Tag Archives: ecocide

Whistling Past the Graveyard

I must begin with a confession. I have always been troubled by Earth Day. As a lifelong activist I understand and appreciate the concept and how it came to be. But over the years I’ve seen it morph from an almost spiritual movement for ecological consciousness and justice into an opportunity for corporations and politicians to tout their empty gestures at “saving the planet” all while they mercilessly plunder it.  Greenwashing has now taken center stage and the effect has often lead to the neutralizing of public outrage. Like so many things corporate, Earth Day has been tinged with a pathological optimism. The dominant message today exudes an all too pervasive “feel goodism” for a situation that is by all accounts truly monstrous, not only for countless other species on the planet, but for our own.

Nearly fifty years ago in April of 1970 people of conscience gathered to address the destruction of the planet. Since that time politicians, corporations, the fossil fuel industry and their mouthpiece think tanks have worked feverishly, not at addressing the crisis, but at polishing their image.  Today their lavish conferences and consortiums generally serve as window dressing and are a distraction to our collective, growing existential angst, as each passing year gives us a terrifying glimpse into a fast approaching future for our planet, one rife with super storms, floods, mega-droughts, crop failures and species demise.

Within the last decade alone there have been monumental shifts in climate models leaving even the conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shocked and bewildered. Indeed, record breaking temperature extremes have become a defining norm of the 21st century, with an ice free Arctic summer now on the horizon. It is becoming apparent that things are more dire than anyone had previously anticipated. We are beginning to see the first stirrings of climate chaos; and it is set against the ominous backdrop of an already ravaged biosphere.

This past year we witnessed an American west coast at once bathed in fire and then awash in mud. We saw the Amazon rain forest, the vaunted “lungs of the planet,” belch out smoke as it reeled from over 200,000 fires. We stood aghast at the hurricanes which decimated the Caribbean and the floods that killed thousands and displaced many more over the summer and into autumn and winter, from China to India and Nepal, to Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Other revelations were equally staggering. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide. Bird populations are being decimated by loss of food sources, and marine plastic pollution is set to outweigh all fish in the ocean by mid-century. Fish stocks have plummeted and over 90% of Coral reefs, the ocean’s nurseries, will have disappeared by 2050 from bleaching thanks to warming waters and ocean acidification. Forests are being felled at a rate akin to a New Zealand sized areaevery year. Yet despite these staggering developments little to nothing of substance is being done on the global scale that is required.
To be sure, history has demonstrated that most politicians will never face unpleasant realities until they are literally upon us. Our current climate and ecological crisis is no different. As this century unfolds cities and towns will likely be lost to rising seas as governments eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Entire regions may become uninhabitable from deforestation, pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will undoubtedly haunt billions of people, in fact they already plague millions today. Mass migration could easily make today’s issue appear negligible and would put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities. Rich, biodiverse areas could become graveyards. Those in power would undoubtedly answer the concomitant unrest in more Orwellian doublespeak and with insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. None of this is fiction. It has all happened, and not only in civilizations throughout history which have faced socio-economic or ecological collapse. It is happening today in societies which purport to be democratic.

 

 

Here is where people of conscience, like those untarnished souls at the first Earth Day nearly fifty years ago, must be unabashedly truthful about our monstrous and collective predicament. We must face the painful fact that our species has exceeded its limits in growth, population and the exploitation of the natural world. We must also grapple with the fact that the global north is most responsible for the decimation of the biosphere and the ruthless subjugation and exploitation of the global south.

And that there will be no substantive actions taken by our political and corporate leaders to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. After all, according to their economic ethos they have no vested interest since they profit handsomely from this global arrangement to begin with. They have demonstrated that they are both unwilling and incapable of addressing the issue with the integrity and impetus necessary. Instead, they will continue their bait and switch dance of empty placation and denialism while they stuff their coffers with coin, even as the earth rapidly transforms into another planet before our eyes.

Despite all this we still have tremendous agency to affect the future, both personally and collectively. We have the power to create communities of solidarity and to meet the looming catastrophes and calamities with dignity and humanity. We possess the moral authority to oppose the further defilement of the water and the soil, the very source and sustenance of our lives and that of countless other species. But that agency is diluted and made ineffectual so long as we continue to lie to ourselves and others about where we are as a species.

Earth Day should no longer be taken simply as a gentle, yet trite, reminder to recycle, or use canvas shopping bags, or cycle to work one day out of the week. It should no longer be diminished to “lifestyle choices” that let corporations and governments off the hook. It must quite literally be transformed into a rallying cry for the life of the biosphere. Because anything short of that is merely whistling past the graveyard.

