Friday, November 18, 2011

Glowing Cores

We are all held subject by determined nations
And the determination of planners intent
On lashing the flanks and not restraining
The reins of the dark horses of night

They champ and thunder
In anticipation of the silence

You who thread the darkening looms
Who kindle the currents coursing through wires
And charge the air earth and water of our being
Beware the fruits of your projections

The dangerous matters you have gathered
Seethe softly in darkened silos
In hollow vessels plying silent under ocean storms
And glowing cores of hellish boilers

And still you plan for more

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Learning to Shine Through the Ruins

Chiesa di San Giorgio, Ragusa
While living in London during the 1970s, I had an opportunity to return to the place of my birth in Sicily and to walk the narrow streets of Ragusa, drink coffee and wine with the old and young men in the piazzas and climb the wide stone steps leading to the Baroque magnificence of la Chiesa di San Giorgio. It did not take long before I was moved to venture westward through the barren and sulphurous heart of the island towards the ancient town of Agrigento. Two and a half thousand years ago, this had been the site of the Greek colony of Akragas, home of the polymath philosopher Empedocles. Akragas had been described by Pindar as "the most beautiful city of the mortals."

I arrived late in the afternoon and found myself unexpectedly traversing La Valle dei Templi, the Valley of Temples. I was drawn to the remains of il Tempio di Giove Olimpico, the Temple of Zeus. There were no gates, no fences, no tour guides, no visitors apart from myself. I wandered slowly through the mass of abandoned ruins, fingering pieces of broken vessels and scattered pottery that had been shaped by ancient hands. Most of the supporting columns had long since collapsed and the perimeter of the massive central stone floor of the temple was littered with immense blocks and cylinders of weathered stone.

I felt a profound sadness in the face of the forgotten and untold stories that surrounded me. I sat in stillness for some time and then, near instinctively, reached for the well-travelled copy of the I Ching in my back-pack. I drew Hexagram 55, Feng, Abundance [Fullness]. The Judgement read:
"Abundance has success. . . .
Be not sad.
Be like the sun at midday."
The commentary on the Judgement continued:
"It is not given to every mortal to bring about a time of outstanding greatness and abundance. . . .  Such a time of abundance is usually brief. Therefore a sage might well feel sad in view of the decline that must follow. But such sadness does not befit him. Only a man who is inwardly free of sorrow and care can lead in a time of abundance. He must be like the sun at midday."
This reading carries the essence of the Taoist understanding of the cyclical nature of time, of the movement of all things through cycles of birth, growth, florescence, fruition, dissolution and eventual breakdown. The ruins within which I had cast the oracle were as a living manifestation of that reality.

Temple of Zeus, Agrigento
I spent the next couple of hours reflecting on the fate of the civilisations of both Greece and Rome, and wondered what lay in wait for the mighty edifice of Western civilisation that had, over the previous five centuries, completely transformed the earth and our ways of living upon it. The cultural awakening of the 1960s had made many aware of the presence of deepening flaws within industrial civilisation: Of the rampant militarism that had unleashed two unspeakably destructive World Wars; of the atomic slaying of the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; of the slash and burn methods of US imperialism that disgorged blistering gifts of napalm and poisonous defoliants into the wasted landscapes of Indo-China; of the destruction of hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil throughout the world by the corrosively productive methods of industrial agriculture; of the progressive and relentless razing of the forests in the Amazon Basin; of the rampant consumerism that spawned an endless stream of useless and often dangerous waste; of an ever-widening social and cultural alienation.

As the first stars began to appear, I laid out my sleeping bag on the stone platform in the ruins of the old temple and prepared for a long night.

Lengthening Shadows, Deepening Wounds

The forty years since have seen an intensification of all the signs of dissolution that were then evident and the emergence of many more portents of decline and impending collapse. All the while, we in the Western world have continued to fill our already-full larders and feast on the fruits of an unprecedented time of abundance and prosperity. As Australian author and activist Clive Hamilton recently observed:
"The dominant characteristic of contemporary society is not deprivation but abundance. By any standard, the countries of Western Europe and North America, plus Japan and Australasia, are enormously wealthy. Most of their citizens want for nothing. Average real incomes have risen at least threefold since the end of the Second World War. Most people are prosperous beyond the dreams of their parents and grandparents."
Yet this abundance and the freedoms it has bestowed appear to have benumbed rather than sharpened our capacity to perceive and to interpret the divided reality that underlies our illusions of comfort and prosperity.

Reactor 3. Fukushima, April 2011
Despite the fact that the Chernobyl melt-down 25 years ago has already cost nearly a million lives, and despite the fact that hot Strontium from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant has been detected on the rooftops of houses in Yokohama 250 kilometers away, the nuclear industry, together with its marketing arm, the International Atomic Energy Commission continues to aggressively pursue their deadly interests.

On October 10th 2011, both the Australian Federal Government and the South Australian Government obligingly rubber-stamped a massive industrial development at the Olympic Dam mine complex at Roxby Downs in South Australia that will, over the next 10 years, see an additional 19,000 tons of uranium oxide (yellow cake) produced annually for export every year. Australia already exports over 10,000 tons of yellow cake every year.

This mammoth project will result in the creation of the world's largest open-pit mining operation. It is projected that immense quantities of copper, silver, gold and uranium will be extracted using energy-intensive methods for the next seventy years. South Australian Mineral Resources Minister Tom Koutsantonis has described the project as "the largest undertaking in mining in human history."

The expansion of the Olympic Dam mine will require massive infrastructure changes that include the construction of a new town to house the additional 10,000 workers needed for the project, a new gas-fired power-plant and additional electricity transmission lines from Port Augusta 270 kms away to power the project, a new airport, and a new 105 km long rail line to link the complex to the national rail network. Also slated is the construction of a new desalination plant in the Spencer Gulf and 320 kilometres of pipeline through which desalinated water will be pumped to the new mining complex.

Olympic Dam, South Australia
The project was vigorously opposed from the start by both the local Arabunna and Kokatha peoples for whom the area has long been revered as a sacred site, and by environmental groups concerned about the destructive consequences of the project. In addition to the water pumped from the proposed new desalination plant, the project will require a further 42 million litres of ground water to be drawn daily from the Great Artesian Basin. The mining operations are expected to produce 8 million litres of radioactive tailings every day - which will eventually leach into local aquifers - and will create 9 billion tons of radioactive waste that will need to be monitored for the next 10,000 years. Like the monstrous Alberta tar sands project, huge amounts of greenhouse gases will continue to be produced through the coming decades.

On October 12th 2011, two days after the decision to approve expansion of the Olympic Dam mine, environmental commentators around the world applauded the triumphal passage in the Australian Parliament of the highly disputed Clean Energy Bill or "carbon tax." This bill has the ambitious aim of reducing carbon emissions in Australia by a miserable 5% by 2020.

Virtually every adult Australian citizen was aware of the "carbon tax" due to the rancorous opposition to its passage by the Liberal Party and its leader, Tony Abbott. Very few, however, were aware that at much the same time, a project had been set into motion that made a complete mockery of any pretensions to act in an environmentally responsible manner. Like Canada and the US, Australia has enthusiastically embraced the suicidal ethos of industrial development at all costs and joined the horde of lemmings rushing towards the abyss.

Slow Awakenings

Those who seek to awaken their fellow citizens to the counterfeit values projected by large corporations now find themselves demonised and reviled by the dominant media and by "law and order" politicians. In both Melbourne and Sydney, supporters of the Occupy Movement were recently forcibly removed from public spaces where they had gathered to address issues related to corporate manipulation of public discussion and political process.

