Facing the Great Unraveling

by Molly Young Brown, originally published on her blog

If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. As you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against … other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.
If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.

Bateson, 1972. p. 462

I read this quotation from Gregory Bateson with a sinking heart.  47 years ago he foresaw so  clearly the predicament we find ourselves in today.  The dominant Industrial Growth Society (IGS) is largely based in a brand of Christianity that puts “God outside…his creation” and sees humans (or at least light-skinned humans of European ancestry) as “created in his image.”  Therefore, many people in the IGS “logically and naturally see” themselves “as outside and against the things around” them.  Almost all large corporations in today’s rapacious economy treat “the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration.” Most corporations view the environment as something to be exploited for short-term profits. 

Mainstream thinking in the Industrial Growth Society assumes without question that only humans have intelligence—or “mind.”  Ignoring the vast intelligence embedded throughout the web of life that sustains us all, this logic gives an outside “Creator” all the credit, which passes along to us “made in his image” humans.  

And what about “Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against … other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables”?  A competitive socioeconomic system tends to limit people’s “survival unit” to the companies hiring them, their immediate families, and perhaps their neighborhoods or towns—and/or their political parties.  “Other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables” are seen as competitors, or inferiors, or even enemies.  White supremacy is one ugly result of this worldview.

As if any individual or any family or any company or any neighborhood—any human institution—could survive without the larger community, without some form of government or social organization,  and especially without the oxygen, water, food and materials supplied by “the brutes and vegetables” and ecosystems of Earth!

Binh thanh district, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Photo by Anh Vy on Unsplash

“If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.”

This is quite clearly what we humans are faced with today. Unfortunately, all life on Earth is threatened by the few humans that hold this “estimate of your relation to nature.”  They also tend to be the ones with the most access to “an advanced technology.”  According to Bateson, the likelihood of the Industrial Growth Society’s survival is “that of a snowball in hell.”

Given this image, it is ironic that Dahr Jamail’s book on climate disruption and collapse is titled The End of Ice.  Through his direct observation and research, we learn of glaciers melting precipitously all over the Earth, disastrously raising sea levels and diminishing fresh water supplies.

Who Suffers First?

Because the IGS has its tendrils spread throughout the world, its demise will initially have the greatest impact on people and communities already oppressed and impoverished by the IGS.  Along with countless species of plants and animals, they will be the first to suffer and die.  We see this happening in the Sixth Great Extinction even now underway.  We see this happening in the flooding of coastal areas around the world.  We see it happening socially on the southern border of the United States, with mass incarceration of children and families fleeing life-threatening situations in their home countries.  We see it happening with the growing numbers of refugees in Europe and the Middle East, fleeing warfare, famine, and genocide.  Only the very wealthy will be able to insulate themselves from this collapse—and only for a short time.

What to Do?

I don’t see a way to effectively stop this collapse, brought on as it is by such a faulty worldview.  It seems to me our only path to any kind of viable future is to profoundly change our relationship to one another and to the natural world.   We people of the IGS need to stop arrogating all mind to ourselves; we need to stop seeing “the world as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration.”  To continue seeing the world through that lens keeps us on the path of ecocide and suicide.

Many indigenous traditions see the danger of the dominant world view that Bateson warns of, with words like “wetiko” for those who suffer from the mental illness of over-consumption, greed, and narcissism.  

Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption (in Ojibwa it is windigo, wintiko in Powhatan). It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of Gaian life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.  

Wetiko short-circuits the individual’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. 

Ladha & Kirk, 2016
Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash

Wendell Berry’s challenging poem “Questionnaire” speaks directly to the wetiko endemic within the Industrial Growth Society.  Remember to breathe as you read it.

QUESTIONNAIRE 

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

Wendell Berry, 2013

There are many traditions and movements dedicated to the shift in consciousness and worldview so sorely needed.  Most indigenous traditions hold at the heart of their teachings interconnectedness and human responsibility to protect and nurture life. “Mni Wiconi: Water is Sacred. Water is Life” is the Lakota affirmation chanted and posted on signs by Water Protectors at Standing Rock, and in the movements inspired by that event.

Science Catches On

Many recent scientific discoveries, in both the physical and social sciences, point to the reality of our radical interdependence with all life.  The challenge is to bring these insights into our seemingly intractable political and economic institutions.

Dan Siegel, a leading neuroscientist, proposes in his book Mind that mind may be an emergent property of energy and information flow—and therefore ubiquitous throughout the web of life.  He sees mind as profoundly relational, “embedded within the world around it, extends into information systems outside of the body, and is situated in social contexts… the mind is in constant interaction and exchange with that “external” world, especially with other people and other entities in the environment” (Siegel, p. 154).  Such a relational and ubiquitous mind cannot be arrogated to one species!       

