Liam at nine months. Photo: Sara Buckland

I glory in paradox. It particularly pleases me that I write a regular and distinctly subversive column for ‘The Tasmanian Catholic’ and from time to time, belly-laughing, am published in the ‘Reply’ column of its polar opposite, ‘Guardian Weekly’. I’ve also just been offered a big, scary gig, a trial column in ‘The Australian Green.’

    The articles and letters below are reprinted with permission from an authorised delegate of the Archbishop of Hobart, and from the editor of ‘The Guardian Weekly’. The versions printed here are the originals, free of editorial prunings.

Guardian Weekly: Notes and Queries. 17th August 2012

“Why is religion so aligned with patriarchy? What would happen if they were uncoupled?”

Fair or Foul?

Tasmanian Catholic, August 2012

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Matthew 6, 28

Choosing your favourite flowers is almost as impossible as nominating the books or music you’d take to a desert island. Roses, irises, poppies, sunflowers like the eye of God, jonquils, waratahs high on Tasmanian mountains in spring, wistaria, apple-blossom, solar-yellow marigolds: the yearning for beauty is innate in humans. The trouble is that some of the ways we’re currently trying to foster beauty, to emulate Solomon, are destroying the planet.

Take the fashion industry. Pleasure in clothes is an essential aspect of self-esteem and self-expression. Yet how can a garment be beautiful, if its manufacture has involved slavery, child-labour, or sweat-shops (double shifts, shamefully low wages, exposure to toxic substances and dangerous machinery)?

Cotton-growing uses a quarter of the world’s herbicides, and a tenth of all pesticides. Because it’s lucrative, it displaces food-crops in countries already vulnerable to hunger; all those pretty dresses and smart shirts are pushing up the grain-price for the people who can least afford it. In Xintang in China, where most of the world’s jeans are made, the river is filthy with bleach and toxic dyes.

The manufacture of polyester and other synthetics requires a large amount of crude oil, and generates toxic gases, solvents and hazardous wastes. No synthetic is biodegradable; our children’s children will be inhaling, drinking and eating the particles for generations.

The average Westerner buys thirty kilograms of textiles per year. Textiles, which account for four per cent of municipal waste, are now our fastest growing waste-stream. What happens to it all, on a finite earth where there is no ‘away’ to throw things to?

If abattoirs had glass-walls, how many of us would wear leather? The horrors of the fur-trade are well-documented. What about the wildfowl whose feathers stuff our down-jackets and duvets? I love wool and knitting; on my behalf sheep are mulesed and dyes contaminate our rivers. What about sheets, blankets, curtains, tablecloths, church vestments and altar-linens?

We are accountable.

If the global fashion industry is a whited sepulchre, all shiny on the outside and corrupt within, how might we joyfully, warmly, ethically clothe our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit?

I think we have to become discerning consumers. A friend didn’t know whether to be proud or mortified, when her daughter loudly asked a sales-assistant if the clothing on display had been made by sweaty children. A young man selling sports-shoes told me indignantly that ethics and justice weren’t his affair.

Ethical clothing and footwear cost more, because no human-being has been abused, nor ecosystem poisoned, in their manufacture.

I’m a fan of op.shops. Apart from the recycling and treasure-hunting aspect, it’s good to support charities doing brilliant work on a shoestring. The downside of is that our used clothing is now big business in parts of Africa and Asia. Is it really a good deed to binge on shoddy, budget textiles then donate them to charities who dump them on the poor?

I’m also honing my patching, darning and mending skills; the hard bits, like zips, I out-source to a small seamstress business. I’m old enough to remember the austerity of post-war England, where worn sheets were routinely resewn sides-to-middle, then became pillowcases, hankies, dish-clothes before going to the rag-and-bone man. Patchwork didn’t mean buying fancy textiles, but recycling granny’s pinny, a hand-me-down dress, the neighbours’ old curtains, into richly storied quilts.

Our obese wardrobes and linen cupboards are just one aspect of an economic system that is destroying its own capital and pimping a planet. If we continue on our current course, there will quite simply be no more lilies of the field. A quarter of all plants are already at risk of extinction. The death forever of even the smallest flower injures ever more deeply the delicate, intricate web of life on whose wellbeing our own depends.

How do we expand the concept of ‘pro-life’ to include the duty of care for a whole planet and its future? The environmental crisis is essentially a crisis of loving; of learning to see beyond the tribe and the exigencies of a consumer-driven culture; of loving deeper, broader, further across time and space.

A world without flowers is the stuff of angels weeping.

“Only when the last tree has died, the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish has been caught, will we realise we cannot eat money.” Cree (First Peoples of North America) proverb

19th June 2012

Dear Gentleperson

How is it that the Vatican still gets away with such moral, political and spiritual  skulduggery? (Vatican engulfed by whistleblower wars, 8 June). Its abuse of power is as rank, opaque and unaccountable as any junta’s; it infantilises Catholics by usurping the primacy of individual conscience and gagging dissent; in order to corner the God-market and control consumers, it uses guilt, fear and shame generated by anachronistic, redemptionist theology; its denial of the basic human right of contraception to women is a crime against humanity and the planet; its virulent misogyny differs only in degree from the Taliban’s.

What the hell am I doing in such a church? Yet Catholicism is as innate in me as race or gender; I can’t extirpate it. What’s more, I’m a convert. For within the corruption lies a pearl of great price I’ve found nowhere else in a lifetime of searching. The Eucharist – living water, homoeopathic God, the fractal moment when the finite and infinite touch – is still radically amazing me after 15 years.

The dysjunction between form and substance, between the institutional and sacramental church, is so extreme it’s schizoid; going to Mass is both beloved home-coming, and collusion in intolerable injustice. As the Berlin Wall and apartheid have crumbled, so must this moribund and corrupt theocracy undergo the very death and rebirth it preaches. It’s time to liberate Christ as iconoclast; as exemplar of justice of mercy; as embodiment of Gandhi’s satyagraha – autonomy and compassion in taut, truthful dance; as transcendent potential struggling to be born in each of us.

I yearn for congruence, for a passionate, creative, authentic, inclusive, questioning, mystical spirituality. All power to the whistleblowers. Occupy the Vatican? A Catholic spring in St Peter’s Square? Why not?

(Not published).

Can Earth Forgive Us?

Tasmanian Catholic: June 2012

I’m in trouble with the dentist again. Years ago, he told me bluntly that if I didn’t give up sugar, I’d lose all my teeth. This was so scary that, over six months, I scripted sugars of all kinds out of my diet; except on feast-days. My dental health improved so radically that after two trouble-free years, I allowed myself to be lured by lusciously dark, organic, Peruvian chocolate with a whisky-hit of 60% pure cacao. At first, it was just a weekend treat. Imperceptibly it segued into a daily four o’clock fix. Last week I ran headlong into the consequences; $500 and four fillings. After a lengthy truth and reconciliation session with myself, reflecting on the terminal irresponsibility of sacrificing my own long-term wellbeing for the sake of addiction-flavoured instant gratification, I’ve given up sugar again. And forgiven myself. Only time will tell if my teeth can do likewise.

