Tag Archive | Collapse

The Boy Who Harnessed …

The Boy Who Harnessed …
David R. Weiss – May 16, 2023

Last night our housemate, Deandre, invited us to join him in watching The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019). It’s a powerful, inspirational movie. Margaret and I had read the book together on a long road trip, maybe a decade ago, so we knew the story, but it was still quite moving to see it brought to life in film.

It’s a true story, set in Malawi, in southeast Africa, in 2000-2001. William Kamkwamba is a teenager in a small rural village who has a knack for tinkering. He fixes the small radios used by the subsistence farmers in the village (including his father) to track weather and politics, the twin forces that determine their fate. William is intuitively bright and self-taught; he scavenges most of his repair supplies—wire, old batteries, and more—from the nearby garbage dump.

But William’s tinkering is set against a backdrop of desperation in the village. Unpredictable weather patterns, ranging from drought to downpour. Corrupt government pressure to sell off the trees that protect the fields against flooding in order to feed families in the short term. Followed by inadequate humanitarian aid during the ensuing famine. The villagers are under intense economic and social stress. At times they betray both tradition and one another, though less from malice than from the fracturing pressure mounting on all sides.

The fracture lines run right into William’s family as well. His mother has a fierce determination that the children be educated, and his father has worked hard to send both of their children to school. A man of deep integrity but lacking in great vision, as the famine settles in, he can no longer justify William’s school fees … or his absence in the fields. (Although by now the ground is so parched that doubling their labor merely doubles the futility of their efforts.)

Meanwhile, William, who had been given informal access to the school library after being removed from class for unpaid fees, has deepened his understanding of how electricity works—and what it can do. In the depths of his family’s—his entire village’s—desperation, he begins to imagine the difference it would make if he could use electricity to “bring rain” from beneath the ground giving them a real measure of security in their harvest.

But William’s daring vision is still complicated by family dynamics. His father cannot fathom how the wind, which only whips the dust about, as far as he can tell, can be such a force for good as William describes. It is entirely beyond the world his father knows. Nevertheless, somehow, at the age of 14 and using mostly scraps from the nearby dump, William indeed “harnesses the wind”—designing and then building a wind turbine that charges a discarded car battery that drives a salvaged pump that brings “rain” up from the ground to irrigate the farmland.

It is a miracle, but one wrought not by suspending the laws of nature but by understanding them and then imagining how to harness them in new ways for the good of his community. The miracle is what happens at the intersection of his mother’s belief in education, William’s own persistent imagination, his father’s faltering-but-final trust, and his community’s deep need. Right there.

Of course, I encounter almost everything these days with ecological collapse on my mind. (Sorry not sorry. I have a job to do.) So, as I watched William persist vis-a-vis the skepticism of family and friends who could not recognize the promise of his vision—until he brought it to pass, it occurred to me, that I am determined to be “the boy who harnessed grief.”

For years now, I’ve been convinced that the single most “promising” response to the climate crisis is the honesty and depth of our grieving for the world’s painat our hands. And it’s been true, both for our culture in general, but also as the most typical reaction to my specific writing and speaking, that we want as little to do with grieving as possible. We are perhaps willing to acknowledge the damage we’ve done to this “pale blue dot” … and grieve for that ever so briefly, if only we-can-swiftly-and-definitively-turn our-attention-and-energy-to-fixing-it.

But what if the only “fix” possible is to sit with the world’s pain? For a long—long!—time.

Yes, we will need to do things besides grieve. BUT STOP RIGHT THERE! You don’t get to do any of those other things except as you are steeped in grief. Grief—pure and simple, strong and steady—is the wind we must harness to do the rest of what must done. Nothing will guide or sustain the rest of what we do except grief. But more than merely a means to our doing, grief must also become an end of our being, our common calling as humans.

This is NOT about wallowing in sadness or shame or guilt. We may well have sadness, shame, and guilt to process, but this grief is about being present to the world. Having christened ourselves homo sapiens (“the wise human”), our only course forward now is to rechristen ourselves homo compatiens (“the suffering-with human”). Every other pathway leads ineluctably toward (literally, “unable to squirm free from”) further alienation, deeper ecological damage, and more catastrophic collapse.

