What We Sacrifice: Wynn Bruce

What We Sacrifice: Wynn Bruce

I have been trying to spread the word about Wynn Bruce, and whenever I do I get choked up and blurry eyed. So it seems I should write about him. Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court and died a few days later, a few days ago.

Wynn Bruce was a Buddhist and he cared about the warming planet and he set himself on fire. He was not explicit about why, or only in a coded way, but his father and his friends believe he was intending to call attention to climate change. He would not be the first to do so. I fear he may not be the last.

It’s hard to know how to feel about this. That is, it’s hard to have one feeling about it. It’s horrifying, brave, ridiculous, extreme, understandable, admirable, and frightening. As a pseudo-Buddhist, I rest primarily on honorable and heartbreaking.

Bystanders said he didn’t scream as his skin burned.

I can’t say this is the wrong thing to do, if he wanted to do it. It appears that no one ever suggested it, so there is no fault to be laid. I can’t say it’s the right thing to do – causing pain to loved ones in a deadly act that will have little, or any, impact. Removing yourself from the playing field, instead of staying in the loving fight. I wouldn’t argue with a chronically, fatally depressed person who took their own life.

Is it even suicide?

The only thing I can say, the only thing I may know, is that if he burned himself alive in order to call attention to Climate Change, we owe him the honor of paying attention to Climate Change. I don’t know what paying attention means to each one of you; I just believe that we bear witness to his death by bearing witness to the deadly changes in our living environment.

He attributed this beloved quote to Thay:

The most important thing, in response to climate change, is to be willing to hear the sound of the earth’s tears through our own bodies.

thich nhat hanh?

There is more than one way to do that. It will be painful, but it may also be generative and invigorating. The end is uncertain, but despair is not an extreme reaction. I hope we can move past it.

Rethinking Anthropomorphism

https://www.npr.org/2021/10/09/1044619808/opinion-a-gorillas-life-and-death-in-2-viral-photos

In my too-recent somatic experience of really feeling like a part of a mutualistic, interdependent world of plants, animals, and the constant exchange of electrons, anthropomorphism has come to mean something quite different than it used to. I don’t know if it’s the wider acceptance of Buddhist and Indigenous philosophies or the climate crisis or something else, but I’m also seeing more blurred lines in recent non-fiction books, including pieces about how the brain works, ecology, health, and others.

Here’s my supersimple explanation, based on nothing but my own education, of the evolution of anthropomorphism in Western culture. In the Romantic era across Europe and elsewhere, there was a shift in the intellectual classes towards an appreciation of nature and the other living things in it (some of them, anyway). You see this all over the English and European poetry of that era (late 18th-early 19th century), and the influence on American, especially Transcendentalist, literature as well. In a culture of hierarchies and human supremacy, granting human thoughts and feelings to “lesser” animals seemed a conciliatory and respectful practice. More recently, the ascription of human characteristics to non-humans has been considered childish and aspirational – something fanciful that we do to pretend that animals are more like us and force affinity where there is none. It is this position that is showing some much needed deterioration.

Unfortunately, some of the most habitual line-drawers between humans and others have been scientists. Much of the non-Right in this country is very rah-rah about science these days, and with good reason. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the purported objectivity of science precludes the field from prejudicial framing and, thus, prejudicial conclusions (see Braiding Sweetgrass for more on all of this). Naturalists, biologists, and other scientists of the living world have often been the first to dismiss talk of plant intelligence or the attribution of “human” emotions to non-human things. I understand how highlighting shared traits could be perceived as anthropocentric, that we should let animals just be animals. However, we can only understand the world in a context we recognize, and we are not just observers of the natural world, but participants in it. In order to participate we have to connect. In order to connect, just as with humans, we find things in common. If every emotional or motivational or intellectual connection we discover is dismissed as projection, it makes it very difficult to feel an affinity with other life forms. We are a part of this world. And other things in this world think and feel and act in ways similar to us. Trees have elders who help out younger trees, elephants perform ritual goodbyes for dead community members. Many animals hug each other with affection, or for consolation or conflict resolution.

Scientists employ […] technical language to distance ourselves from the rest of the animals. They call ‘kissing’ in chimps ‘mouth-to-mouth contact’; they call ‘friends’ between primates ‘favorite affiliation partners’ [….] if an animal can beat us at a cognitive task […] they write it off as instinct, not intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal terms this ‘linguistic castration.

