(Copyright © 2009)

Gerald M. Edelman gives us fresh ways of looking at, talking about, understanding, and appreciating both consciousness and its brain. The importance of these contributions cannot be overestimated. Nor can the difficulty of gaining access to them through his writings. It helps if you have advanced degrees in molecular, cellular, and neural biology. It’s not that he doesn’t write well, it’s more that his radical concepts are couched in so unfamiliar a vocabulary as to require a great many encounters in different contexts before their meanings begin to accrete in solid understanding. He includes glossaries in several of his books, but the entries are so bare-boned that they often raise more questions than they answer.

I tried the total-immersion approach, reading seven books in succession (in order of copyright date, 1978 to 2004), hoping that enlightenment would eventually descend from the skies. Which, in the last three works, by dribs and drabs, it began to. It showed up first in unconscious intuitions I became aware of after waking from a sound sleep. I am not sure how they got into me, but there they’d be at three in the morning as I roused from a bout of REM dreaming. I’d understand things I hadn’t grasped before going to bed. Understand is not the right word. More I’d have a feel for an aspect of consciousness I’d never fully appreciated before. By the end of the eighth book, I could entertain elaborate thoughts and images pertaining to consciousness—again, early in the morning—that previously would have been beyond me, or over my head. I credit Edelman as the source of these new ways of apprehending my own mind, and myself for having the will to stay with his challenging program of thinking out loud in a series of books until he got it right in the seventh one.

I am now in the awkward position of learning from my self-imposed program of study, while not being able to recommend a similar course to anyone else because so much depends on the will, stamina, and hunger of the student. It takes a committed autodidact (self-directed learner) to follow Edelman as closely as he deserves. He is clearly an autodidact himself, and to paraphrase the familiar saying, it takes one to fully appreciate another. As perpetual learners, autodidacts typically lose interest in a program of study once they have absorbed or automatized it. They love grappling with novel aspects of consciousness, not mastery of the old and familiar. Self-respecting autodidacts never rest on their laurels. They are driven to reinvent themselves time and again throughout the course of their lives. Consider the career of William James at Harvard, first as physiologist, then psychologist, and finally as philosopher.

Which is similar to the history of Gerald M. Edelman, distinguished recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 for his work on the immune system. A molecular and cellular structuralist, he has contributed to the understanding of antibodies, proteins, plant mitogens, cell surfaces, and now the biology of human consciousness. His contributions in this last field center on his theory of neuronal group selection, which sheds light on the origins and workings of both the human nervous system and the mind it gives rise to in a manner consistent with Darwinian principles.

To put these remarks in perspective, I will digress somewhat in giving a brief history of my own self-directed learning. During high school, I read both Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma on my own for reasons I can no longer remember. Both books spoke to my age and stage of development at the time. In college I put Crime and Punishment down as the sun was rising over the view of Harlem out the window, knowing I had been through a transformative experience. Ten years later, I stumbled on Thoreau’s Walden, which I don’t remember anyone recommending to me, and I went on to read almost every word he wrote, including, eventually, the two-volume Dover Journals. I still consider myself a late-blooming nineteenth-century man. Visual poet E.E. Cummings brought me into the twentieth century.  Later, in grad school, I spent two semesters with Sigmund Koch in a seminar reading one book, Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi. That was the most gripping, challenging, and rewarding course I ever had in school. I took it as an elective, so the motivation was my own. Polanyi’s theme is learning to tell the difference between knowledge and opinion so that you know how you know what you think you know.

Now it’s Gerald M. Edelman who particularly speaks to my age and stage of development in spite of the near ineffability of much he is writing about. He came to his topic (consciousness) from intense study of the immune system, bringing his terminology with him, and when there are no suitable terms, inventing his own. Which makes it hard going for those heading from other directions. But all along the way I have sensed he was theorizing about my personal consciousness as well as his own, so I stuck with him.

Now I am reading an eighth Edelman book, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006), which offers a summary of his theory of consciousness as a springboard to understanding human knowledge. The first four chapters offer an overview of his thinking on conscious-ness, leaving out details of the arduous, 28-year journey by which he derived it one step at a time. Here is how Edelman describes consciousness itself, the process he subsequently goes on to account for in theoretical terms:

In the awake conscious state, you experience a unitary scene composed variably of sensory responses—sight, sound, smell, and so on—as well as images, memories, feeling tones and emotions, a sense of willing or agency, a feeling of situatedness, and other aspects of awareness. Being conscious is a unitary experience in the sense that you cannot at any time become totally aware of just one thing to the complete exclusion of others. But you can direct your attention to various aspects of a less inclusive but still unitary scene. Within a short time, that scene will vary in one degree or another and, though still integrated, will become differentiated, yielding a new scene. The extraordinary fact is that the number of such privately experienced scenes is apparently limitless. The transitions seem to be conscious, and in their complete detail they are private, first-person subjective experiences (Second Nature, pages 13-14).

In the next sentence things get more complicated when he introduces the concept of intentionality: “Conscious states are often, but not always, about things or events, a property called intentionality” (page 14, my italics). And then goes on to summarize: “As human beings, we know what it is like to be conscious. Moreover, we are conscious of being conscious and can report on our experience” (page 14).

Which I think might lead some to oversimplify the nature of consciousness in that we frequently assume it is of some sort of world apart from ourselves, not recognizing it is the subjective doing of our own brains that underwrite the appearance in consciousness of any such world. To see something “with our own eyes” is no guarantee it actually happens as consciousness depicts it. Our minds are full of phantoms, vampires, ogres, aliens from other worlds, elves, Santas, and other characters we project onto the world as if they were not aspects of subjective consciousness and the bodies and brains which make it possible. It is a fundamental error to mistake phenomena in consciousness for the world as it is—for reality. The sounds of music and colors of art are in us, not the world, which in turn consists of sources, sinks, and patterns of energy that our brains and minds transform into the “objects and events” we are conscious of. It requires another indirect or imaginative transformation to locate them in an outer world.

It is good to remember that language and intentionality refer to concepts and appearances in consciousness, and these map onto the world very much as processes in the brain map onto consciousness. We live at least doubly removed from the so-called real world, so intentionality, in being “about things or events,” makes no claim that they actually exist in any other context than awareness itself. We know this from watching “movies” made from a succession of still images, and the many optical illusions and magic tricks that similarly “fool the eye.”

Which is my way of warning readers to beware of succinct distillations such as even Gerald Edelman might give of his work. When the unfamiliar terms crop up, as inevitably they must in writings about consciousness, we are asked to give the author the benefit of the doubt—particularly when the words flow easily and seem to make sense. Key terms in Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection include reentry, degeneracy, perceptual categorization, global mappings, dynamic core, phenomenal transform, qualia, among others.

Reentry [to take one example] is the ongoing recur-sive interchange of parallel signals among brain areas, which serves to coordinate the activities of different brain areas in space and time. Unlike feed-back, reentry is not a sequential transmission of an error signal in a simple loop. Instead, it simulta-neously involves many parallel reciprocal paths and has no prescribed error function attached to it. (Wider than the Sky, 2004, pages 39-40).