But choosing to feel the world’s pain, to allow grief to drive the turbines of our soul, is to invite Earth and all her company of saints to step out of the It-ness to which we have consigned them for far too long … and into the Thou-ness that has always been theirs, citizen-companions alongside us in the web of life. When we endeavor to acknowledge deep in our hearts, when we dare to seek to suffer with the pain that is theirs, we experience an apocalypse—a revelation—of sorts. We can.

That is, despite all the tales we’ve told ourselves about being separate from, better than, distinctly different and otherwise-destined than the Earthly company round about us, we are, in fact, in beloved truth: KIN. And that irrevocable kinship remains, latent in most of us, but waiting to rise in our grief. At this point in human history, on the cusp of ecological collapse, only our kinship with all that is has the capacity to re-root us in the unconditional energy of life and love. And in this perilous moment, that kinship can only be accessed … welcomed … received—on terms of grief.

Because right now, alongside its awe-inspiring, lingering-languishing beauty, the world as Thou can only be known intimately by knowing its wounds. And nothing less than intimate knowing—whole-hearted suffering-with, grief that runs deep into our bones—can guide the rest of what we must seek to do and, perhaps more importantly, the mystery of who we must become.

I understand, my harping on grief seems obsessive. But the impatience you feel to move on is the measure of your reluctance (unwillingness? fear?) to allow the depth of the world’s pain into your heart. Once it enters, … you … will … slow … down. Because the thrum of such profound and widespread grief stretches out time until each heartbeat is brimful of the world’s pain. Then—like lightning splintering across the sky—those turbines, long stilled in your soul, will start to move. And you will realize that all this time, you have only guessed (and poorly so) at life. At last, re-joined to the whole web of life—now weeping, raging, loving, laughing—grief will bring you home.

I am determined to be the boy who harnessed grief. For the good of my community. (That’s you!) It’s gonna take a miracle, so wish me luck. And consider where you fit in the intersection. I’ll meet you. Right there.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This IS the Kobayashi Maru

This IS the Kobayashi Maru
David R. Weiss – May 10, 2023

It’s true, there are days that the company I keep wears me down. I’ve made the abyss of ecological overshoot my conversation partner. The banter is not cheery.

Overshoot, in a nutshell, refers to the reckless plunder of the planet in the present, borrowing heavily against the wellbeing of the planet in the future. It is living in excess … until the biosphere—and the “sociosphere”—collapse in exhaustion. And it has become so normal as to be almost boring.

Did you notice, back on March 13, when the United States went into overshoot? I didn’t. But that was the day—just 72 days into the year—by which the average U.S. consumer had consumed their entire year’s worth of goods. From the Ides of March onward, we are borrowing from (well, stealing, since there is no plan and no way to pay it back) the wellbeing of tomorrow. We are plundering the planet. The mantra of our lifestyles having become, “To hell with those who come after us! Born too late; it’s just their fate: they’re screwed!”

It is not a mantra to be morally proud of. But it is the mantra of consumer capitalism (and its close kin: misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, anthropocentrism). It is the mantra SUNG by the socio-economic structures of our lives. It is the mantra in which we are entangled. And, even if we are “lucky” enough to die before the debt comes due, it is the mantra that will exact repayment—in the form of catastrophic system-wide ecological-economic-social collapse in the lives of those who come after us. Some of whom we have birthed and named and raised with love ourselves.

Except for the super-wealthy, that mantra is indiscriminate. As our life choices carry its chant, we may assume that those damned to hell by the illicit leisure of our lives are surely ones unknown to us. Those born in distant lands or those whose humanity is hued different than our own. But unless the balance of (stolen!) “wealth” in your bank account is measured by multi-millions or more, your hope to buffer those of your choosing from calamity will be next to nil.

Which brings us to the Kobayashi Maru.

The Kobayashi Maru is an imaginary civilian spaceship in a training exercise of the same name in the Star Trek universe. In the exercise, Starfleet cadets encounter the Kobayashi Maru, disabled in hostile space and facing certain disaster. Their training has formed them to seek to rescue the ship, even if it means endangering their own crew and vessel. But the exercise was set up—designed—to be impossible. Every attempt at rescue would result in the loss of both vessels and all lives.

The point was to force a cadet-in-training to encounter a no-win situation. Because at some point, as a starship captain, they might well face a no-win situation out in the field. In the simulation, the rational response—to ignore the moral claim of the imperiled lives and focus on protecting their own crew and vessel—is immoral. While the moral response—to risk (and inevitably lose) one’s crew and vessel in a failed rescue attempt—is irrational.