 

Kenn Orphan,  April 2018

The Canaries We Ignore

The images and video that have come out of Southern California this past year have been nothing less than apocalyptic. Raging fires consume dry chaparral up to the edge of bloated freeways with 10 lanes. Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to smoldering ash. And the lives of countless residents changed forever.
          I lived in Southern California almost half my life. Wildfires and hot, dry Santa Ana winds were a part of every autumn. But something palpable shifted in the last few years I was there. The fire season became year round, wildfires became more like firestorms and those desert winds, which I had loved so much in the early years, became more like infernal blasts from an open furnace, mercurial and desiccating to everything they touched.

Like the record breaking storms, floods and hurricanes of late, these fires are more canaries in the collective coal mine we all inhabit. And with each passing year and every accumulating catastrophe their clarion call becomes more urgent and shrill. Yet in spite of their insistence the global order remains relatively unchanged and alarmingly unperturbed.

It is becoming increasingly undeniable that human beings are now at a crossroad as never before encountered in history. In its relatively short time, industrial civilization has brought amazing technological advances. Diseases have been cured, massive feats of agriculture have fed millions, and we were able to break the gravitational bonds of this planet and become a spacefaring civilization. But its marriage to corporate capitalism was one made in hell. And the Faustian bargain that fossil fuels offered humanity unleashed a boundless and insatiable greed which blinds all who profit from it to their ruination.

The result has been the despoiling of the living biosphere on which we all rely. We have entered into the Sixth Mass Extinction where at least 150 species are lost every day to human activity. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide thanks to petro-based pesticides used in industrial scale agriculture, climate change, and destruction of habitat. Marine life is suffering a similar fate with bird populations being decimated by loss of food sources and plastic pollution which is set to outweigh all fish in the ocean by mid-century. Fish stocks have plummeted and over 90% of Coral reefs, the ocean’s nurseries, will have disappeared by 2050 from bleaching thanks to ocean acidification. Forests are being felled at a rate akin to a New Zealand sized area every year. Yet despite these staggering developments little to nothing of substance is being done on the global scale that is needed.

Here is where people of conscience must be brutally truthful about our collective predicament. We must face the painful fact that our species has exceeded its limits in growth, population and the exploitation of the natural world. We must also grapple with the fact that the global north is most responsible for the decimation of the biosphere and the ruthless exploitation of the global south. And there will be no substantive actions taken by the corrupt political and business leaders who profit from this global arrangement, to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. They are both unwilling and incapable of addressing the issue with the integrity and impetus necessary. Instead, they will continue their bait and switch dance of empty placation and denialism while they stuff their coffers with coin, even as the earth rapidly transforms into another planet before our eyes.

 And their criminal ineptitude has never stopped at non-humans. As this century unfolds, cities will be lost to rising seas as governments will eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Regions will become uninhabitable from pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will haunt billions of people. And mass migration will put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities.

Their answer to the concomitant unrest will be more Orwellian doublespeak and insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. They will aggressively mock, smear and persecute truth tellers and peddle in jingoism, xenophobia and nationalism. War mongering, austerity and the scapegoating of vulnerable people will become their preferred method of deferring from their culpability. None of this is fiction. It has all happened, and not only in civilizations throughout history which have faced socio-economic or ecological collapse. It is happening today in societies which purport to be democratic.

Although “knowledge is power” is a cliché, it still holds some truth. We still have tremendous agency to affect the future, both personally and collectively. We have the power to create communities of solidarity and to meet the looming catastrophes and calamities with humanity, dignity and grace. But that agency is diluted and made ineffectual so long as we continue to lie to ourselves and others about where we are as a species. The risk we take includes being labeled an alarmist in a society lulled into a hypnotic trance by the slick marketing tactics of the consumerist wizards of Wall Street. But that risk pales in comparison to ignoring the screeching canaries in our midst.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017

The Normalization of Perpetual Disaster

In case you missed it…

A hole the size of the Netherlands has opened in the middle of the Antarctic ice sheet. 40,000 penguins just perished of starvation on the same continent. And earlier this summer an iceberg weighing one trillion tons broke away adding more momentum to inevitable global sea level rise.
Floods have killed thousands and displaced many more over the summer and into autumn from China to India and Nepal to Southeast Asia to West Africa. Scores of people were killed and many still missing from fires that have scorched Northern California, Spain and Portugal. Three and a half million people in Puerto Rico are still in survival mode without drinking water or electricity weeks after Hurricane Irma made landfall. Parts of the Gulf Coast are a toxic soup of chemicals. The Amazon rain forest, the lungs of the planet, are belching out smoke as it reels from 208,278 fires this year alone. And Ophelia, the bizarre tenth hurricane turned mega storm of this record breaking season is battering Ireland.

