Reading some of these blogs may seriously damage your peace of mind. That's what I told Natasha Walter, who wrote me from England recently, requesting a phone interview for an article she was writing on art and ecology for the English magazine, Resurgence.
Perhaps you should read my blog first, I cautioned her, because it might cause you to change your mind. I wouldn't want my point of view to compromise your possibilities with the magazine, I explained. I've published many times, myself, in Resurgence, with very happy results, but the last piece I sent them was flatly rejected by the editor, Satish Kumar, a good friend of mine. He considered that it was too "negative," and for that reason, was not resonant with the primary aim of the magazine: to inspire hope for a turnaround in the environmental crisis. Nor did it present any positive solutions for all the problems that confront us.
The rejected text in question was a taped conversation between a friend of mine, James Marriott, an old friend and environmental artist who was visiting me from England where he lives and works in an arts-activist collaborative called PLATFORM. The date was April 16th, 2006, which, as it turned out, was James's birthday, and he had requested that we do the conversation as his birthday present. Since both of us are well known to Resurgence, we decided to do it with the magazine in mind.
James kicked off by asking exactly what I had meant the day before, when I had said to him that perfume had no future and the ship was going down. I found myself, by way of a response, stating that I thought our present circumstances were taking the human race to a whole new context in which, for the first time, its survival was uncertain. That thought caused me to compare our situation to Sir Ernest Shackleton's journey to the Antarctic, in l914, when his ship, the Endurance, broke up in the ice, leaving Shackleton and his crew of 27 men stranded, helpless on an ice floe and isolated from the world, for two sunless and utterly dark Arctic winters. They survived there for two years, hunting seals and penguins, uncertain if they would ever be rescued or make it back to the land of the living.
I had suddenly perceived Shackleton's situation as a metaphor of things to come for the human race. We are like sailors who have lost our ship. For the first time, our future is uncertain. James responded:
"If you consider Shackleton’s story, there must have been period of time—I don’t know how long, maybe a few days or hours when they were all thinking Help! Are we going to get stuck in the ice? Are we not going to get stuck in the ice? And then there’s suddenly the point when they go—Help! We’re stuck in the ice! It’s very difficult to project just when that moment will come for us, for us to see it. In a sense, we need to heighten our perception to be able to say, okay, this is the moment when we’re stuck in the ice...In terms of Shackleton’s plight, it was pretty useful. He had to come to the point of saying, okay, we’re obviously stuck in the ice. Now what are we going to do? At the moment, I don’t think we collectively understand the fact that we’re stuck in the ice. Maybe that moment hasn’t yet arrived, but when it does, we will need to see it clearly."
And I said: "Others have likened that moment to throwing a frog into boiling water. If the water is already boiling, the frog will jump out, but if the water is heating up slowly, the frog won’t recognize the dangerous moment when the boiling point comes, and it will die. Now the phrase being used for this moment is the “tipping point.” It seems as if we may have already reached the tipping point. For several decades we had all those World Watch studies foretelling disaster scenarios, and saying that we had a window of opportunity—20 or 30 years to turn things around. But when does the window of opportunity close?"
So the question became, in our conversation, What do we do in the face of something that may now be unsolvable? I realized then that to face such a possibility is almost impossible for our way of thinking, which assumes that humans have always risen to the challenge of inventiveness--and always will. We have a "fix-it" mentality. But with the current scale of the disasters happening, and the tipping point reached, these assumptions may no longer hold.
In case you don't know the story, Shackleton and his men did get out, and every member of the crew survived their ordeal. When it finally became clear to Shackleton (after two years on the ice) that no one was coming to rescue them—they had been gone for so long people assumed they must all be dead—he set out with five of his men in a ridiculously small boat to find help. They had to travel 800 miles by sea from Elephant Island to South Georgia, then travel 29 more miles on foot across the island, which required scaling perpendicular headlands and glaciers, to arrive at the small whaling station of Stromness. Miraculously, they did it. It took 3 more months and several failed attempts, however, before they succeeded in returning to rescue the other men who had been left behind. What is so amazing about this story is how those men survived under such unthinkable conditions. It would seem that the primary reason for the phenomenal success was hidden in the character and personality of Shackleton himself, a man with extraordinary leadership abilities, comparable perhaps to Martin Luther King or Gandhi. Chalk one up for human resilience and ingenuity!
Meanwhile, Natasha read my blog and was undeterred, so we did the interview for her article. Synchronistically. however, while all this was going on, the latest issue of Resurgence happened to arrive. Satish had written an editorial in it, in which he states, in the opening paragraph:
"Pessimism is in fashion. Scientists, environmentalists and climatologists are claiming that collapse is around the corner and civilization is coming to an end. Book after book tells us that we have passed the tipping point and have reached the point of no return." And he's still not having any of it. To meet the challenge of global warming, he claims, we need to change from being consumers to being artists, producing beautiful objects to use, which need not require the use of fossil fuel to make. I agree that craft belongs to a humbler relationship with nature and that high-tech society is destroying our ecological base.
But I see very little evidence that this is where our civilization is headed. Satish, however, ends his essay with: "It is 'cool' to be an optimist."