It is pleasant having company. A friend’s boat is anchored about thirty yards from AVENTURA in a peaceful little cove. He is another solo sailor, which makes us kindred spirits and members of a very small fellowship. I am watching him row through the amber-tinted twilight, dragging a fishing line behind his dinghy. His sunset ritual is both functional and philosophical. He is attempting to catch his dinner, while also immersing himself in the thinker’s milieu of Nature, silence and solitude.
This evening there is no fish for him, but he is still smiling as he rows over. He smoothly climbs aboard my sloop, as I tie his dinghy line to a cleat.
“Sorry Ray, no luck tonight,” he apologizes.
“Lawrence, our friendship has never relied on you providing a fish.” Let me go below and fix us a couple of drinks worthy of this splendid sunset.”
I return with some freshly squeezed orange juice “enhanced” with good cheap local rum and a good free local lime. Like the two unrepentant hippies that we are, we raise our glasses and toast, “Peace.” But this was not just homage to our bygone days in the anti-war protests, it also encompassed a wider “peace” - the serenity of this quiet bay - and the contentment that comes from having found a way of living that provides ENOUGH. In a world obsessed with more, More, MORE we have found The Joy of Less!
Being deep ocean sailors, accustomed to spending weeks alone with just Mother Ocean to talk to, we said nothing as we watched the darkening West. Then I gently broke our silence by saying, “I have a little gift for you. You may not have caught a fish, but you helped me catch a haiku.” I then showed him my notepad with about ten versions of the tiny poem crossed out; and with the one that had satisfied me, remaining. It read:
A friend is fishing
in the stillness of twilight –
hoping for dinner.
I tore the page from my spiral notebook and passed it to him. He thanked me without words, but with a nod of his head and a brief smile. We settled back into silence. After a few minutes it was interrupted when we saw someone on a nearby shore light a cooking fire.
“Did you hear about the boat in St. Thomas Harbor?” Lawrence asked.
“No, what boat?”
“A forty-foot ketch caught fire and sank … a total loss.”
“Did the sailors get hurt?”
“No, they are fine. They were ashore when it happened. The other cruisers took up a collection to get them some money to fly back to the States.”
“Now that is a genuine waking nightmare.”
We both sat silently, wrestling with that ugly scenario for a while, and then I asked him:
“Lawrence, what would you do if you lost SLO MO in a catastrophe?”
He sat quietly for almost a full minute before responding.
“Well, since I don’t have insurance, and since my puny pension would never allow me to save enough to buy another boat, I’d have to give up the Sea. But I couldn’t do that completely. It is just too visceral within me. It is just too much a part of what ME is. I do have a friend in a very remote area of British Columbia who has a log cabin overlooking the ocean. He says that I could come build a little house on his property and he would gladly help me with the construction. I wouldn’t be ON the Sea, but I would be NEXT to her and, could still enjoy the other aspects of this sea gypsy life which mean so much to me – the closeness to Nature, the slow pace, the escape from too many people and the nourishing quiet.”
“Sounds good to me, my friend – a life of peaceful flourishing.”
“How about you, Ray?”
“Actually, I have thought of that possibility a few times in the past -although I can’t remember what events inspired such solemn meditations. Lawrence, do you recall that during another chapter of my life, when I was a pretty well-respected street performer, I managed to juggle my way around the world?”
“Yes, that is hard to forget - especially after you showed me that picture of you juggling five balls on the Great Wall of China.”
“Well, my favorite part of that adventure was doing my show for the ordinary people of the world. Seeing those smiles and hearing that rich laughter in all of those parks and marketplaces touched me in a very deep place. I suspect that it is a big part of why I am hyper-sensitive to the injustice that torments so much of our planet. Why should those decent, kind people have to struggle so constantly in their daily lives, when so many others wallow in obscene riches?”
“But, Ray, I thought that you use your blog as a way to battle back against all of that!?”
“I do – I do! But sometimes the apparent futility of my efforts just wears me down. And when I witness the failed attempts of so many other people of good will to improve the human and planetary condition, it just pushes me towards surrender. But if I do hang up my crusader’s lance, I will dust off my backpack and circle the globe again. My goal would be to bring a trace more happiness into the lives of the regular people – the downtrodden -the forgotten - the dispossessed.”