The constant refrain voiced by media commentators and parroted by many within the general community was that the protesters "appear to have no clear aims." What is reflected in such comments is a failure to grasp the inchoate nature of this global uprising that has seen hundreds of thousands of people protesting in 900 cities throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand in recent weeks.

Occupy Wall Street General Assembly
These gatherings, which were inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protest that began in Zuccotti Park in New York on September 17th 2011 carry strong resonances with the forms that originally gave rise to democracy in ancient Greece, where the Agora, or city square served as a public space where citizens could freely gather to discuss issues that influenced their lives and livelihoods. One of the formal structures that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York was a General Assembly wherein the concerns of participants could be discussed and debated in order that some consensus could be reached.

Three and a half weeks after the Occupy Wall Street protest began, the General Assembly issued a Declaration that began with the following statement: "The future of the human race requires the co-operation of its members." Much of the rest of the Declaration detailed the specific conclusions that were drawn during the discussions.

The Declaration generated at Zuccotti Park provides a compact, coherent and holistic statement of principles from which action can emanate. It draws particular attention to the role and influence of large corporations and financial institutions:
  • They have poisoned the food supply through negligence and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
  • They determine economic policy despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
  • They have directed large sums of money to politicians who are responsible for regulating them.
  • They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
  • They have purposefully kept people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
  • They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.
The General Assembly Statement presents a holistic view of the interconnected causes of global inequality, political somnambulism and planetary destruction. It calls attention to the damaging effects of the methods of industrial agriculture on top soils, insect ecology and human and animal metabolism; the usurpation of the economies of developing nations; the creation of 6 million homeless families in the US in recent years through foreclosures and property repossessions; the emptying of pension funds throughout the world as a result of usurious banking practices; the manipulation of political process by corporate lobby groups; the trashing of Copenhagen and Cancun by the mining and energy corporations; the degradation of public consciousness through media control and propaganda; and the insidious promotion of an unyielding militarism by the miltary-industrial-congressional complex.

The Declaration ends with the following call to all of like mind:
  • Exercise your right to peaceably assemble, occupy public space, create a process to address the problems we face and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

The Next Turning

We are here witnessing a harnessing of the highest aspirations of a humanity that seeks to restore the principles of fairness, sensitivity, balance and co-operation in a world that is riven by the pathologies that corporate and industrial greed have spawned over the course of the past century.

The abundance enjoyed by many within the Western world has come at a great cost. One of those costs is a moral dereliction that ignores the inequality of living standards around the world. Film Director Philippe Diaz has graphically documented the fact that over a billion people live in slums in the developing world and that 16,000 children die daily from hunger and from hunger-related diseases. While the economies of Western nations have been steadily growing over the past four decades, the number of people suffering from malnutrition has grown from 434 million in 1970 to 854 million in 2008.

A similar moral dereliction is evidenced in the intensification of such activities as the extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada, the expansion of the Olympic Dam mine in Australia, and the preparations for large-scale exploitation of oil, gas and mineral reserves in the Arctic region as the ice cover progressively recedes.

The Occupy Movement reflects a growing realisation that the processes of democracy that nominally serve to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals have been usurped by the corporate Behemoths that hold the invisible reins of governments everywhere. It also reflects the growth of an integral consciousness that is mindful of the need for freedom and autonomy for oneself and others, that acknowledges the need to interact sensitively with the cycles of the natural world, and understands that our planet can no longer withstand the assaults of an increasingly destructive industrial civilisation.

Only by becoming more conscious of these realities can we begin to release the active forces necessary for restoration and renewal, contribute towards the creation of new ways of being on the earth, and learn to shine through the ruins.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
October 2011

Monday, September 19, 2011


Hard wind winds soft-leaved branches
To a fury of massed movement

Focussed mind moves armoured arm
With dreadful precision and deadly grace

Learn your cuts so as to warn sharply
Save your thrust and slash for where they count

Vincent Di Stefano
September 2011

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Forgetting Jung's Tree

A dear friend recently offered some timely advice. She wrote: "Forget about Jung's tree. Tend to your tomatoes. They are just as important and life-giving." Being late winter in these southern climes, our tomato seeds are safely stored on sheets of tissue until the frosts have softened and spring's fires risen sufficiently to rouse them into a new and hopefully fruitful cycle.

I took the cue however, and cleared the hundreds of small weeds lavishing around the green spears thrust forth from around 400 garlic cloves planted in our garden under the full moons of April and May. We are a big family and we all love our garlic.

I have never forgotten Jung's tree. Carl Jung is remembered for demurring from the strictly libidinal psychology of Sigmund Freud with whom he had a curious relationship over several years before they finally parted ways in 1913.

One of Jung's major contributions to the life of the mind was his introduction of the notion of synchronicity to a wider Western audience. The term itself was coined by Jung to describe the interpenetration of psychic and physical space that manifests in the simultaneous occurrence of events that are not connected causally, but from which meaning can often be drawn.

Apparently unrelated events can coincide in ways that are highly suggestive of deep and often numinous meaning. Such events invite an integrative interpretation wherein rational and logical categories are transcended and a unitive perspective of one's life and circumstance becomes more available. The ego dissolves as one is confronted by deeply meaningful patterns of confluence within one's life and circumstance. Through such experiences, one more easily inclines towards the notion that we are moved by more than meaningless chance and blind necessity.

Jung's Death

After his wife died in 1955, Carl Jung spent much time in the garden of their home at Bollingen, situated on the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland. He would often read and rest in the shade of a magnificent old poplar tree during the summer months. It became one of his favourite places during his latter years.

Jung died on the afternoon of June 6th, 1961. While taking his final breaths, a great storm erupted around lake Zurich. As his body slowly cooled on his death-bed, the storm intensified locally. A bolt of lightning cleaved the sky, striking and splitting into two the poplar tree under which he had spent so much time.

This remarkable phenomenon has been viewed as a manifestation of the very principle of synchronicity that Jung had devoted so many years and so much energy. It was as a metaphoric affirmation of the reality of synchronicity as an inherent aspect of human experience. The magnitude and power of the event also pointed towards the titanic capabilities present within human consciousness.

Yet that was not all. At the time of Jung's death, his long-standing friend and confidante Laurens van der Post was returning to Europe from Africa. Completely unaware that Jung had died, van der Post dreamed that Jung was on the summit of Zermatt, Mount Matterhorn. In the dream, Jung waved to him and called out: "I'll be seeing you."

Some years later, van der Post returned to Bollingen with a film crew for what were to be the final takes of a documentary about Jung's life. In his Jung and the Story of our Time, Van der Post described what happened that afternoon:
"When the moment came for me to speak directly to the camera about Jung's death, and I came to the description of how the lightning demolished Jung's favorite tree, the lightning struck again in the garden. The thunder crashed out so loudly that I winced, and to this day the thunder, wince, and the impediment of speech it caused are there in the film for all to see, just as the lightning is visible on the screen over the storm-tossed lake and wind-whipped trees."

The Revolving Door 

It is important to understand that such manifestations are not solely the domain of daemonic men such as Carl Jung, or of great siddhas such as Padmasambhava and inspired saints such as Teresa of Avila or Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. Many of us can find similar intimations - though probably far less dramatic - in our own experiences or the experiences of family members or friends.