This episode so brought to mind an article that haunted me when I first read it ten years ago, that I tracked it down on the internet; Dereck Jensen’s ‘A Weakened World Cannot Forgive Us’. It argues that while the Earth in health is robust and resilient, the damage humankind is now inflicting on the biosphere is crippling, perhaps irreparably, Earth’s capacity to heal and self-restore. When will Earth – and my teeth – reach a point of no-return? If my teeth fall out, I have only myself to blame, and will bear the lifelong consequences of my own stupidity. But the consequences of our carbon-bingeing, rapacious lifestyles are being dumped willy-nilly on the future; we are laying on our descendants a vast burden of reparation, reconciliation and forgiveness for our sins of ecological omission and commission.

Forgiveness of one’s self and others for unskilled behaviour is the Everest-without-oxygen of the spiritual journey. It’s rigorous, impossible, intolerable, interminable. Is the view from the summit worth it? I don’t know yet; I’m still floundering in and out of crevasses on the lower slopes. Ask me in a decade or two. The most outstanding act of forgiveness I’ve witnessed was when a Buddhist friend, at the trial of the man who’d murdered her husband, sat with the mother and sisters of the accused.

Forgiveness is above all about being willing to change. It’s not about condoning. But it does require cranking open my rusty heart, and letting grace in to dissolve the toxins of powerlessness, resentment, rage, self-pity, self-righteousness, revenge and blame. It’s an energetic issue as much as a moral one, a conscious decision to no longer be trapped and defined by the past. The I Ching suggests – and I wince – that it may mean facing and healing in myself what I find loathsome in someone else. As often as not, it can involve a way-station where I have to stop and forgive myself for not forgiving, and keep my heart open even to my heart being closed.

To choose to not change, to not forgive, is spiritual and moral constipation.

How do we ask forgiveness of a planet? Are we willing to change, to take a long, painful look at the consequences of our environmentally catastrophic lifestyles before we destroy our own life-support systems? How do we give up the planetary equivalent of sugar before we commit the unimaginable crime of ecocide? How dare we treat the future as terra nullius, wreak grievous bodily harm on our children’s children, debauch the habitat of the 8.7 billion non-human species on whose wellbeing our own depends? Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that crucified a planet?

Afterwards will be too late.

Nelson Mandela was once asked how he’d eat an elephant. “Slowly,” he said.

The task ahead of us is vast, impossible, inevitable. Let us begin.

‘A Weakened World Cannot Forgive Us: an Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore’ by Dereck Jensen. The Sun Magazine. March 2001.

Stephanie Dowrick. ‘Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love.’

Tim Flannery. ‘Here On Earth. An Argument for Hope.’

May 2012

Dear gentleperson

I couldn’t work out why I was so disquieted by Tom Holland’s ‘A vision that haunts us still’(27 April). Then the penny dropped; the Guardian Weekly, that exemplar of justice and cultural heresy, had published a long article that wholly excluded half the human race. In this distorted account, the actors, writers and directors are all male; history shrinks to the doings of marauding men; power is construed as mere dominance; the dismal supremacy of violence in human affairs goes unchallenged; and women are victims twice over, first vanquished by conquest and empire, then obliterated from the narrative.

The other loser is the biosphere; the intricate, many-voiced habitat of our 8 billion co-species is reified, reduced to battleground and territory to be colonised. Any vision for the future not founded on the co-valency of women, ecosystems and men will doom not just an empire but a planet.

13th April 2012

Dear gentleperson

I expect to be challenged, delighted, shocked and outraged by the Guardian Weekly, but not demeaned as I am by the blatant ageism that permeates ‘Centenarian suggestions’ (6 April).

First, the figures are skewed. The 35% of today’s newborns predicted to reach their 100th birthdays presumably belong to the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) subset that comprises just 8% of the global population. What about the 7 million non-WEIRD children who die annually before they turn 5?

Second, the article not only patronises the ageing, it ridicules us to the point of caricature. It harps on our physical ugliness. Who else does the writer damn by implication because of their appearance – the ill, the disabled, women, the non-WEIRD? It’s taken a while, as it always does when I’ve been on the receiving end of fundamentalism, to scrub the muck off my face, to stand up straight again, and realise that Hansen’s article says much more about her own fear and loathing, than it does about the diverse and doughty experience of those of us who actually inhabit the country of the ageing. I’m not even sure where the boundaries are; when does middle-age become age? I’ve just turned 64; to my 92 year-old godmother I’m still practically in the cradle.

What makes ageism even more stupid than sexism or racism is that its proponents are sawing off a branch they will one day need to stand on.

My generation, having radically changed the paradigms of sexuality, reproduction, marriage, gender issues and menopause, is now rewriting the script around ageing and dying; beneath the radar, we’re still intrepidly white-anting a culture. Lacking societal definition, we’re free to invent ourselves. As we relinquish self-image based on industrially mandated constructs of career, beauty, health and success, who are we? Face to face with mortality, what truly matters? Even the freedom to ask this question is a WEIRD luxury, since the other 92% live their whole lives alongside death.

Maybe Hinduism has the right of it, with its tripartite model of youth, householder and sannyasin – the seeker or soulmaker, echoed by W.B.Yeats: ‘An ageing man is but a paltry thing, /A tattered coat upon a stick, unless /Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress’.

Ageism arises in part from hatred of physicality, just like Earthism which is perniciously predicated on debauching the living body of our only planet. Birth, seeding and death are primal; the rose in glory and the rose rotting are integral to each other. To deny ageing is to deny life. As I grapple towards an ecology of sustainable ageing and dying, I radically question the degree to which longevity itself is a by-product of an ecocidal and carbon-obese culture. How, then, do I age and die in a way that doesn’t further cannibalise the future made personal in my small grandson? Not just his wellbeing but his survival are interdependent with the health of our 8.7 billion non-human commensal species, whose bodies we must learn to cherish as deeply as our own.

Love Letter to My Garden

Tasmanian Catholic: April 2012

My mother was often teased because she’d go into the garden for five minutes and emerge all earthy three hours later with sticky weed in her hair and a laden colander. Now I do exactly the same thing. Time ceases to exist when I’m gardening; one minute it’s mid-afternoon then suddenly it’s dark. I’m a much nicer person after my hands have been in the soil. It’s as transformative as swimming in the surf, or listening to amazing music; I’m washed through and through with nameless, profound healing. The garden is delight, gift, exhaustion, challenge, endless learning, soul. I find it far more interesting than the internet.

My patch of earth will never be anything other than wildish; I prefer it that way. The garden gardens me and not vice versa. The compost heap, where everything is dying and being reborn, eating and being eaten, embodies radical transformation. Everywhere is myriad life; microscopic, microbial, fungal and insect cultures to whom I am nothing, though human wellbeing depends wholly on their thriving. There is more DNA – more intelligence – in a spadeful of healthy soil than in my whole body. I’m particularly enchanted by spiders and their webs; how long does it take to learn to weave like that?

Perhaps above all I revere the fecundity, abundance and miracle of seeds. This mote knows how to make a Tasmanian blue gum. That pip is kin to all the apples that have ever been and will ever be. What radiance of poppy-ness is contained in these black specks? Who dreamt roses? Is the acorn afraid of the oak-tree it must become? Whose seed am I?

WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) have been integral to my ecology for ten years now. I supply board and lodging, while they joyfully, robustly tackle all the tasks beyond the fetch of a woman approaching her eight-squared birthday. In this dance of hospitality, radical trust, cultural exchange and convivial work, everyone wins. Disasters are few and far between. I’m wholly enriched by these dear young travellers who’ve had the courage to leave family, homes, jobs, in order to grapple with a web of questions. Who am I? Where’s my passion? What’s my calling, my vocation?

