The winter solstice is upon us, a time that historically has marked the inevitable turning of the seasons. Now, in the Earth’s darkest hour (in the northern hemisphere), primal instincts are awakened deep in our collective consciousness. According to anthropologists, our ancient forebears would light fires at this time of the year to frighten away the specter of Death that lays upon the land.
The holiday lights that bedazzle every doorway and shopping mall are echoes of those fires long ago. The trees that grace our homes are themselves symbolic of the belief in many European cultures that forests are the places where the denizens of the spirit world resided. Our songs and literature, art work and theater — all are replete with references to the cycle of life. Spring is the time of renewal, Summer the time of robust maturity, Fall the time of ageing, and Winter the time of death.
Shrines like Stonehenge were erected by ancient people to mark the passage of the sun across the sky so they would know when to plant crops and when to harvest them. The solstice marks the moment when the Earth is reborn and, by extension, the renewal of humanity begins.
Robert Frost wrote a poem that includes a reference to the winter solstice.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The end of the insanity that has characterized the last four years in America can be seen as the “darkest evening of the year,” a time when those most responsible for creating the global climate crisis reached the zenith of their influence, emboldened by a lunatic leader who rejected all science and preferred to to listen to what doting sycophants whispered in his ear during a round of golf.
Now at long last America will be led by someone who recognizes the dangers that lie ahead and is prepared to confront them in a responsible fashion. The US is about to emerge from its long national nightmare, ready to begin a renewal process that will focus on clean renewable energy, a circular economy, and a dramatic decrease in climate altering emissions.
And yet, if the data from the last election is to be believed, nearly half of all Americans approve of the way the current administration kowtowed to fossil fuel interests by rolling back restrictions on exhaust emissions and mercury levels, ramming through approvals of pipelines, expanding drilling on federal lands, and making our water less safe to drink. That suggests the road ahead for Joe Biden and his team of climate hawks will be fraught with obstacles.
In the past four years, America has been taught to hate “the other” like never before. It has pursued a deliberate and premeditated campaign to separate the children of immigrants from their parents not for any positive policy purpose but solely to punish those parents for daring to invade the sanctity of American soil. It has demonized people who live in Mexico as murderers and rapists while dismissing most developing nations as “shithole countries.”
One thing should be clear to us all. If we are to address the issue of a warming planet successfully, we will have to work together. A popular expression in colonial America was “We must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” That is still true today.
Florence Luscomb, one of the first women to graduate from MIT, had a cogent perspective on how fear of “the other” trivializes our esistence. “The tragedy in the lives of most of us is that we go through life walking down a high-walled lane with people of our own kind, the same economic situation, the same national background and education and religious outlook. And beyond those walls, all humanity lies, unknown and unseen, and untouched by our restricted and impoverished lives.”
If we are to preserve the Earth as a place where humans can flourish, we must adjust our thinking to adopt a worldview that cherishes inclusiveness rather than sectarian differences. The fallacy at the heart of books like Hillbilly Elegy is that grievances poison the culture around us and impoverish the soul. They also feed the urge to oppose those who are different from us with violence. Even now, The Tramp Who Stole America and his apostles are advocating for violence as the time for the transition to a new administration approaches.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, novelist and Nobel laureate, once offered this thought about violence. “Let us not forget that violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood. Between them lies the most intimate, the deepest of natural bonds. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle.” Remind you of anybody you know?
Margaret Mead, one of the world’s most noted anthropologists, had her own warning about violence. “No society that feeds its children on tales of successful violence can expect them not to believe that violence in the end is rewarded.” America, sadly, constantly feeds its children on tales of successful violence, whether it is in Panama, or Grenada, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. American television is cluttered with shows extolling the virtues of violence, be it COPS, SWAT, or NCIS. What we need is a cultural shift that ends the demonization of others and the celebration of violence, a shift that focuses on working together collaboratively.
That will require, among other things, a sea change in American politics, which at the present time thrives on exploiting differences. Eliminating the Electoral College would help, as it sharpens those divides. Adopting “instant runoff” elections would help by allowing people to vote for less well known candidates to compete without voters having to worry about throwing their vote away on a candidate with no chance of winning.
More political parties would also be helpful. America’s political institutions are forever frozen in 18th century aspic. The people who wrote the Constitution believed it to be an experimental document, one that would be replaced in a decade or two with an updated plan that would address the weaknesses revealed by experience. Today, the majority of the Supreme Court is fixated on determining the original intent of people who could not begin to imagine the internet, computers, automobiles, airplanes, or renewable energy. America is a sleek, shiny 21st century vehicle with an owner’s manual written two centuries ago.
Today, December 21, is the beginning of a new awakening not only in the Earth but in ourselves. The darkest evening of the year is behind us. We must begin crafting a brighter future, one in which all people can know their children and their children’s children will be able to thrive in a clean, nurturing environment.
We don’t need to permit giant corporations to poison the air, the soil, and the seas for the sake of profits.We can decided that profits must take a back seat to sustainability. The power is in our hands. Let us put the words of Joe Biden into action and let them be the guideposts for America’s future. “I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
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