contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Climate Crisis

BOOK REVIEW: THE CIRCLE OF LIFE IS BROKEN

Highly recommended. Brendan Myers’ The Circle of Life is Broken (1) is subtitled “an eco-spiritual philosophy of the climate crisis”. Myers is a Pagan identified author and a professional philosopher who teaches at Heritage College, Gatineau, Quebec. His Paganism is naturalistically oriented, and animist in a sense that “the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present”.

The book begins with an view of the Earth from outside, through the loving eyes and words of astronauts. “It is as if the Earth as a whole was only discovered in 1968, when Apollo-8 astronaut William Anders shot the famous Earthrise photograph; the image of the Earth coming out from behind the edge of the moon”. This ‘overview effect’ is balanced at the end of the book by an invitation to immerse ourselves more fully and awarely within the world, through the practices of a weekly green sabbatical and an annual ecological pilgrimage.

Between this beginning and ending there are three main sections, each addressing a ‘root question’. Each question is rigorously explored, before receiving a carefully formulated answer.

The first question asks: what is the circle of life? A key understanding is that ecologists today do not see the Earth as “an aggregate of individuals competing for resources and survival”. Rather, they “are teaching us to see the Earth as a complex system in which everything is directly or indirectly involved in all the life around it, and in which symbiosis and cooperation, across multiple levels, keep the system as a whole flourishing”. This is the circle of life that is now breaking down. “It isn’t simply changing form. It is also short-circuiting; it is falling apart”.

The second root question asks: who faces the circle of life? This concerns humans and how we deal with realities of a higher order than our own. The exploration includes a look at how people see the world at different life stages. Myers wants to know “what becomes of the human reality when cast in terms of the encounter with the Circle of Life as the ultimate reality?” He notes that the Circle goes almost unmentioned in the history of Western philosophy, and also explores a perceived a tension between our ‘being-ecological’ and our ‘being-free’.

The third root question asks: can circle be healed? Myers quotes a saying of the philosopher Hegel: “the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”. When things are bad, new ideas and possibilities can emerge and philosophers especially are challenged to think big. Myers looks at the political and cultural obstacles to any healing process, with good sections on ‘eco-fascism’ and the ‘gatekeepers of human nature’. He also makes a number of specific positive proposals.

Although written in plain English as far as possible, The Circle is Broken is not a book to read in one sitting. Myers’ thinking is holistic, with room for scientific information, complex argument, deep feeling, contemplation and engagement. It is written with love and a sense of wonder, generously drawing on personal experience. I think of it as a long-term companion, a gift to anyone concerned with the climate crisis and creative responses to it.

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books 2022 (Earth Spirit series)

(2) For other posts about Brendan Myers’ work, see:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2015/05/22/the-worship-of-the-gods-is-not-what-matters/ (Reblog from Naturalistic Paganism)

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

“Over the last twelve years I have walked every trail, every hillcrest, every stream-edge within a two hour walking radius of my house: everything between Lac-Des-Fees and Pink Lake, and a little beyond. …. I still encounter things I never saw before. Last year I saw a Great Horned Owl in the park for the first time. Its swift yet stately flight above my head caught my eye; a dark shadow in front of the sun, silent, and powerful in its silence.

“It rested on a tree branch not more than twenty meters away, and regarded me. I regarded him in turn. I had known for years that there are owls in the area: I’ve heard their hooting, and seen their pellets on the ground. But until that day and for ten years, I hadn’t seen one here before. Further, and I think more importantly, since I had entered the forest that day for no particular purpose but to enjoy a warm afternoon, to reaffirm my love of for the park’s landmarks and vistas, and to experience a few hours of pure human freedom, in simpler words to play, the encounter with the owl could take on a magical meaning.

“In the light of such magic, what a magnificent animal he was! How proud he seemed, as though in charge of the world, as though I required his permission to take another step. How unpretentious too: this owl had no need to pretend to be something he was not. The size of his claws, the laser-focus of his eyes meeting mine, was proof enough that he was a predator. No need to flex his weapons or brandish them. And what a delightful conversation we might have, if he were to speak. How much he could tell of the places he had seen, the adventures he had while hunting, and the pleasure of flight… Much as I would have loved to stay and hear him speak, I decided to move on after a few minutes. I did not know whether meeting his eyes might be provocative. And much as I might enjoy telling the story of how I got owl-claw scars on my face, I would certainly not enjoy getting them.

