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All Along the Watchtower, Parsifal and Climate Change

Bob Dylan’s song, All Along the Watchtower, contemplates a crisis approaching on the horizon, where rapid action is required, and most people are blind to the rapidly approaching peril. Global warming and man made climate change fit that pattern, so lets start a conversation using Dylan’s images and poetry as a backdrop.

"There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief"

When the joker seeks the council of the thief you know something important is at stake. The Joker in this story represents the human capacity to see what other people can’t. The joker in this social circumstance typically must resort to jokes and tricks to call attention to important issue that the powers within the walls of his or her culture do not want to see. This is particularly true when the culture is built around avoidance of the most obvious truths, the dependence of self on nature in the case of climate change, and can’t address their existence in an honest and straightforward way.

The joker, or fool, also fills a redemptive role in the inner life of men. There is a great little book about this, He, by Robert A. Johnson that describes the pivotal role of the fool. Johnson says, the inner fool is the part of a man who is able to locate the Holy Grail. The Grail is not to be found by conventional means because the conventional means have resulted in the mess we are stuck in today where the grail is always exploited but never truly found.

So where can a fool turn when he finds himself in a real jam where everyone denies the truth and can only take his observations in as a joke. Well, he turns to the thief, the crafty, devious, part of himself. He needs to effect the world around him in a big way and his fool strategy, while good at finding the grail, isn’t well equipped to move his king and court off the dime and get them to deal with what he sees approaching the kingdom. It is important to note that at this point the fool is being foolish, he has hope, "There must be some way out of here". For a fool anything is possible.

Al Gore is a cultural representation of the fool in the sense that he has hope and keeps making his points even when most people around him, our culture, think he is wrong, or making a lot of noise about something that doesn’t effect them. Any of us who say hold the presses, just stop what you are doing, can’t you see we need to turn around, we are putting the pedal to the metal and the edge of the cliff (climate tipping point) is about 10 years away, are typically passed off as alarmist fools.

"Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth, 
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

Now that he has the thief’s ear he tells lays out the problem. The fool identifies with the truth that is not seen and speaks directly for his larger identity, the earth. The earth is the outer manifestation of the grail and those who are using her don’t understand her worth. This is exactly what is happening today. Our economic system doesn’t value the earth, the plowmen and businessmen of our day value what they can make from the earth, but don’t value it for what it is. The earth is the foundation of everything we value and we need to treat it with the respect that it deserves, after all we are part of it, not something apart from it.

Capitalism has no way to properly value the finite resources that all life depends on. The construct of our economic system is intentionally limited to self-interest defined in the narrowest of terms. Managing the intense power of our collective economic activity since the industrial revolution using this model has already failed, the results are in the atmosphere. The costs of Global Climate change have been quantified by the Stern Report , which rightly characterizes the relationship between modern economics and climate change as follows, "Climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen."

"So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

The thief is not excited, he sees the situation clearly but is not constrained by tacit acceptance of the power structure of his culture. The kingdom runs on general acceptance of the rule that those of lower socio-economic class don’t take power, property, or status, away from the elites. The thief knows how thin that barrier really is because he has to overcome it in order to steal for a living. He also understands the mentality of theft, which makes him a potentially helpful ally when going up against the deafness of the powers that hold the kingdom behind the watchtower.

Knowing the culture well the thief correctly identifies the glue that holds the empire, kingdom, together, it is the belief, or attitude, "that life is but a joke". This is the mood of cynicism and without having gone past this point in his development the fool and the thief would not have the energy to go on and they could not have an honest conversation.

The cynical denigration of human intention to create the greater good is woven into the heart of capitalism and goes back at least as far as Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, when he talks about the invisible hand. "By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. ... By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."

What a relief for the wealthy and corporate elites, to know that they are unintentionally promoting the greater good by using their wealth to acquire more. The reassurance that the primary impulse of capitalism promotes the general welfare better than the intentional efforts of people is the height of cynicism. If we follow Smith’s logic, and it is clear that the U.S. corporate establishment does, redirecting resources consciously away from feeding the powers that be and toward creation of the general good will just make things worse.

The thief part of all of us recognizes this strategy for what it is and chooses to not talk falsely about it. That is part of the remedy, no more false talk, no more acting like the fattening of the current elites is the way to find a right relationship to our planet and to each other. It’s a flimsy, self serving, arbitrary construct that the powerful use to pick our pockets, smile, and walk away with the resources that rightly belong to us and should be used to intentionally build up the general welfare for the planet and all living things.

"Two riders were approaching"

The riders have important information. We are aware, we see the riders coming our way and hear the loud winds of a powerful storm. The consensus science on man made global climate change is overwhelming. But the rulers of the kingdom behind the walls of the watchtower are blind to the problem and slow to react. What are we to do, Dylan’s song and the myth of Parsifal and the Holy Grail don’t draw it out explicitly but point the way psychologically. Keep your foolish hope alive and don’t let others trash that hope, going for the grail is the right thing to do. The fool needs more than just his internal compass, he needs a strong ally, the thief, to go there with him and take back what is rightly his. Trust that crafty part of yourself that can take back what has been stolen from you.

I know I’m mostly preaching to the choir, but a kick ass choir, with a lot of allied thieves working the audience gives us a shot. Gaining momentum now is more about people and communication than it is about technology. We have the technology to turn this around but don’t have the political leverage. Fighting the climate change deniers where you find them is one thing each one of us can do and your inner thief can help. One way I have used the thief in confronting climate change deniers when they say global warming and climate change are fictional is to ask them if they want to bet on it and see where the conversation goes. One line that comes in handy is, you are saying bet on it, and you are betting our children’s future, on the slim odds that most of the scientists are wrong. Who’s the fool now?

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