Post scriptum (2022, week 30–31) — Summer edition #2

“We believe that in using modern structural solutions and techniques, mapped against the historical records, that we’ve managed to pare the shrine back to its original form, to show it as it should be shown.” — ABOUT, a Japanese architecture firm led by Tadahiro Butsugan, has renovated a building that forms part of the Mekari Shrine (和布刈神社) in Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture (Photograph by Takumi Ota).

Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

Planetary homeostasis

“If the planet is considered a singular organism that functions through the corrective feedback loops of a complex ecosystem to maintain homeostasis, its capacity to keep that balance has been disrupted by the carbon exhaust of collective human endeavor over the most recent century,” Nathan Gardels writes in Planetary Homeostasis.

“To depart from this path and survive, humanity’s best hope is to extend its evolutionarily learned survival instinct to the timescale and scope of the planetary organism through aligning our technological prowess with natural resilience, instead of against it. That will require mimicking the adaptive circuitry that fosters equilibrium in natural systems through the very kind of planetary computation that modeled our understanding of climate change in the first place.

Paradoxically, it is the advances of our civilization, which destabilized the biosphere, that may be the only means to restore whole-Earth homeostasis.”

“As Carl Jung posited with respect to the psyche, our accelerated evolution into the modern industrial era and beyond has not displaced archaic dispositions still harbored from 2 million years ago. They remain as deeply seated as they are dangerously inapt for the future headed our way. The human brain, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has noted, was not built to understand slow, cumulative processes like ecological change. Anciently ingrained instinct simply does not register what looms in the long term,” Nathan Gardels argues in Planetary Homeostasis. (Illustration: Itziar Barrios for Noēma Magazine)

“Writing in Noēma, Benjamin Bratton puts the challenge this way: ‘Instead of reviving ideas of nature, we must reclaim the artificial — not fake, but designed. For this, human-machine intelligence and urban-scale automation become part of an expanded landscape of life, information and labor. They are part of a living ecology, not a substitute for one. Put more specifically: The response to anthropogenic climate change will need to be equally anthropogenic.’

The French philosopher Bruno Latour has called this approach Gaia 2.0 after the concept put forward by James Lovelock [who recently died] and Lynn Margulis that all ‘living things are part of a planetary-scale self-regulating system that has maintained habitable conditions for the past 3.5 billion years.’ […]

‘Gaia has operated without foresight or planning on the part of organisms,’ Latour wrote in [Science] with the scientist Tim Lenton, ‘but the evolution of humans and their technology are changing that. Earth has now entered a new epoch called the Anthropocene, and humans are beginning to become aware of the global consequences of their actions. As a result, deliberate self-regulation — from personal action to global geoengineering schemes — is either happening or imminently possible. Making such conscious choices to operate within Gaia constitutes a fundamental new state of Gaia, which we call Gaia 2.0. By emphasizing the agency of life-forms and their ability to set goals, Gaia 2.0 may be an effective framework for fostering global sustainability.’

What Latour has in mind is replicating the function of natural systems through infrastructure that ranges from planet-spanning sensors that warn of necessary adjustments in human behavior to the ubiquitous diffusion of solar panels that harvest sunlight as the main source of energy,” Gardel writes.

“For biologists exploring the conditions and contexts of life beyond Earth, the planetary whole constructed by these images was fertile ground for theory and experiment. Take James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia theory, which articulated the idea of Earth as a self-regulating organism,” Claire Webb writes in Worlds Beyond Ours. (Photograph by Alice Zoo for Noēma Magazine)

“The chief obstacles to realizing Gaia 2.0 are the adverse feedback signals of today’s consumer democracies. The media, the market and politics are all geared toward immediate gratification, reinforcing the short Paleolithic threat horizon. What may appear sane at the retail level adds up to wholesale madness in the face of the climate challenge.

If we do manage to transcend the Paleolithic mindset, not to speak of the even deeper reptilian impulses of our long evolutionary past, there is a chance of reaching what Bratton calls ‘general sapience.’

As he frames it, only by ‘conjoining human and nonhuman cognition’ in a way that imports what we know of the future into the present can evolution get back on the path to planetary homeostasis.”

Earth emotions

“In moments of collective distress, people have tried to name the pain that comes from the disruption of home: a complex set of feelings that includes longing, love, grief, existential angst, and even a lurking sense of dread. Loss of home can evoke the pain of dispossession, profound cultural and personal disorientation, and righteous anger, all of which can haunt a society for generations,” Madeline Ostrander writes in The Era of Climate Change Has Created a New Emotion.

