Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wendell Berry. Finding our Souls before we Lose the World

The muses are presently poised between a Requiem for the Species and a Symphony for the Great Turning. The song that our children hear will be determined by decisions made and decisions avoided during the remaining years of the present decade. There is much that has already occurred that portends a completely altered planetary and human reality. We know enough to know that neither governments nor mining and corporate behemoths are about to willingly alter the pattern of their present activities sufficiently to avoid the bang or the whimper towards which we inexorably move. The gestures of collective aspiration and goodwill that found expression in Copenhagen in 2009, at the Rio Summit in June 2012, and in the Occupy Movement since its inception have been met with the immensity, the intractability and the brutality of the forces arraigned against meaningful change.

In the meantime, the continuing meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear facility and the slow leaching of radioactive elements into groundwaters and ocean waters has done nothing to soften the determination of the nuclear industry in the pursuit of its ultimately destructive agenda even though both the Japanese and German governments halted their own nuclear programs in consequence and are now re-examining more sustainable and less damaging modes of energy production.

Oblivious to these realities, and anticipating a much-vaunted "renaissance" of activity in the nuclear marketplace, Australian politicians have endorsed a voracious expansion of the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia into the world's largest open cut mining operation that will result in an increase of Australian uranium exports from their present level of 10,000 tons annually to an estimated 19,000 tons by 2020.

While activists such as Chris Hedges in the US continue to warn all who would care to listen of the increasingly violent confrontations that are likely to occur as the heat builds up, many are coming to accept that, like the Titanic, industrial civilisation is steaming blindly towards inevitable tragedy.  Many are now choosing to direct their energies to both creating and recovering ways of living that are more attuned to the sensitivities and limits of a seriously damaged planet.

Among them is the American writer, poet, farmer and political activist Wendell Berry.

Heaven's Treasure, Earth's Friend

Wendell Berry was born in 1934 into a family that had been farming land in Kentucky for several generations. As a boy, his love of such activities as hunting and fishing was tempered by an equally great love of poetry and literature. At the age of 14, his father sent him to a military school to try and rein in his exuberant nature. On completion of his studies there in 1952, he immediately enrolled at the University of Kentucky, determined to become a writer. Within eight years, Wendell Berry had published his first novel, Nathan Coulter, which continues to be widely read.

He took up a position as professor of English at New York University in 1962. Berry drew little satisfaction from New York's intellectual and academic circles and in 1964, accepted a teaching position at the University of Kentucky. He describes his departure from New York in the following terms: "The reason I came back [to Kentucky] was because I wanted to. . .  When we started down the New Jersey turnpike with the New York skyline behind us, it was exhilarating." Berry, together with his wife and young daughter, was returning to the place where he had generational roots. Within a year, they had purchased Lane's Landing, which remains the family farm that he continues to manage to the present day.

In the time since acquiring the farm, Wendell Berry has taught classes at the University of Kentucky, written over twenty books of poetry, sixteen volumes of essays, and ten novels. He has also been prominent in political actions against the Vietnam War, nuclear energy, US Department of Agriculture policy, George W. Bush's post 9/11 National Security policy and more recently, the mining of coal by the methods of Mountaintop Removal in Kentucky. All the while, he has continuously worked his 125 acre farm using the organic methods described by the English botanist and agriculturalist, Sir Albert Howard. Berry has eschewed the use of heavy machinery, preferring rather to plough his land behind heavy horses. This is fully in keeping with his expressed view that mechanisation has contributed not only to alienation in the workplace, but alienation from the forces that sustain life and community, a view shared by such different individuals as E.F. Schumacher and Simone Weil. Berry observes:
"What I am against - and without a minute's hesitation or apology - is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of machines to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures, which we have allowed increasingly over the last two centuries, and are still allowing, at an incalculable cost to other creatures and to ourselves."
Apart from the dehumanising aspects of mechanisation, the unspoken context of Berry's position is an understanding that the power and freedom gained by the use of machines will not be infinitely available as cheap and accessible reserves of petroleum begin to dry up.