As Edelman and Giulio Tononi detail “reentry” in an earlier work (A Universe of Consciousness, Basic Books, 2000):

Reentry plays the central role in our consciousness model, for it is reentry that assures the integration that is essential to the creation of a scene in primary consciousness. Integration can best be illustrated by considering exactly how functionally segregated maps in the cerebral cortex may operate coherently together even though there is no superordinate map or logically determined program. . . . The organi-zation of the cerebral cortex is such that even within a single modality, for example, vision, there is a multitude of specialized or functionally segregated maps devoted to different submodalities—color, movement, and form. Despite this diversity, we are aware of a coherent perceptual scene. When we see such a scene, we are not aware of colors, move-ments, and forms separately and independently, but bind the color with the shape and the movement into recognizable objects. Our ability to act coher-ently in the presence of diverse, often conflicting, sensory stimuli requires a process of neural inter-action across many levels of organization without any superordinate map to guide the process. This is the so-called binding problem: How can a set of diverse and functionally segregated maps cohere without a higher-order controller? . . . Binding can occur as a result of reentry across brain maps that establishes short-term temporal correlations and synchrony among the activities of widely spaced neuronal groups in different maps. As a result, neurons in these groups fire at the same time. Thus, reentry correlates a large number of dynamic circuits in space and time. . . . This binding principle, made possible by reentry, is repeated across many levels of brain organization and plays a central role in mechanisms leading to consciousness (pages 106-107).

The tradeoffs between explicit details and broad summations in the different works of Gerald M. Edelman makes it difficult to recommend one particular work as representing his thought in its most cogent form. To those highly motivated to under-stand consciousness, I can at best recommend a selection of three of Edelman’s books:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Giulio Tononi, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagina-tion (Basic Books, 2000). This work assembles in readable form the details on which the theory of neuronal group selection rests.

Edelman, Gerald M., Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (Yale University Press, 2004). This summary presents the theory in its clearest form.

Edelman, Gerald M., Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge (Yale University Press, 2006). The theory is here applied to gain fresh insight into the issue of human knowledge.

I strongly urge any readers with the will to do so to read them in the order given, from detailed account to more general overview. Five other books I have read in addition to those listed above:

Edelman, Gerald M. and Vernon B. Mountcastle, The Mindful Brain: Cortical Organization and the Group-Selective Theory of Higher Brain Function (The MIT Press, 1978; reprinted 1982).

Edelman, Gerald M., Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology (HarperCollins Publishers, Basic Books, 1988).

Edelman, Gerald M., The Remembered Present: A Biological theory of Consciousness (Basic Books, 1989).

Edelman, Gerald M., Bright Air, Brilliant fire: On the Matter of Mind (Basic Books, 1992).

Edelman, Gerald M., and Jean-Pierre Changeux, editors, The Brain (Transaction Publishers, 2001).

I have yet to read:

Edelman, Gerald M., Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection (Basic Books, 1987).

Medial View of Brain-96

 

 

Advertisements

Reflection 167: Two Women

December 24, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I give you two women from two different cultures. One raised to expect a great deal of praise and attention for being pretty, the other to expect to make her way by doing her share of the work. Each making herself happen within her respective culture according to survival values shaped in childhood to reflect the needs and yearnings of her family, particularly of her mother. Two women, two childhoods, two cultures, two ways of being in the world—two different lives, one in Afghanistan, one in California, a nation unto itself.

Actually, I don’t give you two women at all but rather two photographs of women, one I’ve had on my wall since (I think) the fall of 2001, scanned from the pages of (I believe) The Christian Science Monitor; the other scanned from a 1959 photo reproduced on page 13 of the current issue of AARP The Magazine, November/December 2009. I regret I don’t know the names of either photographer because I’d like to give credit to those who created these stunning portraits.

I present these photos side-by-side as symbols of what it might mean to be raised in two different cultures opening onto two different styles of consciousness expressed in two contrasting ways of being women in the world. Compare and contrast; feast your eyes:

Woman 1

Woman 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine local men (and women for that matter) meeting these women. Put yourself in their place. Feel what they might feel. Imagine the parents and siblings with whom these women grew up. Imagine their playmates, special friends, neighbors, mentors, teachers, spiritual advisers. Imagine these women trading places, the one switching from herding goats in Afghanistan to herding goats on the outskirts of Los Angeles; the other drying off, taking a stroll through the outskirts of Kandahar in her bathing suit. Run through the routine once again—same women, same dress, different cultural settings. What sorts of response do they get? How are they regarded? How are they judged? How are they treated?

I smile when I look from one photo to the other; I can imagine others frowning, getting upset, wanting to take some kind of action. Someone mutters, “Such things shouldn’t be allowed.” “Obscene, I’d say.”  This is not just a matter of aesthetic dissonance. It’s a question of what’s considered proper for how a young woman conducts herself in public. What is attractive to one might be an outrage to another. (In the interest of full disclosure,) I find both women exceptionally attractive to an equal degree. But in doing so, I take their respective cultures into account. These images depict alternative ways of being women in the world, and the range of such possibilities appeals to me. But the world is divided into regions where one possibility might be appropriate and the other less so.

The local culture we grow up in provides a range of options for expressing our biological values. Moving from one culture to another, we remain the same men or women, but might be expected to conduct ourselves according to the prevailing norms of the places we visit. We’re the same people, but are looked at differently, so come across differently. How we present ourselves as sexual beings is a sensitive issue in every culture. Largely because the relation between the sexes is the fundamental reason we have cultures in the first place. This is such common knowledge, I am almost embarrassed to bring it up. Which I do precisely to make the point that this is the sort of thing that led to nineteen men from a foreign culture to board four airplanes on September 11, 2001 with deliberate intentions of inflicting as much harm as they could on a people with a history of (inadvertently) offending the manhood and religious beliefs of people like themselves.

This was an incident in which males from one culture took a stand against a different culture for, as they viewed it, flaunting its ways and beliefs in an insensitive, arrogant, and offensive manner. When manhood is threatened, watch out!—a punch in the face is sure to follow. Few in America saw the blow struck on 9-11 from a sociological or cultural (rather than criminal or military) perspective. But the outrage felt in response to how Americans conduct themselves abroad as if to elicit some kind of reaction is, indeed, more an inter-cultural than a military matter. If 3,000 innocents had not died, two landmark buildings been leveled, and the HQ of the U.S. military not been attacked, in such a case we might not have lashed out by bombing Afghanistan and subsequently invading Iraq. But all that havoc did occur; the die was cast.

After eight years of war, we can reconsider whether or not that was the most appropriate response we could have made. Certainly the families of those who died are unlikely ever to change their minds. But the families of soldiers and civilians wounded or killed in the aftermath might pause to consider why their sons and daughters bore the burden of revenging the first wave of deaths. Once begun, where does the carnage end? Which prompts me to recall the following rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Not that 9-11 is comparable to loss of a horseshoe nail, but once loins are girded and weapons primed, how do we ungird and unprime them? Once offense is taken, can it ever be forgiven? More likely by the seasoned and wise than the ardent and young.