“Excelente, Ramon. But if you ever embark upon that quest, don’t forget to pause along the way and savor the staggering beauty of this plush planet. It is so tragic that it is less and less appreciated as humanity descends into the hellish artificiality of the iWorld.”
“Whew - well spoken, Lawrence. I may have to use that line in one of my essays.”
“So, how often do you get discouraged by the apparent insolubility of it all?”
“Well, it is the very concept of “Insolubility” that often triggers my depression. It could be solved. But the dark forces, or what I like to call the Malignant Overlords, that defend the status quo are so overpowering, that it is extremely unlikely that significant change will ever occur. That is, until it all just collapses in an apocalyptic nightmare.”
“Unfortunately, that is my conclusion as well, Ray. But since the rum is cheap and the evening is just beginning, why don’t you describe in more detail your belief that this could be solved. I remain skeptical, but I welcome the opportunity to hear you go “full Utopian” on me!”
“Full Utopian! That will definitely require another round of drinks. I’ll be right back.” A few minutes later I passed Lawrence his glass and took a long sip from mine.
“The tiny optimism that I do possess stems from my conviction that if we could redirect our immense human ability as problem solvers, we could radically improve our relationship with the Earth. In its current configuration, only a tiny proportion of the global population flourishes. The vast majority struggles to lead a life of even basic comfort, and an enormous portion battles to just stay alive. How can this be acceptable? How can this not be perceived as EVIL? Or to state it more graphically – how can we permit a society where billions of people use water in their toilets that is cleaner than the best drinking water that billions of other humans have tasted in their entire lives?”
“I believe I can answer that question. It is because the two massive meta-systems that dominate our world are irreparably corrupt and profoundly harmful. They are toxic to humans, animals and the living systems of the planet. These villains are Capitalism and Democracy. They might have been brilliant and beneficial systems in previous centuries, but they have evolved into Crony Capitalism and Phony Democracy.”
“There are no “free markets” in modern capitalism. The game is rigged in favor of the Few and the Big. The average person doesn’t have a chance against the contemporary corporate goliaths. Just ask the tens of thousands of small storeowners who were carpet bombed out of business by Wal-Mart. And as for representatative democracy, it is a farce. It is a charade whereby a tiny oligarchy rules the gigantic majority of the population, while giving the false impression that the people actually have some influence on their affairs. It is basically a replay of aristocracy and serfdom but with a happy face.”
Lawrence jokingly interrupted my diatribe by saying, “Ray, you need to stop holding back and learn how to express your true feelings!” We both laughed and he continued, “Do you know the great Thoreau quote about striking the root?”
“Yes, I do and it totally resonates with me. I memorized it decades ago: ‘There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.’ And in a way that observation gives me a little hope. There are already millions of well-intentioned specialists researching single issues and offering solutions for improving them. But there is a shortage of generalists to illuminate the bigger picture.”
“So allow me to put on my generalist hat. As long as Phony Democracy and Crony Capitalism are not dismantled, there can be no significant human betterment. Those institutions do not care about the common good - they care only about obscene greed – about the further enrichment and empowerment of those who are already too rich and too powerful. This is the point at which the defenders of capitalism will normally howl about all of the benefits that it has brought to the everyday citizen. But this is utterly false. All of the gains made by ordinary people were won by battling capitalism. Minimum wages and reasonable work weeks and trade unions were not handed to the workers. Instead, the people had to organize and protest and strike. And the dark powers of the status quo defended their fiefdoms with ferocious violence and massive incarcerations.”
“And as for Democracy’s claim of providing victories at the ballot box, that is also false. Women had to battle to even get to the ballot box. And the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement were not achieved through elections. They succeeded through massive insubordination by millions of everyday citizens. And the situation has only worsened in recent decades. Over 80% of the American people opposed the Second Iraq War and yet the politicians invaded anyway.”