Over the course of his life, Wendell Berry has come to embody a peculiar synthesis of land husbandry and literary creativity. Through it all, he has maintained a moral position firmly grounded in his own Baptist faith. This has not prevented him from fiercely denouncing the long-standing and contradictory collusion of the established churches with corporate and political institutions that have over the past half century systematically despoiled the earth in the name of economic growth and industrial development. Berry writes:
"If Christianity is going to survive as more than a respecter and comforter of profitable iniquities, then Christians, regardless of their organisations, are going to have to interest themselves in economy - which is to say, in nature and in work. They are going to have to give workable answers to those who say we cannot live without this economy that is destroying us and destroying our world, who see the murder of Creation as the only way of life."
Yet such workable answers are unlikely to emerge from the institutional forms of religion that are, like economics and industrial civilisation itself, riven by a deep alienation from the natural world. He continues:
"This separation of the soul from the body and from the world is no disease of the fringe, no aberration, but a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geological fault."
Berry's interests lie more in economy than in economics. He consistently uses the term in its etymological sense of housekeeping, of managing a household. The fact that both economy and ecology have common roots is central to his thinking. He is fully conscious of the immense disconnect between the principles that we nominally live by as "Christian" nations and the policies and values that determine our actions in the world:
"Christ's life from the manger to the cross was an affront to the established powers of his time, as it is to the established powers of our time. Much is made in churches of the "good news" of the gospels. Less is said of the gospel's bad news, which is that Jesus would have been horrified by just about every "Christian" government the world has ever seen."

The Peculiar Myth of Progress

Wendell Berry takes a contrarian view regarding the near-universal acceptance of industrial development and technological innovation as forces for good in the world. The promotion of such notions by governments and their corporate sponsors effectively creates malleable populations that happily disregard the damage caused to peoples and planet in the name of "progress" in exchange for the promise of endless novelty and economic growth.

Berry describes the more insidious aspects of the myth of progress that is everywhere used to underwrite and justify contemporary political, technological and economic depredation:
"It [the myth of progress] substitutes this infinite advance towards better and better life in the material sense for the old pilgrimage which you make by effort and grace to become a better person. . . . It takes people's minds off the important things. It becomes, at its worst, a kind of determinism. All we have to do is just passively go along and things will get better and better, and we'll be happier and happier."
Wendell Berry herein identifies a major cause of the widespread alienation and social narcissism that assails the present times. The Socratic focus on an examined life grounded in reflective consciousness has been displaced by the boundless positivism preached by scientific and technocratic elites who forever push the boundaries of what is known in pursuit of "the new." We are constantly reassured that such "cutting edge" developments will replace existing technologies with newer, faster and more efficient versions, entertain our restless minds, restore our deteriorating health, and eventually correct dangerously altered climatic patterns. All the while, our collective pockets are steadily emptied into the already bloated coffers of transnational corporations and their shareholders. In his characteristic manner, Berry queries the nature of the "progress" that has been so relentlessly pursued:
"What is the measure of progress? It is possible to measure the progress of the last two or three hundred years in soil erosion. We can measure it in the rate of species extinction. We can measure it in pollution, in the toxicity of the world. Those things, like power and speed, are perfectly measurable. But we need also to raise the questions that are not quantitative. How happy are people? What do we make of all this complaining? How healthy are people? How are love and beauty faring? What do we make of all this doctoring and medication that is going on all the time at such a great expense?"
The benefits of industrial civilisation have been gained at a cost which is only now beginning to be more widely understood. The systemic nature of the damage already caused is affecting virtually every dimension of human and planetary life, from the health of ecosystems to the stability of climatic patterns. Together with E.F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry finds such destructive consequences to be inherent in the very nature of the methods of industrial civilisation. He reflects:
"Industrialism, which is the name of our economy, and which is now virtually the only economy of the world, has been from its beginnings in a state of riot. It is based squarely on the principle of violence towards everything on which it depends. . . . The violence towards nature, towards human communities, traditional agricultures and local economies has been constant."
This violence is most obvious in the mining and energy industries from which industrial civilisation gains much of its momentum. But it is also present in more subtle ways in the sweat-shop and assembly-line methods of production that create the surfeit of poorly-made and often-useless "goods" that fill the shelves of retailers everywhere. Wendell Berry has long lamented the loss of community-based traditional skills that supported the work of shoemakers, bread-makers, soap and candle-makers and tailors. Unlike the sweat-shop, such activities provide a measure of independence and human dignity to the worker and cultivate the small satisfactions that come through personal attention to the fruits of one's labours.

