Our community engagements are not set in stone, they are ongoing processes that flow both ways in looping fashion from perception to action, action to perception. As such, they are constantly changing, depending on current circumstances and events. After several rounds, we come to count on them as if they were stable, or at least fit within our comfort range.

Trust in other people and institutions builds a sense of loyalty to them as reliable features of our community. We go out of our way not to offend them. We give them a certain consideration by holding them in our thoughts.

If we sign a contract, we are obligated to hold to its terms as a kind of commitment to duty. But communities hold together not out of duty but from a mutual sense of caring, liking, and sharing of experience. Except in extreme cases, they do not form around a set of obligations or duties.

During my basic training at Fort Ord, several of my buddies would sleep on guard duty because, as enforcers, they could excuse themselves in their own minds and get away with it. But trust and loyalty build a sense of mutual responsibility as if we were all members of the same extended family.

Communities, that is, are stabilized by networks of shared, positive engagements. They aren’t planned so much as lived in the details of everyday life. In people meeting on the street, in the drug store, the Post Office, the bank. Schools build communities around themselves because parents entrust their children to their teachers and administrators. Children become invested in schools because that’s where their friends are, and where, if lucky, they learn helpful skills.

It takes time to build a community around ourselves, often many years of engagements of all sorts. But if most of those engagements are positive, then we make a place for ourselves at the intersection of our individual traits with our larger society.

I consider myself a member of the southern Hancock County coastal community, Maine community, New England community, Eastern community, in that order. Last of all I admit to being an American with New England roots. I don’t think of the U.S. as my homeland; I reserve my loyalty for New England generally, and coastal Maine in particular. Go Red Sox; go Celtics; go Bruins; go Patriots.

I am a Yankee, a Northerner. Beyond that, I dub myself Steve from planet Earth because that identity emphasizes Earth’s claim on me. If it were not for my home planet, I wouldn’t be writing these words. First and last, I am an Earthling.

Rules, too, are essential to my sense of community. I carry three library cards, Maine driver’s license, several ID cards, Social Security card, Veterans Administration card, Medicare card, and a credit card. I do my best to take library books back on time, to obey traffic laws, pay my bills, and uphold my end of the several memberships I hold. When flush, I sometimes splurge on a ten-show Big Ticket to Reel Pizza, the local movie house. I get to meetings on time, play my part, and leave without dawdling. Towns have ordinances, companies have rules of employment, games have rules of play. Caring for our neighbor is not written down anywhere as a rule, but our communities would collapse if we didn’t do it spontaneously on our own.

One of the basic rules of any community is to give each person an opportunity to do her thing. Taking turns is the first law of community. Giving everyone a chance to have her say. That way we come to feel we have a place in, and belong to, our community, and our common community belongs to us as an extension of our caring selves.

In this sense, we are similar to one-celled creatures in establishing a stable relationship with the environments that meet our needs, becoming inhabitants of those environs in the process.

 

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415. Each One an Experiment

January 26, 2015

Beyond serving as citizens of four great worlds at once (nature, culture, community, family), in the end each of us stands on her own legs as his own unique person. So many factors make up our identities, no other person on Earth has a mind like the one in our private, mysterious, and, yes, figurative black box.

In that sense, each one of us is an experiment to see what we can make of the gifts the universe sends our way. Since evolution cannot predict what fixes we will get ourselves into, it gives us the makings of a mind we can fashion into the very one we need to serve our widely varying purposes.

It is hard to tease out the separate influences of nature, culture, community, or family, so it is easier for us take responsibility for ourselves as agents in charge of our own perceptions, judgments, behaviors, and engagements as a result of the lives we actually lead. We can apply this approach to whatever level of activity we are operating on at the time.

This does not make evolution into some kind of genius with universal forethought. Rather, reliance on personal consciousness works for us today because it was the only thing that worked in earlier stages of our species’ development. What works, works; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Those who fit the former case will survive, the latter die off. Evolution is that efficient, and that blunt.

So here we are, standing on the shoulders of countless past survivors who in turn met the challenges of their times. As we offer our shoulders to those who come after us. We can’t necessarily provide the support our descendants will need, but at least we can offer what we have in the form of the lives we actually lead.

Which raises a question. What rules of engagement with the natural world might be appropriate for us to live by in working toward a more secure future for the extended family of Earthlings that will follow our faint tracks? Certainly Love your mother is good advice, but no one yet has found a way to forge that advice into a firm rule.

I’ll settle for: Treat planet Earth with the care and respect it deserves as our sole habitat in the universe. That ought to cover it. Don’t just do as I say, but do what you feel is appropriate in your individual case. And please note that in “our” I include every Earthling of all species.

Think in terms of a water cycle that includes rain and snow, wetlands, streams, rivers, estuaries, bays, oceans, and ocean currents, not just your minute portion of such a cycle. Think in terms of watersheds, not political boundaries. Think in terms of natural processes, not products. Think in terms of habitats and ecosystems, not places on a map. Think in terms of quality of life for all species, not just your amassing a fortune in money or possessions. What you “have” is a life in progress, not what we now would call a personal possession. Life is one thing we may have but cannot own.

Could we ever learn to be conscious in such terms? I’ll put it like this: if we can’t, then we’re not long for this Earth. The signs are all around us. Ebola is a clear example of how infectious diseases will thrive among our overpopulated and overcrowded living conditions in the future. It will be with us from now on. ISIS is an example of what will happen if we base our behavior on selectively narrow cultural beliefs instead of a true understanding of the workings of the natural world. And AI (artificial intelligence) is an example of what the corporate-commercial parody of intelligence leads to as a substitute for the authentic intelligence we will need to guide each one of us as an agent of personal freedom and understanding.

