just as now we “remember” our past as sea creatures through the saltiness of our blood and the way we are able to swim underwater in our mother’s wombs, we will in some way retain the traces of our time as humans on the planet.

Hopefully the traits that have proven so destructive and psychotic will not persist: our violence, our fears and insecurities, our short-sightedness, our competitiveness, our greed.

It is possible that we are now living through a blue moon period of a much greater magnitude than just one lunar cycle.

Once in a blue moon, a dominant species—like the dinosaurs—collapses.  It is our fortune, for better or worse, to be living through this rare epoch, the last days of a closing era—and unlike the dinosaurs, to be conscious of what is taking place as it happens.

Of course, once in a blue moon, too, a species is able to pull back from the brink of extinction and keep going a while longer.


On this blue moon evening, I pay loving homage to the white hydrangeas glowing in the dusky interlude between sunset and moonrise.  The perky round sunflowers, the curly purple kale standing stiff and tall in my garden, the pulsing background chorus of crickets—I gather them round in a loving embrace and give thanks for this quiet blue moment, however long it may last.

Stop the holocaust of migrating birds

Lately I have been sitting with the brooding knowledge that at least 7 million migrating songbirds were killed this spring running the gauntlet of 84,000 American communication towers that rise as high as 2,000 feet into the sky, braced by invisible guy wires that garotte the birds right out of the air.

This is actually just a fraction of the number of birds killed each year by running a collision course with human activity.

This spring has been more silent than ever. The traditional dawn chorus of birdsong has ebbed to a few lonely little souls, most belonging to non-migratory species like cardinals, bluejays, chickadees and sparrows.

They say that when Europeans first arrived on this continent, the migration of the passenger pigeons would literally darken the sky for minutes on end.

I have never seen a living passenger pigeon, and it seems that my grandchildren will not know what I mean when I talk about the dawn chorus of riotously busy, happy birdsong, any more than they will be able to imagine an apple orchard in full bloom buzzing with the diligent harvest of a million droning bees.

Knowledge like this makes me sick at heart.  My rational side is aware that mourning is not productive, but another side of me knows that it is one of the special gifts of us humans to feel grief; to locate particular sadnesses in the larger landscape of suffering; and to use our sadness and anger at injustice as a lightening rod for change.

Other animals and birds feel grief as well, but you won’t find the great community of birds gathering together to make plans to topple all the communication towers in North America.

No, the birds will go quietly, one by one, into the endless night of extinction.

Just as it was our ingenuity that created those needle-like structures, held up by steel deathwires, it is our job as humans to recognize the destruction we are causing and make sure it changes.

I am not suggesting that we give up our communications towers—that would truly be a quixotic quest!

I am suggesting that we place value on the lives of 7 million birds—the number that scientists estimate are killed annually by communications towers taller than 180 feet.

What can be done?  Well, there must be some way to make those wires visible to the birds.  We could drape them with some kind of fabric, or coat them with a glittering reflective paint.  We could emit some kind of sound signal that would alert the birds to avoid the tower area.

The scientists studying this issue noted that simply changing the lights on the towers from solid red lights, which apparently mesmerize the birds in bad weather, to blinking lights, “could reduce mortality about 45 percent, or about 2.5 million birds. The study also recommended that businesses share towers to reduce their number and build more freestanding towers to reduce the need for guy wires.”

As we saw when Rachel Carson succeeded in getting DDT banned, bird populations can and do rebound if given the chance.

But not once they’re extinct.

We must act now, before the songbirds follow the passenger pigeons into permanent silence.

A Realist Assessment of Where We Are Now

Human beings are like crows.  We are attracted to glitter.  We make a lot of noise.  We are social and travel in flocks. We are not terribly sensitive.

It has taken us a long, long time to realize how our presence here on Earth has been harming the planet.  You would think, with our tremendous intelligence, that we would have realized it sooner.  But we are masters at denial.  200 species a day go extinct because of human activity, and we just shrug and go about our business, focusing on the glitter at hand.  Perhaps it’s the animal in us, that refuses to recognize peril as long as, in a material way, we ourselves are OK.

Well, that long period of denial is coming to an end.  Or at least, it’s coming to a head.  We can no longer deny that it makes no difference to us if the ocean acidifies to the point where it can no longer support life.  Or the deforestation of the planet begins to interfere with oxygen production and the sequestration of CO2.  Or that the fresh waters that sustain us are increasingly toxic.

Yes, this affects every one of us. At some point, not very far in the future, it could be the case that our local supermarket will no longer be able to supply our nutritional needs, because the agri-socio-economic system that supplies the supermarket will be totally disrupted by climate change.

No, I am not being alarmist.  I am being realist.

We need to focus on this with all the amazing intelligence of our species.  We have brought the Earth to the brink of catastrophe, and alone among all the species on the planet we have the power to turn things around.

Will we seize this opportunity?  Will the current upswelling of activism associated with the Occupy movement get that the issues go far beyond the little hopes, dreams and disappointments of the middle class individual?

I refuse to give up hope.  I refuse to give up hope.  I refuse to give up hope.

Stand with me.  Let’s turn things around, before it’s too late.

Calling all Occupiers: Join the Deep Green Resistance of the Earth, before it’s too late

Occupy the Machine – Stop the 1%, Literally | Deep Green Resistance.

I had a feeling that the Deep Green Resistance movement would have something interesting to say about the Occupy movement, and I wasn’t disappointed.

As might be expected from a radical environmental group, they are envisioning a massive escalation of the movement, swelling the numbers and multiplying the targets so as to overwhelm the police who will be called in to maintain order.