Wendell Berry is untiring in his call for restraint in the political and economic forces that drive the now-ruinous industrial project. He continues:
"The captains of industry have always counselled the rest of us to be 'realistic'. Let us therefore be realistic. Is it realistic to assume that the present economy would be just fine if only it would stop poisoning the air, or if only it would stop soil erosion, or if only it would stop degrading watersheds and forest ecosystems, or if only it would stop seducing children, or if only it would quit buying politicians, or if only it would give women and favoured minorities an equitable share of the loot? Realism, I think, is a very limited programme, but it informs us at least that we should not look for bird eggs in a cuckoo clock."
The Thrasymachean principle of "might is right" now operates in such areas as energy policy, economic development, resource extraction, and - as we have come to observe more recently in Occupy Movement protests - in methods of social control. Wendell Berry urges us to become more conscious of the background forces and the hidden agendas that conspire to keep power in the hands of corporate elites and their armies of political lobbyists. Central to Berry's mission is a call for the re-empowerment of local communities:
"If it is unreasonable to expect a bad economy to try to become a good one, then we must go to work to build a good economy. It is appropriate that this duty should fall to us, for good economic behaviour is more possible for us than it is for the great corporations with their miseducated managers and their greedy and oblivious stockholders. . . . We must learn to spend our money with our friends and not with our enemies. But to do this, it is necessary to renew local economies and revive the domestic arts."

Reclaiming Community

Throughout his life, Wendell Berry has sought to artfully uncover the deceptive rhetoric that represents our time as one of utopian possibilities and universal fulfilment. While acknowledging the transformations wrought by industrial and technological civilisation, he calls our attention to the perennial values and unchanging realities that condition our being. We are born into the world and remain part of it regardless of our ability to construct space stations and cruise the ocean floor in nuclear-powered submarines.

Part of Berry's mission has been to awaken us to how far we have drifted from the sources that connect us to each other and to the earth. As one who has astutely observed the separation of our collective psyches from such basic considerations even as the source and nature of the foods that sustain us, he offers clear vision:
"No matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth." ("The Body and the Earth", The Art of the Common-Place, 2002)
Berry's pursuit of the perennial has also brought him to a clear understanding of the role of healthy communities in the life of humanity. He reflects:
"What I'm talking about in my work is the hope that it may be possible to produce stable, locally adapted communities. . . .  The idea of a healthy community is an indispensable measure, just as the idea of a healthy child, if you're a parent, is an indispensable measure. You can't operate without it."
Wendell Berry has never sought a following. But he has ever sought to awaken us to the sacred dimension of earthly life. Wendell Berry simply asks to be heard.
                    I will wait here in the fields
                    to see how well the rain
                    brings on the grass.
                    In the labour of the fields
                    longer than a man's life
                    I am at home. Don't come with me.
                    You stay home too.
                                         (Stay Home, 1980)
Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
July 2012

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Star Dust Consciousness. Miriam MacGillis, Sister of Earth

The problems that confront us during these darkening times are not simply the consequence of runaway industrialism or an economic system gone wrong. They have extensive roots in a mindset grounded in alienated and opportunistic views of the world within which we live. We have mastered the methods that give us power over the natural world and have created tools that extend our reach from the manipulation of sub-atomic particles to the visualisation of immense fields of galaxies that have been forming for unthinkable periods of time. Yet we seem to be obstinately incapable of taking collective action in the face of a fate that approaches us in ever more dramatic manifestations.

In this audio presentation produced by chazk of Virtual Renderings, we hear reflections from Sr. Miriam MacGillis, director of the Dominican community at Genesis Farm and long-time friend and interpreter of Thomas Berry, regarding the changes that need to occur in our ways of thinking if we are to effectively understand why we are where we are and how we might attain a truly sustainable human future on the earth.

Star Dust Consciousness. Miriam MacGillis, a Sister of Earth can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file is available for download here, and both CD quality and LoFi mp3 files are available for download here.

Program Notes
Vincent Di Stefano
Sr. Miriam MacGillis

Terry Tempest Williams


Crosby, Stills and Nash, "Long Time Gone"

D LOOP, "Peace"
Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, "Broken"
Joni Mitchell,  "Woodstock" (Woman of Heart and Mind DVD)

With many thanks to chazk of Virtual Renderings for both alerting me to the work of Sr. Miriam MacGillis and for so generously sharing this artful presentation.

