A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan Take on Recent Disasters and the Value of the World

The massive oil spill in the Gulf
of Mexico raises a question that has been raised in other contexts over the
last year or so: has the scale of things we attempt as a society come to exceed our
ability to do them well?  What do BP’s failure, Goldman Sachs’ failure and Massey Energy’s failure have in common?  I think a
Pagan perspective carries this insight farther than most.  If the world itself is fundamentally a
sacred place then every human activity has an ethical component.  Every one.  And when that component is removed, the world is out of
kilter and we are injured to our very core.


In hunting and gathering
societies, where we as a species spent most of our existence, there is no
separation between daily life and spirituality.  We evolved as creatures within a meaningful world.  As our Sabbats recognize, everything in
life has its sacramental dimension just as virtually everything sacramental has its useful dimension. 
In philosophical terms there are no facts that are not immersed within a
context of value. 

That the world is otherwise is a
conceit with its deepest roots in Western Christianity, particularly during and
after the Reformation.  A ‘fallen’ world has no value of its own, and so from this perspective our only ethical
obligations are to God and to one another.


Many of us know through personal
experience that this is false.  I
will argue below that not only is it false, a world experienced this way will
drive us mad.

If I am on target this means that
any human institution that frees itself from ethical standards does not deserve
to exist.  Period. There is an
ethical dimension to farming, logging, fishing, and all other uses of the
natural world, just as there is in dealing with fellow humans.  What we call morality is embedded in
the world


Scale Matters

Anyone who has tried to contact a
human being at a large organization realizes this is becoming increasingly
difficult.  Human beings can
communicate, and large organizations are uninterested in CO-mmunicating.  They excel at giving orders and telling
you like it is. This tendency towards eliminating human interaction has
troubling implications beyond the obvious.

Science writer Ed Yong writes that
researchers from the University of Texas found that students who experienced
complete lack of control over experimental events were more likely to perceive
non-existent patterns and that unhappy outcomes were more likely the result of
deliberate malicious or conspiratorial action.  Perception
of personal powerlessness leads to a greater tendency towards superstition,
conspiracy theories, and false conclusions
.  Our national mindlessmess is
embedded in institutions that are both amoral and destroy the ability of those
rendered powerless by them to truly understand what is happening. 


From a Pagan perspective this
means we are naturally embedded within a network of ethical relation with
others, and when that network disappears or is rendered powerless, we go
mad.  The world is permeated by
value and morality and when we are cut off from it the consequences are
devastating. Thoughtful observers are deeply concerned about the growing
irrationality within American society. 
This degeneration may well be linked with the rise of huge amoral

Sociopaths to the top

Sociopaths are the worst of all
human beings because they have no conscience.  Sociopathic institutions, especially corporations and
governments, attract them as leaders and give them far more power and wealth
than could ever normally be exercised by these people based on their actual
talents.  Our leading institutions
that so infatuate us with their power have become divorced from all decency,
although they continually hire intellectual whores to give us the impression
they care.


Men like Lloyd Blankfein  and Don Blankenship  made no inventions, came up with no new products to make life
easier or healthier or better for others. 
They simply manipulate others to increase their wealth and power.  But they claim to do God’s work and that their critics are evil. They appear to be men without noticeable consciences.  It also appears that Alan Greenspan of the Federal
Reserve is no better: a clever incompetent shielded from the consequences of
his actions by sycophants while telling all around him how mere Americans are
unable to understand
the intricacies of what he had mastered.  And then through his mastery,
leading us off a cliff others had long warned about.  The Fed has learned nothing from Greenspan’s failure because
it is fundamentally an amoral institution, sociopathic to its core. 


Big organizations are sociopathic
and attract people with talents harmonious with their nature.  Decent people don’t often rise to the
top in such cultures. Jerks like Blankfein, Blankenship, and Greenspan do.

What we need and need desperately
are measures to return our institutions to a human scale. 

Small is Good

My own academic profession, Political
Science, has contributed to our lack of understanding. Political scientists are
mesmerized by power and love to study the big powerful states.  Hardly any notice that the world’s most
successful countries in terms of quality of life are small ones.  Places like Sweden, Denmark, Norway,
Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Canada can be included
as well.  It’s territory is huge
but its population is less than California’s.   These countries, often enormously successful, are
hardly ever studied and the scholar who chooses to do so will at best usually
remain marginally employed. And so what stands in front of us is rarely


Small countries require
intelligent citizens who are not blinded by belief in their own omnipotence
either individually or collectively. 
Often, it seems, their inhabitants rise to the occasion.  Norway can drill safely in the North
Sea, and has the safest of all records. 
The Netherlands can build levees and  dikes that work.  Most, perhaps all, have superior health systems. 

I recently completed a book
chapter in partnership with David Hardwick, one of the men most responsible for modern Vancouver, Canada
being the way it is: almost universally acclaimed as one of the world’s most
successful cities.  As I worked
with David, I was struck with the importance transparency of information and
input into decisions by people impacted by decisions had in making Vancouver
what it is.  There were deliberate
efforts to empower average residents rather than render them powerless
resources manipulated by the Canadian equivalents of Alan Greenspan.  The results are impressive and
acknowledged worldwide. 


