Posts by sfscribe

After two full decades writing for and editing newspapers in California, I'm now the City Editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, my dream job. But I'm still not content, not with the world and my profession in such disarray. So we keep striving and working to build a better world. For more on me and my philosophy, visit

Contemplating the Winter Solstice


I’ve always been affected by the Winter Solstice. I’m not quite sure why, perhaps because I’m such a sun worshipper. The shortest day of the year seems sad, the longest night a little scary. But it’s also a transition point that I appreciate, with each day now growing longer. If today represents death, tomorrow begins the gradual rebirth of bright, warm, late-spring evenings.

This Winter Solstice carries a special resonance for me. A year ago, I watched the casket containing my lover and life partner, Rhonda Barzon, lowered into her grave. Her family and the circumstances of the calendar chose the Dec. 21 funeral date, but I was powerfully struck by the connection, then and now. It wasn’t just the longest night of the year, it was perhaps the longest night of my life.

It’s been a rough year since then: grieving my lost love; disbelieving how such an epic storybook romance could end so suddenly in death; wrestling with real despair and other powerful, unfamiliar emotions; feeling empathy for her suffering family, even as I occasionally absorbed their subtle or overt blame; second-guessing how things could have gone differently; longing for her touch or some sense that her spirit was still here; wondering if I’d ever feel like my old self again, suspecting that nothing would ever be the same.

Meanwhile, my professional life was unraveling. I had my dream job, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, but it wasn’t the old independent Guardian that I started working for in 2003. We had new corporate owners who didn’t value good journalism or share the Guardian’s progressive worldview, and they had moved us into the Westfield Mall, a crassly commercial environment that sucked at my soul. I still had editorial independence, but the lack of internal resources and tattered state of progressive San Francisco provided daily challenges and stress.

When Glenn Zuehls replaced Todd Vogt as the head of three-newspaper San Francisco Media Company last summer, the Guardian lost its last champion within the corporation, someone who had improbably gone from wanting to fire me to being my strong supporter. Our obituary was already being written behind closed doors by our corporate overlords, but the Guardian’s abrupt closure on Oct. 14 was still sudden and unexpected for us.

That blow to my 24-year newspaper career and my beloved city compounded the sense of loss and insecurity that I had been carrying with me since Rhonda’s death. Even the strong community support that I received after the Guardian’s shutdown, while heart-warming and appreciated, just reminded me of how my community had also supported me a year ago, and how that support soon fades as people get back to their lives.

Ultimately, we all must face our life and its trials alone, no matter how much social support we have. That sense of solitude seems suited to the solstice. In the darkness, we’re alone with our thoughts and feelings, with nothing to distract us or brighten a melancholy mood. It’s when we face the person who we’ve become.

So today feels like the end of era, one last dark night for my soul before a little more light begins to creep its way into my psyche. Tonight, I’ll mourn Rhonda and the Guardian and the carefree days of my youth, running barefoot across the warm sand, purely at play. And tomorrow, I’ll begin the process of my rebirth, letting insights found in the darkness guide me as I emerge back into the light.

From the Rocketship to Bay Lights, “temporary” is the key that unlocked public art in SF

baylightsrockshipImageIn the wake of The Bay Lights coming on to rave reviews and mesmerized gazes last week, next weekend the Raygun Gothic Rocketship will be taken down from the Pier 14 launch pad it’s occupied since 2010, the latest transitions in San Francisco’s trend of using temporary public art placements to bypass the protracted, emotional, and expensive battles that once defined the siting of sculptures on public lands in San Francisco.

By partnering with private arts organizations and calling the pieces “temporary” – even though almost all of them have been extended past their initial removal deadlines, sometimes by years – the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Port of San Francisco, and other local entities have allowed public art to flourish in the City.

The commission’s longtime public art director Jill Manton told us that temporary public art placements go back to the early ’90s, usually involving smaller pieces while big, years-long controversies continued to rage on over bigger pieces such as “the foot” that never went in on the Embarcadero, the Cupid’s Span piece that Don Fisher did finally place on the waterfront (and which many critics wish had been only a temporary placement), and a big, ill-fated peace sign in Golden Gate Park.

“It’s not as threatening to the public, not as imposing, so it doesn’t seem like a life-or-death decision,” Manton said of the trend toward temporary placements.

But the real turning point came in 2005 when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, Manton, and other city officials began to embrace the Burning Man art world by bringing a David Best temple into Patricia Green in Hayes Valley, Michael Christian’s Flock into Civic Center Plaza, and Passage by Karen Cusolito and Dan Das Mann onto Pier 14 (a transition point that I chronicle in my book, The Tribes of Burning Man).

Each piece was well-received and had its initial removal deadlines extended. Since then, temporary placements of both original art and pieces that returned from the playa – including Cusolito’s dandelion in UN Plaza, the rocketship, Kate Raudenbush’s Future’s Past in Hayes Valley, and Marco Cochrane’s Bliss Dance on Treasure Island, which is now undergoing a renovation to better protect it against the elements during its longer-than-expected and now open-ended run – have enlivened The City.

“They get to rotate art and people get excited about what’s next,” said Tomas McCabe, director of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, a Burning Man offshoot organization that has helped with fundraising and logistics for most of the burner-built placements.

We spoke by phone on the afternoon of March 8 as he was working with Christian to install The Bike Bridge – a sculpture using recycled bicycle parts that local at-risk teens helped Christian build thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts – at the intersection of Telegraph and 19th in Oakland as a temporary placement.

The Bike Bridge will officially be unveiled on April 5 during the increasingly popular monthly Art Murmur, and the party will get extra pep from a conference of Burning Man regional representatives that is being held just down the block that day.

McCabe said the connection between Burning Man and the temporary art trend doesn’t just derive from the fact that Bay Area warehouses are filled with cool artwork built for the playa that is now just sitting in storage. It’s also about an artistic style and sensibility that burners have helped to foster.

“We try to help the art pieces have a life after Burning Man, but it’s more the style of community-based art that we promote,” McCabe said, noting that BRAF also helps with fundraising and other tasks needed to support these local art collectives. “We like to see the artists get paid for their work, we’re funny like that.”

Manton said there are currently discussions underway with San Francisco Grants for the Arts (which is funded by the city’s hotel tax) and other parties to put several large pieces built for Burning Man on display in either UN Plaza or Civic Center Plaza, a proposal Manton called UN Playa. “We bring the best of Burning Man to the city,” she said.

Most of the art placements in San Francisco have been labors of love more than anything, and a chance to win over new audiences. When the Five-Ton Crane crew and other artists placed the Raygun Gothic Rocketship on the waterfront in 2010, they had permission from the Port to be there for a year. Then it got extended for another year, and then another six months, and it will finally come down this weekend.

There will be final reception for the Rocketship this Friday evening (with music from the fellow burners in the Space Cowboys’ Unimog) and then the crane will come up on Sunday morning to remove it, in case any Earthlings want to come say hello-goodbye.

“The Rocketship and its crew have had a fantastic 2.5 years on display at Pier 14. Maintenance days were always a pleasure, giving us a chance to talk to people – and see the smiles and joy people got from the installation,” one of its artists, David Shulman, told us. “We’ve had tremendous support from, and would like to thank, the people of San Francisco, the Port of San Francisco, and the Black Rock Arts Foundation. But Pier 14 is intended for rotating displays, and we’re excited to see what comes next.”

Dan Hodapp, a senior waterfront planner for the Port district, said they don’t currently have plans for the site, although he said it will include more temporary art in the future. “The Port Commission and the public are supportive of public art at that location,” Hodapp told us. “But right now, we’re just reveling in the new Bay Lights and we’re not in a hurry to replace the Rocketship.”

Manton said The Bay Lights – the Bay Bridge light sculpture by art Leo Villareal that began what is supposed to be a two-year run (but which Mayor Ed Lee is already publicly talking about extending) on March 5 – has already received overwhelming international media attention and is expected to draw 55 million visitors and $97 million of additional revenue to the city annually.

“It is public art as spectacle. It’s amazing,” Manton said of the piece, which the commission and BRAF played only a small roles in bringing about. “It’s so good for the field of public art.”

She that the success of recent temporary art placements and the role that private foundations have played in funding them have not only caused San Franciscans to finally, truly embrace public art, but it has ended the divisive old debates about whether particular artworks were worth the tradeoff with other city needs and expenditures. And it has allowed the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association and other neighborhood organizations to curate the art in their public parks.

Meanwhile, even as the Port gives Pier 14 a rest, Hodapp said another temporary artwork will be going up this fall at Pier 92, where old grain silos will be transformed into visual artworks, and that Pier 27 will be turned into a spot for a rotating series of temporary artworks once the Port regains possession of the spot from the America’s Cup in November.

As he told us, “The public really enjoys art on the waterfront, and they’re most supportive when we do temporary art, so there’s a freshness to it.”