We do not need to actively seek out such experiences. They usually arrive uninvited and unanticipated. When I was in my early twenties, a friend described to me how, while watching the sea in a deeply reflective state one afternoon, he vividly experienced the presence of a close friend he had not seen for over a year. He learned a few days later that his friend had been killed in a motor accident that very day.

My father several times recounted one of his own unforgettable experiences while in a prisoner-of-war camp in South Africa. He woke suddenly from a deep sleep to find his mother, dressed in white, standing at the end of his bed. She smiled and then disappeared even as he watched her. Three weeks later, he received news from Italy that she had died on the day that she appeared to him.

In my own life, there were several occasions in the months after my own mother's death when I experienced her living presence in synchronic irruptions of both luminous and imaginal events.

One does not need to lean exclusively on the reports of such individuals as the Dalai Lama or Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to contemplate the continuity between life and death.

Of Mind and Matter

There is a peculiar polarity in the world that arcs, on the one hand, between a fascination with anomalous events that break through the commonly-accepted boundaries of what is possible, and on the other, an outright rejection of anything that is not circumscribed by a limited, limiting and often tyrannical rationality.

The various methods of shamanism, the practices of yoga and tai chi, the ways of prayer and contemplation, and the focussed attention that may arise in times of grief and deep personal or collective crisis can all give rise to an intensification of consciousness and a loss of the egoic boundaries that limit and block our awareness of synchronic events and of non-duality. Such experiences have the potential to act as instruments of transformation that may prompt us to re-evaluate the dominant and insistent ethos of materialism that stridently denies the reality of the numinous while proclaiming life to be devoid of any transcendent meaning.

Most wisdom traditions accept that the gift of a sensitised consciousness capable of apprehending the subtle - and occasionally dramatic - mental and energetic fields within which we live and move and have our being does not usually fall out of the sky. Such states of consciousness are both created and sustained by the cultivation of a reflective and disciplined attention. Whether one places a value on pursuing such states and the understandings that may arise from them is, of course, another matter.

To find balance is a difficult thing. Thomas Merton long sought to encourage the practice of contemplation in a world driven by action. And more recently, the reflections of Thomas Berry remain an ongoing rejoinder to pause within the busyness of our destructive times in order to connect more deeply with each other and with the living forces that act through the natural world.

Let us take the time while yet we can to catch the whispers in the wind, to marvel at the light glancing through the diamond dews of morning, to ride the luminous skyscapes edging fiery clouds at day's end - even while fetching wood, carrying water and tending the tomato seedlings.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
August 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Burning Horizons. Dirge for a Savaged Earth

This original piece offers a poetic reflection on the moral obscenity of aerial warfare as it has been exercised from the attack on Dresden in February 1945 to the sacking of Baghdad in March 2003.

Production Notes
Music: Nico Di Stefano
Voice:  Vincent Di Stefano

Burning Horizons can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file is available for download here.

 What was it like when Dresden was sleeping
And the sky shrieked metal then crashed all around
And the town was a furnace a fiery hell-world
For mothers and children now under the ground

And what was it like that big-sky morning
When Little Boy cried then howled down the day
The crashing of atoms the tempest of terror
The unknowing mothers all blown away

First in Kabul and then on the Tigris
Silicon soldiers tore open the night
And wounded yet further a people near broken
And brought further darkness in fulminant light

The hatred now stored in the cones of the missiles
That rage and release in ruin and woe
And the heart of the night pierced again with fierce metal
The blood and the water continue to flow

I wait for the turn of a cheek that was promised
I wait for the love of a world now in woe
I wait for the call of a sorrowing mother
For terror on terror can nowhere go

Vincent Di Stefano
July 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Terra Calda. A Lament for Darkening Times

We have been away for far too long
From the pull of the world
And the day to day
From time of work and time of play

The debt of the day too deep to pay
Has gone too far has been too long
Tell me now which way to turn
Which tune to give to the sacred song

As newer nails of fire and metal
Pierce the armour and spoil the earth
They burn the children before their birth
For want of love for want of worth

In times now past upon the lake
The swan would slow and silent flow
But in this time and in that place
The deathly metal seeps and soaks
To riverbeds and ocean deeps
And mother weeps

     Now time to call this to a halt
     Time to call this to an end
     There is no more that we can spend
     Make your way despoil no more
     Enough of blood and death and war

     And we will make our way in peace
     Find the hearth and till the earth
     Toil to turn the damage round
     Regain again the sacred ground
     Restore anew this broken place
     Through love and song
     Through sweat and grace

                                                                            Vincent Di Stefano
                                                                            June 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Restoring a Ruined Earth. The Heroic Mission of Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry, 1914-2009
Industrial civilisation has changed everything. At the dawn of the petrochemical age in 1750, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide were estimated to be 280 parts per million (ppm). In 1960, they were around 360 ppm. Last month (May 2011) levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide were over 394 ppm.

The oceans of the earth are presently becoming more acidic at ten times the rate that preceded the last mass extinction event at the end of the Cenozoic era tens of millions of years ago.

And while Arctic sea ice cover has been steadily declining in recent years, NASA scientists have confirmed that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass at a rapidly accelerating rate.

There are many who have read the warning signs. Half a century ago, Rachel Carson alerted us to the damaging consequences of industrial methods of agriculture on ecosystems everywhere. Soon after, Fritz Schumacher urged us to rethink economics in view of the rapacious influence of corporate globalisation. And both Rosalie Bertell and Helen Caldicott have long warned of the silent, slow and spectrous death emanating from the nuclear industry.

The UN Climate Conferences at Copenhagen in 2009 and Mexico City in 2010 were effectively neutered by the influence of mining and energy companies acting through Western governments, notably the US and Canada. Closer to home, both Liberal and Labour parties are desperately outreaching each other in promised tax cuts while arguing about how best to lower carbon emissions by a sad 5% by 2020.

Meanwhile, 250 million tons of coal - over 10 tons for every man, woman and child living in this country - and 10,000 tons of yellow cake - uranium oxide - continue to be shipped out of Australia each year as part of a non-negotiable assault on the earth, felicitously described as a "mining boom", that has replaced the sheep's back on which the Australian economy was once carried.

Those who have understood the magnitude of the environmental situation that presently confronts us are faced with a two-fold task. The first is to clearly identify the nature of those forces that have brought us to where we are. The second is to envision the changes needed - both in our thinking and in our actions - that might reverse the dangerous situation within which we find ourselves, or at the least, prepare future generations for living on the earth in a very different manner.

One of our most articulate and visionary allies in this task is the late Thomas Berry, theologian, mystic and cultural historian. Berry combines prophetic clarity with a penetrative erudition grounded in the intellectual and spiritual traditions of both West and East.

His vision was slowly formed through many decades of studying the wisdom traditions and through observing the effects of industrial civilisation on the earth's ecosystems during the twentieth century. Thomas Berry offers a truly heroic vision to counter the pathologies of distraction and trivialisation borne of the post-modern enthralment with transience and distaste for grand narratives.

The Turning Wheel

The grandness of Berry's scope was first given impetus through his early immersion in the Scienza Nuova of Giambattista Vico which was published in 1725. Berry's doctoral thesis in the 1940s was based on Vico's work. It introduced him to a way of thinking about history that was mythic in its dimensions.

Vico's study was in part a response to the declaration of Descartes a century earlier that the world and the creatures within it were as clock-work mechanisms that could be manipulated and controlled by the rational intellect. Like William Blake, Giambattista Vico baulked at the constriction of such a view and sought to restore the centrality of poetic wisdom and creative imagination to human purpose and experience.

