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The Case for the Green State

By William Hawes

Critiques of the modern nation-state have been growing in recent decades, due to the abysmal failures of the capitalist, neoliberal order. In particular, conservative-libertarian arguments are tinged with isolationist and protectionist trade rhetoric, low taxes and regulations, and supply-side economics. On the other side, the mild leftism of social-democratic reforms promote endless government spending, increases in social programs and minimum wages, increases in taxes for the rich and the corporate world, and supra-national governmental organizations with endless bureaucracy and profligate waste. Neither of these models offers anything new, nor do they address the many crises that our world will inherit: they are simply band-aids for the festering wounds that our oligarchic system has created.

Green political theory offers a way out of this dialectical impasse. By viewing the world through a transpersonal and holistic lens, the truth of our industrial system can be seen for what it is: a morally bankrupt system which exploits the less fortunate in the name of private property and profit, a machine which grinds down and destroys cultural and biological diversity. The Western states are presented as shining beacons of freedom and democracy, while in reality they scheme by trade liberalization (globalization) to lord over the developing world. They bend and corrupt the ideals of universal human rights to suit their agendas, invading other nations directly or using proxy fighters/terrorists to achieve strategic objectives. Proponents of green politics transcend these baser instincts, and advocate for nonviolence, eliminating poverty, and conserving the natural world for the greater good.

Contemporary green theorists are influenced by indigenous wisdom and the sustainable practices of diverse tribal societies, as well as modern science. The roots of Green theory can be found in the scientific disciplines of conservation biology and ecology, as well as their precursors, the environmental advocates of the 19thand 20th centuries. The list is vast and includes such notables as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Rudolph Steiner, Rachel Carson, Donella Meadows, James Lovelock, and Fritjof Capra.

Green politics is based on a few bedrock principles: one is that the moral and political community should be extended to provide for the rights of non-humans and future human generations. 1,2. Another principle is that horizontal governance and forms of direct democracy must have a say in governing: some issues should be decided by plebiscite, even if technical details of the legislation are left to our representatives and specialists in science and engineering. Also, sustainable development practices must be enforced in any green society, even if it goes against a democratic mandate. If a hypothetical majoritarian government in power decided to exploit and destroy ecosystems under a Green constitution, that ruling party/coalition could be stripped of power.

Green political theory, or ecologism in Andrew Dobson’s parlance, is a relatively new political ideology, and stands apart from liberalism, conservatism, and socialism, as Dobson explains in his book Green Political Thought.3 Green politics does not contain the hubris of liberalism, and does not promote private property and market fundamentalism as unassailable principles. Dobson invokes Mark Sagoff, who correctly states that “the liberal state does not dictate the moral goals its citizens are to achieve; it simply referees the means they use to satisfy their own preferences”.4  Of course, this adherence to moral neutrality is a cop-out: by pretending to be pluralistic and democratic, the liberal state uses the law to uphold massive inequality, structural racism, absurd consumer trends, addiction to fossil fuels, and environmental destruction.

Green theory is also distinct from conservatism, as it rejects the pessimistic and deterministic view of human weakness and original sin. Ecologically minded theorists chastises conservatives who focus on “preserving… the past; ecologism is interested in conserving and preserving for the future”.5

Also, Green political theory has many precise criticisms of mainstream socialism: its anthropomorphic-centered approach towards protecting the environment, the forms of pervasive narrow-minded utilitarianism, and the apologetics on display when socialists are confronted with the environmental record of the former Soviet bloc. Further, it rejects the bias of socialists who express that eradicating poverty and redistributing money and land to the poor will be in itself enough to end environmental destruction and harmful industrial practices.6

Unlike liberals, conservatives, and socialists, Greens do not view nature instrumentally. Rather, many Greens respond to nature in an intrinsic, spiritual way: it is part of their “ground of being”, to borrow a Paul Tillich term. Many tribal societies, of course, do not even have a word to express the concept of nature, as it is completely embedded in their consciousness and way of life. Moral value towards nature is given unconditionally by those who understand ecology: this idea is central to what Arne Naess called ecosophy. Greens and political ecologists speak of the “ethical relationship which should hold between human and non-human nature”.7

If there are to be nation-states that persist long into the 21st century and beyond, they will be green states, ecologically minded states. There is no complex argument needed, as it is a matter of survival: we can collectively form nations based on sustainable development, zero-growth, run with renewable energy, with abundant food, health care, housing, and basic incomes for all, or our societies will perish, and international relations will devolve into a Hobbesian nightmare.

Civil society will have to be included in green governance to some degree: whether through referendums, public positions drawn at random, community based leadership councils, etc. Regarding environmental questions about land development, industry, and agriculture, the precautionary principle will rule: the burden of proof will fall on those who intervene in the environment to prove that there is minimal risk to ecosystems, rather than on scientists, activists, green NGOs, and the public to prove that serious and definite environmental damage will occur. Publicly funded elections must become mandatory, and also, no corporate-backed candidates should be allowed again, ever. Deliberative democracy should be encouraged, and elements of James Fishkin’s Deliberative Polling8 should be included to encourage thoughtful and rational debate in the civic sphere.

Following this basic framework, along with deep and rigorous ecological education for our youth, is essential. Also, the re-education of adults who have forgotten their connection to the Earth is critically important. Unlearning the dirty tricks and propaganda that we’ve unconsciously internalized, and disowning the immoral and callous liberal ideology are among our most important tasks as well. Being a true progressive means making hard decisions, and seeing beyond the veil of what our industrial based consumer society has to offer. The only option our nations have going forward is to begin forming a state system based on ecology, which has the potential to radically transform our views and reorient societies towards lasting peace, egalitarian democracy, social justice, and sustainable living.

This essay was previously published at Dissidentvoice.org and Countercurrents.org.

William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. You can find his ebook, Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire, here. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, and Dissident Voice. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com

Notes:

1.) Robyn Eckersley. The Green State. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2004. 120-122.
2.) Mike Mills. “Green Democracy: The Search for an ethical solution.” Democracy and Green Political Thought: Sustainability, Rights, and Citizenship. Eds. Brian Doherty and Marius de Geus. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 97-114.
3.) Andrew Dobson. Green Political Thought. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2007. 149-176.
4.) Ibid., 151.
5.) Ibid., 163.
6.) Ibid., 168.
7.) Ibid., 171.
8.) https://www.uvm.edu/~dguber/POLS234/articles/fishkin.pdf

The Oil God

A friend of mine once described the 1992 children’s movie Ferngully as the perfect storm of nineties children’s animation and early ecocritical film consciousness. The film, for those of you who never saw it or perhaps have forgotten some of the details, has a relatively strong environmental message for a children’s movie, and an impressive voice actor cast featuring not only Robin Williams, but also a singing Tim Curry in the role of the film’s villain “Hexxus”: a primordial creature of ooze and malice.

In the film, a group of human forestry workers are driving a clear-cutting machine called the “The Leveler” to clearcut a rainforest. I’ve always found it fascinating that in this scene of Ferngully, before Hexxus is released from his prison, the script of the movie specifically has human characters speaking of the labour practices of their employers and fellow employees. Labour and environmental destruction are intrinsically tied to the machine, and the humans driving The Leveller set the stage for Hexxus to arise. The most chilling—or thrilling, depending on your mood and how exciting you find Tim Curry’s singing voice—scene in the film is the musical number after The Leveller destroys Hexxus’ prison, an ancient dead tree where he’d been previously entombed by the magic of the forest, and set him free:

Oil and grime, poison sludge
Diesel clouds and noxious muck
Slime beneath me, slime up above
Ooh, you’ll love my (ah-ah-ah) toxic love
Toxic love

[…]

‘Cause greedy human beings will always lend a hand
With the destruction of this worthless jungle land
And what a beautiful machine they have provided
To slice a path of doom with my foul breath to guide it

Hexxus’ song “Toxic Love” describes his delights in the ingenuity of man-made destruction. Thanks to the fuel and oil in The Leveler, Hexxus is able to regain his former might in record time. With human help, he is then able to go on a rampage of destruction against the forests and all its residents within.

anigif_enhanced-9452-1413399950-1
GIF: Hexxus discovering the innards of The Leveler