In 1688, the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer gave a scientific name to the pain of home loss that he had witnessed throughout his life: nostalgia (from the Greek nosos or nostos, return to the native land, and algos, suffering or grief). “To Hofer, nostalgia was also a medical condition whose symptoms included fever, nausea, sleep disturbance, fatigue, and respiratory problems, along with ‘palpitations of the heart, frequent sighs, also stupidity of the mind.’ Untreated, it could be fatal, and there were documented deaths among Swiss soldiers attributed to this malady,” Ostrander explains.

“In the 20th century, the meaning of nostalgia became more detached from home; instead, it signified a longing for the real or imagined comforts of the past.

But in discarding the original notion of nostalgia, Ostrander argues, “we may have underestimated the impact that place and home have on the human body and our ability to navigate our lives. Having a home is part of human well-being; when home is disrupted, it can make us literally sick. It is a kind of trauma. The social psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove has described the pain felt by displaced communities — especially Black communities uprooted because of gentrification, discrimination, and urban development — as ‘root shock,’ or ‘the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem.’

In an era of climate crisis, we will have to reckon with new complexities in our relationships to home, and even more people will experience the shock of being uprooted. In the long run, if we fail to address the crisis, hardly any safe refuge will be left.

Like Hofer, [the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht] thought it would be useful to name the experience of watching one’s home environment unravel. [He] came up with the word solastalgia, using the suffix -algia, meaning ‘pain,’ and the same Latin root in the words solace, console, and desolation. In Latin, solacium means ‘comfort,’ and desolare, ‘to leave alone,’ so the word solastalgia suggested the loss of comfort, the loneliness of being estranged from home.”

“In the 20th century, the meaning of nostalgia became more detached from home; instead, it signified a longing for the real or imagined comforts of the past,” Madeline Ostrander writes in The Era of Climate Change Has Created a New Emotion. (Illustration by Katie Martin for The Atlantic)

Albrecht’s neologism offers “a useful means of describing and studying how the impacts of climate change reach beyond tangible, physical, and economic damages. A team of social scientists identified feelings of solastalgia among people from rural northern Ghana, a region devastated by climate change–related drought and crop failure. A collaboration of environmental scientists and public-health researchers observed solastalgia in communities affected by hurricanes and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. A Los Angeles physician named David Eisenman stumbled across the idea of solastalgia when interviewing survivors of the 2011 Wallow Fire, the largest wildfire on record in Arizona. Over and over, he heard them express ‘the sense that they were grieving [for the landscape] like for a loved one.’ He and his team found that the more uneasy they felt about the landscape itself, the more at risk they were for other kinds of psychological distress.

Writers, artists, and scholars are now talking more openly about the emotions of the climate crisis. We have even more ways to name the experiences of people living through mega-disasters and the slow attrition of beloved places — including climate grief, ecological grief, and environmental melancholia. In a 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association, more than two-thirds of American adults said they’d experienced ‘eco-anxiety.’ We are moving into an era defined by homesickness.”

Falling silent

“Nature’s silence is felt not as an absence, a lack of communication, but as a powerful summons on the part of the natural world, a demand for attention to be paid. Obeying this command means shifting to a different kind of attention. This shift is what we call ‘falling silent.’ We descend — really, we deepen — into a profound attention from which something can come to meet us. In this state, we can be touched by the intense aliveness and presence of the natural world and its creatures, among which are we ourselves,” Shierry Weber Nicholsen writes in Falling Silent, a excerpt from her book The Love of Nature and the End of the World.

Laurens van der Post, in his book The Voice of the Thunder, tells about a time when he and his companions entered Hokkaido in a storm and went into a restaurant for warmth. Suddenly, from the corner of the room behind him, he writes,

‘a bird began to sing, and it sang with such beauty and such clarity and such authority that the whole room went silent. I have never heard a bird song more beautiful. Both my friend and I were almost at once in tears . . . I do not know for how long the bird sang, but the silence was un- broken. Not a teaspoon made a glass or cup tinkle, not a whisper, not a clatter of crockery or trays being laid out in the great kitchen came there to disturb it. It was a moment utterly timeless in a way that could not be misunderstood, because it was free of all physical and material barriers and impediments of personal pain and injury, as if it were fulfilling directly the measure of the will of creation invested in that little body of a small bird, unwounding itself there and regaining its full sense of being, with its heart in its throat.’