“…. Such is the magic of the forest. It can mean what you want it to mean under the aspect of play, yet at the same time it can surprise, and threaten and reveal itself, in ways no human artifact can do. It can suggest a kind of magic no human artifact can adopt: the dramatic discovery of a world not made by human hands. Thus it participates in the play, bringing its own contribution to the emergence of meaning.” (1)

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis London UK & Washington USA: Moon Books (Earth Spirit Series)

NOTE: Brendan Myers is a Canadian philosopher and author currently living in Quebec, where he teaches philosophy at Heritage College, Gatineau. He has written extensively on Pagan themes from a philosophical perspective, and his most recent book takes them further through an exploration of the climate crisis. I will review the book in my next post.

BOOK REVIEW: UNLIKELY ALLIANCES

Highly recommended. Unlikely Alliances (1) is set in the years 2029-2033, in a fictional town on England’s south coast. It offers a degree of hope about the climate crisis, presenting a positive response to its challenges at the global, national and, especially, local levels. Towards the close of the book, one of the characters reflects on a benign economic austerity that includes social justice: “limited food in the shops, clothes and shoes having to last many years, trips abroad requiring special license … but look around us, are we really worse off?” The answer is a qualified no, on the grounds that everyday life has become less constrained and less stressful, thanks to the choices that have been made.

Unlikely Alliances offers a gentle, compassionate and good-humoured lens on a subject that can seem grim and edgy. The title refers to the changing political, professional and above all personal relationships of people working on adaptation goals in their Bourne Valley community. They are from a wide variety of backgrounds, including local government, academia, trade unions, churches, the voluntary sector, management consultancy, the hospitality industry, sports organisations and farming. Unexpected synergies are generated. The novel shows how its band of protagonists find themselves, each other and a new sense of purpose in this work. As fiction, the book has the space to be about lives as well as issues. New culture, adapted to new times, is created in the lived experience of friendship, romance and community building.

The Climate Action Plan of a progressive coalition government provides a political framework, drawing on ideas from the US 1930’s New Deal and the UK reconstruction post World War 2. It is in power because of a wake-up call resulting from a huge inundation in the Netherlands and the presence of a large number of Dutch refugees in Britain – a disaster too close to ignore. For the first time since the mid twentieth century, serious wealth taxes are in place. Food and fuel are rationed: everyone gets at least something at an affordable price. There are new approaches to housing. A Civilian Community Service Corps provides training and jobs for the unemployed and a two-years national community service for school and college leavers.

In crisis conditions, this government is broadly popular. Even so, it is vulnerable to defections within its own Parliamentary ranks, the vigorous opposition of vested interests and those who speak for them, and the violence of militant climate denialists on the street. These struggles are not minimised, and they are vividly portrayed in the book. But most of the focus is on resource and resiliency building at the local and regional levels, and on the changes in the lives of the main characters, as they open up to each other’s influence and affection. It is their efforts that prevail, since they come to make practical sense to more and more people.

A brief review cannot do full justice to a book that deals with a civilisation at the edge, presented from a stance of generosity and warm commitment to human flourishing. Tony Emerson has long experience of working with environmental issues and is also an accomplished storyteller. I found Unlikely Alliances heartening and enjoyable to read, and a well-informed glimpse into a possible near future.

(1) Tony Emerson Unlikely Alliances https://FeedARead.com 2021 – e-book created by White Magic Studios – http://www.whitemagicstudios.co.uk 1922. Available on Amazon (UK and USA).

ALBAN ELFED: A TIME FOR RECEPTIVITY?

Blessings of the season! Where I live, the sun is descending but still has a certain power. We have entered the period of the Autumn Equinox, honoured by modern Druids in the festival of Alban Elfed. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on harvest, but Dana O’Driscoll (1) suggests ‘receptivity’ as a resonant theme, “because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way”.

She relates her approach to the changes that the world is experiencing now. “It is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level. It belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8,000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. … But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally; we’ve moved on to the Anthropocene … characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives.”

I find the call to receptivity challenging. Part of me wants the late Holocene back, in a reformed version – socioeconomically, culturally, technologically. Part of me accepts that it has gone for good but doesn’t want to acknowledge the speed and severity of the transition. Currents of anger, fear and grief cry out for recognition. These are as much part of my life-world as are the climate crisis itself, initiatives for adaptation, and the forces undermining those initiatives. I somehow have to find a receptive space for all of the above, without being overwhelmed.

