415. Each One an Experiment

January 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Copyright © 2009)

My freshman year in college, I learned about what were nicely called “fudge factors” in math class. You’d do your homework, of course, and compare the answer you got with the one in the back of the book. If they were different, you’d simply adjust your answer by a fudge factor that would make it come out right.

Fudge factors are as old as the hills. And as new as today. When I feel lightheaded and can’t think, I say it’s the new or full moon, or low atmosphere pressure, or something I ate, or I’m having a bad day, or I’m just not myself, or I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever is not going right can be explained by one kind of fudge factor or another that when applied, helps me adjust to the circumstances I’m in.

In the Second World War, when airplanes didn’t perform as they should, it was blamed on gremlins, ill-tempered little  beings who loved to gum up the works. Gremlins were fudge factors that marked problems until an explanation could be found. Kilrokilroywasherey played a somewhat similar function during the war as Allied Forces advanced through Europe, showing up in the damndest places as a little face with a big nose peering over a fence drawn above the slogan, “Kilroy was here.” Wherever you went, Kilroy always got there first, making foreign parts feel almost familiar to troops far from home.

Fudge factors are some of the first principles of consciousness. We are so earnest in wanting things to turn out right, we enlist them to do the heavy lifting of making events as they turn out conform to our hopes and basic assumptions. If we believe in a supreme being, then everything that happens expresses the will of that being. God hurled Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans to punish the city for its errant ways. Nothing is neater and tidier than that trick. Or for good or ill, whatever happens is a matter of luck. If you luck-out, you win; if you don’t, you lose. Either way, the assumption holds. Similarly, if you believe in astrology, you can’t go wrong. Whatever happens in life is a function of alignments and relationships between planets at the moment of birth (or conception). The system is so complicated and subject to subtle shadings of influence, everything ends up being a function of every possible effect, proving the worth of the system. Astrology works particularly well in hindsight so once knowing the effect, you can give proper credit to whatever cause you select.

Consciousness comes fully equipped with the latest fudge factors. Whatever you believe, you can justify; whatever you justify, you can believe. I believe ecosystems run all life on Earth. Wherever I look, there be ecosystems. Interfere with ecosystems, you interfere with life in that place. If life goes wrong, look to the ecosystems that support it. Neat, simple, and maybe even partly right. But ecosystems are never the whole story; they are the rationale by which I make sense to myself, my personal fudge factor in reconciling my understanding with the facts. “Ecosystem” is shorthand for a complex biological system beyond my comprehension. “Watershed” is of the same order in, as I say, receiving, storing, and distributing the water on which all life depends. When I look on a landscape, I see watersheds. Ah ha, see there! Moisture flowing through the land, bringing it to life—just as I said it would.

Or you could say of an event, it was fated to happen. In northern climes, snow generally melts in March or April, so the landscape seems fated to restore itself shortly thereafter. Fate is one of the oldest fudge factors because it explains everything. Whatever happens is fated to happen. Thus it is written in the great book of time. You don’t need to understand biological systems to give all credit to fate for how things work out. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be—as if it was all written out beforehand, as somebody or something knew it would turn out.

Mother Nature is also a common fudge factor. I’ve heard a great many fishermen credit her with masterminding the migrations of fish, the relative abundance of species year to year, ups and downs of thermometers and barometers and tide gauges, and so on. Mother Nature works through natural cycles of dearth and plenty, bad years and good. Exploitation of resources has nothing to do with it. What happens is what she wants to happen. If a fishery gets depleted, you just turn to another—usually lower in the food pyramid. If a fishery recovers somewhat, you say “I told you it would, you’ve got to have faith in Mother Nature.”

Of course Mother Nature is the female counterpart of God the ultimate Father. We seem to like our fudge factors to take on a human guise so we can relate to them up-front and personally. Instead of seeing God as a creation of the human mind, we turn the notion on its head and see God as the creator of the universe—including the human mind—who controls everything that happens. On that assumption, there are no mysteries anymore because God is the ultimate cause, and you just trace everything back to him. That way you feel you understand everything when in fact you understand nothing. God is just a manner of speaking—a verbal figment whose only meaning is the ritualized suite of behaviors we perform when we mention his name. That, and the attitude of submission we assume in abandoning our quest to understand the workings of the world. Those who pose rational arguments against claims for God’s existence are wasting their time. The concept of God is not rational. Like any fudge factor, God is an expedient to deploy when you haven’t done your homework. God is a cop-out, not an answer to a serious question.