In geopolitical developments, the most powerful empire on the planet is being led by a narcissistic megalomaniac surrounded by war mongers, religious fanatics and disaster capitalists. He has been madly jostling the fragile chords that stabilize nations by threatening to annihilate 25 million people in a bath of fire and countless other souls in the region and around the world, while demanding a 10-fold increase to one of the most powerfully lethal nuclear arsenals on the planet.
There is no reason to think Trump would not carry out his threats. After all, he dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan and launched military strikes on Syria over dessert garnishing high praise from many in the corporate media and politicians from both sides of the aisle. And he will get little objection from establishment Democrats who are enthusiastic cheerleaders for US militarism and voted for the 700 billion dollar increase to the already bloated US military industrial complex.
Despite all of this an eerily bizarre normalization of this descent into global chaos continues apace. The media seems to move on seamlessly from one disaster or scandal to the next. Politicians shift focus and manufacture new outrage. Meanwhile, the real existential crises drifting us ever closer to the collapse of human civilization within this century go largely unreported and vastly underestimated. We are living in an age of convergence where the consequences of decades of excess, greed, willful ignorance and dithering are finally reaching a climax. Where the chips fall in the coming years is anyone’s guess, but if we are honest we can get a pretty good picture of our current trajectory.
Looking honestly at our situation within a profoundly sick culture can often feel alienating. If we look around we may think we are seeing thousands of people simply going about their days as if nothing is wrong. This may be due in part to the normalcy bias which is defined as “a belief people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects, because it causes people to have a bias to believe that things will always function the way things normally function.”  But this is also reinforced by a corporate culture in which distraction and denial are encouraged and celebrated as virtues.
Conspicuous consumption is peddled as a remedy to all that ails our society. Some self medicate, some absorb themselves in the shallow, or the spectacle, or the salacious, or the vainglorious.  But still many more are simply too busy for long reflection, caring for children or sick or elderly loved ones at a time when social safety nets are being mercilessly slashed, or working 100 hours a week for a pittance just to make ends meet and struggle to pay off debts for simply living.
But on some deep level I believe we all understand our dire predicament and that it will not simply get better or go away.
Each day the unraveling of the biosphere becomes more and more apparent. The illusion that we are separate from the natural world is beginning to shatter as the human generated Sixth Mass Extinction unfurls before our eyes in real time. But in this era of late stage capitalism and the prevalence of inverted totalitarianism the last thing we should expect is for the powers that be to make the bold changes necessary to stop the descent of civilization or even provide meaningful solutions or mitigation of the current and looming catastrophes.

Given the graveness of the situation it is easy to feel a deep sense of powerlessness or even paralyzed. And it may not be exactly comforting, but we should not look at our unease as an unhealthy response to the existential crises of our times. Contrary to the prevailing mantra depression and anxiety should be expected as normal responses to what we face collectively, because our very DNA is threaded with this world’s rhythm. And without a doubt, that collective pulse appears to be quickening.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017
 

The Real World

                 “You must love nature,” she said as she passed; a stranger noticing me picking up the careless refuse dropped by another who apparently doesn’t.  Her comment strikes me as a somewhat absurd but common sentiment, and it stays with me throughout my hike. Industrial society seems to easily compartmentalize nature as just another interest or a hobby.

I smile at her as I hastily stuff the discarded plastic water bottles and chip bags into a sack I keep in my back pack, while thinking of the engorged body of a dead seabird I saw dissected by a meticulous biologist right in front of me.  Its stomach contents revealing human detritus of all manner, plastic lighters, bottle caps, pens, even a spoon. There are likely hundreds of millions like this one.  It was a surreal sight only later matched in intensity and horror when watching a video of the dissection of a deceased whale whose belly was bursting with tons of plastic bags and other hard synthetic polymers, or the sight of a deformed tortoise whose shell was strangulated throughout its life by a plastic beverage holder.

My enthusiastic, if not misguided, eco-warrior friend chides me. “We’re gonna clean up the oceans,” he says. If only it were up to him. But my mind drifts to the scale of the problem. It lingers on the seemingly unstoppable production of plastics, the enduring legacy of this Age of Petroleum and an enormous fount of wealth for the industries that harvest the earth’s primordial blood. Its not true that plastic lasts forever, but it persists, it morphs into other insidious forms, and as it breaks down it releases its copious stores of toxicity like a trillion, tiny, slow moving oil spills.

                 I wander further catching a glimpse of a dragonfly bouncing on the air between the suns waning rays. Her iridescent wings so thin they appear gossamer. The wind picks up and she is gone, adrift on the cooling late summer breeze. I think of my friend and his tenacity. I utter a silent prayer to the ether for there to be more like him, but as I wander on I come across another heap of styrofoam fast food containers and beer cans, the residue of effortless revelry, stuffed into the crevice of an ancient rock overlooking the ocean. And the truth of our cultural apathy, born of privilege and convenience, caves in my chest.