I preferred Louise Bourgeois’ “Crouching Spider” that was at that site.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 11, 2013 @ 6:36 pm
Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Mar. 11, 2013 @ 6:53 pm


GENEROUS people funded the Bay Bridge lights. Not all of them wealthy either. People who have heart and passion for the beauty and expression of art have graciously given, with no expectation of anything in return (not even a “thank you” from ungrateful people like yourself) so that our city could something unique and beautiful.

Where do you think the money comes from for all the art we see in museums? Benefactors who donate. Pretty much any art you see or experience anywhere is funded by someone….otherwise it would never find a home on public property for you to enjoy. Have you ever attended Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival? It too is funded by generous people.

I suppose you’d prefer public art not be funded by donors who expect nothing in return and instead be funded by investors seeking a profit that would be earned by charging people like you admission….kind of like all the crap Hollywood churns out that is supposedly “art.”

If you have no ability to enjoy art that is funded by generous people, just stay home and rent another crappy movie or watch infomercials so others can enjoy public art that enriches the soul and beautifies our amazing city.

Synthesis volunteers mark Mayan date with an offering

mayankidsThe Synthesis 2012 Festival near Chichen Itza, Mexico got off to a rocky start, but by the time the Mayan Long Count calendar ended on Dec. 21, it had transformed into an inspiring example of working through adversity to build community and connect with another culture.
According to a variety of volunteers and performers associated with the festival, Executive Producer Michael DiMartino over-promised and under-delivered just about everything: hotel rooms, shuttles to and from Cancun and other cities, food for volunteers, and local permission for a stage at Pyramid Kukulkan and the camping area where thousands of festival-goers stayed. On top of that, the bus carrying the sound system and other supplies got turned around by authorities at the border, causing the crew to scramble locally for sound and building equipment and supplies.
“Not everything came together the way we planned, because it’s Mexico, but everyone came together and created community,” Debra Giusti, the Harmony Festival founder who helped DiMartino with Synthesis (and who calmly and creatively resolved many of its problems, say several sources) told me on Dec. 23, the festival’s final day. “There was so much love and unity and can-do spirit.”
At one point before the festival officially began on Dec. 20, federal police and local officials shut down work on the Ascendance stage, blocked access to the adjacent camping area, and gathered everyone there into a group, dressing down DiMartino and taking him away in a police car to resolve their differences.
The crew of mostly Northern California residents that showed up more than a week before the festival began to build the Ascendance Stage that would host the DJs and other musicians worked through their frustrations with event organizers to forge strong connections with the mayor and other locals, throw a great party, and leave a lasting gift for the Mayan people.
“We fed everyone, spent almost $60,000, dealt with the authorities, made friends with all the locals, and stayed with our intention to build this temple for the galactic alignment,” Ken Currington, aka Shombala — one of the project leaders working beside Tulku, the main guy — told me. He said he felt proud and humbled by the experience.
The impressive and ornate pyramid-style temple was built with locally sourced wood, bamboo, and steel in the parking lot of a Mayan stone-carving business in Xcalacoop — just over 9km from the main festival hub in Piste Pueblo, past the Pyramid Kukulkan in Chichen Itza — after the locals embraced their offer to leave it as a permanent display structure for the Mayan artwork.
“One local Mayan who came by was in tears and he said this was the one of the best offerings to the Mayan people,” Currington said.
The visitors helped prepare and participate in a locally produced festival marking the end of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21, a gesture of goodwill that helped overcome initial missteps. Some local Mayan elders also took part in a Synthesis ceremony at the pyramid in Chichen Itza at sunrise that day.
At the all-night dance party that began on Dec. 22, which featured a long list of Bay Area DJs and other performers, local families came to see the spectacle, which also  included live creation of paintings, mandalas, and other artworks and aerial yoga swings. All the locals I talked to seemed to enjoy and appreciate the event, except for one stern-faced police officer who simply said, “No se (I don’t know),” when I asked what he thought.
“This was amazing because it drew people from all over who felt called to be here,” Giusti said. “They went into the jungle and made art.”
One area where DiMartino (who hasn’t yet responded to my questions about problems with the festival) did seem to deliver was in booking and delivering keynote speakers, who spoke from the stage at the Hacienda restaurant and hotel complex in Piste Pueblo, where meals were also provided to VIPs and those who bought the most expensive tickets.
Keynote speaker Don Miguel Ruiz, a Toltec author and thinker, told the Synthesis 2012 Festival crowd that changing the world starts with an internal change, a change in consciousness. “If we can change our own story, if we can find that peace and that joy,” he said, then we can project that out into the world. “The change we want to see in the entire society starts with us. We can’t give what we don’t have.”
At this point, it’s our collective responsibility to seize the moment and help bring about the transformation that the world is waiting for. “We can be part of the solution for humanity or we can be a part of the problem,” he said.
Manifesting the solutions begins by tapping our creative energies. “Whatever we create first begins in our imagination,” Ruiz said. “Then we make it real.”
“In my imagination, humanity has already changed. We are going in the right direction. We can make it happen. Day one is today,” Ruiz said on Dec. 22, drawing a raucous reaction from the large crowd. “Everything we did in life is completely irrelevant. Right now is the moment.”
Another keynote speaker, Caroline Casey of KPFA’s “The Visionary Activist” show, also talked about the importance of healing the world by transforming ourselves, and an ancient Hawaiian concept called ho’oponopono, a practice of reconciliation and forgiveness.
As she said, “To love disharmony back into harmony makes the harmony so much more.”

Imagining on Dec. 21, 2012

imageAs I contemplate the relevance and possibilities of Dec. 21, 2012 from Mayan country in Tulum, Mexico, I thought I’d offer up the original intro to the cover story that I wrote for this week’s Bay Guardian, which was edited out because my editor thought people might not be open to the information that followed. What do you think? Are we ready to imagine a new era and then make it happen:

Imagine a world where humans feel deep connections to one another and the planet. That’s the first step. It begins with our imagination and then we begin to make it our reality. To unify at the top of the proverbial pyramid, where we remember our past and envision our collective future, could start with a magical moment. Or it could come from our recognition that it’s just time to travelImage a different path. Either way, it’s up to us to create our future. We’re already doing it. Just read the news, if you can bear it. Global warming, mass extinctions, fiscal cliffs, social unrest – now stop and turn the channel, because we’re also writing another story. Through technological innovation, community empowerment, spiritual yearning, social exploration, and global communication we’ve already entered a new era. What does it look like? Well, it looks a little different to each of the billions of people who populate this planet, but we can start with a focus on solutions instead of problems. It’s a simple flip. Once we make it, we can enter an exciting and empowering new reality beginning to unfurl before those willing to see it, right now, this week, on December 21, 2012. That’s a date charged by prophecy and mysticism, both derived from observing the cosmos. It’s also a date that popular culture has infused with layers of conflicting meaning, from Hollywood-style doomsday scenarios to New Age predictions that we’ll suddenly become aware of vast new dimensions. It’s also just another day, followed by the longest night of the year, and a fine time to set our intentions for the lengthening, brightening days to come. So before we explore the fascinating terrain of 2012 predictions and possibilities, let’s imagine the world we want. How about a world where we cooperate instead of just competing, where we live in harmony with the natural world, where we let go of old dogmas and divisions that are no longer serving us, replacing them with new models infused with energy from our hearts instead of just our heads? Maybe your vision is similar, or perhaps it’s different, but let’s all take a moment to just breathe and imagine the world we want. Then let’s have a conversation, and see whether we can take advantage of this energetic moment to will our shared vision into being.

The End of the World as We Know It

Note: This is the extended, unedited, dance mix version of my story that will run as this week’s Bay Guardian cover story (it also ran in Las Vegas CityLife and Metro Times in Detroit), with more woo and hope than the upcoming version. Enjoy, and look for my dispatches from Mexico on the Politics blog starting Wednesday. See you on the other side.

Imagine a world where humans feel deep connections to one another and the planet. That’s the first step. It begins with our imagination and then we begin to make it our reality.

To unify at the top of the proverbial pyramid, where we remember our past and envision our collective future, could start with a magical moment. Or it could come from our recognition that it’s just time to travel a different path. Either way, it’s up to us to create our future.

We’re already doing it. Just read the news, if you can bear it. Global warming, mass extinctions, fiscal cliffs, social unrest – now stop and turn the channel, because we’re also writing another story. Through technological innovation, community empowerment, spiritual yearning, social exploration, and global communication we’ve already entered a new era.

What does it look like? Well, it looks a little different to each of the billions of people who populate this planet, but we can start with a focus on solutions instead of problems. It’s a simple flip. Once we make it, we can enter an exciting and empowering new reality beginning to unfurl before those willing to see it, right now, this week, on December 21, 2012.

That’s a date charged by prophecy and mysticism, both derived from observing the cosmos. It’s also a date that popular culture has infused with layers of conflicting meaning, from Hollywood-style doomsday scenarios to New Age predictions that we’ll suddenly become aware of vast new dimensions.

