“The World is Still Living” (Flight Behavior: A Review)

Kingsolver’s formulation of the intelligent non-scientist coming to terms with the scope of climate shift is brilliant. Getting beyond the paralysis of fear involves living motivated by something other than the need to feel safe. Essentially, the liberals are just as bad as the conservatives—for different reasons, but with the same effect of no change to the status quo.

“Teams had been chosen, and the scientists were not us, they were them.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior (2012, p. 171)

"Were they looking at some kind of disaster here?" (Kingsolver, p. 141)
“Were they looking at some kind of disaster here?” (Kingsolver, p. 141)

I started reading Flight Behavior two weekends ago. Took it slow in order to give Kingsolver’s language close attention, and also to follow through on my strategy for resisting drift. The idea has been to keep learning while working on the four survival essentials: water, food, shelter, and community. Most of my energy has been focused on the latter. Turns out I’m just like everyone else: “People resisted hearing the details of a problem…what they wanted was the fix” (Kingsolver, p. 228). A few weeks ago I told the Doomer Community over at Nature Bats Last, “I’m not sure that I need to know all the awful ways death will come, or the details of how bad it’s getting at ever-increasing rates.” In the meantime there’s a quiet internal chant, I want a community now!

Seeking a “formula for living that transcend[s] fear and safety” (Kingsolver, p. 16)

Kingsolver’s formulation of the intelligent non-scientist coming to terms with the scope of climate shift is brilliant. Getting beyond the paralysis of fear involves living motivated by something other than the need to feel safe. Is this the undercurrent that links the participants at two different celebrations written about in the last two blogentries? The “Mudfire!” group was composed of townies (more-or-less), and the “Monks & Nuns” were mostly transient graduate students from the University. In both situations, I found myself feeling like Dellarobia, “So there were worse things than feeding meat loaf to a vegetarian. Like blabbing wiki-facts to the person who probably discovered them in the first place” (Kingsolver, p. 121).  While clearly knowing more than me about many of the relevant subjects for survival, everyone I’ve spoken with since my conversion experience has discounted direct conversation about the fact that we’re going to lose the atmosphere.

#KRKTR Kingsolver Note

Planning for Illusionary Futures

I get why some of Guy McPherson’s responses to expressions of hope are tinged with frustration and a dash of bitter. Essentially, the liberals are just as bad as the conservatives—for different reasons, but with the same effect of no change to the status quo. The fossil fuel economy continues apace and everyone pretends the air will remain breathable. The Mudfire! folk put their hope in permaculture and relocalization; the Monks & Nuns put their hope in Buddhism or some other a/spiritual worship of The Now. Kingsolver, btw, expresses empathy for the climate scientist too: “We cannot jump to conclusions. All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science,” says Dr Byron, the representative scholar of lepidopterology (p. 244). So the Nature Bats Last (NBL) Doomers are keeping track of all the measurements, establishing as much permaculture and grid-independence as they can, and (as far as I can tell) not very much interested in unsettling the comfort of their collective stance of im/patient observation.

Social Resiliency

“There were two worlds here, behaving as if their own was all that mattered. With such reluctance to converse, one with the other. Practically without a common language.” ~ Kingsolver, p. 152

The issue is not the information itself: that’s out there for anyone to find.

Riding Girl, by Magritte.
Riding Girl, by Magritte.

Rather, everyone is well-trained in the viewpoints of their respective camps, and generally unskilled at negotiating understanding across the divides of diverse perspectives. Everyone (more or less) tends to think their way of knowing is the only or best way of knowing, for instance, which leads them to discount other paths of getting to similar conclusions. Especially if it takes a few seconds or even minutes of back-and-forth inquiry to establish a mutuality of comprehension. Contemporary, media-saturated society is so accustomed to instant gratification we think it’s not normal to slow down, but slowing down is the only way to bridge the gulfs among us.

