Fire and smoke – more signs of the times

Posted July 10th, 2015 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Fire and smoke – more signs of the times

It’s an old phrase that goes back a long ways – “reading the signs of the times.” It appeals to an old biblical concept and was used often in the liberation struggles of last century in Latin America, part of the “see-judge-act” form of social analysis and faith reflection.  Grassroots communities would come together to “read” those signs – social, economic, political, cultural – to help them understand and interpret their circumstances, what brought them about, where power lies, the dynamics of their particular context, and from that determine action, strategies, or how to move together as communities in the direction of liberation and justice.

It is an excellent model, a useful tool, one that has gotten lost for the most part in the work of social change in this country. A lot of that work has become reactive and issue-oriented, also fragmented or “siloed.” It protests and takes action. Every now and then it hits a resonant chord that breaks through the consciousness of the society, but then dissipates once more because the cultural fog or the noise of the culture once again absorbs it.

Real change does not come from addressing an issue and then taking an action  (though this is sometimes necessary to keep the worst from happening, what Joanna Macy refers to as “holding actions”); it comes from understanding the dynamics of power and culture, and then creating movements, cultures, and communities that challenge those dynamics, power structures, hierarchies, and paradigms that are destructive, while at the same creating new alternative ways of life and struggle. Creative witness then emerges from this collective wisdom, a wisdom that comes from a perceptive, intuitive, insightful reading of the signs of the times. Think Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the lunch counter sit-ins, Bree Newsome.

micats bannerThink last year’s climate march in New York or the work targeting Monsanto and GMOs or the campaign to divest from fossil fuels. Or think MICATs activists who have engaged a direct action campaign against the Canadian pipeline company, Enbridge, after the oil spill disaster near Marshall, Michigan, on July 26, 2010, which resulted in a million gallons of tar sands dilbit flowing into the Kalamazoo River. These actions have had an impact because they are strategic, well thought out, creative, striking the culture at the perfect moment (again, think Bree Newsome) when everyone “gets it,” and the witness moves us into a new conversation, a new cultural moment. It doesn’t end the work – these actions never do that – they show us the work that needs to be done.

Even more, they show us what’s wrong with how we are living, with how society is organized. They reveal us to ourselves. In their best expressions, they also suggest directions for the work of new creation.

washington wildfireI think it’s time to put this reflection model back to work in the new context that frames the future of everything now – the signs of the times revealing to us that the ecosystems of the Earth are breaking down, the signs that are showing us that the long-predicted impacts of global warming are happening more quickly and earlier than once believed, the signs that tell us why this is happening, the signs that indicate – well, shout at us really, because we haven’t wanted to listen – that we are in deep trouble and that the only way to respond to that is to, well, respond to that – and to do it in a way commensurate with the crisis, as radical and profound, at the scale and urgency of the crisis itself.

Is facing this crisis merely terrifying, or does it spark in us the fierce desire and passion to use our best creative talents, genius, gifts, skills to re-create human life on this planet? How we answer that question will make all the difference in the kind of world we create out of the crisis.

We are getting a harsh lesson in our interconnectedness within the whole of Gaia, which means we are in a profound “teachable” moment. It is a lovely romantic notion, Gaia – that we are embedded within the embrace of Mother Earth, part of her web of life. But this same planet has a violent, tumultuous history. Even its life-giving energies, its evolutionary impulses, are often the outcome of profound upheavals, previous great extinction events, catastrophes that destroy civilizations, explosions and climate disruptions, shattering quakes, floods, fires – many of which have been essential ingredients of the evolution of life.

Aceh, Indonesia, after the Dec 26 2014 tsunami

Aceh, Indonesia, after the Dec 26 2014 tsunami

To think it is at all different now, that, because we mighty humans are here and have built factories and satellite technologies and powerful war-making machines, the planet is no longer subject to these upheavals, that we are at the end of a history that has now settled into a permanent stability – well, this hasn’t even been true in the brief history that humans have been around at all! Think previous ice ages, for example, or what happened in the wake of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption of 1883, or the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004. Not only has the Earth not settled down, it continues doing what it does to evolve. It throws off one era of life for another, and it has done that over and over again in the few billion years since this ball got rolling.

