Reflection 47: Stewardship

January 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989 was due to a failure of consciousness. So was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. As was the Visigoth sacking of Rome led by Alaric in 410 CE, and likely the Achaean sacking of Troy in the 11th-century BCE. In modern times, global warming and sea-level rise result from similar failures of consciousness, along with the Enron hoax, America’s preemptive war in Iraq, unsustainable lifestyles, the current recession, Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion scam, among other catastrophes due to lax regulation and oversight—personal and otherwise.

 

Consciousness is the control center of deliberate human activity. Much of what we do in the world is subject to its governance, including actions meant to gain an advantage by deceiving others who are not privy to our schemes and desires. Let the buyer beware, we say. Which we take as a license for perpetrating all manner of malevolent tomfoolery. Human nature? There you have a good portion of it. Resulting in much of the chaotic behavior we see around us on all sides. And, truth be told, which we ourselves indulge in when we think no one is looking.

 

Bernie Madoff would never take advantage of his friends, he’s just not that kind of guy. Except he is precisely that kind of guy and no one suspected. American consumers would never be stupid enough to sacrifice planet Earth for a few moments of comfort and convenience. Except, that is exactly who we are. Not collectively in the mass, but individually, each and every one. Especially those of us whose way of life demands maximum consumption of Earth’s limited resources.

 

Failures of consciousness are failures of vigilance, of personal husbandry and stewardship. Husbandry refers to careful management of resources. Stewardship comes from an ancient word meaning “to watch out for.” It has overtones of being aware, wary, watchful, and respectful. A steward is a kind of guard, keeper, or warden of nature’s gifts to us all. Consciousness is each person’s head steward. Its job is oversight of personal behavior to make sure it is appropriate to particular situations. When consciousness is devious, distracted, drunk, or asleep at the helm, anything goes.

 

Denial, secrecy, and subterfuge are means of throwing consciousness off track when it comes to governing our affairs. Here’s an example:

 

I am a member of a bay management advisory group on the coast of Maine. Our aim is to take fisheries management to a new level consistent with the ecological health of marine and estuarine ecosystems. Not along the entire coast, but in one small bay serving as a kind of prototype for exploring more effective ways of managing coastal resources.

One way of doing that might be to declare the bay a marine sanctuary or protected area. But Mainers have strong sympathies with folks who make a living at sea, so our group has adopted the double objective of protecting ecosystems and fishermen both through a strong emphasis on stewardship for the sake of sustainability.

          Which is where consciousness comes in. To set a limit on how much of a given resource (scallops, mussels, sea urchins, kelp, etc.) can be taken from the bay without disturbing the ecosystems they depend on, we have to figure how much of each resource is present in the bay, and set an allowable catch as a reasonable percentage of that total. Then we ask fishermen to report daily on their catch of target species and bycatch (of incidental species). Which requires stock assessments for each species, meaning someone has to dive down and count the population per unit area. That is, bring the bay’s actual situation into consciousness, along with the daily catch. If we can’t set the allowable catch as a percentage of the potential catch, we would be working in the dark and might as well pick a random number of pounds as allowable—or give up ecosystem-based management altogether.

          Fishermen are largely opposed to any kind of oversight aimed at their activities out on the water. They prefer confidentiality to transparency. I can’t blame them; who likes backseat drivers, even when they’re lost? Regulatory measures such as quotas, no-take zones, and harvest seasons go against their grain. But accurate stock assessments and mandatory reporting are essential if sustainable harvests are to become a reality. Thereby putting strong pressure on fishermen to become stewards of the marine ecosystems they depend on. Which is a little like appointing a fox as henhouse steward. Or like electing a realtor as head of the local planning board.

 

You see the problem. Consciousness is essentially a private and personal affair, whereas social interactions are best based on transparency and full disclosure. We can never be sure what lurks in another’s mind. If we cannot base our relationships on honesty, then we are wise to become cynics and suspect the worst.

 

What a sorry state of affairs. Amply illustrated by the current state of the world. Sink the Titanic, wreck the Earth—same thing. It’s not that consciousness is inherently flawed, it’s more the way we mortals apply it. We make the mistake of thinking our situation as we view it is at the heart of the real world. What do we know? Very little, it turns out, of all there is to be known. We are like fruit flies dreaming we are the point of life and run the whole show.