My long study of my own mind leads me to entertain such thoughts. We are in this world together, each playing our part in preparing the future of life on Earth. The trends I have pointed to above suggest where we, together, are heading. Taking our planet hostage as we go.

I firmly believe we can do better. And that doing better is up to us as conscious individuals who take responsibility for the lives we lead, not as mindless victims of the most narrowly focused and aggressive among us.

As I said, each one of us is an experiment. Life is a test of our situated intelligence, such as it is.

Reflection 328: Pandemic

October 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

When overwhelmed by the wackiness of today’s “civilized” world, I often view my own consciousness as a theater of the absurd. What I see is one crank after another bantering about his eccentric view of the world being the one and only view that everyone else should take as a revelation of true reality. Tyrants do it, political leaders do it, holy men do it, as do newscasters, pundits, businessmen, bankers, economists, entertainers, making it seem that a tsunami of craziness has swept over us in the night, engulfing us in a flood of absurdity.

My defense against this flood is to look upon today’s reality as a kind of dream where the conventional social order is overturned in a wild Saturnalia of anything goes. If it can be thought, it will be thought by someone, somewhere. If it can be said, ditto. If it can be done, double ditto. Which is much like many of my nightmares, and creates a sense of frustration similar to how I, powerless in my sleep, react to those dreams.

Except the current pandemic of self-seeking wackiness is no dream. It is the most brutish kind of reality where every man squares off against all others for himself alone to see what he can get by forcing his burden of craziness on the rest of us.

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has assigned the status of personhood to corporations, thereby granting the right of free speech and free spending of money to for-profit entities out to make a killing from the rest of us mere mortals by transferring our personal wealth to their coffers as quickly as possible. That is no way to run a world, and since there’s only one world based on potential consciousness, that is no way to run this world, the one we’ve been born to.

I dream of the possibility of a world based on decency, courtesy, and respect—a world where citizens are civil one to another, and do not base their engagements solely on power and money, that is, on what they can get from others and from the Earth.

Our current passion for competition comes from a false reading of Darwin’s message. We are one human family among our fellow plants and animals, without whom we would not be here. We are not the top dog, the essential nation, the leader of all tribes. Above all, we are not “man-the-wise.” Whatever happened to empathy and humility? Where did we go wrong in selling our souls for (temporary) personal advantage?

We are a primate species, born of a long line of expert tree climbers and leapers, come down to earth, now risen up on two legs and looking for trouble, which we seem to thrive on. Yet we are all mortal beings, heading for certain illness and death, born of woman, conceived by a man and a woman, who were both conceived by male and female going back to the beginning of primate life. The lady in France who said (in French) “I am not a mammal” had it backwards. Because she worked for a company that made baby formula, she imagined herself as a superior being independent of her animal roots. In deep denial, she was being absurd. It is that fatuous quality that now defines us and sets us against who we truly are.

This year’s Republican presidential primary race pitted one candidate against all others, each making preposterous statements based on his or her personal life experience as if it was the basis of universal law. Personal conceit (which I see as a form of ignorance) mixed with a hunger for money ignites the absurdity I see all around us. A pandemic of absurdity, where no one has his feet on the ground but is issuing nonsense out of his mouth as if it came from the Delphic Oracle—from the Priestess herself. Or from Fox News, the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, some infallible Pope or Ayatollah—from ideologues to the Tenth Degree.

We have become the laughing stock of all species, or would be if we didn’t wreak so much waste, havoc, chaos, and misery in our wake. This is what the 13-billion-year history of the universe has brought us to? This has been our destiny all along?

Don’t you believe it! This current pandemic of absurdity is an anomaly, a product of personal avarice and lust for power, a temporary state of affairs brought on by a lapse of judgment in choosing our way in the world based on how we wish to engage one another, seeing others as dupes and fools, not our equals, not our Earthly brothers and sisters.

We are suffering through a breakdown in human engagement, a parody of personal virtue gone musty and rotten. We are using one another as personal property to be used, gutted, and discarded. This is the new slavery, the purchase and abuse of those thought to be lesser beings because of their relative poverty and weakness. Imagine the bundling of mortgages imposed on people who cannot afford the homes they buy because that intentionally unbearable debt adds up to big money to be claimed by those who see the total amount but not the people who owe it as if it were only money, not bundled human lives.

Where, oh where is civility? We are not here to be at our neighbors’ throats, or to do our worst, not our best. We are at the forefront of the history of the universe, ready to engage those who have come with us on the basis of our equality as living beings, not as dispensable victims. If I did not believe in civility, I would be embarrassed to be an American. Instead, I think we have only lost our way because of the worm of self-serving power and profit that has bored into our heads—and we can be healed and set right again in a New Age based on civil engagements that encourage decency, courtesy, and respect.

As it is, we are allowing ourselves and the Earth to be sold short of what we are truly worth—the only seat of consciousness that we have yet discovered—or are ever likely to discover—in the universe. If we keep on as we are going, where will we find the worthy examples to lead us back to our senses? Civility is fragile, the product of eons of collective respect, striving, and cooperation. Are we going to sit by and watch it be taken from us by a vain and wealthy elite that wants to run the world solely on its own terms? We deserve a better fate than that.

