How the light gets in

Posted February 17th, 2005 by David Waltner-Toews and filed in Living in Post-Normal Times

Editor’s note: Biodiversity is about the relationships that make all of existence possible. But is it possible for human communities to flourish on this planet without destroying the incredible diversity of other communities of living things? In this essay, David-Waltner Toews explores the great contradictions of life and imagines what it might be like to live in a holarchy.

The world may end tomorrow. If not through wars over oil or water or nuclear accidents or eco-industrial wrist-slashing, then through meteors from space or the death of our sun. In just this way, our loved ones may die at any time. Do we therefore love them less? Of course not. It is because of this that we care more. For the tasks of sustainable human communities on this planet, there is, in the words of poet Mary Oliver, “only one question: How to love this world.” What does this mean? Send a Hallmark card? Make a flower arrangement? What is it that helps us get up in the morning, humming, and actually do something to make the world just a little better?

Romance the earth by candlelight? We could do worse that look into the eyes of the biosphere and feel, again, or the first time, our primal biophylia. But, in the vast heavy blackness of the space in which we float, from whence comes this light? “There is a crack in everything”, says Canadian poet and song-writer Leonard Cohen in his song Anthem. “That’s how the light gets in.”

To romance the earth, we begin with a candle in the “encircling gloom.” Some of us have thought of science as a kind of light, and it is. The open, mutually correcting community of science, as well as its precise language, so apparently unsuited to poetry and stories, seems suited to the search for exact truth. But such a candle, some of us have discovered, is not enough. The precision of description does not reduce uncertainty of understanding. Nor can it get its linguistic head around the fact that we are inside this earth, having evolved inside it, and have no external objective way of determining whether or not what we think is true, actually is. Even such a “hard science” thing as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, eludes us. We promoted efficiency and recycling based on “hard” science, and we ended up with a terrifying, incurable disease. After all the massive scientific effort and careful observation that has told us that the earth’s climate is changing, probably rapidly, probably catastrophically for us, there is still sufficient uncertainty that nay-sayers can fuss over the niceties of computer and mathematical models, ignore the direct experience of millions of people around the world whose livelihoods in the arctic and in the tropical mountains and in the coastal plains are disappearing before their eyes, and say, well, we’re not sure, so we shouldn’t do anything.

We can only marginally reduce the uncertainty – that’s not the issue. The notion that we can reduce uncertainty about questions at the global scale is based on a childish view of science, that science is about growing up, and that when we get there, when we get the perfect science, when we are 30 years old, then we will know what to do. Any scientist older than 30 knows that we are as uncertain as ever, that our knowledge will always be only as perfect as that of a naked primate in the urban jungle can be. The issue is not how to dispel uncertainty; the challenge is how we find our way through the darkness.

We begin by exploring outward into this complex web, beyond the candle and the campfire. Like love, science is curious. What is this about light, for instance, that draws us? We all need light. We cannot escape it. We need light if we want to go somewhere, light for our eyes to guide our feet. Still, blind people seem to manage okay, guiding themselves through auditory and tactile clues. For the rest of us – the auditorially and tactily challenged, however – light is important. We could ask: who needs to go anywhere? We could read books. That is a way of going somewhere without going somewhere. Ah, but the trees who gave their leaves and the uranium which fed our power plants have sacrificed their light to make our reading possible. Could we sit in the dark and turn white and fat? Many of us do this, with consequences. In the long winter in northern parts of the world people can suffer from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a fancy way of saying that if you are cold and in the dark you tend not to be your cheery old self. The darkness creeps into your bones and into your heart. It settles there like a clammy mold, slowly re-cycling you for the benefit of bacteria and albino newts. The answer to this of course is a big satellite dish with hundreds of channels. But that really is just another form of light. Cold, blue and warped, but light nonetheless.

Even if there were a good comedy channel, we would still need to eat, and even potatoes of the non-couch variety, the ones they make chips out of, need above ground leaves to gather the radiant energy of the sun to come into being. Is this a scientific issue? A poetic conundrum?