In the silence into which they fell, the men were able to experience the ‘full sense of being,’ with its vulnerability (the bird had been blinded on the assumption that blindness would improve its singing), its beauty, and the authority inherent in life itself:

‘The immense power of the music had an almost paranormal quality of command that was supreme, because it was not an expression of power itself but came purely from what the music was within itself; an expression rather of ultimate harmony and beauty, asserting itself in its most vulnerable and defenseless form, relying for its own authority and impact solely on its beauty and its necessities of order and measure and the lucidity of its voice.’

And in a similar experience, in a restaurant in Kenya on a day full of dust, van der Post tells us, the roar of a lion came suddenly from outside:

‘At once all conversation ceased and everyone listened with instinctive reverence as if to the voice of a god. The lion was close, and the immediacy of the sound came like lightning from its throat; the authority of the voice proclaimed as if on behalf of life itself, through the absence of fear and doubt in its utterance. Even when the lion’s announcement ended, we remained silent long enough to hear another lion answer at length from far away. Only when that answer ended the primordial dialogue did the men gasp, as if coming up for air out of an unfathomed deep them- selves, and start to talk again.’

The commanding sounds of the bird and the lion plunge the listeners into an ‘unfathomed deep’ of profound silence. There the voices of the nonhuman meet the receptivity of the listeners at a depth that does not have words. To those receptive ears the voices are those of a god, of life itself. The men are witness to a ‘primordial dialogue.’ This is an experience of awe, and there are no human words for it while it is happening. Indeed, when the people in the restaurant begin to talk, it is a sign that they have emerged from the depths and are no longer participating in the experience. If the words for this unfathomed experience are to be found at all, they will evolve over time, with the fathoming that is reflection.”

The West needs to grow up

“The poet and storyteller Robert Bly, who died last year, had his own name for the culture we now inhabit, in the West and increasingly elsewhere too. He called it a ‘sibling society.’ In his book of the same name, published a quarter of a century ago, Bly took a prescient scalpel to the failures of the post-war West and identified what he believed to be a foundational problem: we had forgotten how to produce adults,” Paul Kingsnorth writes in The West needs to grow up.

“Back in 1996, Bly could already see around him the problems which have since blossomed into a full-flowering pathology. America and the world influenced by it, he wrote, was ‘navigating from a paternal society, now discredited, to a society in which impulse is given its way.’ From the patriarchal frying pan, the West had jumped into the post-modern fire:

‘People don’t bother to grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults. The rule is: Where repression was before, fantasy will now be … Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents — seeing that — have no desire to become adults. Few are able to imagine any genuine life coming from the vertical plane — tradition, religion, devotion.’

Bly believed that the old ‘vertical society’ of the West had been discredited by the upheavals of the 20th century. This discrediting was both inevitable and at least partially necessary, but as in the 1640s, the collapse of the old order had unleashed an uncontrollable destructive energy, manifesting in a cultural revolution against all things ‘vertical.’ War had been declared on all aspects of ‘the Indo-European, Islamic, Hebraic impulse-control system,’ whose genuine faults had become associated with all and any impulse-control, hierarchy, order or structure.

A kind of corrupted cultural Levelling had taken hold, and the result was our culture of inversion, in which rebellion against all and any forms was seen as the only inherent good. And in the desert created by late 20th-century American capitalism, which had decimated communities and households, stripped the meaning from the lives of young generations and replaced it with shopping, little seemed worth preserving anyway. As a result, adults had remained perpetual adolescents: uninitiated, afraid to grow up, slouching towards Bethlehem quoting Marlon Brando in a kind of eternal 1954. ‘Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?’ ‘Whaddya got?’

Bly was fundamentally a worker in myth, and The Sibling Society, like his earlier book about men, Iron John, shifts between his retelling of classic fairy tales, and his analysis of their application to contemporary culture. He believed that the fundamental problems of his time were not political or economic, but mythic. They manifested at the level of deep story, on which all cultures are built. The modern West, without knowing it, had taken an axe to the root of its own mythic structures, as Jack takes an axe to the root of the beanstalk. The Giant in that story, retold by Bly here, represents Freud’s ‘death instinct,’ which had taken hold of American culture. The Giant is a killer of fathers, destroyer of families, eater of children. He lives in a castle surrounded by rocky, barren lands, and he has ravaged every living structure around him. He has no family, no past and no future. In his castle, he gathers his wealth to him, and eats and eats and eats.