The garden is also a place where personal and political pleasures mesh. I seek to live lightly on the Earth we hold in trust for future generations. Industrial food production has a high carbon footprint, guzzles fossil fuel and generates greenhouse gases. Eating home or locally grown, in-season, unpackaged, chemical-free fruit and vegetables makes ethical and ecological sense. Our local Gardens and Food group runs a produce exchange once a month over summer and autumn. I might take lemons, rhubarb, zucchinis and a punnet of red mustard seedlings; come home with three kinds of apple, a jar of blackberry jelly, a bunch of kale and a bag of hazel-nuts. There’s a loaves and fishes principle at work. Everyone seems to go away with twice as much as they’ve brought. Might such an exchange work as a community-builder in our parishes?

My long-term plan is to have a thickly planted, deeply mulched, self-sustaining garden with plenty of Tasmanian natives, lots of fruit trees, salvias for their brilliant colours and drought-resistance, roses because I love them, and above all, an organic and lively vegetable patch. I’m increasingly ruthless with environmental weeds; cotoneaster, ivy, honeysuckle, banana passionfruit, wanderer, convolvulus, agapanthus and their ilk colonise and destroy the bush and thence the birds, insects and animals who live there. I want to keep bees, not to harvest honey, but just to live alongside and learn from such complex, intelligent community. Bees are in global crisis, dying in unprecedented numbers, probably from an overload of environmental pollutants and poisons. They’re key pollinators; without them, agriculture would collapse. So would civilisation. No food, no life.

It’s a sunny afternoon and, as always, there’s a tangle of tasks waiting. Wotan the wheelbarrow needs his joints oiled. If the parrots have left any plums, I shall pick them to bottle; hot work today, but oh, the joy of eating sunshine in mid-winter. It’s time to sow broad beans for next spring; go round the young cauliflowers and pick off eggs and caterpillars; stake the sunflowers, heads heavy with seed, for the birds.

Gardening is mindfulness in action, the most practical prayer I know.  I’m still waiting to glimpse Blake’s “Heaven in a wild flower”, or irises as Van Gogh saw them. I often read the contemporary American poet, Mary Oliver, who has found a doorway into the heart of things, who re-enchants the ordinary – owls, grasshoppers, lilies, sweet corn, walking the dogs – and inhabits the sensate world with an intimacy I yearn for. My prayer this Easter?  “Let me see with a fraction of thy vision, o God.”

New and Selected Poems. Mary Oliver

Growing Vegetables South of Australia. Steve Solomon

Destination Unknown

Tasmanian Catholic: February 2012

We’ve come a long way from stardust. Way back when, who could have imagined Beethoven, Huon pines, roses and whale-song on a blue-green planet hanging like a jewel in space? Now, 13.7 billion years after the Big Bang, we’ve arrived at a moment without evolutionary precedent. Humankind seems hell-bent on destroying the very ecosystems – clean water, fresh air, fertile soil, rich biodiversity – on which our own wellbeing depends. We’ve become a parasite devouring its host. Something has to give. If Earth gives, we will have scripted our own genocide. So it’s up to us. We have to radically, rapidly re-imagine what it means to be human.

There are dozens of interconnected issues here. I’m particularly passionate about three of them; abuse of God, abuse of women, abuse of the biosphere.

Religion has to grow up. Too often it degenerates into deadly squabbling over who owns the pearl of great price. How can love of my God mean hatred of yours? By what perversion do we oppress others in the name of Christ, Buddha, Moses or Mohammed? How has great love been corrupted into such fear and power misused? For three billion people, nearly half of us, religious observance carries the risk of harassment, arrest, torture or death.

We ignore history at our peril. Christian and Islamic fundamentalists today sound hideously like their forebears in the Crusades, with leaders of both sides promising treasure in heaven as an incentive to mass murder. It delights me that one of my ancestors was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem in 300BC whose current descendants – my cousins – include Ashkenazy and Sephardic Jews, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, Coptic and Indian Christians. No Buddhists or Hindus have turned up yet, but I live in hope. What a tribe. What a privilege. And what a paradox. As a Catholic, I’m accountable for the actions of the Church, for the Inquisition which drove my father’s family out of Spain in the fifteenth century. We got our own back, because we ended up in Wittenberg helping Martin Luther hammer things on church doors and organise the Reformation. Heresy, it seems, is in my DNA.

How do we strip away the malignancy that so often corrupts our relationship with the Divine? How do we stand our ground, lovingly and rigorously, against personal and institutional fundamentalism? How do we celebrate religious diversity, and liberate the Living Water which is the birthright of every human being?

It’s time for the more than half of us who are women to take off our personal, moral, sexual, economic, political, cultural and religious leg-irons. The global economy piggybacks on women’s unpaid labour; we do two-thirds of the world’s work for a quarter of its income, and own just one percent of global property. Every minute of every hour of every day a woman dies in childbirth; the baby nearly always dies too, along with other children under five who are too small to fend for themselves. It’s men who overwhelmingly make wars; seventy percent of refugees from these wars are women and children.

Religion, including our own, is complicit since it too is based on a co-dependence of male domination and female submission. Discrimination on the grounds of gender is sexism, which is as criminal as any other fundamentalism. Women are oppressed and disenfranchised in God’s house, denied a real voice in policy and liturgy. My spirit is demeaned and shrunk when I have to call God He, Him, Father, Lord, King. As the sixteenth century Indian poet and mystic Mira so beautifully said; “The only justification I can find for a male God is that his gender is in greater need of redemption than ours.” Alleluia.

Humankind is still locked into infantile relationship with the planet – total exploitation and total dominance. We plunder, pillage, pollute, and dump our excrement onto the poor, other sentient beings and the future. We’re trying to eat our planet and keep it. It’s time to make an evolutionary leap in consciousness, to learn to live in adult relationship with the 8.7 billion species with whom we share our home. How do we learn to be compassionate across time and space; to be accountable; to live within our ecological means; to honour our interdependence with all life, and to find our true place within the whole astonishing, intricate, gorgeous dance of life on Earth?

It’s almost as impossible as getting here from stardust.

Love Poems from God. Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Life Prayers from around the World. 365 Prayers, Blessings and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon


2nd December 2011

Dear gentleperson

How validating to read the authentic experience of a fellow radical insomniac (I’m knackered and I’m sure I’m not alone, 25 November). There’s a linguistic issue here; ‘insomnia’ lumps together the nocturnal equivalent of an occasional bad hair day, the hellish nights of clinical depression, and the galvanic, serial awakenings of hot-flush ridden menopause. There’s no way of differentiating John Crace’s insomnia (waking at 4am) from my antipodal variety (unable to go to sleep in the first place).

I’ve come to see that insomnia, like any chronic health condition, is subversive. You can’t do the mainstream, so you have to find a yardstick outside our current, paltry definition of success. Since it’s not possible to will yourself well, ego has no dominion here. To be disabled in one sphere is to be abled in another. My moiety is now yin, lunar, the rich and labyrinthine byways of inner space and the insights that arise from having, willy-nilly, to rest a lot; I practise the kind of active contemplation the poet Rainer Maria Rilke attributes to a flower – ‘a muscle of infinite reception’. When my daughter and her small son come to stay, however quietly they waken two solid rooms away, I wake too. An attunement paradoxically worth rubies?

