painting: Fluidity by Luke Orsborne click to enlarge
In just the last few years the US government has, either through direct military or proxy involvement, already exported post apocalyptic living conditions to Iraq, Syria, and Libya. A large cross section of the world is currently living in an end of the world state, fueled in part by a legacy of Western imperialism, disruptive technologies, and neoliberalism. Life's breakdown is not an abstraction for babies born with birth defects in Iraq from the the US mlitary's use of depleted uranium. It's not an unthinkable possibility for the parents of Vietnamese children born under the the lingering effects of Monsanto's Agent Orange, or the families who subsist in Pakistan under daily fear of crop failure and Obama's drone war. It's not a ridiculous suggestion for the scores of farmers committing suicide in India from a combination of parching land, debt, and biotechnology that didn't live up to its promises. Nor is catastrophic disaster an unknown to the families of those 250,000+ Somalis who died between 2010-2012 under a record drought, or the millions whose lives were upended in the Philippines under the changing climate's super typhoon Haiyan. Even in a developed nation like Australia, ranchers are having their livelihoods decimated from lack of rain. It's important for those of us who simply cannot allow ourselves to contemplate a collapse scenario or those of us who are trying to stave it off to understand that there are people all over the planet right now whose world, in a very real sense, has already collapsed.
I've witnessed people brush off the "bad news" as if it's a kind of distasteful experience served up like a rotting piece of meat at a favorite restaurant. Such a reaction represents the creation of a kind of intellectual caste system, where even thoughts of those whose lives have been destroyed by our way of doing things cannot be tolerated. To be an untouchable within such a system means that sustained contemplation of your destitution and the vile conditions you must endure, represents the threat of contamination to the true and upright livelihoods and leisure time of the privileged. To "us," those people who live under our tax funded bombs or who starve in IMF debt chains and a worsening climate, exist primarily as unfortunate statistics that occasionally ruin cocktail conversation or Facebook timelines. This is the "we" that cannot look at the writing on the wall, when it comes to impending disaster. This is the "we" that cannot accept the possibility that toxic, violent, and volatile living conditions that powerful nations export might come from some monstrous and shared cultural behaviors, which in the end threaten even the supposed stability of our own way of life. In reality, "our" way of life is not threatened by such destabilization because destabilization is the modus operandi through which this lifestyle is maintained. It just needs time to catch up.
When I think about the way people actively push aside the plight of others, I'm reminded of a kind of belief system that has gained currency within new-age and Christian prosperity doctrine circles: that faith plays a primary role in our material success, and by extension, our material success within well-to-do nations is of primary concern. Those who follow the so-called Law of Attraction suggest that our beliefs and feelings define our reality, and in order to change the external world, we must change our internal experience to reflect the way we would feel if the conditions we hoped for already existed. The goals are generally geared toward obtaining financial success, romantic relationships, and personal well-being. The method to achieve these ends is to live as though these conditions were already true. The middle class businessman who has fallen on hard times need simply "feel" himself to be a successful entrepreneur, and as "like attracts like" the success he is projecting will manifest. If it does not, he has simply not believed hard enough. In the case of adherents to Christian Prosperity doctrine, God wants us all to be successful. We just need to place our faith in Him to receive the financial rewards. The amassed wealth of book selling televangelists serves as proof of concept.
For some, the way in which belief is thought to effect reality is staggering. I spoke to one individual who concluded, for example, that dogs have the lifespan that they do because we expect them to. For him, the deaths of indigenous cultures around the world occurred because of some flaw in their understanding of reality. In such a view, all limitations are merely imposed by our preconceptions. One may scoff at the obviously delusional character of such a belief system, but it is in reality a remix of a modern commercial culture in which large segments of the world participate. Consider the way the monetary system and stock performance, and thus the "health" of economies and the nations that they depend upon, are tied to faith. Consider the way "bad news" cannot be long tolerated, by individuals or markets, and is addressed not with solutions, but feel-good rhetoric and advertisement driven shopping experiences, which establish a sense of stability, success, and well-being that in turn reinforce the larger system.
But adherents to the Law of Attraction are not entirely wrong. The way we think and feel about things does play a role in shaping the world. To overstate that role, however, is to fall into a realm of denial, delusion, and a dangerous and narcissistic disempowerment. To understand the effects of our belief systems in the world, without exaggerating their importance, helps us walk a line between paralyzing despair and utopian fantasies. With our senses thus anchored and clarified, it become possible to explore and experience the Great Mystery not purely in terms of a material cage or a paradise of endless possibility, but as something none the less larger than ourselves and profound in its secrets and multiplicity. In this regard, we can stop avoiding the "unpleasant" realities that interfere with our good vibes and our earning potential to uncover a deep and compassionate connection to the living beings of the world and the very real suffering that takes place in this sphere. To value consciousness then, is to value dream, imagination, the living planet that fosters such possibilities, and the unknown out of which it all emerges.