As I see it, the only alternative is for us to achieve the civility I am talking about by building it into the heart of our own lives and engagements, thereby refusing to go meekly along with the self-appointed elite, who are really the most forlorn, desperate, and pitiable caricatures of what humanity can be. What choice do we have but to remain staunchly ourselves?

Respectfully, y’r friend and brother, –Steve from Planet Earth

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

In the concluding chapter of CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK  I wrote these words:

The general welfare is best improved by each of us having equal opportunity to conduct her own affairs without falling prey to those who would use us for selfish purposes. Introspection shows me that individual opportunity is not only possible, but is the desirable state of affairs in which we thrive on the basis of our mental skills and effort, not our vulnerability or submission. In a democracy, it is an oxymoron to conduct our affairs by seeking to take advantage of our peers. True power is the power of the individual to lead her own life as her unique self, not as who others tell her she should be. Self-determination, in my book (which this is), is the source of individual personal power. It requires not only empathy and compassion, but agreement that our uniqueness is our gift and our strength (p. 265).

Having recently viewed Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, I thought about how I could steer my own loop of engagement to counter the mayhem presented in that powerful film. Here’s a slightly edited version of an email I sent to a co-worker and friend.

The documentary film Inside Job details the results from a 27-year campaign to deregulate the financial services industry. Now our effort should focus on finding ways to effectively rebuild a regulatory system that has collapsed due to constant pressures applied from without and within government. Add our wars in the Middle East as a vital component of our modern economy through the arms industry, and the trashing of campaign finance regulations by the supreme court of the land—all this adds to the sorry state we find ourselves in today with the one percent in control of our destiny.

Now is the time to shore up our gutted regulatory systems and restore our ethical priorities for peaceful, private enterprise. We also need to stress the regulation of for-profit activity so the govern-ment controls the economy rather than the other way around. The court, the wars, and the film show that laissez-faire doesn’t work. What’s missing is the will of the people to fight for what they feel is right. We need a half-time pep talk so we can personally take a hand in making our democracy work. Our individual efforts are so diffuse, how can we organize so our collective efforts can meet the challenge we face? United we stand, divided we fall. How can we get our—the people’s—act together at this time of crisis?

In an era that decries regulation as anti-business and un-American, it struck me how regulated our sports and games are as a matter of course. Think of these games without umpires, referees, or rules: football, baseball, basketball, soccer, track and field, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, tennis, golf. Think of poker, blackjack, chess, bridge, even solitaire. Think about kick-the-can, hop-scotch, mother-may-I? Think about plagiarism. Think about armed robbery. It is one thing to artificially enhance your breasts or fanny or shoulders, another altogether to defraud investors by pushing bundled subprime mortgages on the public while insuring your own risk with credit default swaps.

How does regulation for the safety of investors differ from playing by the rules? The claim is that markets must be free to regulate themselves, which is a variation on letting the fox guard the henhouse. My view is that sports and games are right up there with the arts and sciences as pinnacle achievements of our culture—because of how we conduct them to be fair to all players and practitioners.

How we conduct our engagements with others and the world makes all the difference. I am in charge of my loop, you are in charge of yours. If we seek mutual engagement, we both must play by the same rules, not one set for you and another set for me. Not one set for the financial services industry, another for investors. Or one set for the rich and another for the poor. Or one set for Republicans and another for Democrats.

I reached this conclusion through a 30-year program of first-person introspection. Surely it is time the swindle was over. For Wall Street to adopt a code of ethics that truly levels the trading floor.

That’s my thought for today. I remain, as ever, –Steve

(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

Reflection 195: Inaction

April 5, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

If the outcome of consciousness is, as I claim, to make things happen (to build a future, to act in relation to a current situation), what are the implications of those times when we are conscious in a given situation—but are unable to follow-through with appropriate action? Think of the young mother who dreams of a career but can’t take time away from childcare to act on her dream. The young man in solitary confinement, with active mind but inactive body. The child who watches TV Saturday mornings and shuttles between  refrigerator, bathroom, and his station on the couch. Think how it feels to wait for a stoplight to turn green, a ticket line to advance, an expected letter to arrive. 

Impatience is a sure sign that consciousness has gotten ahead of our ability to put plans into action. Biding time, waiting our turn, twiddling thumbs to release nervous energy—everyone knows what it’s like to be all wound up with no place to go. C’m-on, let’s move it! Get the lead out. The problem is that when our loop of engagement in a particular situation is delayed or interrupted for some reason beyond our control, we feel frustrated and out of sorts. Our rhythm is broken. If the delay turns into a long one, we become disengaged. Leading to a state of annoyance, despair, or depression.

It is surprising to consider how often we adopt surrogate outlets for activities which may be suppressed for even a short time. Smoking, for instance, chewing gum, grabbing a bite, drinking, or humming can be the result of a conscious urge to “do something” when we are inclined to act but cannot. The tension we feel is the result of an inability to act in an appropriate manner, so we divert that urge into an alternative activity both accessible and acceptable. We move our mouth parts instead of arms or legs. Watching TV, our options for making an appropriate response to what we’re seeing are often severely limited because we can’t enlist the screen in a conversation, argument, fight, or engagement of any sort. Roused to action by the program we’re watching, yet not able to make an appropriate response, we resort to surrogates such as tapping our fingers, picking a scab, scratching our necks—whatever diverts our urge to action to something we can actually do short of throwing a book at the screen or clicking it into oblivion.

