Thriving on the threshold

 

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The threshold between stories is the point of no return. From it, I have caught glimpses of many futures, but have yet to fully commit to the path of belonging, connection, and mystery. Not ruling out occasional lapses of courage, the main reason is that I have not finished making my peace with the false beliefs and broken promises that raised me.

Earlier this month, I launched the blog, Thriving on the Threshold, as a place of practice. It is a place to light candles in the darkness and take an honest look at the habits that separate me from the story of abundance, of my kinship and reciprocity with the world beyond the confines of human-made environments and culture. Mostly, it serves to remind me of what I’m here for: to experience joy. Stop by and join the conversation.

Natural gas’s dirty secret

Photo by Caelan Borowiec from www.marcellus-shale.us

Natural gas has been touted as an environmentally friendly bridge between dirtier fossil fuels (coal and oil) and a clean, renewable energy future. While it is true that the average efficiency of electric power plants fueled by natural gas is superior to coal-fired plants, that comparison doesn’t account for drilling, processing and delivery to the site. Another popular claim is that natural gas is cleaner burning and should be substituted for oil wherever possible, whether for heating or transportation, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The industry hype ignores a dirty secret: getting gas out of the ground and to the end user creates a volume of methane emissions that is not well documented nor is it widely regulated. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide that can dramatically increase the warming of the planet. Ignorance of the sources and effects of methane is leading industry and policymakers to make bad decisions that have far-reaching climate repercussions.

Robert Howarth and his colleagues at Cornell University were some of the earliest scientists to conduct research on the climate impacts of natural gas extraction, both conventionally and using hydrofracturing (fracking). Their 2011 paper was the first peer-reviewed report on methane and shale gas; it ignited a conversation within the scientific community and even generated some buzz in the mainstream media. The main takeaway is that natural gas extraction is far more damaging to the climate even than burning coal, when you factor in the effects of methane emissions from drilling, well completion, refining and transportation.

In an early presentation, both Howarth and his colleague Tony Ingraffea stress that their findings point to the dire need for further research, including on-site measurements of methane emissions. Howarth has continued to work in this area, publishing in April 2014 a thorough review of recent research by others, such as field measurements of methane releases from well sites. The evidence is mounting – and damning.

Once again, industry has gotten far ahead of the science and policy is lagging still further behind. Now that Howarth and others have gotten the conversation going, the EPA has recently updated their regulations to reduce methane emissions during well completion. These are slated to go into effect in January, 2015, twenty years after fracking began in the Barnett Shale in Texas, and ten years after it intensified in Pennsylvania.

This is a complex issue that’s finally being studied from many angles. For instance, the Post-Carbon Institute issued a gloomy report on the capacity of gas reserves in the U.S. to serve our ever-growing energy needs. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has also been working since 2012 to bring greater attention to natural gas and methane. They estimate that about 25% of the manmade global warming we are experiencing today is caused by methane. They fund research projects to track methane releases at every stage, from drilling to distribution, including the ancient gas lines under our city streets.

Ultimately, natural gas is just another fossil fuel with a better PR team than coal and oil. These scientific studies show that there’s no such thing as a climate-friendly fossil fuel. It’s time to get serious about weaning ourselves off them entirely and to embrace the clean energy conservation and generation technologies of the 21st century.

Blind to the bigger picture

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I recently read a piece in the Atlantic with the promising title, “How to talk about climate change so people will listen.” Although the author – Charles Mann, who wrote the excellent books “1491” and “1493” – characterized some sides of the argument, the piece didn’t live up to its title. With eerie postmodern irony, the comments on the Atlantic’s website perfectly illustrated the polarization Mann decried.

This wrangling over climate change reminds me of the story of the blind men describing an elephant. Each of the six has his hands on a different part of the animal: tail, ear, tusk, flank, leg. And each is correct, in his limited view of reality. The man holding the tail describes a rope. The one touching the leg says it’s a pillar. They all get into a heated argument because not one of them can see the bigger picture.

In the case of the climate change argument, what is the bigger picture?

Whether climate change is real or not, we are laboring under a dangerous misconception: that human beings are exceptional, superior and separate from the rest of nature. Our own economic models “externalize” the natural world, treating air, water, soil, weather and pollination as income rather than capital.

