(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.

 

 

 

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(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.

 

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