Reduced to spectators, as we have been by the one-way, broadcast media since radio was invented, we find ourselves leading double lives having little to do with each other, following the program with our ears or eyes, perhaps, but tapping our fingers or toes to let off some steam. Such a waste of consciousness leads to hard feelings, because we know we’re being manipulated by someone else’s agenda. We get their message, but they can’t get ours. Domination of significant parts of our lives by such one-sided interactions with the media leads to frustration and irritation because we can’t “do anything” to let producers and sponsors know how we feel. Abuse by the media is one of the most common ailments of recent years, a global pandemic of enforced helplessness largely unrecognized for what it is.

The problem is that long-term inaction leads to an incapacity to act at all. If appropriate action is always sidetracked, that is what consciousness learns to do—sidetrack itself. Dissipate its capacities and energies. That is, to chew gum instead of speak truth to power. The freedom to act in light of personal consciousness is the fundamental freedom by which lives are led and civilizations built from the ground up. Freedom of will means nothing if it does not lead to action. Or worse than nothing—to waste and despair. Which is the state of modern America under the heel of corporate personhood with its industrial base shipped abroad, leaving formerly skilled workers stocking shelves at WalMart or smiling behind counters at MacDonalds for paychecks that Thoreau or Mohandas Gandhi couldn’t live on.

Now our schools emphasize concept formation in the earliest grades, neglecting personal sensory experience as if it were not the true foundation of learning to live in the world. Children are now supposed to be objective, not subjective, to live on familiar terms with descriptive and statistical generalizations as replacements for personal experience because schools can deal only with tidy (because largely empty) concepts instead of messy personal stories. Experience, the base of personal judgment and behavior, is earned through engagement with our senses and emotions, not solely our rational minds. It is subjective by nature because consciousness itself is subjective. Unique in each case, there is no such thing as statistical consciousness. Any school system that believes in students collectively rather than individually is teaching to an ideological fiction that cannot exist, a fiction spread across a bell curve so that a young person’s position relative to the mean is more important than who she is or what she can do. Which reduces human characteristics and abilities and histories and experiences to abstract generalizations instead of singling them out as the very qualities which make us who we are.

Schools, that is, train workers, customers, and consumers worthy to become a mass audience of zooids who will do what they are told by their supervisors. Try sitting still in a chair for hours at a time without talking or fidgeting and see if you are capable of original thought at the end of the day. The few outlets allowed include sports, music, theater, dance, and gymnastics—activities based on personal skill and discipline, which should be the center of the curriculum instead of out on the extracurricular fringe. What we learn in school is to stifle our basic urge to action, or to postpone it until classes are over. No wonder we’ve become a nation of media consumers, cubicle sitters, and counter attendants—those are precisely the sorts of non-activities we’re trained to do. As McLuhan said, the medium itself is the message. In schools, the medium is sitting quietly as if something were happening when it’s not. That’s what passes for good behavior and earns you a gold star for citizenship—doing as little as possible without bothering anyone else.

Am I tilting at windmills here, or have I become a professional cynic? Through my lifetime I’ve watched freedom of personal action decay into freedom of inaction to avoid upsetting the neighbors. That’s our modern version of the golden rule—instead of doing unto others we’ve learned the safest guide is to do as little as possible. That way we don’t make waves to get people upset. When we should be marching on the state or national capital, we sit quietly at home watching game shows on TV. Instead of embracing life itself, we’ve raised pretending to live to a high art.

As I see it, we’ve surrendered our personal sovereignty for the sake of comfort and convenience. That is, given up being unique persons to adopt the myth of being like everyone else. Persons act as consciousness leads them; members of the crowd look to their leaders. Think of the expectations we lay on Barack Obama to do our work for us when we could be part of the solution to the nation’s problems by putting our bodies on the line—as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King put their bodies and their lives on the line (both being assassinated for offending those they opposed). The theory we follow is we’ll live better and longer by not taking personal action—as if simply enduring under present conditions were more important than altering those conditions to make a better world for all.

We talk a lot about freedom, but the most basic freedom is the freedom to act, not the freedom to sulk or to hide. What if Martin Luther had never nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg to be seen by parishioners on All Saints Day in 1517? Where would we be but for his taking that stand against the sale of indulgences by which sinners could buy forgiveness for cash instead of confronting themselves? It is possible Christianity in the West would be synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, and the church hierarchy would center our lives on its origins in the priesthood of the Roman Empire of Constantine’s day. Inaction leaves behind it a heritage of what if? what if? what if?

These days we live in an era when chartered corporations have the status of living, breathing persons, and the rights granted to persons by the U.S. Constitution, including the right of free speech, and the spending of money as a variant thereof. That is, corporations can behave as if they were persons and we won’t make too fine a point of the self-evident fact that confounding corporations with persons is a sure sign of mental illness. Why persons? Why not corporations as servants of the people? Protectors of the Earth? Humanitarian institutions? The result of corporate personhood is the mockery of human personhood in that every one of us is diminished by that false categorization. If a distinction is not made between for-profit corporations and individual persons, something very important goes missing from our culture—the realization that persons are fundamentally conscious and can learn through experience while corporations are built structures without minds, and require persons to run them. Persons are persons, corporations are corporations; it makes no sense to extend the rights and abilities of one to the other as if there were no difference between them.