Ronald Wright, whose excellent 2005 “A Short History of Progress” I just reviewed here, raises the same question. He examines how four past civilizations failed or went extinct: all combined brutal social hierarchy with a failure to respect the limits of the local ecosystem upon which their very lives depended. Those were, by today’s standards, relatively small and local. Since our industrial economy is now a global one, its effects are also global.

Whether or not burning fossil fuels is wrecking our climate, eventually we will run out of them and be forced to find other ways to power our civilization. Before that, the more noticeable effects of climate change may begin to plague our generation with greater frequency. Either way, we are blindly repeating the mistakes of prior civilizations. Driven by our cult of progress, we have an irrational faith that technology and human ingenuity can solve any problem. This faith demonstrates a basic lack of understanding that there are limits in every closed system, the earth being an example of just such a system. The only new input into this system is sunlight, and humans have yet to figure out how to convert it as efficiently as plants do into energy and food.

Even if technology can save us, we are still faced with great uncertainty about climate change. “What’s the Worst That Could Happen” is a far more effective approach to decision-making in the face of uncertainty than any of the arguments in Mann’s article. This began as a middle school science teacher’s YouTube video back in 2007. Using a basic four-square decision matrix, he showed that we are better off treating climate change as real and getting down to business, than if we ignore it and it turns out to be real. The consequences of inaction are a far greater risk than the consequences of action, even if climate change turns out to be overblown.

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In other words, uncertainty is a given, so before we can talk about, and agree upon, solutions to problems, we would do well to look honestly at the bigger picture. Who do we think we are? Why are we here? And where are we going? These might seem like odd questions to inject into the already overheated, rhetorically charged climate change debate.

There’s no shortage of people on both sides pointing out how polarized and unproductive the argument is. Maybe that’s because we’re asking the wrong questions and defending positions that rise from the shaky foundation of a mistaken worldview.

 

 

 

 

We are caught in a “Progress Trap”

A Short History of ProgressA Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project recommended this book, and I am very glad they did. It has deeply affected the way I view history and our current times. The author tells the stories of four past civilizations that failed, two that went extinct (Easter Island and Mesopotamia) and two that declined and faded into other emerging cultures (Rome and Mesoamerica).

Wright likens his examination to studying the black boxes of crashed jetliners, looking for clues as to why they went down. The two consistent reasons that stuck most with me are 1) brutal social hierarchy that ensures there’s never enough to go around and 2) raiding the local ecology of the place to the extent that it can no longer support the civilization.

Sound familiar?

His history of how European discovery of the New World turbo-charged our present-day pace of technological development is fascinating. For example, it was disease that finally enabled the Spanish conquistidors (after 100 years of unsuccessful trying) to “conquer” the Mayans. And that gold and other resources from the New World flowed back into the Old, to finance the industrial revolution. Without that treasure, things would’ve been very different indeed.

It’s all written in an engaging and very readable style, with extensive footnotes taking up over 1/3 at the back – for those geeky sorts who must have all the details (guilty as charged). Wright is obviously a very learned man, but in no way stuffy or inaccessible – nor does he pander.

The most lasting effect of this book has been to loosen up my heretofore unexamined assumptions about “the way things are.” Human history goes back many thousands of years (actually, millions), and it’s quaint of us to believe that the last 200 are the pinnacle of civilization, just because they are the most recent. The assumptions about social hierarchy are especially dangerous, derived as they are from the (now absurd to us) notion that kings are direct descendants of the Divine.

Again, I am left wishing that everyone would read this book. It would certainly change the debates we are currently engaged in, debates that distract us from the real conversations we need to be having. Here are two snips from near the end, to give an idea of how Wright’s mind works.

“John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

“The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise.”

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What is most vital to do?

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Written collaboratively with Restorying co-leader Jim Hall.

At the heart of Restorying is reconnection – both in the way we go about discovering new story and in the living of that story itself. At some level we all realize that the stories we currently live by leave us swinging between deep denial and hopeless despair: the story of unlimited growth, of unlimited progress, on the one hand, and the story of the collapse of planetary systems and human civilization on the other. We all live several contradictory stories at once; no wonder we feel confused and conflicted, or anxious and angry at times.

Restorying is about discovering and cultivating a new story at the largest level – the level of human presence on Earth, starting with the individual level – the deepest, most authentic story that is yours to live.