Though Ferngully obviously positions oil, power, and ecological and environmental destruction as evils to be vanquished—specifically, by doing away with Hexxus by locking him back in his tomb—what I always found interesting about Hexxus as a villain of greed and destruction is that he is never presented as a human creation, though it is thanks to humanity’s greedy clear-cutting that he is “set free” from his slumber. He is presented as the complete, destructive opposite of ‘nature’ in the world of Ferngully, and anathema in every way to the nature-loving creatures of the forest. But the fact of the matter is that he is, like all the fairies of Ferngully, a creature of the earth. As a creature of the earth, like those fairies, he is supernatural—but born of the natural world. He is a formidable villain, arguably one of the more interesting characters of the film. His character design is inspired directly by death: as his final, iconic form features a human skull and bony rib cage covered in dark, dripping oil. He is not only a force for decay and death within the film, he is also power incarnate. Hexxus relishes power—and he hungers for more, and more, and more…

Representing Hexxus as a combination of a dead human as well as a creature of oil and tar makes perfect sense: this is a children’s film, so the villain must be recognizably frightening and monstrous. Though whether the creators were aware of it or not, Hexxus can also be interpreted as a a layered expression of humanity’s enduring hunt for resources, specifically and most importantly its hunt for oil. Oil has given us humans power beyond all imagination, and has completely changed our world on a fundamental level. The character of Hexxus becomes a hauntingly perfect metaphor for resource-extraction capitalism and imperialism. Like the humans in Ferngully, humans from Europe found the tomb of an ancient and powerful sleeping Oil God in the inky depths of the earth. In our hubris and greed we awoke him, and accepted to glorify him in exchange for immeasurable, cataclysmic, chaotic power.

Explosion of the deepwater horizon tanker
The God of Oil is also a god of warfare and death. Pictured here is the cataclysmic explosion of the tanker Deepwater Horizon in 2010, which caused one of the biggest environmental disasters in USA history. Source: http://grist.org/climate-energy/these-new-high-res-photos-of-deepwater-horizon-will-make-you-go-holy/

Petrocultures—where it becomes impossible to articulate the ubiquitous

Our society is powered by a dark death that pools beneath us and all around us—this is mostly a poetic way of saying that Oil is everywhere. During my childhood, the conversation regarding fossil fuels all around me, at school, at church, with my family, was all about how we were running out of this finite, limited resource. There was a palpable sense of panic that we were going to run out of gas one day. Mainstream conversations have noticeably changed, two decades later, as shale gas, tar sands, and other unconventional methods of extracting fossil fuels are on the rise and heavily promoted as technological “bridges” to “greener” energy here in Canada. Where I live in the province of Québec, we just found conventional oil in Anticosti, in Gaspésie. Reports seem to agree that human demand for fossil fuels are outpacing current production levels—not to mention that climate change seems to be getting in the way of the production of North American tar sands, notably because of global warming-encouraged wildfires in Western Canada. The human thirst for Oil is insatiable—when “conventional oil” is nowhere to be found, we crack open the earth, the tectonic plates of our planet, to find shale gas or exploit tar sands.

Marine pollution...is all plastic. Source is Bo Eide on Flickr.
This marine pollution…is plastic. Photograph by Bo Eide on Flickr.

But I find it interesting how conversations about oil—and oil-derived products such as plastics, solvents, dyes, detergents, soaps, body products, just to name a few—have become sublimated into different kinds of conversations. These oil-derived products have brought many technological advantages with them, but we are now faced with the terrifying prospects of plastic pollution and waste—prospects that this society is completely unequipped to deal with. Why does it seem like we lack the language to speak and reflect thoroughly and deeply on the omnipresence and ethical aspects of oil, oil extraction, and petrochemicals that now occupy our lives, our homes and and our bodies?

Perhaps because any talk, especially criticism, about oil extraction and production becomes unacceptable unless you’re talking in “objectively serious” and “rational” economic terms that do not threaten oil industry interests. In many mainstream political spheres, speaking out against Oil is a serious faux-pas. Recently in Canada, mainstream environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Naomi Klein received harsh criticism from Alberta’s so-called “left of centre” NDP provincial government after the publishing of The Leap Manifesto, calling for Canada’s immediate divestment from fossil fuels:

“The government of Alberta repudiates the sections of that document that address energy infrastructure,” said Notley in a legislature news conference. “These ideas will never form any part of policy. They are naive. They are ill-informed. They are tone deaf.” (The National Post, April 11 2016)

Rachel Notley’s criticism of The Leap Manifesto might be familiar to you, especially when the Premier calls the document “naive”. It has become childish to speak about Oil in a way that challenges global economic party lines. To resist Oil in a manner that also threatens capitalist or imperialist industries and state governments is to allow yourself to be branded as immature, ignorant, and, most important of all, irrelevant. The conversation about Oil, according to the political élite and captains of industry, can only happen in one way: the way that ensures Oil’s continued extraction, production, and consumption. There is a new Church, folks, and its god is Oil.

Photos taken during the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta during spring 2016.
Photos taken during the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta during spring 2016.

The consequences of these social and political realities, however, is that we now live in a culture that refuses to seriously criticize Oil, and has now become unable to articulate in an everyday, mainstream sense just how deeply embedded Oil has become in our lives.

Of cultural consciousness the writer Amitav Gosh once asked, of the United States especially: “in the nation where oil is virtually sacrosanct and where the industry remains a prodigious force, [why have] literary responses to its significance for American life been so scant?” Though in his essay on Oil and World Literature, professor Graeme Macdonald is quick to problematize and challenge Gosh’s assertion that there has been a cultural silence in response to Oil, he raises an interesting points regarding how the ubiquitousness of Oil makes every cultural literary production—perhaps obliquely—a production about Oil: 

All modern writing is premised on both the promise and the hidden costs and benefits of hydrocarbon culture. If this proposition seems unwieldy—preposterous even—it is still worth thinking how oil’s sheer predominance within modernity means that it is everywhere in literature yet nowhere refined enough—yet—to be brought to the surface of every text. But it sits there nevertheless—untapped, bubbling under the surface, ready to be extracted by a new generation of oil-aware petrocritics.

Oil has become the big constant in our lives, to the point where it has taken over the way that we see and interact with each other, and with the world. Though some of us may be able to conceptualize the ways in which the environmental destruction that accompanies fossil fuels extraction upsets or destroys human (and nonhuman) societies and ancient ecologies, most of us cannot conceptualize or articulate many of the other ways in which Oil has upset delicately-balanced ecological systems, of which humans and their cultures are a part. Though Macdonald contends, in the citation above, that there have been cultural productions sub-textually or textually dealing with Oil, there is a marked mainstream or popular cultural silence on the ubiquitousness of our every-day interactions with Oil.

This ubiquitousness has been sublimated to the point where we no longer name it, see it, or recognize it. When trying to describe the quality and quantity of humanity’s interactions with Oil, writer Brett Bloom created the term Petro-subjectivity in order to communicate that all of our individual and collective subjectivities have been permanently altered by our relationship with Oil: 

Petro-subjectivity is something that each of us experiences constantly. It is a sense of self and the world that shapes who we are and how we think. It stems in part from the fact that the use of oil is present in every thing we do. It has shaped the concepts that govern our thinking. Our use of language and the basic concepts that structure our existence are breathed through the logic of oil relationships and form the metaphoric universe we bathe ourselves in when we speak to one another about who we are, what we do and what the world around us consists of.

Oil is a part of our every day lives. It changes the way we think and are, and nothing is left untouched. As the petro-subjectivity map above expresses, Oil affects some of our most intimate and bodily experiences: our sex lives, our personal hygiene, our reproduction, our medication, our health, our food. Almost every small ritual and every day action is mediated through the convenience, power, or benefits of Oil. Some of these benefits are undoubtedly very real, and very important, and cannot be discounted outright. But we have lost our ability to envision a future without Oil, or a future that interacts with Oil in an extremely different manner. We have lost our ability to envision and imagine a world in which humans do not use Oil to interact with the world and each other. Our understanding of the world is firmly rooted in Oil, as Brett Bloom states: “Petro-subjectivity is in place well before you ever self-identify as something else like Christian, atheist, socialist, environmentalist, or other ideological decoration.” 