People can act in the world, corporations can’t. It is the people hiding behind corporations who have taken over our country and the rest of the world, acting by charter exclusively in their limited self-interest at the expense of us mortal beings who can’t afford the legal apparatus and deep pockets that corporations use to teach us our place, and keep us there. Tobacco companies, drug companies, agribusiness, the military industry, the power generators, big transportation—these are the corporations who presume to act on behalf of the world’s little people when they do not rise up and act boldly for themselves. Education renders us docile so we do not stand against this takeover of our most basic prerogative—to defend ourselves against hostile aggression.

With wealth concentrated in corporate accounts, and power safe in the hands of highly paid attorneys, corporations are free to manipulate public opinion by foisting whatever image they choose on a gullible public, so we come to accept them as what they pretend to be. Always the good guys, no matter what havoc they wreak in Nigeria, India, Chile, Mexico, or here at home. The playing field is not level. We engage by different rules. Freedom and equality are forgotten values. We can still vote, but it makes little difference because corporate money votes closer to where laws are written and decisions made. Our great ethical systems are stood on their heads—the golden rule, do no harm, equal opportunity, act from love, respect your opponent, democracy, fair play, we’re all equal under the sun. Corporate personhood renders every one of them obsolete because ethical systems are for people, not corporations. Corporations act as they wish as long as they pay their bills and keep the truth to themselves.

Yes, I fling paint with a broad brush in this portrait because I’ve learned that corporations can be counted on to sink to the lowest possible level. One financial crisis after another, one war after another, one takeover after another, one environmental catastrophe after another—we still end up with the same system that victimizes persons but treats corporations as if they were sacred. Even if they go bankrupt, even if they fail utterly, even if the people bail them out.

Action is indeed the upshot of consciousness, appropriate and effective action in the world we live in, even if we can’t make it out very clearly. When our options for action are severely restricted, our basic freedoms to think and act for ourselves become nonexistent. If that goes on long enough, we forget how to express our personal values in what we think and what we do. The game is over. The faceless “they” have won. The ones who pull the levers behind corporate curtains. The ones who make billions of dollars a year while the rest of us scrounge for coins beneath cushions.

All this is no dream. It comes to me through conscious reflection. Engaging the world with my mortal body and mind, this is what I discover. Here is the reality I live in. I have been schooled not to think for myself by sticking to the great thoughts of others, passed off in slogans and party lines. But I can’t help myself. I keep going back to the source of my own experience and digging around to see what I can learn from it. I see now that consciousness, critical judgment, and the ability to act free from interference in my current situation (as best I can make it out)—these are the greatest treasures I possess. If I do not exercise these gifts, I give up being myself. If we do not act for ourselves, that is where we end up—enslaved to others, devoting our actions to serving them.

Is this what we look like?

 

Reflection 182: Intelligence

February 18, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

I was born asking questions. That’s the kind of person I am. Still damp from the womb, I looked around and asked, “Where am I?” Then, looking at the doctor, “Who are you?” Then at my mother, “What’s for supper?” Much later, I remember riding in the back of a pickup truck from Seattle to Nespelum, Washington, asking the archaeology grad student next to me one question after another the whole way. I exhausted him well before I knew as much as I wanted to about the dig we were heading for. Inquisitive to the point of annoyment, that’s me. Is annoyment a word? Annoyance, that’s what I mean.

Asking questions is somehow related to intelligence. My American Heritage Dictionary says intelligence is “The capacity to acquire and apply knowledge,” but that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about a mental capacity, or knowledge in general. More, as the CIA uses the word to refer to that which is known about one thing or another. But I don’t mean mere scraps of data—I mean getting the big picture: intelligence on a nontrivial scale referring to the interrelatedness of things in a particular system. In other words, building an aesthetic model in my mind of a system outside my body. Intelligence, for me, is a process of gathering experiences about relationships—how things fit and act with one another—into a coherent picture in the mind. Excuse me, in my mind. That’s the only mind I have access to or can talk knowingly about, or expand by asking further questions.

Intelligence tests claim to measure a human capacity—as if learning is independent of interest, curiosity, subject matter, or personal experience. That usage suggests a person is equally intelligent regarding anything that can be known, that intelligence is some kind of virtue or trait, which I don’t think is true. There’s no such thing as an intelligent person; there are only people who know a lot about a small number of things in relation to one another—and little about everything else. An evening spent playing Trivial Pursuit should tell us that much, at least. I’ll give you an example from my personal experience.

I’ve been studying Taunton Bay, an estuary in Maine, for a number of years. I would have said I was checking it from an inquiring point of view because it interested me, but in hindsight I see I was paying attention to it every chance I got, so I guess I really was studying it, expanding my experience of the bay holistically without reference to “information” or “data.” That way, I slowly built up an understanding of some of the workings of the bay in my head, which collectively added to “intelligence” about the bay as a  biological system. This is related to this is connected to this is tied-in with this is balanced with this. Building to a broad, qualitative under-standing of what is going on in one place in Maine. That’s what I mean by intelligence. I didn’t learn about other bays because each one is different and I wasn’t—my body wasn’t—there. And I didn’t learn about bays in general because my acquaintance was up-close and personal. Let me illustrate my wordy illustration of aesthetic intelligence by showing a picture suggesting the relationships between blue mussels and eight other aspects of Taunton Bay.

species-interactions_mussels

That’s a picture of a small portion of my aesthetic—of my coherent intelligence about the bay. Blue mussels are connected to sea stars (which eat them), to eelgrass (which shares their habitats), to Canada geese (which eat eelgrass), to diving ducks (such as common goldeneyes which eat mussels), to eagles (which eat goldeneyes), to marine worms (which eat food particles that mussels discard), to hunters (who shoot mussel-eating ducks), to horseshoe crabs (which mussels often attach themselves to), and to human (who harvest mussels by diving, dragging, or hand-raking). They are also connected to me because I take pictures of them in relation to other features of Taunton Bay.