It’s possible to learn to live well within the cultural interstices, with the skewing and attrition of permanent sleep deprivation. One of the gifts is focus; discerning what really matters and using times of unconditional energy to the full. It’s a persistent challenge to be self-cherishing when frustration gnaws, or when life feels futile, wasted, worthless and intractably self-sabotaging. I practise not feeling morally inferior to the rest of my family who have boundless energy, nerves of steel and sleep like babies. I wryly accept the need to catnap during the day (I drop off at once), for to override tiredness both further depletes an already stressed system, and bullies my body as radically as humankind depletes and bullies the biosphere.

There’s a vast literature on insomnia, much of it by colonising experts propounding simplistic, patronising and lucrative solutions. I’ve tried endless potions, nostrums, tools and techniques, some of which work sporadically. The only sure-fire answer, sometimes the lesser of two evils, is a sleeping pill. This week, for the first time for months, I’m by and large sleeping. I have no idea why, but it’s blissful. It’s also as precarious as a house of cards a footfall could destroy. Shhh…

Freeing the Slaves, Freeing Ourselves

Tasmanian Catholic: December 2011

Skipping in the backyard with a piece of old hose for a rope? Giving dizzy-whizzies to half a dozen small children? Playing cricket with a tennis racket with most of its strings missing and a kitchen stool for stumps? None of this is in the job description for volunteer home English tutors with the Adult Migrant English Programme, but it’s one of the many reasons I love this lifegiving, lifechanging, and gloriously unpredictable work.

I learn far more than I teach. My Sudanese students show me above all what it costs to be human. They’ve met the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and survived. They embody what Viktor Frankl wrote when he came out of Auschwitz: “…to actualise the highest value, which is love; to fulfil the deepest meaning, the meaning of suffering”. One woman likes to practise her English by reading Bible stories aloud. The other day, it was Moses and Pharaoh. Because she knows about slavery from the inside, for her it was a living story and “Let my people go!” wasn’t a text but a heart-cry.

Slavery’s as old as humankind. I learnt the bare facts of the Atlantic slave trade at school.  European entrepreneurs packed ships with Africans in conditions that make today’s live cattle trade look humane; sold them to plantation owners in the Americas and the Caribbean; sailed home with cargoes of slave-grown sugar, tobacco and cotton; then exported weapons and consumer goods back to Africa. 15 million Africans were transported over three hundred years, with up to a third dying on the voyage.

Yet it’s not enough to simply lament the past, or follow the example of Christians in ancient Rome who were allowed to keep slaves as long as they weren’t Christian. Celebrating the liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt or Babylon, as we so often do in the liturgy, or the ending of the Atlantic slave trade, is mere cant if we continue to ignore slavery in our own time

There are twenty-seven million slaves in the world today. People-trafficking, along with the trades in arms, drugs and pornography, is one of the top earners in the global economy. Nearly 70% of the victims of trafficking are women; 20% are children. Slave labour grows much of our food. Tea-leaves are harvested by women and children working 14 hour days. Pregnant women in India spray our cashews with pesticides banned in the West. Cocoa for chocolate is still grown using child and slave labour. Children pick through the mountains of waste, much of it toxic, that we dump in the Third World. South African wine is made of grapes farmed by bonded labour. Our clothes are sewn in Bangladeshi sweatshops. As consumers, we have a moral responsibility. Fairtrade products are now widely available. It’s simple to make the change to guilt-free, ethically sourced tea, coffee, chocolate, clothes.  If shops don’t stock them, ask. If that doesn’t work, nag, shop elsewhere, or do without.

Then there’s coltan, a rare mineral and essential component of mobile phones and electronic goods. The struggle to control coltan drives and funds civil war and associated mass rape (eleven hundred women a day) in the Congo. In a feedback loop that seems to me the embodiment of evil, raped women, maimed and driven off their land, are forced to work as slaves in the coltan mines. Knowing that, how do any of us live with integrity?

I do what I can, and it’s still not enough. I have a middle-aged, second-hand laptop which I use sparingly for final drafts (this is mainly coming to you via fountain pen and a slew of paper foraged from office recycling bins). I outsource the web, email and printing to my favourite internet cafés. I fiercely resisted a mobile phone until my blithe, dancing, profoundly deaf daughter gave birth to her first child in Sydney earlier this year. It’s both wonderful to have that contact with her, and morally indefensible that we’re communicating via the mauled bodies of other women.

How do we temper moral outrage with justice and mercy? The Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh does it exquisitely in his poem ‘Call Me by My True Name’: pirates in the China Sea attack a boat-load of refugees, and rape an eleven year old girl, who throws herself into the water and drowns. With absolute compassion, Thich Nhat Hanh takes in turn the voices of the ocean, the boat, the terrified refugees, the drowned child and finally the pirates “whose hearts cannot yet see”.

The task is threefold. We have to free ourselves and the planet from our thralldom to an economic system whose only yardstick is profit. We have to free the slaves. And we have to free our agents, the most damaged people of all, the slavers themselves.

Slavery is now. We all collude. My freedom – to eat chocolate, drink tea, own an i-phone – is a lie because it’s based on the physical, moral, cultural and economic degradation and oppression of other human beings. Let us not, this Christmas, give gifts that violate the Christ-child, Who is all children, nor Mary His mother, Who is all women.


Stop the Traffick: People Shouldn’t Be Bought and Sold by Steve Chalke. (A Christian perspective by a dedicated social activist and Baptist minister).

Modern Slavery. The Secret World of 27 Million People by Kevin Bales, Zoe Trodd and Alex Kent Williamson


October 2011


Thank you, David Roman, for nailing a radical incongruence (Reply, 21 0ctober). On the one hand the Guardian Weekly robustly documents eco-crisis. On the other, its financial reporters laud economic growth which, untrammelled and unaccountable to human and ecological wellbeing, is funding eco-crisis all the way to planetary suicide.

    ‘How Jobs changed capitalism’ is a classic example (14 October). Your reporter unequivocally celebrates Jobs for his innovative brilliance in designing and marketing tools such as i-pads. Isn’t it truer to say that Jobs manipulated us into craving for, and justifying as essential, toys that didn’t even exist five years ago, regardless of their dire consequences for the health of the biosphere?

    Jung said that what is not made conscious is encountered as destiny; we ignore the shadow aspects of Jobs’ wizardry at our moral and global peril. The manufacture of electronic goods is largely outsourced; as China chokes on our industrial effluent, cancer rates and birth defects soar; in the Philippines, computer assemblers are going blind; working conditions in Apple factories in Taiwan and China are driving employees to suicide. In a brutal feedback loop, an essential e-component and rare mineral called coltan fuels civil war in the Congo, where the ostracised, crippled victims of mass rape are forced to work as slaves in the coltan mines. E-goods are made of plastic which is oil-based and therefore a lynchpin of oil wars, the Saudi dictatorship, mayhem in the Niger delta and ecological disaster in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. E-waste is lucratively traded by criminal gangs and dumped on the poor. A speaker on ABC radio recently described mobile phones as the asbestos and tobacco of the twenty-first century.

    Did Jobs change capitalism, or did he just pervert it into an even more ecocidal artform? It seems to me that he was clever but not wise. He exemplified the self-serving tunnel-vision of anthropocene economics as it devastates its own biospheric capital and takes us all to hell in a handbasket.

