Linda Sechrist’s article, “A new story for the world” (Natural Awakenings, January/February 2021) was a prompt for the following essay, I have invited her to write a guest blog. The prompt for posting this essay at this time, however, is the insurrection that occurred yesterday. A house divided cannot stand, as Jesus explained long ago; as Lincoln reminded the nation during an earlier insurrection, and as Howard Thurman wrote in Jesus and the Disinherited (1949). He went on to say, “If a man calls a lie the truth, he tampers dangerously with his own value judgments.” The insurrection is the consequence of the president and his allies telling lies and boosting them for personal profit. But it is also a consequence of many leaders trying to function with divided minds and now discovering that self deception has harsh consequences. Hate cannot be compartmentalized. I post this portrait, one of my favorites in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, because it is a reminder of the power of singular individuals like Marian Anderson to embody wholeness and healing. In a time of division, one wishes that, like Dr. King, more of our leaders were reading Thurman’s book and carrying it in their pockets as they decide what to do next.
The Fellowship of the Attentive
Imagining the future. Human diversity is infinite. By this, I mean that it is immeasurably vast, varied, and surprising. This may inspire the “awe of its limitlessness” (Felicia Zamora, I always carry my bones) or of community—”all are part of the procession” (Walt Whitman)—or of terror, like that underlying the claims of QAnon. The literature of futurism, prospectivism (Margaret Heffernan, Uncharted), and speculative fiction—the respectable name for sci-fi—offers visions of community but fails to account for human diversity and the emotions it elicits.
As Marie Louise Berneri demonstrated long ago in Journey through Utopia, all of the utopian plans offered as critiques of existing social structures devolved into systems of dominance, however communitarian their assumptions. Perhaps William Morris’s News from Nowhere best describes the kind of community in which creative work, personal freedom, private ownership, community spirit, and minimal impositions coexist in a balanced relationship between human beings and habitat. Based on an idealized view of medieval society, Morris’s suggestions were only intended to sharpen criticism of industrialism and to contrast with the top-heavy ideal society described by Bellamy in Looking Backward. Of course, communes based on Morris’s ideas have been no more persistent than those based on other utopian and religious plans, most of which begin with a culling:
“Therefore come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean . . .” (2 Cor. 6:17).
That is, those who disagree with the community’s assumptions are excluded. Presumably, this assures a pure stock for the unfolding of the Grand Plan, but human diversity is infinite. As agronomists learned while breeding corn to produce excess oil, tremendous diversity for the trait existed even within the pure strains of high-oil producers. In another example, even the tiny population of cheetahs seems to have sufficient genetic diversity to survive for many more generations. Purity has a way of breaking down quickly, not only within unmanaged monoclonal crops but within ideologically pure societies. It almost seems that the idea of purity may be exaggerated. Do you think?
So, whether the Emerald City planner is Thomas More or Señor Campanella, the Admissions Policy is an inescapable problem. Other plans of eco-gurus are untrustworthy in the same way. Because the plans arise from social criticism, they are remedies to avoid making the errors of the past, somewhat as prescriptions are written to treat a patient’s symptoms, not cure the disease. This leaves the plans open to assault from anomalies, unfixable situations, and random walks. Most anomalies derive from socio-ethnic oversights—such as being blindsided by the planner’s assumptions. Discovery of such oversights, if acknowledged, usually links to another discovery: the situation is not fixable. Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter once put it this way:
“People of different cultures sometimes differ to the point where, although we could probably understand them, we might not want to make the effort. Then all we can do is show some humility and simply greet them.” (https://frameshifts.com/2020/10/13/greetings-from-ganesh/ )
Even the idea of “fixing” is called into question. Finally, the plans of eco-gurus are open to assault by evolutionary random walks. In a population, the frequency of a rare gene, accidentally favored, may suddenly increase dramatically. In the infomercial world, a cat video promoting toilet paper may go viral, or a hateful unsocial media assault may be boosted by millions of click-happy fans thanks to the convoluted morality of Silly Valley. In the realm of Great Plans, the eco-guru, so certain that she has identified the drivers of social change, is suddenly T-boned by such an unlikely factor as the aforementioned QAnon.