It is a dynamic planet, complex, volatile, as well as life-bearing and “useful.”

Since the age of rationalism and enlightenment (we ought to probably stop calling it that now because it no longer seems an apt description for the era – perhaps the Age of Human Hubris would fit better), we believed we could control the dynamic energies of the planet. Silly us!! Just look now at what we have done!! We have messed with those dynamic energies, unbalanced them to such an extent that we have put ourselves in extreme danger. Did we really think the Earth would not respond to all that added carbon in the atmosphere, all that toxic contamination, all that habitat loss, all that mining and wasting and “throwing away” (one of the great misnomers of our times because nothing is ever thrown away, only moved from here to there), all that fracking and breaking up and stripping and paving over and building up?


Now, here’s the fire that burns in balance. I know, let’s pour new fuel on it – oh, see the enhanced energy now and the more we can do with it! – so let’s pour on some more fuel, and the fires grow bigger and they fuel more development and allow us to produce more stuff faster and more efficiently, so we go get more fuel to burn for more energy to make more stuff and grow more cities and might, and, hey, this is great, so let’s pour more fuel and make a still bigger fire – and then one day it gets out of control and the fire goes crazy and it starts consuming everything.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory Image of the Day

Source: NASA Earth Observatory Image of the Day

Feels a bit like that this summer, doesn’t it? Because huge swaths of forest across the northern hemisphere are in flames, burning up in super-fires, smoke descending as a toxic blanket over Alaska, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Washington State, then flowing in a “river of smoke” (NASA’s term) over the Midwest, along Colorado’s front range, and all the way to the northeast of the United States.

This was predicted years ago: if we didn’t immediately start cutting carbon emissions drastically, one impact would be the death of forests, drought, insect infestations, and fires – big fires, super-fires raging out of control.

Here before us in dramatic fashion this summer are these signs of the times – fire and smoke telling us something awful is befalling our planet – because we didn’t heed the earlier signs of the times, the science that told us this would happen.

From the Washington Post, July 8:

There are over 350 wildfires burning in Canada this week, 45 of which have just been ignited in the past 24 hours. Most of the fires stretch from northern British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Over 8,000 square miles of land in Canada has burned so far this year, as a result of more than 4,600 wildfires.

I don’t know, I find that last number stunning… It will not be reported as a lead story on any TV news program. That ought to make us mad. Instead, it keeps us happy, ignorant, complacent. No one is telling us that we have to do anything that would disrupt our lives too much, as we breathe in the smoke from the fires of the world we have made.

This summer I am reading the signs of the times in the smoke and fires of our continent. There are fires other places, a huge one in Indonesia’s Tesso Nilo National Park. I am reading the signs of the times in the thousands of people who died miserable deaths in the record heat waves in India and Pakistan, and the record-shattering temperatures in Europe last week. I am reading the signs in the record floods from the spring and summer rains in the south and central U.S. that come now several inches to a foot or more at time. I am reading them in the throes of climate science denialism on the part of those who will burn life on the planet to death rather than sacrifice corporate profits. I’m reading them in the new revelations that, just like the tobacco companies, corporations like ExxonMobil have known all along that their product would cause climate disrupting warming and then went on to fund climate change denialism anyway.

What those signs are telling me is that we have no choice but to starting developing communities of new creation, new cultures, new networks of solidarity, friendship, shared knowledge, shared wisdom – non-hierarchical, self-sacrificing, prepared for the “great renunciation” related to lifestyles and consumerism – cultures of creativity and joy because what we are working on is the most important thing humans can be doing right now and nothing could be more satisfying.

Those fires are going to keep burning all summer long. There is no escaping this reality. But we can decide to learn from this – what we are a part of, what we have done, what we need to do – together – to create a new reality on a different planet. We have to stop throwing more fuel on the fires of this industrial era. We have to start learning to live with one another in a cherished project of survival, renewal, regeneration, and mutual healing.

This will require a great stripping-away. But we are already on the way to being stripped of all we knew of life here and what we thought our place to be. We can be victims of a far harsher stripping-away, or we can choose another path, one that can take a whole lot of the harshness out of this planetary upheaval that is now underway.

Margaret Swedish

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