Miriam MacGillis. Midwife of the Ecozoic Era

While the men of the Vatican continue to split hairs over obscure issues of dogma and issue restrictive edicts chastising socially conscious and politically active nuns for their "excessive" and "inappropriate" involvement in worldly matters, Sr. Miriam MacGillis and her group of fellow Dominicans have, over the past 30 years, been quietly developing new ways of being on the earth and new approaches to worshipful presence in the created world.

Miriam MacGillis is director of the Genesis Farm spiritual community, a 220 acre farm and education center based in north-west New Jersey. During her early years in the Dominican order, she served as a teacher of art at both high school and college levels. In 1973, she moved to the Newark Archdiocese where she held the position of co-ordinator of Peace and Justice Education for a period of 3 years. In 1976, she joined Global Education Associates (GEA), whose stated mission is, "to advance global systems that will secure ecological integrity, peace, human rights, economic and social well-being, and democratic participation, with special care to include the voices and perspectives of poor and marginalized people of diverse cultural and religious traditions."

While organising a GEA conference in 1977, she met with Thomas Berry for the first time. This meeting proved to be a turning point in her life. She later recalled:
"After he finished delivering his paper I could not have told anyone what he said, but I knew I had heard the most important thing I had ever heard."
This encounter also proved to be highly consequential for Thomas Berry. After the conference, a number of his articles and essays were published in Whole Earth Papers, a series of monographs produced by GEA between 1977 and 1983. These helped to carry the developed ideas of Thomas Berry out of academic and theological circles and into the broader community.

Things then started to move quickly. In 1978, 140 acres of farmland was unexpectedly bequeathed by the Von Boecklin family to the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey, the group of teaching nuns of which Miriam MacGillis was a member. She later wrote regarding this extraordinary development:
"There had never been any association between the Von Boecklin family and the Dominican Sisters, but through some providential purpose this farm was left to the Sisters who use it as a new expression of their traditional work in eduction."
Two years later, Genesis Farm was established as a teaching center with Miriam MacGillis as its Director.

Recovering an Earth-based Spirituality

In the 30 years since it was established, Genesis Farm has become a source of inspiration and renewal for over 50 similar centers founded by women's congregations in North America and elsewhere. Author John Edward Carroll commented in 2004:
"Genesis Farm has provided a model for the Franciscans, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Loreto, Sisters of Notre Dame, and numerous other Catholic religious women's orders in their design and organisation of what now constitutes the Sisters of Earth network." (Sustainability and Spirituality, p. 82)
Genesis farm offers programs in such areas as earth literacy, organic and biodynamic gardening, community-supported agriculture, wild-crafting, food preservation, non-hybrid seed distribution, solar energy and straw-bale house construction. In addition, it promotes ecologically sustainable methods of agriculture that restore soil fertility and provide local communities with chemical-free, high-quality produce. The Genesis Farm community is also actively engaged in environmental advocacy both regionally and further afield. Miriam MacGillis has recently written:
"Stemming, in part from our profound concern about transgenic seeds, the power line expansion, hydraulic fracking for natural gas and other local and planetary ecological threats, we have been working to explore what options are now available to us for expanding our traditional approaches to advocacy and activism. . . .

Humans now stand on the threshold of a critical point in time, where our collective and individual actions have enormous potential and import."
Integral to the philosophy underlying many of the programs at Genesis Farm is the New Cosmology as articulated by Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme and others. Our view of the universe and our place in it has in recent centuries been radically expanded by the discoveries of science. This change in perspective can, if incorporated into our individual and collective understanding, awaken us to the errors in thinking that have led to a widespread and relentless destruction of the natural world by industrial civilisation, and the savaging of human communities through warfare and the exercise of titanic military capabilities.

This newly emergent view of the nature of the phenomenal world has also confirmed at the deepest level many of the insights expressed in the various wisdom traditions of the world. Drawing on the ideas of Thomas Berry, Miriam MacGillis reflects:
"[Thomas] Berry suggests that . . .  western society is being given a new revelation powerful enough to awaken us from our destructive behaviors toward the natural world. We are seeing with new eyes such as through the Hubble telescope or at the quantum level into the profound inner and outer unity of all being.  He [Thomas Berry] describes this capacity to see the sacred unity of the whole and our participation in it as a moment of grace."
Like Thomas Berry, and to a certain extent, Teilhard de Chardin before him, Miriam MacGillis views the progressive development of scientific understanding as a vehicle whereby our own understanding of the universe and its nature can be powerfully transformed. Ironically, this "moment of grace" is not universally received. There are many who interpret the same "revelation" as a refutation of the notion of the existence of any sacred meaning or purpose underlying both the cosmos and our human experience of the cosmos.