It’s also just another day, followed by the longest night of the year, and a fine time to set our intentions for the lengthening, brightening days to come. So before we explore the fascinating terrain of 2012 predictions and possibilities, let’s imagine the world we want.

How about a world where we cooperate instead of just competing, where we live in harmony with the natural world, where we let go of old dogmas and divisions that are no longer serving us, replacing them with new models infused with energy from our hearts instead of just our heads?

Maybe your vision is similar, or perhaps it’s different, but let’s all take a moment to just breathe and imagine the world we want. Then let’s have a conversation, and see whether we can take advantage of this energetic moment to will our shared vision into being.

The long view

The ancient Mayans – which created a remarkably advanced civilization during their Classic period from 250-900AD – had an expansive view of time, represented by their Long Count Calendar, which ends this week after 5,125 years. Like many of our pre-colonial ancestors whose reality was formed by watching the slow procession of stars and planets, the Mayans took the long view, thinking in terms of ages and aeons.

The Long Count calendar is broken down into 13 baktuns, each one 144,000 days, so the final baktun that is now ending began in the year 1618. That’s an unfathomable amount of time for most of us living in a country that isn’t even one baktun old yet. We live in an instantaneous world with hourly weather forecasts, daily horoscopes, and quarterly business cycles. Even the rising ocean levels that we’ll see in our lifetimes seem too far in the future to rouse most of us to serious action.

So it’s even more mind-blowing to try to get our heads around the span of 26,000 years, which was the last time that Earth, the sun, and the dark center of the Milky Way came into alignment on the Winter Solstice – the so-called “galactic alignment” anticipated by astrologists who see this as a moment of great energetic power. Right now, we’re near the peak of an alignment that lasts 25-35 years, depending on one’s source and perspective (again, it’s good to patient when pondering planetary paths).

The Aztecs and Toltecs who inherited the Mayan’s calendar and sky-watching tradition also saw a new era dawning around now, which they called the Fifth Sun, or the fifth major stage of human development. For the Hindus, there are the four “yugas,” long eras after which life in destroyed and recreated. Ancient Greece and early Egyptians also understood long cycles of time clocked by the movement of the cosmos.

Fueled by insights derived from mushroom-fueled shamanic vision quests in Latin America, writer and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna developed his “timewave” theories about expanding human consciousness, using the I Ching to divine the date of Dec. 21, 2012 as the beginning of expanded human consciousness and connection. And for good measure, the Chinese zodiac’s transition from dragon to snake also supposedly portends big changes.

So what’s going to happen? Nobody really knows, not even the authors, scholars, and researchers who have devoted big chunks of their lives to the topic, such as Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzacoatl and star of the documentary film 2012: A Time for Change; and John Major Jenkins, who has written nearly a dozen books on 2012 and Mayan cosmology over the last 25 years.

“I never proposed anything specific was going to happen on that date. I think of it as a hinge-point on the shift,” Pinchbeck told me, also taking the long view.

Yet many people do believe the end is nigh. A poll commissioned by Reuters in May found that 15 percent of people worldwide believe that human life as we know it will come to an end in their lifetimes, and 10 percent believe the end of the Mayan calendar means it will happen in 2012. The percentage of Americans who believe they’ll experience the end of the world is even higher than other countries at 22 percent.

In countries with stronger beliefs in myth and mystical thinking, there is genuine anxiety about the Dec. 21 date in significant segments of the population. A Dec. 1 front page story in the New York Times reported that many Russians are so panicked about the Armageddon that the government put out a statement claiming “methods of monitoring what is occurring on planet Earth” and stating the world won’t end in December.

Here in the US, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was also concerned enough about mass hysteria surrounding the galactic alignment and Mayan calendar that it set up a “Beyond 2012: Why the World Won’t End” website and has issued press statements to address people’s eschatological concerns.

Unlike skeptics who are certain that nothing will change, those who hope and believe that the end of 2012 marks an auspicious moment in human evolution – or at least that it represents a significant step in the transformation process – seem fairly patient and open-minded in their perspectives on the subject.

“The debunking type isn’t some rational skeptic. They are true believers in the opposite,” Jenkins said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve been filtering 2012 through some kind of Nostradomus filter.”

Sure, there are some wild theories about 2012 out there on the Internet, from the solar flares that will cook us to Biblical plagues to the extraterrestrials that are coming back to either help or harm us. Yet Jenkins and others like him have been clear in stating that they aren’t expecting the apocalypse. Instead, they emphasize the view by the Mayans and other ancient thinkers that this is a time for renewal and rejuvenation.

“I think the Maya understood that there are cycles of time,” Jenkins said. “2012 was selected by the Maya to target this rare procession of the equinoxes.”

If the ancients had a message for we modern people, it was to learn from our observations about what’s going on all around us. As Jenkins said of the classic Mayans, “They recognized their connection to the natural world and the connection of all things.”

Achieving Synthesis

Many Bay Area residents are now headed down to Chichen Itza, Mexico, where the classic Mayans built the Pyramid Kukulkan with 365 faces to honor the passing of time and where the Synthesis 2012 Festival will mark the end of the Mayan calendar with ceremonies and celebrations.

“It’s probably one of the most pointed to and significant times ever,” Synthesis Executive Producer Michael DiMartino told me, noting that his life’s work has been building to this moment. “As a producer, I’m very focused on the idea of spiritual unity and events with intention,”

In addition to producing major gatherings in Egypt, Brazil, and the American Southwest, DiMartino has been leading tours of the Mayan pyramid and ruins in the Yucatan for almost 20 years, establishing a good working relationship with the Mayan community in the closest town to Chichen Itza, Piste Pueblo.

“They asked me to work with them on connecting to the world and heralding the transition of the paradigm,” he said. “We’re doing something that will support the local communities and give back to them.”

DiMartino told me he believes in the significance of galactic alignment and the ending of the Mayan calendar, but he sees the strength of the event as bringing together people with a wide variety of perspectives to connect with each other and work on the transformation that humans need to make.

“We’re at a crossroads in human history, and crossroads is self-preservation or self-destruction,” he said. “Synthesis 2012 is the forum to bring people together into a power place.”

Debra Giusti, who is co-producing Synthesis, started the Bay Area’s popular Harmony Festival in 1978, co-wrote the book Transforming Through 2012, and “has been at the forefront of transformational festivals for the last 30 years,” DiMartino said. She also emphasized what a momentous time this is.

“Things are escalating to the point where we have to make a big choice. So this is really showtime,” Guisti told me. “Synthesis itself will be a great activation for this time period…to take the power back and really do something on this planet.”

She’s excited to unite her community from the Bay Area with this ancient home of an advanced civilization that was based on studying the skies and taking a long view of history and its cycles.

“Obviously, the planet has been getting out of balance and there is a need to go back to basics,” said Giusti. “The Maya, along with other native cultures, based their systems on natural cycles…We need to get back to the values of the indigenous people, but in the modern context making use of our technology.”

They are reaching out to people around the world who are doing similar gatherings on Dec. 21, urging them to register with their World Unity 2012 website and livestream their events for all to see. “We are launching this whole global social network to help develop solutions,” DiMartino said. (You can also follow my posts from Chichen Itza on the Politics blog).

DiMartino said this moment is about creating cohesion between our heads and hearts in order to connect with each other and the natural world. “Then we function at a higher level and it goes out in an energetic frequency,” he said. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between people and the planet and we need to come back into collaboration.”

Two of the keynote speakers at Synthesis 2012 are a little skeptical of the significance of the Mayan calendar and the galactic alignment, yet they are people with spiritual practices who have been working toward the shift in global consciousness they say we need.

“It’s more of a marker along the way,” Joe Marshalla, an author, psychologist, researcher, and public speaker, told me. “We’ve been in this transition for almost 30 years.”

He said there are just moments in time when there is a mass awakening and realization that the status quo has to change, citing the period from 1968-1972 as an example. But the momentum of that time, when people liberated themselves from convention and launched the environmental and consumer rights movements, was lost before it achieved critical mass. Yet he thinks the momentum has been quietly proceeding behind the scenes.

“The magical hope is that this is all going to be better after this unifying moment for the planet, and I wish for that, too,” Marshalla said. “We have to be realistic that there is a transition and that has to involve us working together.”

Yet he thinks there is real power in the moment if we seize it to make the shift we need. Marshalla said his speech at the festival will be about using certain memes to focus people’s energy on creating change, starting with letting go of the thoughts and structures that divide us from each other and the planet and replacing them with a new sense of connection.

“Everyone is waking up to the deeply held knowledge of the one-ness of all the planet, that we are in this together,” Marshalla said. “I think the world is waking up to the fact there are 7 billion of us and there are a couple hundred thousand that are running everything.”

Caroline Casey, host of KPFA’s “Visionary Activist Show” and a keynote speaker at the Synthesis Festival, also takes a skeptical view of the Mayan prophecies and how New Age thinkers have latched onto them. “Everything should be satirized and there will be plenty of opportunities for that down there,” she said.