The good news is that my ‘receptivity’ seems to be sourced by a deep peace at the heart of experience, a peace that grows rather than diminishes with time. In my daily practice as a modern Druid I call for peace in the east, south, west, north, deep earth & underworld [below], and starry heavens [above]. Then I say: “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. These words are vibrant with life for me however often I declaim them. I experience this deep peace as a fruit of my contemplative inquiry. Perhaps there is a harvest aspect here after all.

Certainly, to stand in such peace empowers my receptivity, linking it to other qualities like reverence, delight and awe. None of this changes the world. But it allows me to contemplate it with an underlying confidence, and to face its challenges in a more resourceful way. I am very happy to mark Alban Elfed as a feast of receptivity.

(1) https://thedruidsgarden.com/ – see Fall Equinox: a Spirit Walk and its internal reference to Equinox on Receptivity

NOTE: Pennsylvania-based Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the US homesteading movement. She is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and an OBOD Druid. She is a Mount Haemus scholar, lecturing on Channeling the Awen in 1912.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/06/09/book-review-sacred-actions/ )

For AODA, see: https://aoda.org/

AFTER RAIN

I am in Alney Island again, on the River Severn as it passes through the ancient city of Gloucester. Above, I am looking at the weaker, eastern channel of the river as it flows around the island. After rain, the water level seems adequate if relatively low, and the willows still seem lush. At first glance, as I walk past, the plant life seems healthy in this watery habitat. Stopping to look more closely, the scars of a summer both hot and dry become evident. The horse chestnut leaves, below, are dramatically shrivelled and their conkers are appearing early. Summer is becoming autumn swiftly and abruptly this year.

Much of Alney island is rough water meadow, as below, and it is a joy to see green grass. Normal? No longer a useful word in this, as other, contexts. In a time of climate chaos fatefully intertwined with runaway wealth, ‘normal’ loses shape and definition. Half-reluctantly, I am adjusting to a new, more dislocating and unpredictable reality.

On this walk I discovered a woodland on the island, shown below. It is far from ancient, being planted in 1983 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of a charter given to the people of Gloucester by King Richard III. A rare monument to the monarch in question.

Richard’s Wood is pleasant enough, although subject to somewhat whimsical curation. A decision was first made to plant non-native trees – red oak, turkey oak and horse chestnut; then to add native trees as well; and later still to thin out the trees so as to create a “wood/pasture habitat to contrast with the wetland meadows on the rest of the reserve”. ‘Rare breed’ cattle were introduced, though I have yet to see any.

I may be doing an injustice, but I get a sense of conservation by human taste and fancy, the manufacture of ‘scenery’ on a handy piece of wasteland that isn’t safe to build on. I don’t get any organic sense of the island, its history or its potential. I don’t get any sense of a wondering about what trees might be brought together to create a viable and self-sustaining woodland community, ‘native’ or otherwise. The horse chestnut, imported from Turkey in the sixteenth century, is now a well-loved English tree. The turkey oak is better suited to the southern England of today than the native species. I suspect they are a good choice. But I’m sorry about the thinning out. There’s no shortage of pasture in England. Overall I believe this kind of management to be a relatively innocent manifestation of the very mindset that is killing us.

Perhaps the trees will have a chance to develop in their own way. My feeling on being among them is gentle but muted. If I compare them with the crowded and chaotic wood that has grown up beside the Stroud cycle path, I sense a relative lack of viriditas – Hildegard of Bingen’s word for the green life energy in nature. It is a relative lack, not absolute. But as I go home, I feel a certain sadness all the same.

BOOK REVIEW: BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY

Highly recommended. Beyond Sustainability – Authentic Living at a Time of Climate Crisis – offers an insightful exploration of the changes we need to make at the personal and collective levels. It is part of Moon Books’ Earth Spirit series, and will be released on 28 April 2023.

Author Nimue Brown says that, “as a Druid, I’ve spent my adult life trying to live lightly. There is a great deal to learn about what is possible, and what’s effective, and this is always a work in progress and never as good as I want it to be. I feel very strongly about the need for real change and quietly rage about greenwashing and the ridiculousness of ‘offsetting’. Harm cannot be offset”.

The book is economical with words and rich in content. Its introduction reflects that “humans are increasingly a miserable species, caught in ways of behaving that give us very little and will cost us the earth”. Brown argues that it doesn’t have to be this way and in seven chapters she sketches out pathways to an alternative.