In Restorying we come home to our belonging to the sacredness of the living Earth. We come home to the wisdom we once knew, but have recently forgotten – the wisdom of the lost feminine integrated with the masculine, the wisdom of our bodies and senses, the wisdom of ancient myths and archetype, the wisdom of dreams, the wisdom of indigenous peoples who knew that mountain and river and tree have a spiritual energy that is vital to our well-being, individually and collectively. This reconnection is both the means and the essence of New Story.

This Restorying Retreat coming this September 12 – 14 invites us to stay for an extra day, from Sunday to Monday noon. Instead of jumping right back into our old busyness and to-do lists at the end of the retreat on Sunday, we can allow the new story to deepen and grow inside us. As we rest in the presence of our experiences and learning from the weekend, we can feel into, discover and experience practices that will help to keep us in a new story. This extra time will give us a chance to explore how our personal story could be expressed in mythic language, in image or poetry, illuminating hidden connections with the larger emerging story.

Mountain is not leaving. River is not leaving. They are calling us to deeper communion, to live in a greater spaciousness. Such an experience itself may be the answer to our ever-present question, “What can I do to be of any use at all?”

You might discover that your biggest gift to the world is not to do something to save it, but rather to fully belong to it. Maybe a day spent with mountain, with river, with forest, with stone, is exactly what we can do to be most deeply ourselves, to do what is most vital to do.

We might bring to that day a poem, like this one from Rilke –

…..

Summer was like your house; you knew

where each thing stood.

Now you must go out into your heart

as onto a vast plain. Now

the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind

sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.

It is what you have.

Be earth now, and evensong.

Be the ground lying under that sky.

Be modest now,, like a thing

ripened until it is real,

so that he who began it all

can feel you when he reaches for you.

Taking this extra day may seem unrealistic or even indulgent, but wouldn’t you like to live in a new story where a day like that would be exactly the right thing to do?

More information or Register online.

Zombies R Us

Red Granny pasture

I wonder if all the interest in fractured fairy tales lately is part of our hunger to make sense of our present circumstances. When I was my son’s age (12), I loved stories of princesses and magic, of all-night dancing and heroics and lessons learned. Now, none of those lessons of virtue rewarded seem relevant. Our stories are slipping out of pattern, eluding sunny meanings.

So we get Little Red Riding Hood as the wolf whose grandmother locks her in on the night of the full moon, but she escapes and rips the throat out of her true love. Or Peter Pan as a soulless embodiment of evil. Not to mention all manner of vampires and zombies. The very gates of hell have been thrown open, disgorging monsters that have never seen the light of day.

That’s fitting, seeing as how we’ve been digging and pumping the contents of hell up to the earth’s surface for a couple hundred years now. And it’s finally taking its toll: this Paradise is being overrun by oil spills, CO2, toxic fracking water, plastic, etc. No wonder the morbid fascination with zombies: we are allowing ourselves to become zombies through our association with these substances from hell.

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Stare into the abyss long enough and you become the abyss. My calling is to join in and participate in this fascination with myths for our era – from a different angle. To turn a light on the good. On what’s working, what we want to aim for, and who we must understand ourselves to be in order to create the future we want.

Lately, I’ve been reminded of the prevailing mindset, which is anxious, separate, polarized, dualistic, and only sees surfaces. (See, for example, the comments that follow this piece on overpopulation and consumption by Charles Eisenstein.) Many people do not merely doubt that life is cruel and meaningless, they are certain.

It is a sobering challenge to be reminded how far we have slid from those princess fairy tales. I’m tempted to lament the hard work ahead to turn things around, but it could be only a slight tweak and everything shifts. Who am I to say otherwise?

particleFeverOne of the great joys of story is the revelation of hidden truths beneath the drama. Nothing is as it appears. Perhaps another consequence of our being so in thrall to science is its injunction against such sloppy mental games as the search for meaning beneath surfaces. The scientific view is locked into physical matter only. Sure, there are things beneath visible surfaces; that’s what microscopes and MRI machines and atom smashers are for.

This hostility towards meaning goes against our nature. We need stories to make sense of who we are in the world, how we fit in, and what we are to do during our time here. Others and I have written elsewhere about this no-man’s-land we’re in between the crumbling old story of separation and the emerging new story of interconnection and belonging. We find ourselves smack in the middle of a “Redemption Plot,” that sort of story that starts with a morose, self-deceived hero and ends with him embracing his true nature and entering a new level of engagement and service in the world. “Casablanca” is one of the most masterful examples of this plot. Before he makes his selfless decision in the end, Rick must face and work through the darkest part of his nature.

