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Welcome To The New Normal: Poor, Not Special, But Here And Not There

Carolyn Baker, Speaking Truth to Power

In her November 25 article, “Becoming One Of ‘Them’,” Sharon Astyk offers powerful vignettes from shelters where middle class Hurricane Sandy victims have been attempting to cope not only with their losses but being forced to live alongside the homeless, encountering marginalized immigrants and the physically and mentally ill. Exuding terminal entitlement, these individuals have projected an air of superiority and horror regarding their surroundings and their shelter mates—the usual aura of “This is America, and I shouldn’t have to live this way.”

Such vignettes allow us once again to witness how woefully unprepared for the collapse of institutions and infrastructure most Americans are in comparison with the indigent and dispossessed who have lived with and repeatedly survived the ground under their feet being swept away more times than they can probably remember. One cannot watch these scenes, as I have many times on television news reports of Hurricane Sandy devastation, without also feeling compassion for the white, middle-class, hysterical, deer-in-the-headlights survivors whose worlds were shattered with loss and trauma in the course of a few hours. At times I have wanted to take each person by the hand and force them to watch Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course” or read James Howard Kunstler’s Long Emergency. At other times I’ve found myself erupting in anger that these entitled and infantilized individuals could be so abjectly clueless.

But without exception I have kept coming back to my training and the over-riding theme of any form of collapse, whether acute or protracted, namely trauma. And asSharon says: “The wild shift in expectation that is required when the world shifts under your feet can break people – far more than the actual physical circumstances. Indeed, it probably broke many of their shelter mates the first time it happened.”

But perhaps the most important aspect of the Astyk article is the question:

So how do you navigate that sense of loss, the trauma of changed expectations, the sense that all the things that you once believed you had a right to are now things you are a supplicant for? Because let’s be honest, as offensive as entitlement can be, it has its uses – the sense that something should be some way, that this is totally unacceptable can move mountains. The parents who say “Not good enough, my kid needs the best, most appropriate education for her special needs,” the grownup who says “Not acceptable. We need this fixed today, not three weeks from now,” the person who can demand, more often gets more. In a world of abundant resources, outrage that you are forced to suffer to live with something utterly inadequate is a tool, advocacy is a gift. Knowing when it becomes an abuse, or looks like high-handed entitlement can be hard – and we all have to know when that moment is (if you are yelling at waitresses or anyone with LESS power than you, btw, that’s a clue).

Sharon’s principle suggestion here is that we change our attitude from “I’m not one of ‘them’” to “Yes, except for a few differences which I can easily lose in one hour, I am pretty much like ‘them,’ and there but for fortune go I.” And I heartily agree with Sharonthat poverty, disenfranchisement, and marginalization is where we are all headed whether we choose to admit it or not. But I want to take the question, “How do you navigate the sense of loss and trauma?” to a deeper level of awareness. I want to embrace the sociological and historical realities that Sharonasserts but also explore the resources each individual carries in his/her own psyche. In fact, for me, this is the bedrock question of our predicament and the ensuing collapse of industrial civilization: How do we navigate it emotionally and spiritually? How do we not only shift our attitude to the proverbial level playing field perspective, but how do we cope with our fear, anger, grief, and despair? What internal resources do we have or can we develop for doing that?

Probably nothing since watching many hours of footage from Hurricane Katrina has validated the commitment I have to what is now my life’s work of preparing people emotionally and spiritually for a daunting future as witnessing the terror and loss of clueless, crazed, emotionally unequipped survivors of Hurricane Sandy. Certainly, if many of these individuals really did watch the Crash Course or read The Long Emergency this side of the disaster they have just lived through, they would resonate with the contents much more profoundly than before Sandy, but the question for all of us remains: How will I manage and utilize the power of my emotions in a similar scenario?

The challenge is not so much that one develops expertise in managing emotions but that one is at least willing to acknowledge their relentless presence in the body and do something about or with that. It is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of middle-class disaster victims, or any cross section of the population of industrial civilization for that matter, devotes almost no time whatsoever to emotional literacy. The closest most modern humans come to feeling fear is when they are comfortably ensconced in their rocking-chair seats at the local movie theater stuffing their faces with popcorn while watching a horror or suspense thriller. In fact, amid the emotionally numb milieu of modernity, millions flock to disaster flicks precisely because those allow them to feel something and reassure them that they are among the living. Few modern humans acknowledge the presence of personal fears on a daily basis or have any sense of how they might constructively work with them for their own emotional well being….

(27 November 2012)

Feed the Hunger

David Sobel, Orion Magazine

MY DYSTOPIAN FUTURE would be rampant with ticks. Aggressive ticks. Not like the ones that cling to the top of slender grass stalks, waiting passively for your warm-blooded ankle to brush by. No, the ticks in my dystopian future would come searching for me—finding the tiny tears in the screen, that little sliver of space between the bottom of the door and the threshold, then up underneath the overhanging sheets and into my bed while I sleep. Yikes! Gives me the creeps. Ticks lurk in my dystopian future because they have become more and more omnipresent in southern New Hampshire in the past few years. My best friend had Lyme disease; neighbors have it; we even find ticks on us after gardening. They’ve crept into our landscape and our minds.

