I have been to three events in recent weeks that seemed to me to reflect the sense of loss I’m feeling in this post-Brexit, post-US-election, post-sabbatical world.
The first was a local gathering to show solidarity with the protectors at Standing Rock. I’m against unconventional oil extraction and the infrastructure that makes that oil accessible. If we are to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 Celcius, we need to keep most of the known reserves of oil in the ground, let alone develop new sources. There are all sorts of other reasons to oppose pipelines like Dakota Access, carrying tar-sands bitumen thinned down in a cocktail of dangerous solvents across wilderness, under the Missouri, etc. The risks to life from inevitable leaks are just too great. Anyway – about 100 people gathered in Brighton in the rain to express our solidarity, and it was a very moving and spiritual time.
The second event had a similar theme, but closer to home. It was a picnic on Leith Hill, the highest point in southern England, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the proposed site of an exploratory oil drill. Most of the Surrey/Sussex Weald has been carved up for oil and gas extraction licences. Some drills have already gone ahead, but Leith Hill has become a major focus for protest. It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the North Downs countryside, heavily wooded, where vehicle access is along narrow ancient sunken roads with mature trees growing out of steep banks. The thought is that if they can drill for oil here, nowhere is safe. (It would be fracking if the Government hadn’t changed the legal definition of fracking). I grew up not far from here and often came to Leith Hill on walks or cycle rides and so I admit to a sense of sentimental attachment – I don’t want this beautiful woodland and farmland ripped up to make way for concrete pads for heavy industrial equipment or the roads widened and new roads put down for heavy trucks to access the concrete pads. I particularly don’t want that destruction to be for the sake of oil that, if we burn it, will contribute to all this dying anyway, while some rich people get richer as a result.
The third event was more explicitly about loss. November 30th was a day of remembrance for lost species, with events held all over the world to mark and mourn this 6th great extinction event (and the first in human history) in which we are living. In Brighton, we processed through the town with a model of a Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), made in the form of a Chinese dragon. The last Thylacine died in 1937. On the beach, we gathered around the Thylacine. We named some species that have become extinct, and others at risk of extinction. We also named people, plants and animals, for whom we are thankful – including the environmental protectors at Standing Rock and Leith Hill. Then we cremated our Thylacine. It was, again, a very moving and spiritual occasion.
I think I live in a death-denying culture. At many funerals now, people are encouraged not to wear black, and the mood is often one celebrating a life rather than mourning a passing. In some ways, that’s a good thing, but it leaves a great truth unexpressed – that I have lost someone I love deeply, that they are no longer here, that the manner of their passing may have been cruel, painful and undignified and this gaping loss has ripped my world apart. It feels as if acknowledging this is a heresy against the Myth Of Progress that underpins the modern worldview. But, sometimes the darkness needs to be cursed, even if at the same time you light a candle.
I think we need to name and curse the darkness. We need to own up to the loss we feel as the world changes. Grief will come out some way or other and maybe that is one way of explaining, at the wide level of society, the anger that has been expressed in the ballot boxes this year in the UK, USA and elsewhere.
In particular, I think it is important that we name and mourn the evil that is the extinction of so many species of animal and plant. This autumn’s report issued by Zoological Society of London and the World-Wide Fund for Nature estimated that the world has lost 58% of wildlife since 1970. Much of this is attributed to human activity, just as global warming and climate change are. I am angry about the destruction of the rain forest in Borneo, epitomised in the sad faces of orphaned Orang-utans, all for the sake of palm oil. I am angry about the destruction being wrought on earth through pollution, intensive farming and the burning of oil. This is not progress – unless you only look at selective stories of human well-being. Otherwise, it is a bloody mess.
Maybe, if we can find ways of expressing grief for destruction and injustice, and find ways of supporting each other in that grief – not to deepen the vortex but to uncover sources of love and courage between us – some creative, caring action will emerge. I wonder if action that doesn’t emerge from love discovered in the darkness will simply be angry, shallow and ineffective.
One of the things that struck me in all three of the events I’ve described, was a sense of unity, which was sometimes articulated. It echoed in an article by Charles Eisenstein about Standing Rock, in which he essentially said, how you play is what you win. If our protests and our action are expressed in the binary us-and-them terms that have caused the problems in the first place, then further division and destruction will be the result. What I hope for is a world of kindness, grace and peace between all beings. If I try to work towards that in a framework of thinking that sees oil executives or farmers as my enemies, I won’t build peace. I might, just possibly (because the powerful are powerful) win an occasional battle, but I won’t win the peaceful, loving world I long for. War doesn’t make peace. Peace makes peace and love makes love.
It’s all starting to sound sentimental, but then I think of the Christmas story and, despite the best efforts of the cards and carols and nativity plays, there’s little in the life of Christ that was sentimental, from his humble birth to his execution, but there’s so much about love: love in action (non-violent direct action, if you like) that is good news to the poor, that heals division and embodies hope of new life for all the earth.