That’s a snapshot of what I mean by big-picture intelligence. Getting things together in my mind to reveal their relationships and interactions. In a very real sense, that is a portrait of one corner of my conscious mind. Which is the real topic of this blog: getting my mind together about consciousness. Since reading books by Gerald M. Edelman about human con-sciousness, wrestling with his theoretical ideas, my under-standing of my own conscious processes has made a quantum leap to the next higher level. After slogging through one post after another, Edelman helped tie things together for me—at least as I interpret his writings. So today I want to write about my experience of consciousness as a whole, not just this aspect or that.

My big learning up to now is that understanding is a matter of developing an aesthetic sense of how things go together in relationship. That’s actually what the word consciousness means. Con- refers to a collective joining-together, sciousness (as in science) refers to splitting things apart into particles or elements—that is, discernment of relationships, which is commonly called knowledge. Taking splintered parts together in relationship produces consciousness—the “withness” of all aspects of mind. In this case, the withness of the different sensory arrays spread throughout the sensory brain, which Gerald M. Edelman and other neuroscientists refer to as “maps.” The parts of the brain devoted to vision contain some thirty or forty such maps, each tracking two-dimensional relationships in one aspect of visual perception—movement, color, location, direction, texture, and so on. Consciousness, then, consists of mapping events in the brain in ever-changing relationship to one another, creating an overall sense of the dynamics of the current situation.

Think of the George Gibson Quartet—guitar, organ, saxophone, percussion—in aesthetic relation to one another, or a cut by the Henry Threadgill Sextet in the 1970s. Or the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. Or the Boston Red Sox when they get their act together and each player gives his all in exquisite relationship to the others. Or all the parts of Picasso’s Guernica telling the story of the Nazi bombing of a small town in the Pyrenees during the Spanish Civil War. Which is not unlike Albert Einstein spending his last days in search of a unified theory of everything that would tell the story of the universe. Many scientists, mathematicians, and theologians engage in similar quests having spiritual overtones in relating the individual mind to the larger whole as they picture it. On a more mundane level, aesthetic coherence is what a chef strives for in balancing the flavors, textures, color, and nutrients in his soup of the day. Or me in my peapod rowing across Taunton Bay at low tide, trying to fit everything I see into a coherent appreciation of what’s going on at that time in that place.

The point of the exercise being, then, to act appropriately in the situation we are engaged with as we discern its different parts and assemble them in consciousness as a coherent life event. If we can do that, then we derive a survival advantage from understanding what’s going on around us compared to others acting out of a less nuanced understanding. It’s always an aesthetic judgment call based on how we see aspects of the situation fitting together into a coherent unity—or not, as in the 2000 presidential election, the Haitian earthquake, or the global instability of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Regarding consciousness, what are the parts I am talking about? Sensory perception as annotated by memory of concepts and prior experiences. Attention, salience, and expectancy reflecting personal or biological values, motives, and interests. A sense of oneself, with feelings, hopes, fears, anxieties, pains, pleasures, and ethical preferences. Judgment of how to weigh each part, what to emphasize, what to leave out. The valance or attractiveness of one option for action compared to others. What the larger culture would recommend through the medium of tradition, habit, training, or instruction. Ongoing categorizations and interpretations modeling a scenario of the current situation as it is likely to develop in the future. These and other aspects coming together in consciousness, evaluated in relation one to another, fed forward to decision-making, advance planning, and execution, culminating in more-or-less decisive action in the world. And motivated attention to what the world does in response as told by the myriad maps keeping track of what’s happening from one’s situated point of view at the moment. All parts playing into the great loop of engagement coursing through our minds, constituting consciousness itself—the withness of such separate parts in coherent relationship with these and other parts in addition to those I have mentioned.

Without the ongoing governance provided by the contemporary loop of engagement between self and non-self, we are left in a state of autonomous dreaming disconnected from any adjustment imposed by culture, others, or the great world beyond. When flying blind in the sensory vacuum of dream-land, consciousness is entirely on its own, doing the best it can to find coherence based wholly on internal evidence of ongoing concerns. In dreams, we can see the separate items being shuffled again and again in a vain attempt to find the most apt relationship between them. What comes through is not the order of the world but the persistent order of the self as imposed on that world. In some circles, this counts as a spiritual more than a rational or cognitive take on events. The subject of dreams is always the same—yours truly, the dreamer, chief of operations in all matters concerning consciousness when the mysterious world has no say in the matter. That is, when all intelligence is internal, without curiosity about or regard for what might be happening in the great world of Beyond.

This, then, is a miniature portrait of consciousness as I understand it right now and write these words to post to my blog. If you ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you something different because my mind will have moved on from where it is now. But this gives you an overview of the kinds of thoughts I have in gathering intelligence about my personal stream of con-sciousness. Here is an assessment in keeping with the aesthetic highlights of today’s line of thinking. My subsequent experience will unfold differently than ever before, and my dreams tonight will be unlike any I have had previously. Who can tell what tsunami will surge, what volcano erupt, what star explode, what earthquake turn the terra firma of my little world to heaving jelly? Stay tuned to this station for further bulletins as my mind delivers them to me.

