The Work

I don’t like to use so many quotations when writing, but James Allen’s essay, “Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse” is the most coherent and insightful exploration about the unfolding environmental catastrophe we are in now, and how to deal with it, that I have found. I especially like what he has written about the importance of spiritual practice. I recommend reading the whole essay. Previous blog posts of mine related to this essay can be found here:

The most profound meaning in our lives is located in the ties that bind us together. Many on their deathbed have attested that the quality of our connection with others is that which matters above all else. To that end, the calling is to shed the things that separate us, reacquaint ourselves with one another in our families and communities. In doing so, we reacquaint ourselves with meaning, and only then can we see clearly enough to begin realigning our economies and political structures to serve that which is meaningful.

I therefore take my task to be in finding the ways of living that preserve dignity throughout collapse and, more importantly, to create a lineage of ideas, traditions, rituals and institutions that might be useful after it.

Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, Medium, May 24, 2019

“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. . . . We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”   

Martin Luther King, Jr

During the course of my life American society has increasingly moved away from a ‘person-oriented’ society to a ‘thing oriented’ society, i.e. in the opposite direction Martin Luther King said. But thanks to the support of my Quaker communities, my experiences have remained ‘person oriented’ and spiritually guided. Quakers will appreciate what is said here about spiritual practice and listening deeply.

It is not clear to me what the work will require of me precisely, but what does seem clear is that there are few threads of work worth following.

The first thread is the cultivation of deep humility. Deep listening is needed. To listen deeply — to become profoundly aware of all aspects of your environment and your place in that system — is fundamentally a spiritual practice that reveals to us the essential interconnectedness of everything. It changes us as a consequence. Perhaps this is what is needed in order to shatter [see Shattering Silence below] our sense of separateness from nature. Yet this change won’t occur through devouring propositional knowledge or via rhetorical persuasion. It is knowledge only gained through participation in the practice of deep listening itself.

The second thread is finding coherence, with one’s self, with each other and with place. We don’t know today what things will enable us to solve the problems of tomorrow. Our biggest problems are emergent and non-linear and most won’t be solved with linear thinking. Only emergent collective intelligence can produce non-linear solutions. This requires us to first cultivate our own ability to be present, perceive the world accurately, orient ourselves toward it, and find ways to give creatively. It also requires that we find new ways to assemble with people with diverse perspectives who are capable of coming into coherent relationships with each other for long enough to produce something worthwhile.

The third thread is conservation. For its many flaws, Western civilisation has produced some of the greatest accomplishments of recorded human history. From the rule of law to the sovereignty of the individual, from its art and music to philosophy and science, the western tradition remains rich with value. Our task is to slowly and carefully decide what traditions we will carry forward. Decoupling them from their undesirable effects is difficult, if not impossible in many cases.

The requirement for novelty in the face of unprecedented predicaments is why we should pursue the final thread: experimentation. Most good ideas ever tried throughout history have failed, some quietly and others catastrophically. Our traditions are those ideas that emerged over time as the things that worked repeatedly over hundreds if not thousands of years. We don’t know what will work in an uncertain future

Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, Medium, May 24, 2019

Those who know about Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) can appreciate what James Allen says about conservatives. “It requires us to be conservatives on one hand, preserving and passing on what we have that is good, and radically progressive on the other hand, ready to meld the old ideas and traditions with new, the familiar with the strange, so that we may give birth to useful novelty.”

One of the main points of this essay for me is the recognition that spiritual practice is how we navigate through the unknown and chaotic future. That study and discussions are not how we will learn what we must do. Instead we will learn “only guided through participation in the practice of deep listening itself.” Quakers should make others aware of our meetings for worship, that model this very approach.

It is also important to “find new ways to assemble with people with diverse perspectives who are capable of coming into coherent relationships with each other.” In particular I believe this means we should seek and nurture relationships with Native people to learn from their sacred relationships with Mother Earth. The main way I see to do that is to support an indigenous led Green New Deal. SHIFT is a project of Seeding Sovereignty related to this.

We are moving into more uncertain and chaotic times. Although this will be scary, it also provides opportunities to build Beloved communities, and bring peace and justice to so many who don’t have that now.

Shattering Silence. “Those moments when Iowa has been at the forefront of breaking the silence of inequality and commemorates those Iowans who refused to stand by silently when they saw injustice.”
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