Why Fish Don’t Exist. Lulu Miller. pp 181-2

We’ve hung onto this hard line between human and non-human life as if Darwin and his ilk never existed, as if we still didn’t know that humans are just animals that evolved in a distinctive way. We have been so enamored of our “superior” intelligence that we couldn’t even acknowledge that intelligence is a characteristic shared with other living things, let alone that others might be more intelligent than us in any area. But we are finally starting to give non-human life the credit it deserves, finally starting to talk about the way trees send messages through forests to protect each other, the way octopuses and grouper work together to hunt, or a crow manipulates tools, as intelligence.

When we have acknowledged non-human intelligence, we have judged animals based on how well they can do what we have classified as “human” talents – recognizing themselves in a mirror, performing tricks, remembering where items are placed, etc. Anything that is not an area wherein humans excel is classified as instinct. This overused quotation is still sound:

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Or we will believe it is stupid. It’s even harder to get people to recognize the intelligence of non-animal life. How can something without eyes or what we call a brain think? Calling trees or fungi smart is almost embarrassing.

We have also held our species up as emotionally superior, capable of a wider range of feelings and sympathies than other animals, despite the at-least-equal amount of evidence that we are less compassionate, more cruel, and indubitably more destructive than any creature that ever lived. We see ourselves as more individually distinctive as well, less of a type and more of a solo creature, even though we are perhaps less able to independently care for ourselves than any other plant or animal, less able every year, it seems. Plus, anyone who’s had more than one dog knows that there is no such thing as a “dog personality”. Every dog I’ve had has been at least as distinct as each of my friends.

Indigenous cultures have had little trouble recognizing and respecting our species’ essential and interconnected place in the natural world, because to do otherwise would be to put your life and the health of your community at risk. The only way to live off the land is to live with the land, to recognize what was required of us and what could be expected of and negotiated with other species. The religions that emerged out of this life reflected that mutualism, just as European religions, placing the idle and intellectual above and apart from farmers and hunters and those who worked with the earth, created religions of hierarchy and separation. We have long dismissed indigenous knowledge as mythical and unscientific, because the science used was not recognized as legitimate. But it is science, based on generations of observation and experimentation, and with conclusions rationally drawn therein, just as with non-indigenous science.

Early “big e” Environmentalism believed that the best thing for humans to do with nature was leave it alone, as if we are not a product, part, and partaker of nature; as if we’ve become so far removed from the source of our very being that we cannot possibly be anything but a scourge to the living world. I’m not mocking. I get it. Certainly, keeping drilling out of the arctic and development off coastlines is understandable. This was a motivation behind our National Parks. Protecting nature from us is perhaps not as self-promoting as some other practices, but it’s just as isolating and unnatural. Seeing ourselves exclusively as a threat to the rest of the world is just as insane as seeing the world exclusively as a threat to us. It’s like labeling your liver as a threat – sure, it can do damage when things go wrong, but it’s also an essential part of the package, one the body can’t live without and one that cannot live without the body.

Why do we insist on drawing these lines? Does it make us feel special? Do we refuse to acknowledge our kinship with other living things for the same reason we refused to acknowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe? Is it some quieter but still extant idea that in order to have our Special Relationship With God, we must be different from everything else? Do we cling to the favoritism of a distant, immortal, esoteric being at the expense of forming meaningful relationships with our mortal kin all around us?

If we do tend this direction as a capitalist, Euro-centric culture, what good does it do us? Does separating ourselves from everything in the natural world improve our wellbeing in any way? If so, how? Because it allows us to destroy entire ecosystems, species, dramatically reduce the livability for most things on the planet, without compunction? Maybe the ease, comfort, and continual newness for which we sacrifice our world does make us happier, in a way. I certainly like central heat and Youtube Alan Watts lectures on demand, but they don’t make me any less lonely. The loneliness that emerged from deciding we were the only intelligent species on the planet may have created our obsession with the things and conveniences for which we sacrifice our only home in order to fill the lonely maw inside us. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that doesn’t seem very smart.

In the new edition to her gorgeous book, World as Lover, World as Self, Joanna Macy writes that our dependence on and concern for our othered neighbors may not be as alien as we are led to think, and the refusal to recognize our compassion for the world does not serve us.

Many therapists have difficulty crediting the notion that concerns for the general welfare of our planet might be acute enough to cause distress. Trained to assume that all our drives are ego-centered, they tend to treat expressions of this distress as manifestations of personal neurosis. […] “What might this concern represent that you are avoiding in your own life?” In such a way is our anguish for our world delegitimized,

and even mocked, especially when expressed by indigenous groups who have historically and spiritually cultivated and respected a connection to the world they interact with, and thus have felt the pain of detachment more deeply than most of the rest of us.

