I wrote this as a long essay in the fall of 2007, after my last trip to the United States, as the initial, introductory statement of my vision for the Dharmagaians website and blog. I wrote it in order to articulate for myself both my perspective and the concerns I wanted to address. However, realizing that the convention for blog posts is to keep them short, I broke the essay up into five interlinked parts, reflecting the Dharmagaian perspective, which looks for the Big Picture of our time in the interrelatedness of all its parts. In December 2007, I tucked “Turning Danger into Opportunity” away in a file, and have spent the last two-and-a-half years writing essays and creating links pages for the website – and learning the technology to put it together. Only now am I learning to operate the blog.
Meanwhile, the crises I was concerned about in 2007 are now heating up and piling up. Rereading those five parts recently, I found it interesting to recall how I saw things at the end of 2007; for I’ve spent the years since then watching events in the world accelerate, and not one of the crises I mentioned then has gone away. In any case, “Turning Danger into Opportunity” does convey the flavor and scope of the Dharmagaians website.
Comments are welcome; but, before you comment, I ask that you wait until you’ve read all five parts of “Turning Danger into Opportunity,” and perhaps some of the linked references. Please also read the Comment Protocols.
Earthling (Suzanne Duarte)
As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such a twilight that we all must be aware of change in the air–however slight–lest we become unwilling victims of the darkness. ~ Justice William O. Douglas
I live in Europe, specifically in Amsterdam. I moved here at the end of 2001 from the mountains of Colorado because my Dutch partner, Jan-Paul (JP), was needed by his family after he had lived in the States for 17 years. We didn’t plan to stay here, but six years later we’re still here, and the world has changed in drastic ways.
In 2007 we made two trips to the United States from Europe. The first was to California, my childhood home state, and the second to the Southeast and Northeast. It was the first time I had returned to my home country since 2001, and I was very curious to see how much had changed on the ground after I had followed environmental and political news very closely during the intervening years. Viewed from Europe, and mostly through alternative media via the internet, the United States appears quite different from the way I experienced it when I was there during those visits.
First of all, I must admit that I was thrilled to be back in my own country. I have an abiding soul connection with the land and the people, and feel much more at home there than I do in Europe. I was as excited as a child to be in the state where I grew up and to be able to share it with JP, who had never been there. The drive up Highway One along the coast between Ventura and Santa Cruz was just as breathtakingly beautiful as it had been when I was in my 20’s – 40 years before. An overnight stay in Big Sur, with visits to Esalen, the Nepenthe Restaurant and the Henry Miller Memorial Museum, allowed me to revisit some of the adventures and literary fantasies of my youth, when Henry Miller and Robinson Jeffers had ignited my imagination. Being in the SF Bay Area brought back the progressive, activist spirit of the 1960’s when I lived in Berkeley, as well as of the 1990’s when I lived in San Francisco and worked at the Rainforest Action Network. A trip to the Sequoias, so that Jan-Paul could experience the big trees, brought me joy and peace as big as the trees; for the High Sierras were my first spiritual home, and cathedrals of redwoods were my first place of worship. The natural beauty of California still puts me into an altered state.
But what was surprising about being in the US was that most of my lovely, good-hearted friends and family know so little about what is going on in their country and about how America is viewed from the outside. They are too busy struggling to survive or to secure what they have. However, I saw signs of crisis that my friends and family do not see and don’t want to see, or cannot believe.
It is commonplace among my American friends in Europe to observe that the United States exists in a bubble that’s about to pop, and to experience that bubble was bittersweet for me. The ‘sweet’ part was that the bubble – the illusion of peace, abundance, safety and stability – really did seem sweet. The ‘bitter’ part was that I was not able to share my views and concerns. I want the people I care about to know what I know so that they can prepare themselves for what’s coming. Even though I’ve lived with this concern – indeed, anguish (which is almost universal among environmental activists) – for over 20 years, that didn’t make it any the less poignant.
On our second and longer trip to the Southeast during the summer, JP and I often shared the sense that life in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee felt surreal and alienating, if not slightly threatening – as if the states exist in a time warp, or a bubble. We couldn’t penetrate the surface, and wondered if there was any depth or reality in those places. The kind, generous, hospitable people, who made our stay in South Carolina not only possible but also pleasant, did not seem at all interested in the big picture of what is happening in their country and the larger world. Although they are educated and intelligent, their lives are strictly local and deeply rooted – perhaps so deeply rooted that they do not understand the meaning of the changes that are going on around them.
In some places, enormous big-box chain stores and strip malls have completely replaced local, independent businesses. Some of the towns have no center or any public spaces for community life. The trend is toward privatized and commercialized land use. I saw the stamp of remote corporate control everywhere, but especially in the numbed expressions of the cashiers. This kind of landscape feels extremely alienating to me. It is a radical change from the way things were only 20 years ago. But nobody who lived there seemed to notice or to feel the change in the air. In fact, when we asked questions of the locals – for example, where to buy maps or organic food – the most common answer was, “I don’t know.” It was as if some of the locals we met had become so alienated by the changes that they had sunk into apathy and moved around like zombies.
Everything in the areas where we were in the Southeast and in Southern California is spread out and there is almost no public transportation, so that people are accustomed to frequent long-distance driving – usually by themselves, one person per car. We saw very few old cars – everybody seems to have new cars, which probably means that everybody is living on credit and is in debt. They didn’t seem to notice that gas prices were going up or to realize that oil prices would continue to rise, which will impact their driving habits, the cost of living, and their whole way of life. I worry for them, feeling certain that their way of life will soon have to change and that they will have few options for making other arrangements that leave them some freedom. But they didn’t want to know. Some think such concerns are “negative thinking.” I definitely felt it would be rude to try to disillusion them; and, as a guest, it is unwise to alienate one’s hosts or the local spirits.
The bubble mentality, by the way, does not apply to all of the Southeast US. Western North Carolina, especially Ashville and surrounding towns, felt more grounded and real, more connected to the larger world, and awake. Ashville is home to many progressives and eco-activists concerned with sustainability, and I felt much more at home there.
In the Northeast, specifically Long Island, NY, we experienced a different kind of bubble. JP and I have both lived in New York City, so we’re comfortable with and have affection for New Yorkers. Long Island, or at least parts of it, is known to be a refuge for the wealthy. That’s the kind of place where we were. In Buddhist terms, it seems like a God Realm — extremely beautiful and pleasant, with a sense of abundance and almost divine blessings and protection. People are somewhat politically aware, but not yet alarmed about the economy or the global environmental crisis, which seems far away in time and space. The bubble there is the assumption of privilege and the illusion that privilege confers continuity and stability.
The overall feeling I got during my five-week visit to the United States that summer was that the country was holding its breath, “waiting for the other shoe to drop” – mostly on a subconscious level, of course. I felt that America was just at the tipping point, in “a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged,” in the words of William O. Douglas, before darkness falls over the land. Crises are looming that the country is ignoring, and few people are connecting the dots and seeing the big picture. This is especially true in the mainstream media, which seems dedicated to reinforcing the bubble mentality. It was as though everybody was sitting on the front porch enjoying the twilight of a beautiful day, not noticing that it will soon be dark, the electricity has just been shut off, and they have run out of candles.
Shortly after we returned to Europe, the housing bubble burst and the credit crisis began. (I doubt that it’s over.) [See Economic Meltdown Links.] Although moves were quickly made to patch over the problems, the larger, systemic problems remained unaddressed. Perhaps, unwittingly, JP and I visited the United States when the much-touted and -admired “American way of life” was at its peak.
In Part 2, we will consider the slow-moving crises that will soon overtake not only America but also the world.