432. Our Cultural Philosophy

February 13, 2015

Regarding impediments to our personal journeys, in an increasingly globalized culture, of our many concerns, commerce has come to dominate our attention and engagement. Trading in goods. Shopping, buying what we need and selling what we don’t. Money changing hands all the while. The point being to get a good price; good from buyers’ perspective, good from sellers’.

In the U.S., commerce is now what we are primarily conscious of, every day of our lives. Making a profit from the sale of material goods and services. Most other facets of our culture—art, education, governance, justice, technology, sports, healthcare, food and energy production, personal freedom, fairness, environmental protection—are glossed over by the arch value of making a monetary profit.

In the world of films, for example, box office eclipses excellence as a criterion of success. On our national journey, profit leads the way. Wherever we pay attention with alert minds, trade is involved.

We are out to make, if not a killing, a better life for ourselves. Which we see primarily in terms of money and goods, not engagement with the mysterious or the unknown, not self-improvement, not beauty, not world peace, not equality, not civil rights, not freedom and justice for all (including Native Americans, Blacks, Latin-Americans, Asians, women, children, immigrants, and animals).

The whole story of mind is told by what we are interested in, pay attention to, notice, discover, and engage with every day of our lives. That is, by what we have in mind, what we are mindful of, what we think and talk about, what captivates us, what excites us, what is important to us, what is at the core of our existence as cultural beings.

Because of the way our minds operate, these peak engagements are told by their polarity, the way they strike us on an either/or scale of polar opposition. That is, by what pleases us or displeases us. What we like or don’t like, want or don’t want, seek or avoid, love or deplore.

After all, we can’t pay attention to every gradation. Our bandwidth is too small. So we focus sharply on what strikes us as good or bad, pleasant or painful, beautiful or ugly, healthy or unhealthy, wise or stupid, enriching or debasing, fun or serious.

If we have too many choices, we get confused. Too much email to respond to, too many friends on Facebook, too many films to see, books to read, games to play, people to meet, glasses of beer to drink—we have to draw the line sharply just to stay sane. Enough, already! Simplify. Prioritize. Being starkly clear lets us act fast and stay on top of things.

Reflecting the conscious concerns of every one of its members, each culture is hugely complex. Living with others, particularly those we don’t know, can be stressful. We can’t be all things to all people. If we try, that leads to overload. Our minds have limited capacities for dealing with what cries out for our attention. We have to cut back to the essentials we need to deal with and chuck the rest.

So in the U.S., we put first things first in paying attention to money and commercial affairs because, as we see it, everything else depends on that. With money in the bank, we claim to lead the good life. Poverty and deprivation—even sufficiency—are thought degrading. Everything takes money; without it, we can’t do what we want. Or be who we want.

It’s the economy, stupid! In black and white, Bill Clinton has given us a bumper-sticker slogan to serve as America’s cultural philosophy.

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Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Life of whom or what? Life of the Quaker Institute for the Future summer seminar 2012 held at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. In particular, signs of that life on one day, Friday, June 8, 2012. I witnessed that life because I was there with my brand-new Panasonic Lumix ZS15 digital camera.

Ed Snyder’s was the only presentation on that day. His topic was: “How to move forward from the current system of material consumption to no-growth and environmental sustainability while providing equity and a decent life for all.” No, not very catchy, but the talk focused on the issues that brought everyone into that particular room every day this past week—from California, Texas, Utah, Louisiana, Kentucky, Maine, New Brunswick, Canada and, via Skype, Montreal.

Here’s what it looked like, in the order I took the photos:

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Location—College of the Atlantic campus, Bar Harbor: (back row) Steve, Jim, Leonard; (middle row) Ed, Laura, Charlie, Keith, Shelley, Phil; (front row) Barry, Gray. (Not shown) David in Montreal.

As to what was happening in those shots: Ed was giving his presentation on the demise of life on planet Earth; the rest of us were trying to keep up with him. Ed’s talk was a description of possible courses we’ve not taken so far. Those routes (in Ed’s own words) involve “nonviolence, cooperation, community, and bottom-up decision making with emphasis on quality of life rather than continuing consumption of goods.” The course we’ve been heading is a dark and dangerous one, pointing us toward reefs, shoal waters, and the end of the world as we know it.

The beauty of this day in the life of the seminar came in contemplating the ten stages of the journey Ed laid out before us in terms of projects and cooperative engagements we could undertake to get ourselves back on the less traveled route to a sustainable Earth. The task was daunting but doable. We were being offered a plan, and in that plan, stage by stage, we found hope.

This was exactly why we’d gathered in Bar Harbor, so each of us would give a presentation from a different perspective that, collectively, would lay out the sequence of navigational skills we’d need to correct our course. Ed, master helmsman that he is, was giving us the tools we’d need to do the job.

This is my fifth blog based on the seminar. One more to go. This day was too intense to put into words, so I offer pictures instead. You should have been there.