We are told that we could not possibly feel a true emotional connection to things that are not human, that the only legitimate loss is human loss (the loss of a pet is only considered significant if compared to a human, e.g. it’s a member of the family, it’s like a child). What does this denial cost us? How much less lonely would we be if we recognized our kinship with trees and squirrels and forests? It would likely place us more thoroughly in the world, which would benefit the rest of the planet as well as ourselves.

Going on a hike doesn’t just make us feel better because it “clears our head”. Nature itself makes us better in ways we do and don’t understand. MRIs have shown that

When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing

Having a view of the outdoors from a hospital room reduces recovery time and the need for painkillers after surgery. In psychiatric units, studies have found that “being in nature reduced feelings of isolation, promoted calm, and lifted mood among patients.” Just 20-30 minutes in a “natural” environment significantly reduces cortisol levels.Trees emit phytoncides to deter insects, which generate immune responses in humans, increasing and activating the white blood cells that kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.

Depression, anxiety, and drug overdoses are higher than ever recorded in the US. Where can we go for comfort? What if we could turn to a river or flock of geese for a sense of connection, endurance, shared struggle, and rest? We can, but we rarely view immersion in the world beyond the one humans have created as a real place of sanctuary, even though it is our collective ancestral home. Is the drama of the human condition the result of us putting our intellect above and apart from everything else?

Could the recognition of non-human cognition make our lives better? Could it make us better neighbors, better tenants? Could changing the language of anthropomorphism tear down the wall between us and the rest of the planet? I truly fail to see the harm in recognizing the humanity, for lack of a better word, in the vibrant & varied lives with which we share the Earth. Unless we are deliberately separating ourselves in order to keep guiltlessly extracting and destroying? Recognizing our kinship on a global scale would force a shift in worldview, one that might put a stop to our extractive and exploitative economy. I dunno. I think it would be worth it, for all of us earthlings.


Do All That You Can

climate strikeI have a hard time just doing what I can. These days (ugh) in particular. There is the desire to shame myself for not doing more. You know the quote?

Do all the good you can,
In all the ways you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

The provenance is in question, but it was probably some religious leader. I should know better than to take advice from relgious leaders. But I’ll cheerfully latch on to any opportunity to criticize myself. Wheeee!

So I can read about Climate Change and create bite size chunks of facts for Minnesotans to absorb at the State Fair and write blog posts read by ones of peoples and bike to work and not have kids and skip that flight back to LA to see an old college friend. But I still felt obliged to attend the Day of Action for the Amazon (or whatever it was called) in the Cargill section of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Do all that you can.

Sooo not in my wheelhouse.

So not in my wheelhouse, in fact, that once I surmised the size (small) of the protest group, I decided to give myself a night at the museum instead. I don’t go to museums nearly enough! Being present with art is probably of equivalent spiritual value to the protest’s social value! Maybe I can weight them equally? Did I perhaps research whether the museum was open late that night before committing to the action? Was I looking for a smooth way out of the lack of fray, if the situation was fray-less? I’ve said too much already.

I have no problem being a number in a protest – one of thousands or even hundreds. I know that numbers are important and I’m happy to add to them. But to take public, political action in a small group requires certain qualities that I just don’t do well.

  1. Keep it simple, stupid

I hated this when I had to do it in door-to-door canvassing, while completely understanding the need for it. To me, nothing is simple. Everything has nuances and unknowns and alternate theories and history and gray characters. But those subleties don’t get donations and they don’t get media attention and they don’t get supporters pumped up. Catch phrases do. Rhymes do.

  1. Coordinated speech and action

Or what I like to disparagingly call Groupthink. Part of the problem is you need to be part of the group to be part of the think, and I tend to show up to protests alone and haven’t joined an activist group in a long time. (Ever?) Of course coordinated action can be visually arresting and effective when it’s a mass demonstration (take the prescriptions that rained down in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler wing) and chants and songs can show energy and purpose, and rouse spirits and draw attention. But coordinated action doesn’t seem coordinated unless it’s en masse, and I can rarely listen to a chant without judgment. I cherry pick my chants, and that’s not what organizers are looking for. Here’s what I hear from the maybe 30 or so people gathered outside the museum after their action.

“Did you hear? That museum guy said ‘a museum is no place for social activism!'”

“What? Hahaha! That’s ridiculous! Booooo MIA!”

So, was this guy a museum representative? A guard? I’m mostly seeing guards. I mean, was he speaking for the museum?