In minds where God holds forth in broad daylight, the Devil frequently lurks in his shadow. God is assigned the job of making good things happen, the Devil of bringing destruction and disaster wherever he can in his capacity as ultimate gremlin. The Devil puts a face on entropy, and makes it intentional in fulfilling a preconceived purpose. Ascribing consciousness to gods, devils, gremlins, elves, and even Uncle Scrooge makes them all agents of ourselves—the projectors—as if we fully understood what was going on. This demonstrates the weakness in Bishop Ockham’s razor by which the simplest explanation is likely to apply. Nothing is simpler than projecting consciousness into fictitious beings—yet even though it makes us feel good, it leaves our preconceived assumptions absolutely intact. Fudge factors mock true learning and intelligence by the shoddiness with which they are applied. We may entertain them with good-humored affection—as Kilroy was held by G.I.s in World War II—but in truth we are kidding ourselves if we take the joke seriously.

Fudge factors transform dross into treasure, which is what alchemists tried to do in transmuting base metals into noble ones. They serve as a kind of philosophers’ stone for rubbing tarnish off one thing, making it shine like something else as if mere friction could turn lead into gold. In that sense, fudge factors are elixirs of the mind for turning the annoying into the acceptable, the bad into the good, the not-so-good into the perfect. Fudge factors and elixirs are underlying principles whose falsity and absurdity are not taken into account because only the seeming results are what matter. They are lies we tell ourselves in striving toward little-t truth.

Science, on the other hand, messy as it is, relies on evidence, not magical explanations. If it has a magic elixir, it is likely a supposed dependence on reason rather than hunches, trial and error, persistence, and sometimes luck in being in the right place at the right time to witness a particular phenomenon. Scientists often employ the human faculty of insight—an exercise in informed imagination—which nobody truly understands, but can sometimes lead the way to discovery. The difference between insights and elixirs is that one comes from inside the problem itself as an organic extension, while the other is laid on from the outside to make it work out in an acceptable manner, so confirming prior belief. Science, then, is capable of moving forward; fudge factors always send us back where we were. At its best, science is progressive, while reliance on magical thinking is regressive, allowing us to think we are moving ahead while we are actually stuck in our tracks.

Attitude is the key to choosing between magic elixirs and true insights. Do we insist on claiming to know, or are we willing to live with the fact that we don’t? If we fall in the first class, pride and rigidity are our undoing. If in the second, disbelief and humility are our burden. The difference is told by the fabled race between tortoise and hare. Hare bounds effortlessly ahead, then sits on his haunches and gloats. Tortoise digs in with each claw and lurches in a direction he can’t fully appreciate—until he crosses the finish line first and discovers where he was headed all along. Those who leap lithely without fully challenging themselves are apt to fall behind; those who pull themselves along by doing the work required to go one step at a time will eventually cover more ground than those who advance by fits and starts.

Either way, the issue is to find a way of dealing effectively with our current situation as we construe it in consciousness. I mean the italics to emphasize the difference between, on one hand, thinking we already know the world as it is, and on the other, assuming responsibility for shaping that world by means of rigorous probing of personal experience. Elixirs and fudge factors provide ready answers as if we knew what we were talking about, providing immediate comfort in a false sense of security; taking trouble to investigate why we see things as we do commits us to a much more arduous path which, in the end, can lead to surprising and even profound insights into our true situation. The choice is ours to make, the understanding ours to earn.

Fudge factors and elixirs are the easy way out. In life, there are no answers in the back of the book because the book has never been written. Lead cannot be transmuted into gold no matter how hard we wish it so. Put differently, each of us must write her own book by living her life as best she can. That’s why I say attitude is so important in exploring consciousness. We can seed it with what we already know—and learn nothing. Or we can live with doubt and uncertainty by questioning everything we do. One way leads backward, one forward.

I opt to move ahead by studying how I visualize my own situation in the world, how I construe it, shape it, formulate it, depict it, describe it, concoct it, characterize it—all on my own. Without resorting to fudge factors, elixirs, gods, angels, devils, or easy answers of any kind. Life, in the end, is the result of how we live. It does not exist as an abstract entity we magically fulfill by being born. Life is neither this nor that—it is precisely what we make it for ourselves from our own inner stuff. Life is the process of making sense under the circumstances we find ourselves in, which we can only interpret as best we can, and then reconsider in light of what happens next. There are no right answers; there is only what we do.