Perhaps we have evolved to this disconnection. Perhaps the only possible outcome of industrial civilization is estrangement from the natural world from which we emanate. The character of industrialization is, after all, defined by the brutal rape of the natural world. And like all rapists, this one has only contempt and loathing for his victim. She is the constant reminder of his violent crime. But in some deep recess of his mind he knows that she is in no way dependent on him, quite the contrary. The opposite is true.  And the limits of her beneficence are being recklessly pushed.

I stumble through the gathering orange and rose hued light of the evening to the trailhead. I think about rising seas and the land borne plastics and chemicals that will find their way to the ocean after relentless storms and flooding.  I remember a recent study projecting more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.  I think about the Sixth Mass Extinction already well underway. About the human warmed world with acidic oceans, dead zones, algae blooms, blighted forests, collapsing ecosystems and besieged biota of all kind. And I realize even the language we use serves to alienate us from the imperiled world we live in.
                The real world is not the world of constructed oblivion where enormous towers of glass and steel conquer nature.  It isn’t even “responsible growth” or “sustainability.”  Those terms only reinforce a culture of estrangement that obscures the living earth in self serving euphemisms that perpetuate mass delusion and self destruction.  The real world is that of beetles, and bats, and mice, and moths, and mold, and trees, and birds, and grass, and sharks, and coyotes, and frogs, and coral, and worms, and moss, and salmon, and ferns, and snakes, and every other imaginable species now threatened with extinction, including our own. It is of obstructed rivers and polluted streams. Of molested mountaintops, developed coastlines, and felled forests.                 The moon begins to silently hum in its detached, pellucid presence above me. Field mice scurry across my path. Crickets begin their nightly serenades of solicitation unconcerned by my intrusion.  Mosquitoes make clandestine landfalls on my exposed arms and head, foolishly underestimating the racket their wings make in such close proximity to my ear drums.  I think once again about what she said, that passerby on the trail.  “You must love nature.”  

I breathe deeply, sigh, and make my way home through the gathering darkness.

~ Kenn Orphan  2017

Trailhead near Prospect, Nova Scotia, by Kenn Orphan:

 

Jellyfish Chips and Making Biosphere Collapse Trendy

In a recent puff piece by National Public Radio (USA), Danish journalist Sidsel Overgaard gushed over an upcoming trend for exuberant foodies: “jellyfish chips.”  Overgaard extolled them as an answer to falling fish stocks and the concomitant explosion of jellyfish blooms around the planet thanks to global warming.  Puerile?  Perhaps.  But the normalization of climate change and our existential crisis has become all too common in recent years.  And the trend to make it profitable is even more disturbing.

It may be a symptom of oversimplification and the pervasive nonsense of an aggressive, irrational and willfully blind optimism; or a byproduct of the corporate mindset and the repressed angst that accompanies late stage capitalism. But the curse of positive thinking has aided in creating huge blind spots that allow us to ignore the impending collapse of the biosphere that sustains us all.  It is not to say that we should all be pessimists of course. Far from it. But ignoring reality or greenwashing it with trendy alternatives will not make the looming catastrophe vanish either.

 

The prevailing and dominant economic model based upon industrial scale consumption and neoliberal (free market) capitalism has ushered in an age where when one species is decimated another, “previously less desirable,” one is turned to for unbridled exploitation. Haddock, cod and tuna were ruthlessly harvested until their numbers crashed catastrophically, so fish like farmed tilapia were “up marketed” to replace them. And this is not only true of fish populations.  Forests and farms have also suffered from insatiable plunder of more profitable timber or the “monoculturing” of crops.

Industrial scale technology fed the all consuming, insatiable monster of global capitalism.  Today all life is being rapidly commodified for fast profit and easy disposal.  But this scale of industry demands the burning of the earth’s deadly, primordial blood and a livable climate can only withstand so much.  Global biodiversity is now in a staggering state of free fall, out doing the speed of the previous five mass extinction events in the earth’s geologic history.  Climate change is wreaking havoc on the world’s oceans.  Acidification, coral bleaching, plastic pollution, dead zones, toxic and radioactive chemicals are all contributing to the mass extinction of scores of fish species and other marine life.  It is a human driven carnage that is off the scale.

 

But don’t worry. According to some enthusiastic foodies we’ll have tons of jellyfish chips to feast on in hip bistros when every other lifeform in the sea is gone forever.

