As featured in
ROBERT MC GAHEY
The Blade of Wheat at the
End of the World
Ah, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind
‘Swamiji, what happens to the Creator's desire for creation to know him through attaining self-realization as human beings if an irreversible wave of climate change leads to the extinction of our species on this planet?’
There were audible gasps in the full hall of listeners. Mine was a frightening, yet reasonable question.
Answering in Hindi, Swami Paramanand, supposedly a realised being, responded: ‘Do you know creation?’
Chastened by the recognition of all that I did not know, I replied, ‘Sounds like what God said to Job out of the whirlwind.’
Swami Parmanand proceeded to mime a stalk of wheat. ‘What happens when the stalk ripens to maturity?’
‘It is harvested,’ Job replied.
The Swami nodded his head; just so the world when it has run its course, and thus our species when its race is run, whether the divine lila – the game that God plays by hiding Himself in all creation, as the Upanishads detail – is fulfilled or not.
As Swami Paramanand held his forearm to the sky, I was struck by the homology with the Eleusinian mysteries, where the priest holds up a blade of wheat to be sacrificed, Demeter sacrificing her daughter Persephone, to be reborn as spring. Both the Dionysian and Christian mysteries replay this ritual. I suddenly realized that the swami was extending our local imagery – local to the West and the planet – to the universal dance of death and rebirth, universe after universe.
The swami continued: ‘Do you know the purpose for which you were born?’
Damn. They always come to this, these teachers. Even the Hindu fellow-traveller on the train would casually ask, ‘And what is your purpose, my goodsirruh?’ My purpose, from the standpoint of Advaita Vedanta and a line of sages stretching back thousands of years, was the Hindu version of 'know thyself'. Become realised yourself, and stop worrying about creation, the Earth I was trying to save.
‘Swamiji, I understand what you are saying. But I don't accept this with the same equanimity as a realized being.’
Swami Paramanand nodded again, smiling. At least the aspirant knew where things stood.
Human Extinction and Ecological Faith
For many years now, I have been periodically visited by Death. He wears a heavy dark cloak, hooding his face, and carries a big sickle. Though formidable, the scythe is not so unwieldy that he can't nimbly move over obstacles. He has big hands, a farmer's or blacksmith's. I imagine his face as I write now – long, thin, bony, intelligent, cunning – but I have never actually seen it. He is crossing a boulder field. Nimbly. He only stops occasionally to sharpen his sickle, then springs to his feet and moves steadily on towards me. He has me in his sights.
I went to India on a Fulbright grant right after college graduation and spent a year teaching English and studying North Indian classical singing with a master. I was enthralled by the culture, especially the belief, strongest in rural areas, that spirit was paramount and material life secondary. I felt deeply at home for the first time in my life, with my introversion and mystical tendencies fully valued. I took on the persona as well, letting my hair and bear grow, dressing in kurta-pyjamas. It was always confusing to my fellow train-travelers that such a fellow was a lecturer at Indore University. As one said, 'But sirruh, you must be being Amrikan hippy-saddhu – see how you dress.' As for death, after being protected from it for my first twenty-two years, I got a full dose in Hindustan, where it is out in the open: at the burning ghats, in the gutters, at the train station. That year turned my world inside out.
And now, with our dream of progress at its apogee, Death stalks our entire species. For we are unaware that the myth of progress, like all dreams, is simply a swinging arc, and on its return, the arc becomes that scythe blade. We are the first creature not only to foresee personal death, but to foresee species death, the death of its very form.
Death certainly threatens global civilisation, whose Herculean expenditures of energy and natural capital have created a towering, unsustainable potential for self-destruction. The inexorable logic of population dynamics shows that, like any species, we are limited by our food supply, and even though we have systematically stolen other species' habitats, harvesting virtually the whole arable planet, we continue to reproduce as if the Earth had no limits. Though most of us steadily and blissfully ignore it, this is elementary. Our species crossed the boundary of planetary sustainability in 1986, when we consumed 100% of the planet's annual biotic output. So we have lived on her capital for more than thirty years, gouging deeper and deeper. Meanwhile, we have edged closer to another boundary, a thermodynamic one.
At some level, we are all desperately fighting to avoid collapse. At the species level, when we say that we are fighting to ‘save the Earth’, what we really mean is that we are fighting for human survival. We want to maintain our own species' ascendance in this, the Cenozoic era of mammals, our niche amplified by the social and material forms we have grown accustomed to. But this context is a rapidly changing one, for our tool-extensions have become the monstrous technological onslaught by which we are commoditising the earth. Despite an awakening to the reality of climate change, our continued maintenance of unsustainable lifestyles – culturally-accepted greed multiplied by human numbers – is tearing huge holes in the earth's fabric. We have become a ‘planetary power’ whose collective action is sufficient to alter the entire system.
