Saturday, October 01, 2005

Why Disaster Relief?

Of course, I can trot all sorts of heroic sounding altruistic nonsense in response to the question, but recent events have got me asking this question at a deeper level. How does disaster relief fit into my spiritual development? When questions become queries. You get to be privy to some of my discernment process…

I have often been derisive about do-gooder, bleeding-heart Americans, especially Quakers, haring off all over the world to help the plight of various poor little brown people. Most of these poor little brown people are in trouble because of a history of European colonization and exploitation which continues to this day as American imperialism. Meanwhile, the United States has 5% of the world’s population and uses 25% of world resources while we wonder why we seem not to be held in warmest regard by denizens of the two-thirds world. I mean to say that we live in the belly of the beast here, and don’t need to go anywhere else in the world to do remedial charity work, let alone preventative justice work. As Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Besides, the “third world” is alive and well and living in every city in America. There is just a lot more romance to Zapatistas and Palestinians than there is to the crack whore who lives across town from you. (I am not strictly saying that we shouldn’t travel around the world to be with folks who are struggling—only that I have felt a stop to it in myself.)

During my training with the Red Cross, the instructor kept saying, “Nobody predicted this disaster, so we are having to make up our relief efforts as we go along.” The third time that she said it I interrupted her and said that the disaster had been predicted, not as an “if,” but as a “when,” and very precisely, too. In his book on global warming, The Heat is On, Ross Gelbspan reports in the Introduction that insurance companies had their best minds working on how to keep from losing their shirts when a global-warming enhanced category 5 hurricane smacked into New Orleans. I think that the book was published in 1997, but I’m in a train stop without wireless, so I can’t confirm on that. [Confirmed later: 1997 is the date.] So somewhere in the middle 90’s, the insurance companies had prophesied climate-change enhanced storms costing them money-and they began to take appropriate action to prevent this disaster from effecting them—namely finding huge loopholes that would keep them from paying out when the hurricanes came in.

Now, Ross Gelbspan is a rabid greenie, (pot talkin’ trash about the kettle!) and I’m pretty sure that he would blame male pattern baldness and the decline of modern jazz on global warming, but he was referencing insurance company studies. Insurance companies have no conscience, couldn’t care less about the natural world, don’t give a hang about social justice or human rights, and aren’t susceptible to public influence or popular trends—they care only about maximization of profits. They are embedded in an economic system and a corporate culture that makes other considerations virtually impossible. When they calculate that they could lose billions, and have already lost millions, due to global climate change exacerbated weather events, it constitutes a major wake up call to us all—one that FEMA, the Red Cross, and American society in general hit the snooze button on and slumbered right through.

There is nothing much to predicting the future. No crystal balls or supernatural powers are needed. A Gaian perspective gives one an ability to holistically understand the interconnectedness of things, sometimes on an intuitive more than a cognitive level. Not only are systems of causality more apparent, even simple governing principles of how the Universe works can begin to be understood. Patterns can be perceived. The trick is that you have to actually look at things as they are. You have to be able to say in some instances, “No really, the glass is half empty and the water’s got arsenic in it, and the person who sold you the water new it was in there, but they were more interested in getting your money than protecting your health.” To the greatest extent possible, accurately understanding patterns is what enables one to guess at the missing or obscured parts of the whole picture—like the future, for instance, but also things that are obscured in the present and past. As a spiritual discipline, I believe that being willing to look at reality in the eye is part of what it means to be a “Friend of the Truth,” as early Quakers were sometimes called. Of course, there are massive industries—gambling, alcohol, entertainment television, pornography, consumerism, and corporate media which are there to help you not to do this. Deep spiritual commitment and community are necessary to actually wrestle with these issues. Joanna Macy’s work is brilliant for helping people to grapple with truth, express any feelings that come up, and also galvanize these feelings into action. ( Lloyd Lee Wilson’s “classical Quakerism” has all the potential to do the same thing. More on these things in subsequent posts.