The idea of energy is a curiously ambiguous one. Some of my ecologist and engineering colleagues speak of exergy – not just any energy, but energy in useful form. But useful for what? Mario Giampietro tells a kind of parable about a man marooned on an island with a can of petrol. How much energy is in the can? The engineers in the room begin their calculations. Then he adds, just as they complete their scribbling, “and if the man uses throws the can at a rabbit to kill it and provide food, how much energy was in the can?” A warm room and the element in an oven may contain the same amount of “energy”, but not the same amount of exergy. You can’t for instance, cook a chicken by placing it in a warm room, although you could grow enough bacteria to kill a few people. Exergy acknowledges the relativity of the concept of energy, a relativity rooted in our cultures and our poetry and our stories.

If we look around us, what do we see? How much energy is there? That depends. What is it for? The energy from the sun concentrated and built up into complex webs of plants and animals that we increasingly usurp, starving out other species in our frenzied feeding. This exergy, this gift from Grace, a community of fellow beings here for our company on this strange and perilous voyage, we use to build highways and parking lots and black-roofed buildings and plastic garbage bags or refrigerator storage containers or burn to runs cars or tanks or airplanes. And yet this scientific view of the light as exergy, based on how we care, on what we value, gives barely an inkling of why we should care. At one level, we simply need that light to live; it is so basic a need that we are willing to steal from other species, scrounge from other people, wrest away from our children, the way we have stolen the forests and the seas and the bird-songs and the terrible marvel of insects from them.

But we need more than simple solar energy if we are to care.

The darkness is so intense. The newspaper headlines speak of slavery in the Sudan, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the ritual worship of junk-bond traders on Wall Street. Sometimes the moral world we live in seems like such a gloomy place that the darkness is palpable, that morning breaks, literally, shattering in millions of brilliant shards against the unbreakable night. We burn everything we can – trees, coal, electrons – just to hedge ourselves against the omnivorous darkness.

If you get far enough away from the city, away from our electronic fires, out into a field of stubble or at the edge of Lake Huron, you can look out into the vastness of the universe. The darkness, it seems, expands breathlessly in all directions. The stars are tiny points of light, candles flickering in an empty room, speaking to our sense that we are alone, speaking to our hopes.

Or perhaps the darkness is a vast dome punctured by tiny flaws through which a radiance bursts to us. If we saw this radiance in all its glory, we would surely die. Yet secretly, would we not all prefer to die in such a blaze of glory? When I was growing up, we used to talk a lot about conversion experiences. Have you experienced the Lord? was an expression often used. This was a blinding, Damascus Road kind of revelation which would change your life. Some of us felt that we had such moments.

The trouble is, like any adrenaline rush, they can become addictive, and the temptation to try to capture that wild light, to cage it, to make it ours on demand, is almost overwhelming. Some of us got saved many times just to try to keep that life changing light rushing through our veins. We even carried this with us into our collective political lives. In the 1960s, we spoke of a global, world-changing revolution, ushering in an age of peace, harmony and good music. This sounds more like an epiphany than anything Karl Marx would recognize.

But if the real light, the raw, undomesticated light, cannot be counted on to come in sudden, blinding revelations, neither does it respond well to the flick of a switch. The more we try to confine the power of the Spirit to our religious power stations and spiritual grids, the more that brilliance, escapes us. Perhaps our reach should exceed our grasp and we should aspire to be perfect, whatever that means. Yet it is not in the grasp of perfection that the light comes to us. Just when we think we are becoming perfect, when we have achieved the perfect science or the perfect philosophy or the perfect religion, we discover that we are still in darkness, that the fundamentals of our lives still elude us.

Human perfection is an illusion of perfect darkness. It is in the muddled middle ground, where science and culture meet, where the light comes.

Light strays our way through the cracks.

Working in Kathmandu, I have sometimes been tempted to see only the filth and disease, the dirty water, the dogs next to the food and the children playing in the garbage. But, as German painter Rainer Nepita was wont to point out to me over pots of sweet, milky Nepali tea, there were also blue and yellow and red plastic baskets piled next to the shiny brass pots, women with the bright saffron and purple saris, earth-tones of the street, children, hope, breaks in the clouds. Where I saw darkness, he saw light. Where I saw the broken-ness, the cracks, he saw what was revealed in the broken-ness, the sprouts of green and light.

“Ring the bells that still can ring,” says poet Leonard Cohen. “Forget your perfect offering.” And then, in the recorded version of the song, he does something that I’m not sure even he was aware of. He creates a crack in the line. “There is a crack, a crack in everything,” he sings. “That’s how the light gets in.” The little repetition of crack, separated by a comma, a pause to let in the light. If we want to find the light, we will need to see the cracks.

