Two revolutions are being marked this weekend. One of them is natural, cyclical, the revolution of the earth around the sun with the sun reaching its most northerly point (in closeness to the surface of the tilted planet we live on), standing still for a brief moment, and turning back to the south. The second is political: a periodic, and perhaps naturally recurring (since humans are natural), swelling of collective energy that’s gotten particularly concentrated this week at the nodal point of the “city of 72 nations,” Tehran (35 N latitude, 51 E longitude).
Phenomenologically speaking (in terms of how earth-bound humans experience it), it’s not the earth that goes around the sun; it’s the sun that comes closer and then recedes. The solstices mark the two end points, and northerly peoples traditionally — and as universally as anything religio-cultural — have found this to be the high point of the living year, the height of life’s potency in the dynamic interplay of birthing and deathing, Yanging (in the Chinese system) and Yining, expansion and contraction. (For southerly peoples it’s the opposite, a time of withdrawal, inwardness, contemplation, a time for telling stories about how to get through the winter, carrying the flame through the darkest nights. But winters aren’t as severe in the habitable south, on average, since there’s so much less of it than there is habitable north, and the southern tip of South America is only as far from the equator as the “Athens of the north,” Edinburgh.)
That height of expansion is something one can feel in a fairly obvious way in the wet and dark green hills of Vermont where I’ve spent the weekend. But with many people’s lives no longer dependent on a natural calendar these days — and with generations of separation, in many cases, from a time when that dependence was clearly marked in collective rituals — celebrating the solstice becomes an artificial activity, a personal option that realigns one’s identity with a turn ‘back’ (back in time, back to ‘nature’, back to reason, in a sense) but also marks one as part of a distinct minority, encompassable under the umbrella term ‘pagan.’
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Today was the 23rd anniversary of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine. I had been invited to give a sermon at a nearby Unitarian church connected to both this anniversary and the May Day (Beltane) that’s coming up in a few days, and my thoughts, in preparation, revolved around how both of those dates, along with Earth Day four days earlier, combine a significance in cyclical time — the ritualized time by which people shape their daily, monthly, and annual life rhythms — and in world-historical time, that is, the time of events that have redefined humanity’s relationship to the world at large.
Earth Day 1970 and the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986 both served as moments of recognition of environmental risk and hazard. Earth Day instituted the practice of large-scale political demonstrations and teach-ins on the environment. The 1970 Earth Day involved about 20 million people in the US; the 1990 Earth Day, at the peak of the ‘second wave’ of environmental activism, is thought to have involved 200 million participants in 140 different countries. Earth Day’s evolution thus offers a kind of gauge of the popular pulse of environmental awareness, and with its institutionalization into childrens culture, a gauge for the struggle over how our kids’ attitudes towards nature develop and, in turn, for how they may put pressure on us to change our ways.
Chernobyl, on the other hand, was the single most important shock to a system (the Soviet) that was eventually brought down by the events it triggered. This was especially the case in Ukraine, where it catalyzed an environmental movement that ultimately mutated into the national independence movement. More so than most environmental disasters, Chernobyl remains mired in debates over its impacts. The International Atomic Energy Association’s 2006 report (co-authored with the World Health Organization and the UN Development Program) cited data suggesting that no more than 4000 cancer deaths can be traced to the radioactive release from the Chernobyl accident. In response, Greenpeace International produced a report citing scientific data that the number is really between 100,000 and 200,000. Victims’ groups, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and even previous WHO reports appear to line up on the side of Greenpeace in this debate. Critics on both sides dispute the other side’s research methods, their use of epidemiological data, estimates for escaped nuclear fuel (which the IAEA puts at 3-4%, while others have claimed that 50% or even almost all of the reactor’s fuel escaped into the environment). See here , here, and here on the “body count” and other controversies.
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