I believe this is a nexus for real human and spiritual development, for valuable artistic expression, and for truly positive transformation. Suffering is not something to be ignored or masked, nor is it something to be abjectly endured. It is an energy and a condition existing both at an individual and a structural level, and it is something that we must work with and transmute to the best of our ability. Such a transformative process unlocks potentials that can only be realized as we both break the mold of our destructive social condition to open up to new realities, and yet stay connected to that which is unfolding around us. When as individuals we recognize the doom that already has existed, currently exists, and is spreading, and find a way to act in unflinching accordance with our own principles or a sense of connection to a higher law for the betterment of others, then the small "we" becomes fused to the larger. It is through that connection that we can expand.
The real we is the we that includes those of us who outwardly benefit from this predatory system, as well those who have been swept under it, those for whom "we" cannot even pause. In the most real sense, we are all connected, though this relationship is clearly not an equitable one. Not contemplating imminent doom from behind the curtains of Western instigated covert military operations and the walls of sweatshop produced conveniences, is a luxury for those of us who still haven’t internalized what modern culture is actually about. Catastrophic climate change, and the conflicts over increasing water and food shortages it will create, is just another symptom of a pathological root, which has been denied for too long.
Countless tribal societies have already experienced their doom, not because they weren't spiritually connected enough or because they did not deeply believe themselves to be the proper guardians of their lands, but instead thanks to the ruthless actions of the forbears of our modern life. Their 200,000 year old world ended at the hands of a death machine whose karma we swim in today. To brush off the genocide of indigenous people whose lands modernity stole, and to wash our hands of the whole affair even as a "coalition of the willing" killed over a million brown skinned people in Iraq in an illegal war, is to function as the bulwarks of a violent methodology that persists through an unbroken line into modern households across the globe. To not daily work against this destructive business-as-usual is to consent to it. We do not all equally possess the means to confront and work toward the transformation of this system, but none the less, the way we orient our moral compass is critical.
Dealing with the reality of unfolding collapse is overwhelming, which is perhaps why personal empowerment fads and the engagement in escapist behaviors are so common. What is clear, however, is the blind pursuit of personal gratification is both a form of avoidance, as well as form of perpetuation that acts as a kind of unconscious violence. In the face of such intractable problems, the question remains, what is to be done?
To sustain life, there are certain non-negotiables. Everyone requires access to clean water, healthy food, and shelter. In the sustenance of life in the long term, the provision of these necessities must be done in a manner that does not destroy the planet. This requires, among other things, the widespread, decentralized understanding of methods to inexpensively and sustainably build and maintain homes and produce food. Layered into these basic needs is also the understanding that people should have security within their daily lives, which is to say, freedom from abuse and the threat of violence at a familial as well as well as societal level. Insecurity creates conditions for exploitation, war, and unsustainable practices. The modern system falls abysmally short of providing for the people of the world, and it has an economic incentive to do so. Its methodologies ravage the living environment while intentionally destabilizing personal and collective security for profit, creating problems and then "fixing" them for financial gain. The process inevitably concentrates wealth and power into a small number of hands. A report from Oxfam stated that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion. Such a state of affairs brings about the conditions for deep destabilization and collapse on a personal, regional, and now a global level, as pressures build beyond the capacity of social, environmental, and personal coping strategies to handle them. In 2014, a spate of suicides within the international banking community has shown the lack of viability of this system even within its upper echelons.
While I find it rather likely "we" will endure social breakdown in our lifetime, this concern shares space with the understanding that the calamity is already here, and has been here for a very long time. Nothing I do will change the fact that countless people will die of hunger and disease today. Rather than wondering whether "our" situation will look like "theirs" is to ignore the view that together we are in the midst of a collapse which is beyond inevitable: it's taking place right now.
This understanding has the potential to generate needed urgency among those who have the resources to do some good, but urgency and compassion are not enough. Nor is food aid and medical care. From my perspective as an artist, what we need is a transformative dynamic that recognizes the certainty of death, the hardships of life, the destructive impacts of an entrenched and pathological system, and yet finds the inspiration and humanity to do what is in our power to fundamentally change the way we live. From a raw and energetic sense, this might look like taking essence from the way sunlight moves through the foliage of familiar trees on your spring time walk, which then somehow finds its way into the inner luminescence of your sleeping vision. On a more tangible level, this might look like putting an end to selling arms to foreign governments, or halting the undermining of local economies with subsidized agricultural dumping and food aid that benefits multinationals rather than deriving from local markets. The spread of inexpensive technologies like slow sand filters, earth bag and compressed earth brick built structures, and solar ovens, offer promise not only in the developing world, but to those in developed nations who are looking for cheap, low tech solutions to build a transformative exit strategy from a pathological system.