If there is a crack, that implies that there is a whole which is yet not a whole, something is fragile, but not utterly broken. But in a world seemingly torn between the smug and the shattered where can we look for this light? How can we see this? How can we find this light?

Early one morning after one of my talks with Rainer I went out into the city. I saw and felt everything, the saffrons and purples and reds, the dog-barks and the lung-deep coughs, the bicycle bells, people chatting around a tea pot by the street-side, the strewn plastic and shit and banana leaves, devastation, hope. What moved me most, however, was a young girl dressed in rags, sitting on a sidewalk, very carefully stacking lychees and peaches into pyramids of five. It seemed that she was waiting, not just for customers, but for something bigger. An answer to some unarticulated question. A faint sound of music to soothe her spirit.

But what is this that we all long for and wait for? It seemed to me that if light was grace, which I guess it is, then the girl on the bridge already had grace. More than the bumbling Canadian out for his morning constitutional. But if light is only grace, then there is nothing we can do to find it; grace comes to us, not us to grace. But are there places we can go where grace can find us more easily? Is there a street corner or coffee shop or a mall where she hangs out?

I once thought that perhaps the girl on the bridge had an answer, or that I had one. I now see this isn’t going to happen. Neither of us, alone, can find an answer. But together, not just the girl and I, but all of us, might find an answer, might learn our way into a future worth embracing.

Later in his song, Cohen says, “Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” So, we are back to love. After we have tried everything else, this is the refuge we flee to in our leaky boats, in our roped-together rafts of knowledge. Or, as St Paul eloquently put it, “I may be able to speak with the languages of men and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell; I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains – but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away everything I have, and even give up my body to be burned – but if I have no love, this does me no good.”

Having tried everything else – perfected our technologies, our bodies, our minds, done all the self help stuff, climbed Everest, the spiritual exercises and the bodily exercises, the jogging, the yoga and the eating right – we will, if we still yearn for the light, return to love, flee to her as a last resort. Indeed, science that is not based on a deep love for this planet is usually lousy science, or at least irrelevant science, answering questions that don’t matter.

But are we any further ahead talking about love than about light? Light, grace and love, after all, are all different ways of speaking about something mysterious, powerful and wonderful at the heart of everything. What can we learn from love about grace, about light?

Says philosopher Michael Ignatieff, (Many of the things we need most deeply in life – love chief among them – do not necessarily bring us happiness. If we need them, it is to go to the depth of our being, to learn as much of ourselves as we can stand, to be reconciled to what we find in ourselves and in those around us.( To me, this is the ultimate goal of all good science – and of all good literature and art and music.

And what do we find in the depths of our being?

Here is a riddle. In loving each other, in loving this wonderful biosphere of which we are a part, we acknowledge our separateness even as we desire wholeness. Unless we are each alone, individual, whole in ourselves, there is no one to summon love into being. Unless we are incomplete, fragments of some larger whole, we will not yearn for love. For love to become, we must be whole, and we must be broken, or at least cracked.

It is tempting to believe that this is all just about the fluttering of your heart, about the light that breaks through the gloom of a winter’s day when you unexpectedly see that special someone you care about, recklessly and anxiously, about teenagers trying to see the shape of each other in the darkness in the back seat of a car. But this is not just about you and your friends, about the pain of saying goodby and the hope of seeing each other again.

This goes to the very core of yourself as a person. Your very brain in cleft in two. The left half of your brain, so some researchers have said, is analytical and logical; the right half is creative and intuitive. What makes you who you are is not just the two pieces, but the communication across them: the corpus callosum, those bundles of nerve cells, traversing the clammy, dark and uncertain depths of the longitudinal fissure. They connect the two halves of the brain. That’s how the light gets in.

This goes, as well, to the very heart of our political and cultural being. It is about the most powerful and destructive forces unleashed in the past century: communism, driven by the fierce desire to make us all one; and capitalism, based on the unshakable belief that individuals are everything. Both are a refusal to accept a fundamental contradiction of life.

Ignatieff, in writing about the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, says the following: “[His] insight is that a community of men can become masters of their needs, instead of slaves to their desires, only when they democratically decide upon some form of collective constraint on inequalities of fortune…Apparently, societies that seek to give everyone the same chance at freedom can only do so at some cost to freedom itself…Modern secular humanism is empty if it supposes that the human good is without internal contradiction.”