Vico was of the view that there is a cohesiveness within history, that history is not a random and contingent cascade of events and circumstances, but rather carries an inherent pattern and order that can be discerned through careful examination and reflection. This view mirrored the intuition of many indigenous cultures and the central understandings of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, all of which hold a cyclical rather than a linear view of history.

Vico developed his insight into a formal structure, describing the history of humanity as a repeating cycle of ages.

William Blake, 1794: The Ancient of Days
He called the first of these periods The Age of the Gods. Such periods are characterised by theocratic systems of government maintained by clearly articulated and widely accepted mythologies and belief systems. The second age or epoch he named The Age of the Heroes. Such times are characterised by the rule of hereditary monarchies and their associated aristocracies and are usually marked by the presence of defined social classes, including a slave caste. The third phase described by Vico is The Age of Men which is characterised by a preference for more democratic forms of government and a valuing of rationality and human freedom. Implicit in this third phase is a tendency to increasing decadence and the consequent rise of a barbarism that brings about the progressive dissolution of all the social and institutional structures that had enabled its development. According to Vico's understanding, the collapse of this third age is once again followed by a return of the prototypical Age of the Gods.

And thus the wheel of time and human history rolls on.

Following Vico, Berry elaborated his own system which incorporated much of the new knowledge that had emerged since Vico's time. Berry describes the prototypical age as Tribal-Shamanic, wherein the world is experienced as a field of living potencies and fluid energies. This is followed by the Traditional-Civilisational epoch, where human life is shaped by well-defined cultural patterns and directed by hierarchical institutions. Berry identifies the third age as the Scientific-Technological, the time within which we presently find ourselves.

During this Scientific-Technological phase, all previously established cultural forms, rituals and practices are subordinated to the norms of an allegedly "enlightened" rationality. All earlier ways of knowing are usurped by "scientific" epistemologies that have become the sole arbiters determining whole new sets of beliefs, practices and technologies. Like Vico, Thomas Berry views this third age as carrying the seeds of its own demise. But rather than being followed by a return to another prototypical Tribal-Shamanic age, Berry suggests that we are now poised to transition to a fourth age, an age he calls The Ecozoic Era.

On the Ecozoic Era

Tar Sands Complex, Canada
According to Thomas Berry, we are presently hovering on the edge of an immense cultural and existential abyss. He is of the view that only a change of epic dimensions will enable us to successfully navigate our way through the accumulated detritus of a dying industrial civilisation. He proposes that this can only be accomplished by consciously envisioning the task ahead, a task which he refers to as The Great Work. The changes to be made are not so much in our methods, but in our minds and more particularly, in our relationship with the earth's living systems. The rest will then follow.

Thomas Berry believes that we are at a crucial point in the history of humanity. The activities of industrial civilisation have irreversibly altered the character of life on earth. This has occurred at every level from forest to prairie ecosystems, inland lakes and waterways to intercontinental oceans, and animal and human habitats everywhere. He reflects:
"We are changing not simply the human. We are changing the chemistry of the planet. Even the geological structure and functioning of the planet. We are disturbing the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the geosphere all in a manner that is undoing the work of nature over some hundreds of millions, even billions of years. The genetic strains we have extinguished will never return."
Such profound disturbances herald a progressive collapse both of the physical and institutional structures that are associated with the Scientific-Technical age and the fixed mindset that has blinded us to the unanticipated consequences of industrial civilisation.

Rather than preparing for a return to primitive conditions that such a collapse might suggest, Berry suggests that we harness our new-found understanding of how the phenomenal world was formed and is maintained and direct that understanding towards living with the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner. Such co-operative participation with the natural world represents, for Berry, the quintessential change that will bring about the Ecozoic Era. 

The Ecozoic era therefore represents a potency within the human imagination that can heal the divided consciousness that has overseen the destruction of numerous ecosystems and caused great damage to  delicate systems of dynamic interdependence that have emerged over periods of hundreds of millions of years. Berry is not proposing that we beaver away with recycling systems, energy efficiency and pollution controls, important though these may be. He reminds us that the primary change needs to occur in our minds, in our relationships with each other and the world, in our sensitivity to and awareness of the fragility of natural systems, and in our recovery of a sense of awe and wonder for the created world. The rest will then follow.


Berry's intellectual and spiritual development were strongly shaped by his long-standing study of both Asian thought and indigenous cultures. After serving as a US Army Chaplain in Germany from 1951 to 1954, he spent the next three decades teaching in a number of American universities. During that time, he established programs in Asian religions at Seton Hall, St. John's University, Fordham University, Columbia University, and the University of San Diego. His programs encompassed Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

Thomas Berry was also strongly influenced by the ideas of anthropologist and fellow priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Berry served as president of the American Teilhard Association over a 12 year period from 1975 to 1987. He shared Teilhard's view that consciousness is an attribute of the evolutionary process itself, and not merely a peculiar physiological epiphenomenon associated with the activity of neurotransmitters. For both Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry, the world was charged with energies as alive as any of the creatures within it.

Thomas Berry holds that each of us has the capacity to enter into deep communion with rivers, with clouds, with forests and with mountains, but that most of us have lost that capacity in the present time. This alienation from the natural world has contributed to the objectification of its living and non-living components and a myopic disregard of the effects of our actions on the earth and its living systems.

Berry believes that the roots of our present attitude are to be found in the anthropocentrism of the biblical and the Greek humanist traditions. Both found meaning and purpose in the human community and dismissed or neglected the "primary sacred community", the phenomenal world itself.

French nuclear test, Moruroa, 1970
This separation from nature was intensified by the influence of the sixteenth century English proto-scientist Francis Bacon who was among the first to formally objectify and commodify the world. Bacon's radical revisioning of the scope of human agency was furthered by the proclamations of Rene Descartes on the nature of mind and matter and the subsequent adoption of his views and methods by an emerging scientific community. The phenomenal world and the living things within it were increasingly viewed as objects to be explored and exploited in whatever way was deemed useful for human purposes.

We have built up then destroyed cities, cut deep into mountains and hauled out coal and metals, cut down rainforests and created new wastelands, dammed great rivers and ruined wetland ecosystems, drilled dry deserts and contracted armies to protect pipelines, mindlessly disgorged our accumulated wastes into the air, the earth and the sea without regard for anything but our own benefit.

We have had no philosophical or ethical system in place that would urge sensitivity, caution or restraint in such matters. Neither religion nor humanistic ethics warned us of the folly and the danger of continuing this relentless assault upon the earth. Berry reflects:
"We have a moral sense of suicide, homicide and genocide, but no moral sense of biocide, the killing of the life systems themselves and even the killing of the earth"

The Tragic Climax

The activities of industrial civilisation have seriously undermined the earth's capacity to maintain the delicately balanced regulatory systems that were slowly perfected over symphonic time periods. These systems have enabled  life to expand and flourish in all its profusion through the 65 million years of the Cenozoic Era, an era that, according to Berry, now approaches its tragic climax.

Thomas Berry likens the present situation to only two other events in the history of the earth. The first was the termination of the Palaeozoic Era 220 million years ago when 90% of all living species were extinguished. The second was the termination of the Mesozoic Era 65 million years ago when a second mass extinction of species occurred. The changes we are presently witnessing are not fortuitous. They are a direct consequence of the activities of industrial civilisation.