“Until people awaken to the fact that Democracy and Capitalism are just camouflage, allowing the most ambitious and ruthless element of society to control everyone else, we are doomed. Those in charge are not the best and the brightest - they are the worst and the dullest.”
“And they are driving humanity over a cliff. Their self-worship so distorts their ability to perceive the actual world, that they don’t see what I call the Big Bad “E’s approaching. These are the calamities of Energy, Economics and Ecology. They are so blinded by their allegiance to progress and growth and technology, that they don’t see the colossal deterioration in the Big “E” systems. Our Energy needs are so dire, that we have to be at constant war in the oil-rich Middle East. Our Economy is so shattered, that 50 million people are on food stamps. Our Ecology is so destroyed that our topsoil has almost vanished - forcing us to grow our food on a thin veneer of petro-fertilizers.”
“All of this seems so obvious, that one has to question whether the Malignant Overlords just do not care. They might be so casual about this because they foolishly believe that they can survive and even flourish during these onrushing Armageddons. They think that they will be safe from the pitch-forks in their gated communities. They assume that their huge fortunes will insulate them from economic catastrophe. And they gamble that their private islands will shield them from environmental meltdown. But what they fail to comprehend is that every aristocratic class in every empire had the same illusions of invincibility. But show me the heir of a single Assyrian or Egyptian or Babylonian oligarch that did not go down in flames as their imperial domination incinerated.”
“Damn, amigo, you are really rolling and I hate to interrupt such an impassioned rant, but zealotry makes me thirsty. Any chance of getting a refill?’
“Certainly, Lawrence,” but I’ll just have some water this time so that you don’t think that my critique is originating from the rum bottle and not from my years of study and thinking.”
As I handed him a fresh drink, I said, “Are you still up for ‘full utopian?’”
He lifted his glass and said, “Most definitely!” And so I continued.
“The reason for my initial emphasis on Crony Capitalism and Phony Democracy is that they stand squarely in the way of any significant change. Unless these meta-systems are demolished, no authentic new vision can emerge. Certainly these institutions are so monolithic that they seem omnipotent, but so did world communism and look at how swiftly that was toppled.”
“The problem is that too many well-intentioned reformers believe that the changes that they advocate can co-exist with these overarching domination frameworks. Take perma-culture for example. Any sane and unbiased observer will conclude that America’s industrial food template is wrong on almost every level. And perma-culture, with its emphasis on local, sustainable, labor-intensive cultivation, is a perfect alternative. But it is doomed to only marginal success as long as Big Agriculture can trample any threat to its power and control.”
“We need a bottom up revolution in vision that demands decapitation of the top of the pyramid. I am speaking metaphorically here. You might recall a phrase that I often repeat at my blog: ‘The Road to the Future Leads to the Past.’ I don’t keep emphasizing that because I think it is a clever aphorism; I do so because I believe it offers us a tiny glimmer of hope in a bleak future landscape. We must recognize that the world must downsize and contract and we must begin to intelligently foster this process. We can either do this voluntarily or we can watch in horrified disbelief as a fiery eruption of mayhem and death overwhelms us.”
“Here are some of the elements of that revolution in vision that I am advocating. We must come together as equal Earth citizens and acknowledge that our future as a species is in actual jeopardy. Therefore, we must renounce our differences and embrace our similarities. This is a planetary sink or swim moment. We need a Last Chance Reboot.”
“Let me briefly touch on the basic human needs. Those would be water, food, shelter, medicine, transportation, communication and security. In all of these areas we must abandon our intoxication with MORE, MORE, MORE and welcome a future of LESS, LESS, LESS! The great news is that for decades there have been organizations focusing on these issues. They already have a wealth of ideas that are ready to be implemented if we can just get Phony Democracy and Crony Capitalism out of the way.”
“Furthermore, by dismantling those societal dinosaurs, we can tap into an enormous pool of talent that has been misdirecting its creative power. For example, instead of developing ever more hideous weapons of destruction, those scientists could be working on solar-powered light rail systems. Minds that have been wasted on high frequency stock manipulation could be re-directed towards reshaping a banking system that is helpful rather than harmful. And all of the people that have been manning the U.S overseas imperial bases can come home and contribute to the re-tooling of their own country.”