The Opening Doors

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Miriam MacGillis has also been strongly influenced in her spiritual and intellectual development by the Jesuit priest, paleontologist and theologian, Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was among the first in recent times who sought to reconcile the discoveries of science, particularly in the areas of anthropology and evolutionary theory, with his own commitment to Christian spirituality. He wrote prolifically during the 1920s and his provocative ideas became widely known within the French Jesuit community and among theologians more generally. The men of the Rome saw fit to remove him from the European scene because of his "extreme" views and sent him to China where he continued his studies in anthropology and paleontology. Miriam MacGillis offers some thoughts regarding his contribution:
"He [Teilhard] intuited that matter was not just matter but was spirit. He sensed that the  universe was evolving, not just in its physical aspects but as a deeply spiritual process. . .  He feared that if we did not develop our capacities to see (and by that we might say into evolutionary time and space ) that we wouldn’t have an adequate vision of the outer world to activate the energies needed to take us through our emerging crises in order to open up a different direction into the future."
Though Teilhard was profoundly Christocentric in his vision, it is clear from a number of essays published in his Christianity and Evolution that he had strong sympathies with a pantheistic view of the world that saw all of creation as being charged with divine presence. Miriam MacGillis reflects further:
"Genesis Farm is rooted in a belief that the Universe, Earth and all reality are permeated by the presence and power of that ultimate Holy Mystery that has been so deeply and richly expressed in the world's spiritual traditions. . .  This Sacred Mystery, known by so many religious names, is the common thread in our efforts."
One of the signatory elements in the work of Miriam MacGillis is a deep respect for the spiritual traditions of all cultures. The diversity of ways in which sacred presence is honoured reflects the diversity of experience and history of different cultural groups. She is no worshipper of monolithic institutions, be they of a political, religious, or corporate nature, but delights in the fact that we have the freedom to draw upon "the wisdom of all the earth's peoples."

The Sisters of Genesis Farm are giving form to an emergent spirituality that is grounded in a deep realisation that revelation is mediated by more than sacred texts and the dogmas voiced by institutional religions. The universe itself and all that is within it can become sources of deep insight and transcendental knowledge to an awakened human consciousness.

Miriam MacGillis calls for a broadening of traditional religious forms, particularly those of Catholicism, and the development of more creative ways of prayer and ritual that can connect us more strongly with the divine presence in which we live and move and have our being.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
May 2012

Further Sources
"The Fate of the Earth", a two-part 90 minute lecture in which Sr. Miriam discusses in detail a number of ideas that have been influential in her formation can be downloaded as an mp3 audio or as a transcript here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Thomas Berry. Healing a Savaged Earth

Despite the fact that we have clearly entered uncharted territory in relation to the effects of industrial civilisation on the fate of the earth and her creatures, big government of all persuasions seems intent on relentlessly pursuing economic growth, environmental plunder and social and political control at every level.

In view of our gathering predicament reflected in such intangibles as steadily rising carbon dioxide levels, deepening ocean acidification and accelerating methane exhalations from formerly locked under-sea and tundra deposits - to say nothing of the numerous social, political and environmental pathologies that continue to assail humanity - it may be instructive to revisit the thoughtful offerings of Thomas Berry, a wise elder who sought to awaken us all to the changes that have already occurred and those that will inevitably follow.

"Healing a Savaged Earth" is a 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 post offers an audio presentation drawn primarily from "The Ecozoic Era", a lecture given by Thomas Berry in 1991.

Thomas Berry. Healing a Savaged Earth can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file is also available for download here.

In bringing this program to formation, I am grateful for the inspiration offered by chazk of Virtual Renderings in his remarkable 2008 tribute to Thomas Berry, Notes on Thomas Berry's Great Work, and for his more recent exploration of the transitional time within which we presently find ourselves, Notes From the Great Turning.