hare-snowshoe_5-89

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I remember climbing Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire on a hot, August day. Not the actual climb so much as the heat and the glare. I hadn’t liked the feel of the pack against my back, so I’d stashed it between the roots of a shady tree at the base of the trail. My hat was in that pack, along with my water bottle. It was a glorious day with no wind, yet brutal in its way. Bare granite reflected the heat, broiling me from above, baking me from below. Like mad dogs and Englishmen, I kept on as if I didn’t know any better. Dazed, not caring about the view, I touched base at the top and immediately turned down. I can’t recall any details of the decent. My one thought was water in the bottle snug in my pack. My throat was dry, my eyes itched. I pictured myself reaching the tree, ripping open the pack, drinking, drinking. Which is pretty much how it went. I sat on the moss at the base of the tree for ten minutes thinking what a fool I had been. A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! Desperation increases the value of that which you need but cannot have. My million-dollar swig behind me, I drained the bottle with a trickle worth almost nothing.

 

Supply and demand in the marketplace are said to set the value of things. The crucial question is, What’ll you give me for this? What’s it worth to you? Not later; right here, right now! That’s how barter works. On Bosworth field, King Richard III would have paid his kingdom for a horse. I would have given ten dollars for a drink on Monadnock. When the farmers’ market is about to close, the asking price for produce that won’t keep drops through the floor.

 

That’s the going price. But beyond pragmatics, what’s the true value of a drink of water, or of a horse for that matter? Does our market economy reflect the true value of the goods and services on which our livelihoods depend? Beyond the marketplace, what is the true cost of milk, hamburger, plywood, gas, a flight to Honolulu from Los Angeles?

 

Depends on who you ask, where you ask, when you ask. If, as I have heard, the entire watertable of Afghanistan is polluted, then a drink of pure water to quench your thirst in Kandahar is worth more than you’d think. Which is why people drink so many boiled fluids in the form of tea, coffee, yak’s blood, etc. And non-Muslims drink alcoholic beverages that kill germs.

 

What do we need to sustain life? For starters we need clean water, fresh air, good food, shelter from the elements, clothing that suits us to the prevailing climate, waste disposal, transportation when we need it, healthcare, love, security, social order, and so on. If our life truly depends on such items being available, then in a very real sense they are priceless. If we can’t survive without them, the question then becomes, what is the market value of life itself?

 

Ask any mother to put a price tag on her child’s head and she’ll say, Don’t be ridiculous! Look at what parents go through in rearing their children. Without complaint. Just the opposite—with boundless love. What’s that love worth? Everything to the ones who give and receive it. Very little to those outside the loop of household intimacy.

 

We all depend on a healthy planet. How does the market evaluate that? Has it done an assessment on a comparable planet? Could it even locate one comparable to Earth? Clearly, sadly, the market ignores the issue completely. As if Earth has nothing to do with all those goods and services it evaluates with such care. Which reveals the entire economic enterprise—including the market at its core—to be the sham that it is. Put simply, the economy we have is not worth bailing out when it gets itself into trouble. We need an Earth-centered economy that puts our values where our bodies are, not just our minds.

 

Market economies are a myth because they neither work nor exist. They are a false claim made by those who benefit from the idea of a market as a ruse for hoodwinking the public into parting with (formerly, “investing”) its money. There is no fair and equable way to set price levels on goods and services that are priceless by definition. The price of anything is what the market will bear. That is, what the seller can get away with. In that regard, most of us are chumps most of the time. Looking to make a killing, but chumps nonetheless. Exhibit A: Clientele of Bernie Madoff and his cohort of Ponzi-scheming impresarios. Exhibit B: The rest of us who didn’t see it (the collapse) coming because, beyond our usual haze, we were in a state of deep oblivion.

 

The market works as long as we believe in it. Lose that innocent trust, and it immediately collapses as a myth before our eyes. Which is where it belongs, a heap of rubble at our feet. Instead of setting fair value, the market deceives us into mistaking the sacking of the Earth for liberty and prosperity. Which is exactly what Friedman and Hayek claimed for a free market economy. Which turns out to be just another theological fantasy to keep the people doped-up and happy while their pockets are being picked.

 

The whole enterprise rests on the notion of private property—that Earth, its land, and its produce can be owned by elite members of one of the species that owes all to its sheltering niche (nest) and habitat. The only problem with the market economy is that it leaves out the best parts—its absolute dependence on the goodness and toleration of the planet that makes it possible in the first place—and which it sacks day by day. Aside from those minor flaws, it makes a good bedtime story.

 

But it’s daylight now and time to awaken to the world that truly supports our every endeavor—the natural world run by complex ecosystems beyond our control—which we repay by setting up phony markets making it easy for us to take far more than our share, and by smearing our offal and toxic waste across its flesh.