The drive for change does not come from new age platitudes or market driven utopias, but rather from the understanding that to ignore the situation is to both turn our backs on our fellow man and the living planet, and finally, to die a spiritual death. On the level of mass culture's subconscious, this is already known. You can see it in the fascination with vampires and the undead. The collapse is unfolding, and this is the zombie apocalypse. We are witnessing the casualty of the spirit. The trajectory of such consciousness is reactive, unaware, and lost, and doomed to perpetuate itself until perpetuation is no longer possible.
In the realm of transformative art, paintings, music, film, and poetry need to communicate both the horrors and beauties of our mortal lives within the context of system wide pathology. Such art should also be tied directly into the physicality of the re-creative process itself, not simply from an information sharing and culture shifting approach, but also through its ability to lend momentum and material support toward a new paradigm. As a carrier of information, a bridge between internal and external, and locus of monetary, cultural, and symbolic value, art can serve as currency for transformation, a guidepost for those seeking that transformation, and a visible metric indicating the kind of transformation that is underway.
To see this is to recognize art's existence as a liminal creation that straddles the physical world and the world of imagination, spirit, and dream. Within the self-conscious context of the collapse underway, art can act as both a path and a life preserver for those who are themselves at the brink of being consumed by the death machine, but who orient themselves to some extent, even if unconsciously, toward health and shared salvation. Art serves a point within a larger constellation of cultural understanding, and can focus consciousness and tease out new understanding. Within such a context, each creation of beauty and truth becomes both an act of and a sign of reflection, vitality, defiance, and survival.
In this valley of the shadow of death, the positive transformation that art potentiates is through the indication of human value in spite of a system that harnesses for material gain our degraded sense of self within a forgotten cosmos. Such streams of reflection become tributaries to larger forces for action. Cultural creators have an obligation to move beyond the mere fabrication of adornments for the walls of a militarily backed materialism, and broaden out toward dynamic practices that forge meaningful relationships, give us inspiration in times of doubt, and literally feed and shelter human beings through integrated processes that supplant the old paradigm. To embrace this process of creation even as we accept our own mortality and the mortality of everyone we love, establishes the potential to free up energies to unremittingly push back against individuals and systems that are bringing unimaginable and unnecessary suffering to this world. Art gives us permission to both put dreams into action and set fire to those practices that are themselves engendering the ongoing embodiment of traumatic patterns.
Understanding collective doom no more implies inaction than does a warrior's sense of possible annihilation inevitably prevent him from engaging on the battlefield. In wealthy nations, the lack of response to what is happening is not the result of accepting the direness of the situation at hand, but is rather the latent manifestation of a culture that has conditioned us over our lifetimes to live in a state of pathological consumption, unrecognized ignorance, capitulation, denial, disempowerment, fragmented thinking, and depression, as we struggle to pay the bills.
In the case of social transformation, a recognition of inevitable breakdown has the potential to trigger the passion of the proverbial "nothing left to lose," mindset. It can unleash compassion and give us the creative tools we need to overcome the often irrational compromises we make in the name of preserving our socially constructed behavioral prison. It allows us to reach out in ways we have not in the past, and gives us the wherewithal to re-evaluate our course of action when it appears ineffective. But without honing awareness, such raw energies can also be self destructive. The challenge comes with working with the catastrophic potentials that course through life. It is a dance with the the death that we will inevitably face, and yet in the midst of such difficulties, there is a place for meaning, direction, purpose, beauty, and fulfillment through shared alchemical wisdom.
As we approach our human made oblivion, art in its various forms, then, can help pull us back from the brink of premature material or psychic destruction. Through the transformative pushes and pulls of these dynamics, we can begin to detect the emergence of a resilience of spirit which does not wish to hide from the truth, and is less likely to be broken by the overwhelming and devastating force of the modern man-made world. As author Chris Hedges has put it, "I do not fight fascists because I think I can win. I fight fascists because they are fascists." Salvation may not look like the healthy planet that we wish for, even as we strive to protect that which we hold dear. Rather, it may appear as the ability to look each other in the eye knowing that we reached into the wellspring of creation and confronted this monstrosity that is trying to destroy everything sacred. Perhaps it is through this recognition, given form through refined and purposeful action, that we become vehicles for a sacredness that lies beyond the reach of both the modern death machine, and death itself.