The Spiral Staircase


Simone Weil (1909-1943)

French playwright-novelist-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about “the hole” in me, the hole in you, the hole of nothingness in the midst of mortal being. To live authentically is to live courageously in spite of the threat of nothingness. Sartre’s French contemporary Simone Weil offered a similar observation: “All sins are attempts to fill voids.”

Today their perspectives speak to the greatest challenge of our time: climate change. The spiral stairway we climb up toward the mastery of nature also spirals down to dust and ashes — the death of the planet as we know it.

512px-Mangkhut_2018-09-14_0750ZWe are not content to live as mortals on the plain of nature, along clean streams, rivers, and oceans, or in lush valleys, in the desert or on nature’s mountaintops. We must go higher, higher, higher — up, up, up — to no real anywhere.

Our climb to mastery reaches where no other species can go — above the storm clouds, where we look to DNA manipulation to rid us of nature’s mistakes, and where satellites search for other sentient life light years away — above the clouds of Mother Earth’s torrential storms and rains that remind us of the void. The higher we climb, the closer we get to the bottom, the irreversible plunge into Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘nothingness’, Simone Weil’s ‘sins’ that attempt to fill the void’, the Bible’s ‘dust and ashes’.

António_Guterres_in_London_-_2018_(41099390345)_(cropped)U. N. General-Secretary Antonio Guterres calls for immediate international action on the Paris Climate Change Accords and much more. Days ago, he tweeted:

My condolences to all those affected by storms in East Asia and the United States. We need urgent #ClimateAction to prevent an irreversible spiral into catastrophic climate change.

Here in the United States the White House and Congress ignore his plea. Funded by dark money legitimized by Citizens United, and forgetting the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008, our elected officials and dominant political parties continue to measure the nation’s health by the stock market’s rises and declines. Crony capitalism provides the electorate with what we demand: positive thinking, silence about the void, and the stuff that keeps us busy shopping at the mall.



“America’s favorite weekend activity,” writes American Quaker Robert Lawrence Smith, “is not participating in sports, gardening, hiking, reading, visiting with friends and neighbors. It’s shopping…. We leave boredom and emptiness behind as we browse through (the mall’s) glittering corridors of stuff. Yet many of us have learned that acquiring too much stuff can get in the way of happiness, lead us back to boredom and emptiness, corrupt our children’s values.”

We stay on the stairway, deaf to the Secretary-General’s startling cry, and blind to the planetary clock ticking closer to midnight. We Americans are positive thinkers who disdain the idea of nothingness and the void that belong to the French philosophers and other negative thinkers. We dare not stop to think.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, September 18, 2018

PS. “The economy’s never been better.” I think I’ll head over to the mall or swing by the Porsche dealership.

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