I am referring to the socio-emotional process that the entire species is going to go through in successive waves of realization. A crucial part of carrying people through the initial freak-out stage (and subsequent ones) will be maintaining as much routine normalcy as possible. This means the relocalization strategies of investing in permaculture and applying spiritual practices to daily living are completely valid and ultimately absolutely necessary. But devotees, adherents and practitioners of all stripes could fire up more meta-level cognition about the interconnections of these myriad efforts instead of burrowing into the temporary utility.

We could begin to figure out how to coordinate humanity’s vast intelligence and ingenuity within the actual material parameters of the planet-wide environmental crisis.

6 thoughts on ““The World is Still Living” (Flight Behavior: A Review)”

  1. I feel it is worth noting that Guy has called for a reigning in of the behavior of the commenters at NBL. I think this is the second time he is injecting himself into what goes on there from a moderators perspective. Regardless, given what he advocates as “best practice,” this does not a community make. Isn’t a sharing of disparate perspectives more like the medium of broadcast media becoming the message? Is it easy to see the relative quantity of comments at NBL as being something something longed for and thereby conflate that longing with the need for community. As utilized, little that is digital is community (effected feelings to the contrary withstanding—of course). For me it is interesting that there is this longing for what we already have: community—as dysfunctional [and doomed] as it may be. 😉 …And thanks to the afore mentioned “best practice” of liberal moral sensibilities?

  2. Greg, did you comment about this at NBL, too? If so, could you post the link? And, here’s a bigger challenge, could you locate the entries where Guy has made these moderating requests? I’m curious what exactly he said and if/how/whether anyone responded. I haven’t been back to see if anyone replied to me yet. The previous couple of comments had not been acknowledged or noted (as far as I know, admitting the volume is too high for me to keep up with).

    I appreciate you hanging in here as a dialogue partner. There is a difference between crafting a conscious collectivity and collecting together just ’cause.

  3. From the end of Guy’s 1/30/13 entry:

    “My email in-box has spoken with a clear voice, and I agree. Please terminate the ridiculous comments, especially if you’re posting several times daily. It’s bad enough to feed the trolls here. It’s much worse to be the trolls here. If you find it too difficult to maintain civility in the comment space, please stop commenting.”

    In one of the first comments he clarifies what he means. If I understand his position correctly, it affects what I observed in my earlier comment.

    I stopped participating at NBL. Not only was the volume an issue, the functional immaturity of the dominate posters was tedious. I check in very occasionally. I tweet Guy if I run across something that might interest him.

    I don’t feel I’m much of a dialogue partner. I am trying to remember to check in once a week (after Tuesday) to be—mostly—supportive. And do so without shying away from criticism if I feel it is called for. I am a character. 😉

  4. Kingsolver gives voice to the very unscientific and immature behavior that has tracked privileged humanity–and because the Anthropocene is global–all of humanity into near-term extinction. It may be her editor, and/or the economic interests of the company who publishes her (HarperCollins) that insisted on the framing, but on page 279 her scientist character give validation to the 2°C/4°C optimism/story for which, particularly the 2°C part, was settled on due to politics around economic needs and well intended pragmatism (motivated reasoning), on the part of some politically influential scientists, but not science, itself. The 2°C number was not where the science was going in its naming of dangerous/tipping point thresholds. Until the 2°C figure was injected into the conversation, the debate was focused on parts per million of carbon dioxide and the carbon ioxide equilivant of other greenhouse gases (CO2e). Kingsolver’s parroting, as science, an inherently fuzzy number regarding temperature continues to delink measurable atmospheric greenhouse gas levels and their sources from what is to be feared and what isn’t safe. She gives the trusted feelings of the intuitive a free pass as ‘intelligence’ (the ability to slove problems) AND misrepresents science (the dynamic and collaborative process for doing so).

    Consequently, voices like McPherson and Anderson are linguistically challenged to place the conversation regarding policy, the Anthropocene, and near-term extinction back on a more science-centric track. The story a 2°C threshold tells enables the “hopium” of motivated reasoning gifting us with near-term extinction. As long as an admired and successful author spins a tale that deludes and is trusted, what chance does truth have against such conspiring? As implied with the term “intelligent non-scientist” used in this post, a rational equality supposedly exists between intuitive knowledge of what to be afraid of and what is safe, and what, of such, can be proven scientifically to be so. That is a oxymoron.