Siegel goes on to describe how the “lie of the separate self” affects us as individuals as well as the larger communities to which we belong: “If we believe it, we will experience, deep beneath the surface or even at the front of our mind, a sense of disconnection, isolation, and despair.… Another problem with this delusion of separateness is we come to treat the planet as a trash can. Instead of being in love with nature, we treat the earth like a dumpster.”  However, Siegel goes on to assure us, “When we open our minds with presence, we come to experience the deeply interconnected nature of our lives. We feel Earth as part of us, an extended mental body that is as much a part of who we are as these somatic bodies we live in.” (Siegel, p. 326-7)

Purple-throated carib feeding at a flower, sharpphotography, CC BY 3.0

Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of both humanistic and transpersonal fields of psychology addressed how a systematized worldview impacts our social relationships as well as our relationship to the natural world. In The Further Reaches of Human Nature (1971), Maslow cites Ruth Benedict’s concepts of high synergy and low synergy societies.  In cultures with low synergy, the social structure encourages acts that are “mutually opposed and counteractive,” in other words, competitive and for the benefit of individuals and their groups, no matter how destructive to other people or the environment. On the other hand, in societies with high synergy, social structures “insure mutual advantage from their undertakings.”  (Ruth Benedict quoted in Maslow, p. 202). 

Systems thinking (both Bateson and Siegel were/are systems thinkers) offers profound insight into the intricacies of our interconnectedness and interdependence—how the flows of energy and information interact to create and sustain all life, including humans.  Humans are subsystems of larger living systems, which are in turn subsystems of the whole biosphere. So we are subject to feedback from the larger systems, feedback which could help us maintain not only our own health, but the health of the larger systems—if we only pay attention!

In the IGS, Competition Prevails

But damn, these vital insights and understandings don’t seem to make a dent in the political or economic structures of the IGS.  Most politicians I observe today (at least in the USA) seem to be operating solely from the “estimation of your relation to nature” that Bateson describes. From their perspective, Republicans are in competition with Democrats; the USA is in competition with most other nations;  Christianity is in competition with Islam; White people are in competition for jobs with People of Color; citizens are in competition with immigrants; the wealthy 1% are in competition with the 99%; corporations are in competition for profits with each other, with environmentalists, and with local communities trying to protect their quality of life; and humans are in constant competition with “nature” to wrest a living from a “hostile environment.”  Case in point: the federal budget in the USA allocates considerably more tax money for national “security” and defense than the health and well-being of its citizens, or the vitality and health of its lands and ecosystems.  And as I write this, the Trump administration is systematically curtailing every government regulation and agency that is in any way devoted to the common good.

A Fatally Mistaken Worldview

How to change this?  Is it already too late? Is the power structure of our society so dominated by under-developed human beings that there is no possibility of enlightenment?

I read articles bemoaning the polarization of public opinion in the US and elsewhere that counsel us to listen deeply to other points of view.  I agree that we need to have open conversations and find common ground with people politically on the “other side.”  And yet, and yet… I see our situation as far more perilous than a simple difference of  “opinion.”  What if one group’s opinion is based in a lethally mistaken worldview—and one deliberately promulgated by the likes of Fox News (the unofficial propaganda arm of the IGS) and social media trolls?  

In a recent interview in YES! magazine, Bill McKibben points to the fossil fuel industry’s “30 year campaign of deceit and denial and disinformation that fostered a completely phony debate about whether or not climate change was real, a debate both sides know the answer to at the beginning—it’s just one of was willing to lie” (McKibben, 2019).

What does it serve to listen to people reciting lies and sound bites they’ve heard on TV?  I believe it is possible to ask deeper questions in such a conversation, but my emotional response to such recitations often renders me unable to calmly ask them—or even think of them!

Bifurcation

The chaos and violence of today’s world result from a social-political-economic system far from equilibrium, its actions totally out of harmony with the living systems of Earth.  Dynamical systems thinking describes what often happens in such a unstable situation, as a system tries to self-correct but is unable to compromise between, or integrate, two or more attractors—in this case, profit and power-over on the one hand, and the essential interconnectedness of life (power-with) on the other.  Bifurcation happens!  “Bifurcation means a system’s trajectory forks as one attractor ceases to hold sway over the system, either by ceasing to exist or by losing out to a more compelling attractor” (Jim Brown, 2019). 

Just before bifurcation, a system is madly switching back and forth between two or more attractors, trying to find a way to integrate them into some sort of synthesis.  We see this in many government regulations and procedures—like Environmental Impact Reports that attempt to bring proposed profit-making corporate projects into greater harmony with the local environment and community.  The whole EIR process is fraught with conflict and confusion, because the primary corporate attractor is profit and the EIR subsequently produced will nearly always be flawed, inaccurate, and incomplete.

