To Dwell on Our Dreams

This is reposted from the Dark Mountain blog

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I was having one of those long fuggy dreams that you can only recall by a sense of being stuck somewhere that isn’t home. It was somewhere like India. Before waking, becoming more lucid, a deliriously beautiful scene unfolded. A huge shiny muscled man in pink robes and feathers appeared floating upwards into the sky. People beside me said he is just a balloon. But I could see by his eyes that he was living, and he started to beckon with his hand. In front of us, what had been a towering cityscape became a glittering verdant mountain, trees rising up from the concrete. Then this whole mountain lifted up to his beckoning and became a spaceship, symmetrical in form, green underneath too and incredibly entangled. Iridescent green beetles emerged from the surface and pulled it gracefully up. I did not dare look at what was left behind on the earth.

My dreaming brain switched from seer to interpreter. We are losing our green mountains, I thought. This god had become incarnate to show that nature was always in itself arising, but also that we were losing it, left with wastelands. I saw that this floating god had a monkey face, and it was this which woke me up as I grasped at my memory of the Ramayana.

In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman, the monkey god leaps off to the Himalayas to find a magic herb to save Lakshman, so badly wounded in battle he might die before sunrise. Hanuman can’t find the herb quickly so he lifts the entire mountain and carries it back like a waiter bearing a tray. This was a necessary sacrifice.

Then, as I came more into daylight thoughts, I recalled that China is removing seven hundred mountains, filling the valleys with the rock, to make more space for cities. This sounds like an incredible fable of human hubris, but it turns out to be a fact. Humans have really become like giant ape gods, able to lift mountains. I then remembered how India, now under its new presidency of Narendra Modi, is at an energy turning point where it intends to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020 – mainly through solar renewables – but is also ramping up coal production. Modi is signing off clearance of more forests and mountain tops and India is still walking the path of hot coals. In the Ramayana, Sita carried out a fire test set by Rama to prove her loyalty to him. She emerged unharmed from the fire path, as the flames transformed into flowers as she walked. Like this, the conversion of fossil residues into money, allowing countries to modernise and ultimately tackle climate change, is a simple story that most leaders seem to believe. For example, Australia, Canada and UK are exploiting fossil fuels as hard as they can, thinking they can put the brakes on later to fulfil their legal targets of reduction. But it isn’t a simple story with a good ending. There are externalities and repercussions of emitting carbon, and more impacts to come that we cannot easily foretell. Coal is the dirtiest fuel, and its contribution to CO2 load will cause climate change for centuries.

All this intense dreaming must be because my brain has been recovering after Weatherfronts, a two day course for writers and climate researchers, organised by Tipping Point. It aimed to connect writers with scientists, to explore how we could write about climate in ways that might be true, effective, emotional, aesthetic and authentic. One of the central questions was ‘what kind of story is climate change?’ This was asked by one of the main facilitators, Dr Joe Smith of the OU, who has been awarded AHRC funding for a project called Stories of Change. He proposed that the climate story has been dominated by the ‘truth war’ over whether it is real, manmade and happening, and that it must now progress to stories about the future, with more positive solutions and human responses. This is a refreshing response to the often-heard call for new kinds of stories, in pointing out what we need new kinds of stories to do.

The course ended with a launch of the book Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, which extends these questions. I especially liked a piece by its co-editor Renata Tyszczuk, who categorises many types of cautionary tales about climate, but comes at the end to recommend ‘precautionary tales’. She writes that “a precautionary approach…suggests an experimental and transformative attitude to history, one which involves being mindful of the risks we are taking now, in taking care of the future…Precautionary tales invite us to worry not so much about foresight or prognostics – there is no telling what the future holds or where it will end. Instead, these tales might work with an imagination of the future based on an ethics of care rather than solely on the technical management of the challenge of the predicted risks…”

The fundamental ethics of care do not need to be invented. They can be found in the oldest stories. But these ethics do need to be retold, or inserted generously and systematically into new stories that anticipate how we might live in future, both in mitigation of and adaptation to change. But how can we achieve this? A more ecologically conscious ethics of care will not emerge just through more arty-science, more science-y art, or more moralising.

The human ecologist Alastair McIntosh would tell us we need a more profound shift, that we need to cultivate spiritual perception and go deeper than the normal level of consciousness. I witnessed one of his ‘sermons’ at the recent Carrying the Fire, a Dark Mountain gathering in Scotland. This was the morning after we had tramped to a shoulder of Tinto mountain to lay a Life Cairn, one stone laid by each to honour an extinct species. On Sunday morning, Alastair stepped down the aisle of our congregation, one foot in the mythopoetic realm, the other in the logical realm, reminding us that we walk the silver faerie path. He exhorted us to integrate the mythos and logos in ways that do not let the logical mind spoil the enchantment of the mythical.