It is the Giant — resentful, angry, greedy, marooned in a permanent present — who best represents what we have become, nearly three decades after Bly’s book was published. The culture of inversion is the Giant’s creation, and ours. Adolescent and surly, unmoored from both culture and nature, betrayed by our own desires, we can find little good in the past and little hope in the future. Then as now, the governing attitude to our own cultural inheritance is what Bly called ‘a sort of generalised ingratitude’:

‘Our society has been damaged not only by acquisitive capitalism, but also by an idiotic distrust of all ideas, religions and literature handed down to us by elders and ancestors. Many siblings are convinced that they have received nothing of value from anyone. The older truth is that every man and woman is indebted to all other persons, living or dead, and is indebted as well to animals, plants and the gods.’

But the most striking argument that Bly made as he analysed our cultural collapse was that Western culture was now doing to itself what it had long done to others: colonisation. The methods that Western colonial administrators had used to demolish and replace other cultures — rewriting their histories, replacing their languages, challenging their cultural norms, banning or demonising their religions, dismantling their elder system and undermining their cultural traditions — were now being used against us. Only we had not been invaded by hostile outside forces: this time, the hostile forces were within.

No conservative, Bly could nevertheless see that the culture of inversion, already in full swing in the Nineties, was a product of the elite Left, who had ‘taken over the role of colonial administrators,’ and set about colonising — or should we say ‘decolonising’? — their own culture from within:

‘They teach that European kings were major criminals who dressed well … that the Renaissance amounted to a triumph of false consciousness, that the Magna Carta solved nothing … that Mother Theresa was probably sexually disturbed … that Beethoven wrote imperialist music, that Mencken was a secret fascist, that Roosevelt encouraged Pearl Harbour, that President Kennedy’s Peace Corps did not work, that Freud supported child abuse, and that almost every one of his ideas was wrong.’

America, said Bly was ‘the first culture in history that has colonised itself.’ Twenty-five years on, America’s fate is also the fate of Britain and other European nations. Our internal colonisers have been ruthlessly effective in the intervening decades, and the ‘culture war’ is a product of their success:

‘If colonialist administrators begin by attacking the vertical thought of the tribe they have conquered, and dismantling the elder system, they end by dismantling everything in sight. That’s where we are.’

It is indeed, and even more so. Our cultural elite’s ongoing ‘deconstruction’ of all we once were has deteriorated into a kind of incoherent rage, a culture of inversion on steroids, and it has now elicited its own rising counter-revolution. Nobody knows where any of this will lead, but the primary emotion it is all channelling, on Right and Left, among radical and reactionary, is rage. In our perpetual sibling society — sick with consumerism, eye-glazed with screen burn, confused, rudderless, godless — we have forgotten how to behave like adults, or what adults even look like. The result is that we squabble like children, fighting over toys in the mud.

‘The inner dome of heaven has fallen,’ wrote Bly. ‘To say we have no centre that we love is the same thing as saying that we have colonised ourselves. What we need to study, then, is how a colonised culture heals itself.’

How does it heal itself? Bly, mythologist and poet, had an answer: through story and ritual. The work of the age of inversion is not to fight puny online battles, or to look for victory in some imagined political settlement or brilliant new ideology. Our wounds are much deeper than that. Our stories are cracked at their foundations, and as a consequence we are afloat in a fantastical world of our own making: grasping at freedom, entirely enslaved.

The antidote to this is to dig down to those foundations and begin the work of repair. We are going to have to learn to be adults again; to get our feet back on the ground, to rebuild families and communities, to learn again the meaning of worship and commitment, of limits and longing. We are, in short, going to have to grow up. This is long, hard work: intergenerational work. It is myth work. We don’t really want to begin, and we don’t really know how to. Does any child want to grow up? But there is nothing else for it; no other path is going to get us home.

In times of conflict, whether our weapons are pikes or words, the temptation is always towards total war. But war is the Giant’s work, and like the Giant it will consume us all if it can. ‘The inexhaustible energies of the cosmos,’ wrote Robert Bly, ‘cannot be called down by anger. They are called by extremely elaborate practice — and stories.’”

“Transforming the city means coming back to what we learnt in Africa, and using what already exists. … It means making do, with the people, with the climate, with minimum materials. It means trees, soil, flowers, animals, all should be considered with delicacy and kindness, so it is never possible to cut a tree.” — Jean-Philippe Vassal ‡ in a public lecture at Sydney’s Seymour Centre

‡ In 2021, the French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal won the Pritzker Prize for a series of projects where they refused to raze existing public housing, apartment blocks and museums.

Post scriptum will be back in two weeks time with a third and final Summer edition, if fortune allows, of course.

If you want to know more about my work as an executive coach and leadership facilitator, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings, follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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Mark Storm

Mark Storm

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Helping people in leadership positions make sense — one conversation at the time