Kenn Orphan  2017

A Message to the Fragile Heart

Since the recent death of the prolific singer/songwriter Chester Bennington I have seen the usual spat of nasty or unfeeling comments regarding those who take their own lives.  They may be well meaning, but some have said “how selfish” or “cowardly” they think he was. Others ask how a person who takes their life could ignore the pain it causes their family friends and loved ones.  Anyone who has been in these dark valleys in their lives or have gone through them with someone they love know all too well that it isn’t that simple.

 

Depression, loss, mental illness and addiction are not phantoms.  They don’t vanish at the mention of a simple platitude.  And well meaning bromides aside, we live in an age where militaristic chauvanism still dominates. We are inundated daily in hyper-masculine jingoism which eagerly brands anyone who challenges the dominant, patriarchal culture with derisive labels like “snowflake.”   Girls and women face especially hard treatment when faced with a constant barrage of misogynistic criticism and expectations related to how they look, act and think.  But this culture can also be very difficult for boys and men struggling with imposed stoicism regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.

Add to this a profoundly sick societal paradigm where money dictates, racism persists, the poor, disabled or elderly are invisible, politics is a spectacle, news is entertainment (and vice versa) and the living earth is being relentlessly decimated thanks to war, greed and mindless consumerism.  You get a good idea of how any fragile heart can break into pieces.

 

I don’t know very much about Chester Bennington’s life or the demons he wrestled with.  I don’t know what eventually caused him to go over that ledge.  But I understand what it feels like to be on one.  I know the desperation, the isolation and the panic that can flood one’s mind.  The late novelist David Foster Wallace summed it up pretty well when he described it:

 

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

 

The world we walk through is one of crushing cruelty.  It is full of destruction, misery and pain. Exploitation of the powerless often appears to be the law of the land with alienation, demoralization and despair the result.  It is a world that will gleefully cut your heart into shards especially when you show it that you care.

For the fragile heart there is no preventing this from happening except by hardening it.  The latter may protect you from unpleasant feelings for a time.  It may give you the facade of strength and detachment. But it will surely lead you to a life of bitterness and indifference ending in a soulless death.  Even though it is fraught with great danger, it is only in its brokenness that the heart has a chance of experiencing love and knowing joy.  And in doing this it opens up a greater possibility for healing the world you inhabit.

 

So if you are in possession of one this message is for you.  There is a big lie that is told all too often.  It’s that the fragile heart is either weak, useless or cowardly.  On the contrary; it is none of those things.  It is, in fact, the greatest quality our species has ever had.  In the midst of violence, avarice, cruelty, oppression and ecocide it is a clarion call for sanity.  Its fragility challenges the lie that “might makes right.”  Every time it breaks it causes a crack in the wall between this world and the one that should be.  One where unshackled joy and fearless love abound.   It is the only thing that makes solidarity with one another possible, and in the end the only adventure worth taking.

 

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

 

 

If you or a loved one are contemplating suicide or are struggling with depression, anxiety or addiction please know that there are many people who care.  Help is available.

 

https://www.suicideprevention.ca/

 

Title painting credit is “Song of Songs” by Marc Chagall.

The Insatiable Lust for Plunder

“Rocky Mountain Landscape” by Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902), oil on canvas.

Like many of his colleagues Albert Bierstadt was captivated and awed by the beauty of the North American continent. He painted grand and sweeping scenes of the American west at a time when little was known about it to European Americans except in rumour.  His use of light and space thrusts us into the sphere of the transcendent splendor of nature and its power.

Of course Native Americans knew of this beauty for many centuries prior to colonialism. They revered it as sacred, and understood that human beings and nature were not separate entities but were one in the same whose identity and destiny were inextricably linked.  Today much of that land has be despoiled or is imperiled by industry and development.  Protected areas are increasingly hemmed in by the interests of corporations, petroleum companies and mining, creating islands of besieged wildlife.

The battle for these last remaining lands has never ceased.  The capitalist robber barons of the 21st century have never sated their lust for plunder, and Donald Trump’s executive order attempting to rescind national monuments is a living example of that sad fact.  One might wonder what someone like Bierstadt, or his contemporaries in the Hudson River School, would have thought about the reckless and insane drive to rid the continent of its last remaining sanctuaries for wildlife.  But looking at this painting it isn’t too difficult to imagine the sorrow he would have felt.

 

Kenn Orphan  2917

The Ghosts That Roam Among Us

To many of us who live near to nature the idea of ghosts is far from fantasy.  The concept is neither childish nor macabre.  We commune with our ghosts and respect them.  They are the embodiment of our lost dreams and elusive joy, and only haunt those who misinterpret their messages.  They have no malice, only longing.