The goal creating a new world is one she shares. “Yes, let’s have empire collapse and a big part of that is domination and end the subjugation of nature,” she said. “It is worthwhile to have a good story. We want to emerge from imperialism into a cultural renaissance.”

Reading the stars

The ancient Maya based their calendar and much of their science and spirituality, which were deeply connected for them, on observations of the night sky. Over generations, they watched the constellations of stars and planets slowly but steadily drifting across the horizon, learning about a process we now know as precession, which is the slight wobble of the Earth as it spins on its axis. The ancient Egyptians learned this lesson when the peepholes in their pyramids stopping lining up with the constellations they were aimed at.

Astronomers say the change in our perspective on the cosmos is 1 degree every 72 years, taking 26,000 years to complete a full cycle. Linea Van Horn, president of the San Francisco Astrological Society said there is something simple and powerful about observing natural cycles to tap into our history and spirituality. “All myth is based in the sky, and one of the most powerful markers of myth is precession,” she said.

She said the Mayan Long Count calendar is about one-fifth of the precession cycle, marking the Five Suns or ages that the Aztecs described, while astrologists divide precession by 12, representing each of the zodiac signs. Right now, we are leaving the Age of Pisces and entering the Age of Aquarius, which Van Horn said represents an age of increased cooperation.

As with the planting of bulbs for spring, Van Horn said the Winter Solstice is the time to sow the political and spiritual seeds of future growth. “You need to have a lot of faith now to plant the seeds now knowing you won’t see them grow,” she said, noting that it’s a difficult but important time to do spiritual work.

The longer view is that our alignment with the galactic center, from which all energy and life emerged, is moving back toward the Summer Solstice. Van Horn said the significance of this big transition coming now is that we’re at the point of maximum darkness, both literally and figuratively.

“The whole thing about the darkest night is there is a promise of the return of light,” she said. “It’s a potent time and it’s easy not to see it.”

“It is energetically a time for going within and reflection,” Jenkins said of the Winter Solstice. “It’s a great opportunity to achieve some of the wholeness and integration we need.”

DiMartino said it wasn’t just the Maya, but ancient cultures around the world that saw a long era ending around now: “They each talk about the ending and beginning of new cycles,” he said. “Prophecies are only road signs to warm humanity about the impacts of certain behaviors.”

“Everything is reflecting that we’re at a major bridge of transformation,” he said. “It’s not just a Mayan thing, it just reflects the different fields of research that show we’re at a major point of transition. We create the future. We make decisions and we create our future now.”

Rob Brezsny, the San Rafael resident whose down-to-earth Free Will Astrology column has been printed in alt-weeklies throughout the country for decades, agrees that this is an important moment in human evolution, but he doesn’t think it has much to do with the Mayans.

“My perspective on the Mayan stuff tends to be skeptical. It might do more harm than good,” Brezsny told me, rejecting the idea of shortcuts in either our spiritual or political development. “It goes against everything I know, that it’s slow and gradual and it takes a lot of willpower to do this work.”

That means listening to each other and the needs of the natural world and learning to set aside our egos and desires for immediate gratification.

“This has nothing to do with the galactic center,” Casey said, decrying the “faux-hucksterism” of such magical thinking, as opposed to the real work of building our relationships and circulating important ideas in order to raise our collective consciousness.

Yet both Casey and Brezsny do believe in rituals. “Humans have been honoring the Winter Solstice for 26,000 years,” she said. “Every Winter Solstice is a chance to say what is our guiding story that we want to illuminate.”

“That’s the best thing the Dec. 21 date can be, a ritual of acknowledging that we’re in the midst of a fundamental transformation,” Brezsny said, acknowledging the important role rituals play. “The activists believe this may be a good moment, a good excuse to have a transformative ritual and to take advantage of that. We need transformative rituals.”

When one considers the transformation that our world is crying out for and the courage that will take, humans should take whatever help we can get. As Brezsny said, “Ritual has been a way to marshal inner emotional resources and spiritual resources.”

Global tipping point

The world is not going to end, but it could end for much of life as we know it if we don’t change our ways. Humans are on a collision course with the natural world, something we’ve known for decades, starting with the nuclear age and continuing through the environmental movement.

In the last 20 years, the scientific community and most people have come to realize that industrialization and over-reliance on fossil fuels have irreversibly changed the planet’s climate and that right now we’re just trying to minimize sea level rise and other byproducts – and not even with any real commitment or sense of urgency.

The latest scientific research is even more alarming. Scientists have long understood that individual ecosystems reach tipping points, after which the life forms within them spiral downward into death and decay. But a report released in June by the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology has found that Earth itself has a tipping point that we’re rapidly moving toward.

“Earth’s life-support system may change more in the next few decades than it has since humans became a species,” said the report’s lead author, Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley.

While the Earth has experienced five mass extinctions and other major global tipping points before, the last one 11,700 years ago at the end of the last ice age, “today is very different because humans are actually causing the changes that could lead to a planetary state shift. Ultimately, we are changing the surface of the Earth in places where we live, and further afield because we rely on resources that come from far away.”

The main problem is that humans simply have too big a footprint on the planet, with each of us disturbing an average of 2.27 acres of the planet surface, affecting the natural world around us in numerous ways. The impact will intensify with population growth, triggering a loss of biodiversity and other problems.

“The big concern is that we could see famines, wars, and so on that are triggered by the biological instabilities that would occur as our life-support system crosses the critical threshold towards a planetary-state change,” Barnosky said, explaining that the changes would be something humans couldn’t engineer solutions to. “The problem with critical transitions is that once you shift to a new state, you can’t simply shift into reverse and go back. What’s gone is gone for good, because you’ve moved into a ‘new normal.’”

Barnoksy says he’s not sure if the trend can be reversed, but to minimize its chances, humans must improve our balance with nature and avoid crossing the threshold of transforming 50 percent of the planet’s surface (he calculates that we’ll hit that level in 2025, and reach 55 percent by 2045). That would require reducing population growth and per-capita resource use, speeding the transition away from fossil fuels, increasing the efficiency of food production and distribution, better protection and stewardship of natural areas, and “global cooperation to solve a solve problem.”

His conclusion: “Humanity is at a critical crossroads: we have to decide if we want to guide the planet in a sustainable way, or just let things happen. If we continue going forward as we always have, without realizing we are now a geological force on the planet, we are probably going to get hit with some unpleasant surprises.”

Perhaps it’s not merely a coincidence that our knowledge of the need for a new age is peaking in 2012. “It’s not surprising the world is in a crisis as we approach this date,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know how it works, but there is a strange parallel with what the ancient Maya foresaw.”

But the change that we need to make isn’t about just buying a Prius, composting our dinner scraps, and contributing to charities. It requires a rethinking of an economic system that requires steady growth and consumption, cheap labor, unlimited natural resources, and the free flow of capital.

“Basically, we are going to have to have a rapid shift in global consciousness,” Pinchbeck said. “You would not be able to create a sustainable economy with the current monetary system. It’s just not possible.”

Yet to even contemplate that fundamental flip first requires a change in our consciousness because, as Pinchbeck said, “We have created a stunted adult population that isn’t able to think in terms of collective responsibility.”

Among the young people coming up, he said the shift is already happening, citing Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street as examples. “It is happening in terms of peer-to-peer, cooperative movements with no top-down hierarchy,” he said.

Since the 1960s, people have been experimenting with a wide variety of important solutions – clean energy, sustainable agriculture, localized economies, efficient homes and transportation systems – to just about every problem we face.

“Things can happen quickly. It doesn’t have to be try this and try that,” Pinchbeck said.

“We know that we have ingenuous solutions to the innumerable horrible problems we’ve inflicted on ourselves,” Casey said.

Brezsny said that we shouldn’t need a galactic alignment or Mayan prophecy to feel the compelling need to take collective action: “I can’t think of any bigger wake-up call than to know that we’re in the middle of the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaur age.”

Yet for some reason, that’s not enough, largely because humans have build a wall of separation between their heads and their hearts, between their thoughts and their emotions.

“Science and philosophy are now merging and a lot of people call that quantum physics,” DiMartino said, delving into the idea that energy flows within and between all of us and the universe around us.

He said what comes next is really about how humans use and guide their energies. “We, through our actions and intentions, create the world and take the path that we are creating,” DiMartino said.

As for progressive people who don’t necessarily believe in the power of energetic or spiritual transformation, DiMartino said they are partners in the process anyway. “We have a common foe and that is ignorance and planetary destruction,” he said.

Out of that destruction and breaking down of old structures comes an incredible opportunity to build new ones and make a big evolutionary leap forward.

“Structures are collapsing, but the energies that created them become available,” Casey said. “What makes us passive is toxic, what engages us is tonic.”

It’s about energy

This moment is about energy more than anything else. It’s about the energies showering down from the cosmos and up through the earth and human history. It’s about the energy we have to do the hard work of transforming our world and the vibrational energy we put out into the world and feel from would-be partners in the work ahead.

