(Copyright © 2009)

Everybody knows what territory is—the ground of personal survival. Without it we die. Through territory, Earth grants plants and animals the wherewithal to stay alive. It is the biological substrate of life itself. Territory is our hold on the Earth, or, more accurately, Earth’s hold on us at our preferred level of consumption.

By definition, territory is not only a good thing, but up to a point it is an absolute necessity. Trouble is, when populations grow to exceed the carrying capacity of the territory they occupy, something has to give. The productivity of the land must increase; the population must make do with less; or segments of the population must move to greener pastures, effectively expanding the territory.

There is a cultural side to territory, too. Market share is a variant form of human territoriality, as is personal wealth, power, property, influence, celebrity, among other currencies for apportioning the ability to survive within a particular social group. Moving off the land into the city does not cut dependence on the land, it merely shifts it to services and resources which others are able to provide, giving rise to several economies enabling distribution of whatever it is people need to survive—food, shelter, assets, health, respect, vigilance, and so on.

Within the various economies for distributing prerequisites of survival, any finite good must be apportioned among those who desire a share of it. Which sounds innocent enough, but actually gives rise to fierce rivalry, unequal division of shares, wide-ranging standards of living, envy, anger, hatred, and warfare. Many if not most of the ills of modern society fester in the shadows of territoriality—the possessiveness with which we claim what we see as “ours.” There simply isn’t enough life-supporting territory for everyone to have her share above a minimal level.

When someone deprives you of the attention you deserve as a child, one way to regain the spotlight is to throw a tantrum. Later, when another driver cuts you off on the road, you can register your displeasure by paying him back in a satisfying fit of road rage. The rule is, as you perceive others horning-in on your territory, do the same unto them, only worse. Administer the punishment they deserve for treading on your sacred ground. Fear of being cut-off from that which you need arouses anger, which fuels retribution. Payback is a most satisfying form of vengeance, particularly in defense of one’s rightful turf.

The difficulty with territoriality and its cultural derivatives is that, filtered through consciousness, each of us can distinctly see its shadow in everyone but himself. What I desire is mine by right; everyone else is driven by greed, lust, or conniving. Consciousness has many blind spots, but the most debilitating is the one that bestows a kind of self-righteousness in exempting a subject’s own mind from realizing his total dependence on, and stewardship duty toward, the territory that provides for him.

Resulting in the common outlook that there’s one rule for me, another for all the rest. And so we go at it with one another, each convinced of the virtue of her own cause, the depravity of those around her:

The sad truth is that Google and Microsoft care less about making cool products than they do about hurting each other. Their fighting has little to do with helping customers and a lot to do with helping themselves to a bigger slice of the money we all spend to buy computers and surf the Internet. Microsoft wants to ruin Google’s search business. Google wants to ruin Microsoft’s OS business. At the end of the day, they both seem like overgrown nerdy schoolboys fighting over each other’s toys (Daniel Lyons, “Google This!” Newsweek, 12-07-2009, 34).

It’s not only Google v. Microsoft, Israeli v. Palestinian, Tutsi v. Hutu, Rich v. Poor, Insider v. Outsider, Home v. Away—the essence of any culture is to vie with those who do not belong to it and so seem strange and somehow annoying. Turkey, for example, scored points with its neighbors by preserving its sovereignty in the following incident:

In Turkey, the cumulative anti-U.S. resentment peaked in 2003 when the Bush administration pressed Ankara to let U.S. forces invade Iraq through Turkish territory—a plan that was derailed only at the last moment by a parliamentary revolt (Owen Matthews and Christopher Dickey, “Triumph of the Turks,” Newsweek, 12-07-09, 46).

As cultures develop, their territorial needs take different forms, still providing the basics required to live a decent life, and beyond them, new ways of participating in the common good, often by dealing with novel opportunities as they arise:

Antebellum America boiled with entrepreneurial energies; go-getters roamed the land eager to take advantage of the flood of business opportunities that accompanied the country’s territorial expansion. Aspiring men on the make denounced established ones, especially those enjoying the favors of the government, as monopolists and aristocrats (Steve Fraser reviewing The First Tycoon, T.J. Stiles’ new biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, in The Nation, 11-30-09, Books & the Arts, 28).

The consciousness of every member of a given culture is a function of the collective experience of such members as viewed from their unique, personal perspectives. We are creatures of our times and places on Earth; ten years from now we’ll be someone else. We will appear much the same to ourselves, but others will clearly notice the difference.