Let's face it; not only the Holocene epoch, but the Cenozoic era, the age of flowering plants and mammals, is at risk. Of the total number of species – perhaps 8 million – 20% are doomed, even if we act quickly to mitigate climate change. The more likely levels are 50-60%. The sixth great extinction in Earth's history is underway. We do not know if our species will perish during this event, but it is very possible, for much that we depend upon will soon be gone.
Death will certainly come, to us and eventually to the Earth, but, like Everyman, we want it to be delayed as long as possible. What seemed infinitely far away a few decades ago now appears right on the horizon. I look at my young grandsons and toddling granddaughter, calculating the scant generations left, no longer numberless as the sands.
It is not likely that Gaia will see the likes of another intelligent ape again if we suffer extinction – but it is possible; life, multifarious life, eventually leading to big-brained great apes, survived the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago, when more than 90% of species disappeared. Evolution is a powerful agent working within the body of Gaia, still occupying a sweet spot in the known universe.
Since the Renaissance, our faith has been in human ingenuity, in reason. ‘Man is the measure of all things.’ But at a time when the Earth faces yet another die-off since the inception of life 3.5 billion years ago, it is imperative to ground ourselves in a faith which reaches deeper than our own anthropocentric self-regard. Ecological faith is faith in Gaia and her ability not only to endure, but to thrive as long as the conditions that allowed her to self-organise persist. Life on earth will continue until the endgame of our solar system. And, depending on the extent of the Sixth Extinction, it may flourish yet again, attaining a degree of complexity in creatures we cannot imagine.
The Regenerative Universe: Cosmogenetic Faith
Swami Paramanand's answer to my question about human extinction helped me expand an ecological faith to one reaching beyond this universe to the infinite nature of Brahman, beyond time and the particular forms we know. Hindus believe that the universe has been created and destroyed many times and that this process will continue ad infinitum. Some Shaivites believe it happens every microsecond.
Hindu sages have traditionally explained the birth and death of countless universes in terms of a divine cycle of introversion and extroversion. During the introverted stage, the divine sinks into its own essential nature, and the universe rests as potential form. Sages call this the 'sleep of Brahma.' During the extroverted stage, e.g. the Big Bang and its aftermath, it displays itself in a magisterial panoply of material forms in evolutionary flux. In the Hindu cosmology, divine creation is not constrained by the limits that Big Bang cosmology carries like an eschatological seed – a terminator meme that lurks within its elegant, but space-time bounded theory.
The Big Bang theory is the cosmological mirror of our ideas of linear progress and the endless ascendency of human reason. I watched it come to dominate our thinking as I grew up, but since around 1990, the germ of a new paradigm has begun to sprout. In a Scientific American article from February 2017, ‘Pop Goes the Universe,’ the authors describe an accumulating body of new data from orbiting instruments beyond the smudged glass of Earth's atmosphere, which cover the full octave of wave-lengths rather than just those derived from visible light, which form the basis of the Big Bang theory. The data derived from visible light alone shows an unimaginably rapid initial inflation of the universe, to explain which Big Bang proponents must invoke special conditions. The authors suggest the data is more plausibly explained by an expansion following a previous period of contraction – a ‘big bounce,’ the repetition of which could well go on indefinitely.
The idea of a ‘continuous creation’ has a more nuanced variant named the ‘regenerative universe.’ Rather than an overarching pattern of cycles of expansion and contraction, the regenerative theory postulates an environment where structures and boundary conditions form and reform across many scales. Based upon the fundamental ubiquity of electromagnetic forces, rather than gravity, the theory postulates ongoing creation from electric plasma, painting a picture of long, twisted paired filaments from electromagnetic pulses. These electromagnetic forces, 39 times stronger than gravity, and acting over hugely greater distances, obviate the need for ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, which are postulated by Big Bang theorists, but have never been observed. Instead, in the regenerative scheme, long plasma filaments connect galaxies and super-clusters of galaxies. The largest known observed filament is 10 million light years long. And a hypercluster nicknamed the 'Great Wall,' could well be 10 billion light years across! In the electromagnetic universe, everything is connected; rather than being seen as empty, dead space, this is a vision that Nietzsche intuited in an unpublished fragment, of the world as a 'colossus of energy, without beginning, without end... that does not expend itself but only transforms itself... not a space that would be "empty" anywhere, rather as force everywhere, as play of forces and waves of forces...'.
The terminator meme required by the Big Bang (‘you only go 'round once’) is not derived from experimental, observable science, but rather is another instance of mythical thinking in the supposedly objective realm of science, despite the brilliance of the astrophysicists who elaborated the theory. It is telling that some of the same scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project blithely transferred the metaphor of a huge explosion to the dominant cosmological theory of the twentieth century. The old mammalian politics is manifest in the power struggles among scientists over who gets to publish in the distinguished peer-reviewed journals. The steady-state folks lost out decades ago, and the ascendant Big Bang theorists have kept them at bay until now. But a treasure trove of new data that the Big Bang gang struggle to accommodate has forced the debate into the open.