In return for this petro-subjectivity, for power, for convenience, for more riches for the very rich, the Oil God demands sacrifices—destruction, war, oppression, death—and as a species we acquiesce. We burn into the atmosphere and into our lungs the distilled remains of Earth’s long dead, and in so doing we destroy species after species in order to fulfill capitalist and imperial contradictions and delusions. We go to war with each other and murder each other over Oil’s favour. We oppress and pillage societies less militarized and industrialized than ourselves. We fill our discourse surrounding Oil with platitudes and empty promises. We embrace petro-subjectivity and hydrocarbon culture without reservations and without end, despite the fact that our planet and human biology have some pretty hard limits past which we cannot survive.

And the Oil God? Well, to put it in Hexxus’ own lyrics from the song Toxic Love, the Oil God feels “good—a special kind of horny.”

Works Cited and Further Reading

Shady pine trees and rivers of light

About a fortnight ago, I attended a Witches Sabbat on unceded Algonquin land and territory in the Ottawa Valley. The purpose of the Sabbat was working with land spirits as well as with working with curses, a contentious topic in many circles of witchcraft in the west. This writing here consists of my personal experience at the Sabbat participating with the pine forests and the Bonnechere river, as well as the community of powerful witches assembled there that weekend.

The way that people stitch themselves together happens
Slow, slow, slow
—Meklit Hadero

The fire, the conifers, the constant chorus of cicadas, frogs, and toads. The pine needles that coat the forest floor, a soft tapestry soaked in cedrus deodara that protects and nourishes. I learned long ago that many conifers do indeed drop their needles (and sap), like many deciduous trees, and that this act is both aggressive, and protective. The needles soak the ground in pine essential oils, changing the acidity levels of the soil and killing harmful microbes and bacteria. Plants that cannot stand the pH of the pine needles will not grow here, and will be killed, but many other plants and creatures flourish here, protected by the pines that reach upwards and onwards for the sun.

The ecosystem of the pine forest at Raven’s Knoll becomes a metaphor for the workings of the Witches’ Sabbat. Our curses, our sorrows, our poisons, and our fury, are like those pine needles—but instead of poisoning us, or this place, we create soft earth under the soles of our weary feet, and for the forest to thrive on.

“To the Sabbath! To the Sabbath!’ they cried. ‘On to the Witches’ Sabbath!” Up and down that narrow hall they danced, the women on each side of him, to the wildest measure he had ever imagined, yet which he dimly, dreadfully remembered, till the lamp on the wall flickered and went out, and they were left in total darkness. And the devil woke in his heart with a thousand vile suggestions and made him afraid.

—Algernon Blackwood, The Complete John Silence Stories

Our workings seem demonic, haunted, haunting, and possessed when viewed from the outside. How can we work in the pitch black of night? From the outside, it may seem like our ceremonies are odious, strange and unsettling. Restraint is left at the fork in the path where the country highway becomes a country road. Here we scream. Here we shake. Here we weep, or cry, or laugh—is there anything more magical, more satisfying, more infuriating than a good, witchy, cackle? We keep ourselves on tight leashes outside this forest. The full might of who we are—queers, transgender people, indigenous people, elders, parents, millennials, witches—scares a lot of people. One just has to glance at the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum, or even simply at current events, at the ongoing destruction of the earth and the colonization of all the beings within, to witness how ancient and far-reaching that fear is. We keep ourselves on guard, outside this forest, anxious and watchful, but here, amongst pine trees, as our screaming voices rise to the ceiling of the forest and erupt into the sky, we remember that to make these sounds, these promises, we must remember how to breathe fully and without reservations—to properly exhale, to properly sing, to properly speak, we must remember to breathe.

We must arrive as well-behaved guests, fresh and ready for whatever might happen. Much as we try to leave our baggage, emotional and otherwise, at the threshold of the forest, some baggage creeps and clings too strongly. In the mere weeks before arriving at Raven’s Knoll, I dealt with some of the darkest evils that spring up when least expected: cancers and tumours growing within family and loved ones who are simply far too young; the funeral of my beloved grandfather; the uncontainable sorrow and fears of mothers and sisters; and the ever-constant stresses of dealing with unending bureaucracies and hospitals, anxieties over failing to finish university by now, anxieties over writing rejections, anxieties over projects that never begin or end. That feeling, I’m sure you know the one, of years compressed into weeks and the lingering exhaustion that sits on your chest as you try to remember each deadline, each promise, and each failure without breaking into frightened sobs.

On my first morning in the forest, I woke up at four in the morning in order to finish working on an enormous research paper that I needed to have finished by the end of May, or else I would not graduate from my undergraduate degree. I’d been trying to finish it in the weeks before the Witches’ Sabbat, but finally, with mosquitos and flies buzzing in my ears, the noon sun dusting the trees above with light, I typed the last word of the essay and finished formatting every, last, bloody, citation. With a freedom I had not felt in weeks, I threw myself more or less fully-clothed into the sweet-watered Bonnechere river to celebrate. Gliding through the sunlit water was my first victory during a weekend full of treasures. As I swam into the slow, happy current, I felt unbearably glad, even after everything that had happened. I’d felt whittled-down for weeks, to my bare bones, and the Bonnechere—which was named from the French bonne chère, or good cheer— let me float in her light. I followed a few small, adventurous freshwater fish, and dug my feet in the soft river bed for a while.

I returned to the fire pit and to the workshops just in time to help discuss and create the curses we would be casting that night at dusk, the curses that we would design to protect the forest, its guests, and all the year-round residents within, from the dangers that visitors to the Knoll might bring with them. We banished abuse, neglect and cruelty. We banished assault and rape. We banished those that would harm the land, those that would litter and threaten the forest with fire or the river waters with pollution. We banished by cursing—a curse like those pine needles, a curse that would ultimately help heal the land from the trauma dealt to it by humans. Much of the forest at Raven’s Knoll had been clear-cut and the land used for monocultures before it had been acquired by its current caretakers.

Have you ever witnessed the disturbing reality of a clear-cut forest? Even now, as the trees grow again, you can tell that something is, well, off. I witnessed it last year during the Witches Sabbat at the heart of where the clear-cutting occurred not many years ago. Even just at the level of the ecosystem, it’s clear that something brutal and sad happened here, that large parts of this forest lacks the kind of biodiversity that usually accompanies new growth after a forest fire or when farmland is allowed to go a little wild, on its own, for a decade or more.

Sometimes, at Raven’s Knoll, if you shut up, listen, and watch carefully, you see the signs and scars of trauma. You hear in the evening wind through the trees that this isn’t your land. It’s a reminder, if not also a subtle threat, that we’re all temporary guests here, that the land will outlast us and our hubris, and we all have to make amends—especially us settlers—in order to heal.

A witch who cannot hex, cannot heal. A witch who cannot cut, cannot seal.

It felt right, in more ways than one, to work on that curse. Cursing is a contentious topic in witchcraft, but it has a long, long history. Before the twentieth century there were exceedingly rare, or perhaps no portrayals of witches as beings of sweetness and light. Witches tended to walk that liminal line between shadow and sun. Most medicines are also poisons: they wouldn’t be medicines if not for their poison. Yet cursing today is both frowned upon and cast aside. It’s seen as an invitation or encouragement of uncontrollable evil, harm, cruelty into the caster’s life and the lives of their loved ones. Cursing involves, sometimes quite literally, jumping into darkness, of naming what is not often explicitly named, of recognizing that one being’s poison (such as pine needles) is another being’s home. Cursing involves grappling with ethical dilemmas that have no morally preferable solution, as well as those situations that do. Cursing involves realizing that some relationships are too complex for straightforward, generalizable answers. Cursing involves realizing that cursing is a complicated endeavour to be treated with respect during the entire process. And there is no wiggle room for errors. Clarity, even while here in the bog and the mud, covered in sand and dirt, has to be maintained or else shit will hit the fan. Cursing is the dark side of the moon.