As ever, I remain y’r vigilant friend, –Steve

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)

I posted Reflection 180: Rockweed Consciousness to set my mind straight before attending the Feb. 10 Rockweed Research Priorities Symposium at the University of Maine. I also made up a handout on species utilizing rockweed as habitat one way or another, the different perspectives I thought might be represented at the symposium, and, yes, a list of terms I thought attendees might use in categorizing rockweed from their different perspectives. Forty-five people showed up, representing harvesters and industrial processors, resource managers, teachers and researchers, and interested members of the public.

No one spoke of rockweed as a commodity, but the other 14 terms I expected to hear all came up at one time or another: rockweed, Ascophyllum nodosum, seaweed, seawrack, wrack, marine resource, public-trust resource, marine or estuarine habitat, primary producer, fishery, property, private property, alga or algae, and biomass. The first talk was called “Biomass Assessment,” the second “Ecology and Habitat” (my italics).

The biomass speaker added a few broad terms I hadn’t anticipated: weed, beds, stock. The habitat man made a great many distinctions, including energy production; carbon sequestration; refuge, feeding, foraging, and nursery areas; predation; structural terms including architecture, assemblages, and communities; and specifically pointed to spatial and temporal scales of observation, as well as particular species utilizing rockweed one way or another.

The biomass man effectively lumped all organic matter into one one pot of gunk or goo, ignoring structural and functional considerations entirely. I didn’t hear the word “ecosystem” ever crossing his lips. The habitat man refined that matter into specific regions providing a wide variety of functions within a living estuarine community and the larger ecosystem beyond. He asked “How much habitat loss is too much?” (turning the biomass perspective on its head by seeing it in terms of habitat reduction), raising the issue of habitat restoration after harvesting reduces habitat to so many tons of biomass. 

The two speakers were both educators, one from a marine resource perspective, the other from an ecological perspective. What you learn as a student depends on where you go to school, the classes you take, the teachers you engage. Very likely, it is the attitude you have toward the subject that decides which path you follow. And that attitude goes back to the orthodox perspective you acquired during childhood as connections between nerve cells were either strengthened or weakened in response to the behaviors, speech patterns, and attitudes of your formative caregivers.

The after-lunch talk was on “Effects of Harvesting.” Following a brief detour to ecologyland, we were home again in the realm of biomass. But from a more nuanced perspective that combined aspects of both earlier talks. This was the issue many of us had come to consider—not where the rubber meets the road, but cutting blades meet lively habitats. The harvesting metaphor led to talk of rockweed as a “standing crop,” which was acceptable to many as a variant form of agriculture—sea farming without plowing furrows or planting seeds. Nowhere is consciousness more evident than in categorizing one thing as something else entirely for the sake of effect—to make a new recipe, idea, or practice “palatable” as an acquired taste (or unpalatable, as when Rush Limbaugh characterizes President Obama as a foreign-born, Islamic terrorist).

If compromise is to be reached, the issue must be framed in terms equally acceptable to both sides. In this case, the biomass people and the habitat people have to agree to categorize or conceptualize the issue in such a way that both retain their integrity on a playing field they see as level. The people who perform this service are called educators. They are the ones who train us to direct our expectations in such a way to be mutually agreeable to as large a population as possible by selecting an appropriate level of discourse. That is, society at large is invested in minimizing its internal differences to enable a wide a range of social needs to be met on an everyday basis. Since each person is unique, this can only be done by convincing a majority of people to adopt a common perspective for looking at things in such a way that their differences become invisible.

Framing the rockweed symposium as biomass people vs. habitat people would lead to open conflict. The art of compromise demands the conversation be conducted on a higher level of discourse to avoid concrete disagreements between the parties affected. The more familiar and acceptable the level, the better to restore order. Which is precisely what the harvesting metaphor provides. We all have to make a living, we all have to eat, we all want to go about our business without criticism, undue regulation, and harassment. The farmer and cowman can be friends if they look at each other the right way. Arranged marriages throughout history have turned competing tribes and kingdoms into extended families, transforming warring states into good neighbors through vows of eternal fidelity.

Sports, money, law, and religion are a few common currencies of social compromise, enabling many to live side-by-side in relative peace and harmony. Any Red Sox fan is a friend of mine; My vote goes to the highest bidder; I present the image of a law-abiding citizen; Jihad in the name of God is man’s highest calling. No wonder sports is the most prominent section in the paper; the economy is always newsworthy; law, order, and military might are esteemed virtues; religions offer comfort to all who humble themselves before a supreme being. Social  orthodoxy is a means of compromise that requires individuals to surrender their particular take on events by subscribing to a higher order (or even absolute) level of generality. Toeing the company or party line replaces personal consciousness with a particular brand of cultural consciousness for the sake of taking unified action on an issue.