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Image: Life cairn on Tinto mountain at Carrying the Fire

This is a difficult practice for me to embrace, having been reared an atheist and educated to deconstruct all literature, to be ever alert to its hegemonic snares. I grew up knowing that myths, especially the ones concreted into religions, are fabrications, however delightful or useful. I once scandalised a teacher by explaining that Jesus was just a man. I think many of us are the same even if not so atheistically trained. It is true that at times, when the time is right, we might emerge from story-charms and dreams with a new capacity for making sense of and imagining better ways. But usually the time is not right. We are all too clever for our own good. We wake up and sweep away the story webs. We are too busy to dwell on our dreams.

So, for a moment back to my dream of India. According to Vedic scriptures, we are at the end of the 5,000 year long Kali Yuga, the last of four eras. Kali Yuga is the dark Age of Iron. This is also an age of coal which was first used mainly for forging iron to make weapons and armour, at first in China then spreading Westwards. The Kali Yuga is a time of increasing patriarchy, rape, migrations, loss of wisdom and conflict. At the end of this Yuga, rain will cease, crops fail, people starve and retreat to the remaining forests and mountains. The sacred rivers, especially Ganga, will dry up and become polluted. Now, in reality, the Tibetan glaciers feeding India’s northern rivers are retreating faster than other glaciers in the world. Also, the sacred rivers are so polluted that their people are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the world. The belief is, though, that a more just and harmonious Yuga is soon to come.

I don’t suggest the story of the four Yugas is literally true. There are some blazing ‘errors’. For example, in the telling of the three Yugas before ours, humans were giants and lived for thousands of years, the earlier the Yuga the bigger they were and longer they lived. These stories were written long before the excavatory kind of science that exposed our ancestors’ remains. Perhaps it was always obvious to all listeners that the previous Yugas could not be known, so they were turned into a mathematical metaphor, a kind of mandala of expanding time and scale into deep past. I’m talking about the Yugas because they are an example of how mythical thinking can generate profound truths through the knowing use of metaphor. In the same way, I don’t know what my green mountain dream really means, but I know what it made me feel and think about.

Many indigenous cultures have a version of the Kali Yuga. The American Hopi, as in the Vedas, believe that we are at the end of the fourth age and entering into the Fifth World. Their predictions have been linked to interpreting the atomic explosions (a gourd of ashes falling from the sky), the internet (a global spider’s web), and a “spiritual conflict”. It is no great surprise that the Hopi way of life is primarily threatened by the fossil fuel industries, through appropriation of land, pollution, diversion of water and climate change. What is unfolding now has been foretold by many, not just by these two cultural groups, but these predictions are dismissed by media commentators as nonsense.

‘Look’, they say, ‘those primitive people predicted the apocalypse but they were wrong because  it hasn’t happened yet and we’re still here’. This is a denial, despite unprecedented access to the facts, of what is happening already. Many people whose worlds are in fact ending are not heard, are unable to speak or are all already gone. These are the peoples who must abandon their lands or villages due to loss of infrastructure and the influx of terror. These are also all the non-human species that are ‘endlings’ in this age of extinction. We must also take into account the losses of settled cultures and species still to come in this century.

At the Weatherfronts course, the diplomat John Ashton insisted that “Climate change isn’t about science, environment, economics. It is all these but it is really about the theft of our voice.” So perhaps our question should be not so much ‘what kind of story is climate change?’ but ‘who is speaking and are they heard’? Are these hearings leading to greater conviction, to a deepening of love? Are they helping more people learn to be affected?

The familiar argument of spiritual ecologists is that we must regain the enchantment of mythos over the argument-winning power of logos. I think this is right, but it needs to work. The challenge is to dramatically ramp up people’s ability to think with passionate immersion.

Traditionally, when the Ramayana story is told in India and beyond, work stops for several days – a festival of performance and reflection takes over. Maybe we can learn from this to give more space for stories. This would honour stories more – providing more aids to enchantment, more ritual, more effective injunctions to ‘listen’, more respect for the witnesses and tellers. Also, more synthesis of meaning and less fragmentation of stories into shareable media-atoms. Moreover, there needs to be more space around stories for others to take over the story, to satirise it or to tell their own. There needs to be more space for enquiry in response to art and stories, to explore ‘what if?’ and ‘what next?’ Charlie Kronick from Greenpeace has suggested that the biggest opportunities for storytelling now are not so much transformation through catharsis but through disruption and satire. I think we need more catharsis and enchantment, not less, but this alongside more interpretation, more support for those who need to be heard and then more political action. We need to dwell on our dreams but this so that we can wake up from a worsening nightmare.

Gurgaon summer camp Ramayana to crop

Flow India summer camp in Gurgaon, 2013, creative responses to the Ramayana

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