Energy is the basic building block of life, as biologists understand. A key driver of the global tipping point that Barnosky discusses involves an “important redistribution of how the energy that powers ecosystems flows through the food chain.”

Many people believe there are other unseen energies that help to animate life on the planet, and that can be tapped through meditation, yoga, and other spiritual work. And they believe that energy ultimately comes from the cosmic forces that originally created all life, and that this is the moment to tune into them.

“The earth is being flooded with energies from the galactic center,” said Van Horn, who has been do presentations on the alignment since 2004.

These energies are difficult for traditional science to measure. Issac Shivvers, an astrophysics graduate student and instructor at UC Berkeley, confirmed the basic facts of the alignment with the so-called “dark rift” in the Milky Way and its rarity, but he doesn’t believe it will have any effect on humans.

“The effect of the center region of the galaxy on us is negligible,” he said, doubting the view that cosmic energies play on people in unseen ways that science can’t measure. In fact, Shivvers said he is “completely dismissive” of astrology and its belief that alignments of stars and planets effect humans.

Yet many people do believe in astrology and unseen energies. A 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 25 percent of Americans believe in astrology, with that percentage higher for women and minorities than for white males. A similar percentage also sees yoga as a spiritual practice and believes that spiritual energy is located in physical things, such as temples or mountains.

“There is a level of galactic and cosmic information that is imprinted on these sites,” Pinchbeck said of the main Mayan pyramids in Chichen Itza, Palenque, and other sites.

Jenkins said Pyramid Kukulkan was “built to capture this alignment.”

Scientists can measure unseen energies, even if they can’t explain them. Chinese medicine is based on the movement of energy in the body, Qi, which can be modified by acupuncture to relieve maladies. Studies have shown acupuncture works, but science can’t explain why or measure the energy flow. Similarly, scientists have documented incidents of extrasensory perception and other psychic phenomenon, even if they can’t explain them

There are also strong indications that there is global consciousness that connects humans to one another energetically. Renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung found evidence of a “collective unconscious,” in which certain spiritual archetypes were shared by remote tribes with no connection to one another.

More recently, the Global Consciousness Project, an international study based at Princeton University, has been measuring the connection of collective human consciousness – what theorists have called the “noosphere” – to the physical world.

For the last 14 years, the project has been recording data from random number generators placed at 70 sites around the world, computer programs that should have a predictable and measurable randomness. During significant events that capture human attention – World Cup finals, big natural disasters, New Year’s Eve, the onset of wars, huge group meditations – there are unexplainable fluctuations in the results. Some of their highest levels came in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the 1998 terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania.

“The behavior of our network of random sources is correlated with interconnected human consciousness on a global scale,” the project’s website states. While they continue to study a number of hypotheses about why this happens, these scientists still can’t definitively explain it.

DiMartino hopes the gathering of intentional people at Pyramid Kukulakan can connect with the earth’s energy field and project a sense of unity and goodwill: “When human beings are plugged into a unifying field, that plugs into the Earth’s unified field in a symbiotic way.”

Our energies shape our consciousness and our understanding of the world and our role in it. That’s one reason that most of the people I interviewed for this article told me that the global transformation we need must start from within each person.

“If the consciousness isn’t evolving and the new support structures aren’t evolving we’re going to have destruction and chaos,” Pinchbeck told me. “People are recognizing that the earth is going through a rapid shift right now…If you’re a liberal person without a spiritual grounding, it does look pretty bleak.”

But that spiritual grounding doesn’t mean that people need to believe in Mayan prophecies, traditional religion, or galactic energy fields. As Brezsny said, “For me, so much of what the revolution is about is how we treat each other moment-to-moment.”

Casey’s advice at this important time is to have an open heart and open mind, but also a sense of humor and “believe nothing, but entertain notions.” Those notions can be tricky, which is why she embraces the presence and role of the Trickster, mythologically represented by the coyote in Native American cultures, the spirit that shows up at times of turmoil and transition to coax us forward by tweaking our conventions.

End of world

Rev. Billy Talen definitely started off as a trickster, a performance artist and political activist appropriating the role of the evangelical preacher (ala Jerry Farwell or Jimmy Swaggart), pastor of the Church of Stop Shopping, standing in from of the Disney Store in Times Square railing against the evils of sweatshops and consumerism.

That was more than 10 years ago, and Talen, his choir, and his flock have grown and evolved since then, although they retained their core tactic of invading the citadels of their enemies to engage in performance art and civil disobedience. They renamed themselves the Church of Life After Shopping, wrote books and made a movie called What Would Jesus Buy?, and then became the Church of Earthalujah five years ago when their focus switched to climate change and environmental justice issues.

Along the way, their issues and concerns became more dire, the threats they were addressing elevated to matters of survival rather than social justice. So with the Dec. 21, 2012 date approaching, Talen returned to Times Square – this time fitting right in with its doomsday preachers – and wrote a new book called The End of the World, which he’ll release in Times Square on that auspicious date.

“I’ll be back with a science-based Armageddon,” Talen told me. “Now I’m looping all the way around the tracks back to Times Square where I started. But Hurricane Sandy makes this not so tongue-in-cheek.”

When Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York City and the surrounding coastline with the rare strength of superstorm that climatologists say will be more common in our warming world, Talen said it was a wake-up call for those insulated by that urban environment.

“New York doesn’t have climate, we have culture,” Talen said, but Sandy changed that perspective and brought the reality of climate change home, right into the heart of capitalism. “The idea that nature is beyond the city limits, that may be over now.”

These real-world events – 9/11 and hurricanes Katrina in New Orleans and Sandy in New York – “made us lose our irony and dial back our parody.” Now, it’s real, all those far-away byproducts of the system fueled by the interests of Wall Street.

“There is ecosystem collapse going on everyday,” Talen said. “Earth is a total ecosystem and Earth has a tipping point, just like local ecosystems have tipping points.”

His latest book leans heavily on the research of Barnosky and his team, which Talen said dovetails perfectly with the Mayan prophecies and the hopes that the galactic alignment will spark a shift in global consciousness that wakes us up to pressing problems that demand immediate action.

“It allows us to have a stage for the question, a frame for the question. We have to ask very basic questions about our survival,” Talen said. “We have this uncanny mythic, prophetic calendar, this 5,000-year calendar ending and beginning. And we have the scientists saying the same thing, so where does that leave you?”

To Talen and those like him, the answer seems obvious. It’s time to find the collective will to make big changes in our relationships to one another and the planet.

“We all have to be Earth people now, to be beings in this world, and I’ve had to go through that shift,” Talen said. “All the issues become one issue, life, and that’s the moment we’re at. Now, social justice and earth justice have to be the same thing because it’s the end of the world…It’s apocalyptic, end of the world, and this is how we have to start thinking.”

Catastrophism has limits

It may be the end of the world as we know it, but sounding that warning may not be the best way to motivate people to action, according to a new book, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth.

Two of the book’s authors – Sasha Lilley, a writer and host of KPFA’s “Against the Grain”; and Eddie Yuen, an Urban Studies instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute – recently spoke about the limits of catastrophism as a catalyst for political change at Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco.

Christian conservatives have long sounded the apocalyptic belief the Jesus will return any day now. Yet Lilley said those on the left have had a long and intensifying connection to catastrophism – “seen as a great cleansing from which a new society is born” – based mostly around the belief that capitalism is a doomed economic system and the view that global warming and other ecological problems are reaching tipping points.

As committed progressives, Lilley and Yuen share these basic beliefs. “Capitalism is an insane system,” Lilley said, while Yuen said climate change and loss of biodiversity really are catastrophes: “We are living in an absolutely catastrophic moment in the history of the planet.”

Yet they also think it’s a fallacy to assume capitalism will collapse under its own weight or that people will suddenly decide to support drastic reductions in our carbon emissions. These changes require the long, difficult work of political organizing – which has been underway for a long time – whereas Lilley called catastrophism “the result of political despair and lack of faith in our ability to take mass radical action.”

It’s tempting to believe that capitalism is one crisis away from collapse, or that people will be ripe for revolution as economic conditions inevitably get worse, but Lilley said that history proves otherwise. “Capitalism renews itself through crisis,” she said, whether it was the collapse of the banking system in 2008 or weathering the anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street protests.

She recited the history of labor movements, which enjoyed their biggest advances during times of economic expansion, not during recessions when anxieties run high. Sounding the alarm that capitalism and climate change will devastate communities doesn’t motivate people to action.

“It focuses on fear as a motivating force, but I think it really backfires on the left,” Lilley said. “It’s really immobilizes people…It’s paralyzing and deeply problematic.”

Yuen agreed. “It’s insufficient to tell people the bad news and think they will become activists,” he said, citing a recent study showing that the more people know about climate change, the more likely they are to be apathetic, believing there’s nothing we can do at this point.

