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

 

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