At this point my energy suddenly wound down. It took me a minute to recognize why I felt so drained, and then I explained it to my friend who was confused by my sudden silence.
“Damn, Lawrence, it is so unusual for me to be verbalizing on such heavy topics. Usually, I am alone thinking about them or researching them or writing about them. So it is almost like my batteries have suddenly worn down.”
“Rum … more rum!” he exclaimed with cheerful enthusiasm, “think of it as philosophical battery fluid. Don’t forget what Yeats said on this topic: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’”
Then he cheerfully slapped me on the back and headed below to fix us a round of drinks. When he returned we clinked our glasses together and he said, “To the consolations of philosophy.” Then he added, “We are probably the only two humans on the planet toasting that at this moment. Now then, let us silently savor Demon Rum for a few minutes and then you must continue. Since you assert that the road to the future leads to the past, how far back do you see it taking us?”
About ten minutes later I said, “My guess is to about mid-19th century … before railroads had spread their web everywhere and turbo-charged industrialism. Society was mostly agrarian plus there were skilled craftsmen almost everywhere. In fact, the Luddite Movement was a rebellion by the British craft guilds that feared the severe problems that heavy industry and mass production would cause. People traveled on foot, by horseback or in sailing ships. But the future that I anticipate would be a hybrid. There would still be cars and trains and planes, but they would be hugely reduced in numbers. If we don’t voluntarily throttle back, we will be headed for the Dark Ages rather than the 19th Century. And in fact there are many who believe our excesses could doom us to actual extinction. They see the road leading us to a fate as Dinohumans.”
“For such a radical downsizing to succeed there needs to be a planet-wide existential paradigm shift. People will have to universally embrace less quantity but more quality in their daily lives. Humanity will have to dramatically slow down its approach to living. They will need to appreciate the joys of true friendship as opposed to Facebook friendship. The workforce will have to shift back to the land with intense manual or low tech farming. There is already a great example of this radical reboot being experimented with successfully in the many Transition Towns that have sprung up in several countries. If enough people recognize that our only viable future requires enormous personal and societal changes then maybe we can evolve from ruthless competitors to sharing co-operators.”
“Call me a fool – as many already have done with great vigor – but I find my Road to the Future Leads to the Past concept a blueprint for not just existing but for flourishing. That vision includes walk-able small towns with few roads and many bike paths and solar-powered Segways. Healthy food from farmer’s markets and community gardens is an obvious improvement over the Frankenfood we eat now. My idea gets the population out of their suburban cells that breed isolation, alienation, despair, violence and suicide and into a real community with true friends and not just imaginary Facebook friends. There could still be an internet but the power supply would be local from home solar panels and not from monopoly power company grids. Community-owned banks would encourage thrift and provide simple interest loans to local businesses. Participatory sports would become more popular than spectator sports. Better food, doing errands on foot or bike, less sitting in cars and in front of The Tube would burst the obesity bubble.”
“Let me take one example that everyone can understand. Look at a typical suburban mall. It is full of people trying to add “that missing something” to their lives … by shopping. But it is a hollow pursuit, because in an age of conspicuous consumption, somebody else can buy something better or flashier or more expensive. So their satisfaction is exceedingly short-lived.”
“Now contrast that with the sheer joy that would pulse amongst a crowd of a thousand people as they stood side by side and tore up that mall parking lot with picks and shovels and converted it into acres of community farmland. And another thousand people could be transforming the buildings into a community college or a trade school or a dozen other valuable uses.”
“Admittedly, most people would say that I am just a dreamer and that this is impossible. But we already started it…”
“I was just going to mention that!” interjected Lawrence. “We tried in the Sixties. In only a couple of years we sculpted an entirely new way of approaching life. Just imagine how different things would be now if our vision had taken root a half a century ago. It is sad and tragic, but perhaps it can happen now. The big difference is urgency. If the choice is between the Dark Ages and a communal approach to life, our counter-culture dreams might actually succeed this time.”
And then my sea gypsy friend leaned over and clinked his glass against mine and slowly said, “You may call us two dreamers … but we’re not the only ones!”