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Maybe we are drawn to zombies exactly because we are monsters on some level. We know we must face that darkness and make our peace with it before we can move on to true self-knowledge and integration. In my earlier dismissal of zombie stories, I was myself falling into the trap of seeing only surfaces and denying hidden meaning. The more interesting – and fruitful – question is: what’s beneath our current fascination with the denizens of the underworld? What are we trying to face within ourselves and what must we face before moving on to claim and create the future we want?

Writing is Not Words: Dispatch from Robert McKee’s Story Seminar

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In this time of transition from one kind of cultural story to another, we need all the great storytellers we can get. To that end, I just spent four solid days in lectures given by the inimitable Robert McKee. He’s a master teacher of the craft of screenwriting, which, fortunately, translates well to other forms of storytelling.

“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling.” ~ Robert McKee

Story Seminar is thirty-two hours of McKee’s wit, wisdom, stories, jokes, opinions, psychology and spicy language. I highly recommend a) reading his 1997 book; and b) experiencing a Story Seminar for yourself. If you do, you will find it to be the best education on the craft of telling a great story, coupled with deep philosophy on a well-lived life and improved ability to recognize (and enjoy) great storytelling.

I can’t presume to distill his teaching into a “best of” list, but I am moved to share some revelations that will help bring my writing closer to the vision I have for it, and also inspire me to live a life of meaning.

  • Writing is not words, any more than the stuff of music is sound. Language is the surface, the medium. Every art has its own form that guides the artist to express great truths.
  • The writers’ job is to give an exceptional insight into life, with freshness and originality. There are few pleasures in life greater than a good story, well told.
  • If the unexamined life is not worth living, the unlived life is not worth examining.
  • Concepts are the easy part. A concept is like standing on the steps of Carnegie Hall humming, wondering why the people streaming past you don’t recognize your talent. You have to turn your humming into a symphony.
  • To be a great storyteller, you must know the rules of classical storytelling. So if you choose to break those rules, you’re doing it intentionally, not out of ignorance. This is exactly parallel with architecture. The great early modernists – Le Corbusier, August Perret, Henri Labrouste – were all classically trained.
  • Life is improvisational, always. You take an action, get a reaction, have to adjust, try again. Every conversation is an improv scene. You can never predict how someone will react to you, either what you are saying or how you say it.
  • To that end, every encounter has a text and a subtext. That is, what is visible and being said, on the surface, is only a small fraction of what’s actually being conveyed. Often, we aren’t even conscious of our own subtexts, let alone those of others.
  • This is why literal performances and interpretations in all the arts fall so flat. In great film and theater, actors are acting the subtext, not the text.
  • The source of all art is the human psyche’s primal need for the resolution of stress and discord through beauty and harmony. When emotion is made aesthetic, an idea wraps itself around you with an emotional charge – unlike in “real” life, when ideas come separately from emotions.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I may just have to do more posts on the gems from this man. The how and why of structure, style and principle are enough for a lifetime of dedication to the craft of telling a good story.

Bridging the Gulf from Other to Brother

Milwaukee-art-museumMy  friend, Laurel Peltier, sent me an essay by West Virginia anti-fracking activist S. Tom Bond, published 2.12.14, called “The Wide Divide: Financial Interests vs. Local Adverse Impacts.” He opens with a statement and a provocative question: “One of the things I have been thinking about lately is the division between those who recognize the damage done by shale drilling (and by extension other extreme hydrocarbon extraction, particularly mountain top removal) and those who ignore it.  What is the psychology involved?”

As a possible explanation, he cites the “dark triad,” a potent mix of narcissism, Machiavellianism and sub-clinical psychopathy, throwing in detachment and rationalization for good measure. No one is spared: not the industry executives, the self-serving politicians, workers caught between the rock and hard place of the Great Recession, the landmen who pitch leases to property owners, the media bosses, not even “innocent” individuals who swallow propaganda without so much as a burp.

He was so persuasive, the despair that I can usually keep at bay raised its gnarly head. With so many folks on that side of the divide, so many in the “other” category, who is left to bring down shale gas drilling? I always wonder, after reading something like this, now what? Sure, there are plenty of bad actors out there pushing this evil stuff on the unsuspecting, brainwashed masses. And — ?