    My wife, a fan of Kingsolver’s, has just finished this book. I alerted her to it when you mentioned it a few posts prior to this review and when I was finding out more about you relative to my guest blog/attempt at a virtual conference at Nature Bats Last and your post there. I read the first and last chapter, and the epilogue of _Flifgt Behavior_ and knew it wasn’t something I should try to read. That said, my wife found it very helpful. She felt supported/affirmed in her intuitive way of knowing while struggling to live with the near-term extinction reality I bring to the relationship. My pointing out that extreme snow melts do not run across fields at the depths Kingsolver’ pens because of the latent heat of ice, nor that an engaged environmental scientist would, in such private conversations, parrot the hopium of 2°C, discouraged her. This ‘negativity’ on my part closed a door she thought Kingsolver’s had opened for her/us. Should I have read the whole book, or did Kingsolver champion the 51%’s trust in intuition as a stand alone intelligence? My wife’s reaction–and your review–seem to indicate she did . . . and abused language, and misrepresented science–as was necessary–to do so.

  5. Hi Greg,

    First, my apologies for the long delay in responding. In my own quest for meaningfulness against the ticking clock, it seemed relevant to actually finish writing my dissertation. The task required my full attention for the past few months (and will no doubt demand more of it over the next two or three as well).

    Second, thanks for being so candid with your criticism and the challenges near term extinction brings to bear on your relationship with your wife. I am quite sure you are not the only couple grappling with how to be/stay together in the face of total mortality.

    As to the substance of what you’ve shared, I will respond now and also reserve the right to write more later, okay? Leaving aside Kingsolver as an author/artist, what I can offer is an observation of the main tension you describe: between a scientific discourse and what science can measure, and an alternative way of knowing which you attribute to your wife and intuition.

    There is a problem with the dichotomy, the posing of the two kinds of knowledge as opposite and inherently unequal. It is obviously gendered, which may or may not be the kind of knowledge that helps facilitate . . . what? What is the resolution you imagine will come if your wife embraces “measurable atmospheric greenhouse gas levels and their sources”? What might you lose if you embrace some aspect of her “intuitive” view of how to carry on, day by day?

    So, the debate is gendered, which may only be of use in reifying the power and force of the (male) science.

    Who cares if the discourse of science is male and imposed (willingly or not, consciously or not, intended or not) by force on, as you say, not only the privileged percentage of humanity to which we belong but the vast majority of humans already suffering the adverse consequences of industrialized technology?

    As much as science knows, there are a few things it hasn’t figured out. Time/gravity is one of those things. Whether that mystery holds meaning for humanity is unknown and may remain undiscovered. Another thing science hasn’t figured out yet is life itself. What is it that makes us sentient and the flowers to grow and bugs motivated to crawl and fly around? Words are inadequate to contain how tremendous it is for us to have such acute consciousness of the imminence of the end. Contests and cooperation among genders and how they crisscross with ways of knowing are the very stuff of human living. How lucky you are to have a partner still seeing this through with you!

    Resistance to science as absolute authority is as meaningful to her as your literal acceptance is to you. The point, as near as I can tell, of all these differences is to enable life and living. I’m not talking about extreme relativism or denial, I think these two stances are mutually-reinforcing ways of living a life that (in Guy McPherson’s words) is “not worth living” and making it worthy according to means and standards within grasp.

  6. What is permaculture? Permaculture is a regenerative design science rooted in the patterns of nature, with practical applications that extend far beyond organic farming into every area of our lives. As a holistic design science, regenerative design is a powerful paradigm of sustainability for governments, businesses, cities, communities and relationships. It is ultimately about maximizing the quality of life and health for everyone through smart design focused on maximizing sustainable yields.

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