In the meantime, to end as I began—with a question—how is it with you on your trek through the universe? Do the seconds, months, and decades of your mental journey add to a larger whole? Whatever your experience, I’d be happy to receive a brief summary of what intelligence you’ve picked up along your route. I invite you to leave a comment in the space provided below.

Governor

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I first encountered rockweed when I was four. Lifted off the bow of a lobster boat onto a rocky shore at low tide, I took one step on the slippery stuff, fell and bumped my knee. The hurt made it a moment I’ve never forgotten. Lesson learned: on rockweed, watch where and how you step.

Rockweeds are brown algae growing on rocky surfaces along the shore. As the tide rises from low to high, it also advances up a sloping shore from “out” to “in.” The space demarked by low and high, out to in, creates a volume known as the intertidal zone, a particularly wild place because conditions are so variable. The sun can be shining with a temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit at high tide; or it could be raining or snowing at low tide, with a temperature somewhere between 70 and minus 20 degrees. One way or another, anything living in the intertidal zone has to be adaptable to such extremes.

Two species of wrack or rockweed common in Maine have such an ability, Ascophyllum nodosum, and Fucus vesiculosis, among  others. Both have holdfasts attaching them to rocks at the lower end, with air bladders along their stems enabling them to float as the tide rises, to settle as it falls. Moved about by currents Rockweeds Ascophyllum (l.l.) & Fucus (u.l.)and winds, rockweed is always in motion up and down, side to side, but never far from the surface of the water, exposed to the sun, its source of energy in making sugar from carbon dioxide and water. In winter, rockweeds can lie frozen in ice for weeks or months at a time. Lacking a vascular system, the cold doesn’t bother them by cutting off circulation of nutrients or removal of waste. They simply thaw in March and up the rate at which they photosynthesize the food they need for growth, reproduction, and repair.

Rockweeds play an essential role in providing both food and habitat areas along rocky or ledgy shores in Maine. Living along both low- and high-stress shores, they take a beating from waves and wind, causing bladders and blades to break from the axis,Least Sandpiper in Wrack eventually to disintegrate, attracting bacteria, which make the resulting detritus (loose organic particles) a rich source of protein for the likes of filter-feeders such as blue mussels, scallops, clams, and oysters, as well as other marine invertebrates and insects, subsequently eaten by birds, fish, and mammals. In Taunton Bay, for instance, rockweeds—along with phytoplankton, eelgrass, kelp, and marsh grass—are primary food producers supporting life throughout the estuary and beyond.

In addition, the twining, waving strands of rockweed provide a complex habitat—both nurturing and protective—for small marine creatures such as shore-hugging fish, periwinkles, amphipods, shrimp, crabs, juvenile lobsters, and in Taunton Rockweed at High Tide Bay, even horseshoe crabs. Many of these wait out low tides beneath a quilt of rockweed preserving the high moisture level they need to survive. Supplying both shelter and food to life in the intertidal zone, rockweeds are providers of essential services in any estuarine community. They are particularly important in enclosed coastal embayments having a high ratio of rocky shores to their relatively small surface areas. Cobscook Bay near Eastport, Lubec, and Campobello Island is one such embayment, as are Taunton Bay, Skillings River, and Bagaduce River in Hancock County, and the St. Georges River near Thomaston. Open bays that are broadly exposed to the Gulf of Maine tend to be more dependent on food sources delivered by ocean currents (such as phytoplankton) than are enclosed bays which export clouds of detritus to nearby waters. 

The issue with rockweed is harvesting it by the ton to be processed as fertilizer, animal feed, packing material for shipping marine worms and lobsters, and a stabilizer in foods and cosmetics, among other human uses. How much is itRockweed, Ledge, Low Marsh, Boulder, Shoreline Trees appropriate to take, from what areas, when, by what method? As is invariably true of living natural resources, the issue is one of categorizing the resource in such a way to emphasize its utility to humans and downplay its function and value in the wild. Which is it to be, protective habitat or food additive?; primary producer or fertilizer? Only purists can hold to making such an either/or distinction. In practice, the art is in finding a balance between wild and industrial functions, values, and uses in the human community—between priceless living habitats in nature’s economy, against so much biomass as a commodity worth two cents a pound in the human economy.

Who would ever imagine that the categorical essence of rockweed could be determined by committees that deny membership to the natural food web depending on rockweed itself and its peers for survival? But that’s how the civilized world works, people making all the decisions from their respective points of view, doing their best to represent the interests of the wild, but never doing a very good job of it. Cutting rockweed is analogous to felling tropical rainforests in that living systems are reduced to biomass while delicate microclimates and habitats are eliminated in the process. The reason, of course, is that humans declare themselves as essential parts of every food web on Earth, so of course they cast their categories onto the natural world to insure it meets their desires. This is specially true now that humans have overrun the Earth, and have staked their claim to it as their personal planet. Which it may effectively have become, by preemption, if not by magical thinking in the theological, mythological, or industrial mind.

To further complicate matters, different groups with interests in rockweed project different categories on it according to their personal interests. Seaweed harvesters (getting paid by the wet ton) say it is biomass, the people of Maine (who are said to own public trust resources) say it is both a marine habitat and a commodity, ecologists see it as the base of the estuarine food pyramid, and resource managers see it as a headache they wish would go away because there is no simple remedy that will make all interested parties happy. As usual, the stakeholders having the most money to provide them with the most aggressive lawyers and publicists are the ones who come out on top in deciding what rockweed, for all practical purposes, really is.

