The other day I read a long essay entitled “Dark Ecology.” It was written in 2012, and published in Orion Magazine. A friend found it on his Facebook feed one day, and suggested I read it. Wow, is it dark! There is much in it that demands meditation. I finished with the distinct feeling that our efforts to save our planet from the impending cataclysmic changes of climate disruption are like the boy whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits. Am I fooling myself? Have we not gone beyond the point of no return, hurtling over a cliff that portends fantastic and colossal chaos?
The author, Paul Kingsnorth, begins this essay with a reflection on the musings of the Unabomber, Thedore Kaczynski. He refers to Kaczynski’s four principles:
1. Technological progress is carrying us to inevitable disaster.
2. Only the collapse of modern technological civilization can avert disaster.
3. The political left is technological society’s first line of defense against revolution.
4. What is needed is a new revolutionary movement, dedicated to the elimination of technological society.
I will not do justice to Kingsnorth’s essay in a summary here, but I am struck by the parallel’s between Kaszynski and Pope Francis. In Laudato Si the Pope talks about the technological paradigm as a fundamental feature of contemporary culture which serves to make much less likely any attempt to address the devastating impacts of climate disruption and other forms of environmental harm visited on the planet by human activity. While the pope is not as anti-technological as Kaczynski is, who lived in the mountains of Montana for years with no electricity or running water, he is worried about our fascination with technology and its almost messianic promises. I should note, however, that the messianic promises are not always explicit but they are the implications of the technological paradigm.
Pope Francis writes:
This [technological] paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. (#106, Laudato Si)
Francis challenges us to be honest about that way in which we blindly approach the planet, as a reservoir of riches to serve every human whim. We have also bought in to the myth that every problem that the human species faces can be wrestled under control by the development and utilization of every more powerful and invasive technological tools and processes.
Here is where Kaczynski and Pope Francis find common cause, if not common solutions. We find ourselves in the predicament of having wrought tremendous destruction on the only home we have, but thinking that the way in which to respond to that predicament is to make use of the very way of thinking that got us into the predicament in the first place. You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem.
So what are we to do. Kaczynski, at first, moved off the grid, refused to participate in the society that he thought was so destructive of human and non-human life; he then sought to attack those he thought most responsible for the horror of technological society. Paul Kingsnorth doesn’t go that route, and neither does Pope Francis, and neither do I. To cite Kingsnorth, we can do five things:
- Preserve non-human life.
- Get our hands dirty.
- Insist that nature has value beyond utility.
- Create refuges.
We can withdraw from the 24/7 rush of news, media, noise and distraction. We can practice this, a bit at a time. We can go for walks in local parks and forests, away from the pace of our every day lives. We can stop and pay attention to the living things all around us, catch the spider building her web, or the chipmunks storing food for the winter, or the trees as they pull back into themselves, gracing us with their beautiful coats of autumn
We can work to make sure that we live enough for the non-human life that surrounds us. To think that only human needs count in our day to day lives. Perhaps this might lead us to vegetarianism, or at least Meatless Mondays. We have to widen our circle of concern, to be less anthropocentric, and more biocentric.
We should get our hands dirty. Tend your own garden. Join a community garden. Come to CFET’s gardens on the monthly work day. If you’re in an apartment, have some pots on the patio or near the window. Allow your body to engage the materiality of living matter all around you.
Read the poets of nature, get on Instagram and follow the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service that post amazing shots of nature every day. Go star watching in a dark place in your neighborhood. Immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, to come to a deeper appreciation of the value of living things beyond their use for human beings.
Finally, develop resilience in your family, your neighborhood, your city and state. Become politically active, pushing for public policy, locally in particular, that will create webs of support for people to best be able to adapt to the continuing shifts in climate, ever more powerful and chaotic. It is only in smaller communities that resilience can take root and become an anchor against forces we have only barely begun to understand.
This last sounds quite pessimistic. Is there nothing we can do to ameliorate the change that is coming? Of course there is, and it begins with knowledge. We need to understand what is going on. Sign up for the daily news reports from dailyclimate.org. Sign up at 360.org to find out where the next march is, or the legislation that we need to address with our representatives. Be sure you are registered to vote, AND VOTE. October 16th is the deadline for New Jersey voters!
It is difficult to not be pessimistic. But we cannot afford to withdraw and not participate. We withdraw in order to creatively advance a different paradigm, an ecological paradigm, let us say, in which we understand and appreciate ourselves as members of a living earth community, with responsibilities befitting our capabilities, responsibilities aimed at a re-birth of the human species, no longer as masters/mistresses, but as brothers and sisters to all living things, on this magnificent blue planet.
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
Board of Trustees
The Center for Environmental Transformation