 

Ghosts are the shadows of our psyche.  They, like other archetypal figures, represent our lost aspirations both as individuals and as a species.  In many indigenous societies it is the ghost who guides us toward emancipation and actualization, not the angel.  This is because every one of us can identify with a ghost. Few of us have the piety or inherent detachment necessary to make us an angel.  In mythology ghosts can never attain angelic or demonic status.  They live outside the rhythm of life like dissonant chords, condemned to only remember loss.  And it is in this very quality that we see our selves reflected.  In this time of the Great Dying, ghosts call to us more than ever before.

Unsurprisingly, the reductionist cannot understand this embrace of the mystery of transcendence.  The intangible is broken down into facile explanations which extinguish imagination and deride wonder. They equate spirit with superstition or magical thinking.  Authoritarian and patriarchal religions are much the same and have had a lot to do with this backlash.  It is understandable why this is so given their legacy of cruelty, crusades against science and repression of free thought.  But even all of that does not make the narrow reductionist perspective a correct one.

 

Neither science or religion have the final answers to the questions all of us hold deep inside us about life and death, our existence and the existence of this marvelous universe, and the meaning of it all. Throughout history there have been numerous visionaries that have found the courage to step outside their esteemed roles and institutional bias and open their hearts and minds to a greater understanding of who we are. They not only asked questions or sought truth, they yearned for a meaning greater than their societal worldview. A meaning greater than the sum of their parts. The best of them used the arts to express their quest. But art is accessible to all of us. It is the greatest passage way toward understanding.

I think that is why I have appreciated the artist Joan Jonas ever since I encountered her work. She considers rural Nova Scotia, my home, her second home. And I can see why. Outside the city, a place where the songs of ghosts are often mercilessly drowned out by modernity, there are vast stretches of wilderness dotted with sparse communities carved into history and nature like a sculpture. Jonas’ art not only touches on the ghosts of human beings, but of animals and other species, especially the ones who have disappeared forever.

 

Her and other works of this nature bring up many questions for me. When humans pass into the void will our ghosts roam with them? Are those who have gone on already doing this now? Or will we damn our souls to the mediocrity of pseudo separation and supremacy? Will we listen to the ghosts struggling to teach us? Will we hear their pleas for connection, community and solidarity with one another and the myriad of other species that inhabit this life drenched world?

Truthfully, I do not have the answers for any of these questions. But we are all staring down a gun. This is an unprecedented epoch in the age of homo sapiens.  We are witnessing the alarming acceleration of species extinction mostly caused by human activity. With this terrible knowledge we must all choose if we are going to continue to ignore the carnage or face it with courage. Of course awareness alone is not enough. But it is the beginning of transformation. Facing death, ours and that of other living beings, can ignite a fire that can burn away the illusions that fill our modern, congested lives; and rise us out of the din.  Illusions that crowd out our capacity for connection and solidarity.

 

The ghosts that roam among us should not to be feared. They are merely the refracted reflections of our missed opportunities, wars of conquest, folly, misplaced rage, scorned wonder and repressed joy.  They are, in truth, us.  But they have an urgent story to tell; and if we ignore or dismiss them it will be at our own peril.

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

 

Title art piece for this essay is Japanese Ghosts, Katsushika Hokusai: Phoenix, 1835.

An interview with artist Joan Jonas:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4CCsVFhi9o

Free Fall

Perhaps you can commiserate.  I keep having this recurring thought.  I am perched on a branch above a flooding stream. The muddy waters below me churn and swell.  The winds howl around me.  Torrents of rain beat down on my head. Others clamber up the tree near me. I reach out a hand only to watch them pulled away into the dark waters.  Then the branch on which I sit begins to crack and I realize I am in free fall. It is a helpless and desperate feeling.  It is the end of the world… the end of my world.

No, this recurring feeling I have had is not about the circus unfolding in Washington DC.  It is rooted in our collective predicament as a species.  I have said this several times before, but I believe more and more that we are at a place in human history where the status quo of almost everything is about to shift and the American political landscape is only one piece of this dire reality.  It is true that no one can predict the future with certainty, but it it is also true that many of us have a pretty good idea of where we are all heading.

floods-in-thailand-source-the-atlanticIn case you were off world and missed it, let me break it down: the climate is rapidly transforming in real time before our eyes.  Ice sheets in Antarctica, frozen for millions of years, are disintegrating rapidly and collapsing in a months time.  Massive wildfires and intractable drought on each continent have become a year round reality.  Biblical floods are a terrifying, new normal.  Soil depletion is widespread; and the integrity of biomass is greatly degraded and imperiled.  The planet’s oceans are acidifying with dead zones growing exponentially in size each year.   What we are witness to is the Sixth Mass Extinction, a human caused disaster that is sweeping over us like a tsunami.  In its insurmountable wake it is taking with it the earth’s largest living organism, a being visible from orbit, the Great Barrier Reef.  Petrifying it in a blanket of stark, white death.