After the curse, my hands, feet, and thighs were red-raw from dancing, screaming, singing, clapping, and stomping. Lightheadedness and dehydration settles within, as the songs of toads, frogs, bugs and crows come to us from the forest and the shore of The Cauldron. In a few glorious hours as night fell, we poured all of our malice, might, hurt, and anger into a large poppet of sticks, clay, and cloth, and when we threw it into the fire, we screamed, sang, and cheered as we watched the fucker burn.

Get the fuck out of here, asshole. This is not your land.

Then, at midnight, we donned white shirts and scarves and masks, and we began a procession under the stars through the forest to The Cauldron, a freshwater spring from an aquifer deep underground. With songs and hushed whispers we arrived at her warm, sandy shores.

After one last shout and call to the spirits of land and place, the last magic working of the night started as honey and drink was passed around, witches spat wine all over our white clothes and in our faces, and water scented with flower petals was splashed and thrown over us. With one last hurrah we dived under the black waters of The Cauldron, whispering our prayers under our breath or giggling as we dared ourselves onwards and into inky waters in the middle of the night. I was reminded starkly of The Mabinogion, of the cauldrons of ancient goddesses such as Ceridwen, where from their sacred brew a few drops fell to impart great knowledge and wisdom, or where dead warriors were brought back from death and reborn.

Jumping into that fresh-water cauldron which snapping turtles and frogs call their home, after an evening and night of blasting and banishing, creates relief from grief. Cursing, I discover as I hold my breath in the dark water, is a little bit like grief. The act of cursing for such a powerful purpose reaches deep inside you and cuts out something, maybe something bad, maybe something good, but something that had become a part of you and that you now know you must learn to live without. It’s like a forest fire that blazes and destroys what you love, what you hate, what you need, what you want, what you have become: without that fire renewal would be impossible, change would be impossible, and, especially, healing would be impossible.

One last word: a special thank you to all the organizers and all witches and guests who helped make this year’s Witches’ Sabbat at Raven’s Knoll an extraordinary success. And thank you, thank you, thank you to the pine forest and the Bonnechere river.

Further Reading

Cover image is mine, a photo taken of the pine forest near the wetlands in Raven’s Knoll. This essay was originally posted at http://gersande.com/blog/shady-pine-trees-and-rivers-of-light-the-witches-sabbat-at-ravens-knoll-2016/


Gersande La Flèche

unnamed (1)Gersande La Flèche is a nonbinary transgender artist, writer, and programmer who lives in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), Québec, of Colombian, Breton, Italian, and Québecois-Irish ancestry. They are an animist particularly interested by the philosophical questions created by posthuman and nonhuman theory, and like to write about ecocritism and environmental ethics, as well as diving into subjects such as colonization, feminism, literature and video games at Gersande.com.

Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

View all my reviews

We Are the Dreamers of the Day: Capitalism and the Failure of Imagination

(The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989)

Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE!

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Princess Bride

When the Inconceivable Happens

 

In 2014, we marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To those who were born later, it is hard to convey how earth-shattering this was. The fall of “the Wall” was one of those events that profoundly changed my conception of the world. Growing up, as I did, in the Midwest in the 1980s, there were certain things I knew to be true:

  1. The United States was destined to reach the stars.
  2. The Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, with whom we would forever be locked in a stalemate.
  3. The Republican Party had the best plan for keeping America economically and militarily successful.
  4. I was safe in my home because the continental United States would never be attacked.

Each of these myths was ultimately undermined by an event in my lifetime:

  1. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 began to undermine my faith in the myth of technological progress.
  2. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR in 1989, breaking the stalemate between the USSR and the USA, which had previously been inconceivable because it implied nuclear war.
  3. The defeat of incumbent George Bush I in the 1992 election.
  4. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Of course, each of these seemingly unprecedented events had their precedents. There were many disasters in the history of the U.S. space program, perhaps most notably Apollo 1 in 1967. The fall of the USSR, while apparently a surprise to the CIA, should not have been a surprise to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the history of empires. My own experience of the peaceful end of the Reagan era hardly compared with the Watergate scandal which my parents lived through. And the attack of the World Trade Center surely was no more shocking to me than Pearl Harbor was to my grandparents.

My parents’ generation experienced similar paradigm shattering experiences, including the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the assassination of Kennedy. For my grandparents, it was the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust. I think we all must grow up thinking that certain things could never happen … until they do. Thinking back, humanity seems to be plagued by events which, at the time, seemed inconceivable.

Many of these events caused people to question the existence of a just God, from the Black Death in the 14th century, which killed a third of Europe’s population and over half of the population in cities like Paris, Florence, and London, to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which registered an 8.5-9.0 and killed people as they sat in church on the morning of All Saints’ Day, to the trench warfare of WWI, which created a generation of atheists.

On the flip side, there have been world-shattering changes for the better. For people in the South, living in the first half of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement was probably inconceivable. My parents joined the Mormon church the same year that the church hierarchy decided to grant priesthood privileges to Black males (1978) … something which some people (including a previous Mormon prophet) had said would never happen. People are saying the same thing about Mormon women and the priesthood now, but “the times are a changing.”  The success of the same-sex marriage rights movement is another recent example. I didn’t think I would live to see that particular historical arc curve toward justice, but I am glad I did.

The Myth That Things Will Always Be This Way

 

It is easy to live under the illusion that things are the way they always have been and they will always be the way they are now. But there really is no excuse for this kind of failure of imagination, at least among adults. This is true on both the personal level, as we contemplate our individual deaths, and on the collective level, as we contemplate the future of our society and our species.

Every adult person should realize that, one day, the United States will no longer exist. No doubt this would be considered unpatriotic heresy by many people, but it seems an inevitable conclusion looking at the political history of the world. What’s more, one day, human beings will no longer exist. … Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. One day, no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light, we will not be.

This thought struck me as I watched the movie, Interstellar, for the first time. The movie is set in a near-future, where the earth can no longer sustain humanity. The population has been decimated by famine. The good old US of A still exists, but it is no longer what it once was. And a combination of blight and dust storms seems intent on wiping out what remains of a struggling humanity. We’ve seen many such post-apocalyptic cinematic visions in the past, from Road Warrior and Terminator to The Postman and The Book of Eli. But what was disturbing about Interstellar to me was not the changes, but the similarities, of the near-future depicted in the movie to the present day. Many post-apocalyptic stories describe a future that is unrecognizable to present-day Americans. But the future of Interstellar, a future of environmental disaster and only partial social collapse, seems very real.

It occurred to me that humanity’s paralysis over the impending environmental (and corresponding economic) collapse is a function of the psychological strength of the myth that things will always be the same. The sun always rises in the morning, and winter predictably (less predictably now) follows autumn which is followed by spring, and I, here in the U.S. go to work during the week, and rest on the weekend, and go on being a good consumer, largely unperturbed by war and famine and plague. So it’s easy to believe that things have always been this way and always will be …

… but they won’t.

It is likely that my children or grandchildren will live to see a day when our everyday experience, living in the United States today at the beginning of the 21st century, will be entirely foreign to the children being born at that time. This is not apocalyptic catastrophizing. It is simply a recognition that things will not always be as they are. And I think realizing this may be the first step toward making the system-level changes which are needed to address the environmental disaster which is already happening.

Certain things which we take as inevitable … things like capitalism, for example … are not inevitable. As Naomi Kline explains in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, our economic system and life on earth are incompatible. Our economic system demands unfettered growth of consumption, but our survival and that of many other species requires a contraction of humanity’s growth and consumption. One of these must give way. Our choice, according to Kline, is to fundamentally change our economic system, or to allow nature to change it for us. The first will be hard, but the second even harder. But it is possible: If “the Wall” can fall, then the “Invisible Hand” can be severed.

One way or another, capitalism — at least capitalism as we know it, built on a model of infinite growth — will no longer be. My hope, is that we humans are around to see that day, and that the demise of this particular economic system does not correspond with the demise of our species. What we need is the courage to imagine a different future — the courage to imagine both a future where we have committed collective suicide through our desecration of the environment and a better future where we have escaped that fate by creating a new kind of society.