Industrial civilisation has largely been fuelled by the energy locked in the massive deposits of fossil fuels that have been extracted, fractionated and burned up in a short century and a half. Carbon is the basis for all life as we know it. The earth has miraculously maintained atmospheric carbon at a steady level by storing it in the great forests of the earth, within the oceans of the world, and in the underground coal, oil and gas deposits that have locked solar energy into the ubiquitous benzene ring fashioned within the cells of ancient trees.

The great forests of the Europe have been felled and those of the new world are rapidly disappearing. The carbon they held, and that released by the burning of fossil fuels in coal-fired power stations and internal combustion engines now thickens the earth's atmosphere and increases the acidity of the oceans of the world. Berry reflects:
"Our present system, based on the plundering of the Earth's resources, is certainly coming to an end. It cannot continue."
Yet politicians, industrialists, bankers and consumers are searching for ways to stave off the inevitable. We will find ways of sequestering carbon. We will build hydrogen-fuelled cars. We will make lots of money through carbon trading schemes. We will recycle our bottles. We will recycle our water. We will remove the salt from sea water when our rivers and reservoirs dry up. We will create wind farms and solar arrays. We may even decide to close down our coal-fired power stations and replace them with new generations of nuclear reactors.

But the damage has already been done and we remain perversely fixed in our ways. For many political leaders, our way of life, predicated as it is on a highly productive industrial system and a global economy, is simply not negotiable. Most discussions centre on ways that will enable us to "grow the economy" while continuing on our present trajectory.

Although the increase of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is a major factor in creating climate change, it is but one of the many constellations of deleterious influence created by industrial civilisation. Background radiation levels have been progressively rising since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The methods of industrial-scale broad acre farming have destroyed the arable top-soils in most nations. The widespread use of agricultural chemicals has vitiated insect life and encumbered both human and animal metabolisms. Groundwater has everywhere been depleted or poisoned. The fish stocks of the oceans continue to fall. The point was made and has been reiterated many times since Rachel Carson lamented the coming of a Silent Spring in 1962. Thomas Berry calls it as it is:
"The earth cannot sustain such an industrial system or its devastating technologies. In the future, the industrial system will have its moments of apparent recovery, but these will be minor and momentary. The impact of our present technology is beyond what the earth can endure."

Towards the Future

So where does this leave us? Where are we to find solutions? Are there, in fact, any solutions? Clearly, we have no choice but to prepare ourselves and our children for what lies ahead. At another level, we need to prepare the ground for another way of being on the earth, a way that acknowledges not only our potential for mastery, but one that accords with our essential dependence on the forces that drive and sustain the natural world. This will require a fundamental change in our consciousness. That change will not be generated by diving deeper into the furious flow of information and sensation that drives the technosphere, but rather by a sensitive consideration of our circumstances and an active seeking out of the sources of wisdom that are both ever-present and ever-elusive.

Berry's Ecozoic Era is predicated on a reacquisition of those sensitivities and sensibilities that will enable participatory continuity within our human communities and the ecosystems within which we are situated. We will need to develop a deeper understanding of our relationship with the natural world. We will need to make more intelligent choices in the way that we live individually that is reflected in the way that we live collectively so that the immense disparities that presently divide humanity will be avoided in the future. We will need to conform our actions to the limits of fairness and respect for the needs of our fellow creatures - both human and non-human - and of the earth itself. We will need to learn to do things differently. Berry reminds us that:
"The earth is primary and humans are derivative. The present distorted view is that humans are primary and the earth and its integral functioning only a secondary consideration. The Earth must become the primary concern of every human institution, profession, program, and activity, including economics."
Despite the prognostications of aerospace engineers and their starry-eyed space cadets, we will neither be mining the asteroids nor peopling other planets in the foreseeable future. Our collective energies will be needed to cope with increasingly uncertain weather patterns, food production and distribution, resource availability, economic stability, and social, political and personal freedoms.

In the meantime, our politicians will continue to baulk and bicker, mining and energy companies will continue to squeeze every last drop from what little is left, global corporations will continue to manipulate governments and bleed consumers, investment bankers will continue to chase easy money.

Let us not fall into the folly of expecting change from above - politically or metaphorically. Let us change what can be changed in our own lives, draw strength and inspiration from those striving to bring about a more sustainable future, and work in whatever ways we can to prepare our children for life in a very different world.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
June 2011

 1. A beautiful audio anthology of Thomas Berry's ideas culled from a number of lectures and interviews and presented over a musical background has been sensitively constructed by Chaz Kilmer (Virtual Renderings) as a tribute to his legacy. It can be heard here.
2. An in-depth presentation of Berry's view of the Ecozoic Era was offered in a lecture he gave at the Schumacher Society in Massachusetts in 1991. This remarkable lecture can be listened to or downloaded here.


1. Thomas Berry. Healing a Savaged Earth

"Healing a Savaged Earth" is an audio tribute to the prophetic insight, vision and integrity of cultural historian Thomas Berry. Though others viewed him as a depth theologian and cultural guardian, he chose in his later years to call himself a "geologian" as an acknowledgement of his earth-centred philosophy which drew strongly from the insights of Taoism, Confucianism  and the mysticism of Teilhard de Chardin and Henri Bergson. This Integral Reflections post offers a downloadable audio presentation drawn primarily from "The Ecozoic Era", a lecture given by Thomas Berry in 1991. Audio can be streamed from the media player below.

 2. E.F.Schumacher. A Voice for Wisdom in an Age of Folly

The economist E.F. Schumacher has served as a source of inspiration for many over the past half-century. His essential message is carried in two books published in the five years before he died, Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) and A Guide for the Perplexed (1977).

His ideas continue to be explored, developed and disseminated by such groups as the Schumacher Society in the UK and the New Economics Institute in the US as well as numerous individuals and groups in both the developed and developing world.

This Integral Reflections post offers both a downloadable audio presentation drawn from two lectures given by Schumacher in the 1970s and a review of some of his ideas as presented in Small is Beautiful. Audio can be streamed from the media player below.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Herbal Medicine Tradition. A Long-burning Torch for Darkening Times

Joseph Wright, The Alchymist 1771
Practitioners of herbal medicine hold the curious privilege of being carriers of a tradition whose origins cannot be traced during a time when traditional knowledge has been devalued by a technocratic ethos that celebrates transience and power.

Contemporary biomedicine continuously surfs the edge of ever-imminent "breakthroughs" that promise the conquest of refractory diseases and conditions through the discovery of new drugs. There are regular calls for increased funding from all available sources, from government, industry and the donations of a generous public in order that such salvific developments can proceed unhindered.

The biomedical establishment draws upon the energy of numerous dedicated individuals and also draws from the immense reserves of both national governments and multinational corporations in the knowledge that any successful "breakthrough" will bring immense financial returns.

The whole apparatus hangs on the assumption that there will be uninterrupted freedom and continuity in the various institutions and infrastructures through which such activities are initiated, pursued, marketed and delivered to established "health care" networks. We are just beginning to understand that business may not necessarily continue as usual in what is becoming an increasingly uncertain future.

The resources deployed within the biomedical enterprise are huge. They begin with the medical schools throughout the world that induct elite cadres of young aspirants through rigorous initiations which include a not-so-subtle professional socialisation while providing detailed and extensive training in anatomy, physiology, histology, embryology and pathology. The public hospitals in which their developing skills are exercised consist of vast and finely coordinated structures in which ambulance facilities, casualty departments, in-patient wards, operating theatres, intensive care wards, pathology units and pharmacy departments are serviced by large numbers of paramedics, nurses, nutritionists and caterers. medical officers, specialists, cleaners and hospital administrators.