Were it left there, Star Trek would’ve had its own mythic motif of existential tragedy. But this is Star Trek, and Captain James T. Kirk is not the author of Ecclesiastes. Instead, according to Kirk’s own admission, he was the only Star Fleet cadet to ever “beat” the Kobayashi Maru test—because he cheated. After losing twice, he managed to reprogram the simulation to make winning a possibility.

Today, in a world too far into overshoot to simply ease back, we face the Kobayashi Maru dilemma. It would be immoral—on the scale of global ecocide—to make no attempt to alter the trajectory of overshoot, which imperils countless Earth ecosystems and individual species—including humanity. And yet, if catastrophic system-wide ecological-economic-social collapse is now inevitable, are we not faced with a truly no-win scenario, where even doing the right thing “too late” is no more than noble failure?

Yes and no.

Unlike the Star Trek simulation, our present dilemma wasn’t exactly “designed” to be no-win. Perhaps a hundred years ago (maybe as few as seventy-five years ago) there were still different choices available to us, with different outcomes possible. “Winning”—achieving sustainable balance on a small planet—was theoretically possible, with the right mix of wisdom, reverence, humility, restraint. But since the Great Acceleration (dating roughly to 1950), Western “civilization”—which can only honestly be described as the deliberate desire to plunder the planet by any means necessary, hence the quote marks—has pretty much nailed the gas pedal to the floor of the car, making even the desperate desire to slow down beyond difficult. So, by now, “design” is a moot point. We can argue about who did the nailing, and the list of villains would be legion, but most of us (in the “developed”—that is, the plundering—world) have been complicit. We are in a no-win scenario.

Still, while I am loathe to lionize Captain Kirk, there is a glimmer of subversive grit in his willingness to cheat the system in order to save the innocent.

Now, before you get too excited, let’s get realistic. Collapse is coming. It will be catastrophic. And there is no “win” that avoids this. At this stage of overshoot, there is no amount of green technology, no sudden onset of political will power, no miraculous new course set by corporations that can make this anything other than a no-win scenario. All hopes of “reprogramming” our dilemma in a way that preserves the reigning values that created it are OFF THE TABLE.

That is, the only way to re-program the Kobayashi Maru dilemma that we face, is to change the very scripts that guide the program while also recognizing that even if we succeed, at its best, “success” will look like a slightly cushioned collapse and will result in (perhaps, and if we are truly fortunate) some smattering of human communities able to regroup and persist on the far side of collapse. This is thin success by any measure.

Except by the measure of imagining any other way “forward.” Because every other imagining is death. By that standard, changing the scripts for even thin success … is a win. It is the only heroic aspiration on the table. And an aspiration only effectively exercised … collectively. (I cringe to say it, but we must decide to channel James T. Kirk together. I’m sorry.)

Still to come: reflections on the damning scripts that got us here (the core assumptions—the “code”—that creates the systems that frame the range of possible outcomes). And then reflections on the subversive scripts that might let us “rescue,” even if only as a badly battered vessel, the Kobayashi Maru … and the innocent lives on board that imaginary spaceship called Tomorrow.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

Meet Me in the River

Meet Me in the River
May 2, 2023 – David R. Weiss

I am awash in grief you might say. It is the sacred ether in which I “live and move and have my being” these days.

If the words sound familiar, they’re from Acts 17:28, where Paul employs them to describe our subsistence within the life of God. In fact, he’s quoting Epimenides, a Greek philosopher-mystic-poet from six or seven centuries before him, who coined the phrase in a poem to Zeus. In both cases, the meaning is that our human existence is rooted in a Reality larger than ourselves—and that we can only navigate our own lives meaningfully in the humble recognition of that larger Reality.

For me, that larger Reality is perhaps best called Compassion. I see this as the driving force in Jesus’ life. Not some abstract ideal, but the animating energy moving through his being yet also in some mysterious way much larger than him. Compassion—literally, “to suffer with”—is the dynamic disposition of the cosmos to promote the birth of whole worlds and the flourishing of ecosystems and communities. In theological verbiage: God.

But today, in this place, in this time, Compassion most often tastes salty. Like tears of Grief.