Yet they said that it’s equally true that capitalism is clearly bad for the planet and the vast majority of the world’s people, as demonstrated by growing disparities in wealth, alarming loss of biodiversity, and a host of other problems. She said that activists need to win these arguments to create a new economic order, a process that has already begun.

“Attack capitalism on its strengths rather than thinking it’s a frail system about to crumble,” she said. “It’s important that we don’t succumb to what’s been called the left’s Rapture.”

Death and rebirth

So where does that leave us if the solutions don’t fall from the sky on Dec. 21? Are we are just going to die? Yes, we are, at least in old forms, a process that can be cause for celebration and empowerment.

“Really, what’s happening is a psychological death, an identity death of what it means to be human on the planet,” Marshalla said.

He compared it to the five stages of grief identified by author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally acceptance. Marshalla think humans are in the depression stage, on the verge of moving into acceptance that our old way of life is dying.

Part of that acceptance involves embracing new self-conceptions. When humans developed the prefrontal lobe in our brain, it allowed us to not only climb to the top of the food chain, but to achieve unprecedented control over the natural world.

But at this point, we’ve become too smart for our good, rationalizing behavior that our heart knows is out of balance, causing us to forget essential truths that we once knew, such as our power to create our reality and the humility to live in harmony with the natural world.

“The majority of people believe that thinking thing is who they are,” he said, but it’s really just a chemical reaction in our brain that has been repeatedly reinforced and it becomes what he called the “consensus reality.”

We learn apathy and competitiveness, just like we can learn empowerment and cooperation, it just depends on our focus. “The goal is to bring on that peaceful, loving state of mind where we see all of us as equal,” he said, noting that it doesn’t really matter whether that’s achieved through traditional religion, meditation, political organizing, or belief in ancient prophecies and energies showering down from the galactic center.

“It’s less about being right than finding any way to lift us up, so whatever thoughts take us there,” he said. “It’s whatever causes us to realize that shift is upon us.”

“Every system seems to be moving toward the same point, and that is what is bone-chilling,” Van Horn said of the various prophecies and synchronicities pointing to the transition to a new era. “If you’re folding into fear, you’re missing the point.”

Is she hopeful that most people are feeling the same sense of hope and opportunity?

“I have much more hope when I don’t listen to the news,” Van Horn said. “The true reality is the world is magical, and there is a unity and synchronicity that is crystal clear for anyone that is aware enough to see it.”

Casey emphasizes that it needs to be based on real egalitarian principles, “not sneaky mythology that we are the enlightened ones.” In fact, she has been discovering the value of reaching across the aisles and past old labels and divisions to create new paradigms and ways of connecting: “Tossing all tired language into the cauldron is good.”

Whether the universe and mythology have anything to do with it, the hold they have on human imagination, belief, and intention is still a powerful force that can create self-fulfilling prophecies that a new age of global consciousness and cooperation is dawning.

“Cultural myths and energetic forces love to mix. Differences make things happen,” Casey said. “We are in this synchronizing cauldron now.”

Ultimately, we get to choose our prophets and our prophecies, infusing them with our energies to transform them into reality. Many chose Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed – or they chose Mammon, Adam Smith, or Milton Friedman – but perhaps it’s time to conclude that isn’t working out very well for the Earth and its creatures.

The ancient Mayans and the energies of the galactic center may not deliver the solutions we need, although I’m certainly willing to wait a few days – or even a few years – to receive this moment with an open heart and open mind. Why not? Let’s all bring our own visions and prophets and mix them into the cauldron.

It’s time to imagine a new world, so I’m going to call on the spirit of John Lennon – a prophet from our last big leap forward – to offer this final wish: “Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you will join us, and the world will be as one.”

2012: Beginning of the End or a New Beginning?

In recent months, I’ve been exploring the rabbit hole of 2012 prophecy and possibility, a beguiling mixture of myth, spirituality, and hope that humans will finally awaken to the global ecological and economic catastrophes we’re creating and make a fundamental shift in our approach, whether that’s sparked by cosmic energies or our own earthly intention.

When the Mayan calendar ends on Dec. 21 – a date that also marks the Winter Solstice and the peak of our alignment with the galactic center (Earth, sun, and the dark center of the Milky Way lining up for the first time in recorded human history) – it will be a day anticipated by millions of people around the world. Thanks to the modern amplification by pop culture and the Internet, it will be an unprecedented and potentially auspicious astrological, energetic, and cultural moment.

“The earth is being flooded with energies from the galactic center,” San Francisco Astrological Society President Linea Van Horn, who has been giving presentations for eight years on the significance of a cosmic alignment that occurs once every 26,000 years, told us. “That was the alignment that the Mayans were marking on their calendars.”

It isn’t just the Mayan Long Count calendar that indicates the current age is ending and a new one dawning. Some Aztec, Toltec, Indian, and Egyptian scholars and writer Terence McKenna (who used the I Ching to make the revelation in his book The Invisible Landscape) and various New Age authors have predicted we’re entering a new era, one many believe will be marked by enhanced human consciousness.

But one needn’t believe any of this to understand the pressing need for humans to wake the fuck up and start working together on issues ranging from global warming and the alarming decrease in the planet’s biodiversity to the many shortcomings of global capitalism and the escalating social unrest it’s creating. So why not use this grand mystical moment to spark that discussion, as many progressive activists and conscious community advocates have suggested.

“It allows us to have a stage for the question, a frame for the question. We have to ask very basic questions about our survival,” said Rev. Billy Talen, an artist/activist whose latest book, The End of the World, delves into the earth’s ecosystems reaching their tipping points. “We have the uncanny, mythic, prophetic calendar ending and beginning. And then we have scientists saying the same thing, so where does that leave you?”

There will be many epicenters and gathering points on Dec. 21, both real and virtual. Personally, I’m headed down into the heart of the Mayan empire to Chichen Itza, Mexico, where I’ll be attending the Synthesis Festival and doing daily dispatches through this website. Daniel Pinchbeck, author 2012: The Return of Quetzacoatl, will be in Egypt at The Great Convergence “celebrating the dawning of a new era.”

“Basically, we are going to have to have a rapid shift in global consciousness,” Pinchbeck told me, arguing that shift has already begun, as seen in movements from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. “It is happening in terms of horizontal, peer-to-peer, cooperative movements with no top down hierarchy…We can make a much more rapid transition than most people realize.”

Both festivals, and many others around the world, will be heavily attended by people from the Bay Area, where many of the concepts behind transformational possibilities and alternative organizing models have incubated and evolved for decades. The organizers of Synthesis have also set up a World Unity 2012 online hub where people can participate with livestreams from where they are and join in conversation about what’s next.

“It’s probably one of the most pointed to and significant times ever,” said Synthesis Executive Producer Michael DiMartino, who has been leading tours of Mayan sites for almost 20 years, establishing a close working relationship with the Mayan community in Piste Pueblo adjacent to the pyramids at Chichen Itza that he’s tapping for this event. “We’re at a crossroads in human history – and the crossroads are self-preservation or self-destruction…We create the future. As we make our decisions, we create the future now.”

While DiMartino and other festival organizers believe in the spiritual and energetic possibilities of this moment, they emphasize that it is an opportunity to bring together people with a variety of worldviews and belief systems and have a conversation about how the global community of people can work together on solutions.

“Obviously, the planet has been getting out of balance and there is a need to go back to basics,” said Debra Giusti, founder of the Harmony Festival and author of Transforming Through 2012. “We need to get back to the values of the indigenous people, but in the modern context making use of our technology.”

As I’ve interviewed people about 2012, from true believers to skeptics, mystics to scientists, a common theme has been that nobody knows what this intriguing moment portends. They have their hopes and their fears, their doubts and their desires. I’ll be looking at the 2012 question from a variety of perspectives in my upcoming coverage, and I’m open to your suggestions and observations as well.

But for now, for me, I’m maintaining an open heart and an open mind. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, that are dreamt up in your philosophy,” Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, a statement for ages that our modern minds, so rational and cynical, too often forget.

Maybe this metaphysical moment will be the anticlimactic New Age equivalent of Y2K, or maybe it will be an important signpost on the road to global transformation in consciousness, or something in between. Whatever happens, it’s bound to be interesting, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

This post first appeared earlier today on the Bay Guardian’s Politics blog.

The Burning Man question: How does it feel?


Note to Readers: I wrote the following article for BRC Weekly, which will be distributed at Burning Man this year. I’ve written articles for BRC Weekly and its predecessor, Piss Clear, each of the last several years.

How does Black Rock City feel this year? That’s the intangible question – the one that transcends how dusty the air or mind-blowing the art or intentional the participants – that will determine where Burning Man is headed in this new era now unfolding.

This year’s population is expected to exceed 60,000 souls, way more than last year when the feds capped the population at 50,000, which was exceeded by a few thousand on a couple days, leading the Bureau of Land Management overlords to place the event on probation.