Program Notes

Vincent Di Stefano (Intro)
Thomas Berry, "The Ecozoic Era", Great Barrington, Massachusetts 1991 (Schumacher Society)


Nico Di Stefano, "The Inverloch Sessions"
Digital Samsara, "C#" (SoundCloud)
Ani Difranco, "Millennium Theatre"
Yggdrasil, "Al Dabaran"
Prem Joshua, "Daia"
Xavier Rudd, "The Letter"
Paul Kelly, "Last Train to Heaven"
Tryad, "This" (Jamendo)

Further Sources:
1. For a more detailed account of Thomas Berry and his ideas, see the short essay posted in Integral Reflections on June 26th 2011, Restoring a Ruined Earth. The Heroic Mission of Thomas Berry.
2. A high quality 13 minute video of Berry discussing his ideas can be viewed at the Ecological Buddhism website.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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 post offers both an audio presentation drawn from two lectures given by Schumacher in the 1970s.

E.F. Schumacher. A Voice for Wisdom in an Age of Folly can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file is also available for download here.

Program Notes
E.F. Schumacher, "Decentralist Economics", Lindisfarne 1974 (Schumacher Society)
E.F. Schumacher at Michigan State University 1977 (Youtube)


Nico Di Stefano, "Slow March"
SaReGaMa, "One Thousand and One Nights" (Jamendo)
Endorphine, "Podroze:Kultura" (Jamendo)
Esbjorn Svensson Trio, "Bound for the Beauty of the South"
Dire Straits, "Telegraph Road"
Cat Stevens, "Where do the Children Play?"
John Butler Trio, "Treat Yo Mama"

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Beautiful Bohemian. Remembering Darren Jones

We have in the present age become desensitised to violence. It is glorified in movies, simulated in computer games, sanctioned in contact sports and casually glossed over in the blur of daily news broadcasts. Yet every act of violence can create psychic and emotional shock-waves that reverberate thereafter in the lives of those affected by it.

A Beautiful Bohemian. Remembering Darren Jones offers a sixth anniversary remembrance of the death by knifing of Australian musician Darren Jones who was killed in an unprovoked attack while returning home from the Victorian College of the Arts in the early afternoon of February 23rd 2006.

This audio presentation was developed through a series of depth interviews with 11 people - many of them fellow musicians - who were part of Darren Jones' intimate circle. It explores the effects of this shocking event on the lives of a community of artists and reflects the slow and painful process of healing that follows such an existential collapse.

The music heard in this program is drawn from recordings of several bands in which Darren Jones participated as guitarist and vocalist. It also includes three musical tributes composed and performed by Nico Di Stefano, Ben Kelly and Dan Licht . The track Blood Stain was composed and performed by fellow musician and friend, the late Heath King who was himself tragically killed in a road accident in September 2008.

This program was first broadcast on public radio stations 3PBS (Melbourne) and 3MDR (Emerald) in March 210.

A Beautiful Bohemian can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality mp3 file can also be downloaded here.

A shorter half-hour version was broadcast on 360 Documentaries (ABC Radio National) in September 2010. It can be heard here.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Durban. The Supplication of a Dead Man's Hand

The UN Climate Conference held in Durban last December closed with a hollow whimper. No commitment to real action. No commitment to effective change. Just the continuing slow burn of business as usual.

The only substantive decision reached by the Conference was an agreement to form yet another committee, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. The Durban Platform rests on the dubious ambition of crafting a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions by 2015. This will serve to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires at the end of 2012. The Durban Platform will lay out the terms for legally-binding global emissions reductions that will "come into effect and be implemented by 2020."

Executive Director of Friends of the Earth (FOE) Andy Atkins offers his assessment: "This empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change." And Chair of FOE international Nnimmo Bassey gives his own verdict: "Delaying real climate change until 2020 is a crime of global proportions. . . .  An increase in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, Small Island States, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide."

Even during the first days of the Durban Conference, the Global Carbon Project released figures showing that global carbon emissions increased by 6% - the greatest yearly increase ever recorded - between 2009 and 2010. This surge occurred in the year after the Climate Conference in Copenhagen that many had hoped would be a turning point.

Commenting on the longer-term implications of the inaction at Durban, a group of independent scientists from Climate Action Tracker concluded that: "Global mean warming would reach about 3.5°C by 2100 with the current reduction proposals on the table. They are definitely insufficient to limit temperature increase to 2°C."