There is a crack in everything.

This goes, as well, to the core of the great questions of environmental sustainability we ask today, of the possibility, which many now seriously doubt, that human communities can flourish on this planet without destroying the incredible diversity of other communities of living things which make those human communities not only livable, but possible.

Biodiversity has become a watchword for environmental activists around the world. But biodiversity is not just about all the pieces, about saving germ-plasm in banks. That misses the point entirely. More than anything biodiversity is about relationships, what goes on in the cracks between things. The wonder of nature is not just the cardinals, squirrels, the beautiful quetzal birds and lemurs and white tailed deer and timber wolves. It is not just the riches of life we find recorded in the archeological records. It is the Wagnerian chorus of them all together, the tongue-tickling harmonies, the tum-tiddling down your vertebrae, the humming in the stem cells in your bone marrow, the twisting in the ancient codes that make us who we are: the Auruch, the Quagga, Gypsonia, Dickinsonia, Glyptodont, the Moa, the Ammonites, the Trilobites. It is about the chorus of history and evolution bursting through us, poetry of the Burgess Shale, the Java Man, my grandmother, the Canadian Val-kyrie eleisons of people and grizzly bears and raccoons and trumpeter swans and even elected politicians.

This is not just about you, but about the family of which you are part, and the communities made up of your families, and the ecosystems made up of families of millions of species. This is about being a whole, and being incomplete. This is a love, then, that requires an all-encompassing care, an aching tension and contradiction and struggle. Perfect equilibrium in any living thing only comes with death. According to thermodynamic laws, we must live in tension, far from equilibrium, or we cannot live at all.

The philosopher and novelist Arthur Koestler created a language which I think can help us here. He coined the word holon to describe something that is both a part of something and whole in itself. A holon, being whole, is internally rich with relationships, like all the psycho-physiological pathways that make you who you are. But it is also a part of something larger, communicating, sending out and receiving essential messages to the larger holons, the family, the community of which it is a part. A holarchy is what a holon is part of. We are done with hierarchies, with bosses and boss-ees, with one-way, downward communications. As we must rediscover, the fundamental rule of the Biosphere, like the basic rule in the kingdom of the Spirit, is not based on authority, one over another, but on serving one another, not as shuffling slaves, but as holons. We love our neighbours – and our enemies – as we love ourselves. We communicate with each other. We converse. We exchange gifts. We sing. We write poetry and do science. These are the relationships that make our collective life on this planet possible – and wonderful – and it is the collective life that makes our individual lives possible.

This then is our challenge: to be ourselves as individuals, and at the same time to claim our part in the whole of this wonderful creation. To be holons, simultaneously acknowledging our separateness and our wholeness. To find ways for people of many religions and cultures to be true to themselves, and yet not to demand that everyone be like them. To love our neighbours, our enemies, our fellow species, as we love ourselves, as unique individuals, as whole, and as part. This is the contradiction at the heart of everything, the crack where the light gets in, the challenge for a new kind of science and a new kind of story-telling, a new, integrated way of thinking about knowledge which Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz have called Post Normal Science. This is a science where the peer group is expanded to include a large congregation of our fellow citizens, and where “hard science” meets cultural story-telling. The only science – the only understanding of knowledge – commensurate to the problems of the 21st century is one in which culture and natural science speak to each other, where poetry and experiment and music dance together, the one and only dance we have, the last dance.

Let me come back to the question I started this essay with: How can we love this world? By keeping our senses alert and our mental eyes wide open, moving like the half-wild savannah animals we are, to walk through the uncertainty of this landscape cautiously. In so doing, we may find the skills necessary to be good citizens of earth as well as good scientists, to see, and, seeing, as Pablo Neruda said, to come to life, to see (the fire that sprang to life in beautiful things(. We will then find those places where the light, and grace, will come. If we are willing to be alienated, to be lonely, and to be compassionate, to think hard and to challenge each other, to always go back outside and look at the evidence, at the incredible world we live in and are part of, and whose fate is our fate, then we will find the light that comes through the cracks. Maybe not a blinding flash of insight, but enough to travel by, enough to read by, enough to see where we are, the wonder of it, and to make our way.