Within mere decades many, if not most, of the coastal areas of the world will be inundated.  Drought is poised to cause widespread famine and disease will follow close behind.  Of course the poorest of the poor who have always suffered the most will suffer exponentially in the years to come.  A refugee crisis not seen before in human history is on the horizon, but Westerners should not kid themselves.  We are all in the same sinking spaceship; and at some point this global catastrophe will leave no one untouched.

Greetings from California by Joe Webb.The companion to this appears to be a collective lunacy among world leaders and the most powerful.  Armed to the teeth with life extinguishing nukes, they seem to have reduced our collective, existential predicament to a joust between failing empires.  They are bolstering a renewed, reactionary authoritarianism and stoking base prejudices among the masses.  The melting Arctic sea does not alarm them.  On the contrary, it presents them with new opportunities for exploitation of ever dwindling and harder to reach oil reserves, the earth’s poisonous primordial blood.  They look at the coming collapse with shrugged shoulders while they fill their coffers with coin.  And make no mistake, they will not cease this destruction voluntarily.  In the end the failing systems of the earth’s biosphere and climate and the impossible equation of infinite growth on a planet with finite resources will put a stop to their unhinged folly.  But what price will we all have to pay for their madness?
I Shop Therefore I AmAnd how, then, can we make sense of our predicament?   How do we live lives of dignity, purpose and meaning in the midst of a free fall of civilization and the biosphere?   I think it begins with disengaging from the dominant narrative of a profoundly sick culture.  It is a narrative which reinforces separation from nature and the universe itself.  It is a message center which controls how we see the world and all of its inhabitants.  It objectifies, commodifies and nullifies the inherent worth of all living things and replaces them with absurd facsimiles of life which end up both mocking and crushing the soul and polluting the verdant earth.  It is a culture responsible for war, poverty and avarice; and it is blind to its own imminent demise.

This age we live in reinforces alienation, denial, apathy and despair by hapless design.  If we are to reclaim our humanity and our place in this rapidly deteriorating world we must return to that most childlike of qualities: imagination.  We need to find the courage to place ourselves unashamedly into that dream time of imagining a world of connection with all that lives and the sense of wonder that comes with it.  We need to give ourselves permission to pry open the cultural locks that have constrained our soul in a prison of lies, and reject anything that devalues us or separates us from the other.  Perhaps then we can really begin to live the life we were all intended to live on this life drenched planet, even if we are in the last great epoch of our species.

refugees-seek-sanctuary-souce-the-vienna-reviewA growing number of scientists argue, and with compelling empirical evidence, that a free fall of the biosphere is already under way.  If this is true it will inevitably lead to the breakdown of complex societal systems and social order.  The increase in relentless storms, droughts, famines and disease will accompany the rise of authoritarianism, racist xenophobia and militaristic nationalism around the globe.  Truthfully, we are already seeing much of this happening today.  In fact, much of the world now deals with this uncertain brutality and barbarism.  But in the dark days that lie ahead no one will be spared the painful choices such a convergence will bring.

Many of us who have lived relatively calm lives in more affluent or stable societies will be increasingly asked to take uncomfortable stands that billions in poorer countries encounter daily.  These stands can result in the loss of social status, jobs or even relationships.  Many of us may endure unjust hearings, inquisitions or trials, or even face state or mob violence if we speak out against social hatred, defy repression, break unethical or inhuman laws, or provide shelter, sustenance or sanctuary to the foreigner, or the migrant, or the persecuted.  It will not always be straightforward and certainly not easy.  In the end. however, it has always come down to a fundamental choice between the better part of our humanity or in its rejection.  We must all find this part and grapple with these troubling things sooner or later, but for me the choice is a clear one.

 

Kenn Orphan 2017

Grief and the Unbreakable Sinew

As the close of this year approaches I have been thinking a lot about grief.  I have reached that age in Western society where one begins to lose family, lovers, friends and even childhood archetypal heroes from the celebrity world at a faster and more alarming pace.  Two years ago it was my father, a year later I learned of the death of one of my first loves, and very recently I lost a sister-in-law whom I adored.  I have worked in hospice care for half my life so I am familiar with the stages of grief and the theoretical approaches to death and dying, but I have learned that nothing can fully prepare one for the journey through grief.  And that journey, once began, has no end.

angel-of-griefThere are no magic spells or elixirs or incantations that get us over grief.  In fact, no one ever “gets over it.”  If you love someone that love is not discontinued by their absence. Our bodies feel this deeply, so much so that we feel their detachment in very tangible ways.  Our hearts and body literally ache.  As the author C.S. Lewis put it: “The death of a beloved is an amputation.”  This is not only defined by physical distance though. Even when we learn of the death of a loved one who is miles away the pain is no less deep as if they were by our side.  The soul is not bound by time and space like the body. We feel on a visceral level that something has shifted and that a direct link in this realm of existence has been altered. Grief is the response not to the absence of love but to the absence of direct connection with the beloved.