Another issue with rockweed is the matter of ownership. Does it belong to the people as a public-trust resource? or does it belong to the owners of rocky shorelands where it grows? ByRockweed at Low Tide_96 tradition expressed in the Colonial Ordinance, public access to intertidal waters is limited to the express purposes of “fishing, fowling, and navigation.” Moves have been made in the Maine Legislature to legally categorize rockweed as a “fish” for the purpose of including it among harvestable resources, but such moves have been declared unconstitutional; algae, in fact, are not fish by any stretch of the tongue or imagination. Seaweed harvesting licenses granted by the Maine Department of Marine Resources do not grant or affect proprietary rights to the seaweed, including within the intertidal zone. So by what right or principle do harvesters withdraw rockweed from the public trust and privatize it as their own? As far as I can make out, they do so on the strength of their own will, declaring for all practical purposes, “This is mine.” 

The name “rockweed” makes it sound like Ascophyllum nodosum belongs in the same category as burdocks and dandelions, so is not to be missed if reduced from a living organism to a mound of limp and dripping biomass. The Latinate binomial, on the other hand, calls up images of presentable people in white lab coats peering into microscopes in the halls of science and academia, suggesting it may have some ecological interest and value after all. “Knotted” or “bladder wrack” sound quaint and old fashioned, pointing perhaps to the Magna Carta as a reference to King John’s take on such species.

The more I know about rockweed, the less I know what it is. I know it exists; I have seen it frequently with my own eyes. But  how to regard it with those eyes, how to relate to it as one member of one species to another, that is not mine to say.  Rockweed and I both live on the same planet; here is our home in the universe. We both qualify as Earthlings. Which in my eyes makes us equal under the sun. I am not here for its use, and vice versa. We coexist. Yet it lives in the basement of the food pyramid, I live in an apartment at the apex, which looks over all like the eye peering from the top of the pyramid shown on the dollar bill. Does that suggest I have higher powers or knowledge than lowly rockweed? That I am somehow “better” or more “deserving”? The big difference is I possess consciousness and rockweed does not. On the other hand, it can lie frozen in ice for months at a time, which I cannot do. It can tolerate a range of temperature and salinity that would kill me—mighty predator that I am—within a few hours. In a very real sense, my survival depends on rockweed and its ilk—the photosynthesizers of the Earth—whereas its survival is entirely independent of mine. I need it; it doesn’t need me.

So how come people assume responsibility for managing rockweed without giving anything back to compensate rockweed for giving up the right to manage its private affairs? Is that equable? Is it just? I know, I know. . . apples and oranges. Rockweed is rockweed; I am a human being. But what bothers me is that this entire blog is being entertained in a single human mind, and rockweed is excluded from the action. I can have input as to its fate, but it has no say in mine.

The scales of justice are weighted in favor of those having consciousness, a situation I call asymmetrical, unjust, and unfair. This makes it seem that having consciousness is somehow better than not having it. Which might well be true if the haves actually watched over the have-nots. But we don’t watch over trees to protect their interests; we cut them to make toilet paper. We don’t watch over rivers; we dam them to turn them into still waters, and pipe our waste into them. We don’t watch over Earth’s climate; we do our thing and leave it to react how it will. These are moral issues. How we treat rockweed is essentially a moral issue. In categorizing rockweed as a harvestable resource for my personal benefit, I am practicing an ethic as viewed from a particular point of view.

Robins and hermit thrushes regard rockweed from a different perspective: when it snows in April after they have migrated north, their primary forage areas on the forest floor are off-limits; where can they get something to eat? As long as the snow lasts, those on the coast forage in seawrack along the shore for amphipods—not their preferred food, but it’ll do in a pinch. If the rockweed isn’t there at precisely that time, tens of thousands of thrushes can starve. If there is even a trace of carageenin in the ice cream I eat, then I am an accomplice to the perpetrator who treats rockweed as a commodity and commissions its harvest, or cuts it himself.

In the human economy, rockweed is currently worth about two cents a pound, or $40 a wet ton. One harvester can cut about a ton of rockweed a day, making about $4,000 a season. With cutting machines, he can make more. From a human standpoint, the rockweed issue comes down to balancing the reduction of rockweed to an inert commodity-with-a-price against its value as an intertidal habitat and producer of food that sequesters carbon for the good of estuarine, marine, and terrestrial communities. Wanted dead or alive, which is it to be: tubs of industrial-grade ice cream in suburban freezers, or least sandpipers, robins, shrimp, and crabs along the shores of enclosed bays in Maine?

Which leaves me where? Perhaps in denial; perhaps upset; perhaps in some kind of limbo, committed to a life sentence of guilt and confusion. What about my biological values? Do they have anything to say on the matter of harvesting rockweed? What I’m getting at is the ethical dimension to consciousness that crops up in the most surprising places. I see clouds on the horizon, telling me I will soon have to address the coming storm, perhaps after I feel comfortable with the categorizing aspects of consciousness. Then I will be free to face into the wind and deal with the ethical issues I have successfully avoided up till now.

Where I think I’m headed is toward developing a deliberate attitude of stewardship as the going price for diminishing the living Earth in any way. If we use our knives to cut rockweed at all, then we are committed by that act to watching over what’s left to protect it from harm. We live on the same planet; it’s the least we can do.

Ascophyllum with Sea Star