The rockweed symposium did not end on a wholly orthodox note. Rather, it asked attenders to identify gaps in our scientific grasp of the issue. The idea being to stimulate research aimed at filling those gaps. This is the stage before orthodoxy can be achieved. Science is another currency of social compromise. It is conducted at such a high level of certainty as to be almost divorced from personal experience, statistical-derived concepts wholly substituting for immediate engagement with the world. The very methods of science are methods of high-level, peer-reviewed compromise, enabled by statistical analysis if not immediate personal knowledge.

The current industry standard governing how much weed can be cut in a given bed is a target of 17% of extant rockweed biomass. The idea is that cutting too low on the axis diminishes regrowth, so cutting should be restricted to the upper 50% of the “plant” (really an alga). And cutting too broad a swath also diminishes regrowth, so harvesters allow themselves to cut only a third as much—33% of the upper 50%—or 17% of the “standing crop.”

The question is, what are the ecological implications of that 17% loss of estuarine habitat? As for natural mortality aside from any harvest, to cite a study conducted in Cobscook Bay, Maine,* “The proportion of Ascophyllum standing biomass lost annually and expressed as turnover rates, ranged from 29 to 71%,” with a mean turnover of roughly 51%. This is no standing crop, it is a fleeing crop, its so-called biomass turning over every two years. It strikes me that if the 17% is removed from the 50% likely to survive the normal turnover to detritus, it makes the harvest more like 34% of the surviving crop rather than the guideline of 17% of the standing crop might suggest. This would appear to double the impact on habitat over what the industry now claims is the case. Until we grapple with percentages seemingly plucked from a hat, and come to agreement on whether, say, 5% harvest might be more reasonable from a scientifically-grounded perspective, then natural-resource managers in Maine won’t be able to adopt a statewide (that is, orthodox) standard for allowable cutting of rockweed.

Where else in the blogosphere can you find such practical considerations to emerge from the study of human consciousness? Track these posts for updates on how mind affects the varied facets of the material universe.

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* Robert L. Vadas, et al., “Biomass and Productivity of Intertidal Biomass,” in Peter F. Larsen, Ed., Ecosystem Modeling in Cobscook Bay, Maine, (Northeastern Naturalist, Volume 11, Special Issue 2, 2004, page 136).

Seal mother & nursing pup on rockweed

 

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Great Seal State of MaineSome years ago, Farmer and Sailor met at a bar in Augusta. After downin’ applejack and rum for couple hours, they went separate ways.

Seems to me,” said Farmer as they parted, “if you’d drop some seed in that furrow you plow out to China, you’d have something to show for it on the way back.”

Maybe so,” said Sailor, “and if you’d hoist some canvas on that rig of yours, add helm and rudder, you’d make better headway than plowin’ back and forth in that field every day.”

Our lives—what we do in the world—flow from our biological values mapped onto events, and in turn our categorizations of events flow from the lives we have led up till now. That is, a (sometimes winding) path runs between our values and categorizations (how we see the world), and that path is the life we have led. Or what personal memory draws from walking that path, and consciousness maps onto here-and-now awareness through acts of in-formed categorization.

There is no particular logic that applies to the course of our lives other than the ad hoc logic of salient events we actually witness and participate in. In that sense, we keep casting the same old categories onto the world, and the world keeps making the same old response—giving us back more of what we already have in mind. The world does not so much turn in orderly fashion as that we who turn with it are set in our ways of looking at the world. So when unique events occur before our eyes—such as a new Congress wrestling with what a national health plan might look like—we see it as a variation on a theme and treat it as if we’ve been there and tried that, with no forward motion whatsoever. We are stuck because we hold tight to the same tried-and-true categorizations we’ve always projected onto such situations—even if what’s on offer has never been tried before.

The world keeps moving ahead, and we keep pulling it backwards in conformity with formative events in our lives drawn from yesteryear. Resulting in change without progress. We spend most of our energy spinning our wheels because we are unable to step off our customary route and see the current situation with new eyes. The star at the top of the Maine State Seal is the North Star by which landsmen and seamen steered their way through woods and across dark oceans in the early nineteenth century. Dirigo, the state motto, translates from Latin as “I lead.” That is, the State of Maine depicts itself as leading the nation. Thus do we all see ourselves on the forefront of experience, when in fact we attire ourselves in the traditional garb of farmers and sailors of long ago. We lead by clinging to our traditional image of ourselves, not by freeing our bodies of such baggage and stepping unburdened ahead.

Another example is the granting of “personhood” to corpora-tions as if they had individual rights guaranteed in the Constitution as amended. While it is perfectly evident that, though corporations may be steered by people, in themselves as chartered by the several states they are fictional entities given a certain legal standing to make profits for investors having a monetary stake in their operations. Corporate bodies are invariably collectives made up of individuals; as such, they are never of one mind. One person, one mind, that is the law of consciousness. If a corporation claims to be of one mind, that can only be if one mind—the CEO’s, say, or chairman of the board’s—asserts itself and comes to dominate the thinking of corporate employees as if they were clones—which they aren’t—and worked in single-minded harmony. Granting personhood to corporate bodies empowers those at the top to manipulate events to their liking.

