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The Environmental Message of the Aliens
By Robert J. Begiebing

July/August 2000

Are we ready to admit this lesson of the Rio+5 and Kyoto environmental meetings: that we must finally give up hoping for environmental wisdom and political will from political leaders and their conferences? Perhaps we need to look elsewhere, to reconsider those visionary, religious traditions that would transform us. Certainly, by now there is a growing scientific consensus to help us along: if we value life on earth, we must change our lives.

Researchers in disparate fields are challenging us to rethink profoundly our relationship to the earth. Some startling new convergence is afoot. Those investigators who take a visionary approach to our global environmental crisis are reinforcing the conclusions of those who take a scientific or materialist approach. It's as if faith and science have become strange new bedfellows, as if William Blake and Isaac Newton were by dire necessity finally sitting down together--like two aged colleagues who had decided to throw aside old enmities in order to confront some wholly new catastrophe under the sun.

No challenge to transform ourselves is stranger and potentially more unsettling than Harvard psychiatrist John Mack's clinical examination of what is popularly known as "the abduction phenomenon." We might do well to look at Mack's book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (1994) as the latest in an ancient and honorable line of mythic transformation narratives.

There are several possible explanations for the extraordinary visitations between human beings and Something Other that Mack's patients describe. Are they all conspiring to commit a vast fraud? Is Mack dealing with a mass psychological, even religious, experience with striking similarities for scores of people in different places and from different backgrounds? Or, finally, is something more real happening--a phenomenological event we ought to be heeding? It barely matters what the source is of the truth being revealed, for we clearly need the revelation.

Mack suggests that the alien abductors are here to show us that we've cut ourselves off from a universe that, as world religions have so long taught, contains intelligences beyond the material realm. Even those rationalists who could never accept such a formulation--religious or otherwise--should take notice of the message Mack discovers in abduction experiences: that it's our very worldview, the "Western, Newtonian/Cartesian, or materialist/dualist scientific paradigm" that underlies most of the practices threatening our future. Out of the messages his "abductees" bring to us from their adventures, Mack identifies four destructive patterns: corporate acquisitiveness, economic injustice, "ethnonational" violence, and above all, "ecological destruction on a scale that threatens the survival of the earth's living systems."

At one point in his book, Mack recommends to his readers Donella Meadows's Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future (1992), which he describes as a "well researched" depiction of the consequences of our habits of consciousness. Indeed we might view Mack's and Meadows's books as two different approaches to the same problem, the first philosophical-visionary and the second scientific-materialist (i.e., massively documented). The striking thing is that they both conclude that our ecological crisis is embedded in our culture.

In a recent magazine column, Meadows compresses the results of her long research into a dialogue between Economics and Earth. As she puts it, "The first commandment of economics is: Grow. Grow forever. . . . The first commandment of Earth is: Enough." Our economics, she implies, a discipline that's merely 200 years old, is gleefully ignorant of anything but itself--like an adolescent striking attitudes before a mirror. In its arrogance it has one rule: Do what makes money. It negates every other conceivable value and priority. It discounts the future. Of course we might have evolved an economics of greater complexity and deeper consciousness. An economics of consequences. An economics of sustainability. An economics of self-examination and ethics. But we chose not to.

Like Meadows in her article, Mack's patients are also instigating a dialogue--not quite the classic dialogue of body and soul but a dialogue between our best and worst selves. If we insist on pricing goods so as to hide the social and environmental costs of producing them, if we weaken regulations so that they can be finessed, if we continue to reward businesses that get someone else to clean up their messes, if we are more obsessed with common stock than our stock of wild plant and animal species, then we clearly need the visitation of some Alien Messenger.

The good news is that Meadows argues for the possibility of healing and sustainability, if we act radically and promptly, if we can marshal the required "maturity, compassion, wisdom." Beyond the Limits provides examples of people and even corporations behaving maturely, and in some cases saving money as a result. Meadows recommends a flexible, broad program of restructuring, the first step being information.

For disinformation is a big part of our problem, as is vividly shown by a more recent book, The Heat Is On (1997) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ross Gelbspan, which exposes the propaganda campaign waged by OPEC governments and fossil fuel companies to discredit the scientific consensus on global warming. Never mind that 2,500 scientists of the United Nations Panel on Climate Change have issued massive, science-based warnings to governments around the globe. Like the aging tobacco giants no one really believes anymore, the fossil fuel lobby began by paying off a handful of toady academics to present their minority view before Congress. Congress and the mainstream press bought the greenhouse skeptics' claim to represent a legitimate opposing viewpoint.

We have to learn to reject such bogus claims, and for that we need better, qualitatively different education, as environmental writer Aldo Leopold argued two generations ago. We need good data on the effects of our current behavior. How else will we be moved to change? Perhaps, after all, this is the message of the voices Dr. Mack brings us. He reports that his patients again and again have discovered from their experiences a new, even sacred, sense of their place in the cosmos, one that's more respectful and harmonious in relation to the earth. We're now denying our own highest principles and traditions; we're failing ourselves as well as others; we're giving in to our worst impulses--to self-centeredness and greed and willful blindness.

For Mack, the abduction phenomenon invites us to participate in nothing less than the evolution of consciousness propounded by Leopold and Meadows. Mack's investigations may defy the limits and paradigms of our current astrophysics and psychiatry, but that doesn't negate the urgent, transformational imagery of ecological cataclysm reported by his patients. Nor does it negate the power of the regenerative myth Mack's patients seem to be telling. The "alien beings" stand like a minority of sons and daughters of Western culture (the outsiders and renegades) on some distant, more life-affirming shore of our humanity. You can almost see them looking at us, shaking their heads in puzzlement at the damned human race, at--to use Mack's words--our "aggression . . . and mindless or gratuitous destructiveness."

As I think about Mack's psychiatric work with patients who have suffered something, the "extraterrestrials" feel to me like figures in a prophetic dream, figures calling out to us, even as they drift back into a cosmos whose physical and spiritual order we have so long striven to deny.

Robert J. Begiebing teaches English at New Hampshire College and belongs to the UU Church of Portsmouth-South Church in Portsmouth, NH.

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