(Given at the Ninth Annual Bucknell Sustainability Symposium on Radical Hope, April 23, 2022
Thank you for this opportunity to offer thoughts at this ninth sustainability symposium. Thanks also to my student Pierce Hoffer for reading this paper for me today. It relates to his study of dystopia and existentialism in story, especially to the author Paul Kingsnorth’s work. Needless to say, Pierce is not responsible for the contents of this paper, so please do not kill the messenger. Sadly I would wish to be with you, but happily in another sense, I am currently helping to lead services for the Eastern Orthodox Pascha, our holiest observances of the year, so please understand my absence in that context.
“Radical Hope,” the title of this symposium, echoes the title of a book by Jonathan Lear. Lear is an Anglo author who sought to take certain tales and words of the Crow Indian people in America and highlight that concept in a book. But I’d like to suggest that “radical hopelessness” is a better verbal banner for us in mainstream Western secular culture. The award-winning novelist Paul Kingsnorth in his writing deals with the grey area between radical hope and radical hopelessness He abandoned radical environmental activism and various forms of modern spirituality for intentional rural living with his family in an ancient spiritual tradition. He transitioned from activism to what he called Dark Ecology to writing of resistance against what he calls the global Machine. In his blog during Covid shutdowns in rural Ireland where he lives near Galway, he compared the current global drive for techno-power to magic. He quotes Francis Bacon’s definition of science:.
The knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.
Then he compares that foundational quote to the occultist Aleister Crowley’s modern definition of magic: The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.
Kingsnorth concludes: “These [definitions] could be swapped around without anybody really noticing. The thread that links them together is control. Both the scientific enterprise, and the magical quest which it was [originally] part of, spring from the same desire: to know the world, and to bend it to our will.”
(You can find, and should subscribe, to Paul Kingsnorth’s writings online at his substack, The Abbey of Misrule, https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/do-what-thou-wilt?s=r)
In the same series of essays last fall, entitled “Divining the Machine, “ Kingsnorth also writes:
“The powers of the world are merging: corporate power, state power, institutional power, ideological power, the power of the oligarchs who built and control the Internet, the power of the network itself. Call it the Great Acceleration, the Great Reset, the coming of Technocracy: whatever you call it, it has been long planned and long feared, and now it is upon us….
“The Machine makes us – is designed to make us – homeless. It rips up our roots in nature, in real cultures connected to time and place, in our connection to the divine centre. In their stead we are offered an anti-culture, an endless consumer present: planned, monitored, controlled, Smart, borderless, profitable and soul-dead, increasingly detached from messy reality, directed by who-even-knows, mediated through monitored screens.
“I am trying to say two things here. Firstly, that an unprecedented technological network of power and control is being constructed worldwide, which is walking us into a tightly-controlled future in which both humans and the wider natural world will be bent to this network’s needs. Secondly, that in this bending, we are losing the essence of what it means to be human.
To which he added a third thing: “…rebellion is necessary, if we are to remain human at all.”
“But why a machine?” he asks.
“Why choose this particular image to try and pin down this thing that is enveloping us? Well, partly because it is a term that has been used many times before, by better writers and thinkers than me, and I think it has still has protein on its bones. I’m working, in that sense, within a tradition. But also because, as an image, it sums up everything that I can feel rising around me: an emotionless, inorganic system; something not of the ground but of the abstract, questing mind; something that does not meet human needs but which works to replace them or create them anew; something which is pitiless and determined, and which has some task to fulfill.
“Above all, a machine is something that is unnatural: something constructed. Specifically, it is constructed of separate parts, all of which, when taken together, perform the wider function for which the machine is designed. If today, then, we live under the reign of the Machine – a global network of communication and control which is much bigger than any of us, and which bends us to its will – what is this machine made of? What are its parts, and how do they operate? The simple answer is: technologies, and especially digital technologies. We live now in a tech-saturated world; one that has crept up on us rapidly within my lifetime and yours. In the [so-called] ‘developed’ world today, it is virtually impossible to live outside this system…”
(The above paragraphs are from https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/you-are-harvest?s=r)
Kingsnorth titled the last essay in his series chillingly “You are the Harvest,” a phrase that also parallels the work of Shoshana Zuboff on the American left in her tome The Era of Surveillance Capitalism.