CEO salaries and bonuses in the field of financial services provide all the evidence we need to prove that corporate leaders act and present themselves as unique individuals, not corporate leaders. Corporate consciousness is an oxymoron, as is categorizing corporations in legal jargon as “persons” in their own right. Corporations present themselves collectively as persons when it suits them, as deserving individuals at other times. Corporation law lets them have their cake whole, and to enjoy slicing it into pieces for unequal distribution at the same time. If the top-to-bottom salary ratio within a corporate body is, say, 400 to 1, then the personhood of corporations is clearly a myth.

The law of the land is a fairy story corporate lobbyists and legislators keep telling us to keep us asleep, while they sack the treasury. Corporate personhood is a fundamental category error. Yet the Supreme Court cast it in bronze in a recent 5-4 decision removing restrictions on how the good fairies can insert money into political campaigns on behalf of issues and concerns as seen from very specific points of view. The majority opinion sides with corporations as if they were persons speaking with one voice to express a personal concern arising within a personal mind—magically backed by corporate funding and legal expertise. The funding gives the lie to all claims of personhood.

When I dig into my pockets, I do not dig into yours, and yours, and yours. Each digs for her- or himself. Money is money, not speech, just as language seen as a medium of exchange is not speech. There is confusion in making such claims, confounding the capacity for speech in general with individual speech acts exemplifying such a capacity on a specific occasion within a limited situation involving particular individuals. Corporations do not speak for themselves qua corporations. They make noises soothing to the ears of the powers-that-be behind doors that are shut. Corporate speech is not free, it is crafted to a particular end—the making of profits for a band of investors.

Categorizations are invariably thrust onto the world from a particular standpoint or perspective. They are first-person singular acts, not motions moved, seconded, voted, and enacted by corporate bodies. When farmers and sailors come together in a bar, they think and speak for themselves, guided by personal habits and experience. When boards of directors come together in a board room, they conduct business in a disciplined manner according to Roberts’ Rules of Order. Members can be recognized or not by the chair. The secretary records comments in the minutes—or not—as he so decides. Speaking out in a meeting is a political act. Submitting to majority opinion, members will, if they want to keep their jobs, abandon the right to free speech. Much as members of Congress surrender to the will of their party for the sake of speaking with one voice, thereby stifling their personal take on things to stay in the good graces of those having control over committee appointments and distribution of party funds.

Friction between different ways of looking at things wears us all down in the end. That is the nature of corporate decision- making and governance. Frustration smoothes our rough edges as we seek the lowest common denominator we can all agree to. Alternatively, if nobody speaks up or does anything—like the farmer and sailor standing mute on the Maine seal—we can pretend we are all of one mind. To know my own thoughts in writing this blog, I must keep to myself much of the time in order to preserve the integrity of my personal consciousness and the ideas which flit through it from one instant to the next. On my own authority, I can say anything I want without glancing at faces around me. As a result, I now write words I could not have put together a few months ago because, in remaining true to my conscious thought processes, I essentially pull myself up by my own bootstraps (a figure Gerald M. Edelman keeps using to describe our efforts in achieving consciousness for ourselves).

Detailed communication between unique minds is always a challenge. Initially, our differences excite and draw us together; but on second thought, they compel us to retreat to avoid surrendering more than we bargained for. We thrust our categories back and forth as in a duel, seeing whether the other nods or shakes her head. Thrust together in a marriage, say, or a foxhole, we quickly discover how much work it takes to stick together instead of withdrawing to respective positions of safety. The chief danger is overlooking our differences for the sake of family or community. My own upbringing consisted in large degree to being told, “Don’t be conspicuous!” meaning, don’t draw attention to yourself. That is, don’t be original. Such is the challenge many New Englanders face in growing up in families with deep roots.  Knowing from personal experience that over-concern for what neighbors might say is the kiss of death for honesty, transparency, and integrity, I seem to have turned out otherwise.

More commonly, we cease to be conscious for ourselves and become conscious for the larger group, surrendering individuality for the sake of living in a state of oblivious peace. If Sailor did as Farmer suggests, he would be dead, and vice versa. We must be our own selves, yet cannot admit it out loud. Which is the human dilemma, the corporate dilemma, the Congressional dilemma. Are we to shout with Billy Budd, “Farewell, Rights of Man!” every time we enter the public or corporate arena? Is life without a personal voice worth living? As a people, we seem to have decided in the affirmative. Or might it be that the Supreme Court has made that decision in our name, and we are too stunned to object?

Seeing the moose lying beneath the pine tree on the Great Seal of the State of Maine at the head of this post, I am reminded of Ferdinand retiring from the bull ring to seek a life of content-ment in a flowering meadow. Neither farmer nor fisherman, that moose is what we seem to have become, happy to take the world lying down in the shade of a tree.