Which is a tremendous burden to place on the two women from two different cultures I introduce at the head of this post. A burden somewhat similar to the one thrust on Helen of Troy, Boadicea, or even Mrs. O’Leary’s fictional cow credited with starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. My point is that cultural differences have consequences, sometimes profound ones when accustomed ways of expressing biological values are made an international issue because so passionately adhered to as if they were innately human. The values are certainly human, but the particular ways they find expression in different cultures are regional at best. The fault lies in taking local customs and attitudes to be universal or God-given virtues, with the result that only deviant infidel sinners would dare present themselves differently.

When it comes to the culturally accepted ways through which we give form to individual consciousness, values, and person-hood, extreme absolutism and fundamentalism are no virtues. Acceptance of cultural relativism gives leeway to those whose practices differ from our own. On 9-11, no such allowances were made. As if only one of the women pictured above were right to conduct herself as she does, making the other categorically wrong.

The Catholic Church, with considerable help from its rich out-of-state friends, recently spent millions of dollars to squelch legal acceptance of same-sex marriages in Maine. Right-to-lifers are equally fervent in their intent to outlaw abortions, distribution of condoms, and anything else that smacks of family planning. There it is again, that heavy-handed approach to how human sexuality is expressed. Heavy-handed because not just thumbs but whole palms and many hands are pressed hard on the scales of justice. These are just a few further examples of how our upbringing and life experiences impact the shaping of our biological values. When I see a photo of Rush Limbaugh mouthing off, I see a child three or four years old. I regard many members of Congress with the same X-ray vision. There’s a lot of it around these days, variations on the basic attitudes we acquire in childhood. Hardened and polished, like fake diamonds, they gleam with the brilliance of universal truth.

I think everyone should have photos such as the two I offer in this post on their refrigerator door as an example of how differently we export our internal selves and attitudes to the external world. Each one of us does it for him- or herself because, for genetic, epigenetic (not predetermined), and experiential reasons, we are all personally unique. In the words of Gerald M. Edelman:

From the very beginning of neuroanatomy, there are rich statistical variations in both cell movement and cell death. As a result, no two individuals, not even identical twins, possess the same anatomical patterns (Wider than the Sky, 29).

Given our diversity, it is remarkable we are able to sort almost seven billion people into only eight thousand different cultural groups. To ask or expect that all cultures conform to a standard imposed by any one of them, or by any group or individual within a culture, would be,—and if attempted, is—absurd. Rather than decry our variability, we would do well to celebrate it every day of our lives. Think how dull life would be if we all held to the same beliefs, thought the same thoughts, and conformed to identical standards! What could we talk about that we didn’t already know? I say, vivre la difference, not just between the sexes, but within them as well—as my two examples so beautifully illustrate.

Two Pomegranates 

Reflection 166: In the Loop

December 21, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

To extract ourselves from, say, the economic way of being on Earth, the military or consumptive way, we need to break free from the looping engagements that hold us where we find ourselves, and then enter into engagements based on wholly new loops of attachment. The loops I speak of are artifacts of how consciousness reaches out through expectancy and action, and takes in feedback from the world through the senses. That’s where we live, in that loop. The point of personal consciousness is to engage the world in an effectively adaptive manner, and to monitor the progress of that engagement by opening the senses to the world’s response. But consciousness itself is changed through any such consistent patterns of engagement. Once we learn the lingo, the customs, the routines, the tools, we become creatures of the worlds we inhabit.

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, bring their wars home with them, where those wars leap from their dreams, a wailing siren, or the sound of a kid’s stick clacking against a picket fence. Once a continuous loop is established, a way of being in the world, it is hard to extinguish. Forsaken lovers suffer longings well after the possibility of fulfillment is shut away. A great many poems and songs flow from that psychic wound. To be between engagement means trying to transform old ways of reaching out to the world into new ones. Sorrow, regret, fear, and sometimes anger stem from knowing things will never be the same.

Consciousness is participatory. It involves giving oneself to the world, and opening to what the world offers in response. Or the world might initiate the process, with consciousness rising to the occasion by sending a tentative gesture of acknowl-edgement. Once opening moves have established the flow, it can run either way. Creatures of habit, we expect more of the same. And if biological values are released, we actively crave more and more. Once our appetites for sex, food, drink, comfort, protection, companionship, and excitement are aroused, the loop becomes part of our history as recorded in neuronal patterns in our brains. Looping engagements with the world are the stuff of memory, and memory is the stuff of both consciousness and the altered synapses which make it possible.

In restoring our sense of connectedness to the natural world that supports us, it is up to us to send Earth a message saying we are willing to negotiate. Having evolved while we were rising up on two legs and working out our relationship with the savannahs of Africa, our brains are predisposed to the idea. Which is reinforced by the aesthetic sense of beauty, rightness, or approval we feel in places we find scenic and appealing. We recognize a productive habitat when we see one because that judgment is stamped into the primal being that makes us human. Aesthetics are a modern code for what satisfies the biological yearning to realize our most fundamental values. Without that yearning, we would not have survived as long as we have. And having lost sight of its biological underpinnings—thinking it cultural merely—we forget that our future survival depends on finding ways to excite that same sense.

Bird and wildlife watching strike me as variations on the ancient art of stalking game. It’s still in us; we just put it to new uses by establishing novel loops to fulfill it. On the island I mentioned in my last post, I paid particular attention to wildlife in winter. Every day I would snowshoe out looking for black-backed and pileated woodpeckers, red squirrels, mink, otters, white-tailed deer, harbor seals (there was one in the bay), eagles—even dead gulls, geese, ducks, and jellyfish. It is no accident this exercise was so important to me. In earlier times, my life would have depended on it. I was particularly fascinated by the many different kinds of ducks on the bay. I worked out strategies for getting as near them as I could. My justification was taking photographs, where once it would have been hunting in order to eat. Greater scaup, goldeneye, bufflehead, red-breasted merganser, eider, black duck, surf scoter—I loved them all. I got close enough to one Canada goose to read the numbered band on its neck, which I relayed to Maine Fish and Wildlife. I later received word that that particular goose was shot near Lake Ontario in western New York State.

I took thousands of slides during the two-and-a-half years of my stay, collecting them into slideshows, which I presented everywhere I could from suburban Boston to Calais, Maine. When I was paid an honorarium, I went to the grocery and converted it to food. Such fulfillment is more elaborate now than it once was, but it satisfies exactly the same urge. When I worked for the National Park Service, I tapped into the same primal dynamic, using a computer instead of a spear. Over the years, my fascination with various forms of wildlife has morphed into a concern for the ecosystems that feed and shelter them. That particular dynamic organizes the food web, so I systematically identify the primary producers in any habitat—plants and algae that convert sunlight into carbohydrates—then find out what vegetarian species are in the neighborhood, what carnivores, up to top predators such as owls, hawks, sea mammals, and mink, all the way to the arch-predator, namely We the People.

No, in a couple million years, the apple hasn’t fallen very far from the tree. We still hunt as of old, just in new looping patterns of engagement with our surroundings; now it’s called shopping. Even our cultural interests and drives haven’t changed all that much. Our values are still much the same, only now we buy jogging strollers and plastic toys instead of chipping arrowheads and scrapers by hand out of rocks. One thing for sure, modern consciousness is no more advanced than it was when ice-age hunters painted bison on the walls of caves in what we now call southern France. We can still activate the same old loops, and reactivate those we have neglected once we moved from the plains to the village, and on to the city.