 

So much for marketing dreams and billing the Earth. It is one thing for the market to collapse; another for Earth to collapse as collateral damage. Even if we didn’t mean it, we are responsible nonetheless. Behind every exchange of goods and services, all barter, all trade, all economic enterprise, all supply and demand, all private property, all ownership, all liberty and prosperity—stands the Earth. When it fails, we are lost. When it fails due to our efforts and our lack of caring, we are guilty. When it fails because we aren’t conscious of what we are doing, we are truly pathetic.

 

I have read papers in academic journals arguing what one American bald eagle is worth to the human economy. A certain mode of thought looks upon ecosystems as providing services having calculable market value. But the real question is what is the value of the human economy to that eagle, that ecosystem, or to any assembly of creatures, plants, fungi, and bacteria, or to Earth itself? Very little, it turns out. Or, if we are of any value to Earth at all, it is a negative value meaning we owe a debt for everything we have taken and placed on the market. When we see what we have done and are doing to our home planet, then, and only then, can we lay claim to being fully conscious. Until that time, we are in the market solely for personal gain, and are blind to Earth and its plight at our mistreatment.

 

In the forty years since that dry hike on Monadnock, I have made a point of bringing water in my fanny-pack. Even people who are not fully conscious are capable of learning. Life experience is the true master teacher. Just as sweaters are knit stitch after stitch, consciousness is built one episode at a time. If we live long enough, and are open to experience, we begin to get the hang of being fully conscious.

 

Now that many of our great institutions are in full collapse, we have an opportunity to ask what we might learn from the experience. Do we really want to rebuild the economy as it was before—or can we view this as an opportunity for trying something new? Like basing whatever economy we come up with on the fact that the true burden of humanity’s wellbeing rests on the many ecosystems supporting our every endeavor. Maybe human life can be sustainable after all. It’s an idea worth looking into. Let’s explore what happens when we submit our wares to Earth’s marketplace instead of our own, and see if we get any bids from other species.

 

¦

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

A year or a hundred years from now, people will still breathe, eat, drink, excrete, have sex, sleep (not necessarily in that order). And still depend on damp soil and photosynthesis in a favorable climate as we do today. Earth will be even more depleted then, but we can’t escape to Mars—the cost would be prohibitive to shoot even two of us to that dreary world. We’re stuck where we are and have to make the best of it. Which means suiting our minds, beliefs, expectations, and actions to our home planet by becoming Earthlings in every thought and deed.

 

Which right now we are not. We distance ourselves from the natural world which provides for us by building an imaginary civilization distinct from the natural order. No other species plays golf, for instance, drugs itself to get through the day, or mistakes DVD films for the real world. We live in a mental space tailored to the habits and beliefs we are used to. Ritualized behaviors keeps us there—as surely as if we were caught in the jaws of a steel trap. Only, it’s not our legs that are caught but our minds.

 

If not Earthlings, what are we? A sort of creature that lives in the space it creates for itself in consciousness. We are creatures of dreams, desires, fears, fantasies, illusions, fairy tales, fiction, and other forms of unreality. We dwell on a planet of make-believe, pretense, as-if, . . . whatever. Sure, technology can solve every problem. Earth can feed and accommodate us, no matter how many we are. There’s no stopping economic progress. What I want right now I deserve. Our ritual behaviors tell us so. If we do the same thing often enough, it’s as good as true, no matter how foolish. Ritual is the repetitive re-enactment of belief. What we do repeatedly is what we become.

 

What we have become is disconnected from the planet that truly supports us in every way. We have slipped from our mooring. Adrift in a fog of our own making, we can’t find our way back. Our compass is broken. We are running out of power. Among treacherous ledges, we are dimly aware of waves crashing ahead.

 

The way back requires synchronizing our ritual behaviors with the rhythmic productivity of the Earth. That is, not insisting ecosystems meet our demands, but living within the natural flow of energy through the ecosystems making up the biosphere. For practical and sustainable purposes, that energy comes from the sun. Life on Earth is run by the solar-powered process of photosynthesis in the cells of algae and green plants. That process combines carbon in the air with water in the soil to produce sugar, the staff of life for plant-eaters, and those who feed on them—including us.

 

Sunlight falling on Earth varies with latitude, weather, and season. Overall, seasonal climate determines food production through the year. We used to know that, but have largely forgotten. Especially those who live in cities where light, heat, and food are plentiful 24/7/52. Shopping in shadowless, fluorescent supermarkets, we forget to set our needs in synchrony with the seasons. No matter when, we want blueberries now. Processed foods know no season, so we fill our carts with them as well. But that is changing.