The hospital system itself both supports and is supported by medical practitioners within the general community, by manufacturers of medical hardware ranging from disposable syringes, swabs and bandages to intravenous drips, cardiac monitors, fibre optic devices, defibrillators and magnetic resonance imaging scanners, and by a vast and powerful multinational pharmaceutical industry that produces the drugs which are dispensed and sold in huge quantities throughout the world.

This vast and interconnected network of activities both defines and supports the institution of biomedicine. Most governments in the developed world uphold this structure through political and legislative support, through the bankrolling of medical schools and public hospitals, and through subsidising the cost of diagnostic testing and pharmaceutical drugs.

Practitioners of herbal medicine are largely outside of the loop. They have little if any legislative support, receive their training in exceedingly modest educational facilities, have no access to the public hospital system, limited access to diagnostic services, and a questionable professional status. Despite this, the practice of herbal medicine continues to remain a vital and enduring source of satisfaction both for those who would carry the tradition through mastery of its methods and for those who seek out the services of knowledgeable practitioners.

What is going on here? Are practitioners of herbal medicine a quaint and harmless anachronism determined to cleave to largely discarded ways during a time where health care in most of the developed world has been technologised, corporatised and universalised? Are those who practise herbal medicine obstinately refusing to accept the reality of modernism with its celebration of centralisation, globalisation and standardisation? How is it that they do not covet the awesomely powerful methods that have become the signatures of biomedicine? Just what does the contemporary practice of herbal medicine represent?

The Promethean Entrancement

Francis Bacon
Much of the driving force that has propelled technological civilisation and its remarkable productions - including biomedicine - derives its influence from a philosophical position that separates us from the natural world. Francis Bacon exhorted all who would build the New Atlantis to subject nature to their will and to forcibly extract those "secrets" that enable control and mastery of her forces. By mid-century, Rene Descartes declared the world and all that was in it to be a soulless machine that could be understood, controlled and manipulated by the exercise of human reason. And by the end of the century, Isaac Newton had confirmed that the physical universe operated according to immutable laws that, once known and understood, conferred immense powers of control and predictability to those who understood them.

The so-called European "Enlightenment" further encouraged a philosophical clearing of the decks of all that was deemed to be uncertain or "irrational" in order that a new era based on development, progress and control could proceed without interference.

The fruits of such methods and understandings have, over the past three centuries, completely transformed the world. Yet our fascination with the productions of industry and technology, and our participation in the power they confer, have blinded us to their effects on our view of ourselves, on our relationship with powerful institutions, and on our sensitivity to the natural world.

At the most basic level, we have become perversely and erroneously alienated from those potencies within our own natures and within the natural world by which we are formed, sustained and regenerated. Though we may live by more than bread alone, that bread has now been tainted and denatured by the methods of industrial agriculture and food production. Top-soils have been everywhere destroyed; fruits, often laced with low levels of insecticide residues, are gathered long before they are ripe and transported over long distances - even across the great oceans - before they reach our tables; the genetic structure of many staple grains has been knowingly altered with unknown consequences to future generations; the bee populations in many countries have begun to cave under the onslaught of agricultural chemicals. And this is to say nothing of the obscene plethora of heavily processed foods stacked on the overburdened shelves of supermarkets everywhere.

We seem to have collectively lost sight of the fact that our physical bodies are continuously reconstituted from the foods that we eat, the air that we breathe, and the liquids that we drink. In the early 1950s, long before chemical-heavy industrial agriculture had reached anything like its present levels, Max Gerson showed through his nutritionally-based cancer therapy the vital importance of using fresh, unprocessed, chemical-free foods if health is to be restored in serious conditions. This understanding has yet to reach the busy kitchens of public hospitals throughout the Western world.

The anatomising of the body into its constituent tissues and organs is echoed in the anatomising of our foodstuffs into their constituent fats, proteins, sugars and calories. There is no measure that can accommodate the integrity, the totality and the equilibrium of living matter.

Dark Fruits
And so it is with the natural world. Our civilisation has recklessly plundered every identifiable resource with little thought to its relationship with the rest of the created order. Our forests have been felled, our soils destroyed, our rivers and lakes laden with the detritus of industry, our oceans robbed of their myriad fish species, our air oppressed by the burning of fossil fuels. And we wonder why the cost of health care throughout the developed world continues to steadily escalate despite the endless "breakthroughs" and all the fancy hardware and clever medicines.

Two decades ago, Thomas Berry reflected:

"We cannot have well humans on a sick planet. Medicine must first turn its attention to protecting the health and well being of the Earth before there can be any effective human health."

Guarding the Flame

Before we can seriously direct our attention to protecting the health and well being of the earth, we must somehow reverse our sense of separation from the phenomenal world. We must somehow shake free from the illusion that we are masters of creation capable of doing what we will with both the earth and with our bodies. We must somehow reconnect with the forces that unite us with the natural world from which we can never truly be separate without damaging ourselves and the world within which we live.

The force by which a grain of pollen unites with an ovule to produce a seed that carries the full potency of the parent plant is no different to that which enables every new human life to come into existence. The power by which a plant draws water and nutrients from the earth, and oxygen, carbon dioxide and sunlight from the air to produce its myriad structures and chemical compounds is no different to that which enables our physical bodies to grow and to repair themselves after injury and illness.

Howard Terpning. Medicine Man, 1983
Generations of healers in all times and in all places have identified plants that will serve as reliable allies so long as we continue to take human form upon the earth. In the present time, the biomedical profession has claimed the exclusive right to make use of extracts and derivatives of such plants as Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, Claviceps purpurea, ergot of rye, Digitalis purpurea and D. lanata, the purple and woolly foxgloves, Ephedra sinensis, ma huang, and Atropa belladonna, the deadly nightshade. Yet these and other powerful plants were long known and used skilfully and carefully by untold generations of healers, herbalists, midwives and shamans. These and many other plants of softer power will continue to spring forth from both wild and cultivated spaces for as long as the earth remains hospitable and habitable.

There will always be a community of knowledgeable individuals who will safeguard and transmit the knowledge of how these plants can enable us to better pass through the pains and afflictions that are an inevitable part of human life.

The methods of phytochemistry and pharmacology have recently confirmed the particular usefulness of many plants which have long been used in the various herbal medicine traditions. These include such plants as Echinacea angustifolia, which stimulates activity in the immune system, Ginkgo biloba, which enhances cerebral circulation, Serenoa repens, which is useful in the treatment of prostatic enlargement, Hypericum perforatum, used in the treatment of depression and other nervous system disorders, Crataegus monogyna, which can lower blood pressure and stimulate coronary circulation, Valeriana officinalis, useful in the treatment of insomnia, and Silybum marianum and Cynara scolymus, both of which support liver function. Such plants and their extracts are no longer used exclusively by herbalists and are now prescribed or recommended to patients by a growing number of practitioners of biomedicine.