Paganism: A Religion of the Imagination

 

Where does Paganism come in? Well, if our problem is really a failure of imagination, then Paganism is uniquely suited to the task. Imagination is at the core of the Neo-Pagan paradigm. Reconstructing an ancient pagan past requires imagination, as much as it does scholarship. And much of the Neo-Pagan revival was inspired by fantasy. Dion Fortune’s fiction was an important influence on British Traditional Wicca, as was Robert Graves’ White Goddess (which is a work of imagination in the guise of philology). The American Neo-Pagan revival was also inspired by works of imagination, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. 

The early founders of the Neo-Pagan religions drew from myriad sources for inspiration – both ancient and modern – and where gaps existed, they improvised – following Monique Wittig’s injunction to “Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.” Later, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may have played a role in the growth of deity-centered Polytheism. More recently we have seen the emergence of so-called “pop-culture Paganism,” which includes the worship of comic book and movie characters.

Imagination has been long been denigrated as mere fancy in our post-Enlightenment culture. But imagination is more than fancy. As Sabina Magliocco explains in Witching Culture (2004), imagination refers to “a broad spectrum of thought processes, from memory to creative problem-solving to artistic expression, that rely primarily on internal imaging, rather than on discursive verbal expression or lineal logic.” She argues that rather than being irrational, “the imagination possesses its own internal logic that complements or enhances linear thought.” It is this part of ourselves which is awakened by Pagan ritual and magic. And it is to this part of ourselves which me must look to begin the transformation of our society. As Lawrence of Arabia wrote:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

We Pagans are uniquely capable of imagining things being different than they are. After all, we are Pagans in (predominately) Christian America! (or, as the case may be, the increasingly secular English-speaking world) More than any other religious group in the West, perhaps, Pagans can imaginatively “remember” a time when Christianity was not the dominant mode of religious discourse. And we can imagine a future which is not only post-Christian, but post-monotheistic. And to the extent that our pathological relationship with the environment is bound up with a monotheistic paradigm, we are uniquely situated to help imagine a society which has a radically different relationship with the environment.

Indeed, much of Pagan ritual and practice is designed to help us realize just that possibility. Starhawk calls this the “radical imagination,” which she describes as “refusing to accept the dominators’ picture of the world”:

“All war is first waged in the imagination, first conducted to limit our dreams and visions, to make us accept within ourselves its terms, to believe that our only choices are those it lays before us. If we let the terms of force describe the terrain of our battle, we will lose. But if we hold to the power of our visions, our heartbeats, our imagination, we can fight on our own turf, which is the landscape of consciousness. There, the enemy cannot help but transform.”

(The Fifth Sacred Thing)

We can lead the way in effecting this paradigm shift away from from a mode of consciousness which is linear, atomistic and disenchanted — which lies at the root of all of these failed systems — to one that is cyclical, interconnected and re-enchanted. One way we do that is through rituals which connect us to nature, and by creating new myths (like the myth of Gaia).

Imagination gets a bad rap in our contemporary scientistic culture, which fetishizes objectivity and rationality and denigrates subjectivity and non-rational ways of knowing. But imagination has been behind every major revolution in human history, whether technological, social, or religious. The environmental crisis is a result of a failure of imagination — a failure to imagine the disastrous consequences of our current economic system and a failure to imagine that our economic system could be different. What we need is the courage and creative resources to imagine things can be different, and Paganism can help us fight that future by imagining new possibilities … and then creating them.

Come Dreamers of Day, come and act your dreams with open eyes.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


The second issue of A Beautiful Resistance is now available for pre-order.
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Things with Feathers: “Freedom farming” and Lazarus species

I found a couple articles recently about farmers taking a non-dominating approach to growing crops. Neither article mentioned terms like permaculture or biodynamic farming; these folks are coming from (apparently) different perspectives, or at least not using that terminology to describe their farming practices.

What they have in common is a desire to grow crops in a manner that takes their local ecosystem into consideration, and work within its constraints to deal with weeds, insects, and – in one case – breed crops best suited for the local ecosystem.

One article, Meet This Third-Generation Farmer Who Converted His 1,400 Acres to Growing Organic Food, is about a farming family who switched to organic production primarily for financial reasons, despite experts saying this wasn’t a good idea.

Klaas used to grow monolithic fields of corn. He used to spray. For 20 years, he applied all the “right” chemicals. He put them on properly. He carefully recorded the results. Then in 2000 he and Mary-Howell decided to stop; they decided to go completely organic all at once.

“We weren’t making a good living on our farm,” Klaas said. “Sad to say but quite often my profit was entirely in subsidy money that I was getting. I would plan a crop of corn knowing that it was not likely to be profitable but we were going to get enough subsidy to make up the difference.”

Klaas and Mary-Howell had been toying with organic practices on a few test acres for a few years, intending to gradually convert a little more land each year. Then one day they saw an ad in the newspaper offering $6 a bushel for organic wheat, twice the conventional rate.

They found there were local markets for most crops they wanted to grow, but agriculture experts told them that going organic didn’t make sense for a farm their size. However, Klaas had another reason besides the finances to want to switch: after years of using herbicides, he’d had a terrible reaction, and didn’t want to get sick again, or ask anyone else to on his behalf.

In the course of learning how to grow organically,

. . . Klaas came across a quote by a German agricultural researcher that completely stumped him but completely changed his way of thinking:

Cultural practices form the basis of all weed control. Various other means should be regarded as auxiliary only. — Bernard Rademacher

“Until then, I was used to thinking that whenever you have a problem you react to it,” Klaas admitted. He was used to asking the conventional question: how do I control this? “Well this quote turned that thinking around,” he said. “It asked: What caused this problem? Why is this weed here? And once you start thinking like this, you can derive a holistic plan for what you’re going to do about it.”

The answer was not to fight against the weeds but to understand them. Completely and fully, within the context of everything else around them.

The article describes the natural succession of plants on a plot that has been taken out of agricultural production – how different species come in after others have first prepared the way. So Klaas farms in a way that takes that process into consideration. He grows a variety of crops, and grows them in rotation. Over several years, this practice meant he saw a pest plant become smaller, less and less of a problem, and then get attacked by disease and insects while nothing else was affected. (His neighbors continued to have problems with the same plant.)

“Everything that grows in soil changes the soil,” Klaas said. “It makes the soil the best environment for something else.”

. . .

“The weed that bothered us the most was velvet leaf,” he said. “It seemed unstoppable. But within six years of changing our farm, our rotations and our inputs, velvet leaf started getting smaller and smaller every year. And we started seeing a disease on it.” The velvet leaf was being attacked by fungus and virus and insect. “And yet the crop wasn’t being affected.”

After 15 years, he feels they are “only getting started as an organic farm,” and still have a great deal to learn, including what crops are the right rotation, and how to best bring in nutrients to make up for what is removed when the harvest is sold.

This is the 10,000-year old problem of agriculture that every farmer simultaneously contributes to and contends with: farming changes the environment. It changes the soil. Period. As long as we’re committed to domesticating and growing the food we eat, we’re also committed to altering the very earth that provides it.

This is why we need to be extremely thoughtful about how we feed ourselves. Because the question we automatically ask is: How do we reduce human impact on the Earth? But when it comes to farming, the better question might be: How do we produce the most constructive and sustainable human impact possible?

In The Rise, Fall, And Almost Rise Of The Caviar Of Cantaloupe, we are introduced to Ken Taylor, a farmer and (now retired) chemistry professor, who practices a low-intervention method of farming, and was asked to see if he could bring back the “Montreal melon” from virtual extinction. The fruit was extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 20th century, but urbanization had a detrimental impact on some of the areas it was grown, and the plant’s needs weren’t a good fit for industrialization:

It wasn’t an easy melon. It required a fair amount of coddling: watering, syringing, ventilating, lifting with a flat stone or shingle to prevent cracking or rot, and turning every few days to ensure uniformity of shape, color, netting, and ripening.

They also didn’t transport well over long distances, and by the mid-1950s, it was no longer offered in Burpee’s widely-sold seed catalogs, the first catalog in which they’d been sold after Burpee’s founder encountered them in 1880.

After a food journalist named Barry Lazar learned about the melons and wrote about them in the Montreal Gazette in 1991, another reporter for the Gazette, Mark Abley, became intrigued.