Our world is dying. The wounds inflicted on the biosphere by our industrial civilization continue unabated. Indeed, what we like to call “civilization” is more accurately described as the relentless malignancy of the life patterns chosen by the dominant societies on this planet.

For at least fifty years the scale of that malignancy—our imbalance with the rest of the natural world—has been public knowledge. “Debatable” only by those whose interests aligned with wealth rather than wellbeing. And yet from the wealthy individuals and corporations who twist politics to promote profit … to the socio-economic structures that constrain the choices available to most of us … to the cultural-religious worldviews that form our appetites and imaginations … we continue to accelerate toward collapse as if there is no tomorrow. Which, come to think of it, there won’t be—on account of that ongoing acceleration.

But still, it seems an act of gratuitous violence to slam ourselves—really, our children and grandchildren—into a brick wall as hard as possible. Isn’t there something to be said for kindness on the cusp of collapse?

Hence, Grief.

Ironically, it’s often experiences of beauty and community that trigger grief for me these days. (See, for instance, my earlier pieces on “Even Beauty Cannot Save Us” from February 2022 or “Two Things True” from July 2022.) Sunday afternoon Margaret and I attended the Apollo Chorus concert out in Plymouth. Listening to a men’s chorus sing with gusto and joy surrounded by a community of folks happy to hear their music. Beauty and community rolled together. And grief. It is a sort of wistful recognition that there are moments in which humanity shines, in which creation gleams. Moments to be treasured … soon to be endangered … if not extinct.

Hence, awash in Grief. And yet, it is a good grief.

Our world is dying. And in such a time as this being as fully connected to the world as we can is our only pathway toward integrity and humanity. Disconnected—whether pretentiously (and falsely) set above or despairingly (and just as falsely) set alone—we are figments of a faulty imagination. We are human, only to the extent we are wed to the humus (and everything else!) in the world around us. And there is no honest relationship with the world that is not awash in grief.

To clarify, there is no authentic relationship with anyone or anything that does not require an openness to grief. To meet any aspect of the world, from fellow creature to entire ecosystem, as a Thou rather than an It, is to be open to curiosity and awe, joy and grief, in relationship. But today, the level of grief that is prerequisite to being connected to the world is so immense as to be daunting. And almost our entire way of life is oriented toward avoiding grief. (The most obvious exceptions being those industries [e.g., funeral homes, burial services] that manage to monetize its inevitability. The most laudable exceptions being hospice and other “pro-death” movements that aim to honor the place of death and grief in life—laudable, but as yet marginal movements in society at large.)

No wonder, then, that our default disposition toward grief is avoidance. By entertainment … travel … shopping … when all else fails, by frantic distraction.

But here’s what comes next in a dying world: collapse and chaos. Followed by brutality and inhumanity. And the only way we can avert these outcomes in ourselves and our communities is by opening ourselves to grief. As never before. On a scale near unimaginable. Grief, especially as communal practice, is the only portal through numbness and into authentic relationship with a world so badly wounded as ours. Grief at what we have done to our fellow human beings … our companion creatures … the Earth itself … the planetary systems that are the very womb of life … and, not least, to ourselves.

There is no way across the gaping chasm of these wounds except to grieve them in full measure. And in that grieving to invite empathy into our hearts (our lives!)—to allow the echo of our buried kinship with all that is to rekindle itself.

Worlds are born on geologic scales that our minds can hardly conceive. It took almost three billion years of one-celled organisms flourishing in Earth’s oceans for the first multi-celled organisms to appear. Worlds die on scales less grand, but often just as inconceivable because their dying begins unnoticed—and because we are keen to dismiss the rumors of their impending death.

But “keenness” cannot confer capacity. And whatever capacity we once had—perhaps just decades ago—to avert this dying, has been forfeited in exchange for continued ROI (return on investment) and for extended “ease and convenience.” And now the dying is a done deal. The details left to be negotiated concern the scope, the devastating breadth and depth of death, and the speed, whether a few decades or a few generations. But the continuity of our “civilization”? That’s off the table.

The goodness in Grief is that it is the only bargaining chip we have of any value. Its value is to birth empathy, to rekindle kinship, to cultivate kindness and compassion, to convene community, and, if possible, to carry humanity from one side of the chasm to the other. Floating, as it were, on our tears.

We will need a river of them. And—we will need to let go of this shore in order to cross. So, this is my invitation: meet me in the river. Let’s cross together.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.