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


If  Only We’d

Taken It To Heart).

Grave Marker



(Copyright © 2009)

Extreme sports are the norm among those who feel they have to prove themselves. These days, walking is about as boring as weak tea or rice pudding. But in his time, Henry David Thoreau made walking the equivalent of an extreme sport. In “Walking” in his posthumously published book of essays, Excursions (Houghton Mifflin, 1893, originally published 1863), he says this: 

We should go forth on the shortest walk . . . in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk. (Page 252f.)

Bungee jumping or hang gliding off a cliff, maybe—but walking? What these activities share if Thoreau could have compared them is freedom. People in every age have made sacrifices and taken risks to be free in living their lives. We all know the feeling of getting away from our troubles, duties, and responsibilities for a time. Freefalling through the air can take you there, and walking through the right terrain can as well. Not walking to reach a set destination, but walking with a free spirit, which is what Thoreau had in mind:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. (Page 254.)

That kind of walking frees consciousness to follow its own course without distraction. To engage the landscape out of interest and excitement, not necessity. Being free opens the way to adventure and discovery, which is what Thoreau sought on his jaunts:

Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farm-house which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey [in western Africa]. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (Page 259.)

Here walking is used to expand consciousness by exploring the limits of personal experience in such a way to achieve resonance with all that the landscape has to offer over the course of a lifetime. That, now, is walking. Walking as an extension of the mind, as a mutual engagement between consciousness and its place on Earth in its time. Can anything be more exciting, demanding, or rewarding than that?

One Saturday in June, to make a point of walking, not driving, I joined two friends in walking a little over a mile and a half along Norway Drive to reach the site of a day-long retreat—and then back again that evening:

We pass by Hamilton Pond where we meet three snapping turtles digging nests in roadside sand. Lupine, buttercups, iris, and daylilies bloom all along the way; cow lilies are just coming on. A female black duck crosses the road heading for the pond, followed by a single duckling; they sail off through reflections of pine, spruce, and birch across the cove. In roadside marshes, bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds pour out liquid duets. Three turkey vultures sweep circles through blue sky. On the return walk, we gape at a bald eagle atop a tall spruce. A pair of flycatchers alight on a pondside bush. Slanting sunrays on green foliage, flowers, light winds, clear air, birdsong, good friends—all add to far more than an experiment in cutting our carbon footprints: it is a celebration of ambulatory life itself. What are we doing driving along listening to CDs or the radio when we could be coursing along the footpaths of the Earth!

We commonly believe we have to be fully employed to survive. Every act must contribute to the economy—our modern-day god. But Thoreau’s point in Walden is that the human economy is an aberration of nature which turns life into drudgery—as if drudgery were a virtue. No wonder he steers clear of the cultural wonders of his day in taking his walks.

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (Page 260.)

Freedom for Thoreau, then, is freedom from distraction by what many take to be the essence of civil affairs. Imagine being free from the news of the day, from All Things Considered, say—from stock prices, political posturing, the fraught lives of celebrities, from glamour and glitz and hype and spin and the rest of the distractions we waste our lives attending to in great detail so we can achieve the required degree of emptiness in time to die. If I really want to scare myself, I think of the horde honking and waving to get my attention so I can devote precious energy and awareness to their concerns and not mine. I’m with Thoreau in his take on walking: 

In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man. (Page 261.)

Exactly, we pride ourselves on blowing smoke rings as if we didn’t have worthier things to do with our lives. The most recent presidential primaries and campaign went on for two years! Two years in the lives of 300 million people represent a heap of Earth’s energy spent trying to affect the outcome of a single day of voting in one nation. We could have gone on a lot of walks in that time and ended up our own persons knowing exactly where we were and what we stood for, not mere constituents of one party or another—elephants or jackasses.

What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk? I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. (Page 265.)

That’s what I’m searching to discover in this blog, that “subtle magnetism in Nature” that provides proper guidance if only we would attend to it inwardly, not outwardly. That sense of direction wise men and women have steered by since beginning times. Every now and then I sense it strongly, that pull to pay attention to what is truly important. And do my best to follow that pull wherever it leads because it is the most important clue consciousness can provide about the meaning and purpose of life. Everything about us is “of” nature, after all. We are natural beings from a long line of natural beings. It is fitting for us to walk in nature to ensure our current state of nature can engage its proper companions.