Consciousness, that is, eternally justifies itself. It can’t help it. Being privy to the one point of view, it has no other basis for comparison. For each one of us, ours is the gold standard of awareness. It may be an attractive thought—walking in the shoes of another—but truly exercises imagination more than our leg muscles. Similarly, what we consider to be our fair share is bound to be a sure sign of greed to a random panel of neighbors. We are constitutionally unable to remove these scales from our eyes. With the result that the situation is always Us v. Them. Capitalists, mass murderers, and sex offenders often go to the grave as innocent in their own eyes as they were at birth.

One of the unanticipated consequences of democracy is the vitriolic attacks on elected officials by those aspiring to, or recently removed from, power. In such cases, power is the territory—the survival currency—at issue. The dispossessed fill the atmosphere with hype and scare tactics in their campaign to tilt their followers, if not toward happiness or a state of effective governance, then by hue and cry toward outrage (see tantrums and road rage above). The point is to stay in the public eye by any means, which, when you’re out of power, is better than making do with territory much reduced.

Human biological values come in two valences: good and bad—for the individual person, that is. Powerlessness is clearly bad if one thrives on influencing other minds and the deeds they perpetrate. That is, those who would dominate by controlling the behavior of others will do almost anything to get back in the saddle again. Fear of helplessness and deprivation leads to anger, which in turn leads to random attacks on those who have taken power in their stead. Fear underwrites the attitudes and acts of both Jews and Palestinians. Their respective territories are unsecured, so will remain the issue until some kind of agreement can be reached on how each side can have—if not the settlement it wants—the settlement it fairly deserves. When it comes to territory, there are no occupiers designated by god to inhabit certain lands. Settlers keep trying to gain access to new territories, but their success is not told by their ambitions or traditions. Nor can precedent guarantee future settlement in a once and former homeland. No matter how they may be wished for, those days will never come again. Where are Assyria and Babylonia now? Earth has moved on in its spiraling orbit through the galaxy. These times are ever new.

Once upon an old time, culture was a grassroots creation; now it serves the purposes of the rich and powerful, who carefully shape it to their advantage. Those who can afford top legal, financial, and medical advice, for instance, are likely to fare well; those who can’t, are worse off. That has become such a truism, we accept it as given as if people enacted the fate they truly deserved. Inequality is built into the system by design so the spoils of territorial possession float upward, the dregs of deprivation sinking to the bottom.

Private property is our current term for territory we claim the exclusive right to use and exploit. We don’t appreciate the absurd humor in one creature laying claim to a kingdom, as if one one mite on our body staked a claim to our person. Who is in charge here, anyway? Our legal system has been carefully crafted to back nobles and gentry against every claim by lesser beings. In truth, our system of private ownership is what the privileged elite, running the culture as they do, can get away with. It’s true if they think so. In practice, it’s what the cultural traffic in labor, goods, and services will bear. We not only own the territory, but reserve the right to destroy it in the process of exploiting it. As even now we are upsetting the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to consequences no one has either the courage or wisdom to predict.

In truth, we are killed by the lives we lead; live by the sword, die by the sword. In extracting resources from the territory we claim to own, we are wasting the very qualities that keep us alive. Irony, blindness, stupidity—call it what you will—the future of humanity and Earth itself can be foretold from our attitude toward territory under our domination. We are personally content to sully the biological substrate of life itself, the ground we live on—the ground that lives in us.

If this is not a failure of consciousness—which is given us to live by in unanticipated situations—then it is certainly a failure of the culture we have consciously designed and built for ourselves, and agree to inhabit till the end of our days. 

Leaving us where? Locked in a clash between personal consciousness and the culture it puts up with. The greed of those who inhabit a higher plane of life makes them regard those on lower planes as representing less worthy, barely human, stock. As degenerates, they should expect to fail, because that is the fate their betters decree for them. That goes without saying (at least among the powers that shape a culture’s ways of apportioning the territory it occupies).

If you can make a fortune in a few milliseconds by trading stocks on line, then you’ve found a way to beat the system designed to assure fair and equable trading on a more human timescale. If your territory and influence are shrinking, but you have a microphone in front of your face and can make a big noise—even if it’s gibberish—shout it out. We learned long ago that well-reasoned arguments can’t squelch a good tantrum.

As natural resources become scarcer, we will all resort to bolder tactics in attempting to make sure we get what we want. The best way to do that is to undercut the opposition by stealing his thunder (euphemism for his share of what’s left of Earth’s natural territory still in good working order). End times are here. If the revolution in our regard for Mother Earth doesn’t happen tomorrow, then we’ve dug our grave and will soon fall into it. What happens next is up to each and every one of us.

We're losing it.

 

 

 

Reflection 150: The Big IF

October 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Our outlooks on the world are governed by networks of electrochemical connections in our brains, in turn governed by the unique biochemical circumstances in which those networks were formed during earliest infancy and childhood, as well as by changes in neural connectivity resulting from subsequent life experience.