Moose and Pine

 

 

(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

 

 

Reflection 176: Heart Rot

January 28, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

If one size fits all, then everybody can wear the same hat. If one medium of exchange works for all, then everybody can work for the same dollar, and spend the same dollar. With the result, as Jaron Lanier puts it regarding advertising on the Web:

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless (“The Serfdom of Crowds,” Harper’s Magazine, February 2010, page 19, from You are Not a Gadget, Knopf, 2010).

Instead of thinking for ourselves, we go shopping as we are conned into doing for our own good. So much for biological values and survival. Our role as we see it is to serve the global economy in the virtual money game it has become. Where once we would employ consciousness on behalf of personal sex-reproduction-family, eating, drinking, shelter, safety, companionship, learning, skill-building, etc., now we roll-over for those who get us hooked and support our nasty habit, going through the motions of pretending to use our minds, which now passes for a lifestyle of fake purposefulness (or let’s just pretend).

Trees are subject to a fungal infection that weakens or destroys their central core. The condition is called heart rot. People suffer from it as well, but from a different cause—being overly comfortable. When we finally “have it made,” we lose our edge and wander in Brownian motion wondering what to buy next. Hyper-sufficiency short-circuits our biological motivations (such as those listed above). What matters most is shopping, consuming, possessing, and living well. When that fungus strikes a nation, the population at large attempts to make a living by investing other people’s money in stocks, startups, real estate, mortgages, crime—whatever requires minimal effort to make the most profit at least risk.

Now it’s cap-and-trade, or you cap and I trade: I promise not to make more money than you, unless I can convince you and a thousand others that it’s your lot to stay as far below the poverty line as I can fly above it. Think capitalism and the two-class society. The Industrial Revolution was the engine for that line of reasoning, largely through exploitation of the so-called laws of thermodynamics in the instance of steam engines, locomotives, electrical power generation, internal-combustion engines, weaponry, and later, computers, the Internet, cell phones, and related technology:

The limitations of organic human memory and calculation put a cap on the intricacies of self-delusion. In finance, the rise of computer-assisted hedge funds and similar operations has turned capitalism into a search engine. You tend the engine in the computing cloud, and it searches for money. In the past, an investor had to be able to understand at least something about what an investment would actually accomplish. No longer. There are now so many layers of abstraction between the elite investor and actual events that he no longer has any concept of what is actually being done as a result of his investments (same source, page 16).

The challenge of global warming is not in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions but figuring how to make the most money from a global catastrophe by betting against our own fate. We have reached Nirvana, effectively becoming disconnected from the myriad natural processes and ecosystems that sponsor our continued existence on Earth. In the ultimate (fatal) sense, we are rotten at the core.

Does that matter? Or is it just another cell in the great database of life? I say it matters utterly and absolutely. Our Faustian bargain is for as many as can to game the system for as much as we can as long as we can, at which point Mephistopheles takes all:

The central faith embedded in Web technologies whereby users not only consume information but widely generate it is the idea that the Internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature. The designs guided by this perverse kind of faith leave people in the shadows. Computers will soon get so big and fast, and the Internet so rich with information, that people will be obsolete, either left behind like the characters in Rapture novels or subsumed into some cyber-superhuman something (same source, page 15).

Our current ethos falls somewhere between seeing numbness as a virtue for the majority, with fanaticism reserved to a driven elite. If you haven’t made your first million by twenty and billion by thirty, you might as well quit. Today, that counts as thinking. The rich are too comfortable to care, the poor too weak to fight back. We put our money—not our bodies, not our consciousness—where our values are. With the result that, as far as we’re concerned, money is all, life nothing. We make a show of sending money to Haiti after the earthquake, not before, when the U.S. built a record of siding with one corrupt dictator after another in repressing the people. Regarding Cuba, Howard Zinn writes:

Americans began taking over railroad, mine, and sugar properties when the [Spanish-American] war ended. In a few years, $30 million of American capital was invested. United fruit moved into the Cuban sugar industry. It bought 1,900,000 acres of land for about twenty cents an acre. The American Tobacco Company arrived. By the end of the occupation, in 1901, [Philip] Foner estimates that at least 80 percent of the export of Cuba’s minerals were in American hands, mostly Bethlehem Steel (A People’ History of the United States, page 303).

The CIA not only tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, but in a clandestine operation in 1971, it used swine fever virus as a weapon against Cuba, leading to the slaughter of half a million pigs (Zinn, page 542f.). Ever furthering the financial interests of its industries, the U.S. has long viewed the Caribbean as its territory, never hesitating to punish the locals in foisting its economic agenda upon them. Now we regard the Internet as ours, and are determined to make it pay—even if it means the death of newspapers, magazines, thought, conscience, or consciousness itself.