Sources for good ideas. Nonetheless, we can learn a great deal from the work of thinkers and planners. Here’s a short list: the Ehrlichs’ Population Bomb, the Ecotopia of Callenbach (https://frameshifts.com/2013/09/) , the Handmaid’s Tale of Atwood, Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Eisenstein’s Climate: A New Story, Hawken’s Most Comprehensive Plan Ever, Rodale’s agricultural books (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._I._Rodale ), the Minimalists Milburn & Nicodemus (https://www.theminimalists.com/ ), McKibben’s Falter and 350.org (http://billmckibben.com/ ), Sahtouri’s “ecosophy,” Garrison’s Humanity Rising Global Solutions Summit (https://ubiverse.org/groups/humanity-rising-global-solutions-summit ), Raworth’s Donut Economics (https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/ ), Atkinson’s The Story of Our Time (https://www.robertatkinson.net/the-story-of-our-time/ ), De Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man and Divine Milieu, Du Nouy’s Human Destiny, Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, Jaisinghani’s Homo Sapiens: An Appraisal of Modern Humans (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01BWQ1SE2/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 ), George Monbiot’s essays for The Guardian, or Pam B. Simms at MidAtlantic Transition (email@example.com), Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and Common as Air, Rob Hopkins’ Transition Companion, the site for the Citizens Climate Lobby (https://citizensclimatelobby.org/ ), Paul Goodman’s Communitas, or the book Potential: The Life and Ideas of David Bohm, Shepherd’s New Self, New World (https://frameshifts.com/2013/07/ ), Mitchell’s Living-Spirit Based Change and the stories of another native writer, Joseph Bruhac, such as Keeper of the Earth, or Shomrei Adamah’s Keepers of the Earth Guide, entitled Judaism and Ecology, or the works of Karl Polanyi or Jonathan Haidt. There are so many thinkers from many disciplines and religious orientations who have tried to understand the path humanity has chosen through revolutions in science, industry, technology, and information that it is impossible to make a simple summary.
The human project. But here is a simple summary: The desirable way to conduct our human project—dropping all the decorations (https://frameshifts.com/2020/12/18/decorations-displays-and-forms-of-resistance/ )—is to scale it down, reduce population growth, eliminate poverty, reduce wanting and consumption, promote education, imaginative creative engagement and collaboration, extend and protect wild habitats and biodiversity, put the energy-recruiting energy of religion to use in reinterpreting texts and traditions to widen the circle of compassion, bring about justice, and center attention on such matters as our interdependence with each other and other living beings. Easy peasy.
Except it isn’t. Why? Well, start with this list: sociocultural blindsiding, grievances, distrust, vested hierarchical and commercial interests, global corpocracies, information management and violence by bad actors, and legal proceedings that maintain injustice.
Noam Chomsky recommends more anarchy, by which he means not careless terrorism but the destruction of illegitimate power structures. A good start, but risky. Like the Chinese gentleman in Charles Lamb’s Dissertation on Roast Pig, you may pay for your tasty meal by burning down your house. Jefferson and Madison, of course, had other ideas. A majority of Americans are still trying to make sense and justice out of them. Critical factors to manage include population, topography (currently jig-sawed in a thousand ways), water, waste, poisons, nutrition, energy—the usual suspects. Of course, big ideas lead to simple solutions.
But most human problems are complex issues, not experimental designs subject to t-tests of statistical significance. They require individual treatment; they are case studies with their own smells, flavors, and their own—you guessed it—infinite variety, which, with an apology to Shakespeare, all humans possess. And what a problem for planners and eco-gurus it is! Perhaps that is why, as Berneri showed, most planners drift toward totalitarianism. Benevolent or full-strength, it really doesn’t matter. What to do? What to do?
The Wound Treatment Center. Well, since each case requires special handling—as you would care for a wound—perhaps we do not so much need a grand plan as a tradition of care. Although I’ve tried out the eco-guru role from time to time (see below), I have come to believe that the current approach to moving toward a more just and sustainable future must be decentralized, local, personal, immediate, and focused on four kinds of care: policy, polity, poetry, and policing. The Wound Treatment Center that I have in mind would be staffed by practitioners of peace, conflict resolution, guided learning, reasoning, and compassion. I call them the Fellowship of the Attentive, and first wrote about them in the book Frameshifts. First responders would render first-aid to the confused, mistaken, misguided, grieving, and aggrieved. Long term care would be provided to heal such wounds as injustice, violence, and inequity from the inside out. Attention must be given not only to what we do—policy—and to our societal rules of engagement—polity—but also to language. Poets are caretakers of language. They must offset the perversions of communication made by advertising, social media, and government. Finally, human violence is undeniable. Caretakers who deal with this wound must understand its root structure within the public body. To care for such wounds is to care for the public good, to build and renew community.
So, before moving on to the bright sustainable future, let’s train some first responders.
Some links to some of my eco-guru gigs—————————————————-
A book about seeking justice by organizing experience in the narrative form (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxXPx7mHDOs&t=15s ).
A sermon to interpret faith in terms of interdependence (https://frameshifts.com/2016/04/)
Thoughts on the custom of growing lawns (https://frameshifts.com/2016/03/ )
On collaboration (https://frameshifts.com/2015/09/ )
On our limitations (https://frameshifts.com/2015/05/ )
On enlightenment (https://frameshifts.com/2014/05/ )
On modeling population growth: a population study with R. Jaisinghani and Robert Rose (https://frameshifts.com/2020/05/05/population-matters/ )
On some books and music: The flipbook about the Fellowship of the Attentive, Tales Since the Shift, a sequel to Frameshifts. https://www.flipsnack.com/rlrose4621/tales-since-the-shift/full-view.html and the author landing site: https://formsofresistance.com/ and blog site: https://frameshifts.com/