If our cultural ways are decimating our home planet—as they surely are—we can do something about it. Where formerly we would have started walking to find new territories, now we know there’s no place to go where we can avoid trashing our environment by exercising all those bad habits we have only recently picked up—say, within the past three hundred years. The conspicuous alternatives are to reduce our population, or change our ways of consuming and polluting our place on this Earth.

It’s that simple—and that hard. For starters, we need to include planet Earth in our loop of engagement with our surroundings. The culture we think of as supporting us is maladaptive in being a mere illusion. Even dressed in modern clothes and housed in gated communities, we are still cave-dwellers at heart and in mind. Our priority values still center on sex, food, drink, safety, comfort, companionship, and excitement. That is, we haven’t lost the biological edge we developed in Africa. Or, more accurately, Africa developed in us. If we look for a modern-day version of that primal savannah, we will find it not far away. That special place will feature no automobiles, no mega-corporations, no coal-fired power plants, no bulldozing of mountaintops, no supermarket shelves crammed with prepackaged foods, and so on. No, it will offer a natural, back-to-basics kind of life. At least more so than the lifestyles we trap ourselves in today. As Michael Renner, writing in the current World Watch, describes the effects of those lifestyles on the Earth in terms of the so-called natural disasters they inflict:

The number of natural disasters (excluding geological events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) has risen from 233 per decade in the 1950s to more than 3,800 in the decade 2000-2009. Though there are considerable variations year-to-year, the number of people affected by such disasters has grown from less than 20 million to 2 billion during the same time frame.

The pace is likely to accelerate as climate change translates into more intense storms, flooding, and heat waves. In addition to sudden disasters, there is also the “slow-onset” degradation of ecosystems through drought and desertification processes, which in some cases is sufficiently extreme to compromise habitability (“Climate of Risk,” pages 19-20).

Two billion people is almost a third of the current human population, not to mention the other species affected by our collective carelessness and extravagance. That is one indicator of the price someone is paying so we can be privileged to turn our backs on our native habitat by hiding out in the confines of our culture and economy. It doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, it cannot stay that way. The good news is that we are just as well equipped to live the old way as the new. We are much the same people, with the same consciousness and looping connection to wherever we live. Knowing what we know now, the challenge is to figure out how to dial back to, say, 1932. Height of a depression then, height of a depression now—only with five billion fewer people on Earth. That’s the span of my lifetime; I liked it much better then, with cornfields across the street, a few cattle back of the barn, and neighbors who spoke with one another when they met on the street. It shouldn’t be that hard to rebuild a decent world to that scale.

And if we don’t change our habits, they will be ruthlessly changed for us as we are overtaken and overcome by events. There’s no doubt in my mind the human population will be cut drastically one way or another. I am not voicing doom here, I am talking common sense. If we have any imagination at all, we already know how this is going to turn out. Take a look at the folks overcome by fumes and pumice in Pompeii. Those are our writhing bodies. Except it will be like a slow-motion movie with us. The effect will be much the same.

If consciousness is not up to planning ahead in an emergency, then I’d say it’s doesn’t set an example for others to emulate. Maybe that’s how the end will go. Good riddance, then. We never found the owner’s manual, so didn’t really understand what we were doing all along. The fact is, the modern way doesn’t work, and we haven’t hit on a better one. We’re between engagements, neither here nor there, so suffer from a profound sense of loss with no new prospects in sight. Pitiful, really, to have so much potential, yet be too dense to learn to apply our own gifts. This is the stuff of sad songs.

Quagmire

 

Reflection 165: Being There

December 17, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

At a meeting last Saturday, I divided so-called environ-mentalists into two classes: experiential and conceptual. Conceptual environmentalists know about the environment second-hand through symbolic communications (slogans, articles, e-mails, books, pictures, films, etc.), while experiential environmentalists know the environment up-close and personally through first-hand engagement. Members of the first class are environmentalists of the mind; those of the second are environmentalists of the body and its senses.

To illustrate the difference, I mentioned a presentation I once attended at a gathering of Native American environmental leaders, the show consisting largely of videos featuring talking heads speaking about the environment (with a lit candle off to the side symbolizing an attitude of reverence), the audience being Native Americans from around the U.S. who, as one woman put it, “learned all that by being outdoors on the reservation with my grandparents when I was five.”

After I had drawn the distinction between two kinds of environmentalists, the chair of the meeting glossed my remarks by saying I was talking about the issue of environmental justice, and moved on. Leaving me thinking to myself that injustice might be part of what I meant, but there was a more positive side of learning about nature through personal immersion in it—a kind of baptism or dedication to the natural world through direct exploration—leading to environmental involvement springing from the inside not the outside, driven by intuition not intellection. I was thinking particularly of the Penobscot Indians living on what we now call Indian Island in the middle of their namesake river. Penobscots are born environmentalists because their food, baskets, drumheads and drumsticks, for example, all come from nature. A Navajo greeting the dawn by sprinkling pollen into the air is celebrating solar energy in an experiential manner.

Recently, before a different audience, I had a chance to clarify what I meant. In receiving from the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment an award for “individual commitment to volunteer programs dedicated to environmental protection and sustainability of natural resources within . . . the Gulf of Maine,” I said I was moved by a very simple philosophy, “to put my body where my values are.” I held up a recent copy of the Christian Science Monitor showing cityscapes of four American cities—Houston, Seattle, San Diego, and Boston—under the banner, “The Next Boomtowns.” “Stacked in those skyscrapers,” I said, “are rows of cubicles lit by fluorescent lights with people sitting before computer screens, learning about the world second-hand through ideas relayed by people they have never met.”

That scares the pants off me because all those people in those towers believe they live in an economy, not the natural world, and can solve problems by throwing money at them—as our government has thrown money at Wall Street to get it running again. Money may be the currency we think we run on, but it is of no value to the native ecosystems that truly support us.

Conceptual environmentalists think money and techno-fixes are sufficient to solve the problem of global warming; experiential environmentalists know it will take far more than that—a radical change in human sensitivity and behavior to bring us in line with the biological processes that sustain us.

I developed my environmental philosophy by living for two-and-a-half years on a 30-acre island on the Maine coast, keeping my eyes and ears open and mouth shut. Living in the middle of an estuary as I did, it was a total immersion experi-ence. Late in life, perhaps (I was 53), but I was suffocating in the workaday world and needed a large dose of fresh air. Without inhaling nature as I did, I doubt I would be here today writing this blog. I never expected to live past Y2K.