Yet there remain may other plants within the herbal medicine traditions whose actions are perhaps too subtle to be easily determined by the harsh methods of phytochemical fractionation and pharmaceutical statistics. It is important to understand that medicinal plants and their extracts are categorically different to the pharmaceutical drugs used in biomedicine. A single medicinally active plant or its extract typically contains small quantities of numerous compounds and influences which can, both individually and synergistically, interact with our own natures. Although any given plant may contain a specific potency, as is the case with opium poppies and their narcotic alkaloids, foxglove and its cardioactive glycosides, and the buckthorns with their purgative anthracenosides, most plants used as medicines carry a constellation of influences which may include minerals, organic acids, essential oils, bitter compounds, flavonoids, steroids and so forth. This is certainly the case with such gentle treasures as lemon balm, golden rod, white horehound, cleavers, agrimony, motherwort, chamomile, plantain, dandelion, yarrow and many other plant medicines.

During this time when the ways of herbal medicine are often dismissed and demeaned as outmoded and useless superstitions, we are well advised to deepen our familiarity with the healing plants both in our gardens and in the wild. This will ensure that regardless of whether the future holds a bang or a whimper, this soft system of healing will remain available as a living force for the benefit of future generations.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
May 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

Son of the Sun. A Song of Easter

Golgotha. Vasili Golinski, ca. 1890-1900

Son of the Sun, Son of Man
You show your face again and again
In these days of passion, compassion and pain
These days of fire and storm and shame
To all who would call you by your name.

In forest on sea and in desert dry
You walked and waited and then turned around
Those who heard your story, who saw your glory
Will never lose sight of your many faces
In trance and wonder, in crystalline graces.

Perfect pearl reflects and refracts
In changing hues in reds and blues
The places and faces now fixed in time
Within this sphere of earth sublime
The stories untold, in silver and gold
The present and past, the first and the last.

Now the stone rolled over to close the wound
Of an earth long seeded in grief and blood
Restored in love renewed in light
With a thief to the left and a thief to the right
With blood run thin
With day become night.

To you who once were who are and will be
To you who were emptied of blood and of water
Remember the land and the sky and the sea
And strengthen and comfort the sons and the daughters
Yet to return to our great mother Earth
To restore and renew and to bring to new birth.

Vincent Di Stefano
April 2011

An audio version of Son of the Sun performed with musical accompaniment has also been posted on the Dante's Ghost website. It can be streamed or downloaded as a CD quality mp3 file here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Leopold Kohr. Gentle Messenger of Community, Fellowship and Celebration

Our times are not entirely graced by an abundance of wisdom in those who would rule. We are all now engulfed in the consequences of decisions made in the offices of politician-economists, investment bankers and corporate technocrats.

The rule of philosopher-kings remains a distant ideal that periodically resurfaces from the time it was first given voice by Socrates and Plato in the fifth century BCE. It found some expression in the Chakravartin king Ashoka who renounced war and conquest while at the height of his powers in third century BCE India. And it was thwarted in the attempts of the noble-hearted Boethius to reform the decadent politics of a corroded Roman empire during the sixth century CE.

Regardless, we are where we are, and it is probably useful to continue to actively seek out those rare and occasional carriers of the wisdom that would guide us towards a more equitable world, a more peaceful world, and a more sustainable world than that which we presently inhabit.

Leopold Kohr was professor of economics and public administration at a number of universities in North America, Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom from the early 1940s to the 1970s. As a younger man, he spent time in Spain as a journalist, sharing an office with Ernest Hemingway, and a friendship and many conversations with Eric Blair, who was later to publish his own writings under the pen name of George Orwell. Even then, Kohr's sharp pen thrust at the Fascism of Franco, the Nazism of Hitler, and the Communism of Stalin.

Shocked by the destruction occurring in Europe at the hands of the great powers of the time, he began to focus his thoughts and marshal his powers of concentration in 1941. Over the next ten years, he gave them form in a manuscript entitled The Breakdown of Nations, which was completed in 1951. Throughout that time, Kohr lectured in economics at the University of Toronto and contributed occasional editorials to the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

After forwarding The Breakdown of Nations to numerous publishers and receiving numerous letters of rejection in return, he decided to take on the task of laboriously transcribing the text onto parchment in illuminated medieval script rather than suffering the indignity of further rejection slips.

Just as he was inquiring after sources of quality vellum, a very excited Sir Herbert Read, who was later described by Kohr as "the gentle anarchist of Routledge and Kegan Paul", contacted him and offered a contract for the publication of The Breakdown of Nations. It was eventually printed in 1957. Kohr was thereby spared the task of curling and gliding his ink-dipped nib through hundreds of pages destined for gilded ignominy or eventual discovery by future generations.

One of the few who chanced upon that first edition was E.F. Schumacher. They eventually developed a strong friendship. Schumacher was later to describe Kohr as "a teacher from whom I have learned more than from anyone else." Inspired by Kohr's ideas, Schumacher went on to write and publish his own Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered in 1974 and three years later, A Guide For the Perplexed, which was was published just a few weeks before he died in 1977.

The Ideas

Leopold Kohr early identified the relationship between the size of states and their potential for destructiveness. In his introduction to The Breakdown of Nations, he writes:
"The solution of the problems confronting the world as a whole . . . seems to lie in the elimination of those overgrown organisms that go by the name of great powers, and in the restoration of a healthy system of small and easily manageable states such as characterized earlier ages."
Kohr understood that wars are not the result of the activities of inherently war-like nations, but tend to irrupt - seemingly inevitably - once a certain threshold of power has been crossed. Regardless of language, culture or circumstance, all nations seem equally capable of performing abominable actions. Kohr reflects:
"Mass executions and related monstrosities were perpetrated in Germany under the Nazis, in India under the British, in France under the Catholics, in Russia under the most savage, and in Italy under the most enlightened, princes."
Searching for a common denominator led him to similar conclusions to those reached a decade earlier by Simone Weil in what Kohr called a "power theory of social misery."

Leopold Kohr holds that once a nation has become large enough and has acquired a sufficiency of power, it will become an aggressor regardless of all stated intentions. When coupled with the belief that this power can be exercised over other nations without incurring overwhelming retaliation because of the possession of superior strength or numbers or weaponry, there appears to be an inevitable slide into warlike activities.

This was clearly the case in the occupation of Tibet by China. It was also manifest in the policies and actions of the Bush Administration once it came into power. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was largely driven by a small group that included many of the so-called neo-conservatives who during the 1990s charted the militarist agenda later pursued by their so-called Commander-in-chief.

The ebullition of colossalism welded to power is not restricted to the theatre of war. Great size and unrestrained power provide the opportunity to "misbehave with impunity" as we have seen in recent years in the financial dealings of Wall Street. Laissez faire principles might be useful in the conduct of small operations and concerns where dishonest practices or the rank exploitation of others become counter-productive once people wise up to what is going on. But laissez faire is a dangerous principle on which to base large scale operations and global enterprises because, as Kohr repeatedly emphasises, power corrupts, and power emboldens, and power invites its own exercise.

Leopold Kohr holds that internal social miseries, those social pathologies that underlie criminality, family violence and social alienation, are the consequences of the overgrowth of cities and urban environments, while external social miseries that can cause the oppression and loss of freedom of entire populations, result from the overgrowth of states and of state power. Kohr is decidedly against the grain when he advises against the uniting or amalgamation of national groups into larger ones. He calls, rather, for "the dismemberment of the vast united national complexes commonly called the great powers." Only in this way can "power . . . be pushed back to dimensions where it can do no spectacular harm, at least in its external effects." Kohr continues: "The problem of war in modern times is not its occurrences, but its scale, its devastating magnitude."

