New narratives

Breaking the Gordian Knot in Approaches to the Climate Emergency

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In our current efforts to respond to the Climate Emergency that we all face, it may be useful to address what appears to be a dialectical relationship between the two major strategies.

On the one hand, some assert that the way forward can be found in the street protests organized by Greta and the School Strike movement and Extinction Rebellion. This approach seems to be to challenge politicians and governments throughout the world to take action. One does assume that participation in these protests through the power of cognitive dissonance motivates participants to take individual action. However, this approach primarily seeks action at a top-down, national and global scale though motivated by grassroots activities.

Others believe that the way forward is based on individual actions. In this view, if each of us were to reduce our carbon footprint, the collective impact would be significant. If one includes corporations as individuals here then the impact becomes significantly greater. This is reflected in approaches such as the Circular Economy and Industrial Symbiosis. There are many such "individual" actions all around the world, each with its own orientation - its view of economic activity, the nature of progress, the role of humans in our Earthly ecosystem, a definition of wellbeing. Here, progress is seen as based on the combined impact of individual and corporate action.

I admit that in my own efforts, I live out the same quandary wondering which is the more efficacious approach. Where should I and others put our efforts? I also wonder whether the better approach would be to strive for a vision of an ideal future or whether the pursuit of many smaller efforts in time would have the potential of coalescing into a more overarching vision.

In an ideal world, there would not be such dilemmas. Motivated governments and motivated individuals would all be taking action, thus, ensuring an encompassing, comprehensive response to this Climate Emergency. Since we do not live in such an ideal world (which would already have responded to Climate Change many years ago), there seems to be a push-pull as to deciding where to put one's efforts in moving forward. We are wondering where to invest conference space, media focus, available resources and our personal energy. The metaphor that came to me is that of a Gordian Knot which defies habitual methods of untying. The message in the Gordian Knot parable is that there is a simpler, higher level approach that will resolve what in retrospect can be seen as a false dilemma.

Though there are likely many ways of approaching this Gordian Knot dilemma, I would like to suggest one in particular.

I am reminded of a play by Luigi Pirandello entitled "Six Characters in Search of an Author." My recollection is that in this play established characters living out their dramatic lives are searching for an author to provide them with added context and meaning.

I am wondering whether in our current world of sustainability actions and futures, we are not in effect creating individual characters still lacking that underlying essence that will provide them with meaning. Without that "authorship" the dilemma is a self-perpetuating one constantly fueling a Gordian Knot existence.

If one looks back over the history of the United States, one can find many events, individuals and motivations leading to the foundation of the Republic. Over a period of about 150 years, what arose to author the future was a consensus around the core ideals of self-determination, freedom and "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This obviously did not happen over night and encompassed a great deal of societal discussions, debates, newspaper articles, books, speeches and assemblies.

This authorship became embodied in America's founding documents, the "Declaration of Independence" and the "Constitution" and "Bill of Rights." All of these were based on philosophical themes with antecedents throughout history. One can look at these founding documents as an epochal turning point in which a new paradigm was firmly established. Another historical example of a world-changing paradigm around which a consensus developed is the Enlightenment.

It seems to me that our efforts in sustainability are lacking this consensus having to do with what we are about based on a philosophical, biological, ecological, scientific, ethical etc. foundation. We lack a consensus around our "author."

Our additional challenge is that we do not have 150 years to sort all of this out. We have less than twelve years. At the same time, many exciting ideas already abound based on work over many decades. There are countless books, internet posts, articles, events, where ideas are being set out on topics ranging from Biomimicry, to Ecological Economics, to Natural Capitalism, morphogenetic change and regenerative economies. Many posit interrelationships among different disciplines and perspectives among which are ecological, economic, social and cultural ones. Some go as far as asking for a new unifying though heterogeneous narrative for our Earthly ecosystem.

We do seem to be gradually seeking a new paradigm that will author all of our efforts. I believe that it is the current lack of a consensus around such a paradigm that creates the Gordian Knot dilemma that we are experiencing and which makes our work that much more challenging. A common paradigm would provide an authoring concept to which we could organically relate our various activities.

We cannot force the emergence of such a paradigm. We can, however, act in a facilitative way to create a fertile ground for its emergence based on our learning from history. The following ideas are not intended to develop fixes, solutions or isolated actions. They are focused upon the development of a philosophical and ethical basis for a new narrative for all creatures and elements of nature that have a place on this planet including we human sapiens.

  • We can support each new idea as a seed worthy of germinating, paying attention to, adding to and reflecting upon each with openness.
  • We can support new ideas with resources.
  • We can provide in-person and virtual venues where interchange and synthesis of ideas can occur in a spirit of collaboration and respect.
  • We can utilize all modalities open to us to express ideas including the vehicle of the arts: music and song, painting, drama, dance, poetry, performance art.
  • We can read, share, talk and dialogue about ideas and share our new learnings.
  • We can offer a library of ideas which the School Strike, Extinction Rebellion, Green New Deal and others can draw upon.
  • We can ask our friends in all of the different movements to distill and share the philosophy underlying their many activities. We can ask the same of participants in any given workshop.
  • We can frame each new synthesis as an experimental basis for a new paradigm to be pursued - to see where it goes, adapting and letting go of it as necessary.

In doing this, we will be using our collective authorship to rewrite the basic narrative of life on this planet.

 

 


Toward A Story of Place

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Bioregionalism as a Story of Place

Bioregionalism is seen by a number of writers and practitioners in the field of sustainability as an important part of the solution to the current challenges facing our planet including Climate Change and injustice and inequity.

Bioregionalism is essentially a story of place - of how life anchored in a given place supports success, fulfillment and sustainability. It is the story of human beings living in harmony with the land and its various species.