I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before the regenerative theory becomes the norm in western cosmology. Emergent modern scientific cosmological theory is a welcome affirmation for those of us influenced in the Sixties and Seventies by Eastern metaphysics, especially by the confident assumption of the infinite possibility of cosmogenesis. Deep intuition now has theoretical ballast, supported by a rich set of new observations. What fascinates me about the regenerative universe theory is not only that it recognises that ‘in the beginning there were multiple beginnings,’ as Robert E. Messick, Jr. has put it, but that it meshes with Hindu sages' purely metaphysical intuition about cycles of creation-dissolution and dormancy: the sleep of Brahma. It is an intuition that the ultimate restoration, outlasting the ecocide of the Sixth Extinction, might be the regeneration of the universe itself, beyond the horizon of the heat-death of the Sun.
Shards of Brahma's Handiwork
Deeply moved by a workshop on despair and empowerment with Joanna Macy, I retired from academia in 2000 to focus on the global ecocrisis. I became a trainer in Macy's network, taught climate science at churches, marched in the streets, and was twice arrested for civil disobedience. But after leading a workshop on 'Collapsing Consciously,' I collapsed myself, and it took years to recover. I learned I could not live without hope, but most of the hope I encountered around me was dishonest. Encountering the theory of the regenerative universe has given me comfort that, though we may well fail in our efforts to awaken humanity to its collective madness, the process of creative evolution is ongoing. It does not mean to turn away from the work of uncivilisation, and the temporary bulwarks against collapse like regenerative agriculture and the mutual aid society that I support in my Southern Appalachian river valley. But it does remove the burden of saving the world.
A few years ago, my wife and I circumambulated Mount Kailash, the mythic abode of Shiva, god of destruction – both of the individual ego and of material creation itself. Kailash is considered by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains to be the centre of the world. Once in that moonscape, what drew me was Lake Manosarovar, the shimmering ethereal place where Brahma reflected creation into being from its characteristic greenish glacial melt. I found its shores strewn about with stones of all sorts. ‘A geological mess’ an expert geologist friend commented as I showed her my samples. They looked to me like the shards of Brahma's efforts at creation. Many appeared to have writing on them, intricate cracks and seams forming complex patterns, reminiscent of Tibetan ‘mani-stones,’ deposited everywhere in Brahma's landscape of creation.
Who will read those stones when we are gone? What does it mean for the Earth, or perhaps even the universe, to lose what may be its premier locus of self-reflection, not only sentient, but conscious of its creative process, its beauty and complexity? Such a loss points beyond an ecological faith to the sense of mystery and reverence expressed in the words, made in God's image. Can faith abide at a moment when we face not only permanent losses in the fabric of life, but its observer and celebrant as well?
As the tsunami wave of consequences begins to break upon us, ending a magnificent geological era in which our species arose and upon which all our earthly hopes rest, my Gaian hope is for complex life to continue to evolve in Earth's remaining time. We know that the Earth will outlast us and endure until her time, too, ripens. But it took a universe and time to evolve the magnificent Cenozoic. What kind of progeny will thrive on an ageing Earth which has been blasted by a thankless, reckless child? Nevertheless, if I am faithful to what I know, acting with integrity, then I will live as if to sustain the fabric of the Cenozoic, even as it tatters and collapses under the stresses of the Anthropocene epoch.
It is mind-boggling to think that our place in the Great Dance of Creation may soon vanish, but the Hindu metaphysics of my hippy-saddhu youth has permeated me. Beyond this field of dharma, Kali Yuga, the end-time of Earth's Cenozoic era, my deepest hope and faith are in cosmogenesis, the unquenchable and infinite possibilities of the Source of this universe, which even now prepares its rest from the battlefield of cosmic striving. Entropy, expressed in the second law of thermodynamics, is universal, yet it is offset by the syntropy of limitless Creation, implicit in the very fabric of possibility, even beyond space-time. You're right Swamiji, I do not know creation, so I won't presume to predict the outcome of the dance - though you have pointed me to a possibility that may not require metaphysics.
But if it is humans that you love, and other mammals, and the wildflowers of spring, and the fishes and frogs, and the birds and magnificent forest remnants of this earthly time, then look upon those faces and forms you love best, with the gaze of a dying man hungry for every moment of consciousness, and commit them to soul-memory. If the soul transmigrates not only between lives in this bounded universe, but between universes, perduring through the long sleep of Brahma, then she will remember, and our images will be everlasting in a way the seed of our species can never be.
Rest well, oh Brahma. May your great works continue to prosper, in universe after universe. And you, my loves, my friends, my children and grandchildren, live the best life you can, as if this world would always remain in pristine, balanced perfection.