From Border Skirmishes to Total Devastation

Kohr wrote at a time when the world began to realise the true extent of destruction caused by new ways of waging war. In 1940, a report in the New York Times had estimated that during World War I, between 25 and 35 million lives had been lost as a direct consequence of hostilities. About half of those killed died as a result of battle wounds and injuries. The other half died as a result of starvation and disease, notably, the pandemic of influenza that erupted into the wasted ruins of war-torn cities and countrysides.

By the end of 1945, over 20 million soldiers had been killed in battle in World War II. An additional 47 million civilians were estimated to have been killed during the war, with 20 million perishing as a result of famine and war-related disease.

Kohr repeatedly reminds us that the great powers are not necessarily possessed of great wisdom. Their activities over the past two centuries have transformed the small and manageable hostilities of earlier times into events of unbearable scale and consequence. Kohr cites the example of Central and South American states where wars and revolutions occurred regularly, but "would come and go like spring showers."

Kohr is a realist. He acknowledges that neither the problems of war nor of internal criminality disappear in small states. He observes:
"In a small state world, there is a constant breathing and sneezing and changing that never permits the development of gigantic sub-surface forces. These can arise only in a large power arrangement which provides longer periods of peace and allows powers to inhale with their formidable chests for entire decades, only to blow down everything in front of them when, at last, they begin to exhale their hurricanes."
Neither collective submissiveness nor tyrannical disposition can be attributed to nations as a whole. Neither one nor the other are the consequence of "tradition, national character, or the mode of production." People become submissive when they are collectively oppressed by big power. This happened in many of the Jewish communities in Europe at the hands of Hitler's SS troops. This has also been seen in the wake of the brutality of Chinese forces both in the occupation of Tibet and in dealing with pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The governments of both Burma and North Korea continue to hold their own people in subjection. Such submission on the part of entire populations represents a near-instinctive way of coping with the threat of power that can be brutally exercised. Kohr presciently noted:
"The seemingly most freedom-loving peoples have accepted tyranny as submissively as the seemingly most submissive ones . . .  It is safe to say that Americans would submit if our federal structure permitted the accumulation of the necessary volume of governmental power."

The Pathology of Bigness

Small autonomous systems are self-regulatory by their very nature. Social colossalism, whether it be in the form of totalitarianism or the globalisation of trade represents a deeply flawed attempt to "consciously hold together what previously arranged itself automatically." The imposition of large-scale agriculture practices in developing counties by the International Monetary Fund, and the insistence by the World Trade Organisation that wealthy nations be free to conduct global trade, have had devastating effects on the lives of hundreds of millions of individuals and on the economies of struggling nations while benefiting the back-pockets of big players in the already-wealthy nations.

The needs of individuals, of families and of communities are over-ridden by such colossalist organisations as the IMF and the WTO. Smaller and weaker governments no longer serve the needs of their people, but bend to the demands of powerful institutions that decree how lands will be husbanded, how government bureaucracies will be managed, and how economies will be directed and controlled. Such intrusions universally incline towards uniformity and conformity. Individual activity and autonomy give way to passivity and submissiveness. As Vandana Shiva has long pointed out, the epidemic of farmer suicides in India bears witness to the essential failure of such totalitarian impositions.

At another level, partisan politics suffers from the same pathology. All individuality must be subsumed where the party line is concerned. Differing viewpoints are forcibly curbed. Earlier expressed ideals are muzzled and suppressed in order to present a "unified front." We have seen this in Australian politics in the silence of a former environment minister who, before entering the political theatre was a fiery protagonist of change, environmental awareness and the dangers of military gigantism, yet who underwent a peculiar emasculation of both intention and expression once elected to office. Some small possibility of hope remains in the growing influence of independent politicians associated with smaller and more socially and environmentally conscious parties who carry at least a shadow of the nearly-lost ideal of participatory democracy.

Leopold Kohr extends his understanding of gigantism to the failures of capitalism. He holds that both the successes and the satisfactions enjoyed by capitalism in its early stages were due to its essential smallness and its capacity to support and encourage numerous small competitive enterprises working intensively and concurrently alongside each other. Early capitalism was characterised by the breadth, the ingenuity and the diversity of the enterprises that were created. Relationships at every level were intensely personal, from the workplace itself to the marketplaces where products were bought and sold. Problems began to appear at much the same time as monopoly capitalism began to appear with its penchant for massive-scale enterprises and exploitation of both workers and the market place.

Revaluing Smallness

Our cities have now grown beyond humanly manageable levels and are spread over vast areas that require complex and massive roadway systems capable of carrying legions of commuters to and from their place of work at great cost in terms of energy use, air quality and lost time.

Our militaries have become vast bloated structures entirely dependent on global communication systems and powerful technologies capable of delivering unearthly power to distant targets with little or no view of the human consequences.

Small-scale local agricultures have been replaced by obligatory industrial scale broad-acre methods that denature vast tracts of land and destroy ecosystems while producing foodstuffs that slowly and progressively poison entire populations through the chemicals routinely used in their production.

Kohr's call to reconsider the wisdom of valuing smallness in human affairs has failed to gain any effective ground in this behemothic time. Yet he offers a vision of how things can be done in a way that could carry us safely through centuries and perhaps millennia of satisfying human presence upon the earth. Being a realist, he carries no illusions regarding the fate of his ideas:
"To believe in the willingness of the great powers to preside over their own liquidation for the purpose of creating a world free of the terrors which they alone are able to produce, would not be a sign of faith in the first place, but of lunacy, as it is the sign of lunacy, and not of faith, to believe that atom bombs can be produced but need not necessarily be detonated."
The wisdom of Leopold Kohr is the wisdom of one who has realised the essential perplexity of many aspects of human reality and of one who has sought to communicate his insights and offer an alternative, albeit unrealisable vision. But that is the nature of visionary transmission. Kohr understands that his ideas will never become the guiding principles of the-world-as-it-is. Kohr's ideas are located in community, in proportion, in adequacy, in forbearance, and in mutually enhancing presence. He offers a view of what could become.

Towards community

The drive to colossalism that has become the signature of industrial civilisation will not abate of its own accord. Simply look around at how things are done by most governments on the planet at present. Other perspectives, however, remain available to us, marginalised though they may be. These perspectives acknowledge the wisdom of restraint, the madness of continuing business as usual, and the folly of endlessly pursuing economic growth.

We are all presently facing conditions that will impose their own necessity upon us all. Kohr comments:
"Whatever comes, the ultimate world state will go the road of all other ultimate world states of history. After a period of dazzling vitality, it will spend itself. There will be no war to bring about its end. It will not explode like the ageing colossi of the stellar universe. It will gradually collapse internally, leaving as its principle contribution to posterity its fragments, its little states. . . .  History will in all likelihood repeat itself and the world, little and free once more, will experience another of those spells of cultural greatness which characterized the small-state worlds of the Middle Ages and Ancient Greece."
Kohr concludes that we should learn to enjoy what we have, even in the knowledge that there are better ways of doing things. He laconically reflects: "If we have measles, we can just as well enjoy them. For if we do not, we shall still have measles."

Leopold Kohr was a seminal influence in the work of E.F. Schumacher and remains a potent source of inspiration for all who would direct their energies towards finding ways of living with each other and with the earth in, to use the phrase of Thomas Berry, "a mutually enhancing manner."

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
April 2011

Readers who would like to know more about the style and content of Kohr's "The Breakdown of Nations" will find a review and substantive excerpts from the book on the Book Reviews page of The Healing Project website. Scroll down to "Cultural and Historical Studies" where you will find a link to the review.