But BLM officials were forgiving, and sympathetic to the tight spot that Burning Man found itself in this year, with skyrocketing demand for tickets compounded by this year’s great ticket lottery clusterfuck (which seemed to portend doom for a long time before most people found tickets at face value).

So they gave BRC a population cap of 60,900, and if all goes well this year, they’ll grant a five-year permit that will let this city grow to 70,000 by 2016. And event founder Larry Harvey doesn’t want to stop there, telling me during an interview in June: “We think we could go to 100,000 if it was measured growth, carefully planned.”

Really, 100,000? Sure, he said, although it would need further studies and better plans for getting people on and off the playa. Maybe that means more shuttles, or staggered arrival and departure times, or perhaps even adding a second week, the solution Coachella chose to grapple with its rising demand.

But before we can get into such ambitious futurizing, I’m curious to hear answers to my question: How does Black Rock City feel this year? Does it feel crowded, and what do those crowds feel like? How was your arrival experience, and what will your exodus entail? I’ve watched much of the art being built in the Bay Area this summer, so I know it’s awesome, but how does it feel to interact with it this year? Are there enough cool, weird things to do in the theme camps, and space on the art cars? Have any strangers made you feel special today?

I don’t know the answers to these questions as I write these words a couple weeks before Burning Man. But I do know that their answers matter, and that the quality of Burning Man in any given year transcends its mechanics or anything its organizers try to do in their most manic control-freak moments.

In that June interview – the latest of many that I’ve done with Larry over the last eight years – he argued for an event with a six-figure population while simultaneously saying the event matters less than the culture that has formed up around it.

“We’ve got to focus on the people. We’re becoming less event-centric,” Larry told me. “We think of this as a cultural movement.”

Frankly, I’m tired of fighting with Larry and Black Rock City LLC, the corporation that stages Burning Man, over the many contradictions and pitfalls that present themselves when a top-down corporation sponsors a cultural movement.

I’ve tried, and largely failed, to instigate burners to rise up and demand representation in the many decisions this cultural movement now faces – from the size and character of Black Rock City to the nature of our other Burning Manifestations to the governance structure of the nonprofit to which Larry has pledged to relinquish control (gradually, and on his terms).

He has told agitators like me, and there have been many over the last 25 years, to trust him or go start our own events. That’s fine, particularly if most burners are content to watch the event evolve on its own, as they seem to be. And they’ll probably do that as long as it feels good, feels authentic, and feels like a cultural movement rather than just another corporate creation.

Burning Man is always a blast – a 24-hour party city, filled with cool art, all built by participants in this grand socio-urban experiment – so I’m sure each virgin is getting his/her head split wide open about now, along with some veteran skulls.

But tell me, particularly those with a few years of perspective: How does it feel? How would it feel with almost double this year’s population? And how do we take those feelings, infuse them with information and intention, and shape the future of Burning Man?

Scribe, aka Steven T. Jones, is city editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

Biggest Burn Ever — Black Rock City to exceed 60,000

Burning Man is more popular than ever, judging by a demand for tickets that far exceeded supply this year, after selling out last year for the first time in its 26-year history — and now this year’s event will be far bigger than ever.

The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Nevada desert where burners build Black Rock City every August, has set a population cap for Burning Man at 60,900, an increase of more than 10,000 over previous events.

For Black Rock City LLC, the San Francisco-based company that stages Burning Man, there was mixed news in BLM’s June 12 permit decision. BRC was denied the multi-year event permit it sought, but as it struggles to meet demand for this increasingly popular countercultural institution, BLM honored BRC’s late request for more people than the 58,000 it had sought for this year.

“After further discussions, there were requests for a bit more,” Cory Roegner, who oversees the event from BLM’s district office in Winnemucca, told us. Asked why BRC sought the population bump, he said, “The more people they can have, the better.”

BLM has been processing BRC’s lengthy environment assessment and its request for a five-year permit that would allow the event to grow steadily from 58,000 to 70,000 people in 2016. The cap for this year could have been set as low as 50,000, creating some drama around this announcement, but the agency instead issued a single-year permit with a population cap of 60,900.

BRC was placed on probation last fall after violating its 50,000-person cap by a few thousand people each on Sept. 2 and 3, and BLM rules limit groups on probation to a single-year permit. BRC has appealed the status to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has not yet acted on it or answered Guardian inquiries.

“Unless we do hear back from them, Black Rock City would be precluded from a multi-year permit,” Roegner told us.

He also said that if BRC violates the population cap for a second year in a row, it could be barred from holding future events, although the high population cap should mean that won’t be a big problem this year, clearing the way for Burning Man’s steady growth through at least 2016.

“Based on the evaluation [of this year’s event], we will consider a multi-year permit going to 2016,” Roegner told us.

BRC has already sold 57,000 tickets and will give away thousands more to art collectives, staff, and VIPs. But the cap is based on a daily population count and BRC board member Marian Goodell said the event never has all attendees there at once.

She said staying below the cap this year shouldn’t be a problem given that many of those who build the city and work on the major art pieces leave before the final weekend when the eponymous Man burns. “Usually at least 6,000 leave before we hit the peak. Sometimes more on dusty, wet, or cold years,” she told us.

It could have been a lot more difficult. BLM officials had told the Guardian in April that they were considering keeping last year’s population cap of 50,000, which could have presented BRC with a logistical nightmare and/or ticket-holder backlash in trying to stay under the cap.

“The issue between us and the BLM continues to be the population cap,” Burning Man founder Larry Harvey told the Guardian.

Harvey, Goodell, and others with BRC took a lobbying trip to Washington DC in late April trying to shore up political support for the event and its culture, arguing that it has become important for artistic and technical innovation and community building rather than just a big party.

Harvey told us he believes that Burning Man could grow to 100,000 participants, although he conceded that would need further study and creative solutions to key problems such as getting people to and from the isolated location accessed only by one highway lane in each direction.

“We think we could go to 100,000 if it was measured growth, carefully planned,” Harvey said.

On the transportation question, he said, “it’s a question of flow.” Right now, participants arriving or leaving on peak days often wait in lines that can take four hours or more.

“We’ve talked to engineers that have proposed solutions to that,” Harvey said of the transportation issue, although he wouldn’t discuss possible solutions except to say, “You could exit in a more phased fashion.”

Roegner said that was one of the big issues identified in the EA. “We are taking a closer look at a couple items this year, traffic being one,” he said. Another one is the use of decomposed granite, which is placed under flaming artworks to prevent burn scars on the playa, and making sure it is properly cleaned up each year.

BRC was facing a bit of a crisis in confidence after this year’s ticket debacle, when a new lottery-based ticket distribution system and higher than expected demand left up to two-thirds of burner veterans without tickets. The resulting furor caused BRC to abandon plans for a secondary sale and instead sell the final 10,000 tickets through established theme camps, art collectives, and volunteers groups.

“It’s pretty obvious that we’ll do something like that again because we don’t expect demand to go down,” Harvey said of that direct distribution of tickets, which was criticized in some burner circles as promoting favoritism and undermining the event’s stated principle of inclusivity.

Now that BRC has received a high population cap, it could conceivably sell more tickets to this year’s event, something Goodell said the board will consider, weighing that against the imperative of staying under the population cap this year. “The board needs to talk about what the ramifications of that are. There is a lot of demand out there,” Goodell told us.

Harvey emphasized that much of Burning Man’s growth is occurring off the playa — in cities and at regional events around the world. “All of this is by way of dealing with the capacity problem. I don’t know how much we can grow in the Black Rock Desert,” he said.

Another realm full of both possibilities and perils — depending on one’s perspective — is the ongoing development of The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit that BRC created last year to gradually take on new initiatives, followed by taking over staging of the event, and eventually (probably in five years) full control of Burning Man and its brand and trademarks.

“God knows, we have a lot of opportunities before us,” Harvey said, adding that BMP is now focused on fundraising. “It is the objective before we transfer the event to start transferring the regional events, and that will take more money and staff.”

After that, he sees unlimited potential to grow the culture, not just Black Rock City. “We’ve got to focus on the people. We’re becoming less event-centric,” he said. “We think of this as a cultural movement.”

Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. Image

Foreword to “Dancing with the Playa Messiah”


Longtime burner and photographer George Post has created a beautiful new book of his Burning Man photos from the last 21 years, for which he asked me to write the following Foreword. Check it out and look for the book later this year.

Building a New World

By Steven T. Jones, aka Scribe, author of “The Tribes of Burning Man”

Burning Man was going through some hard times when George Post came by my office to show me this book. The Great Burning Man Ticket Fiasco of 2012 was in full swing, and the Internet was filled with expressions of anger, frustration, condemnation, and despair from the roughly two-thirds of veteran burners who had been denied tickets under the new lottery-based system, threatening the very fabric of Black Rock City.