In such a situation as we are now trapped in, radical hope disconnected from deeper contexts of the heart can just feed the human isolation nourished by the global Machine described by Kingsnorth, by making us more cheerfully burning members of its machinations. Returning to the Crow worldview and the stories that Lear packaged into his book Radical Hope, we find their cultural roots involve a level of spiritual tradition with which we generally do not approach sustainability. It seems outside the visual field of twenty-first century politics. From the globalization of neoliberalism all the way even to the Green New Deal, any packaged culture of secular sustainability ultimately runs the risk of co-option by the Machine.
When a group of Bucknell students and faculty led by former lacrosse coach Sid Jamieson came to visit the longhouse of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in upstate New York, we met Tadodaho Sid Hill, spiritual leader of the Iroquois. I asked him what in his view is the greatest problem the U.S. has with the environment. He replied “separation of church and state.”
That surprised our group. But by this he meant that, the tendency to separate spiritual tradition from American daily lives, including our approach to the environment, hurts sustainability in our culture. It deprives us of humility. It leads us to over-value self-assertion and consumption, and to what Dostoevsky suggested were the demonic aspects of the Machine, while neglecting the face-to-face relational identities that include the spiritual.
The latter were important to Dostoevsky’s existentialism of faith and love alongside hope, but he felt they were being erased by Western culture. That process leads us to forget about the values embodied in the great Haudenosaunee concept of the Seventh Generation: To think about the seventh generation to come in making decisions today. This is a recognition of the mystical spiritual unity between people in the past, present, and future, and indeed with all creatures in the network of life that includes each of us.
The Seventh Generation is an antidote to what the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn called two leading principles of destructiveness and oppression in mechanistic totalitairanisms of the modern world, namely “survive at any cost” and “only material results matter.” Solzhenistsyn warned those destructive principles can inhabit in different ways both prison camps of revolutionary regimes and canyons of Wall Street.
When I first came to Bucknell, my faculty mentor was an adopted member of the Crow nation that Lear studied. Prof. John Grimm is a Religion scholar now based at Yale. John liked to tell me and others about the Seventh Generation sculpture at Bucknell. The sculpture had been dedicated by Chief Oren Lyon of the Haudenosaunee peoples, as the indigenous confederacy that had once governed this region. But the hostility engendered by that sculpture, despite its beautiful meaning for sustainability, shows how our politics even when in resistance to the Machine often still partakes of it. That sculpture was vandalized twice by faculty who considered its seventh figure, in the shape of a fetus, to be an anti-abortion statement. To this day it only has six figures left representing the seven generations. Recently some campus administrators have made statements to the effect that the sculpture is not authentically Native American. However, members of the working group of Native Americans at Bucknell this year re-affirmed their commitment to the Seventh-Generation outlook as authentically Native, and their rejection of any erasure of it due to Anglo-American politics, and their support of the iconic but neglected sculpture on campus.
There are many examples at American educational, corporate, and media institutions of rejection of spiritual traditions, including those of minority religious and cultural traditions such as my own, which I also have experienced firsthand from some but not all colleagues in higher education. Such aggressive rejection of spiritual tradition is typical of techno-perspectives that reduce sustainability to a materialistic matrix alone, to neocolonialist Western scientific secular terms. Doing so impoverishes sustainability by removing truly diverse elements such as the Seventh Generation tradition.
Even when we think we are resisting environmentally destructive activities in the name of sustainability, we are still immersed in the Machine, like fish turning in water, or characters in the Matrix movie. In the final novel of his Buckmaster Trilogy, Kingsnorth describes how a technological elite identified with the Machine melds aspects of Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity to seek technological immortality on a destroyed earth. In the words of the free peoples still living apart from the Machine in the woods, they suck the body and soul out of people into a Metaverse.
In biblical terms, we are told that the first progeny of technological culture came from the offspring of Cain, the proto-murderer and liar. Thus Solzhenitsyn wrote of the “permanent lie” in modern technocracy as propagating a virtual reality that kills. Even we who value sustainability and subscribe to radical movements for it, how much time do we spend in cyberspace each day, how much do we value travel to faraway places to try to find ourselves, and an uprooting and re-making of our lives into a new virtual reality? We do carbon offsetting that like some kind of distant landfill is out of sight and out of mind and of questionable effect, to ease our consciences. We do not sacrifice professional careers that place us in the dominant top few percentages of people on earth in terms of consumption of resources. We do not form close friendships with people outside and beneath our technocratic standing and class.