    Freedom predicated on oppression is a lie, is slavery. I too am compromised; I don’t know how not to collude. I have an elderly second-hand laptop sparingly used for final drafts, and I outsource emailing and the web to the conviviality of internet cafés. It’s not enough. How do you live with integrity in the twenty-first century?

    Liberation from the schizoid space we’re all trapped in can only come from a radically reimagined culture. Governance transforming beyond democracy into ecocracy would encompass all of lifekind in its processes, and indict earthism – crimes against the wellbeing of earth – as rigorously as any other fundamentalism. Ecozoic economics would internalise all costs, ban all hazardous substances, make ecological accounting a mandatory keystone of human activity, and redefine wealth as rampant biodiversity and healthy air, water and soil. True sustainability is almost as impossible as evolving from star-dust. Let us begin.

20th October 2011 

Thank you, Deborah Orr, for a eureka moment; capitalism has hijacked feminism. How could I have not joined up the dots? (More and more is not enough, 23 September).

    My daughter is taking what is mendaciously described as maternity leave. Leave, in this context, means working and being on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without tea, toilet and meal breaks, sick leave or holiday entitlements; there is neither union oversight nor occupational health and safety support. Breast-feeding, which requires as much energy as navvying, comes on top of the already heavy physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth. Despite 8 straight months of sleep deprivation, she’s expected at all times to be loving, selfless, responsive, serene, energetic, committed and patient – radiant’s a bonus – and to double childcare with the skilled and scurrilously undervalued travail of running a household. In order to retain career parity when her ‘leave’ expires, she’s also trying to study. Even with a supportive husband, that’s somewhere between gruelling and intolerable.

    The fact that parents, women in particular, are continually driven to override exhaustion and subjugate the instinctual wisdom of our bodies – those astonishing instruments that process several billion pieces of information per second – is an insidious form of culturally mandated self-abuse. I pilloried myself for 20 years, then went into months-long physical and psychiatric collapse. In that stasis, in a moment of shocked and irrevocable insight, I realised I’d been bullying and enslaving my body exactly as humankind abuses the biosphere; and that entrenched in the psyche of a lifelong feminist and conservationist was a mindset both fundamentalist and ecocidal.

    Women’s feet are still perniciously, invisibly bound. We have allowed ourselves to be stripped of agency, of the right to make authentic, flexible choices predicated on human and ecological wellbeing. What kind of demented feedback loop defines caring for children as ‘not work’, as a mere subset of the very marketplace which is crucifying the earth and all possibility of a sane and healthy future for those selfsame children? The emperor isn’t naked, he actively wears lies; we continue to collude not just in our own violation but in planetary suicide.

(Unpublished. I actually dreamt the moment when this got binned.) 

A Shrunken God?

(The Tasmanian Catholic: October 2011).

If my God is small, I will inevitably try to shrink other people’s; I myself will remain puny, and seek to mould others to that puniness. One of my least favourite characters in Greek myth is the giant Procrustes, an inn-keeper with only one bed; tall travellers were lopped and short ones stretched to fit. Procrustes is a fundamentalist; he gets his power by stealing it from others. He’s the ultimate control freak; he describes the world as, say, a small orange square and bans all other configurations. I don’t care if someone believes the earth is a small orange square. What does matter is if they attempt to impose that belief – spiritual, political, economic, racial, cultural, sexual – on others.

    Religious fundamentalism is one of the scariest things on this planet; gods dressed up in jackboots to hide their own powerlessness and fear. The God of the Old Testament is frequently fundamentalist, giving the Children of Israel a divine mandate to ethnically cleanse Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (I can say this without fear or favour. Genetic / genealogical research has revealed my solidly English father’s lineage to be of the kohen, the hereditary Israelite priesthood; my ancestors were probably right in there, ranting against the heathen). In our own time, Christian and Muslim extremists are mirror-images of each other, still trapped in a script dating from the Crusades when both sides were taught to view the other as the embodiment of evil, and promised treasures in heaven for slaughtering one another. The Crusades also unleashed anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe, when whole communities were burnt alive in their own synagogues. Today, anti-asylum seeker rhetoric arises from the same pernicious root. Rwanda, Ireland, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Gaza are all modern embodiments of Procrustes, armed now with cluster bombs and landmines.

    And then there’s environmental fundamentalism; by destroying our planetary life-support systems, we’re annihilating the future. We’re not just selling our own birthright for a mess of pottage, like Esau, but our children’s. Is this not the ultimate sin? 


There’s a control freak in all of us; it’s always salutary to walk through town and see who I’m damning and excluding today. It takes conscious, unrelenting effort to keep pushing back my horizons, challenging my own boundaries to keep my heart from rusting over.

     I love the concept of entelechy, the sum of our potential; the entelechy of a caterpillar is a butterfly. One of the ways I try and enable that evolution in myself is to read steadily on science (knowledge of the seen) and theology (knowledge of the unseen). I like to enlarge myself, blow my circuits with facts like these. If you have a hundred pianos, each tuned an octave higher than its neighbour, the hundredth piano is made of light. Molecules of chlorophyll – the stuff that makes plants green – are identical to molecules of human blood except that chlorophyll has a magnesium atom at its heart and blood has iron. Doesn’t that make trees our cousins?

   It’s taken a year to begin to grasp the first two chapters of physicist Paul Davies’ book, The Goldilocks Enigma: why the universe is ‘just right’ for life. I keep falling flat on my face with awe. It seems we live in a multiverse, a staggering and infinite mosaic of universes whose laws of physics may be radically different from ours (rain falling upwards? time non-existent?); that mathematical laws underpin everything – beetles, sunflowers, spring, galaxies; and that ninety percent of the universe is made of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ that no-one knows what is. We live in a vastness, a mystery beyond our wildest imaginings. My jackboots don’t stand a chance. 

“…there comes a moment when the risk of staying tightly in bud is more painful than the risk of blossoming.” Anon

At the theological end of the spectrum, I’m currently in love with Jan Frazier’s When Fear Falls Away. It’s a luminous, humble account of an astonishing spiritual journey. An ordinary woman, struggling with a failed marriage, major health issues, a mortgage, thorny teenagers, finds herself almost overnight in the state of seamless, ecstatic communion with all life that I imagine Christ inhabited, and which the Buddhists call enlightenment. Many of us have glimpsed this state, through prayer, art, nature, making love. It’s the treasure that mystics of all traditions have long sought; Julian of Norwich when she became an anchorite, Rumi and Kabir in Islam, the Jewish Kabbalists. It’s where Jan Frazier now lives, every second of every day, in the peace that passes all understanding. I’m particularly moved by her realisation of how much room she’d given over to fear, and how spacious, how vast her being is without it. One of the reasons she wrote the book is because if the human and the divine can fuse in her, it can happen to each and every one of us.

    Meister Eckhardt says, “God is at home. We are in the far country.”

    Jan Frazier has come home. I for one am weeping with homesickness.

“The tree in the seed, that art Thou.

The running water, that art Thou.

The sun in the sky and all that is, that art Thou.” Hindu scripture

9th September 2011 

I’m trying to fathom why my stomach is particularly turned by your article Pakistan Rangers sent in to halt wave of Karachi gang killings (2 September). It’s partly because this gruesome story is given page three apotheosis, and partly because here is violence once again obliterating all other discourse, not just in the enacting but in the narrating; I reel beneath this double displacement. Your coverage is wholly from a male perspective. One facet of truth usurping all other facets is fundamentalism.