 

Having to free ourselves from dependence on industrial farms consuming huge amounts of water, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, we have no choice but to rediscover the seasons of the year. And to synch our activities with them as they govern the amount of sunlight and moisture available to plants, determining local food production.

 

Not long ago, most of us would have been agriculturalists, either growing our own food or gathering it locally. In response to over-population, climate change, excessive consumption of food and fuel, and an unworkable economy, many of us are heading that way again. To get there, we will need to develop rituals that will link our activities to the seasons.

 

temb-chart-722

The seasons told by water temperature in Taunton Bay, Maine. Fall is a time of rapid decline, winter of holding steady under saltwater ice, spring of gradual incline, summer of attaining and sustaining the peak of the year. Smoothing out the highs and lows for the sake of human comfort and convenience would change everything at exorbitant expense to functioning ecosystems and all who depend on them.

 

Our word “season” stems from the Latin verb serere meaning to plant. Everything has its season, its appropriate time of planting in accord with the relative positions of Earth and sun during their annual journeys. Planting occurs first in the mind, then in damp soil. That is where rituals begin. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is fit to mark the sun’s apparent turn at its lowest point at the winter solstice, and to welcome it at its height six months later. We can witness those turnings of the year with great accuracy, as we can the midway points when the sun rises and sets due east and west. Those quarter days—two solstices and two equinoxes—divide the annual round into four seasons, and the climate of our consciousness into four moods of anticipation.

 

We celebrate many of our festivals and games in sympathy with the waxing and waning of light, warmth, and plenty through the year. Winter is a time for looking ahead, spring for renewal, summer for fulfillment, fall for hard work. The seasons divide the cultural year into four distinct situations. Summer is for baseball, fall for football, winter for basketball (or skiing), spring for tennis (or golf, or soccer, or skateboarding). No activities are more rewarding in their time than planning a garden, ordering seeds, tilling, planting, tending, harvesting, storing and preserving, putting to bed, and sharing with others. Nothing is more satisfying than living in accord with the seasons of the year.

 

As Earthlings, we are born to celebrate the seasons and the conditions of our lives which resonate with them. Just as flowering and fruition are native to their seasons, so are dearth and deprivation to theirs. Distributed through the year, these situations flow into one another, achieving an overall balance in consciousness that echoes the ups and downs of sunlight, the ecological processes dependent on them, and the dynamics of life situations.

 

It is when we try to smooth out the hills and valleys of the seasons that we get into trouble. Wanting it all, all the time, we let our appetites (rather than sunlight) take control. Instead of being ruled by the seasons, we attempt to rule them. But they cannot keep pace with us any better than ecosystems can, or the flow of edible vegetation through the year. We engineer an ever-growing economy to meet our desires, but Earth cannot maintain it or us at so unnatural a rate, so dwindles and fails as we take second helpings. This is a matter of record. Fish in the sea, forests, topsoil and tillable land, species diversity, and quality of life—all are collapsing as we try to squeeze more from natural systems than they can provide.

 

Men congratulate themselves for emancipating their women, children, and slaves, but do not see that they persist in enslaving other nations and even Earth itself to meet their collective desires—which are truly insatiable. The global economy is based on the enslavement of living resources, both human and natural, to the appetites of powerful for-profit corporations which, though they claim the right of free speech for themselves, would silence all who oppose their stripping Earth of its natural wealth.

 

In defiance of the seasons and common sense, corporations are the perpetrators of the growth economy. The feet of their executives don’t touch the Earth any more than their hearts do. They live in penthouses far above the streets where common folk trade. They are not men for all seasons but for no seasons at all. Increasing wealth and plenty is their goal. To gain which they are killing the planet, its living systems, and the mere mortals among us.

 

I have a problem with that. Recent events bear me out. Congress has been bought by corporate lobbyists, as has the legislation it votes into law. No regulatory superhero has stood between corporations and their goal of showing extravagant profits every quarter of the year. But as the economic crisis demonstrates so clearly, a financial climate driven by insatiable greed is no substitute for the seasonal climate which governs the productivity of the biosphere. So much for corporate consciousness and any supposedly built-in safeguards. Focused solely on making excessive profits for themselves, corporations have no brain cells left to devote to the ecological economy of their host planet which, in the end, is the only thing that matters. If we don’t put the speed bumps back in our yearly consumption of global resources and expectations for profit, then truly Earthlings of every tribe are at risk.

 

¦

 

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.

 

¦