Finally, let me make one thing perfectly clear: these are not bad times. That is passing the buck. It is we who are acting badly by expecting to live on too grand a scale, consuming more than our share of so-called natural resources, far longer than we deserve, regardless of the cost to others and the planet we all share together. Our collective appetites and arrogance are not only wasting our culture’s potential for living within its means, but spoiling the Earth for all living beings. In that sense, we have become fanatics both mindless and heartless. Our headstones, if any, might well read:

The Buck Stops Here

(Or Would Have

Stopped

If  Only We’d

Taken It To Heart).

Grave Marker

 

(Copyright © 2010)

On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Haiti was ruined by an earthquake in ten seconds. There were no winners, only losers. For nine years, the U.S. has been waging war against the very Jahadis it helped to create during the Cold War, and the Taliban who gave them a toehold in Afghanistan. Again, no winners, only losers. Looking ahead, in fifty years low-lying shores on every continent will bear scars inflicted by rising seas, upland areas suffer droughts and massive extinctions. Devastation will be the rule, not the exception. Over the long- or short-term, every unique life leads to the same end—in each case unknown. There is no way to evade personal ruin. Life will invariably cease, cells disintegrate. No winners, only losers, unless . . . .

For such minds as can grasp this inescapable scenario, there is only one way to respond: Act at all times in such a way to create as many islands and oases of order, compassion, and social justice as possible to offset the inevitable. Otherwise, the miracle of life has no meaning, or is at best a forlorn hope.

Beset by, and causing, devastation, we live fleetingly in denial, pretending we can sidestep our fate, believing in life after death, the healing power of personal wealth, that deeds can bestow immortality, that death can be deterred, outrun, or defeated. All of which sap our will for doing good rather than simply answering the roll for as long as we can when our name is called.

Living as long as we can is not a good in itself. It’s what we accomplish—what we actually do—in whatever time we are allowed that really matters. What we do for those we leave behind. The certainty of moving from the column of the living to the dead is, in fact, not only our fate but our greatest gift. The tragedy in Haiti is not that life is cut short but, in addition to suffering, that there is no pattern to which people are felled: children, adults, and the aged are equally susceptible. That, together with the violent nature of each death and the utter lack of help, produces chaos, the very opposite of social order. We saw lesser versions in the felling of the Twin Towers, looting of Iraq in the calm after the initial assault, and in New Orleans during and after the passing of Hurricane Katrina.

In better days, mortality is our greatest strength because it frames each day as an opportunity, not a time to endure. It can motivate us to get off our butts and do something positive with whatever skills and energy we can muster on the spot. If death cannot be avoided, we are wise to make the most of what little time we have. Truism, yes, but a compelling one. None packs greater punch. Go for it, live each day to the max! Later is not good enough; now is my time to engage and to act. Not for self because self is invariably a dead end, but for those left behind. For the thread of life that survives us, not our narrow little life.

Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, said, “Think globally, act locally.” I add to that, Shape eternity, act in the now. Those who look ahead to consorting with forty virgins in paradise, or sitting on a cloud sipping margaritas, are committing the ultimate category error. Death is the end of consciousness as we know it, the absolute end. All else is myth, fantasy, or delusion. The test of our deeds is the world that lives after us. That is basic Darwinism. The measure of our success is the life (in the largest sense) we make possible. Not only in our genetic line, but in the natural conditions within which it survives. If we steal Earth’s wealth for ourselves today, mere money will not provide for our descendants tomorrow. The meaning or import of mortality—the 100% certainty of our end—is gauged by the living potential we are to leave, not the resources we take unto ourselves. Money in stocks or the bank is life converted to dead notes. It stands for consumption and death, not survival.

Consciousness is a sure sign of life, the realization of biologically-derived human values (reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, safety, etc.) through actions appropriate to life-giving surroundings. For the self, life is a matter of giving away, not taking from others. That is, it promotes authentic possibilities for action—actions that do not limit life’s choices tomorrow, but maintain or expand them. Acting in the now with eternity in mind is called stewardship. The Na’vi in Avatar live (if fictional creatures can be said to live) in that realization. More accurately, they represent that realization in James Cameron’s consciousness. Jahadi suicide bombers do just the opposite by destroying the possibilities of even their own lives and as many infidels as they can ruin along with themselves.

Now is my time on Earth, my time to live, my time to build a future for all life consciously and deliberately. I don’t have answers to many of the riddles and contradictions life throws at me, but collectively, cumulatively, we can share some few of those answers among us. Each can contribute her coherent actions to the body of the whole, and all draw wisdom and appreciation from that whole as needed. Give-and-take is the nature of our engagement on Earth. An engagement that will come to a definite end. Period. End of life. Maybe eight minutes from now, maybe tomorrow, maybe in fifty-three years. The point is not to obsess over but to deal with that certainty by building a life for ourselves, for those we love, for those we don’t know, and all members of other species. Then, when smitten, we will at least have done our best by Earth and its passengers for the long haul.