He wondered how such a popular fruit could have disappeared so completely.

Abley had researched endangered species before. He knew about a stick insect, long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific; a fish that had been known only from its fossil record until 1938, when it was dredged up in the Indian Ocean by an angler; and a bird that was thought to have vanished from Bermuda shortly after British sailors arrived in the 1600s but was rediscovered in 1951 and is now the country’s national bird. “There’s even a particular name for this,” he says. “Lazarus species.”

He thought it was possible someone might have saved some seeds, and if they had, he had an idea who in Montreal might be able to bring the melon back: Ken Taylor, who has a serious interest in crop diversity, and growing crops suited for the local environment.

Though Taylor took on farming simply because he wanted to grow his own food, it has evolved into a mission. He sells seeds, seedlings, and rootstock on the Green Barn Farm website, urging growers to “protect our Canadian genetic heritage.”

. . .

Working with perennial plants, which require minimal upkeep and don’t need to be replanted every year, he has bred and selected varieties of fruits, nuts, and berries that resist the brutal Canadian winters. And he thinks other Canadian farmers ought to be doing the same.

“Planting seeds and pounding the soil and annually preparing it and fertilizing it and watering it and fighting whatever short-term disease you may have so that you can finish everything up in three months is not a very earth-friendly or sustainable food production system,” says Taylor. “But that’s basically all we do in Canada.”

Part of the problem, according to Taylor, is that the country’s agricultural system is designed for exports, not for local markets. In 2012, Canada became the world’s fifth-largest agricultural exporter — and spent $32.3 billion bringing in agricultural and agri-food items from 190 other countries.

“We’re a country of agriculture, but we can’t feed ourselves,” Taylor says. “That’s pathetic.”

The only hope for food security, according to Taylor, is to disrupt the monoculture of modern farming through small-scale diversity. Diversity is important in farming, because planting only one crop, or one variety of a crop, leaves it vulnerable to disease.

His approach, which he calls “freedom farming,” is a very, very low-human-intervention approach, letting the natural systems direct what grows and what does not.

His philosophy is simple: Tread lightly. Let the land do what it wants and outsmart any pests, animals, or diseases that might threaten the yield. He doesn’t try to make his land conform to his desires; he wants to see what the land desires, what will thrive on it. That means interfering with it as little as possible: no effortful weeding, no spraying. No watering, even. If a crop doesn’t grow, well, then, perhaps it shouldn’t. Weeds are not the enemy. They bring rich nutrients to the ground, and they’re useful near vine crops to prevent crows from having a place to land near his fruit.

Freedom farming, he says, is “the ultimate opposite of control.” He’ll do small things — like use plastic mulch to increase the heat when his vine crops are young, personally squash worms that are eating his leaves, or begin his crops indoors if the weather is too cold. But mainly he sees his role as introducing new genetics.

He doesn’t mean “introducing new genetics” in the Monsanto sense of altering an organism’s DNA and creating a new species of tomato or carrot. He means bringing in or crossing existing species with the larger goal of increasing biodiversity and food security. “I aid and abet some of the natural selection that would go on by bringing in new genetics all the time from all over the world. And if nature doesn’t want it there, it doesn’t grow.”

His efforts to get the Montreal melon back have met with mixed success. He did successfully grow it some years, and the seeds are back in circulation among multiple sources, but after enough frustration with it, he stopped working with it to focus on crops that are better suited to the land. Lack of pollinators has been one problem; most of the farmland in the area holds conventional crops that are sprayed. Problems with rain and fungal infection also prevented the melons from growing well.

He knew what he could have done for a better outcome. “I would have had to put a row cover on,” he said. “I would have had to give it some sort of seaweed coating or some intervention of some kind. I have some kale and clay there. I could have sprayed that on, maybe beat back the fungus a bit.” But he didn’t want to do it. He’s a freedom farmer.

“You know, why bang your head against nature? The reason the Montreal melon died out is not just because it’s big and it’s hard to grow. The climate has changed. And I’m sure the climate was changing back 60-70 years ago as well and caused a lot of people to say, ‘The hell, I can grow an easier melon!’ That cantaloupe melon that everybody buys that’s salmon-color flesh? You throw a seed in, and it’ll grow.”

Taylor didn’t come out and say it, but it was obvious what he was thinking: Perhaps the Montreal melon no longer belongs in Montreal.

While the melon may no longer be happy growing in its place of origin, he does consider it a success, as an achievement of one of his primary goals: to increase genetic diversity among crops.

And remember the list of other “Lazarus species” mentioned? This article came my way today, and I almost cried reading it: Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years

That’s the stick insect, “long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific,” that one of the reporters knew about. It’s known as a “tree lobster” (it’s very large for an insect) or the “Lord Howe stick insect,” presumed extinct since 1960 and not sighted since 1920. The insect was named for the only place it was known to exist, “Lord Howe Island.” Rats landed in 1918 after leaving a ship that ran aground, and hunted the insects to extinction. Some people who’d climbed the small, very very steep island called Ball’s Pyramid several miles south reported seeing stick insect corpses in the 1960s, but that was apparently it for the species. Since stick insects are nocturnal, no one felt strongly inclined to go look, because that would require climbing the very very steep mountain in the dark, and so the insect was classified as extinct.

But in 2001, two Australian scientists decided to go looking. They found fresh droppings of some large insect on one bush, went back in the dark, and found a small population of the long-unseen Lord Howe stick insect. A more extensive search later indicated that small population was it for the entire island.

After years of meetings and studies, government officials agreed that a very small number of the insects could be removed from Ball’s Pyramid, to see if they could be bred in captivity. Some of the removed insects died, and after another near-death, a population in the hundreds is established – in captivity.

Whether or not they can ever be reintroduced to their original home is unknown – the rats that wiped out the population on Lord Howe Island have continued to breed and inhabit that place, and the human inhabitants would have to agree to any plan to kill all the rats and bring back the very large insects. The stick insects are harmless, but you know, lots of humans find insects, especially very large insects, kind of creepy. I think they’re pretty adorable, and they have some pair-bonding behavior (unusual for insects) that might help others find them somewhat more charming than the average crawly.

At any rate, where’s there’s life, there’s hope.

Things with Feathers: Sometimes hope is green

Tree cutting
Tree cutting (credit: Gary Howe, from Scientific American article)

I have just one topic to cover this month, because it is a big one – well, it is about big things, some of the biggest living things there are.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has a mission to clone trees and plant them, to help restore forests with these cloned trees, and to maintain a genetic archive. The trees they are making the clones from are what they consider “champion trees,” being among the largest, and sometimes oldest, members of their species.

The man who started this project, David Milarch, grew up as the son of a nurseryman, and became one himself as an adult. His focus on cloning the big, old trees, however, came after a near-death experience in which he was told he had to come back, because he had work to do – and another, later visitation by beings who told him that this, cloning the champion trees, was what he had to do.

Many plants can be propagated – cloned – by taking cuttings. Many houseplants can be grown this way, a stem cut and placed in a glass of water, to develop new roots and become an entirely new plant that is a genetic clone of the original. Many trees can be cloned, too. Some plants need the cut end of the stem dipped in something that stimulates root growth, as water alone, or damp growth media won’t be quite enough (if you are DIYing, try adding a freshly cut willow branch to the water – willows are readily clonable with cuttings, and they produce root growth hormones that stimulate other plants, too).

However, while many biologists believed that cloning these trees was a good idea for genetic reasons, they also felt the big OLD trees were so difficult to clone it wasn’t practical: while they may still flower and produce fruit, old trees are very difficult to clone through cuttings.

Milarch set out to try anyway, because the power of the vision/encounter he had was so profound (he came out of the “visit” with 10 pages of hand-written notes and a powerful sense that this was the right thing to do) and over the years he and collaborators have had enough success to keep going, with 1,000s of saplings resulting.

Some of the logic is this: the really old trees are survivors. They have lived through hundreds, even thousands, of years on this planet. They did not succumb to insects, virus or fungal infection, or any previous climate fluctuation. And in the past 200 years, we have cut down absolutely MASSIVE numbers of old growth trees, reducing genetics that had survived for centuries, and had been contributing to the regrowth of the forests around them.