It may be that our only hope for survival lies in bifurcation in the direction of interconnectedness/interdependence.  I do not hold much hope for “reforming” our capitalistic profit-driven economic system.  We need the radical change of bifurcation.  This will happen sooner or later anyway as climate chaos, the poisoning of our soil, water, and air, and mass extinction bring about the collapse of our civilization.  All this could even mean the extinction of the human species.

Extinction Rebellion London
Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash

Extinction Rebellion and a growing youth movement see that Business As Usual will not provide them with a living world into the future. They are demanding that governments declare a climate emergency and urge us to bifurcate in the direction of sustaining life over profits.  And according to Bateson and other systems thinkers, this bifurcation can happen only through a transformed comprehension of our radical interdependence within the web of life.  

Change Ourselves or Change the World?

Many spiritual teachers teach that we need to change ourselves first and foremost, and that the world will follow.  Activists urge us to protest and work to change our political and economic systems.  Both need to happen.  If we take action out of an adversarial position, we are still seeing ourselves “as outside and against the things around you.”  We each need to find a spiritual practice that helps us apprehend our interconnectedness with everything and everyone—including those still caught in the IGS paradigm of separation.  A deeply religious man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed to truly see his apparent adversaries as siblings, which may have enabled the relative success of the Civil Rights Movement (relative success, because racism and white supremacy are still deeply entrenched in the USA).  

A spiritual and visceral understanding of our interdependence will serve as a guide for our responses to the cataclysms we face. It will open us to feedback from the ecosystems and social systems in which we live—and ultimately to feedback from the whole web of life of Earth.

Working on oneself is essential, but not sufficient.  It can lead to self-blame, thinking of oneself as separate and solely responsible for what is happening in the world.  The New Age belief that “you create your own reality” operates from a paradigm of separation.  We may create our own reality, but we do so collectively.  We cannot divorce ourselves from our social environment.

So in addition to personal work, we must work together to change our social, political, and economic systems. While we still can vote, we can choose candidates who promote policies that  protect climate, land, soil, air, water, and food crops, as well as the health and well-being of all people, especially those living in poverty and/or historically oppressed. We can write Letters to the Editor and communicate with public officials. Some of us may even run for public office; the rest of us can support the ones that do.  And while we can’t be completely “pure” in our purchases, we can limit our support of the IGS by paying attention to the social and environmental impacts of everything we buy or invest in, boycotting products and businesses that oppress people and damage the environment.

Preparing for Collapse

Many world observers believe that our economic and political systems will collapse in the near future.  We can prepare for this by developing cooperative systems to take their place.  We can build community, support local farmers and craftspeople, create systems of exchange such as local currencies and barter.  We can simplify our lives, limit our consumption, and invest in durable goods and tools that we can share with neighbors as we struggle to survive together. 

Wisaka [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
The image shows a market place in Africa, at ujiji village in Tanzania. This market in swahili term is called 'mnada" and takes place once a week.

And how to prepare ourselves psychologically and spiritually?  In Savage Grace: Living Resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe, Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker remind us “Our work as awake human beings at this time then, is to be willing to descend into the dark night of the globe as well as the dark night of the individual soul and to do so in connection with trusted allies” (Harvey & Baker, 2017).

Several groups and movements are exploring how to do this, especially the Work That Reconnects (aka Active Hope or Deep Ecology work).  Recognizing that we face suffering and death on an unprecedented scale, we need to come together to tremble, weep, and rage. Experiencing and expressing these emotions together opens us more deeply to our interconnectedness, to gratitude and joy for the life we have been given, and to the intelligence, information, and guidance flowing through us from the web of life, from the living Earth.

References:

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Ballentine, 1972.

Wendell Berry, New Collected Poems, Counterpoint Press,2013

Jim Brown, Towards Optimal Human Learning, unpublished manuscript, 2019. 

Andrew Harvey & Carolyn Baker, Savage Grace: Living Resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe, 

Dahr Jamail, The End of Ice, The New Press, 2019.

Alnoor Ladha & Martin Kirk, “Seeing Wetiko: On Capitalism, Mind Viruses, and Antidotes for a World in Transition,” Kosmos Journal, Spring/Summer, 2016. 

Abraham Maslow, The Further Reaches of Human Nature, Viking, 1971

Bill McKibben, “The End of What It Means to Be Human,” YES! Fall 2019

Daniel J. Siegel, MD, Mind – A Journey to the Heart of Being Human, W.W.Norton, 2017.

Additional resources:

Websites:
        Extinction Rebellion
        Work That Reconnects Network

Deep Times – A Journal of the Work That Reconnects, August 2019 issue.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate—A New Story, North Atlantic Books, 2018.

Joanna Macy & Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects, New Society, 2014.

Bill McKibben, Falter, Henry Holt, 2019.


Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 4.0.

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