I don’t mean to be ornery. This sort of truth-telling is critically important. Donella Meadows, in her brilliant piece, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” gives a concise recipe:

“So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power.  You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”

Or, as Gandhi put it even more succinctly: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

It leaves me wondering about this word, “they”. Doesn’t dividing the world into good guys and bad guys perpetuate the mindset that got us into this mess in the first place? When we unconsciously think of ourselves as isolated individuals, it’s natural to “other” people whose behavior appears to us as destructive and self-serving. Yet, that keeps us stuck in an adversarial relationship, one that insists on winners and losers. One that divides us up into powerful and powerless, exploiters and exploited, evil and good.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that this project of building a future that’s fair to all and honors the living world requires us to think differently about who we are and why we’re here. We’re on the threshold between stories – the old, crumbling story of domination and control, scarcity, and fear, and the emerging awareness of our interconnection with the whole web of life. That “interbeing” comes with very different ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the natural world.

While we are on this threshold, things all around us may look crazy. We know the old ways are insane and damaging. We feel the tremendous precariousness and danger of lingering on the threshold itself, a place where anything can (and does) happen. We catch glimpses of the emerging story, but they seem either too good to be possible on a grand scale or teasing mirages, tricks played on our tired minds.

There are endless possibilities for where and how to cultivate the emerging story. One is to imagine that there’s really a bridge over that chasm where “they” stand on the other side. If I can see my dog, a stately cedar tree or a mountain stream as my sister or brother, instead of a separate, alien “other,” why not a gas industry executive or a roughneck? When we have the courage to examine, honestly, the stories we live by, it opens up a creative space of possibility where anything is possible.

Monumental Irony

Monuments_Men_Places-068a3My 12-year-old son and I recently saw George Clooney’s film, “The Monuments Men.” What’s not to like about a gang of aging art curators and conservators snatching Europe’s cultural treasures from the evil Nazis? It’s based on Robert Edsel’s 2009 book of the same name.

Edsel’s research and writing project was a labor of love, funded by a $37 million nest egg from selling his Texas-based oil-and-gas exploration business in 1997.  He became fascinated with the story of the men and women from thirteen nations who stopped Hitler and his cronies from pillaging cultural capital at the expense of present and future generations. Ironically, Edsel’s work in the fossil fuel industry was similar: pillaging natural capital at the expense of present and future generations, human and otherwise.

It’s a potent illustration of how anthropocentric we are. We think the human story is all there is. World War 2 is a great illustration of our myopia. War is an enactment on a grand scale of the Story of Separation, the belief that we are the Chosen, the superior, the more deserving. Who “we” are depends on your perspective. For the Nazis, it was the Aryan race, but the Allies saw it differently, and thankfully, our side won.

Winning the war didn’t change our unconscious allegiance to the Story of Separation. Industries quickly retooled from bomb-making to pumping out fertilizer and pesticides using the same ingredients. An undeclared war was waged on the natural fertility of the land during the so-called “green revolution” that boosted agricultural productivity at the expense of soil, water, and the small family farmer.

The Story of Separation also drives our use of fossil fuels, starting with how they are found and extracted. Our belief that humans are the superior animal in the great web of life allows us to justify our actions, no matter the cost to the living planet or to present and future generations.

Wouldn’t it be something if we had a posse of Monuments Men working on behalf of natural capital? The heroes of Edsel’s story knew that winning the war would be diminished by every piece of art and sculpture lost, every church destroyed by bombing. These treasures stood for something far greater than their physical, material reality. Our planetary Monuments Men would have the same passion and zeal, the knowledge of true connoisseurs. Even the backing of their countries’ leaders, who, while admittedly focused on human lives, sense there is an even greater purpose at stake.

Can’t you just see George Clooney and Matt Damon, riding herd on the Koch Brothers, seizing their propaganda and influence promoting oil and gas drilling and spreading lies about renewable energy? What’s the equivalent of Michaelangelo’s “Bruges Madonna” or the Ghent Altarpiece? The Great Barrier Reef? The Chesapeake Bay? The receding glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro? There are too many to contemplate.

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Down to the Wire

Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate CollapseDown to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse by David W. Orr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a must-read for anyone who cares (or worries) about our future and those who seek a) a clear-eyed history of where we are and how we got here, and b) inspiration to fuel the work ahead. Orr spares nothing yet he comes out cautiously optimistic that humanity (and especially our political structures) will rise to the great challenges ahead. Chapter 5 is luminous.

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