A new kind of conference +

We just learned of this conference and thought it might be interesting given our conversations around practicing new forms of creative assembly in direct response to climate change:


“This is an unusual conference in two respects. First, because it approaches the issue of climate change from the perspective of the humanities, rather than, as might be expected, from that of the sciences. Second, it is also more than a little unusual because of the conference format: it is an international academic conference with over 50 speakers from eight countries, yet it has a nearly nonexistent carbon footprint. Had this been a traditional fly-in conference, our slate of speakers would have had to collectively travel over 300,000 miles, generating the equivalent of over 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the process. This is equal to the total annual carbon footprint of 50 people living in India, 165 in Kenya. A conference that takes up the issue of climate change while simultaneously contributing to the problem to such a degree would be simply unconscionable.”

Excerpts from Paul Kingsnorth’s piece, The Witness, in Tricycle last year, and his personal/political shift in perspective:

Environmental campaigning, like any form of politics, is predicated on control. It is about preventing negative things from happening and trying to channel society toward what you regard as more positive values and systems. It took me a long time to admit to myself that the level of control I wanted and desired simply couldn’t exist. Governments had been promising to act on climate change for 20 years, and precisely nothing had happened. All of the trends, from extinction to soil erosion to ocean acidification to rainforest destruction, were going in the wrong direction, fast. We—the greens—knew what needed to be done, but we had no power to make it happen. It wasn’t working. I looked around me, at the diminishing natural beauty and its accelerating destruction, and I despaired.

A few things saved me, eventually, from this despair. One of them was a geological perspective. We tend to look at the world through an anthropocentric lens: human concerns are foremost in our vision, bounded by our short lives and our everyday needs and desires. Among those desires is a concern that what we have always known as “nature” should continue as we have always known it. But nature has taken many forms. For the vast majority of its existence, “nature” here on earth consisted only of single-celled organisms. The brief period of climatic stability in which human civilizations have evolved is just that: a brief period. It is not any kind of norm, for there is no norm. Had it not been for the great oxygen catastrophe or the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs or who knows how many other such episodes, none of us would be here to agonize about the latest turbulent episode in the history of this planet. Why should the state of the planet to which we have adapted survive forever? Nothing does. The earth is a process as much as a thing: it is constantly changing. At this period in its history, we are the force tipping it into a new state. Now we are going to have to live with that state, whatever it brings—if we can.

As I write it down now it seems embarrassingly obvious, but there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it at the deeper level toward which the dharma points. I look at a forest. You look at a forest. We see different things. Perhaps one of us sees planking or sawdust or biological diversity or spiritual retreat or silence or rare insect life or certain mosses or a quality of light. Yet none of what we see has any relevance to the forest itself, or any of the organisms that make up its whole. It is just what it is. It’s just there.

What does this mean? What it has meant for me is that I am now able to begin—only to begin, mind—separating reality from my view of it and to understand the emotional projections that I overlay onto the world I walk through. One of those projections is a sense of what nature is and should be, and how I should be able to help maintain it in a certain state. Nature itself, meanwhile, has no sense of that state. It has no sense that it is nature at all. Nature is made up of a vast and detailed complex of living beings doing what they do. Our self-consciousness and our needs are part of that complex. But nature doesn’t need us, and extinction as a concept is something that only humans worry about.

It is hard for us to take in the reality that the earth is an extinction machine. It doesn’t need us, and we cannot control it. The “ecological crisis” we hear so much about, and which I have written so much about and worked to stave off—well, who says it is a crisis? Humans do—and educated, socially concerned humans at that. For the earth itself, the Holocene Extinction is not a crisis—it is just another shift. Who determined that the planet should remain in the state in which humans find it conducive? Is this not a form of clinging to mutable things, and one that is destined to make us unhappy? When we campaign to “save the earth,” what are we really trying to save? And which earth?

A great change is under way, across the earth. We cannot prevent it now, and its outcomes are not going to be pretty for much of humanity. The nature of nature has always been change, which means that death—and rebirth—will always be with us, and that rebirth may take forms we do not recognize and did not expect. You are part of this process, and so am I, and this time around we are the cause of it, too. The future offers chaos, uncertainty, loss. To deny this is to deny reality. To pretend we have more control than we have, to cling to glib “solutions” as if the world were a math puzzle we could solve with the right equations, is a similar form of denial. There is an abyss opening up before us. It challenges everything we thought we knew about our culture and about nature. We need to look into it and concentrate on what we can see.

“Sit with it,” the teacher said. It is a common Zen response, and though some see it as a kind of shoulder-shrugging, to me it looks like the opposite. What it really says is: Pay attention. Our culture is hopeless at paying attention. It glorifies action and belittles contemplation. Responses to the ecocide currently unfurling around us are usually couched in aggressive demands for immediate “action”—any action, it seems, however ineffective, is better than none. But it doesn’t work like that. My years in green activism have shown me that false hope is worse than no hope and that ineffective action leads only to despair, particularly if frantic movement is a substitute for facing up to the realities of our limited powers. Sooner or later, that dam will burst. Before you can act on anything with effectiveness, you have to understand it—and that is where the sitting comes in. That is where the attention matters. That is when the stripping back of your self before the indifference of nature will come to serve you.

What happens if you sit with the earth? If you reach down and touch it, if you call it as your witness? What happens if you let your own needs and demands fall away, and see the world outside you for what it is? I would suggest that, with the right quality of attention, we may come to know what is right for us as individuals, and what we can usefully do. This doesn’t mean that all will be well. All will not be well. It doesn’t mean we will necessarily end up any less confused or conflicted, either. It doesn’t mean we will never again experience the despair of knowing what we have done and what we are still doing and of all the things we are losing and can never bring back.

But it does mean, or it could, that we are able to hold those feelings within us, to understand them and maybe reconcile them. It does mean that we can be done with denial and projection and false hope and false hopelessness. If we sit with the earth, with the trees and the soil and the wind and the mist, and pay attention, we may know what to do and how to begin doing it, whatever burden we carry with us as we walk.

read in fall at:  http://tricycle.org/magazine/witness/#sthash.HjJzpTkv.dpuf

Also, a few movie recommendations:

Land of Hope, with English subtitles (we referenced this in our presentation last week (one step. one step. one step.)

It’s  a Disaster (improv comedy troupe on the end of the world)

Nuclear Nation I and II (where people displaced by the Fukushima disaster and living in temporary housing 5 years later express the desire to simply be told the truth, rather than false hope/political cowardice on the part of officals etc.)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s