Getting' there

By Gene Miller, April 2014

As we near the tipping point…it’s time to start singing.

I had an adventure dream recently about Shivon Robinsong’s suitcase—smallish, with drum-nailed metal corner bumpers, cardboard-and-ply-walls, with a pinewoods-in-winter printed design, and old-fashioned Cheney-style snap clasps. A bunch of us were racing on foot to the airport in an undisciplined wedge, lofting the suitcase and chanting “Ulan Bator! Ulan Bator!” (the capital of Mongolia) for reasons that never became apparent within the dream. 

The suitcase, with a mind of its own, would pull free of all hands, energetically race away and sail through the air; and I, for some reason, had the responsibility to run after and retrieve it (apparently there was something of value inside). Eventually, it sailed through a window and fell to its ruin down a flight of old, wooden stairs. There it lay on the landing below, hinges snapped and the case thrown open with its contents exposed. The suitcase held—in spite of his documented death on January 27th of this year—a full-size, living Pete Seeger, standing left foot on an orange crate, singing and strumming his banjo. Improbably, Shivon, owner of the suitcase, was in there too, swaying rhythmically and singing her heart out! 

How did a full-size, living Pete Seeger and his banjo get into a small, battered suitcase? And how did Shiv…“We shall overcome some day-eyay-eyay.” 

I guess this was the day-eyay. 

The human dignity and equality that Seeger used to sing about and stump for seem now like parts of a simple, sweet, nostalgia-filled, social equation—something that could have been fulfilled with a presidential pen-stroke. I fear it’s becoming harder to whistle a hopeful tune given today’s gloom (let’s call the murk “global warning”), and that the dedicated saints standing between chaos and us are becoming few in number. 

I can barely describe to you, without drowning in the worry of it, the conditions that now mark our worldwide human climax: diminution of common purpose; the ersatz friendship of digital connection; heedless ruin of every living system; utter dislocation from place; corporate sovereignty exempt from accountability; a spreading stain of socially sanctioned kleptocracy; banking and market fictions set to blow up at any time; a wildly spinning political compass and a crazed public; in all, a stage set for post-modern revolution, at a minimum, or out-and-out end-times, given the worst. Only hopeful social acts and openhearted song seem to hold back the dark.

And in the face of this howling moment, Shivon Robinsong, one of our dedicated local saints, sings.

With colleague Denis Donnelly, Shivon directs the Gettin’ Higher Choir, a 300-voice community choir that sings for the joy of singing and whose credo, as Shivon states wherever she can, is that we were all born with song in us, and are at our human best when we harmonize.

Amen to that.

The choir starts to sing—at any of its usually sold-out concerts in the Alix Goolden Hall at the Conservatory of Music—and all the vampire worries of the age flee the building. You can feel it in your audience neighbours; you can feel it in yourself. To attend one of the choir’s concerts is to feel the joy of connection, a sweet wash of hopefulness, the perfumed relief of not being alone—reminders of life’s purpose and rewards.

From an unlikely source—Walter Freeman’s academic thesis A Neurobiological Role of Music in Social Bonding—comes this remarkable idea about the use and power of song:

“As knowledge increases by learning, brains of individuals grow progressively apart. The separation results from the uniqueness of the knowledge that is constructed within each brain. The resulting condition of isolation is known among philosophers as epistemological solipsism. Neither conventional neuroscience nor aesthetics can explain the deep emotional power of music to move humans to action. A novel view is presented in this paper, in which human brains are seen to have evolved primarily in response to environmental pressures to bridge the solipsistic gulf between individuals, and to form integrated societies…Consequently, the case is made that music together with dance have co-evolved biologically and culturally to serve as a technology of social bonding. Findings…show how the rhythmic behavioral activities that are induced by drum beats and music can lead to altered states of consciousness, through which mutual trust among members of societies is engendered.”

If I may mix botanical metaphors, the apple didn’t fall far from the hollyhock. Shivon, more than three decades ago, played a role in founding the Hollyhock Lifelong Learning Centre on Cortes Island, whose mission statement could easily stand in for the Gettin’ Higher Choir as well: “Hollyhock exists to inspire, nourish and support people who are making the world better.”

I remember sitting spellbound a few years back, listening to the deep-thinking Mike Littrell float an idea about human madness and our “argument with the Earth”—that we love life but hate and want to kill the world because nature itself delivers so much painful contradiction: It gives us the gift of limitless imagination but the tether of mortality. It permits growth, discovery and adventure, but ages and kills us—ends the individual project that is each of us. He suggested that especially here in North America we have perfected a response and are now enjoying a “cornucopian” lifestyle designed to force all of life’s bounty—its pleasure and prizes—to rain down on us all of our days. If we must die, if finally we must allow nature to “orchestrate our transition” by numbering our days, he speculated, we’ll punish the world for our mortality by raping and hurting it. Observes a character in the film Orlando: “The taming of the material world is a proper occupation for a man.” 

These ideas of Littrell’s seem recondite and wildly fictional, until you consider the ideological ferocity of climate deniers who have truly lashed themselves to the mast and will take the world down, or until, more usefully, you absorb the ideas of Kathleen Tierney of the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center. She gave a presentation late last year at the University of Copenhagen on the “Social Production of Risk and Disaster.” Echoing thoughts expressed subsequently by Elizabeth Kolbert in her disturbing new book, The Sixth Extinction, Tierney takes pains to shift our belief that natural disasters are things that happen, and come at us from, “out there.” She argues: “Political and economic forces help to create social vulnerability and expand risk through their influence on living conditions experienced by populations and groups.” 

It’s her position that disasters need to be seen as outcomes of processes, not as discrete events “concentrated in time and space,” and to be understood as “originating within the social order, not outside it, in the natural system.”

So, she asks, “what happens when a global civilization crosses the overarching limits (according to Barnosky, 2012, this happens at 50 percent, and we are at 43 percent right now), and thus disables enough subsystems that the overarching system is no longer viable in its existing state? This is what one would call ecological collapse, an intensification of mass extinction, and it is a threat within our lifetime. This is a much bigger inconvenient truth than global warming.”

To explain Tierney’s reference, Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and a team of about two dozen other scientists published in Nature a piece entitled: “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere.” The abstract made these points:

“Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.”

To close with a non sequitur, what a shame that Victoria can’t build an export economy, or at least a wider reputation, around one of its unique and easily overlooked attributes: this is a city that generally, and genuinely, resists celebrating people whose accomplishments are morally trivial. Our city doesn’t glorify appetite or perverse hunger, doesn’t lionize people who eat the world. Our local heroes don’t make a billion, grab power, seek the spotlight, act like spoiled celebrities, ruin the landscape, or behave like self-important public fools. No, ours find shelter for the homeless, protect old growth forests, promote ecological living, preserve heritage buildings, champion local economy, and advance the goals of the human family. 

Our local heroes organize and direct community choirs that sing us to safety.

Oh, deep in my heart 

I do believe 

We shall overcome some day.

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.