In search of maps for the territory ahead


“For Plato, the allegory of the cave implied a journey beyond the realm of the body and the senses to the realm of immaterial ideas. But its meaning has been hijacked. For materialists, objective reality is not the realm of ideas but mathematicized matter. In the modern version of this allegory, scientists alone can step out of the cave, observe reality as it is, and come back into the cave imparting some of this knowledge to the rest of humanity, confused by rival subjectivities. Only scientists can see reality and truth. The philosopher, and later the scientist, have to free themselves from the tyranny of the social dimension—public life, politics, subjective feelings, popular agitation, in short, from the dark cave—if they want to accede to truth. Back within the cave, the rest of humanity is locked into the realm of multiculturalism, conflict, and politics.” ~ Rupert Sheldrake, Science Set Free

Years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with my nuclear physicist uncle, who spent his career on fusion (the way the sun works), rather than fission (which is how commercial nuclear power is produced). I asked him how he could consider nuclear power to be “clean” energy, when it produces radioactive waste that we hardly know what to do with—other than bury it in sacred mountains and saddle future generations with the problem. He stated that President Carter had ruined the purity of the science by agreeing via treaty never to reprocess spent fuel. The way it was designed originally, spent fuel could be recycled virtually ad infinitum and fed back into reactors, thereby creating a closed loop. (This is my own layman’s interpretation.) He was well and truly offended that politicians would meddle in things they don’t understand. Continue reading

Tragedy of the study of the tragedy of the commons

2014_7.14_620wWith the summer heat comes an uptick of articles about the continuing, perhaps accelerating, breakdown of our social fabric. Whether it’s the arrest of children’s parents for letting them play alone outside or for camping with them, or the absurdity of drinking bottled water, the cracks in what we like to call civilization are growing wider. The public good has gotten so muddied that we are left to argue over semantics: whether a headline was too hyped or a date was cited incorrectly. Or we turn it over to the sociologists to tell us what we’re missing and what it all means.

There’s more to this than the decline of community, as Charles Eisenstein succinctly points out in this essay. He cites our inclination to surrender to authority, our need for control, our obsession with safety, and tendency to self-preservation. He laments the inevitable slide from avoidance of danger and uncertainty to the prison of “consequence-free zones” like video games. All of this is to the detriment of creativity, play, exploration, and risk-taking—everything we so desperately need in order to navigate this threshold time between stories. Continue reading

Does “Nature” need a new pronoun or do we need a new story?

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This guest post is by Duane Marcus. You can read a bit about him on the “Denizens” page.

I saw a meme on social media that suggested we need a new pronoun for “Nature,” a pronoun other than “it.” This got me thinking about “Nature.” Is nature an entity? Is there a thing we have named “Nature”? When we suggest someone spend some time in “Nature” what do we mean? Most would agree that canoeing through the Everglades or hiking the Appalachian Trail would constitute spending time in “Nature.”  Is an urban park “Nature”? Is the beach in front of a wall of million dollar condos “Nature”? Are fields of corn and soybeans “Nature”? How about a street full of weedy abandoned lots in Detroit?

Nature Deficit Disorder is a hot topic these days. Wikipedia describes it thusly.

Nature deficit disorder refers to a hypothesis by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. So would walking down Madison Avenue help alleviate this? Don’t let your kids do this without adult supervision though because you might get arrested for neglect and child endangerment. Continue reading

Naming the dominant stories of civilization


Last summer, I attended a course at Schumacher College, a veritable Shangri-La of New Story in theory and practice. It’s a beautiful, gentle place overflowing with wonderful, brilliant people who actually walk the talk, and have been for over twenty years. I went to the Dark Mountain course, which brought together the two founders, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, with a self-selected smattering of people who identify with their Manifesto, “Uncivilisation,” and other writings.

We spent a lovely week telling stories, listening to master storyteller Martin Shaw, and talking about a wide range of aspects of this threshold upon which we live. One of our ongoing conversations was about the ways in which the dominant stories show up and what they would have us believe. (Not the “they” that people like to blame when feeling the tightening screws of power-over dynamics, but “they” as in the stories themselves.) Continue reading

Extricating from the progress trap


It is easier to try
to be better
than you are
than to be
who you are.
~ Marion Woodman

This wisdom reminds me that I’m conditioned to look outward towards improvement, rather than within towards healing. Seeing myself as inherently flawed and in need of betterment, I tend to believe I have to fix those flaws myself, without help. The trouble is, the more I dig, the more imperfections I discover. It becomes an arms race of flaws and fixes.

This is a personal illustration of what author Richard Wright calls the “progress trap.” I’m so caught in it that even the question, “How can I get beyond the story of progress?” carries within it the taint of progress. I want to make progress towards getting beyond the story of progress. Continue reading

Thanksgiving’s clash of stories


Americans grew up with the story of the First Thanksgiving: how the native people took pity on the Puritan settlers (Pilgrims), who weren’t quite prepared for what they would encounter in the strange new land. The Indians rolled out the welcome mat, giving them diverse foodstuffs and valuable survival skills, and the Pilgrims held a great feast to thank them. Containing elements of both truth and fiction, this story is part of the founding mythology of our country.

It wasn’t until quite recently that researchers began to discover the sophistication of the civilizations encountered by outsiders in the Americas. Continue reading

What can we know about the unseen?


The writer Margaret Atwood spoke in a recent interview about the “Third Man Factor,” which is when a person in an extreme situation feels and hears a spirit-like presence, a sort of guardian angel that encourages, gives guidance, or imparts vital information. The explorer Ernest Shackleton and aviator Charles Lindbergh have both spoken about the experience.

The human imagination is so vast as to seem boundless, and it’s only one tiny part of the dream of the universe that gave birth to us. Many phenomena are simply beyond the reach of rational analysis, but curiosity compels us to study them anyway, using the tools we have available. And, in our culture, science has arguably the highest status among those tools.

In his book on the subject, John Geiger makes the point that, despite scientific study, we don’t know definitively what’s going on. Continue reading

Beneath the crust


A spring storm battered Baltimore for two days in April 2014. After a record-setting winter of Arctic cold and snowstorms that broke water mains and opened potholes, the second day of rain fell in a deluge, flooding roads and softening the ground beneath the crust of asphalt and concrete. In one neighborhood block, the parking lane began to sag, cars listing to starboard against the curb. A small crowd gathered in the rain to document the event on smart phones and trade complaints.

“I’ve been trying for three years to get it done right.”

“We’ve got hundreds of pictures of this. They’ve been out here ten times and all they do is try and fill it in.”

And then, as they watched, everything exited the scene: street trees just leafing out, wrought iron light poles, cars, paving, fence, and stone retaining wall slid twenty feet to the railroad tracks below. Cries of alarm and outrage erupted on the video as a plume of dust rose and subsided. Continue reading

Releasing environmental hope


Driving away from a coffee meeting a couple of years ago, I was suddenly flooded with longing to go back and shake sense into the young woman architect I had just met. Her question to me, a local advocate of sustainability, was innocent enough: “How can I plug into this movement more effectively?” In a burst of empathic knowing, I was this woman, twenty years earlier, talented and hopeful and full of ambition and possibility.

I thought it was the work in her graduate portfolio, her obvious delight in ideas that had pushed me over the edge. The tangibility of hand and eye and imagination, of drawings and models, sculpture and paintings employed to make artifacts of meaning and beauty. Art for art’s sake.

She could spend a happy lifetime doing work like that and instead was about to leave it all behind by stepping into the fast-moving water of environmental hope. Continue reading