“Oh, I’ve plenty of time. My time is entirely my own.”
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot
What does it mean to “settle down”, in today’s political landscape? Let me be clear, I’m not referring to the way the term was used by our teachers in school, as a sneered, patronizing declaration to submit and obey: “Settle down, boys and girls!” Neither do I mean to “settle” in the sense of taking what one can get, selling out one’s values for some feeble, abstract compromise.
Rather, it occurs to me that settling down with oneself, and one’s community, is just about the most radical stance a person can take these days. Whatever do I mean by this? Part of what I’m referring to here is cultivating a healthy inner life. Having a sense of contentedness, equanimity, patience, inner peace, and wild-eyed wonder at the beauty our world has to offer.
Our society must learn to slow down, to be present in each moment. Only then can citizens parse through the immense piles of bullshit our political elites foist upon us each day. Instead of reacting (often with feigned surprise and outrage) at each and every tragedy and crisis the corporations and the government is behind, concerned citizens and protest movements must begin to go on the offensive.
This will require a unified front among Leftists and activists, and an understanding that the piecemeal approach which mainstream non-profits, social justice groups, and protesters operate under must be reevaluated, reconfigured, and new strategies must be invented.
A sense of duty, care, compassion, and collective responsibility for the planet and the meek of the Earth must be stoked among leaders in civil society. This may require radicals and activists to step back from the maelstrom of contemporary life in certain senses: to set examples by not jet-setting around the globe regularly, to give up luxury consumer items in solidarity with the working classes, etc.
Healthy food, continuing one’s education throughout life, being fulfilled in work and in play, learning to appreciate nature, and developing a spiritual practice are just a few basics. Mainstream American culture does everything it can to distract, obfuscate, and distort every conceivable path towards personal and collective enlightenment among its citizens. This culture of speed, of being unable to hold attention, this mindset of Amusing Ourselves to Death, must be confronted.
Computers, TV, cell phones, social media, video games, and now virtual reality technology are zombifying the average US citizen more and more as each day passes. Rather than providing a lens to understand and interpret current affairs, provide a way to engage and study world cultures, and develop critical thinking skills, our omnipresent screens have become our captors, distracting us with loads of useless information, lowest-common denominator pop culture, and vapid Hollywood movies.
How can citizens fight such an all-pervading degradation of values, art, and culture? Literally, part of what I refer to by settling means sitting on the ground, and being still. Also, walking barefoot on the soil, our mother Earth, will help people understand how to resist. It’s no surprise that many mental health professionals are now advising their patients to take walks in nature or working at tasks like gardening en lieu of prescribing pharmaceuticals. This burgeoning field has been dubbed ecotherapy.
(There are other things that can help. Here’s an abridged version of some personal experiences which have helped me settle down: meditation helps put my mind at ease. So does responsible use of cannabis and psilocybin. Good sex, of course. If you’re traveling in the US, getting away from civilization to recharge is a good place to start. Fishing by a stream worked wonders for me in the Great Smokies. Fasting in the Mojave was a revelation. Sitting and watching the fog roll into a redwood forest was a transcendental experience.)
What kind of advice did you expect from an eco-freak like me, a tree-hugging dirt-worshipper? It is possible to draw strength from the planet, as well as lovers and friends and plant and animal allies, after all. All indigenous societies and Earth-centered communities understand this instinctively, implicitly. For comatose Westerners, it will require stretching and reawakening their enfeebled imaginations. The Earth is alive, teeming with life, and always has been: small children know this, but mass culture has brainwashed us as we’ve grown up to believe otherwise.
Settling also means each of us has to learn how to become rooted in one’s community, state, and nation: growing a stable and harmonious identity, a sense of belongingness, and a meaningful culture. In this sense, settling in one’s community becomes taking a stand: if local resilience and environmental education is built up in your town or city, democratic consensus and citizen action can prevent corporations from buying up local businesses, bulldozing lots for huge real estate projects, and polluting with abandon.
Pacts within communities to promote some sort of egalitarian redistribution of wealth to decrease inequality will foster higher levels of trust, friendship, and reciprocity. Deconstructing capitalist multinationals and replacing them with worker-owned cooperatives is another necessary step, as workers living in the vicinity of factories are less likely to allow for environmentally-dangerous industrial practices. Providing a universal basic income, along with universal health care, even if at first only on a local or state level, would allow the rest of us in the US to see the benefits with a clear gaze, unfiltered by ideology and dogma.
Rules for increasing the percentages of women and minorities in government and the workforce would certainly promote a healthier public sphere. Switching to systems of proportional representation for elections would benefit third parties and allow for new ideas to take hold. Laws for conversion of agriculture to fully organic, non-GMO, pesticide and herbicide free food would uplift people’s spirits and drastically reduce preventable diseases and increase life spans. Converting more people to eating less meat, especially red meat, will slow the razing of our tropical rainforests. Every town and city will have to convert to renewable energy to soften the impact of global warming, which is slated to raise temperatures about 3-4 degrees Celsius and raise the sea level about eight feet by 2100. These are relatively conservative estimates, by the way.
Personal transformation will have to go hand in hand with citizen-led, community based environmental and socially-oriented education. This will require teachers who will help us remember how to feel comfortable in our own skin, free from the dramas of judgment and victimhood that our culture imposes on us.
Our relationship to the land must change. European settlers who arrived in the New World assumed that land could be owned, and most descendents here in the US still agree. European colonists and later US pioneers had their very own urge for Lebensraum, which accelerated in 19th century America, and was dubbed Manifest Destiny. This destructive, inflexible European ethnocentric outlook has to be defeated. Please read a wonderful Russell Means speech about these issues here.
Most US citizens are sadly still strangers to the continent they live on. In general, the West and the US have become spiritually impoverished. Rather than owning land, we can learn to become stewards, caretakers of the planet, for the brief time each of us is here. For Americans, increasing ecological awareness is key, and to survive, we will have to learn from indigenous, Native American traditions, and Westerners must rediscover and embrace their lost indigenous souls.
We are living in a critical time to determine the planet’s future. As Fritjof Capra foretold, humanity has arrived at The Turning Point. Ecological thresholds are being approached as amounts of desertification, topsoil loss, deforestation, ocean acidification, and atmospheric CO₂ rise year after year. If China and India attempt to industrialize to the levels of Western Europe and the US, it’s essentially game over for continual, steady levels of food production as well as climate stability.
Here we are, at the crossroads. Restraint, humbleness, and compassion must reemerge as key values for our descendants to have a chance at a prosperous future. Global capitalism, a combination of gluttonous consumerism and breakneck speed energy and financial flows, must be thrown out the window. This will in some cases mean monkey-wrenching the machine, and destroying private property. So be it. The conversion to a steady-state, de-growth, equilibrium economy is long overdue.
Stressed, burnt out, with savings tapped out, and overworked from the hustle of corporate America, we are approaching a breaking point. There is a lot of work ahead of us, too. Citizens can find the time, if we make time. That is to say, if our society can dare to imagine a system where time itself does not enslave us. So, lose that wrist watch and cell phone for a day or a hundred, if you can. Take that camping trip with your family you talked about. Live simpler. Love harder. Stop for a minute, and stare into the abyss which is global capitalism, imperialism, and systematic habitat destruction. Listen to the wind, the rocks and soil, rushing water, a crackling fire. One can find answers by keeping still and listening. As a poor, pacifist carpenter once said: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”