This is not news. In August 2008, an article published in the UK Guardian noted that senior government scientists were projecting a 4°C rise in global temperatures based on existing evidence at that time. Of itself, such a temperature increase will affect hundreds of millions of people living in coastal areas. Such a temperature increase will likely produce a mass extinction event resulting in the loss of between 20% and 50% of all animal and plant species on the planet. Such a change in global temperature will also result in the widespread collapse of ocean ecosystems and food chains everywhere. Most alarmingly, such a rise in temperature will result in the painful and tragic reduction of human populations to below one billion people.

It is generally understood that even before global temperatures reach such levels, a number of tipping points will be crossed. These will push the planetary climate into completely unknown terrain. Yet this is precisely the scenario that the Climate Conference at Durban has soporifically agreed upon by refusing to set binding limits on emissions and choosing rather to delay action until 2020. The failure of Durban can only deepen the cynicism and frustration that have grown since the failures of Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010.

We are a heedless and refractory species. It is not until, as Kurt Vonnegutt Jr. put it in 2006, "the shyte hits the fan" that any decisive (and by then largely useless) action is likely to occur.

Crossing to Death's Other Kingdom

Gulf of Mexico 2010
The problems that assail the present age reach much deeper than the oil deposits and coal seams that are fuelling an inexorable increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon has become emblematic of our present crisis because its concentration in the atmosphere is by far the over-riding determinant of regional and global temperatures, ocean acidity, and global climatic patterns. Each of these factors in turn profoundly influences the web of interconnected energies that has sustained all life on this planet over time periods far greater than the two million years that humans have walked the earth.

Industrial civilisation has been driven by far more than the extraction of fossil fuels, even though those fuels have enabled many of the signatory elements of the present times to be realised. These include:
  • The enabling of transport systems that move hundreds of millions of people and hundreds of millions of tons of materials every day.
  • The development of an agricultural system that has replaced small-scale integrated agriculture with broad-acre methods that make use of increasingly modified and genetically-manipulated seed-stock and produce increasingly chemicalised and vitiated soils.
  • The creation of massive industrial infrastructures that have, since World War II, overseen the production and dispersion of over 80,000 new chemical compounds - many of which are highly toxic - throughout numerous ecosystems. 
  • The intensely energy-consuming and environmentally destructive extraction of minerals and metals on every continent. 
  • The clear-felling of vast swathes of the world's old-growth forests for timber and wood-chip production and the creation of new agricultural lands.
The problem is not simply one of reducing carbon emissions. It is more in the nature of attending to the numerous pathologies that have riven the body of a senescent and dying civilisation.

The Valley of Dying Stars

North American physician Max Gerson was among the first to awaken to the insidious and damaging effects of agricultural chemicals on the processes that sustain all life. Gerson, who was described by Dr Albert Schweitzer as, "one of the most eminent geniuses in the history of medicine" is remembered for having independently developed a powerful nutritionally-based cancer therapy during the 1940s. In his Introduction to A Cancer Therapy. Results of Fifty Cases published in 1958, Gerson wrote:
"The coming years will make it more and more imperative that organically grown fruit and vegetables will be, and must be, used for protection against degenerative diseases, the prevention of cancer, and more so in the treatment of cancer."
Gerson's prescient understanding has, however, been subverted and dismissed by the powerful corporate interests that control industrial agriculture, scientific medicine, the cancer establishment and the dominant media. Government health and agriculture departments have been fully co-opted in the corporate expansion of both chemical-based industrial agriculture and chemical-based cancer treatments.

Gerson's insight arose during the course of developing treatments for chronic diseases, including cancer, during the 1930s and 1940s. His treatment program requires, among other things, the consumption of large quantities - nearly 10 kilograms daily - of fruits and vegetables in the form of freshly expressed juices. Gerson observed that several weeks after starting treatment using conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables, virtually all of his patients, regardless of the nature of their cancer, began to develop severe yet near-identical symptoms. He went on to discover that this new pattern of symptoms was due to the toxic effects of chemicals - mainly chlorinated hydrocarbons - that were used universally in the industrial-scale agriculture that produced most of the fruits and vegetables available in North America at the time.