But here I am 24 years later, a living, breathing environmental-ist because I put my body where my values were in 1986, and have made myself happen naturally, inside-out, ever since. My secret is to embrace life directly with as few intermediaries as possible standing between me and the natural world. I buy no packaged foods but cook every meal from scratch using fresh, wholesome ingredients. I drink water, but no alcohol, coffee, cocoa, tea, or soda; take no drugs; walk instead of drive when I can; and dedicate my life to living with nature instead of on top of it. My favorite recreation is rowing my boat, a peapod made by Eric Dow in 1986. I forsook television when I lived on the island, and haven’t missed it since. Which makes it easier to resist temptations others wave in front of me in trying to shift whatever wealth I might have to their pockets. I am incapable of serving as just another cog in the workings of the American economy, refusing to be categorized as a consumer as if I were anything less than fully human, a child of planet Earth.

And being human, I am intrigued by the biological workings of my own mind—the only mind I know inside-out in intimate detail. Finding it hard to get to know or speak with others whose minds are lodged in different heads and live different lives from my own, I began searching for ways to bridge the seeming gulf between us. Which is right down my alley in wanting to get to know them as I know myself—creatures of two long and distinguished heritages, both evolutionary and cultural. Which is why I am carrying on at such length about the successes and failures of consciousness.

I see now that we live in different worlds, all focused on ourselves, surrounded by those who share values similar to ours and speak languages we can more-or-less understand in relating our experiences, so to some extent reaffirming our inner lives. It is bridging between those personal subcultures that now excites me, reaching across the chasm from both directions at once, from opposite shores—much as the Penobscot Narrows Bridge was built between Prospect and Verona Island—making it possible for us to connect midway between our respective inner worlds, to mutually reach out and engage without danger of plunging into the interpersonal chasm that separates us.

My most recent post (Reflection 163: No Middle Ground) was about the dangers of oversimplifying experience in order to be clearheaded in taking decisive action. Clarity, that is, comes at the high cost of minimizing rival alternatives. Which is the greatest danger in getting to know one another—that we reduce the other to a caricature of the complex and dynamic being she knows herself to be. Or, to be safe, we expose only a morsel of our full humanity. Relationships based on simplistic thinking can endure (think of your many casual acquaintances), but they are more serviceable than satisfying. You don’t need to befriend the checkout clerk to buy a jar of mayonnaise; being mildly pleasant or neutral will get the job done. It is in going deeper than “pleasant” that takes insight, sympathy, skill, and determination.

So here I am, the ardent environmentalist looking to connect with others who are ardent in their own lives, yet inhabit social circles emphasizing other ways of relating. Object: 1) greater understanding of what it means to be human, 2) expanded consciousness, and 3) more effective action in a world that includes us both. If we are ever going to cope effectively with overpopulation, global warming, cultural strife, human cruelty, and an economy that degrades the Earth, we need to build a network of such bridges, allowing us to fully mobilize and synchronize our personal resources toward common ends such as these.

The first step is to put our bodies where our survival values are—on planet Earth, not in some standardized cubicle deep within the economy. That is, we have to put ourselves where we truly live, not where we are told to live. Being in a place where we are fully conscious enables us to reach out to others who are as firmly grounded as we are, and to others beyond them. Contacting those others in mutual engagement, we then form a network of humanity—a new kind of tribe—worthy of meeting the challenges facing us all such as those I mentioned earlier. Apart and alone—as consumers, say, or members of different cultural tribes—we have absolutely no chance of saving either Earth or ourselves.

Being there is the secret of survival, being there where we live—no place else than on our host and irreplaceable satellite as it rounds the sun, the one inhabited planet we know of anywhere in the universe.

Next Boomtowns

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Consciousness often seems to operate by an either/or law that excludes the possibility of taking any middle position. We are either happy or sad, pro or con, well or sick, calm or stressed, bold or meek. Ironically, debate teams can flip a coin to see which side of an argument they are to present. We act out our lives more like Lear judging his daughters than Hamlet muddling through to a bad end. One after another, heads of state insist on making “one thing perfectly clear.” We avoid ambiguity, uncertainty, mixed messages, and confusion as if they were sexually transmitted diseases. Regarding judgments and opinions, we act as if there were no room for maybe—no middle ground.

Which pretty much reflects the stop/go nature of how our brains operate. Either neurons fire or they don’t, there are no halfway measures. Even at the last instant, a neuron told to fire by every one of its input signals can be stopped in its tracks by a single inhibitory signal. Cancel! Hold everything! Just say No!

Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it assures clarity of both vision and action under stressful conditions. The job of consciousness is to suggest appropriate courses of action in novel situations. Personally appropriate, that is, to the actor’s most basic biological and cultural values. We grow impatient with Hamlet because he simply can’t act on the basis of what he knows to be true, failing to revenge his father’s murder, or if he does act, skewering poor Polonius trembling behind the curtain in his mother’s chamber. In the end, all major players lie strewn about the stage, the intimate world of the hesitant one fallen in ruins.

But if hesitation proves costly on occasion, rash action in the name of clarity can come at an even steeper price. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq as an example. The shock and awe was intended for Saddam and his troops, but stunned the whole world. Were there truly no alternatives? Indeed, there were many, all stifled by the overriding thrust of consciousness that ruled the Bush administration. When the looting began, we saw that shock and awe was no substitute for planning ahead.

Defending the selective nature of attention as the gateway to consciousness, Gerald M. Edelman addresses the evolutionary pressure to select one action as being the most appropriate among a field of alternatives:

An animal that is hungry or being threatened has to select an object or an action from many possible ones. It is obvious that the ability to choose quickly one action pattern to be carried out to the exclusion of others confers considerable selective advantage. Possessing such an ability makes it possible to achieve a goal that would otherwise be interfered with by the attempt to undertake two incompatible actions simultaneously (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, pages 141-142).

I picture Bush as an exceedingly threatened animal in seizing upon the Rumsfeldian strategy of preemptive attack in waging war on Iraq. Within a limited circle of minds, it seemed a good idea at the time. Except it extinguished all the uncertainties that a prudent commander would need to consider before making such a move, with the result that a shallow notion poorly thought through was put into effect, with egregious results.

Obama’s sending a surge of troops to Afghanistan appears to be another example that speaks to much the same point. Again, the military mind is out of its depth because there are too many imponderables in the social mix (it certainly is no nation) we call Afghanistan. Echoes of Vietnam are evident in Obama’s thinking, clouding his consciousness, spurring him to rash action as if he could picture the full consequences of such a move. This time, he tells himself, we will not retreat; we will win. But consciousness offers no guarantee of success; based entirely on past experience, it has no way of predicting with surety how things will play out. If I were the Taliban, I would lie low for a year or two, then, when American forces withdraw as advertised in 2011, step into the void supposedly defended by Afghan troops lacking the American commitment to, and fervor for, battle.

Consciousness is far more fragile than we care to admit, often tricking us into making a good show for form’s sake when, in fact, we don’t fully grasp the problem or threat we are faced with. As a result, we decide on an irreversible course of action with no option other than defeat when victory doesn’t rush from the wings on cue.