Paul Kingsnorth suggests in his writings that it is separation of the mind from the heart that underlies our civilization’s crisis. In moving from radical activism to Dark Ecology and through various modern spiritual practices, he now helps tend a small family farm in rural west Ireland, cutting hay with a scythe. He was baptized last year in the River Shannon into the ancient traditions of a neighborhood Romanian Orthodox Christian community. Significantly, the last book of his Bucknmaster trilogy, Alexandria, ends with the environmental destruction of both the communities of the neopagan resistance to the Machine and the Machine’s avatars. Exiled members of the resistance join with the former technologically post-human character known as K, seeking to survive in a diluvian catastrophe, which symbolically joins them all with the sea. The ending of the novel significantly centers amid this catastrophe on Glastonbury Tor as the refuge of the survivors, a landscape of great mythic significance in Britain, according to legend the repository of the Holy Grail and a center of Arthurian legend and early Christianity. It is a reminder of how the spiritual side of landscape is a refuge from the Machine for us as we seek sustainable hope today. My academic work on the early origin legends and archaeology of Glastonbury, together with my environmental journalism on landscape restoration, led me at Bucknel to my interests in sustainable landscape in the Susquehanna Valley, alongside my studies of otherworldly landscapes in literature.
Russian Christian philosophers in exile or under persecution from Communism called the mystical spiritual unity exemplified at Glastonbury at the end of Kingsnorth’s trilogy sobornost. How do we achieve it today? The Apostle Paul famously spoke of three abiding entwined aspects of life, the source of dwelling, as hope, faith, and love. Dostoevsky’s Christian existentialism and his storytelling resistance to the Machine celebrate that type of spiritual dwelling in those otherworldly grounded virtues as well. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” Paul also wrote. But he says of the three groundings of dwelling that abide, of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love.
Without faith and love, hope by itself also can be but a clanging cymbal, devoid of real meaning, disembodied and superficial, a pep rally for the Machine consuming us and the earth. So much of American life in our unsustainable culture is based manically on radical disconnected hope, like a Hollywood theme just telling us to follow our dream. Trying to solve the world’s sustainability problems with hope disconnected from the spiritual traditions represented by faith and love, or the Seventh Generation sculpture, is like trying to just whistle past the graveyard of eco-catastrophe. Technology itself will fail to answer crises of climate change and environmental despoilation if solutions are rooted in the same technological mindset in which we are becoming the Machine, Kingsnorth argues. Better in such a case to adopt hopelessness than a false-flag technocratic operation of hope, which just further immerses us in a soulless Metaverse of digital determinism.
One way to find authentic hope, with faith and love, is in spiritual traditions. Bucknell does have such traditions, but they need to be excavated and highlighted and renewed in fragmented form. They are a way to build radical hope that is also connected to faith and love. In the President’s Sustainability Council’s Campus Trail project, to encourage fitness and foot and bike commuting and meditative experience outdoors in natural settings, we have also, in collaboration with Shaunna Barnhart’s Sustainability Path effort, formed a Story and Art Trail working group. Its goals include a public art project for the Campus Path connecting the trail also to a journey evoking spiritual traditions of the Bucknell landscape.
First, a committee of Bucknell Native Americans has formed, to sponsor the new Sid Jamieson Fellowship. This will include work honoring Native American stories of the landscape, including perhaps a sculpture representing early students and staff of Native background at Bucknell, and/or early Native leaders of this region. That public art work may deservedly include an honoring of Sid Jamieson himself, as a wise elder in our midst. In addition, the plan includes highlightng and perhaps re-locating the Seventh Generation sculpture to a more prominent place.
Second, a group of Bucknell students is developing the Bucknell in the Civil War and the Underground Railroad project, in collaboration with WVIA and Stories of the Susquehanna Valley. They look to tell the story of why Bucknell students and faculty chose to fight for the Union and against slavery at Gettysburg and elsewhere, and of Charles Bell who found freedom on the Underground Railroad and reunited with his family in Lewisburg, working at Bucknell.
Finally, we’re working also with local Baptist historical networks to tell the story of the founders of Bucknell as the University at Lewisburg and its Female Institute, a pioneering effort to include women in higher education, which also hopefully will be featured in trail art.
These are small symbolic efforts that we hope to see embodied in the new Campus Trail– to help connect people with spiritual traditions of landscape that can help sustain us in humbler and more mystically connective ways, even if on a small level, encouraging renewal of a more intentional community in the spirit of the Seventh Generation sculpture. From such linking of hope to faith and love we may hope to grow modestly beyond either an isolated radical hope or hopelessness, to a sustainability infused with faith, hope, and love, in spiritual solidarity against the Machine, realizing deeper sustainability of the heart.