Which is far different from the life capitalistic assumptions and thinking would have us live. Capitalism is a farce, a heavy-handed caricature or cartoon of how to get ahead in life. It is drawn by the asset-rich to lure the asset-poor into their employ. It is a class-based system, dividing rather than uniting us. We now think of our lives in terms of the jobs we are offered rather than how we treat other people and other species through our stewardship practices. Sure, we get good at what we do, and earn money in the process, but that is not why we’re here. We are not born warriors, mechanics, or seamstresses, we are born Earthlings who must steward their gifts if they are to survive. We are meant to accrue an understanding of Earth’s truths, not wealth in and for itself. We are meant to act positively on behalf of life itself, not negatively for self alone. We are meant to create organic order, not the mechanized chaos we do by waging wars around the globe—as if that furthered the interests of life in any way whatsoever. There are no such things as natural resources meant for our taking; that is a fundamental category error. Consciousness is an emergent aspect of life itself, a self-contained guidance system. That, our bodies, surrounding communities, and natural environments are what we are given to work with and make the most of where we are. Now, not later on.

What I am trying to say is that ruined hope for a better future is a more accurate measure of any disaster than property losses or body counts. Hope lives in human consciousness as an urge toward a brighter light ahead. True wealth tells the capacity for hope based on possibilities for constructive action in today’s world. Husbandry and stewardship create hope; monetary wealth devastates hope through possibilities removed from the commons. Haiti lying in ruin from a shift in tectonic plates is tantamount to Iraq and Afghanistan lying in ruin from America flaunting its military might. We could not have prevented the one, but could have the others by holding eternity in mind. By making the most of our individual gifts rather than the least through flexing our military-industrial capacity for inflicting devastation and despair. Consciousness is given us as a gift; unfortunately the instruction manual—our living habitat or environment—is now largely made over by us, leaving us separated not only from nature but our own gift for life. With the result we are dead before our time, carrying on, true—but doing so ideologically, not weighing the moment and engaging the living Earth instead of our rote and sorry depiction of it.

Earth is rocked by enough natural disasters as it is without humanity inflicting additional devastation of its own devising. What we need is more compassion, sharing, healing, and hope such as are conveyed by our heritage of survival, and enabled by awareness of our common Earthling predicament. Taking the long view, keeping Earth’s evolving, biological eternity in mind, equips us to cope with natural disasters when they come upon us. That way we work with one another rather than against by taking more than our share, adding our small effort, heightening the possibility that, with or without us, life on Earth just may have a future.

Cannon

 

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)

I trace the fall of natural religion to the removal of the rites of Dionysus from the Greek countryside to Athens early in the sixth century B.C.E. (before current era) when the tyrant Peisistratus founded an official Dionysiac feast. After that, the wisdom of synchronizing human activities with seasonal cycles of dieback and regeneration was replaced by effete, urban reenactments, many echoed in various liturgical calendars of today. Religious rituals persisted, but no longer moored to favorable growing conditions and the cycles of nature, they became matters more of superstition and convention than survival.

In the case of rural Dionysian rituals as transplanted to Athens, earlier ceremonies promoted human sensitivity to fertility and reproductive vigor of crops and soils through the flow of vital juices symbolized in the person of Dionysus himself. He was the embodiment, as W.K.C. Guthrie points out in The Greeks and Their Gods, “of not only wine, but the life-blood of animals, the male semen which fertilizes the female, the juicy sap of plants.” Earlier orgiastic rites mimicking the high drama of the year were replaced in the city by occasions for staging new tragedies, originally in honor of Dionysus, but soon deflecting his creative genius onto mere mortals who were awarded prizes for the fecundity—not of their juices—but their dramatic poetry.

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides certainly deserved the acclaim, and every mortal should aspire to their level of creative achievement. But when people are content to serve as spectators of rather than participants in events, we run the risk of passively living through other people’s trials and adventures, which is not the same as forging lives of our own. If we do not live on the forefront of our lives, can we claim to be alive anywhere at all?

Migration of the human mind and spirit to urban centers led to a huge change in consciousness as emphasis shifted from the personal to the cultural. Citified human understanding wanted to housebreak the creative enthusiasm exhibited everywhere in nature as a kind of bad habit, so disciplined it to conform with culturally acceptable symbols and ideas. The former personifications of ritual energy released at appropriate seasons (in the guise of Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris, et al.), became characters in myths and stories rather than forces to be dealt with in everyday life. They served as cultural metaphors for what everyone might feel if they felt anything at all. As Guthrie writes, “The authorities of the Greek states . . . did not accept the barbaric stranger [Dionysus] without, in some cases at least, emptying his worship of its most characteristic content.” You could honor his antics from a safe distance without risking ecstasy, muddy feet, or mussed hair. Guthrie characterizes the result as “emasculation of his worship” by civil authorities in Athens.

In Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, E. O. James writes:

Greek tragedy or comedy began . . . as a religious service held at the festivals of Dionysus, in the country in December, in the city in March, and at the Lenaia in January. . . . But as it lost its seasonal character, by the third century B.C., the drama became secularized, very much as the medieval Mystery and Miracle plays were dissociated from the Church and lost their sacred significance and character when in the secularized versions they were enacted in the marketplace by strolling players.

My point is that when a culture’s practices control the minds of its members rather than the other way around—innate, natural consciousness expressing itself through cultural practices—then the primary purpose of membership in a tribe or larger group striving to live in harmony with its place on Earth has been subverted by top-down authority for the sake of its own power, wealth, influence, and position. We dress this transformation in positive guise as a means of becoming civilized, forgetting the price we pay in putting fetters on personal consciousness. The difference is similar to that between true democracy in opposition to self-serving monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, or other schemes by which the consciousness of the many is shaped by the will of a privileged elite.

Speaking of which, consider the case of Jack Welch. In keeping with the violence done to natural values by adoption of a medium of exchange in the form of a particular currency accepted throughout a culture (topic of my last post, Reflection 160: Of Two Minds), David Owen writes of Nell Minow’s realizing the import of the retirement agreement C.E.O. Jack Welch worked out with General Electric:

The agreement gave Welch not only millions of dollars but also free lifetime use of a company Boeing 737 and a helicopter; floor-level tickets for the Knicks; box seats for the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Metropolitan Opera; exclusive use of a company Manhattan apartment; fresh flowers for the apartment; dry-cleaning and Internet service; tips for his doormen; home security systems for four residences that he owned; numerous golf-club memberships; and dozens of other perks and amenities. . . . Whereas less extravagantly compensated people often take pride in being able to make purchases from their earnings, [Minow] said, ‘If you are super-rich, that thrill is gone’ (“The Pay Problem,” The New Yorker, Oct. 12, 2009).

That’s what spectatorship leads to—a wholly cultural life. Welch’s perks kick-in only upon his leaving the company, proving, for the elite at least, there is life in the hereafter. The very model of a modern tycoon, Welch was gaming his company, his culture, and his planet for all they were worth, playing by city rules the whole time, supporting a lifestyle based not on personal, biological needs and values, but on money (the one value officially sponsored by his culture) to an extravagant degree of degeneracy. Such a life is a caricature of civilized man—all take and no give. With no respect shown the environment (here the Hudson River Valley) that makes life itself possible in the region, the river in this instance receiving G.E.’s waste stream laced with PCBs.

Speaking of cultural devils, members of Congress cease to represent their constituencies when they become members of political parties which intercede between them and their supporters. Here again, the cost of living a cultural existence is the cause, which renders the sound judgment of mere mortals null and void. Every Democrat in the Senate voted to move the healthcare debate to the floor, every Republican voted to keep it safely hidden where it was. As if humans came in two colors—red and blue—with no shades of purple in between. This is a crude example of lock-step consciousness, all members of each party hiding behind the same grimacing masks. Forcing the nuanced values of the people who elected them into either of two molds—pro or con—go or no-go.

In rural areas, people are generally taken as they are; in cities, they spend much of their time posing because, with their individual values stripped from them, they can only go through the motions of trying to make themselves attractive. Now over half of America lives in cities removed from the land, removed from personal values, removed from the mental acumen they began acquiring at birth. There are few self-made men or women left. It is easier to open yourself to your culture and let it take your soul. That is, let the aggressive, arrogant, and over-confident elite—the Jack Welches of the world—take over your mind so you come to believe in them and the values they serve. Where Dionysus stood for getting with nature’s program because human life depended on it, demigod Welch tells G.E., “Get with my program because my lifestyle depends on it!” and G.E. sees its duty and goes along, paying Welch by picking the pockets of its customers, shareholders, and workers.

Whatever your price, buy in to the system and let the magic happen. Pledge proper allegiance, sing the proper national anthem, pray to the proper gods and celebrities, buy the right clothes, mumble the right slogans, go to the right schools, root for the right teams, see the right films, vote the right ticket—you are one of Us! All it will cost is a lifetime of your personal earnings, originality, and self-respect. The main thing is to pay your dues to your culture. To be its creature so you don’t have to deal with the anxiety of thinking for yourself. If you live up to others’ expectations, your culture will see to it that Jack Welch gets his retirement package, leaving you free to live vicariously the rest of your days.

The alternative is to raze the corporations and cities where culture rules every thought and gesture. Visualize the scene. Smell the lust. Savor the greed. Then send everyone back to the country to become bumpkins again—fallible human beings who have to discover who they are the hard way without being sold the answer in advance. Ease back on culture, strive for individual integrity and personhood. Define your own projects and challenges for yourself. Come up with your own answers and solutions. Live your own life. Don’t subscribe to the same old views, don’t keep sending the same checks; forget paying your dues. Aspire to be more than just another member; be your own person. Become conscious again.

That way, when you die, it will be your own life you lose, not someone’s whose mind you have paid for, stolen, or enslaved.

Solitary Oarsman