There is a very great deal we do not understand about trees or forests, and if these last old growth trees died, we would lose the ability to learn from their genetics – as well as their ability to keep contributing to the genetic pool. So in addition to making clones to help rebuild forests, by adding more sources of these genes back in, the project also functions as a living archive of genetic material.

I have lost track of what got me pointed toward this work originally, but at any rate, Jim Robbins, who writes for the New York Times, wrote an article on Milarch’s work in 2001, and then later found out the unusual back story motivating him. This later led to a book, The Man Who Planted Trees (Amazon link).

There’s a little Q&A with Robbins at the Amazon page, which includes this:

Q Why are trees important?
Milarch has often said that trees are more important than we know. And as I talked to scientists and read papers they confirmed that notion: we have underestimated the trees, vastly. They are a kind of eco-technology that sustains our lives here on the planet and that humans can’t duplicate. There is a whole range of ecosystem services provided by trees and forests that many people don’t know about. They filter our water and can clean up the nastiest kinds of toxic wastes. They soak up greenhouse gasses to mitigate climate change, protect us from harsh UV rays, and are a heat shield and natural air-conditioner for cities and suburbs. David Milarch talks about them as the filters of the planet. As we all know, when you take the filter out of your aquarium, the fish die.

I picked up the book recently, and it was really a remarkable read. There is a lot of really fascinating information in there about trees and forests – and a LOT of really incredible mystical goings-on and lucky meetings and synchronicities as well, not just with Milarch, but a number of people he has met and worked with on this work.

One of the things that struck me most were the sections talking about the chemicals trees (and other plants) emit into the air, and what the many impacts of those are, which includes the above-mentioned UV-protection. The tiny tiny particles of these vapors are sufficient to help block sunlight. The other impacts this mix of chemicals has on the rest of the ecosystem is little understood – but keeping in mind for how long we and everything else evolved in a rich mix of plant-emitted vapors, and how much of that has been changed so quickly, and it is a little frightening.

A lot of work in this field has been done by a botanist named Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who believes the role of the chemicals emitted by trees is overlooked and poorly understood. One of her books came to the attention of David Milarch’s wife, Kerry, who then passed it to him; they later met and she joined his project. One of Beresford-Kroeger’s beliefs is that the clouds of aerosols emitted by forests help to disinfect the air, in addition to passing on protective benefits to wildlife that come into contact with them. We know a small amount about how plants communicate to each other via airborne chemicals, but almost nothing about the impacts on us of these chemicals.

The impact trees have on water quality, and the creatures living in the water, is also important. Their importance for shading water, and filtering it through taking it up from theirs roots, is relatively well-known, but what trees put into the water can also be very important. From the book:

. . . Experiments have proven that [phytoplankton’s] numbers are greatly enhanced when iron is added to the ocean.

The importance of iron led one path-breaking scientist to make a unique connection. The Erimo Peninsula on the north coast of Japan saw its forests clear-cut and its hills turned into pasture long ago. The change drove off the schools of fish that once teemed there, and caused a decline in oyster populations. Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a Japanese marine chemist, spent years studying the relationships between forests and oceans. His key finding is that even where iron is abundant in parts of the ocean, it is oxygenated, which means it is not readily available for the tiny creatures. What can make iron available to phytoplankton to perform photosynthesis, however, is fulvic acid, one of several humic acids that comes from the decay of leaves and other organic matter. The ongoing, natural decomposition of centuries of tree leaves and other material on the forest floor, and the leaking, leaching, and washing of this chemical stew into the ocean, is vital to increasing coastal phytoplankton, and thus the things that eat them, and those that eat them, from oysters all the way to whales.

And forest restoration projects in this and other areas of Japan did lead to significant restoration of fish populations (here is a scientific paper about some of that work).

There are many great examples throughout the book about how trees can and are being used to help clean up waste and restore ecosystems, but what I found most incredible were the tree-saving stories. Among the more emotionally powerful things I read about, here are two.

In the old growth forests in California and Oregon, there are some massive stumps. The biggest trees white settlers found were highly targeted for lumber. Or to cut and take around and show people as a novelty. Some of those stumps were once extraordinarily large redwoods. Many trees, including redwoods, will clone themselves by sending up “suckers” from their bases. While the cut trees will never regain their previous size or strength, these stumps are not actually dead. Collaborating with a man who is really into finding big trees, some of the Archangel crew went to the Fieldbrook Stump, the remains of the oldest coastal redwood ever known, took cuttings, and were able to successfully clone it, along with several other redwoods – trees that were cut down in the 1890s, with diameters of 30 feet or more.

Sequoias are another species under threat; there are only about 10,000 trees, in not very many places. Sequoias like to be in moist conditions. Increasing drought, like we are likely to see more of due to global warming, is a threat to their species. In this book and in other places, I’ve read about about the debate about what to do about (and for) them in the future: Water them? Start planting them other places? Or leave them alone to adapt or die, because we may have to make tough choices like that?

There is a subdivision in California that was once a logging operation; it started in the 1940s, and the family cut pine, fir, and cedar. However, they never touched a sequoia on those 670 acres. (When Robbins asked the son of the original owner why, “he just smiled and said he didn’t know.”)

The Rouch family still owns over five hundred acres of the land, though, including a man-made lake that Sonny built himself and what David Milarch referred to as the Lost Grove of sequoias, which is right where it shouldn’t be, not below the tree line but at the very top of the mountain. . .

This grove is critical to the Ancient Tree Archive mission. “Sequoias like moist feet,” says Milarch, “but these trees are high and dry. They have adapted to dry conditions without much moisture and at the southern end of their range.” In other words, they could be a critical genotype for life on a hotter and drier planet.

So they took cuttings here, and from the Waterfall Tree, the 3,000 year old largest-diameter single-stem tree in the world and fifth-largest (by volume) sequoia, and after three months of careful work and prayer, got some of their clones to sprout.

The original old growth forests are effectively gone from many parts of the world; in the United States, they have been reduced to about 2% of their original size. But we can stop cutting them – and their family lines can keep going.

Milarch’s work started in the United States, but now collections of big tree genetics are occurring in Ireland (which has also seen massive destruction of its old growth forest), and there are plans to collect genetics from big old trees in many other places as well.

This effort is, to me, one of the most incredible examples of hope I have come across. It is a huge undertaking, with a lot of uncertainty involved (cloning success for the old trees is about 4%), and the results will not be truly understood for many, many decades, if not centuries. In the meantime, it is encouraging a deepening understanding of our biosphere and the intricacies of the ecosystems we live in, preserving life that could otherwise have been lost, and helping to provide for a better future for those who come after us.

(Want more? Here’s an article that is largely an interview with Milarch.)

A Radical Pagan Pope?

Last week, Pope Francis’ much-anticipated environmental encyclical was published. As was expected, the Pope acknowledged the “human origins of the ecological crisis” (¶ 101), specifically that global warming is mostly due to the concentration of greenhouse gases which are released “mainly” as a result of human activity (¶ 23). And he called for the progressive replacement “without delay” of technologies that use fossil fuels. (¶ 165)

The Pope and small-p “paganism”

Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic
Image courtesy of the Scottish Skeptic

Even before Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical was published, critics were calling the Pope a “pagan”. This isn’t all that surprising given how the religious right has always accused environmentalists of “paganism”. And indeed there are some similarities between the Pope’s statement and contemporary Pagan discourse. For example, in the encyclical, the Pope personifies the earth, calling the the earth “Sister” (¶¶ 1, 2, 53) and “Mother” (¶¶ 1, 92). However, this language is drawn from a Christian, not a pagan, source: St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of Creatures”. And Pope Francis makes a point of saying that he is not “divinizing” the earth. (¶ 90) Instead, his intent is to emphasize the “fraternal” nature of our relationship with the earth and its inhabitants, both human and other-than, which he says have their own intrinsic value independent of their usefulness to us. (¶ 140)

Some of the language from the Pope’s statement resembled language in “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” For example, no less than 8 times throughout the encyclical, the Pope observes that “everything is interconnected” (¶¶ 16, 42, 70, 91, 111, 117, 138), a fact which, he says, “cannot be emphasized enough” (¶ 138). Similarly, the Pagan statement begins by recognizing our interconnectedness with the web of life:

“In recent decades, many contemporary Pagan religious traditions have stressed humanity’s interconnectivity with the rest of the natural world. Many of our ancestors realized what has now been supported by the scientific method and our expanding knowledge of the universe — that Earth’s biosphere may be understood as a single ecosystem and that all life on Earth is interconnected.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”

The Pope also observes that we are inherently part of the earth: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.” (¶ 139) The Pope introduces the encyclical with the observation that “our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” (¶ 2) This also resembles very closely language in the Pagan statement:

“We are earth, with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus making up our bodies one day, and incorporated into mountains the next. We are air, giving food to the trees and grasses when we exhale, and breathing in their gift of free oxygen with each breath. We are fire, burning the energy of the Sun, captured and given to us by plants. We are water, with the oceans flowing in our veins and the same water that nourished the dinosaurs within our cells.” — “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.”