“Art is social activism!” All: “Art is social activism!!! Art is social activism!!!”

Sure, sometimes.

“Social activism is Art!” All: “Social Activism is Art!!!”

Hm. Much less so.

So I walked away, and they all chanted a little longer and took lots of pictures and seemed very pleased with themselves. And that is great. I am not being facetious. Those people have to exist – people with strong beliefs who are unashamed to be one of a few mounting a protest that will get no press and disrupt almost nothing. Because that is where things start. But I am not one of those people. It hurts my soul to pretend things are simple, because my soul is a place of complexity and confusion and contradiction. How do I Do All I Can if I don’t do this? Is this something I can’t do? How is that defined? What does the word “can” mean? Does doing all you can mean giving up everything in your life that isn’t benefitting someone else? If that keeps you from sustaining yourself as a human, isn’t that detrimental to the cause? If I gave up my job, my possessions, my time, my beliefs, would that be enough? Would anything ever be enough?

Of course not. And I do accept that I am not going to completely dedicate myself to the world outside myself. But I also know that what I do is not enough, and what I’m good at doing doesn’t do enough. So I’m going to the Climate Strike on Friday.

*sigh*

Maybe there will be lots of people there and I can fulfill my role as a body without angst before biking home, reading something important, and watching BoJack Horseman. Cross your fingers for me.

400 Years Ago (+ several days)

1619I was going to post about how my critical self likes to take stock of my failures at the end of every season, but I think the cute, self-deprecating, sad overview can wait. Because where I really fucked up was in not writing about the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in what was to become this country by what were to become the admired White settlers of Jamestown, in colonial Virginia. You can look it up. The image above and quotes that link to excellent work are in the NY Times feature, The 1619 Project.

Slavery is not a blight on this country’s fine history; it is not a shameful period of time with a beginning and an end. It is this country. The United States is a country of brutality and greed, where we have always put profit above people. Our government has had to be forced, by disruption and death and citizen disgust, to make every expansion of human rights that we have grudgingly, eventually agreed to. Maybe that’s the way it always happens. I’m not enough of a student of history to say for sure. But when I read that Trump’s “least racist person in the world” line is about as close as he’s ever come to accurately quoting Thomas Jefferson, who repeatedly insisted that, “nobody wishes more than I” for abolition, while enslaving Black people and profiting financially and sexually from their exploitation, should I really be surprised? Should I be shocked that the legacy of slavery infects our very language? Should I not expect that our country would lead the way in pushing humanity towards extinction?

There is some debate that the Anthropocene (the geologic era of human influence) would more accurately be called the Capitalocene (the geologic era of capitalism), because it is not humanity that has warmed the planet to the point of crisis, but carbon-fueled capitalism. And what is capitalism but the pursuit of financial gain at the expense of everything else? (But the invisible hand, you say, what about the invisible hand?? The invisible hand is, in my view of the moment, nothing but an excuse to pursue wealth uninhibited by ethics. You, capitalist, don’t have to worry about whether what you are doing is wrong, because the market will correct you if it is. Look at the world and tell me that isn’t bullshit.)

But the heedless racing toward mass extinction is only one example of our culture of slavery. Capital punishment is another. As is mass incarceration. Bryan Stephenson (maybe the new Buddha/Jesus?) writes in the above 1619 feature, “Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment.” A country of slavery would also be expected to hurl barriers in the paths of non-white humans trying to seek safety therein; to use food and deprivation as weapons; to deny health care, etc. The idea that those lucky enough to buy themselves a good life have somehow earned it is as backward and unscientific as the belief that Europeans are of a different and superior species to Africans.

Slavery is an economic system in which countless lives are destroyed in order to fill the treasure chests of a few, and those lives are vilified in order to justify the destruction. Whether smearing the victims as racially inferior, lazy, greedy, better off, ignorant, foreign, stupid, dirty, insignificant, or violent, it’s all the same. It’s all a way to make brutality palatable and selfishness noble. And it will destroy, if not all of us, then certainly the lifestyle that it has created.

I’m feeling despondent today, but not depressed. Yay for me! Boo for you.

 

this is just a link to a thing on the Amazon

I’m not up for writing today, and this is the time I have to write. Sorry, folks. I’m going to make tomorrow’s lunch, read some more Stamped from the Beginning, and leave you with this characteristically excellent piece on the ravished Amazon from the vlogbrothers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhESYHHbzsc .

“There has never been a greater reminder that nationalism is a disaster of an ideology.”