Prophecy is often misinterpreted as the ability to tell the future. Really, prophecy is just telling the truth. However, predicting the future is not nearly the mysterious magic trick that people sometimes think that it is. It is very easily done by looking at the truth of the current situation. You can easily predict that a train hurtling towards a collapsed bridge will crash horribly. You can then take appropriate preventative action. However, if you are in denial about the bridge being out, you will be surprised and dismayed when the train crashes. A prophet is someone who has gone out, looked at the fallen bridge, and then comes back and foretells the future: “We are soon going to have a fiery crash, based on my interpretation of the pattern of events and conditions.” The passengers on the train, who are warm, fat, and happy are in utter denial that there could even be anything as disastrous as a bridge failure. “Well, the media would have told us. Our leaders wouldn’t let that happen. Even if it is out, we will discover newer better technology for spanning that chasm before we get there. By no means should we interrupt all this good momentum by stopping the train!” After the fiery crash, there is wonderment at the prophet’s ability to predict the outcome when nobody else could. Unfortunately, the satisfaction of saying “I told you so,” is completely lost in witnessing the suffering that could otherwise have been prevented.

Speaking truth with love really helps when it comes to having dire predictions heeded. The whole watchword is, “Love without truth is sentimentality; truth without love is brutality.” A beloved Quaker matriarch said this to me the one time we met before she died. It has been a watchword (because I have so not mastered it) in my life ever since. Unfortunately, some truths are so horrific that no amount of love can make them easy to hear. In point of fact, the prophet is always motivated by compassion (“Love is the first motion,” in the words of John Woolman), but her message may be so dire that it meets with real resistance. “Global warming is just an unproven theory,” “we can only feed a global population of 9 billion with genetically modified organisms,” “nuclear waste is good for you,” are all examples of not grappling with deeper patterns and reality. When this happens, the inclination to turn up the volume on the part of the prophetess is almost irresistible, though amping up will have the bitterly ironic effect of making the message even more unpalatable to the hearer.

So, I’m done with all that for the nonce. I have done it in my very personal relationships, at my place of work, and in the wider public sphere. With very few exceptions, the moral fortitude, political will, creative problem solving, and ego sublimation necessary for right action have proven elusive, and disaster has not been staved off. I want to note here that I myself have fallen short in all of these ways. It is my personal deficiencies that in most instances fuel my dire foretelling. These pronouncements are really pleas for group discernment and corporate creative problem solving, since I lack adequate response capability by myself.

A quick prophetic example, just to illustrate how the thing works: Many folks are super excited about Peak Oil. First of all, Peak Oil could not be talked about several years ago. Folks, even eco-groovy progressive folks, just looked at you like you had two heads when you brought it up. I had quite a bit of experience with this. Classic instance of our not being able to look truth in the face until it is really undeniable, at which point we have wasted a lot of time. A broad willingness to deal with Peak Oil, possibly creating some political will during the Clinton administration, would have given us options which are now much more difficult to realize.

[Did I already say that there is no such thing as a digression? One thing that Quakers say is that things will happen in God’s time. God’s time is called Kairos, and our linear time is called Chronos. In my experience we say this meaning, “go slow, wait, settle into the seed, young impetuous ministers mustn’t go off without seasoning.” I just want to point out here that sometimes God’s time is MUCH FASTER than Chronos. When Jesus came to the fishermen, he said, “Come go with me-fishers of men, etc.” They didn’t say, “We must consult with the elders. We must fast and pray. We need five days to reach consensus about it. Can we give you an answer next week?” or anything of that sort. They put down their nets and went with him, leaving their dad to do the fishing, if I recall rightly. The German soldier ordered to execute some folks during WWII who refused was given an ultimatum: Shoot the civilian prisoners, or join them. He stripped off his uniform and lined up to be shot instantly. It is true that even in these instances Spirit has been working all along to prepare the faithful, but the moment of decision may be sudden, and require instant response. Kairos.]

