Is this destructive path inexorable?

Posted December 13th, 2010 in Blog, Featured 3 Comments »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

Can we stop ourselves? Or is some inexorable force at work that must go to its end before we wake up and change course?

I struggle with this question every day now. What’s going on in Washington DC is for me emblematic of a society that has no will to pull back from a way of life, an economy, that is headed towards disaster.

I wish I could see things differently.

Talgo 350 - Photo: Peter Christener

Here in Wisconsin, the new Republican majority, not yet in office, is already determining the limits of our future in this state. Governor-elect Scott Walker seems to have no program other than lowering taxes, gutting government services (along with the workforce that delivers them), and setting the business sector free. One consequence has been refusal to accept $810 million in federal money to construct high-speed rail from Chicago, through Milwaukee and Madison, to Minneapolis, part of a federal program to begin connecting US cities with efficient rail. My state has opted out of this program. Breathtaking ignorance! One result, the Spanish company Talgo which builds high-speed rail cars and built a factory here in Milwaukee in anticipation of lots of business, will pull out of here in 2012 taking the good jobs with them.

Folks knew he was going to do this but voted him into office anyway. They will be shocked to discover what they actually voted for.  Lower taxes sounds so great until you realize that one of the reasons you will be paying lower taxes is that your income is about to plummet. More and more companies here are responding to the new business-friendly atmosphere in my state by laying off permanent workers and creating 2-tier salary structures that tend to cut wages in half for new and/or temporary workers, the term for this being ‘labor market flexibility.’ The new Republican legislature is also bent on easing pollution regulations just about everywhere they exist.

Here’s a story that really caught my attention this weekend:

Along a Course of Purling Rivers, a Raw Divide

Blackfoot River - Photo courtesy of Big Sky Fishing.Com

Maybe because it was not that long ago that I drove through this magnificent countryside of Montana and Idaho, this particular story of ecological threat was so hard to take in. Because we have sold our souls to oil, no  matter what, because we have linked our economic lifestyles to the exploitation of oil tar sands in Alberta, we are about to further undermine, and perhaps this time destroy, another gift of life and beauty from this planet – the river made famous in Robert Redford’s gorgeous film, A River Runs Through It, one of my all-time favorites. Has the earth ever been so loved in a commercial film, ever been made so vivid and heart-breakingly beautiful, than in this film?

The reporter writes of the Blackfoot River valley:

“…wading into or floating on dark, purling mountain rivers is reverently held, and the waters here are cathedrals for fly fishermen. As the opening line in ‘A River Runs Through It’ says, “’In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.’”

And this is what is about to happen to it:

“The loads will defile the Blackfoot,” Ms. Smith said. The road through the Blackfoot Valley “will be a road to the worst, instead of a sacred highway through what is beautiful and natural.”

The loads are the massive trucks that will roll along Montana Highway 200, the only accessible truck route available to Canada’s Exxon Mobil subsidiary, Imperial Oil, “to move its oversize oil-processing equipment from a port in Idaho to Canada, along a path that includes some of the nation’s most scenic highways.”

Nature writer Annick Smith, by the way, has lived in a log cabin in the valley since 1973. Now we are about to ruin this “Scenic Byway” to facilitate the processing of oil from Alberta tar sands that are perhaps the most destructive ecological project anywhere on the planet.

Purling. It’s a lovely word, meaning soft, meandering, the gentle murmur of a stream. How in the world does a purling river stand up to this:

The equipment to be transported, which dwarfs regular semi-loads, is wider than the two-lane roads on which it will be hauled. It requires large pullouts, where vehicles can park when they are idle, as well as the movement of power lines and times when both lanes will be blocked.

Two other companies have also said they want to move oversize equipment along the same route, and there could be many more.

It can’t. Not only will it be overwhelmed, but we humans will once again be robbed of a right to be the recipients of this gentle murmuring, to hear and touch and see and smell this precious gift in its pristine beauty.

Beauty is what is being stolen from us – by us. And the more urbanized and commodified and technologized we become, I’m afraid, the less connected we are to the loss, the less we are in touch with the loss – in body and spirit and conscience – losses that cannot be recovered once this much damage is done.

So I come to this question again. Can we stop ourselves? I don’t see it. It feels inexorable. If that is true, than we humans are a tragic species indeed. We have replaced our experience of being part of a living planet with toys and gadgets and creature comforts and aspirations for these things (aspirations that now encompass most of the human world). In order to have those creature comforts, we must wreck the planet (so sorry, planet).  You and I know that if we aspired to be part of nature by living simply and respectfully and sustainably, we could have our needs met and still salvage much of the natural wonder of our planet. But listen to the global discourse. Listen to our national discourse. Do you hear anyone really arguing for this?

