Lately I am doing very good/bad. I continue to live a privileged life, with a wonderful husband and five sweet, growing children who gradually increase in health and cuteness and skills every day. We have good food to eat, a gorgeous house to live in. It’s hard to complain! Especially because it’s so much worse for so many people - my gripes with the insanity in the world should be kept to myself, shouldn’t they?
Maybe. But if I in my privileged life can feel such vast upwellings of unease and social disconnection, then probably most others might be feeling it too, and wouldn’t it be good if we could affirm for each other that we are experiencing what a self-help guru likes to call A Right Way to Feel? So that just in case one or more of us finds an opportunity to point out how the emperor is wearing no clothes, that person(s) will bravely do so, buoyed by a sense of clarity rather than generalized anxiety and lonely, jaded fear?
I used to think that I could just basically ignore the news, those crazy Things happening in the world. I still notice the way almost all events lie outside my “sphere of influence” and should therefore (according to Cal Newport) sit upon the back burner of my consciousness.
But shit. When I read the headlines these days, the gossip-oriented parts of my brain light up with sickeningly addictive opiate rushes from all the Bad News. “Man, that’s terrible. Gosh, that’s awful! Oh my goodness, who can I tell about THAT?!”
And then I wonder things like: what if we human animals just took off all our clothes and ran whooping into the streets, threw out our broken systems, re-envisioned the world (quickly, especially in places like Delaware where there are a lot of mosquitoes and ticks), and began heading forward into the past toward a more human-scale way of living? What if we gave a giant middle finger to and just STOPPED living in these insane ways that contribute to abject misery and worse? It feels like we’re a living version of those competitors in log-rolling competitions, heading all the while inexorably downstream. Shouldn’t we at least TRY to swim to shore before we reach the top of Niagara Falls??
Not to be melodramatic or anything.
But geez. While promoting zero conspiracy theories (although I do think many interested and corrupt parties are driving the details - and I hate them for that! Can’t they have some respect for the End Times?), it feels like our society is collapsing, while our earth is alternately being raped and flooded and scorched and burned. And then there’s the daily reality for many privileged folk like myself, of many sweet moments and luxurious pleasantries within an ever more tightly-squeezing financial harness.
I feel very confused, uncomfortably noting my membership to the dominant species driving the madness here on earth. But it’s not like I had a say in getting born, and many highly-paid therapists say that guilt need not be our birthright!
It sure feels like an odd time to be alive.
Every other day, I swear off the news. And then I work in my garden and hug my People and every other every other day, I read amazingly astute commentary that helps ground me. Humans can be so fascinating, so full of great ideas! Here are the five most-good things I’ve read and watched recently. Please send me yours!
Take the only tree that’s left,
Stuff it up the hole in your culture. —Leonard Cohen
Retreat to the desert, and fight. —D. H. Lawrence
Those two quotes begin a powerful and prescient essay by Paul Kingsnorth, which he wrote nearly a decade ago but reads like a parable for our times.
He discusses the earth and the “green” movement and issues of society in terms that I have felt - but haven’t been able to articulate - for years. Most importantly, he includes at the end of the essay (worth reading in its entirety even before this Spoiler), five Action Steps:
‘…And so I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time? And I arrive at five tentative answers:
‘One: Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.
‘Two: Preserving nonhuman life. The revisionists will continue to tell us that wildness is dead, nature is for people, and Progress is God, and they will continue to be wrong. There is still much remaining of the earth’s wild diversity, but it may not remain for much longer. The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?
‘Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.
‘Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be. Value it for what it is, try to understand what it is, and have nothing but pity or contempt for people who tell you that its only value is in what they can extract from it.
‘Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. Advanced technologies will challenge our sense of what it means to be human at the same time as the tide of extinction rolls on. The ongoing collapse of social and economic infrastructures, and of the web of life itself, will kill off much of what we value. In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm? Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?
‘It will be apparent by now that in these last five paragraphs I have been talking to myself. These are the things that make sense to me right now when I think about what is coming and what I can do, still, with some joy and determination. If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time: a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world—but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from…’
In this essay, Eisenstein dissects the growing storm directed at and segregating a special, Sacrificial population. Written with care and nuance, this is not about whether you should or shouldn’t get a Covid vaccine. It is all about the complexity that surrounds our behavior as individuals when we perceive a community-wide threat.
I almost always dislike videos, but this is worth watching for the amazing artistry of its hand-drawn visuals, in addition to some astute commentary. A tiny sampling:
“The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” - Gustav Le Bon
“It is not for nothing that our age cries out for the redeemer personality, for the one who can emancipate himself from the grip of the collective psychosis and save at least his own soul, who lights a beacon of hope for others, proclaiming that here is at least one man who has succeeded in extricating himself from the fatal identity with the group psyche.” — Carl Jung
‘Cut the puppet strings of tyranny with humor.’
‘Create Parallel Structures.’ “What else are parallel structures than an area where a different life can be lived, a life that is in harmony with its own aims, and which in turn structures itself in harmony with those aims? What else are those initial attempts at social self-organization than the efforts of a certain part of society…. To rid itself of the self-sustaining aspects of totalitarianism and thus to extricate itself radically from its involvement in that totalitarian system.” —Vaclav Havel.
Greenwald carefully articulates a lot that I have tried to say over the past year and a half. This is really worth reading:
‘Are those who oppose a ban on cars or a radical reduction in speed limits sociopaths, given the huge number of people they are knowingly consigning to death or maiming?
‘In virtually every realm of public policy, Americans embrace policies which they know will kill people, sometimes large numbers of people. They do so not because they are psychopaths but because they are rational: they assess that those deaths that will inevitably result from the policies they support are worth it in exchange for the benefits those policies provide. This rational cost-benefit analysis, even when not expressed in such explicit or crude terms, is foundational to public policy debates — except when it comes to COVID, where it has been bizarrely declared off-limits…’
Danny Ellis: 800 Voices
This man grew up in an Irish orphanage, and wrote a song cycle about it - true beauty from misery. He also wrote a memoir. Here he is, doing a half-hour presentation at The Strand, reading from his book, singing with his guitar, and telling his amazing story.