Environmental catastrophe has similarly crept into the minds of young readers across America and internationally. They’re not only faced with their own regional problems; through constant media exposure, they’re bombarded with environmental problems from around the world. Think of the challenges that face Katniss and the other “tributes” in the Hunger Games arena. In case you’ve missed the hype, The Hunger Games, a trilogy of young adult novels by author Suzanne Collins (and a recent movie), has rampaged through middle schools and teen culture, creating a new publishing enthusiasm for dystopian novels. Early in the story, the main character, sixteen-year-old Katniss, is selected to compete in a televised tournament in which twenty-four teenagers, two from each district of the totalitarian nation Panem, fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses. During the competitions, they’re faced with an array of environmental calamities. At first, I thought these calamities were excessive, but then I realized they were drawn from the everyday headlines of our news outlets. The excessive heat and humidity of the jungly second arena—we’ve had three of the hottest years on record in the past four years. A creeping bank of poison gas—the creeping toxic tide of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Tidal waves that engulf everything on the beach—the Pacific basin tragedy of 2007. Marauding wolves—predacious tigers that pick off fishermen at the edges of Indian villages. Forest fires—in the past few years, the worst fire seasons the western United States has ever seen. Suzanne Collins is simply plucking environmental tragedies from the headlines and sautéing them into a concentrated gumbo in the arena. It’s not surprising that The Hunger Games appeals to young readers; they’re besotted with ecological bad news, and they need some way to come to terms with it. (Hard to believe that, as I type this, a tick crawls out of my sleeve and onto my keyboard. Life imitates dystopian fiction!)

A middle school principal told me recently about asking some of his students what they thought they’d be doing in twenty years. “In twenty years, I’ll probably be dead,” one responded. “Global warming, poisons in our food, diseases. I don’t think we have much of a chance.” Many of the others agreed.

A rising tide of hopelessness, along with rising sea level, is lapping at the toes of our young adolescents. Thus, our young adult fiction is different from the young adult nature fiction of thirty years ago. In Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, the main characters are lost in the wilderness and must use their ingenuity and resourcefulness to survive before returning to the safe, predictable, civilized world. But now, the civilized world is anything but safe and predictable. There’s a new environmental tragedy lurking in every newscast. Is it any surprise that young adults are attracted to dystopian visions of the future? It puts their worst fears right out there on the page, and that makes them somewhat more manageable, more quantifiable.

But perhaps the more compelling, and historically consistent, feature of dystopian fiction is the hero’s quest. Faced with an unimaginable tragedy, there is a character who rises to the challenge, faces unbeatable odds, and sometimes beats them, though often suffering grueling pain in the process. The young reader wants to be that hero, wants to rise out of the boring sameness of her everyday life and right the social order, vanquish the enemy. It’s just the enemy that has changed over the years…

(December 2012)

The Cloud: What are we doing to our minds?

Ugo Bardi, Cassandra’s Legacy

I grew up in a remote province of the Empire. And for most of my life, there, I was starving for information. Bookstores carried mostly books written in the local, obscure language and of what was said in the Imperial language I could access only the minuscule fraction that was translated. Getting books from the Empire’s cultural centers, overseas, was possible; but it was slow, cumbersome, and incredibly expensive.

Everything changed when I had the chance to live in Berkeley. It was like being able to breathe after having been drowning. It was so different: the libraries of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory were open the whole night just to let us, the researchers, stay there as long as we wanted, combing obscure tomes in search for truth. And the bookstores in Berkeley! My gosh: books, and books, so many more than anything I had ever seen – and so cheap!

The best feature of so much abundance was serendipity. You know the meaning of the term: is the sudden and unexpected discovery – the new idea that shatters your mental blocks and washes out your old ideas. You can’t reach the fabulous world of Serendip by ordering books by mail – as I could do from home in my country. But in Berkeley, with so many books available, all lined up so nicely in shelves and stands, all what you needed to do was just to walk on and let serendipity come across to you. You picked up one by chance, you look at the cover and you say, "well, that may be something interesting." You buy it, maybe it was a used book on sale for less than a dollar. You read it, and then your life changes. It was in this way that I discovered the concept of "peak oil", in 2001, in a bookstore in Berkeley. It changed my life.

That was more than ten years ago and it is unbelievable how things have changed in such a short time. I haven’t been back to Berkeley, recently, but I am sure that the bookstores there are now a pale shadow of what they used to be. Serendipity has migrated to the Web.

We use now the term "surfing" for that kind of serendipity searching that I used to perform in bookstores. I can’t quantify how enormously larger is the amount of information in the Web than it was in the old bookstores. Surely, it has become so large that I am starting to feel scared. Too much information to absorb.

That feeling brought back to my mind the science fiction novel that Fred Hoyle wrote in 1957: "The Black Cloud". I must have read it in the 1960s, in an Italian translation, when I was, maybe, 14 years old. It may not be a great novel, but it surely was prophetic in many respects. Hoyle couldn’t really imagine the Internet, although there are hints of something similar in the story. But where he hit the bull’s eye was with the concept of "cloud."

Hoyle’s Black Cloud is not the same cloud that we have today as part of the World Wide Web. It a sentient being: benevolent although not necessarily merciful; as it has no qualms in atom-bombing a number of terrestrial cities. But the focal point of the story is the enormous knowledge that the Black Cloud has accumulated over millions of years. The dramatic point comes when it turns out that the Cloud must leave the Solar System in a hurry. So, there has to be a way to transmit that giant mass of knowledge to earthlings before the Cloud disappears forever. Two scientists attempt to absorb that knowledge, but they both die; their brains literally fried up by the sheer amount of data. Apparently, the new knowledge conflicted with the old one. They couldn’t change their views fast enough and the result was that their brain went short-circuit; destroying itself…

(5 December 2012)