We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does no yet exist distinctly in our idea. (Page 265.)

From my perspective, consciousness is not devoted solely to the ideal but is far larger in being experiential to the max. That is, besides cognition, it embraces every aspect of emotional, imaginative, and sensory life. I’d say here Thoreau’s transcendentalism may be getting in the way by crediting guidance to intuitive perception of “higher laws” as if they existed apart from personal consciousness. For myself, I believe the human mind is the great organizer and, given sufficient experience to chew on, is fully capable of finding its own way without the tug of external magnetism, so-called. When our minds are clouded, the problem often comes down to being distracted by other minds with other agendas made evident and insistent through the culture we live in. How are the greedy to profit if we follow our own star as our own man and woman? I love to travel through the fullness of my experience, as Thoreau did of his. He was a native explorer of two worlds at once, both inner and outer in balanced relationship. 

It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness. (Page 266f.)

Into the wilderness of his personal consciousness, that is, in preference to the civilized world of the city other men had built for themselves. Walking, for Thoreau, frees him from “all worldly engagements.” It offers the journey of self-exploration leading to self-discovery and the hard-won freedom of being himself. In the city, this is sometimes painted as escapism into the interior. But look what came in Thoreau’s case from such a personal journey: works such as Walden, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, Excursions, as well as The Journal. Only one person could have written them. We are fortunate he insisted on being free to walk his own path.

We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure (Page 267.)

If we do not pursue that adventure, whose life are we living? Not our own, surely. No, we live the life of the “good citizen.” The end of selfless living is working for someone else, which is a better bargain for one than the other. Are we here to support Microsoft, Coca Cola, General Motors, and various governing bodies, or to be ourselves to the hilt? If we drive, we will go where our vehicles take us on roads paved by the state; if we walk, we will end up making our way cross-lots and arriving as free men and women.

Make our own way—that’s exactly what consciousness has evolved to enable us to do. Note carefully: each of us has the equipment. There is no excuse for not using it. We are born navigators and walkers. If in wheelchairs, we are free to engage others in helping us travel. My conclusion regarding running low on oil is it is better we not search for substitutes but learn to go on our own at last. That is, to discover our own journeys and not follow the official map too closely. Consciousness and intuition will guide us, feet and legs go the distance. Cities will become human again, carbon footprints shrink. And the rewards will not go to others but will accrue to us precisely to the extent we move ourselves forward.

Martin Luther King Jr.-72




(Copyright © 2009)


Money is a pure idea, an abstraction having only symbolic value but no concrete, existential qualities of its own. The sensory or qualitative attributes associated with bills and coins belong more properly to currency issued in tangible form by duly authorized mints in symbolic denominations having value separate from any historic, artistic, or material value they may have. With money, the value is in the mind, which may be projected onto coins in the hand, goods in the market, stashes under the mattress, IOUs, and so on.

The point of money is to facilitate past, present, or future exchanges of items deemed to have value, so enabling apples and oranges to be fairly bartered against the same standard in the marketplace over time. If the price is not right today, perhaps later.

But where does the value of money actually come from? Labor is one source, representing more-or-less skillful work enabled by calories from sunlight via Earth’s plant and animal life. Capital is another, derived from productive land itself or minerals and other commodities taken from land or sea. In this sense, money is hardly symbolic but represents value derived in every case from the nature and productivity of the Earth. In fact the entire human economy depends absolutely on value received from our planet directly or indirectly from the sun. These are tangible, extracted values indeed, not merely abstract or symbolic ones. Backing every dollar, yen, euro, peso is Earth itself, the bank on which our livelihoods depend absolutely.

The French farmer hoisting a clod of soil into the air in his fist, crying: “This is France!” has it exactly right. The state survives by the good graces of its waters and soils, not subsequent human endeavor as is commonly supposed. In the most concrete sense possible, the value of money represents labor, metabolism, food, territory, and Earth resources. In a very real sense, money is equivalent to territory giving us a foothold on Earth. That is its derivation. Territory for producing food to support a worker’s metabolism, territory providing resources—the ultimate capital. Printing money puts us into debt—to Earth itself. For which Earth gets a big fat IOU. In a very real sense, the more we consume, the more we are indebted. We withdraw, Earth pays—that is the system we have devised for ourselves without giving credit where it is due, as if Earth’s gifts were externals and not the ultimate reality.

