The Tree of Life

Brain Shaped Tree, image by Bill Booth

The Tree of Life may be the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or not); in his film called “The Tree of Life,” Terence Malick plays with the universals – grace and nature parallel good and evil. Nature is will, ego; grace is nurturing. The film’s narrative plays out in Waco, Texas and in the vast cosmos, infinite space and time, surrounding it; it places one very human story in a vast transhuman context.  In one primeval scene, one dinosaur, a predator, chooses not to kill and consume another… this establishes grace as something that precedes the human; I think the point is that nature and grace always coexisted, and always will, and grace seeps into nature. “Good” and “evil” are complex and intertwingled.

I thought the film was magnificent; in it I saw scenes familiar from my own life growing up in a Texas town in the 50s and 60s, though I wasn’t in that family, and I was far more innocent. And Malick’s family has no television set in the living room… imagine what a difference that would make.

The vision of the “tree of life” represents a sense that all life on earth is related… and there’s a tree of life web project that shows that connectedness. The planet is teeming with life, but all species are endangered by the actions and operations of one – is this nature acting without grace? Last night Oliver Markley spoke to the Central Texas World Future Society on the subject of risk and resilience – is civilization at a tipping point toward collapse?

Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country—industrial or developing—has done so. Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early twenty-first century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 BC?

Another potentially severe stress on governments is the coming decline in oil production. Although world oil production has exceeded new oil discoveries by a wide margin for more than 20 years, only Sweden and Iceland actually have anything that remotely resembles a plan to effectively cope with a shrinking supply of oil.

This is not an exhaustive inventory of unresolved problems, but it does give a sense of how their number is growing as we fail to solve existing problems even as new ones are being added to the list. Analytically, the challenge is to assess the effects of mounting stresses on the global system. These stresses are perhaps most evident in their effect on food security, which was the weak point of many earlier civilizations that collapsed.

I think it’s time to pay attention.

Photo by Bill Booth, licensed via Creative Commons

Doings

Irons in the fire:

  • Plutopia Productions projects are on fire… including the Plutopia 2011 event during SXSW and the Plutopia News Network that Scoop Sweeney and I will be launching within the next month. Scoop and I are also producing events on the side, like last Friday’s “From Jerusalem to Cordoba” performance by Catherine Braslavsky and Joseph Rowe. Scoop and I, like our Plutopia Productions colleagues, see event production — creating compelling experiences — as an art form. We expect to produce at least one event per quarter, either as part of Plutopia Productions or onw our own, in addition to our work on the content site, which will include podcasts and god nose whatever other media.
  • I’m partnering with other web developers in creating Teahouse Media, a web consulting and development cooperative. Web development is my day job, and I pursue it with relish… an avid builder of information environments and systems. As in the past, I’m focused on open source platforms, primarily Drupal and WordPress.
  • With a loose group journalists and other thinkers and doers, I’ve been exploring the future of journalism and the emergence of digital news applications; set to moderate a panel on the subject at SXSW Interactive.
  • Trying to get my head aorund the future of the Internet. I gave a talk on the subject at a recent meeting of the Central Texas World Future Society, and will give another similar talk at Link Coworking at noon on January 8.
  • In that context, I’ve also been tracking the Wikileaks controversies, thinking to convene a public forum on the subject via EFF-Austin. Is Julian Assange shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre? Or is he a contemporary Daniel Ellsberg variation? Also thinking about transparency; working as an organizer (with the LBJ School) of the Texas Government 2.0 Camp, which will be January 28-29.
  • A practicing Buddhist, I’m looking into the Gurdjieff work, a different system of thinking, but similar in its cultivation of mindfulness. True mindfulness is easy to conceive but hard hard hard to achieve.
  • I’ve signed up to be a reviewer for the City of Austin’s Grant for Technology Opportunities, which awards money to community technology projects. I’ve always had an interest in community technology, and that’s revived somewhat as I note that there’s still a digital divide, and it’s even more significant as so much more of what we do in our daily lives requires access to technologies and networks. Also interseted in digital literacy; not long ago Howard Rheingold and I were discussing his next book, which will be on that subject.
  • The world is incredibly screwed up at the moment; I feel an obligation to get into an active an visible advocacy for the things I think are important… a humane progressive agenda, a positive and transformative cultural agenda, depolarizing politics and an end to the cultural cold war in the U.S. and beyond, commitment to the ideal of sustainability, acknowledgement of and response to the problem of global warming, etc. Can a web developer do all that much? I’m with the army here… we should all try to be all that we can be…