    When violence is given such one-sided prominence in a publication as shiningly ethical as the GW, it both amplifies my sense of violation, and reinforces the insidious, millennial lie which grants men more power, rights and worth than women. It uncritically equates news with abuse of testosteronal power, and drowns the voices of women, children, the elderly, other men, and our 8.7 million commensal species (There’s an awful lot of life on earth, 2 September).

    Why is it that violence is perceived as inherently more significant than all other narratives? What kind of perniciously skewed morality gives war greater currency than peace? Do we need to radically redefine what constitutes news? A friend missed the entire invasion of Iraq because she was nursing her small daughter through meningitis. Which is the more meaningful, the more valorous story?

Those Pesky Prophets

(The Tasmanian Catholic: August 2011). 

Prophets are a nuisance. Just look at the Old Testament. Imagine having Jeremiah or Moses or Noah for a neighbour, always banging on about doom and gloom or, even worse, the need for metanoia, conversion, radical change.

    How you define a prophet depends on where you’re standing. My terrorist may well be your freedom-fighter. When I asked my cousin – forty years in the US army – to name a prophet, he said, “Sarah Palin.” My jaw’s still dropping; we’re still friends.


“All things counter, original, spare, strange…” Gerard Manley Hopkins

Prophecy is the divine breaking in whenever the status quo dams life or injustice rules. It’s about re-imagining, re-creation, transformation. True prophets are neither vainglorious nor ego-driven. They inspire and infuriate in equal measure. Being as flawed and fallible as the rest of us, they can get it wrong. They’re close kin to heretics, a word which in its Greek root simply means a choice, a set of principles. In Hebrew, nabiy – prophet – is part of a word-cluster whose meanings include discernment, hollowing, fruitfulness, watch-dogs and stumbling blocks.

“When you get a lull in the wind, you get a snow-drift. When you get a lull in the truth, you get an institution.” Thoreau

The churches, whose liturgy is a hotbed of radicals, seem to prefer their prophets dead, and are by and large tragically backward in grappling with the ferment of our own time. Since I can’t see the point of celebrating the past at the expense of the present, I’ve been conducting straw polls to find out who our contemporary prophets might be. Like any eco-system worth its salt, the list keeps evolving. Today, now, this minute, this is what it looks like:


*Cosmologists, physicists, astronomers, mathematicians who keep enlarging who we think we are, and tell us gob-smacking things about the nature of life. For example; if you were in a room twenty feet long with doors open at each end, and a fifty-foot ladder entered at light-speed, there would be a fraction of a second when the whole fifty-foot ladder was inside the twenty-foot room. The impossible is true.

*Artists, poets and musicians, who both draw up living water from the abyss, like Beethoven and van Gogh, or so challenge orthodoxy that they’re always the first to be purged when a dictator moves in.

*All those who work for justice and peace. Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King were both assassinated. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, has spent 15 years under house-arrest. Whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg, Andrew Wilkie and Julian Assange are a shining subset of this category.

*Women everywhere who are working to end patriarchy – cultural, economic, sexual, religious or institutionalised oppression on the basis of gender.

*Fundamentalism deprives others of oxygen. Religious fundamentalism is a blight on our planet. Let’s celebrate all those who work to transcend it, with a bow to the Dalai Lama who combines radiant spirituality with radical transcendence of religious boundaries.

*Ecologists, conservationists, the Greens, and all those committed to turning around a culture before environmental catastrophe and climate change take us to hell in a hand-basket.

*Gaia, planet Earth, is wounded, perhaps mortally. Her waters, air and soil are filthy; her living forests are felled; she’s predicted to be losing between thirty and fifty percent of her bio-diversity, martyred to greed. Human well-being is wholly dependent on a healthy biosphere. Can we, like the Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh, hear ‘the sounds of the Earth, weeping’?

*Women of Sudan, refugees who’ve lived through my worst nightmares and emerged still whole on the other side. It’s an especial poignancy that they’ve come from Africa, because sixty thousand years ago, that’s where we all lived; this is our family, come across impossible distances to be living exemplars of what it costs to be human. Their lives speak what Viktor Frankl wrote when he came out of Auschwitz; “…to actualise the highest value, which is love; to fulfil the deepest meaning, the meaning of suffering.” I’m honoured to tutor some of these women in English. One of my students is caring for eight children, some her own, the rest orphaned cousins, nieces and nephews. Her heart has been broken and mended so many times it’s now vast enough to contain the whole world.  

    Africa, I love you.

Pigs Can Fly and Nuclear Power is Safe

 (The Tasmanian Catholic: June 2011).

The first time I encountered the effects of nuclear radiation, I was a student nurse in Sydney. In the early seventies, women with cervical cancer were implanted with radium for forty-eight hours before surgery. Doctors wore lead coats to attend these patients. Domestic staff were forbidden by their union to enter the room. Nurses had neither a union nor lead coats. Presumably our well-starched aprons were seen as adequate protection. My first task, when I came on duty one afternoon, was to check on two women sharing a ward with the red radiation symbol on the door. I put their visitors’ flowers in water; roses, lilies, carnations all in peerless, pearly bloom. When I did a final round at midnight, the flowers were dead. I’d read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach when I was fifteen, and had nightmares about nuclear war. Now I’d unforgettably seen a fraction of the consequences with my own eyes.

“What do you do in the event of a nuclear accident?” “Kiss your children goodbye.”

“Mummy, mummy, why have I got three arms?” “Shut up and eat your yellowcake.”

Through the seventies and eighties I engaged passionately with the peace and anti-nuclear movements. It seemed to me there had to be a better way of being human than maintaining peace by constant threat of war, particularly if that meant nuclear war. I once heard a psychiatrist discussing a Pentagon briefing paper on the so-called nuclear deterrent. He said, “If a patient spoke to me in those terms, my diagnosis would be advanced psychosis.” There are still eight thousand active nuclear warheads in the world, and another twenty thousand stockpiled but not deployed. Australia mines uranium, is part of the nuclear cycle. As an Australian, I am both complicit and accountable.


Gandhi was once taken to a bandit’s hideout and proudly shown their huge cache of weapons. He said, “You must be very frightened,” and walked away.

     The world spends two million dollars a minute on armaments. What would happen if we spent just a fraction of that money on education for peace, understanding, trust and empathy; conflict resolution and mediation; human rights; empowering women; building a fair and equitable world by providing clean drinking water, sanitation, health care, and education for everyone? How do we create civil societies that make more love than warmongers make fear?

    War is an obsolete paradigm. The enemy is no longer the sabre-toothed tiger outside the cave, or the tribes over the hill who might steal our cattle. We are now the enemy; our greed, our untrammelled consuming and fossil-fuelled based mobility, are driving climate change and irrevocable environmental destruction. We’re at war with the earth, with ourselves, with the not-yet born.

The sun produces enough energy in half an hour to power all human activities for a year.

After the Chernobyl disaster in 1987, it looked as if the nuclear industry might be phased out. But no, here it is, touting itself as a clean energy solution to climate change. Perhaps the unfolding tragedy at Fukushima in Japan has put a terminal dent in that claim. Does ‘clean energy’ have by-products that remain toxic for twenty-five thousand years, like plutonium? What happens to nuclear waste? Does it become part of the global trade in toxic waste that is being lucratively traded by criminal gangs and dumped on the poor? What about nuclear terrorism? A piece of plutonium the size of an orange would destroy all life on earth.