On the world stage, the loss of a man here or there (because his past experience does not prepare him to deal with prevailing events) is no tragedy. But when one individual’s consciousness is made responsible for the actions of an entire nation, leading to commitment of all its resources to a particular end, even the rigor of six million years of hominid evolution doesn’t equip us for the task of even imagining what an appropriate course of action might look like, much less recognizing it if we ever came across it. Consciousness is always experimental on the scale of one person leading a particular life. If we survive our personal errors of judgment, we have opportunity to learn where we went wrong. But on a national scale, no one mind can be made fully responsible for decisions affecting the whole. Which is why we have cabinets and advisors and staff to supplement the life experience of the so-called Commander In Chief. Who—like Lear misjudging his daughters, and Hamlet wanting absolute certainty—can aspire no higher than to a mortal level of consciousness.

Where the buck stops, that is where one individual’s consciousness makes a real difference on the national scene. That is precisely where Obama is located in the issue of America’s relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And India, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Russia, China, and North Korea. His is a daunting assignment, even with the most artful spies and prescient advisors on Earth. Whatever choice he makes, he is damned one way or another precisely because he cannot admit to his human limitations or the frailty of his personal consciousness.

Our form of government calls for leaders with the stature of gods—when there are no gods available to take the position. Fallible as we are, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Men and women with the gift of consciousness and speech—who are bound to make mistakes in novel situations they are ill prepared to deal with. Particularly in situations they have no chance to rehearse as stage actors have because they take place in real time, every performance playing to an opening night crowd.

In the case of sending more troops to Afghanistan, we the senders are united by the commonalities of American experience in this decade; the receivers by their shared experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is bound to be a meeting of bodies carrying weapons, but not of minds. I cannot fathom any mind but my own, as no American can an Afghan or Taliban or al Qaeda mind, and vice versa. In global affairs, it is the minds inhabiting individual bodies leading particular lives in specific places that set the courses of action which determine world events. There is no possible way we can know what will happen as the result of this surge in military commitment. We can know what we want to happen, but that has almost no bearing on what will actually take place.

What is lacking in this campaign is a sense of humility, along with a realization that concepts in the mind are not events on the ground. The best thing we could possibly do under the circumstances is for all concerned to put down their arms and engage one another as fellow humans, children of the one Earth. Yes, we should engage, but as equals, not as one dedicated to dominating (or killing) the other. Consciousness being as fallible as it is in every known instance, it is foolish to put a gun in any hand that might take the life of a total stranger for reasons that are not fully known or considered. Imagine killing someone and then wondering who he was? Was, but no longer is.

Is there no middle ground between victory and defeat? There certainly is. Between me killing you and you killing me, there is the usual middle way of muddling through by playing backgammon together and trading stories about our mishaps and adventures. Of being human together—you being fully you, me being fully me. Acknowledging our similarities, sharing our differences, balancing the two, not letting ideology come between us to distort our relationship.

No, we have not tried that approach. We are better at building walls between people than bridges. At shooting from the hip before we’re sure of the target. America is now a street gang writ large on the world scene, defending its turf at all cost—unto bankrupting the nation both financially and morally. Because that is the way we are taught to conduct ourselves in the world—by flexing our might instead of listening to the other side of the story. Maybe later, when we do hear the story, we’ll apologize for acting so rashly, lay a few wreathes and call it square.

After all, they invaded our territory on 9-11, which everyone knows is a violation of sacred ground. No matter we violated theirs first. So we send out our muscle to teach them a lesson. As long as they run their turf by our rules, everything will be OK by us.

That’s the stuff tragedies are made of because we know it’ll never happen. That’s not how people are made. Lear was Lear, Hamlet was Hamlet. Liberty means living your own life your own way, being who you are till the curtain drops. We’re scripting our own drama as we act in the world, driven by the dictates of consciousness, which are invariably self-serving as best we can picture our current situation. It’s not only a tragedy for those who fall during their mission in Afghanistan, it’s a tragedy for all of us because we’re making it happen. It’s our money that’s paying for this expedition—a million dollars a year per head. That’s the going price for pretending we can teach total strangers the lesson we want them to learn.

Shakespeare has already written a play about a black man deceived by the advice of his lieutenant, Iago. Othello fell for it, not realizing Iago had his own agenda driven by his own motives. “O fool! fool! fool!” he said of himself when disabused, realizing he had been tricked into smothering Desdemona, whom he had “lov’d not wisely but too well.” Another animal driven by fear, he acted boldly as he thought he must, but acted wrongly nonetheless.

Contrail

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Simply put, we generally find what we look for in life. We expect more of what we are sensitive to. We are particularly sensitive to fear aroused by threatening situations. If we have no time to ponder the circumstances, our unconscious minds convert fear into anger, rousing us either to do battle or run for cover. Consciousness is too slow to be of much use in dangerous situations that arise quickly. It is more suited, once things calm down, to planning how not to let the same thing happen again. In the press of the moment, things we find scary or threatening get us moving without thinking, either toward or away from the fray. As seekers of happiness, like the proverbial donkey, we are driven from behind with greater urgency by the stick of fear and discomfort than we are drawn by the carrot enticing us forward.

As an example, I offer this exchange of letters to the editor of The Ellsworth American, a weekly Maine newspaper to which I subscribe. Concerned (fearful) that Major Nidal Malik Hasan was being tried in the media before all facts were known about the shootings at Fort Hood, I wrote the first letter:

To the Editor:

What if Ft. Hood’s notorious Major Hassan [sic.] were a perfectly sane and sensitive man acting as many Mainers might act under contagiously stressful conditions such as therapists undergo in treating returning service men and women suffering post-traumatic stress disorder? Even those who face an enemy once removed by piloting Predator drones from cubicles in Utah are vulnerable to PTSD. Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation. In the Ft. Hood incident, war itself is the villain that reached ahead of itself to kill those soon to deploy.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

I put my views as succinctly as possible so not to take up undue space on the most popular page in the paper. Two weeks later, this somewhat longer reply appeared under the heading, Save the Sympathy:

To the Editor:

In the Nov. 19 American, Mr. Steve Perrin of Bar Harbor wrote in asking if perhaps Maj. Nidal Hassan was suffering from vicariously induced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which drove him to commit his heinous acts of cold-blooded murder at Fort Hood.

He further asked if many Mainers might act in a similar fashion under such circumstances. Mr. Perrin’s comments were unquestionably the most imbecilic drivel I have ever read in The American. His attempt to excuse Maj. Hassan’s acts is incredibly insulting to those of us who have served our country. My Army Reserve unit was activated in late 2003 and we deployed to Iraq for a yearlong tour of duty in early 2004. There were certainly some very stressful moments during our deployment (as a transportation unit we did have several convoys ambushed, but with only minor injuries inflicted). However, we dealt with our stress in a constructive manner. Some of us prayed, some of [us] worked out, but we all dealt with it without harming ourselves or our fellow soldiers.

Mr. Perrin’s attempt to offer his “sympathy” to those of us who have served is a further insult. We are not victims. I, like every American soldier to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, made a conscious decision to enlist. Not a single one of us was drafted. Our country, which has been a beacon of hope and justice since its founding, called us to duty on foreign soil to free oppressed people and to safeguard our nation. We answered that call and we did our duty. I personally am immensely proud of my service to my country and I in no way need anyone’s misguided sympathy for it. I seek only to live my life as I see fit and raise my family in the greatest nation on Earth. It is through the service of my fellow veterans and myself that I am free to do just that.