However, this does not make the Pope “pagan” (much less a “Pagan”). As Pagan Studies scholar Michael York explains, “even though such world religions as Christianity and Islam might cherish nature as a divine gift, they do not comprise nature religions. Instead, I argue that any religious perspective that honors the natural as the sacred itself made tangible, as immanent holiness, is pagan.” Rather, the Pope’s statements merely show how ubiquitous the idea of our interconnectedness with the earth has become. More than anything else, they are a reflection of the Pope’s acceptance of what has become scientific consensus.

Getting to the “root” of the matter: Anthropocentrism

A more interesting question than whether the Pope’s encyclical is “pagan” is the question whether the encyclical is as “radical” as some are claiming. No doubt, it is a radical challenge to capitalism (which will undoubtedly be a subject for future posts at G&R), but just how “radical” is the encyclical’s ecology? The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix or “roots”, so another way to ask that question is: Just how “deep” is the Pope’s ecology?

A truly deep ecology is one that challenges the anthropocentric paradigm which places humans hierarchically “above” other living species and above inanimate matter, which is seen to exist in some sense “for” humans. The Pope states that the encyclical is an “attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes.” (¶ 15) But while the Pope comes to many right conclusions about anthropogenic climate change and the limits of capitalism, the encyclical is nevertheless plagued by a lingering anthropocentrism which he never manages to root out.

At first glance, it appears that the Pope is critical of anthropocentrism, but a closer look reveals that he always qualifies the word “anthropocentrism” when he uses it. For instance, he criticizes “distorted” or “excessive” or “tyrannical” anthropocentrism (¶¶ 68, 69, 116), but never just plain anthropocentrism. This implies that there is such a thing as an “undistorted” anthropocentrism or a “right amount” of anthropocentrism. And this becomes clear when the Pope insists on humanity’s “pre-eminence” (¶ 90) and “superiority” (¶ 220), and when he eschews “biocentrism” (¶ 118) and declines to “put all living beings on the same level” (¶ 90).

The Pope’s justification for a qualified anthropocentrism is flawed. He argues that, in the absence of a belief in our superiority, human beings will not feel responsible for the planet. (¶ 118) It is true that human beings are “unique” in many ways among the world’s fauna, but only in so far that other forms or life are also unique in their own ways. And while it is reasonable to argue that humans have special responsibilities to the earth, due to our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs (especially considering the messes we have made with our highly developed cerebrum and opposable thumbs), the notion that a feeling of superiority is a necessary condition for a feeling of responsibility is specious. In fact, a belief in humanity’s “superiority” can actually weaken people’s sense of ecological responsibility, just as a heightened sense of responsibility can grow out of the loss of that belief.

Papal paternalism: the Great Chain of Being

A related problem with the encyclical is the Pope’s repeated characterization of the earth or nature as “fragile.” (¶ 16, 56, 78, 90) If by “fragility” he is referring to the fact that all of our actions affect the environment or that the ecosystem is sensitive to change, then that is true. But the earth itself is not fragile. It is we — and other species — that occupy a fragile place in the ecosystem. The ecosystem itself is resilient. As “Mother Nature” says in a video from Conservation International:

“I’ve been here for over four and a half billion years
Twenty-two thousand five hundred times longer than you
I don’t really need people but people need me

… I’ve been here for aeons
I have fed species greater than you, and
I have starved species greater than you
My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests,
they all can take you or leave you
How you chose to live each day whether you regard or
disregard me doesn’t really matter to me
One way or the other your actions will determine your fate not mine
I am nature
I will go on
I am prepared to evolve

Are you?”

While he speaks of an environmental “crisis” and “irreversible damage” to the ecosystem, there is no sense in the Pope’s encyclical that human beings are facing an existential threat (in contrast to the his earlier statement in May that “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”).

The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being
The Great (Hierarchical) Chain of Being

This insistence on the “fragility” of nature and humankind’s “superiority” is a symptom of an implicit paternalism running throughout the encyclical. This paternalism is premised on a vision of nature as the Aristotelian “Great Chain of Being”, with God at the top, angels and humans in the middle, and (other) animals, plants, and the earth at the bottom. This arrangement places humans in same relation to the earth as God is in relation to humans — that of a powerful father to a weak child. This is why the Pope rejects “a divinization of the earth” (¶ 90), as it would effectively break the order of the Great Chain.

The Pope also repeatedly refers to the earth as God’s “gift” to humanity (¶¶ 71, 76, 93, 115, 146, 159, 220, 227), an idea which the foundation of a stewardship model of environmentalism. The idea that the earth is God’s gift to humanity first of all implies that the earth is “property” which can be gifted, which undermines the Pope’s earlier talk about humans being part of nature (¶ 2). It also perpetuates the hierarchical vision of the cosmos and implies that our responsibility to the earth derives not directly and horizontally from our “fraternity” with nature, but indirectly and vertically through our filial duty to a paternal deity. While the introductory paragraphs of the encyclical do speak of interconnectedness and fraternal responsibility (see above), ultimately the Pope never breaks out of the stewardship model of environmentalism (¶ 116), a model which has been thus far insufficiently radical to effect the “deep change” (¶ 215) which is necessary to revolutionize our collective relationship with the earth.

The same old story: Hierarchy

In 1967, professor of history Lynn White published an article in the periodical Science, entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. The article examined the influence of Christianity on humankind’s relationship with nature. White argued that the environmental decline was, at its “root”, a Christian problem. For White, the belief that the earth was a resource for human consumption could be traced back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism, and even further back to the Biblical injunction to man to “subdue” the earth and exercise “dominion” over every living thing. Medieval Christianity, according to White, elevated humankind, who was made in God’s image, and denigrated the rest of creation, which was believed to have no soul.

In his encyclical, the Pope attempts to answer White’s charge, and he makes a valiant attempt to reinterpret the Genesis “dominion” language. He rejects the notion that being created in God’s image and being given “dominion” over the earth justifies “absolute domination” over other creatures. (¶ 67) Instead, he says, a correct reading of Genesis understands that language in the context of the corresponding commands to “till and keep”, the latter word meaning “caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving”. This, he says, “implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.” (¶ 67)

In spite of this, the Pope’s qualification of the word “domination” with the word “absolute” implies again that a limited domination is justified. “We are not God,” he says. Citing scripture, the Pope says that the earth and everything in it belongs to God, and has been given to us. (¶ 67) Thus, it is not humankind’s domination of the earth that concerns the Pope, so much as humankind’s usurpation of God’s domination over everything.

This is the same old Christian story we know well, with its Great Chain of Being and the upstart human beings who don’t know their place: “a little lower than the angels” and with all the creatures of the earth “under their feet”. (Psalm 8:5-8) While arguably the Pope’s encyclical is more “theocentric” than “anthropocentric”, this turns out to be a distinction without a difference because humans are still placed above above all other forms of life (other than God and angels) in the cosmic hierarchy. Ultimately, the Pope fails to truly get to “root” of the ecological crisis, and his environmental encyclical never rises (or should we say “descends”) to the level of a truly “radical” — much less “pagan” — declaration.