So, back to petroleum. There is a prevailing attitude among greenies that Peak Oil will provide the mighty wake up call that the Industrial Growth Society has been so sorely needing. In point of fact, this is a dangerously naïve assumption. Common sense has very little to do with human behaviour, after all. In addition, there is a kind of hand rubbing glee on the part of said greenies that the ubiquitous “They” will get “Their” comeuppance, and will have to recognize that “We” were right all along. Don’t forget that in the midst of war, famine, economic collapse, and virulent disease, “I told you so” isn’t nearly as much fun as you hope that it will be. My suspicion is that the John Wayne with a ponytail nonsense of the modern back to the land to raise my organic taters movement isn’t going to be that much fun either, though the exercise in just trying not to live a typical American lifestyle may prove a useful one when really atypical modalities of living start to be needed. The real sapper of “I told you so” glee in this instance is that Peak Oil is a human inconvenience which we bought fair and square by developing our society along lines that defy natural laws and patterns. The much larger tragedy is global climate change, and Peak Oil will not address this, but may well exacerbate it. Read on:

The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy is neither created nor destroyed, but changes form. Consider how a coal-fired power plant works. Starting with ancient sunlight in the form of coal, we burn it to create heat, use the heat to create steam, direct the steam through a turbine for mechanical energy which spins a generator to form electrical energy which is then transmitted at considerable loss of efficiency to your house where you plug in your mixer which turns the electrical current into mechanical energy again to mix your chocolate chip cookie dough. The energy changes form multiple times! The second law of thermodynamics means that you “lose” some energy with each of these conversions, usually as heat, but “loss” really just denotes loss of energy for easy human use—the energy is not lost, really.

Now, given how much turning energy into different forms we routinely do, it is incredibly naïve to believe that the simple reduction in available liquid ancient sunlight is going to cause a wake up call that remotely resembles, “Hey, listen America! We need to stop using such a grossly disproportionate amount of global resources, turn our energy economy over to renewable sources after shrinking it by at least two thirds, form meaningful international alliances, promote humane and egalitarian population controls worldwide, stop imprisoning people for being poor, allow doctor-assisted suicide, and ban GMO’s!” What will really happen is that after a slight paroxysm during which skillions of tax dollars will be used to make some infrastructural changes that will benefit the usual evil bastards of the military industrial complex, we will just run the whole Industrial Growth Society on coal and nuclear. The most cynical energy ‘solution’ is hydrogen which could be used to store solar energy, but is primarily being developed as a way to use huge amounts of unsustainable energy to create a ‘fuel’ that will be clean at the point of use—total boondoggle. The rich will get richer, civil liberties will become a distant memory, and the planet will continue evolving into something that does not support mammalian life, at least. I’m not saying that it must be so, simply that the pattern points to a strong possibility for this outcome.
When you see an obese person smoking a cigarette, or a religious extremist strapping a bomb to himself, you are seeing a person whose story about the world and themselves has become more important than basic survival. It is not such an unusual thing. We are a nation with a story about infinite growth, greed is good, the natural world has no intrinsic value, the market will create the greatest good for the greatest number, scarcity is a basic fact of life on earth, and when it all turns to poo, we can go up in the Rapture and play harps with Jesus on streets of gold. All of these are deeply flawed assumptions about the universe. Suicidally flawed, in fact. Our story is several caty’s out of wampus.

(I have seen Adam Smith’s “invisible hand in the marketplace,” by the way, and it was giving us all the Finger…)

You may think that I have wandered far from my original query, “Why disaster relief?” Well, don’t be dismayed; your perception is totally correct. I have really wandered. Back tracked, actually. As one friend says, “Nothing is irrelevant; I’m just an eclectic thinker.” There are no digressions!