In fact, grief is the dreaded companion of love. But like love, it has the power to transform the barren into fertile ground. It can expand our capacity to embrace others and increase our empathy for the universal experience of suffering and loss.  However, if allowed it can also preclude the flowering of compassion in exchange for self absorption, self destruction and bitterness. It is ruthless when ignored and can inflict madness on anyone foolish enough to think they have mastered it.  The only coherent response to it, therefore, is respect.

The pain of grief can have the effect of chasing us away from ever loving again. But to do so would invite spiritual death upon us and poison everyone who surrounds us with unyielding despair. The journey through grief is agonizing and its manifestations and twists and turns are often unpredictable. But we can navigate our way through it by gaining insight on the very nature of love itself.

Here is what I have learned. Love is not merely affection. It is not a drug. It is not a state of being either. Love is the unbreakable sinew that connects us to each other. And without it we are nothing more than single cells of life drifting aimlessly in the void, meaningless, empty and featureless. Death tears apart the corporeal, but love completes us by making us one organism.

In the broader sense I believe that grief, whether recognized or not, defines our current age. We are a part of a living web of life, but unbridled consumerism has divorced us from this ancient knowledge. Ever since then we have lived as aliens on our own home world, plagued with emptiness, apathy and neurosis, disconnected with each other and the myriad of other life forms that live here. The biosphere on which we all depend is being hurried into oblivion by rapacious greed and this is something we either feel great sorrow for or we bury it under layers of denial fostered by our pathological culture. Denial is abundant in this age, free to anyone and everyone. But once ingested it can rapidly transform into a poison that is difficult to extract.

cropped-img_93601.jpgWhen we lose someone we love those around us generally respond with caring and support. But we have all lost the sense of our connection with the living world that we inhabit.  The phantoms of materialistic pleasure haunt every corridor and room, and especially at this time of year.  Yet if we look beyond we will see the landscape of desolation all of this disconnect causes. Plastic bags and packaging choke our oceans and waterways.  Traffic clogged roadways spew toxic soot into the air.  Dehumanizing and base advertising hammer home feelings of alienation against the backdrop of a landscape festooned with billboards with hollow promises.  Wars for material wealth and dominance still menace.  And mass species extinction is fast becoming the norm as climate change and greed driven exploitation devastate ecosystems across the planet.

Where, then, shall we look for caring or support? Truthfully, it must be from others who recognize that something is gravely wrong with the direction of the world.  Those who see the Great Dying unfolding before us and refuse to be silent witnesses to it.  For all we know, this epoch of human history may be the last. After all there are many powerful forces converging to create unmatched havoc and chaos.  Facing our grief can expand our capacity to love and nourish the courage we need to meet what ever calamity comes our way.  But this is not a solo experience.  It is a journey of solidarity and one we must all take together or not at all.

 

A special message to all readers of this blog: This month people around the world are celebrating the birth of Christ and Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.  Earlier this month was Milad un Nabi or the Birth of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), Bodhi Day when the Buddha attained supreme enlightenment and Geeta Jayanti, the beginning of the sacred text of the Bhagvad-Gita.   There are many more traditions that see this time of year as hallowed for honoring birth and rebirth.  For me, the most powerful is the Winter Solstice which is one of the four sacred turns of the living earth, our beloved home.  But whether you are religious or not the message of healing is natural and universal.

Music and art are perhaps the most powerful mediums for the expression of the sacred.  And for me there is something about Marc Chagall’s “L’Ange Bleu” or “The Blue Angel” that resonates at this time of year. When I worked with terminally ill people, with refugees or with the mentally ill it seemed to bring many of them calm too.  Blue is the color of both healing and spiritual birth in many traditions and I think it is appropriate for winter where our hearts lay dormant so long waiting to be reborn into the world.  Waiting to add our humanity, our life force.  The angel is symbolic of our aspirations to transcend the muddy world of suffering we are all born into.  Her wings give our soul flight to meet our rebirth.

marc-chagall-the-blue-angelMany grieve, may you find solace in the fact that you loved and loved deeply. Many are angry, may you find justice. Many are uncertain, may you find strength in the core of who you are. Many are joyful, may your joy increase and bless the world.

 

Kenn Orphan  2016

 

In loving memory of my sister, Lisa Hanaway~Herrera (1962-2016).  Your absence makes the world a much dimmer place.  But your love is an inner light that will help me find my way through it.

Title artwork for this essay is a painting by Lisa.

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