DGR is imagining an occupation at the sites of worst destruction of the environment, like the boreal forest of Alberta, known to the energy mafia as the tar sands; the coal-burning power plants; the pipelines and the shipping routes.

I might add factory farms to the list, like the beef and hog farms out West that generate the toxic runoff that is poisoning the ocean for miles around the outlet of the Mississippi River.

Naming targets is one thing, but what’s really important is being clear on what the occupations are for. I don’t think the Occupy movement is especially focused on the environment.  It seems to be focused on social inequality–excessive wealth that has destabilized our economy, and the lack of jobs for the middle class.

These are all worthy issues.  But as I’ve said before, it won’t matter a rat’s ass if you have a job–or if you’re dripping in gold or starving and naked–if the climate changes decisively due to global warming.

To turn global warming around will require a movement like the Occupy movement, filled with idealistic, dedicated, thoughtful people who are willing to give it their all.  This struggle has to be linked with a critical rethinking of the industrial capitalist economic model of ruthless extraction and production in the name of profit.

That is the model that has driven our planet to the brink of systemic correction.

Not collapse.  The planet will be fine, she will regenerate.  She has time.  But to do it she will need to effect a serious correction of a species gone haywire, the human species, which in a very short time has altered the planetary environment to such an extent that millions of other species have gone extinct, and supplies of the basic life support systems like oxygen and water are threatened.

The Earth has survived such challenges before, and she will survive this time again.  But human beings, and most of the countless other beautiful life forms that share the planet with us at this time, will be doomed if industrial civilization is not rebooted and recreated as an ecologically sustainable system.

That is where the pressure of the Occupy movement needs to be applied.

Will the Occupiers step up to such an enormous challenge, much bigger than the one they initially envisioned?  Hard to say.  But at the moment they seem to be the best hope of deep change of our society and our terribly destructive economic system.

It’s in the Liberty Parks all across the world that the conversations are beginning that might have the potential to lead to real change.

All the money in the world is not going to buy safety or plenty once the Earth herself begins her own form of Deep Green Resistance.

Facebook vs. Dead Space 2: which 21st century geo-political model will win?

This week I am teaching Darwin again, Darwin being a staple of the Simon’s Rock Sophomore Seminar, required of all students.  I have always found The Origin of Species difficult to read, but lately I am realizing why: because Darwin seems so sure that aggressive competition, the infamous “survival of the fittest,” is THE biological paradigm on our planet. All species are locked in a relentless “battle for life,” from which only the strongest and best adapted (which often means the most ruthless) will emerge evolutionarily victorious.

However, there have been some persistent voices in the past few years arguing that Darwin understated the case for altruism and empathy as an evolutionary advantage for human beings.  Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, argues that cognitive neuroscience is now proving that we are in fact at least as empathetic, as a species, as we are aggressive.  He believes that the linking potential of the internet age has the power to help us overcome the divisiveness that marred the past 500 years or so of human history, and make a great leap forward in our social evolution.

“The information communication technologies (ICT) revolution is quickly extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history,” he says.

“If we can harness our empathic sensibility to establish a new global ethic that recognizes and acts to harmonize the many relationships that make up the life-sustaining forces of the planet, we will have moved beyond the detached, self-interested and utilitarian philosophical assumptions that accompanied national markets and nation state governance and into a new era of biosphere consciousness. We leave the old world of geopolitics behind and enter into a new world of biosphere politics, with new forms of governance emerging to accompany our new biosphere awareness.”

Human beings’ amazing use of technology has always been both our blessing and our curse.  Technology is enabling me to send these ideas out into the ocean of the Web, a digital message in a bottle that could potentially reach millions of people across the globe.  Amazing!

But my reliance on electricity generated by oil and coal to perform this technological wonder is the Achilles heel of the whole enterprise, since collectively we as a species are overloading the biosphere with our wastes and driving the planet to the brink of what Darwin would call an “extinction event.”  Our own.

Will we make that great leap forward that Rifkin is foretelling, waking up to the necessity of moving from global competition to global collaboration in a new, more localized model?

Rifkin imagines a future global society based on the localization of energy sources like solar, wind, tidal and geo-thermal, as well as the re-localization of agricultural and manufacturing economies.

“In this new era of distributed energy,” he says, “governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage. Just as habitats function within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the biosphere in a web of interrelationships, governing institutions will similarly function in a collaborative network of relationships with localities, regions, and nations all embedded within the continent as a whole. This new complex political organism operates like the biosphere it attends, synergistically and reciprocally. This is biosphere politics.”

I believe that this rosy vision is theoretically possible, but I sure don’t see anything like it on the horizon today.  Rifkin puts his faith in the upcoming generation, who have grown up as “digital natives” and are more likely, he thinks, to be collaborative across traditional national and political boundaries. Facebook Nation!

Maybe so, if the young can be roused from their entertainment media trance and made to see the urgency of the mission.

I read with dismay yesterday that the U.S. video-game industry is one of the most highly subsidized sectors of our economy, rewarding, for example, the makers of “Dead Space 2, which challenges players to advance through an apocalyptic battlefield by killing space zombies.”  Dead Space 2 shipped 2 million copies in its first week of sales.

How can we expect young people to focus on serious, urgent issues like global climate change when they’re so busy chatting with friends on Facebook and killing zombies on Wii?

If this is the best we can do as a society, then I’m sorry, folks, but maybe an extinction event is not only on the horizon, but, as Darwin would say, “for the good of all.”



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