Perhaps this will help. There is a difference between remedial charity and preventative justice. I read this in Sojourner’s magazine a year or so ago while taking a crap at my dad’s house. It really sums up for me the quandary about where to put one’s shoulder to the wheel. If there is a stretch of road where folks frequently lose control and go over the cliff to their deaths, some well-intentioned folks will get together, form an ambulance corps, and get some rapid response happening for the many recurring accident victims at the bottom of the hill. Others will spend way less money putting up a railing and warning signs that encourage safer driving, in an effort to prevent accidents from happening in the first place. Superficially, this is the difference between preventative action, and remedial. It is good to feed the hungry, since the poor may always be with us, but it is also essential to ask why some go hungry and others drive Hummers. In the above scenario, I am the guy who would build a light rail system that replaced the highway and had built-in human, mechanical, and electronic fail safes to prevent excessive speed that might result in an accident. Capiche?

I am naturally drawn to this systemic perspective. Human beings are not going to evolve our way out of our current mess. Market forces and technology will not save us. Individual spiritual transformation is nice, I love it, and it is not enough. Social evolution is our big chance. It is true that our political systems are incapable of electing enough competent, moral, innovative people to get us out of our predicament. Such people are virtually unelectable, but even if they get in there, they usually aren’t able to effect change without a constituency of moral suasion, and there isn’t one yet. (If you start to get a real revolution going on, of course, then you may experience resistance in the form that Martin, Malcolm, and Mohandas K. did in the previous century—that is to say, hot lead.) My point here is that I have been banging the systems gong for a long time, and I have neglected the second tool of the Shambala warrior: compassion.

True story: When my sweetheart called and woke me up on the morning of the Twin Towers disaster back in ’01, the first thing that I said through my sleep-addled haze was, “And so it begins…” I had been watching patterns, so I wasn’t surprised by the events of 9-11, (though could not have predicted them with any precision.) When you think about U.S. foreign policy, what is truly amazing is that nothing like 9-11 had ever happened before. To me it just represented the start of an accelerated phase of what systems thinkers call “positive disintegration.” There’s nothing positive about it of course, it just means that feedback loops have been cut and the system is on runaway. My point here, though, is this: you are supposed to respond with compassion when you hear disastrous news. You are supposed to say something like, “How horrible! Thousands will be killed!” Instead, I reacted with a kind of glee that there was a shift in the pattern that might provide the opening for societal paradigm shift. Out of balance, personally. We could go into aspects of my personal life where compassion has sometimes been a bit deficient as well, but that would be tedious in the extreme. Callousness is a survival mechanism. Thank it and let it go…

So, I have isolated myself from feeling the pain of the world because my perception of the patterns is such that I see that pain everywhere, and have real hopelessness about what can be done to alleviate suffering. I see that as AIDS attacks not the body itself, but the body’s ability to fend off illness, the Industrial Growth Society has not only created an unsustainable horror, but attacked our very capacity to respond adequately. This is what the breakdown of community, phony spirituality, corporate media, consumerism, over-busyness, separateness from simple life processes like nursing the sick and dying or growing our own food, and even apathy itself do to the human organism.

I have had profound openings in my capacity for compassion in the last year. Not surprisingly, they started with compassion for myself. (I may have failed to acknowledge that the capacity to read patterns and take appropriate action is a farsighted kind of gift. It doesn’t work for me at close range, like in my personal life…) I feel intuitively that the way that I will become an effective Shambala warrior is to develop the weapon (“tool,” if you’d rather) of compassion to the same degree that I have developed my skill with perceiving the interconnectedness of things. (You will have to grok some Joanna Macy for the whole Shambala warrior story, but take heart; peaceful warriors are springing up all around you and you yourself may be one of these soul-diers in the Lamb’s War.)

Hurricane Katrina is right for me: it is in America, involving Americans. I have said for years that the third world is alive and well and living in America. Many of the Americans hardest hit by the storm are persons of limited financial resources, and are black, like me. Katrina was a global-climate-change enhanced weather event. Scientists will blah blah about how you can’t say this for sure, but then again, theirs is a discipline that atomizes to comprehend, and is only now beginning to understand what mystics have always said: it is all one. In the dance of relationship we discover not only knowledge, but wisdom, Grasshoppah!