Our outlooks on the world determine our expectations. Our expectations determine how we extend ourselves into the world through personal behavior, which in turn determines how we receive world gestures into ourselves as episodes of meaningful experience.

How we take the world into ourselves influences our next round of behavior, which sets us up for the next cycle of feedback to be interpreted in light of our outlook.

Round and round we go on the continuous ride of expectancy and fulfillment in a looping engagement with a world we cannot know in itself but interpret nonetheless from our unique point of view within whatever situation we construe as our current reality.

Our ongoing loop of engagement with the world is none other than our personal life. Which is unlike any other life because our innermost electrochemical connectivity and our experience are unique to ourselves. So, too, are the values by which we guide our adaptation to what we take to be the outside world as an expression of our will to survive. Our minds are our unique, personal minds, our acts are our acts, our interpretations are our interpretations, our adaptation is our adaptation, our survival is our survival, our life is our life.

But that’s only the beginning. Imagine all the relationships each unique person has with those around her—including family, friends, society, pets, wildlife, vegetation, landscapes, habitats, institutions, governments, cultures—all those loops reaching out from each person into his surrounding milieu, generating occasions for feedback, interpretation, and subsequent responses through actions, gestures, utterances, and so on.

Considering the complexity of our ongoing interactions, engagements, interrelationships—all different, all changing—we can appreciate the challenge of even the simplest human life we can imagine—that, say, of the infant, or the hermit in his mountain retreat. Add the necessity of keeping track of it all though learning and memory (and blessed forgetfulness of trivial details) so that our experience is more-or-less cumulative and orderly, it is a wonder each of us isn’t overwhelmed by the relentless flux of events in our personal worlds of  consciousness.

If in fact we are created equal, it is as equal experiments in the universe. Where many will adapt to the occasions of their lives and muddle through, others will succumb. Day after day, the issue is personal survival. If our respective sets of unique characteristics are a match for the conditions in which we strive, and our minds and bodies are up to the challenge, we will live another day. That is the big IF in whose shadow we awaken each day, and surrender to mock oblivion later on.

It is not that I am pitting my values and uniqueness against yours for the privilege of making it through till tomorrow. Living in the shadow of the big IF is the lot we share in common with humanity and all life. But it is not surprising that within that one lot, differences are inevitable. Those differences are part of the plan in setting us up for the ultimate test of survival. Those who are most adapted to their life circumstances will go on, while others stumble, and eventually collapse. That’s what it means to exist as one of Earth’s children.

But when one group or class takes advantage of another, using it to boost its own comfort and chances of survival—then campfires and bombardments will light the night sky in answer to such skullduggery. 

Human history is written in blood spilled by one group rising against another in response to unjust oppression for the sake of stealing a survival advantage. Every chapter tells of farmers standing against ranked troops, archers or rock throwers against those with guns who have invaded their land, suicide bombers killing as many innocents as possible, slaves against masters, workers against bosses, subjects against armies of kings and emperors, those out of power against those in power, and on and on. Power, ultimately, bestows a survival advantage upon those who possess it, depriving the powerless to an equal degree.

Consciousness matters because it is the gauge of our equality under the circumstances that prevail in our current social situation. We can tell our relative station in life by how others treat us. If we feel put upon, neglected, abused, under-represented, or generally at a disadvantage compared to others in our social realm, we will act according to our degree of disaffection. Nowhere is it written that one class should stride upon the bodies of its underlings. Nor is it decreed that the socially underprivileged must bow to their self-styled betters as exemplars of a more noble form of humanity.

Uniqueness is uniqueness; humanity is humanity. Each of us has an inherent right to equal treatment and respect. It is not up to us to impress others into serving our personal values and goals. If all do not stand for one, and one does not stand for all, we risk  elevating ourselves as higher beings more fit than the rest. Yet we are born to die—as everyone is—mortals first-to-last. If our uniqueness is to receive its due, it is as a proclamation that our respective gifts have equal worth as agents of survival in the universal experiment that is humanity. We do not know where the next great advance will arise—in what climate, habitat, nation, genome, or stream of consciousness.

We cannot see beyond the shadow of the big IF that falls equally upon us. Therefore it is not for us to weigh the value of others’ gifts. We can only manage our consciousness to make our unique selves happen as best we can under the circumstances that befall us—and insist on everyone’s right to do the same.

In this light, personal consciousness is not primarily a means for advancing ourselves beyond others, but rather a means of striving for sufficiency while recognizing we are in this life together and deserve equal chance to make ourselves happen—not as higher and lower beings, but as uniquely gifted members of our common humanity. Each of us is but one biochemical wonder among many with diverse outlooks and expectations, all with equal hopes of fulfillment in adapting to the world shadow that falls across us for the duration of our lives.

Martin Luther King Jr.