 

In the example above I used the phrase, “Stewardship for the sake of sustainability.” Which requires taking a larger view of the world stage than our personal situations allow. Consciousness is fine, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t cover very much of all that’s happening on Earth. We act in small and selfish ways on a planet that nurtures us all. Collectively, our acts are more than Earth can bear.

 

What to do? We’ve all got to become good stewards of the personal bailiwicks consciousness presents to us rather than sacking them for our short-term advantage as if they did not connect to every other bailiwick and to our common Earth as a whole. Which means acting not for ourselves alone, but acting as if we were delegates of Earth itself, which we are. That is, we have to rediscover transparency as an essential value so that in acting in light of personal consciousness we are acting on behalf of consciousness as a planetary accomplishment. We are conscious, not for ourselves alone, but for Earth itself. We are Earth’s eyes and ears.

 

That is what becoming stewards demands of us: being stewards unto ourselves so that we may share in the sustainability of all. Which is the opposite of the Bernie Madoff approach. It is up to us to take the initiative and do unto others as a sustainable Earth requires, not as a reflection of our puny selves-writ-large would do unto us.

 

Honesty, stewardship, and transparency first; sustainability will follow as a matter of course. That is one challenge humanity is facing (the other big one is our excessive population). Are we up to it? Each of us has the basic equipment. It is our choice whether to skillfully apply it or not.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Clouds, nothing but clouds. I am looking for a first sight of the Rocky Mountains, but all I see through the windshield is clouds. Flanked by my brothers and two dogs, I am in the back seat of the car. My parents are in front. I am leaning forward, looking down the road toward the horizon. Which is hidden by clouds. The family is moving to Seattle. We’ve gotten to eastern Colorado, which is flat, offering long views ahead. Of clouds. I keep looking. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Half an hour. Nothing but clouds. I am about to burst with disappointment when, suddenly, the white clouds, those same ones I’ve been peering at all the while—turn into snow-capped mountains. The Rockies! I see them! Nobody says a word. They’ve seen them all along.

 

Strange business. Looking, but not seeing. Or seeing wrongly. Then in a blink seeing rightly. We project what we know onto what we see, and if we are unprepared for novelty, we see the same old, same old. The people elected Bush-Cheney (according to the Supreme Court), not once but twice—because of the war in Iraq. Fooled ya, suckers! Suddenly we realize Bernie Madoff is a crook! All along we thought he was a pal. Everyone did. Ha. He madoff with their dough. Suckers! Me included (as if I knew Bernie, or had any money to invest). In my own way I’m a sucker. Maybe you are, too.

 

Fresh out of high school, I’m in Nespelum, Washington, on the banks of the Columbia River. This time there are clouds too, but I’m not looking at them, or at the river. I’m too busy digging a hole in the ground. Looking for Indian artifacts. The Chief Joseph Dam is under construction, and this ground will be flooded. I’m a volunteer with a team of archaeologists from the University of Washington. Three feet down, I think I’ve found something. Hard, white. I switch from trowel to whisk broom and toothbrush. There’s a suture. Looks like a skull. Brush, brush. Blow, blow. See, it’s rounded, like a dome. Brush, brush. Gotta be a skull. We haven’t found any human remains on this dig. I’m gonna be first! Brush, brush. The dome has a funny edge. Brush, brush. A ridge, like Neanderthals had. This has gotta be really old. After hours of brushing away a few grains of sand at a time, I have much of the dome exposed, ridge and all. A real archaeologist comes by to see how I’m doing. Whatchagot there, Steve? Looks like some kind of turtle.

 

Rightly or wrongly, seeing is believing. Along with Bush-Cheney and Bernard Madoff, even my own eyes can deceive me. And so can yours. Who can we trust? Who indeed? John D. Rockefeller’s dad played a game with him in the kitchen. Little Johnny’d climb into a chair, stand up, then jump toward his father. Who always put his arms out to catch him. Until the one time he didn’t. That’s to teach you not to trust anybody, not even your father, he said.

 

That’s a hard lesson to learn. Not even my own eyes? Not even your own eyes, or your own ears. What can I say? If you want to work with your consciousness, you might as well enjoy the adventure of learning how to do that. It won’t be easy and will be full of surprises, but learning how to double check your senses and the reality they present for your approval will be well worth the effort.

 

Then you can move on to establishing a working relationship with your unconscious mind, which will take even longer. The more we learn about the workings of our senses, the farther “reality” drifts off into the middle distance. Sadder perhaps but wiser, we are left to contemplate the view from where we are standing.

 

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