Gerson instructed his patients to thereafter use only organically-grown fruits and vegetables. Within a short time, the distressing symptoms began to disappear and patients continued to improve. Gerson was later to write:
"The soil and all that grows in it is not something distant to us but must be regarded as our external metabolism, which produces the basic substances for our internal metabolism. Therefore, the soil must be cared for properly and must not be depleted or poisoned; otherwise, these changes will result in serious degenerative diseases, rapidly increasing in animals and human beings."
This comment, made in 1958, presaged the observation made by Thomas Berry in 1991:
"It should be especially clear in medicine that 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."
Herein lies the essence of the problem. The health and well-being of the Earth will not be restored simply by capping carbon emissions, continuing to fuel industrial civilisation using "clean" nuclear energy, or implementing Promethean geo-engineering projects. Great damage has already been done and continues to be inflicted on the earth's forests, soils, lake and river systems, groundwaters, and marine environments.

This has been evident to the more visionary among us for decades. While Max Gerson was among the first to alert us to the effects of agricultural chemicals on human health, Rachel Carson went on to document the effects of both agricultural and industrial chemicals on wildlife ecosystems in the 1960s. She gave the ominous title of Silent Spring to her report in acknowledgement of the widespread decline in health of bird populations due to the effects of agricultural chemicals.

Soon after the publication of Carson's seminal work, we began to learn of the unexpected effects of industrial and agricultural chemicals on the hormone systems of numerous species throughout the ecosystem. The dispersal of immense quantities of such chemicals in the environment has already resulted in numerous reproductive abnormalities. During the 1970s, salmon stocks in the Great Lakes of North America exhibited a range of endocrine changes including thyroid enlargement, precocious sexual maturation in males, and poor egg survival (less than 15%). Bird species feeding on Great Lakes fish exhibited reproductive loss and early mortality of hatchlings.

Right across the US and throughout the UK, large numbers of the fish that inhabit freshwater rivers and lakes now show intersex characteristics. It has also become apparent in recent years that many frog species are undergoing extinction at an alarming rate while frog populations globally continue to steadily decline. On yet another front, bee populations continue to decline catastrophically throughout North America for the fifth year in succession in the phenomenon that has come to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder. 

Chernobyl Reactor 4
The tragedy of Fukushima has served to reinforce what is clearly understood by those like Helen Caldicott who have looked deeply into the human consequences of the nuclear project. While engineers and politicians blithely reassure us that there is nothing to fear in the increasing levels of background radiation resulting from the unearthing and processing of radioactive elements, internal emitters such as Caesium-127 Strontium-90 Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 are silently incorporated into our body tissues to actively seed mutations that will eventually produce cancers or will - if lodged in testes or ovaries - irreversibly alter the DNA of sperm and egg cells and project the dark shadow of industrial civilisation into the lives of future generations through the influence of genetic mutations.

Despite endless soft-soaping by the International Atomic Energy Commission and the nuclear industry, we now know that over a million people have already died as a result of Chernobyl. Thomas Berry has spoken clearly and prophetically about the consequences of pursuing a nuclear future:
"One of the most ominous expressions of the natural world has to do with nuclear energy. When we go deep into the natural world and penetrate the inner structure of the atom and in a sense violate that deepest mystery for trivial or destructive purposes, we may get power, but nature throws at us its most deadly consequences. We are still helpless with regard to what to do once we have broken into the mysterious recesses of nuclear power. Forces have been let loose far beyond anything we can manage."

Voices Singing in the Wind

Beyond these issues which bear down increasingly in the present time, the nature and viability of a civilisation is equally reflected in the institutions, philosophies and practices that underlie it and give it direction. There is little to inspire confidence when one looks closely at the militarism, inequality, corporate greed, valueless production and commodification of nature that have come to characterise the present style.

The problems that now confront us are as much moral as practical, as much philosophical as pragmatic. The myth of endless growth that has so driven Western economies over the past two centuries is now confronted by the reality of a seriously damaged world. We have failed to honour our duty as stewards of an exquisitely beautiful planet but have rather treated the created world as an endless commodity into which we can project our technocratic fantasies and unload the toxic detritus of industrial activity without thought of consequence.

While governments dither and corporate behemoths evade and obstruct the growing collective will for a more conscious participation in our fate, we are more likely to be herded towards the flames than guided towards more appropriate ways of living on the earth in this time of growing troubles.
Let us continue individually and collectively to work towards the creation of enduring communities, to cut through the destructive effects of greed and ignorance, and strive to preserve and perpetuate those sources of wisdom that will enable future generations to avoid the tragic errors that presently unfold around us.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
January 2012