    To advocate nuclear power as a solution to climate change also assumes that, in the face of this overwhelming challenge, business can go on as usual. It can’t, because our whole economic system is based on a demented race to see who can destroy earth’s life support systems fastest.  Bolivia has just passed visionary and prophetic legislation giving nature equal rights with humankind, and setting up a Ministry of Mother Earth with its own ombudsperson. Alleluia.

How is it that we use the same word to describe the Pentagon’s peace and Christ’s? When we turn to greet and bless each other in the Pax, we’re not saying, “I agree to live in armed stand-off with you. I’ll keep you safe by threatening all of us with nuclear holocaust.” Nor does peace mean living in a way that so compromises the health of planet earth that we’re quite literally enslaving and cannabilising the future, and the only inheritance left for our children is fear.

    The peace I seek means doing whatever it takes, changing in whatever ways are necessary, to live in resilient, intricate, convivial, co-valent relationship with the created loveliness and mystery of the natural world whose wellbeing is inextricably linked to our own. It’s peace rooted in a commitment to love all the children of all species for all time. It’s the Eucharistic moment, so lovingly expressed by the Hindi greeting, Namasté; “I honour the God within you. I honour the place in you where peace, love and mercy dwell. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”

19th April 2011

Alleluia for Bolivia and the grounded vision embodied in its new laws recognising the co-valency of humans and nature (Bolivia enshrines rights of Mother Nature, 15 April). The Norway-Guyana forest deal (Greens bargain of the century, 8 April) is an exciting and necessary transition structure, but at root is still the old paradigm trying to ingest the new – have your paradigm and eat it? Bolivia is both radically challenging anthropocene economics, which is predicated on a terminally stupid race to see who can destroy Earth’s life support systems fastest; and giving birth to the ecozoic era, in which economics, technology and human aspiration are ancillary to ecological wellbeing, and where the manifold ‘services’ provided by the natural world – as tangible as oxygen and pollination, as tenuous as awe and delight – are factored at their true value into our cultural bedrock.


What mind-boggling sophistication keeps trees aloft, water sweetly flowing, and gets oaks into acorns and back out again? Molecules of chlorophyll and human blood are identical except that chlorophyll has a magnesium atom at its heart and blood has iron. The genome of just one person, written, would fill 12,000 books. We share 70% of our DNA with bananas. A wheelbarrow of healthy soil contains more DNA – more intelligence? – than a human does.

    We not only deny sentience and rights to the non-human world, but treat it as a cross between an abattoir, a sewer cum junkyard, and a bargain basement. Bolivia is signposting a way out of that psychotic narrative. The concept of a ministry of mother earth, with its own ombudsman, gives me goosebumps. Ombudsman is both gender- and species-offensive; how about ombudstree?

Hell’s Grandmothers

(The Tasmanian Catholic: April 2011)

When my son was small, he yearned to be big enough to pick me up and drop me on people, a kind of mother-bomb. As a teenager, he visualised me as a hell’s grandmother, tattooed perhaps, and dreadlocked, running amok with knitting needles, and particularly knocking boys off skateboards.

    As children can’t imagine being grown-up, neither can adults imagine that we too will grow old. It’s not possible that in April I will be 63. Yet since I’ve passed my cultural use-by date, I’m now free to invent myself. When my children left home, and I felt stripped of meaning, context, purpose and love, a friend said, “Now it’s time to be pregnant with yourself.” Alleluia… I like the Hindu concept; once you’ve finished the busy householder phase, you become a sannyasin­, a seeker, and make your soul. In the same vein, the Buddhists ask, “What’s your authentic enlightenment?” As I journey into those questions, life gets deeper, richer, endlessly expansive and radically amazing.

Fundamentalism – racism, sexism, Earthism – is any behaviour that deprives another sentient being of oxygen.

I’ve spent a lot of my life fighting fundamentalism, my own included. Ageism, which I now encounter, is particularly stupid because it denies that the aggressor too will one day grow old and die.

    Since I no longer have family in this state, I’ve also been exposed to, and have thought a lot about, the tribal mentality that draws moats around family, and locks love up to the exclusion of non-family. It seems to me that if I only care for my own kin, then I haven’t even begun to learn to love. So, over the years, I’ve worked steadily to create diverse and beloved community; my friends now are young, old, straight, gay, black, white, crazy, sane, and variously abled. I’m especially delighted and challenged by the children, who celebrate my grey hair, and welcome me as a kind of tribal grandmother.

In February, I became a grandmother in my own right. How dear, teary and visceral a journey it’s being. The egg, the ovum that made this child was in my daughter’s body when she was born; at some primal level, I’ve co-created my grandson.

    If Sara had lived in sub-Saharan Africa, she would now be a statistic, one of the one in thirteen women there who dies in childbirth. Without a mother, the baby almost always dies too, along with any other children in the family under five.

    Two million women worldwide have untreated fistulae; vaginal rupture during childbirth leads to urinary and faecal incontinence, and ostracism.

Mokita – a truth everyone knows but no-one speaks (Papua-New Guinea).

A mokita in the Catholic Church is that WEIRD women and men (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic – 8% of the global population) have overwhelmingly rejected the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control, and claimed contraception as a basic human right. What of our non-WEIRD sisters who are dying one every minute of pregnancy-related causes? What’s just or compassionate about dying in appalling circumstances giving birth to a child you didn’t want in the first place?

    Even Jesus thought that women forget the pain of childbirth. We don’t.

“Live as if you’re going to die tomorrow. Live as if you’ll still be alive in a thousand years.”

My grandson, being WEIRD, may well live to see the next century. Yet if we continue to do nothing about climate change, we’re cannabilising our grandchildren. A carbon tax is just one of the radical changes we have to make, if future generations are not to be enslaved or outright destroyed by our debauching of their birthright.

    People keep saying, “Now you have to get skype, so you can talk to your grandson.”

    No, damn it, I don’t. Computer assemblers (invariably non-WEIRD) are going blind; cancer rates in China, where much of our gadgetry is manufactured, are sky-rocketting; all that plastic is oil-based, and oil causes not only wars, but ecological and cultural mayhem in places like the Niger delta; electronics requires rare elements like coltan, which is  driving civil war and associated mass rape in the Congo; e-waste is lucratively traded by criminal gangs and dumped on the poor.

    So I can’t see that skyping is loving. It’s part of a fundamentalist, industrial, consumer-driven mind-set that is depleting and poisoning the future, and depriving our children’s children of the healthy, fecund Earth they deserve. Loving isn’t just about what I want here and now; it has to be accountable across time and space. We equate shopping – acquiring stuff – with love and happiness, yet it’s uncontrolled consumption that is destroying all possibility of love and happiness for future generations. 

    What do I want to bequeath my grandson? A whole, healed, holy Earth where we’ve finally recognised that human wellbeing is inextricably linked with the wellbeing of the biosphere; where economics and technology are handmaidens of ecology; and where wealth means fertile soil, fresh rivers, clean oceans, clear air, great forests and a glory of biodiversity.

 The Hebrew word for womb, rehem, is cognate with rahamim, compassion or mercy.

Compassion is the movement of God’s womb.

I wonder what a Grandmother God would look like?