Having gotten this far into today’s post, I visited the Jesup Library in Bar Harbor on my way to the post office. Browsing through the New York Times of April 12, I came across an OpEd piece by Eric Zencey under the title, “Mr. Soddy’s Ecological Economy.” Mr. Soddy being Frederick Soddy, a British chemist who became an economist active in the 1920s and 1930s. This sentence leapt straight into my brain:

The amount of wealth that an economy can create is limited by the amount of low-entropy energy that it can sustainably suck from its environment—and by the amount of high-entropy effluent from an economy that the environment can sustainably absorb.

There, in one sentence is what I’ve been trying to say in four paragraphs! And I never even got to the waste part. Of course, to understand that sentence you have to know about entropy—the flip side of work in being spent energy reduced to such a low state as to be useless.

Then I read the whole piece and this 1970s revisioning of the economy as a living system by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen made even more sense:

Like all life, [the economy] draws from its environment valuable (or “low entropy”) matter and energy—for animate life, food; for an economy, energy, ores, the raw materials provided by plants and animals. And like all life, an economy emits a high-entropy wake—it spews degraded matter and energy: waste heat, waste gases, toxic byproducts, apple cores, the molecules of iron lost to rust and abrasion. Low entropy emissions include trash and pollution in all their forms, including yesterday’s newspaper, last year’s sneakers, last decade’s rusted automobile.

Zencey goes on to say [very mildly, I thought] there’s “a systemic flaw in how our economy finances itself.” In my words, we keep overdrawing our account with the Earth because we do not acknowledge our indebtedness, claiming it is external to our method of accounting. That is, it is hidden from consciousness as if it did not exist. Except it does, and we habitually avert our gaze. Our left-brain interpreters never told us; how were we to know?

It is time we learned to live with Earth as good stewards, not on it as if it were merely our pad in the universe. Which means accounting for our fouling of the environment with two truckloads of waste for every one truckload of resources we extract from it. This has been going on long enough that this imbalance is being noticed by those on the forefront of economic awareness who hope to settle our long-overdue debt to the Earth. It’s like credit-card debt, only fatal, not just extravagant.

The best book I’ve read lately is an offshoot from the Quaker Institute for the Future (in some people’s eyes, an oxymoron if ever there was one), a book by Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver titled Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009). To capture the flavor of the book, I offer three excerpts which point to the revolution in consciousness we need to establish a sustainable economy:

1. As we make the personal choices we must make each day, we face the dilemma of being dependent on a society that causes ecological destruction we abhor. We cannot turn away from the modern world, yet we must curb our demands so that the earth’s resources are sustained. We are called to show, by our daily choices and actions, the way toward a more harmonious, more fulfilling, nondestructive way for humans to live on our planet—the way to harvest the fruit without destroying the tree (page 156).

2. Do we have to wait for the earth’s decline to reach such a crisis point that it can no longer support significant numbers of people and species, before we unite with our fellow human beings to bring about the necessary economic and governance changes? If we do wait, widespread environmental degradation and escalating violent conflict over energy, water, wood, and food are inevitable, with even larger and more tragic population movements than the planet is already enduring. Many people will die, and many will endure lives of great misery (page 168).

3. Instead of the anxious, illusory pursuit of more money and possessions, people need to think about pursuing joyful, grateful, and fulfilling lives in right relationship with life’s commonwealth. Values progression of this kind is needed not only at a personal level but also in institutions and enterprises at the community, national, and international level. Many indigenous peoples already have cultural values and belief systems that support right relationships, which rest primarily on respect and gratitude for all that is (page 168).

Imagine an economy based on shared gratitude for the gifts Earth grants us, not on some mock competition for goods and wealth produced we care not where, by what or whom. That will be the day consciousness triumphs over ignorance and arrogance, the day humanity truly comes of age.