The inseparability of social justice and earthcare issues is undeniable here. It has seemed to me that this has been my ministry since 1997. How many years of effective action did we squander as Friends by taking Marshall Massey’s prophetic 1985 message of our spiritual and moral imperative for earthcare and ghettoizing it in the Unity With Nature Committees, instead of making it the foundation of our Peace and Social Concerns tradition? After all, as one Friend says, “It is not the straw that broke the camel’s back; it is the ground the camel is standing on.” When the Nobel Peace Prize went to a woman for planting trees last year, we saw the positive side of this growing understanding of human justice as a much smaller and dependent function of Earthjustice. Katrina is the hammer that drives the point home.

My assignment with the Red Cross is to do admits. I will be a paper-pusher for the Lord! I had an all-day training on this, so I am qualified, ready, and willing. I even have a Red Cross card that says, “This certifies that Carl Magruder has completed Emergency Assistance to Families Disaster Services Course held at Western Nevada County Chapter.” The first thing you do when you get a family is to ask them to tell what their disaster story is. “Put down your pen, turn your body to the client, and really listen,” we were told. That is to say, listen for real; listen with compassion; listen with an open heart.

My hope is that if I can come through this crucible of compassion, I will know something more about how to wed the two weapons of the Shambala warrior, insight and compassion. I will know how to speak truth with love, how to influence the system, and where to put my shoulder to the wheel. I will clearly be a late bloomer in terms of my personal work, but that’s all right with me. My work is to be willing, like Abraham with Isaac, like Isaiah, like Jon Randall—“I’ve been warped by the rain, driven by the snow, I’m drunk and dirty but don’t you know, I’m still Willing.”


Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Carl!, alright, I'm loving it. Why didn't you tell us you were writing online?

I'm only a third of the way through this post and I already have enough insights to chew on for the next 2-1/2 weeks. You're definitely onto something with all this and I'm happy to see your focus on that "second tool of the Shambala warrior." I haven't seen you in awhile and it's good to hear your voice again, now back to the reading for me!
Your Friend,
Martin Kelley

2:15 PM, October 13, 2005  
Blogger david said...

Jeremiah. Cassandra. Jesus. There's a long tradition of not listening to prophets. The people who preserve the teachings of prophets are the survivors of disaster in the midst of the course corrections that might have been made through wisdom instaed of necessity.

5:52 AM, October 15, 2005  
Anonymous rex said...

I really enjoyed reading (all the way through) your long post! It was worth it! In my efforts to Heal Our Planet Earth (with H.O.P.E), I'm focussing on trying to improve our understandings of of the limitations of our ability to really communicate our understanding of reality. I've just posted on my website my latest e-fort (an electronic effort). I'd love to hear your comments on it! A few words about words:

10:44 AM, October 26, 2005  
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2:44 AM, October 28, 2005  
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Anonymous lamplight walker said...

So, I'm way behind I know. At this point you're done with the adventure. However, I am still with you on this post (it takes time to read these things).

If this journey was about finding compassion, then in my opinion this was a worthwhile journey. In my opinion, intellect and a "real" cognitive grasp of the challenges we face as a world coupled with intense anger just stifles the listener. It makes you want to avoid the messenger as well as the message. Thus the messenger becomes increasingly isolated.

I was trying to think of whom I have read or heard speak that motivates me to change and yet they seem to speak hontestly. I think of Jane Godall who to me signifies truth coupled with compassion. She moves me to want to do something and I can not help believing it is because compassion moves her in this world. In any case, I think compassion might take away some of that "I told you so" attitude that frankly gets difficult to swallow. In the end I don't want to spend my time and energy with someone who knows it all, I want to spend my life with people who love me and share their intellect with me as a gift (not a curse).

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