Chapter 1 – What Makes an Authentic Life?- advocates ‘conscious living’, in which we resist the pressure to “to construct our identities out of consuming products”. Instead, we are challenged to discover what inspires and uplifts us, and to build meaningful relationships, with creative and productive communities emancipated from the trance of consumerism.

Chapter 2 – Authenticity and the Unsustainable – explores the narratives that limit and distract us, the stresses of high speed living, the hunger for possessions and ‘experiences’, and the rise of debt culture.

Chapter 3 – Slow Life Sustainability – suggests that ‘life in the slow lane is gentler’. It includes sections on slow fashion, slow transport, slow food, and slow shopping.

Chapter 4 – Wealth in Relationships – looks at ways in which we can support and appreciate each other, and has specific sections on spiritual community, community action, privilege/prejudice and the power of sharing.

Chapter 5 – Creativity for All – emphasises that “being able to imagine is an essential skill for moving towards more sustainable ways of life”. We are nourished by our own creativity and each others.

Chapter 6 – Privilege, Poverty, Inclusion – looks at bigger picture political change, starting with the thought that “sustainability cannot be just a middle class hobby”. There are a lot of things you can’t do if you are poor; shaming and blaming poor people is cruel and useless. Redistribution of wealth is therefore an essential step towards greener living.

Chapter 7 – Political Changes – discusses specific measures such as right of repair, universal basic income, a four day working week, radical changes to agriculture, reducing waste, ‘stop making money out of money’, and not relying simply on changes in technology.

Beyond Sustainability is an informed and distinctive contribution to an increasingly important conversation. It deserves to be widely read and discussed. I suggest that readers of this blog make a note or add it to their lists.

(1) Nimue Brown Beyond Sustainability: Authentic Living at a Time of Climate Crisis Winchester, UK & Washington, USA, 2023 (Part of the Earth Spirit series)

PEONIES IN LATE MAY

As I look at these peonies, I delight in their lushness. But the word ‘poignant’ also comes to mind. Delight is mixed with sadness, and a sense of time slipping away. These are probably the last pictures of these peonies that I will take. They are in the back garden of our old home on the day it was emptied of our remaining possessions. Historically they have ushered in the first fullness of summer. They have confirmed a warm sense of home, year after year, as the wheel turns.

But now I am leaving a place Elaine and I called home for many years, at a time when the future remains uncertain on many levels. The stability of the wheel itself, or at least of its local manifestations, is palpably in question. You have to work perversely hard, now, to maintain an ignorance and denial of the climate crisis. Even here, in a cool temperate island.

I cannot dwell in sadness alone, potentially drawn down into a stuck and demobilised distress. The health and viriditas in my bodymind won’t allow it. I find myself staying open to a delight in what is given, here, in these seasonal images. The invitation to celebrate the bounty of nature in an everyday modest setting is very strong, and I respond. The nudge to make a record is likewise strong. Records and memory matter. They change any living moment to which they are invited. The opportunity to contemplate this image of peonies, knowing the context of the picture-taking, is a resource for future times.

WAITING FOR THE STORM

I took this picture from an upstairs window before 9 a.m. on18 February 2022,. It shows blue sky and the tower of St Mary de Crypt, Gloucester. The image is calm, and I enjoy its simple beauty. But I am bracing for a severe storm, officially named ‘Storm Eunice’. We are on red alert, which is very rare in this country. I contemplate the tower, which stands both for longevity and impermanence.

It is 10.15 a.m. now and the wind, at first just playful, has moved into serious gusting. Paper and leaves blow about in a courtyard. The sky is grey and there are raindrops on my window pane. Taking another picture, I notice I have lowered my sights. I have included more material substance, roof tops in particular. The invitation to skyward contemplation, so poignantly encouraged by towers like this, isn’t so present for me in this moment. The theme now is embodied endurance and solidity, weathering the winds of the world. For they don’t seem at all celestial, their current force at least partly the result of our own collective behaviour. Strong walls and a decent roof are the focus of my desire. I am, after all, a Pagan.