A number of people such as the author Daniel Christian Wahl have offered definitions of bioregionalism which tend to revolve around the idea that a bioregion is a region defined by characteristics of the natural environment rather than by human-made divisions. These characteristics include: climate, soil, landforms, watershed, native plants and animals. They can include indigenous culture, local community knowledge, environmental history and geography. In a number of writings, Wahl provides these additional insights.

Bioregionalism is a comprehensive way of defining and understanding the place where we live with the aim to live in that place sustainably and respectfully - developing sustainable means to satisfy human needs - access to food water, energy, shelter, materials and education. It involves becoming fully alive in and with such a place.

Bioregionalism involves a sense of belonging to and having responsibility for a place - the region in which we live. It entails having an intimate knowledge of the natural cycles and ecological relationships that operate within it and a sensitivity to disturbances of the ecosystems in which we live. It constitutes a "terrain of consciousness" - about how to live in that place.

A sense of identity comes from our awareness of and knowledge of our immediate environment. This makes people assume responsibility for the place in which they live. This shared sense of belonging to a place strengthens and rebuilds communities. Human cultures develop in relation to the natural ecosystems in the site they inhabit.

The activities carried out in a bioregion are appropriate for maintaining the natural characteristics of the land. The region's economic activity and means of production are tailored to local materials and resources. Agriculture, manufacturing and construction industries need to be transformed to function within the limits of the carrying capacity of the bioregion.

A given bioregion can consist of many co-operating regional communities which are mutually dependent on each other for their existence. Though Bioregionalism acts locally, at the same time there is a connection to the planet by seeking to maintain an equitable, sustainable approach to the carrying capacity of the Earth's biosphere.

Epic Stories of Civilization

It has been said that the use of story is the main way that humans have made sense and communicated throughout their pre-literate and literate history. Many stories over history have been about place - about the communities, people, land and culture of place.

Among the most well-known stories in Western civilization are the Iliad and Odyssey - epic poems by Homer. It is now believed that these were originally recited by Homer in pre-literate times as oral stories (Eighth century, BCE) and then in a later period of history, they were written down.

In "The Formation of the Homeric Epics" by classics professor, Margalit Finkelberg, she discusses the unique role that these stories played in the creation of Greek civilization. She describes a period at the time of the fall of Mycenaean civilization when people were on the move throughout Asia Minor settling in what became the Greek city states. Though earlier epic poetry may have discussed the actual historical events causing the displacement of old populations and the aggregation of new populations, the Iliad and the Odyssey created a different explanatory story - a myth dealing with the ten year Trojan War and the siege of Troy.

In the Iliad, Greeks from many different places joined together in the common enterprise of the Trojan War to obtain the release of Helen, the wife of Menelaus, brother of Greek King Agamemnon held by the Trojans. Throughout the Odyssey, Greek hero Odysseus endeavors to return home from the Trojan War to his wife and son in Greece. These narrative epics gained privileged status in the hands of Homer and according to Professor Finkelberg in accord with the desires of the population to see themselves as one integrated society though initially made up of different languages, dialects and cultural histories.

According to Professor Finkelberg, "This resulted in the emergence of an image of the past shared by all the inhabitants of Iron Age Greece. Epic poetry became the main vehicle for spreading the new image all over the Greek world."

"In the hands of Homer, the story becomes about the establishment of usable ideological foundations for the present and the future. The Iliad and Odyssey provided Greek civilization with a new foundational myth that sustained its validity until the end of antiquity."

"The history of the Homeric poems is not just the history of a literary text but that of a literary text highly privileged in the civilization to which it belonged."

The Story of Earth

I have been wondering whether Earth has a story. Unlike the people in ancient Greece, we on this planet are not coming from many other places though certainly there are differences in language and culture among us. And, life on Earth is made up of many other species and other-than-human intelligences.

I wonder whether what we need at this point in our history on this planet is a story, an epic poem about life on this planet, just as each individual community or bioregion could have a story indigenous to that place.

What if we had a story that could help us to recognize our rich diversity among species along with a recognition of the commonality of life on this planet? A story that can move us to take greater responsibility for the welfare of each other within the human species and across species and within our planetary limits. A story that can motivate us to take action to respond to the Climate Crisis and the other challenges embodied in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. A story that can touch us on an individual level, in our communities, jobs, regions and as inhabitants on this planet.

The video at the end of this article may be the best we have as yet for an epic story of Earth.

Tell Your Story of the Land

Likely, few of us are epic poets though together we might be. However, we are all in a position to tell our story of the land and the communities who live on it. Each of us has our stories of living in place, in community, of hopefully beginning to live more sustainably.

Is there a bird near your house that you continuously notice? What color is it? What song does it sing? Does it have a mate, a nest, young ones chirping away? Are there cats in your neighborhood as in mine that have their daily habits? Do you interact with them, feed them? Do you concern yourself with their welfare?

Outside the town where I grew up in New Jersey, there were miles and miles of cornfields. I still remember the pleasant feeling of seeing them, of buying fresh corn from a farmer at a roadside stand.

I remember fondly the farmer's market in my town outside Boston and the joy of buying fresh vegetables and talking and eating ice cream with my neighbors. I recall the city sparrows who visited my back porch and listening to them chirp away in the early morning.

Where I now live in Haifa, Israel, when I get on a bus, I see secular Israelis in shorts, religious Jews in long black coats, Moslem women with headscarves and soldiers, school kids, elderly people. It is comforting to me to live in a city where all co-exist in our increasingly fragmented world.

So, tell your story. To your kids, parents, family members, friends, strangers. Ask them to tell theirs. Weave them together into your own little epic of life on the land, in community hopefully striving for some degree of harmony with all.

Video: An Epic Story of Earth.