We have just elected into office all around the U.S.  some of the most nature-hostile politicians in the country. Good luck to all of us!

So, back to my headline – is this destructive path inevitable? Is the human spirit so adapted now to capitalist growth economies that it will sacrifice the source of life and beauty that gives rise to poetry and art, religion and culture, critical thought and the kind of simplicity that frees the senses to enjoy life fully?

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Humans have struggled through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to come to some sense of awareness of ourselves as embedded in nature and part of this amazing story of earth, its vibrancy and exuberance. What was that struggle for? Really, what was/is it for?

The only possible energy that can change what seems inevitable is an energy that gives up this economic/consumer way of life.  There is no other path I can see but that one. It will only emerge if we are willing to bring about a far more fundamental change in our way of being than most of us have imagined thus far, or been willing to accept.

Unless we think we can sacrifice purling rivers, Appalachian Mountaintops, wetlands and forests, rivers and streams, millions of species – and still be human at all.


From the book by Norman Maclean:

I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river…

On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us…

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.


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3 Responses

  1. hombredelatierra

    Hi Margaret,

    You recently coined the term “climate chaos” on a comment I made. It is, in fact, chaos that will eventually change hearts, and minds and souls. I see no other way. The primordial “death / rebirth” archetype appears to be at work here: descent into chaos / death / followed by rebirth (if lucky!) That’s where we are at, collectively, as a planet.

    Years ago I began referring to our contemporary collective planetary experience as “PNDE” for “Planetary Near Death Experience”, modelling it on the reports of NDE resulting from medical emergencies (clinical death on the operating table, severe auto accidents..). I drew a strong parallel (homology, analogy) between the current period of planetary trial, testing or transition and rites of shamanic initiation, the main difference being that the former is a collective and the latter an individual “rite of passage”:

    1- Initiatory sickness: everythings goes wrong and gets worse and worse

    2- Initiatory death: often presented as “travelling down a tunnel of light”

    3- Descent into the Underworld (hell) / confrontation with “demoniac” forces / dismemberment: this is the stage – more or less – our planet’s ecosystems and social systems are at now at. This stage is sometimes referred to as the Initiatory Trial, Ordeal or Challenge.

    4- Rebirth / Regeneration: If this ordeal is successfully endured by the aspirant shaman, he is “re-membered” – put back together – in a regenerated body. The neo-shaman has the powers of his trade confered on him.

    5- A final stage, Re-integration into the society of men completes the initiatory trial or voyage

    Et voilà, nous y sommes! That’s what we’re into.. I guess : )

    PS I was really impressed by some of your recent words about discovering the real values of life and living them with passion. I’ve been sharing these thoughts with friends as meditations fit for the Christmas / Solstice season. Thanks!

    Ecologically, Frank ; )

  2. Steven Earl Salmony

    Dear Margaret,

    NO, definitely no. Human beings are capable of making choices. Perhaps the first choice we can freely make is to speak out loudly, clearly and often, as you Frank and so many others are doing.

    As things now stand, everything, literally everything in the natural world that we are supposed to be nurturing, is being destroyed. Not only is the environment being irreversibly degraded, Earth’s body is being recklessly dissipated, its biodiversity massively extirpated, and our children’s birthright to a good enough future on Earth is being threatened.

    Silence is humankind’s mortal enemy as well as an arch enemy of so much of what is alive in the planetary home we are blessed to inhabit. While this pernicious silence prevails, the most colossal, beyond the pale, global wreckage is being perpetrated.

    Thanks for speaking out.



  3. Steven Earl Salmony

    The human-induced global predicament that looms before the human family today has been allowed to rampantly grow in my lifetime from a challenge that was manageable to a leviathan of a much more forbidding size. With every passing day, the worldwide challenges resulting from, and driven by, the overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities of the human species become larger, more formidable and much more difficult to address and overcome. The demand characteristics of this unprecedented situation appear to require the active involvement of “all hands on deck”. We have to stop denying what is visible to naked eyes as well as ignoring that which we need to confront, and immediately begin changing the ‘trajectory’ of the predominant civilization from what is soon to become patently unsustainable to an alternate path marked by sustainable lifestyles and right-sized human enterprises.