I am an urban Druid now, more clearly than before. It gives me a different view of nature. On one hand I am reminded that everything is included in ‘nature’. But in so far as I make a city/country distinction, I do notice a different experience of the elements, seasons, and the varieties of life. In an old and relatively small city (pop. 165,000) it is easier to see the evolution of human culture as a gradual and organic process than in other built environments. Today is a special day because raw and conceivably violent nature is coming on a visit. Whilst I notice fears around this, and am distressed by the notion of harm to anyone, I also find an aspect of Spring, and renewal, in this. I do feel energised, now, just after 11 a.m., and this at least is welcome. I have no idea of how the day is going to play out here, or what I am going to feel about my experience of Storm Eunice at the days end.

A DANCE OF LIGHT AND SHADE

Sunday, 31 October. Hallowe’en. Greetings of the season! A chance for a ghost tree to move and dance?

Where I live, a change in clock time has made the morning a little lighter, wet and gloomy though it might be. The evening, of course, will be darker. It will launch an endarkening seven weeks for those open to the spiritual opportunities of this time.

I am noticing a dance of light and shade, at moments not defined by heavy cloud and rain. In these recent pictures I sense a yin/yang contrast where clear shafts of light illuminate, but do not dominate, spaces inclined to be shady. For me there is a living balance here – one thing that still pictures do not show is that the detail is constantly changing.

I celebrate the miracle of existence – my ability, or life’s ability, to see a world and be immersed in it. To respond to it and to share it. Sometimes this seems enough, with no need for any framework to explain or contextualise this astonishing fact. Here, from identifying a dance of light and shade, I can notice how this dance has different effects in different settings, a small sample of the vast diversity in our living world. As we move without illusions into the Cop26 summit, may it be preserved and protected!

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BOOK REVIEW: THE BURNING HOUSE

A highly recommended illustration of spirituality in support of political action. In The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (1), author Shantigarbha affirms that ‘the ecological crisis is nothing if not a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning and direction for our civilisation’. Most Druids would say the same, and see value in his approach.

Shantigarbha (Seed or Womb of Peace) (2) is a teacher of Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). He has also trained members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in nonviolence and de-escalation skills. He believes that we cannot wait to change our lives before we change the world, or to change the world before we change our lives: we have to do the best we can with both, together, now. He sees the climate crisis as primarily one of ’empathy, connection and community’ and says that ‘when we use our energy to cultivate our own vitality, we naturally use the abundance we discover in the service of life’.

The book title The Burning House references a traditional Buddhist story about a father trying to get his children out of a burning house. There is no time to pick them up individually, so he simply commands them to leave. But they are busy playing with their toys and ignore him. He has to find a skilful means of getting them out. In his anguish (but also inspiration) he tells them that there are even more wonderful and exciting toys outside. In the parable the burning house stands for a life of samsara and unawareness. Outside there is the opportunity for awareness and the tools to develop it.

The book looks first at the climate crisis and ways it can be understood. There follow chapters on how Buddhist ethics support environmental ethics, and how compassionate action based on wisdom can enable the transformation we need. There are chapters on aspects of emotional intelligence. How to transform anger is the first – rather than acting out our anger or repressing it, we can identify and mobilise ‘the life in it’. Hatred, by contrast, is characterised as always toxic and self-harming. There are chapters on ecological grief and its potentially heavy weight – and also on gratitude for what we do still have. There is a beautiful quote from Francis Weller: ‘How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible’ (3).

Later chapters focus more specifically on nonviolent social change, on being the change, and on the role of nonviolent disruption in the pursuit of climate justice. Practical examples draw on UK experience in 2019, mostly in London and Bristol. Whilst illuminating, they are limited in place and time. The last chapter, Final thoughts: the beauty and terror, summarises what we can do both individually and collectively. It sees some grounds for hope – if we treat the climate and ecological emergency as an emergency. Shantigarbha draws on Sraddha, ‘the Buddhist equivalent of hope’, better translated as confidence or trust. It is not faith or hope in the ordinary sense. ‘Sraddha represents a higher or broader perspective, our connection with vision. It signifies an emotional response to our ideals. In terms of the burning house it represents the father’s cry of inspiration’. We are invited to have the courage and confidence to do what we can, and let the effects ripple out. It is what we can do, and all we can do.

The Burning House offers valuable perspectives both on Buddhist political engagement and on climate action. Each chapter contains a link to a guided meditation, offered as a resource to readers.

(1) Shantigarbha The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2021 (https://www.windhorsepublications.com)

(2) See: https://www.SeedofPeace.org

(3) See: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the-geography-of-sorrow)

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