Demand for tickets had far exceeded anyone’s expectations, and everybody was speculating about why. Had Burning Man just hit a tipping point in popularity? What role did the event selling out for the first time the previous year play? Did profit-minded ticket scalpers game the new system? They were probably all factors, but that February, nobody knew exactly what was going on, what to do, or what it would mean for Burning Man.

I had been covering the event and the vast culture it spawned for almost eight years for my newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. And it had been a year since the release of my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. So I was deeply embedded reporter, writing regularly about what was happening and doing interviews with other newspapers that were also covering the controversy.

In fact, this was just the latest in a series of incidents in the last year that I wrote about in a way that was sometimes critical of Black Rock City LLC, aka the Borg, the company that stages Burning Man. I’d known about the plan to turn the event over to a new nonprofit since before my book was published, but I was dismayed by aspects of how that transition would take place once founder Larry Harvey announced the details in April 2011. And that was followed by the ticket sell-out, the announcement of a new ticketing system, and a sales launch that was plagued by the exact flaws many had predicted.

Bashing the Borg is favorite pastime among many veteran burners. I’d covered many of those conflicts in my book and I found myself slipping into that same cynicism I’d heard from so many others: that Burning Man had crossed over into something else, something less cool and authentic, that it had finally jumped the shark, that the six board members who controlled it were only giving lip service to concepts like collaboration and community.

But then George came in with his book, and something inside me snapped back into place. With its colorful, evocative photos spanning more than two decades of these weird and wonderful people building a city from scratch in the Black Rock Desert, seeing this world through George’s lens somehow restored my perspective. Some of those creators are long gone, but there were also countless photos of the board members that I’d been bellyaching about – much younger, a sense of possibility gleaming in their eyes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and to second-guess how this grand experiment could have been improved, and to feel frustrated by its shortcomings and missed opportunities. Yet the remarkable fact that Burning Man is not only still around, but that it continues to grow and thrive and morph and send its tendrils out into almost every corner of the globe – that seems almost impossible to believe.

Just that one photo from 1991, of the Man floating out onto a barge on San Francisco Bay, reinforced what a simple yet powerful export Burning Man has been. San Francisco has been incubating ideas, percolating possibilities, distilling decadence, and cultivating culture since its inception, and this was a vehicle for it to travel out into the big wide world.

Somehow, that simple stick figure on Baker Beach, transplanted onto a vast alien terrain with infinite possibilities, became a canvas onto which generations of dreamers and searchers could project a world of their own design. And when that was multiplied by the tens of thousands, and repeated for decades, an entirely new culture, with a unique set of norms and values, could grow.

I’ve been honored by the opportunity to help capture and tell its story, but I was a relative latecomer to the party, attending my first Burning Man in 2001. My contribution was built on the work of others who came before me, on writers such as Brian Doherty and photographers including George Post and Barbara Traub, who amplified the ideas and actions of Larry Harvey and other Burning Man originals, work that drew from influences such as the Dadaists, Bohemians, and the French Impressionists.

There’s nothing new under the sun, everything gets recycled and reinvented, but that’s not the impression one gets from flipping through this book. Somehow, it all seems so fresh and original, these pages and pages of colorful burners inventing a new world for themselves and those that followed. And even though readers can watch the progression and see the art get bigger and more ambitious as the years pass, there’s a comforting continuity to all of it.

From the moment when Borg original Michael Mikel first drew that line in the playa, in the legend telling those assembled that they’d be different people once they crossed over, everyone who goes to Burning Man is indelibly altered by the experience. And that’s something worth celebrating, and reliving again and again, so we can remember where we’ve come from and where we may yet be headed.

Analysis of the Borg’s ticket fiasco solution

ImageBurning Man organizers faced at least two serious problems created by its flawed new ticketing system, and they chose to deal with just one of them yesterday in announcing that the open sale of the final 10,000 tickets would be canceled and those tickets would instead be sold through the theme camps, art collectives, and volunteer groups that make Black Rock City what it is.

But Black Rock City LLC has decided not to address – at least not yet – its other major problem, which was scalpers and ticket agencies gaming the new ticket lottery to snap up tickets and sell them for huge profits. I and many others have long suggested the LLC register tickets to individual buyers and regulate their exchange to prevent gouging, and after announcing the new system last night, the company got such fierce criticism from online commenters arguing that point that it felt compelled to amend the post a few hours later to address the issue.

“If we don’t fill the holes in the social fabric, who cares about the scalpers, because then we’ve got nothing,” Marian Goodell, the LLC board member who authored last night’s announcement, told me this morning, explaining the emphasis on theme camps.

Without ensuring the city’s art, entertainment, and infrastructure gets build, Burning Man could suffer a fatal blow to its reputation, she said, making the theme camp decision a tough but necessary one. But creating what she called “identity-based tickets” is a far more complicated issue, and she just doesn’t think the scalper problem is as big as many burners believe.

But she doesn’t know for sure. “Nobody knows, it’s all speculation,” Goodell said, and that’s part of the problem. All they really know is demand for tickets this year far exceeded anyone’s expectations – Goodell will only confirm that there were 80,000-120,000 requests for the 40,000 ticket allocated on Feb. 1 – and that tickets often sold for double face value last year after the event sold out a month early for the first time in its 25-year history.

“Is it 100 people or 1,000 people that are going to take advantage of the community, and can we just discourage that?” Goodell said of the number of multiple-ticket-buying profiteers, reiterating her hopes that burners will starve out the scalpers by refusing to pay more than face value for tickets, which is part of the culture’s ethos.

And if it’s just 100, or even 1,000, she said it might not be worth it for the LLC to require the 40,000 people whose tickets will be mailed in June to register by name and to try to bar entry to those whose tickets don’t match their names, particularly given the chance for human error and the remoteness of this temporary city. “How do you punish them? What do you do?” she said, noting that the LLC has delayed the decision on registration while it gathers more information.

But what if the profiteers have managed to wrangle 10,000 tickets? Some bloggers out there have demonstrated how easy it is to generate multiple credit card numbers and argued that scalpers must have done so, despite the LLC claims to have ferreted out the obvious scalper scams before tickets were awarded. “There’s no way it’s 10,000,” Goodell said confidently, although she was also confident that this system would work well, and then that there would be enough extra tickets circulating in the community to satisfy most of the demand, which so far doesn’t seem to be true, with most theme caps reporting that less than a one-third of their members have scored tickets, far less in some cases.

Goodell and the LLC are counting on the STEP ticket exchange system whose registration launches on Feb. 29, but the details of that also generated controversy last night and forced Goodell to say it may still tweak the system. It allows people to sell back their unwanted tickets, with the LLC covering the normal $12 restocking fee. They will then be resold to people who register on a first come, first served basis, but they’ve decided to limit purchases to one per person and only to people who registered and were denied tickets on Feb. 1. Couples were irked that it punishes people who tried to buy two tickets at the main sale using only a single entry, so Goodell said they’ll take another look.

“We are trying to make the STEP system be fluid, so if there’s only a limited number of tickets available then more people can get them,” Goodell said. “We want STEP to work.”

But many burners just don’t think it will. Burning Man tickets have suddenly become a hotter commodity than ever, and even community-minded burners who aren’t seeking to make a profit will probably prefer to sell any extra tickets to someone directly, or to hang onto them for awhile, rather than give them up now to some random people who will then be forced to wait at the gate in the long will-call line, which is a new anti-scalping precaution that Goodell announced.

And then there’s the major thrust of yesterday’s announcement: distributing tickets through theme camps. I and most of the online commenters generally support that decision – at least as the best of a bad set of options – even though it’s certainly a controversial one that values one type of citizen over another and seems to fly in the face of the event’s principle of “radical inclusion.”

Yet it seems to be one that creates some difficult decisions ahead for the LLC. The criteria they laid out say the decisions will be made based on a camp’s history (both its longevity and record of leaving no traces of litter, which the LLC monitors in a very detailed way), what it offers to the city each year, and its adherence to the event’s 10 Principles.

Goodell confirmed my observation of how subjective that judgment will be – something that has spurred criticism that camps cozy with the LLC will get favorable treatment – but she said the large team of volunteers that work with theme camps and volunteer crews each year have already made many of those judgments and determined who will get tickets.

“We already did the math,” she told me. “Just because you’re a theme camp on the map doesn’t entitle you to x-number of tickets.”

While there may be about 700 registered theme camps in recent years, Goodell said the LLC is focused on getting tickets to camps that are truly interactive or offer entertainment, transportation, art, or volunteers to key functions such as the Lamplighters or Gate crew. “And we know who they are,” she said.

For everyone else, there are still a couple more chances to get tickets, beyond just the open market. There will be 4,000 low-income tickets (just $160) offered through a process that will likely be more competitive than ever, with registration beginning Feb. 29. And then there are the major art projects that receive grant funding and free tickets for crew members from the LLC, with the announcements of winners expected next month.

So now, burners and outside observers will just have to wait and see – first how the LLC’s solutions work, then this summer to see how the scalpers’ really did – as Burning Man muddles through what is proving to be a pivotal year.