The victims of the Fort Hood massacre and their families have earned Mr. Perrin’s sympathy. Maj. Hassan doesn’t deserve it and I don’t want it.

Terry L. Bishop, CPA, Ellsworth

I could feel the blood rushing to my ears as I read that letter in the paper. Had I truly insulted the writer or offered him sympathy? Clearly, he took it that I had. And took pains to rebuff an offer I had not made. Next day, I sat down and wrote a follow-up letter:

To the Editor:

I appreciate the effort Terry Bishop made in responding to my letter about the Major Hasan affair at Fort Hood. In that incident, the victims were soldiers, the killer was a soldier who provided treatment for soldiers, and the location was a military base. It struck me that this was another front in a war we think of as being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is now being waged closer to home by our own troops.

We all hope this is an anomaly, a onetime event. Yet with soldier suicides on the rise, the need to provide effective care for physically and mentally wounded veterans, and uncertain prospects for how long these wars will go on, it is evident the cost to the American people is far greater than merely footing the bill. Lives of thousands of civilians and military personnel on both sides are being shattered—to what end?

Before we leap to judgment in the case of Major Hasan, I think we owe it to all of our troops in these wars to take a long, hard look at the conditions we ask them to perform under, and the consequences we expect them to risk and endure.

I say the true culprit is war itself, which every day is reaching deeper into our country, creating havoc and chaos when what we need is healing and compassion in these troubled times.

I regret that Terry Bishop regards these concerns as “imbecilic drivel.” He evidently has a deeper understanding of the military mind than I do, and is right to take pride in serving without harming himself or his fellow soldiers. Yet I include myself among “those of us who have served our country,” which I feel gives me a certain authority in stating my case. Mr. Bishop is one of the lucky ones. I think his views and mine are not incompatible. My sympathy was intended for the fallen and the broken—among whom I count Major Hasan, his victims, and their families.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

For my part, I saw Terry Bishop as standard bearer for those my first letter was meant to reach. For his part, he committed to engage on the issue I raised. I couldn’t have asked for a more heartfelt response, backed by deep personal experience (beefed up with a good dose of military boilerplate). It struck me that he was engaged on a very meaningful level. His tactic was to blow me from the face of the Earth. Why such a strong reaction? His lashing out suggested the dynamic I outlined at the start of this post. My views seemed to warrant such an attack because they tripped a very sensitive nerve.

Evidently he took it I had fired the first shot in writing, “Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation.” Why “many” rather than simply realize, because he had successfully dealt with his stress, that my offer did not extend to him? I think perhaps his military experience was more stressful than he chose to admit. Why else all the boilerplate meant to deny that possibility?

Fear motivated me to write the first letter: I was afraid Major Hasan was going to be made an example of to cover up what training and war can do to civilians in turning them into hardened killers. There is no off switch for such a mindset. Mr. Bishop apparently was afraid I was speaking directly to him. Which I was, but he didn’t want to hear it. Nor did the branch of the military that so carefully trained him. Leaving him to wrestle on his own with whatever fear and anger my letter stirred up.

I do not mean to single out Mr. Bishop for this kind of treatment. I recognize the same struggle in myself—and in humanity at large. Fear is a big part of life, which shows up in a broad spectrum of angry behaviors. Fear starts it off, then anger gets us moving. Together, they are a big part of our biological heritage for dealing with threatening events and situations. Or, more accurately, events and situations which we take to be threatening. Once, when I stepped on a twig while watching beavers in a pond, a Weimaraner plunged through the bushes and gave me what for, the owners calling out, “He won’t hurt you,” but I looked in his eyes and saw he was considering doing just that. My fear turned to anger at the owners for having their dog off-leash in a national park.

For more than eight years now, I have wondered what the nineteen terrorists who felled the Twin Towers were afraid of—what drove their anger. They didn’t know any of the occupants of the buildings—so it couldn’t have been them. The structures themselves were symbols of America’s widespread presence in the world, so it might have been that presence they feared, especially as evidenced in their homeland, Saudi Arabia. I think now the terrorists’ actions on September 11, 2001, were their desperate way of shouting, Yankee go home, we don’t want you here—you threaten our deepest beliefs and way of life! Osama bin Laden said as much at the time. But we were interested in the actions themselves as a show of deadly hostility, not the reasoning behind them. Our reaction was kindled by our fear, not theirs, which is how conflicts arise. Had we bothered to inquire at the time, and reflected on the reply we received, we might have spared the world a couple of wars and thousands upon thousands of deaths. But we committed ourselves to a bold and decisive course of action for the sake of its effect on the world, a course fueled by fear and anger, not any desire to hear and understand.

Through the agency of our upbringing, our culture often warns us it’s not nice to be fearful or angry. So we stuff such powerful feelings deep inside, denying they exist. I-am-not-angry! we shout; I-did-not-flinch! Yet this deadly duo surfaces every day of our lives, craving recognition as driving forces behind much of human behavior. Until we learn to deal effectively with road rage, cutting remarks, feeling left out or wrongly included, trashing the opposition, being cruel, and the countless every-day episodes rooted in anger and fear—until that day comes, we do not yet use the gift of consciousness to full advantage. We are still apprentices at being human, falling short of our full maturity—both individually as persons and collectively as a people.

Black-and-yellow field spider

(Copyright © 2009)

Everybody knows what territory is—the ground of personal survival. Without it we die. Through territory, Earth grants plants and animals the wherewithal to stay alive. It is the biological substrate of life itself. Territory is our hold on the Earth, or, more accurately, Earth’s hold on us at our preferred level of consumption.

By definition, territory is not only a good thing, but up to a point it is an absolute necessity. Trouble is, when populations grow to exceed the carrying capacity of the territory they occupy, something has to give. The productivity of the land must increase; the population must make do with less; or segments of the population must move to greener pastures, effectively expanding the territory.

There is a cultural side to territory, too. Market share is a variant form of human territoriality, as is personal wealth, power, property, influence, celebrity, among other currencies for apportioning the ability to survive within a particular social group. Moving off the land into the city does not cut dependence on the land, it merely shifts it to services and resources which others are able to provide, giving rise to several economies enabling distribution of whatever it is people need to survive—food, shelter, assets, health, respect, vigilance, and so on.

Within the various economies for distributing prerequisites of survival, any finite good must be apportioned among those who desire a share of it. Which sounds innocent enough, but actually gives rise to fierce rivalry, unequal division of shares, wide-ranging standards of living, envy, anger, hatred, and warfare. Many if not most of the ills of modern society fester in the shadows of territoriality—the possessiveness with which we claim what we see as “ours.” There simply isn’t enough life-supporting territory for everyone to have her share above a minimal level.

When someone deprives you of the attention you deserve as a child, one way to regain the spotlight is to throw a tantrum. Later, when another driver cuts you off on the road, you can register your displeasure by paying him back in a satisfying fit of road rage. The rule is, as you perceive others horning-in on your territory, do the same unto them, only worse. Administer the punishment they deserve for treading on your sacred ground. Fear of being cut-off from that which you need arouses anger, which fuels retribution. Payback is a most satisfying form of vengeance, particularly in defense of one’s rightful turf.

