Cheap-Energy Mind

I was in England for three weeks while Barak Obama sealed up the Democratic nomination, Hilary Clinton more or less conceded, George Bush gave his pathetic interview to two reporters from the Times of London in which he said he wants to be remembered as a “man of peace,” and gas prices in the U.S. went over $4 a gallon.  The Times covered the U.S. political news quite well, even having front page, lead stories. But I don’t recall any mention of U.S. gas prices in the news media over there.  Probably because this is not startling news to the British who already pay about $10 a gallon for petrol. So you can imagine my shock when we drove from the Newark Airport back into New York State after three weeks of being out of the country and the gas stations along the way announced regular gas was $4.20 a gallon.  Clearly I was still in my “cheap-energy mind.”

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet and farmer, coined this phrase back in the 1970s when we were going through a rehearsal for energy crises.  Remember when we had to drive at 50 miles-an-hour on interstates and Jimmy Carter turned the temperature down in the White House and wore sweaters?  It seems so long ago and so mild. But Berry was already on top of this, as were certain other perceptive commentators. It was only a matter of time and things would get worse.  Unlike some experts, Berry did not put his hopes in new sources of oil or technology, but in a change of consciousness.  The “cheap-energy mind” is the culprit.  Only a change in mental habits, and life style habits, and what have traditionally been called “virtues” would protect America from disintegrating in the face of rising energy use and accompanying high costs and irreversible damage to the environment.

Now we’re there.

E.O. Wilson, the biologist and environmental writer, has called the human need to destroy or degrade some aspect of nature in order to survive the “betrayal of nature.”  Being dependent on her, and using her resources to live, we end up destroying or compromising her ability to support life.  Even hunting-gathering people “betrayed” nature (that is, altered or destroyed nature) to some extent, but not to the point that nature herself could not adjust and heal the scars.  Today our exploitation and consumption of Earth’s resources and the resultant destruction of the environment seems to be leading to a state where the Earth may not be able to support human life, and quite possibly any life.

In a strange sense, the betrayal of nature takes on another dimension. Not only do we betray nature, but now nature with her extreme weather patterns and changing climate conditions seems to be betraying us. Natural disasters seem to be occurring at an alarming rate, and seem to be more severe.  As I write this, observers are comparing the current Midwest floods with the 1993 floods that were then called the “once in a hundred years flood.” This phrase that once seemed so reassuring now seems obsolete. There may no longer be any hundred-year respites. In fact, I’ve heard that already they’re referring to the current flooding in the Midwest as “a once in 500 years flood.”

The covenant between Earth and humanity that began so many eons ago is now disrupted by both parties. In some spiritual traditions humans are to be stewards of the Earth, and Earth will provide. But we have continued to destroy the environment and in so doing have created conditions that won’t allow Earth to heal herself and continue birthing life. And so Earth now is finding it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to uphold her end of the covenant to support life, and specifically human life. Of course some biologists point out that insects and bacteria will survive, but that doesn’t give me much reason to rejoice. I want us to survive.

So I look for some change in my cheap-energy mind. And yours. How we will accomplish this change is a major challenge of our times. I’m sure paying over $4 a gallon for gas will help change it. And shamanism will help.  Shamanism gives us a different way of looking at reality when reflecting on problems that we face.  Primarily we look at events beyond their ordinary aspects to incorporate the ways that spirits view matters. I don’t mean to say we’ll get all the answers, but I have some degree of confidence that if I stay open to my shamanic values, I’ll be able to make some sense of what’s needed, or at least, what I need to do.

And the first thing that I learn from shamanism is to listen.  I’ve been writing about the cailleach quite a bit over the last several months because I think she is a key to our survival.  She who understands the necessary violence in the natural world may have wise advice for us. We may have to listen to her, and also learn from our ancestors how to perceive her, honor her, and live with her requirements.

An old Celtic triad says, “Endurance of the cailleach brings cleansing, purity, and renewal.”  I’ve always interpreted this to mean that if we can endure her, we are cleansed, purified, and renewed. (See “Hag” and Other Frightening Words, posted 2-18-2008.) But my friend Elizabeth Cunningham, the poet and novelist, gave me a different take on this. She reads the triad as saying that if the cailleach endures, there will be cleansing, purity, and renewal. And the cailleach will endure, as the Earth will endure in some state or other. Our shamanic practice opens doorways into her realm so we can listen to her.

The cailleach speaks for the Earth.  No one will stop her. I plan to listen.