“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman. A doughty, fascinating book that explores human impacts – for good and evil – on the planet, and looks at what would happen to Earth if humans destroy the ground of our own being, and become extinct.

Holy Muck

(The Tasmanian Catholic: February 2011)

Bees transform nectar and pollen into honey. Birds make worms into wings and music. The fish I feed my cats becomes purring, claws and voluptuous fur. Fuelled by midges and mosquitoes, spiders create the silky silvery webs that adorn our gardens every morning. How did dust from an exploding star evolve into the staggering diversity and fertility of planet Earth? Even as I write, my daughter’s body is invisibly and silently putting the miraculous finishing touches to my unborn grandchild.

    Transformation is at the heart of things. Birth gives life gives death gives birth. Nothing is static. Everything is in exuberant, intricate, wildly creative process, either eating or being eaten.

    There are two ways I particularly enjoy working with, learning from and harnessing this energy. One is bread-making, and the pleasure of watching a sludge of water, flour, salt and yeast leaven and change before my eyes, within my hands, under my nose into fragrant crusty loaves. The other is making compost, or the art of turning rot into roses.

Miracles at the bottom of the garden

It’s magic every time; a large, messy, calibrated pile of kitchen scraps, weeds, prunings, manure, water and earth is within a few days so hot that it literally steams as zillions of micro-organisms begin their metabolic work. (There’s a delightful though unsubstantiated story from the West Coast about a gardener who put a dead possum / chicken at the core of her heap, which then exploded in the middle of the night, demolishing a fence / setting  a shed on fire.)

    The initial heating (160˚ F) is followed by a slower, cool cycle where a rich ecology of microbes, mites, insects, nematodes and fungi continue the work of radical change. In two to three months, sooner if it’s summer or the pile is turned often, you’ve got wheelbarrow- loads of sweet-smelling, crumbly, nutrient-rich compost.

We live on Spaceship Earth; there is no ‘away’ in time or space to throw things to. Food dumped in the rubbish bin rots in landfill, generating climate-changing gases. If we planted trees on land now used to grow the food we buy and don’t even eat, we could in theory offset almost all human-derived greenhouse gas emissions.  Cutting down on ‘food miles’ – the distance food travels from paddock to plate – is one of the easiest ways of taking responsibility for reducing our carbon footprint and mitigating climate change. Growing at least some of our own food makes economic, environmental and moral sense; creating compost is a cornerstone of that process.

If you don’t have room or time for building compost heaps, or you’re not a gardener, consider a worm-farm. They’re endlessly fascinating, low maintenance and turn food-scraps into vibrant worm-juice. Or try a Bokashi bucket; it’s astonishing how much kitchen-waste, sprinkled with micro-organisms, one bucket can eat; it’s compact, odourless and produces potent liquid fertiliser.

I see making compost as holy work, as an aspect of the Eucharist. The great thinker and mystic C.G. Jung described the Eucharist – the moment when our local, limited and finite selves touch the Infinite, the Universal and the Perfected – as a core rite of the individuation process, where we take responsibility for our shadows and begin to realise our full potential as human beings. This willingness seems to me central to our faith; that we too may be radically changed, that our muddled, messy, suffering, striving selves – what the Tibetan Buddhists call our ten thousand angels and our ten thousand demons – may through grace be transformed, metabolised, composted into coherence, into nourishing wholeness, into conduits for the will and love of God.

Divine Compost Recipe

There are a zillion ways of making compost. This one works for my household.

Choose a shady, sheltered spot. The minimum size for a heap is a generous cubic metre; there’s no upper limit. Turn over the soil, then make a base of criss-crossed branches and stalks to let air in underneath.

A heap is made up of layers.

1. Carbon layer. A good hand’s width of well-chopped brown material; e.g. old weeds, dried grass, autumn leaves, straw, sawdust.

2. Nitrogen layer. A good hand’s width of kitchen waste and anything green – grass clippings, fresh weeds or prunings.

3. A dozen balls of scrunched-up newspaper. These aerate the heap and provide habitat for compost critters.

4. A good sprinkling of earth, animal manure or mature compost from the last heap – these contain the enzymes needed to activate the pile.

5. A handful of compost-friendly and nutrient-rich herbs; comfrey, nettles, yarrow, dandelion.

6. Water well. Urine is good too.

Repeat these six layers till you’ve run out of materials. When the heap is finished, use a stake to drive a dozen deep airholes. I like to put a weight on top. Some people cover their heaps. We sometimes conclude with a ritual – burying in the heart of the pile any unfinished business or emotional baggage. Then we sing a compost song; the most memorable was ‘Frère Jacques’ sung as a hilarious and unstoppable round in French, Finnish, Japanese and Russian.

    If you want to speed up the process, turn the heap from time to time. Imagine it’s a fully iced cake; cut off the ‘icing’ and put it into the middle of thepile, so the outside becomes the inside and vice versa. No need to worry about layers – just make sure it’s well-aerated and damp.

    Compost is ready when it’s woodsy-smelling, crumbly and alive with compost worms. Spread lusciously on vegetable and flower beds and around fruit trees.

1st October 2011 

I’ve been reading Micah White (Alternative needed to ecofascism, 24 September), wondering whether I am in fact an ecofascist, and feasting on an ultrasound image of my unborn grandchild. How to not be strident, messianic or fundamentalist now I have such a dear and personal stake in the long-term wellbeing of Earth?

    There’s general agreement on the destination; a planet where all sentient beings can grow, work, play, create, eat, shit and sleep in perpetuity and safety. What we don’t know is how to get there from here. I’m a Gandhian; peace isn’t the end, peace is the way. But we’re already in massive ecological debt, and the longer we procrastinate, the more stringent will be the measures required to stave off ecocide. Can democracy survive under conditions of biospheric meltdown?

    The solutions must be as multi-factorial as the problems. White argues cogently for a radical reduction in consumption, the exposure of the double lie that both Earth’s resources, and its capacity to absorb our excrement, are infinite. I think that’s only the beginning. How does ecocrisis become personal? Why have we chosen to dumb down to the shopping mall rather than live up to the astonishing diversity, fecundity and glory of life?  How do we reimagine what it means to be human, make an evolutionary leap of the ilk catalysed by Einstein or feminism?

    Earth exists for its own sake. It is not ours to debauch. In Europe until very recently women and children were defined as property, as less than sentient. To the named crimes of racism and sexism, how can we not add Earthism, the cannibalising of the future? The challenge is to enfranchise, to give legal and moral standing to the biosphere, whose health is inextricably linked with our own, and move from a relationship based on dominance and abuse to a commensality of equals rooted in respect, reciprocity and trust. This would engender a system of governance where ‘treasury’ means healthy ecosystems first and money second, and where ecological and carbon accounting is mandatory for every individual, enterprise, city and state. Is this fascism or truth? The line between autonomy and community, freedom and accountability is delicate indeed. If I’m faced with coronary occlusion, and choose to not change, that’s my terminally stupid right; if as a civilisation faced with an equally adamant choice, we do nothing, then we’re foisting our choices on the unborn, which is fascism.

    If violence is defined as any act that prevents another from reaching their full potential, then we’re violating the future. Our paltry definition of freedom – the right to unlimited shopping and travel – is in itself fundamentalist because it annuls all future freedoms. 

    People can go to perdition any way they like as long as they don’t take my children’s children with them.


3 responses to “Articles

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