The difficulty with territoriality and its cultural derivatives is that, filtered through consciousness, each of us can distinctly see its shadow in everyone but himself. What I desire is mine by right; everyone else is driven by greed, lust, or conniving. Consciousness has many blind spots, but the most debilitating is the one that bestows a kind of self-righteousness in exempting a subject’s own mind from realizing his total dependence on, and stewardship duty toward, the territory that provides for him.

Resulting in the common outlook that there’s one rule for me, another for all the rest. And so we go at it with one another, each convinced of the virtue of her own cause, the depravity of those around her:

The sad truth is that Google and Microsoft care less about making cool products than they do about hurting each other. Their fighting has little to do with helping customers and a lot to do with helping themselves to a bigger slice of the money we all spend to buy computers and surf the Internet. Microsoft wants to ruin Google’s search business. Google wants to ruin Microsoft’s OS business. At the end of the day, they both seem like overgrown nerdy schoolboys fighting over each other’s toys (Daniel Lyons, “Google This!” Newsweek, 12-07-2009, 34).

It’s not only Google v. Microsoft, Israeli v. Palestinian, Tutsi v. Hutu, Rich v. Poor, Insider v. Outsider, Home v. Away—the essence of any culture is to vie with those who do not belong to it and so seem strange and somehow annoying. Turkey, for example, scored points with its neighbors by preserving its sovereignty in the following incident:

In Turkey, the cumulative anti-U.S. resentment peaked in 2003 when the Bush administration pressed Ankara to let U.S. forces invade Iraq through Turkish territory—a plan that was derailed only at the last moment by a parliamentary revolt (Owen Matthews and Christopher Dickey, “Triumph of the Turks,” Newsweek, 12-07-09, 46).

As cultures develop, their territorial needs take different forms, still providing the basics required to live a decent life, and beyond them, new ways of participating in the common good, often by dealing with novel opportunities as they arise:

Antebellum America boiled with entrepreneurial energies; go-getters roamed the land eager to take advantage of the flood of business opportunities that accompanied the country’s territorial expansion. Aspiring men on the make denounced established ones, especially those enjoying the favors of the government, as monopolists and aristocrats (Steve Fraser reviewing The First Tycoon, T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in The Nation, 11-30-09, Books & the Arts, 28).

The consciousness of every member of a given culture is a function of the collective experience of such members as viewed from their unique, personal perspectives. We are creatures of our times and places on Earth; ten years from now we’ll be someone else. We will appear much the same to ourselves, but others will clearly notice the difference.

Consciousness, that is, eternally justifies itself. It can’t help it. Being privy to the one point of view, it has no other basis for comparison. For each one of us, ours is the gold standard of awareness. It may be an attractive thought—walking in the shoes of another—but truly exercises imagination more than our leg muscles. Similarly, what we consider to be our fair share is bound to be a sure sign of greed to a random panel of neighbors. We are constitutionally unable to remove these scales from our eyes. With the result that the situation is always Us v. Them. Capitalists, mass murderers, and sex offenders often go to the grave as innocent in their own eyes as they were at birth.

One of the unanticipated consequences of democracy is the vitriolic attacks on elected officials by those aspiring to, or recently removed from, power. In such cases, power is the territory—the survival currency—at issue. The dispossessed fill the atmosphere with hype and scare tactics in their campaign to tilt their followers, if not toward happiness or a state of effective governance, then by hue and cry toward outrage (see tantrums and road rage above). The point is to stay in the public eye by any means, which, when you’re out of power, is better than making do with territory much reduced.

Human biological values come in two valences: good and bad—for the individual person, that is. Powerlessness is clearly bad if one thrives on influencing other minds and the deeds they perpetrate. That is, those who would dominate by controlling the behavior of others will do almost anything to get back in the saddle again. Fear of helplessness and deprivation leads to anger, which in turn leads to random attacks on those who have taken power in their stead. Fear underwrites the attitudes and acts of both Jews and Palestinians. Their respective territories are unsecured, so will remain the issue until some kind of agreement can be reached on how each side can have—if not the settlement it wants—the settlement it fairly deserves. When it comes to territory, there are no occupiers designated by god to inhabit certain lands. Settlers keep trying to gain access to new territories, but their success is not told by their ambitions or traditions. Nor can precedent guarantee future settlement in a once and former homeland. No matter how they may be wished for, those days will never come again. Where are Assyria and Babylonia now? Earth has moved on in its spiraling orbit through the galaxy. These times are ever new.

Once upon an old time, culture was a grassroots creation; now it serves the purposes of the rich and powerful, who carefully shape it to their advantage. Those who can afford top legal, financial, and medical advice, for instance, are likely to fare well; those who can’t, are worse off. That has become such a truism, we accept it as given as if people enacted the fate they truly deserved. Inequality is built into the system by design so the spoils of territorial possession float upward, the dregs of deprivation sinking to the bottom.

Private property is our current term for territory we claim the exclusive right to use and exploit. We don’t appreciate the absurd humor in one creature laying claim to a kingdom, as if one one mite on our body staked a claim to our person. Who is in charge here, anyway? Our legal system has been carefully crafted to back nobles and gentry against every claim by lesser beings. In truth, our system of private ownership is what the privileged elite, running the culture as they do, can get away with. It’s true if they think so. In practice, it’s what the cultural traffic in labor, goods, and services will bear. We not only own the territory, but reserve the right to destroy it in the process of exploiting it. As even now we are upsetting the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to consequences no one has either the courage or wisdom to predict.

In truth, we are killed by the lives we lead; live by the sword, die by the sword. In extracting resources from the territory we claim to own, we are wasting the very qualities that keep us alive. Irony, blindness, stupidity—call it what you will—the future of humanity and Earth itself can be foretold from our attitude toward territory under our domination. We are personally content to sully the biological substrate of life itself, the ground we live on—the ground that lives in us.

If this is not a failure of consciousness—which is given us to live by in unanticipated situations—then it is certainly a failure of the culture we have consciously designed and built for ourselves, and agree to inhabit till the end of our days. 

Leaving us where? Locked in a clash between personal consciousness and the culture it puts up with. The greed of those who inhabit a higher plane of life makes them regard those on lower planes as representing less worthy, barely human, stock. As degenerates, they should expect to fail, because that is the fate their betters decree for them. That goes without saying (at least among the powers that shape a culture’s ways of apportioning the territory it occupies).

If you can make a fortune in a few milliseconds by trading stocks on line, then you’ve found a way to beat the system designed to assure fair and equable trading on a more human timescale. If your territory and influence are shrinking, but you have a microphone in front of your face and can make a big noise—even if it’s gibberish—shout it out. We learned long ago that well-reasoned arguments can’t squelch a good tantrum.

As natural resources become scarcer, we will all resort to bolder tactics in attempting to make sure we get what we want. The best way to do that is to undercut the opposition by stealing his thunder (euphemism for his share of what’s left of Earth’s natural territory still in good working order). End times are here. If the revolution in our regard for Mother Earth doesn’t happen tomorrow, then we’ve dug our grave and will soon fall into it. What happens next is up to each and every one of us.

We're losing it.