As for us?  We have Teabaggers and others who want
government to keep its hands off of Medicare, and other exercises in
imbecility. And we can destroy on a larger scale than anyone else, and do so
wherever we want.  As Nietzsche
observed, “Power makes stupid.” As well as amoral.

Our society has become
dysfunctional because it has become dominated by huge conglomerations of power
themselves dominated by the amoral. 
If salvation exists, it exists through empowering smaller communities
and groups and breaking up the big ones. 
It probably means that in places those whose environment has made
stupid, as with so many Teabaggers, will predominate.  But once events are on a scale they can directly understand
rather than having to depend on something like Fox News, the best of them will
learn, and learn quickly, to become the responsible citizens they so rarely are


Comments read comments(7)
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posted May 4, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Scale is crucial. In my eyes, strong currents within Neo-Paganism guide us (back) toward living according to a human scale. Often, this means “smaller.”
Look at oil exploration, extraction, and transportation. Huge scale equipment, complicated technologies, and vast quantities. Operating in circumstances that are, to say the least, challenging. We are drilling deep into the open ocean seabed in our quest for oil. When things screw up–as they surely will–the consequences are big!
And damage is done!
Honestly, I have no idea how we might contrive to give up the dominance of money and power over the world we live in. “More” draws us. “Enough” appears not to, not so much.

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Marlon Hartshorn

posted May 4, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Such a insightful post and I see and feel so much truth in it! It’s amazing how Gus makes me proud to be Pagan and I get these warm and inspiring feelings well up inside of me reading his posts. I never articulated it in this way, but it makes perfect sense. And I have long admired countries like Norway, Switzerland, etc., but never understood why until now. I moved from Houston, Texas, in early 1995 because I could not survive there coming from a middle class background, on my own at 18 and just trying to find myself and to live in a big city. That was in 1987. By 1994-95, my life had completely changed and I was a crazy and stupid version of the kid I was going in at 18. Living in big cities can really make you nuts, it certainly did me, fresh and ready to go at 18. So I moved to Mobile and flourished there, a much smaller city. I now live in Biloxi and I enjoy it here as well. I’ll never go back to living in a city the size of Houston. The size issue really is a big deal and makes us socially, well it just made me less of who I was.

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Hecate Demetersdatter

posted May 4, 2010 at 6:40 pm

No more “too big to fail” institutions. Break up the ones we’ve got.
John Michael Greer’s most recent post about how adding increasing layers of complexity led to a number of recent problems makes a good pair with yours.

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posted May 4, 2010 at 8:58 pm

IRT “from this [Christian] perspective our only ethical obligations are to God and to one another”, here are some official Catholic perspectives regarding our ethical obligations:
“The fruitful Earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and animal and all the living beings upon it. The seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, peacefully give place to one another. The very smallest of living beings meet together in peace and concord. All these the great Creator and Lord of all has appointed to exist in peace and harmony.” – Pope St. Clement, 97 AD/CE
“There is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts, and continued injustice among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature…. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.” – Pope John Paul II, 1990 AD/CE
“Man is suddenly becoming aware that by an ill-considered exploitation of nature he risks destroying it and becoming in his turn the victim of this degradation. Not only is the material environment becoming a permanent menace — pollution and refuse, new illness and absolute destructive capacity — but the human framework is no longer under man’s control, thus creating an environment for tomorrow which may well be intolerable. This is a wide-ranging social problem which concerns the entire human family…. Everything is inter-related.” – Pope Paul VI, 1971 AD/CE

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Gus diZerega

posted May 5, 2010 at 10:42 am

Thank you for the quotations from the Catholic tradition. I hope someday America’s Bishops will take the time to spend as much effort spreading this point of view as they have opposing medical care for millions of Americans. Catholic laity are often very wise in these matters compared to those further up the hierarchy – as they are in so many other matters.
But the quotes you give completely support my statement. Creation is of value because it is God’s. We should take care of it either for that reason or because we will hurt ourselves.
My argument is quite different.

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Gus diZerega

posted May 5, 2010 at 11:14 am

Thanks Hecate!
Greer’s url is
His post is definitely well worth looking at. My own view of complexity is, well, it’s more complex. But in general I think he’s right regarding organizations such as Goldman Sachs and BP. Complex non-organizations, such as ecosystems or markets, are different. And the intersection of non-organizations with organizations can be hideously complex in all the wrong ways, as has never been appreciated by “free market” ideologues.
I’ve been exploring Greer’s site, and am adding it to those I check regularly. Like me he is interested in systems theory and complexity, and it is refreshing to find folks like that publishing on the subject, and eve better to find they are Pagans! (In my other life, one of them, I edit )

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posted May 6, 2010 at 9:44 am

Efficiencies of scale work both ways. Many things are better done at a smaller scale.

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