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.

Shock and Awe and a Failure of the Imagination

Odds Against TomorrowOdds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In the coming apocalypse, millions will suffer and there’s not much we can do about it. That’s the message of “Odds Against Tomorrow,” Nathaniel Rich’s exquisitely detailed story of the inundation of New York City by category 4 hurricane Tammy. It’s being hailed as the finest novel of climate change, in the vanguard of a new category of fiction: “cli-fi.”

True, it is a relatively entertaining story – if you like your heroes nerdy, fearful and swept away by circumstance. Yet by the end, I was unchanged, unmoved and uninspired. Maybe I’m a demanding reader, but if I invest time in reading a novel, I want something to happen to me.

Rich’s book doesn’t offer much to answer the inevitable question, “okay, now what?” It may be that “Odds Against Tomorrow” performs the service of painting such a vivid picture of what’s coming that people are moved to make changes in their lives. But what changes? For that, we’ll have to read another book, such as James Howard Kunstler’s “World Made by Hand.”

It has been said that the hero, Mitchell Zukor, undergoes a transformation from an intellectual parasite in the Wall Street financial industry to a “man of action.” Since he chooses to retreat from the world in a self-built fortress, plant a garden, loot a local variety store and never again shower or shave, it leaves the reader wondering – is this humanity’s fate? A kind of de-evolution into solitude and madness?

Not since Ian McEwan’s “Solar” has there been a less likeable protagonist in a climate change novel. This is not necessarily a weakness so much as it asks him to shoulder a burden he simply cannot carry. Once we’ve seen the horrors we hath wrought with our wasteful, carbon-drenched ways, we’re going to need leaders capable of inspiring us to carry forth in new ways. The cynicism of modern-day New York (and, by extension, America) will not provide the necessary vision to rethink our relationships with each other and with the living earth.

In this book, the earth is presented as an Old Testament enemy, hurling devastating earthquakes and hurricanes at the unsuspecting but deserving general public. “Odds Against Tomorrow” is indeed a vivid wake-up call, but once the writer has yanked his audience out of our electronics-fueled stupor of denial, it’s frustrating that there isn’t a more compelling or hopeful alternative. One storm and we either hang by our fingernails to a pathological status quo or devolve into hermitude?

I felt the same way after seeing Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Yeah, we’ve screwed things up and yeah, some devastating consequences are already starting to show themselves. We’ve had the warnings, now where are the novels and films that question our assumptions about who we are and how we might better fit in to this living planet? It seems to me that those would be more helpful as we rethink our assumptions and re-envision the future we want.

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