Maine is known as a so-called natural-resource state. Think trees. Lumber. Paper. Wood pellets. Firewood. Peat moss. Lobsters. The once-famous fish in the Gulf of Maine. Sand and Gravel. Granite. Seaweed. Scenery. Wildlife. There are a lot of jobs dependent on those resources. A huge chunk of the Maine economy.

Resources, by definition, are supposedly renewable. That’s what re-source means. It’s a source again and again. Which requires careful management, including setting quotas that can safely be “harvested.”

When the price of elvers—tiny eels migrating back to their home habitat areas in Maine rivers—rose to a thousand dollars a pound, you can bet the eel catchers did everything they could to capture as many as possible in their nets. That collective effort put tremendous pressure on the homeward-bound elvers, which Asian nations raise to mature eels to feed their burgeoning populations.

Industrial giants make billions from their many natural-resource extractions. We mine the Earth, trawl the seas, cut the tops off mountains, spew our spent space apparatus as a belt of scrap metal circling the Earth—because that’s how we engage natural resources as our personal cornucopia. Enterprise we call it. Big business. Making a living.

How ironic is it that we plunder the Earth in order to live?

What others have, we want for ourselves. That’s called jealousy. Jealousy, it seems, runs the world. We are envious of others for what they take from the Earth. What they possess. What they engage with. We envy their circles of engagement with life itself, and treat them as celebrities.

We want to attain such a level of engagement for ourselves. To own such possessions. To have them available for our personal use.

Having and owning are the basis of our possessiveness, our shopping sprees, our powerful concept of personal ownership of a planet that clearly supports us all. Private ownership is the dark side of human engagement. Of consciousness gone haywire.

What if I claimed, these are my horseshoe crabs, my eelgrass meadows, my fish in the bay? If life has a mystery, personal ownership is it. How working for a living turns into an engagement that degrades the Earth. How our engagements come to master us as if we had no control over them. And once we initiated them, they had to run to their inevitable conclusion.

Ownership and control are such fundamental parts of our nature, of our natural heritage, we devote a huge amount of our cultural law to protecting the rights of individuals to engage as they please. This we call freedom, life’s blood of the capitalist system of consumption.

We interpret ownership as a right to engage whatever we want, however we will. Even unto destroying that which we love and desire.

But as the word “resource” implies, we own something, not by buying it or extracting it, but by caring for it and keeping it safe so we can enjoy it again and again. Not to exhaust it, but to ensure it will be available forever.

Engagement is a fundamental property of mind. It comes with coupling perception to action by way of meaning and judgment. In that sense, all property is intellectual property, property that reflects the workings of our minds. You’d think that if we all want the same thing, then we would be sure to keep that thing safe for everyone’s use.

But that’s not how our engagements work. Property is an attitude, a state of mind, a combined outlook and inlook. When we engage, we know exactly what we’re doing. Or should, if we keep our eyes open. If we do damage, we can see it for ourselves. And modify our behavior accordingly.

Engagement is strong stuff. Powerful in getting at the heart of our life as conscious beings. Of our having and holding a particular way of life we can count on, now and forever. Don’t come between me and my significant other—what- or whoever it might be. I will get very angry because you are threatening my way of life. My perceiving, judging, acting, and engaging. If you break my accustomed loop, I will take it very personally.

That loop is me as I know myself from the inside. It is who I am on this Earth. I am an ongoing process. I live to engage as I am with whom or what I choose at the time. I am beholden to those people or things I am responsible to in asking them to be responsible to me. That is all I want. Mutual engagement, commitment, and responsibility. Ownership and freedom as I say. The right, within limits, to live my life according to natural law.

That is the state of mind I am trying to get at in this post. The conflicted inner life we lead by leaving a sacked Earth in our wake. We engage our home planet as if it were the peel of a banana we lower the car window to toss into the road. Do you feel the power of that image? The true horror? If I didn’t believe it was the culminating truth of our existence, I wouldn’t be writing these words.

The course of our everyday mental functioning creates the worlds we live in as individuals who are living the lives we have made for ourselves. The lives we live out every day by maintaining the engagements we do with all that we care about. In our respective black boxes, unsupervised, we are at the center of those worlds, creating them day-after-day as the foundation of the life we hold as a commonwealth for one another.

The upshot of this line of thinking is that nature and its resources are not for sale and cannot be put on the market as the basis of our gross domestic product. That would be an absurdity. A for-sale sign on either the richest or poorest piece of land is an oxymoron, a contradiction unto itself. Nature is that which cannot be bought or sold. As Earthlings, we are born of the Earth; it is not possible to own our own mother. We survive as members of Earth’s family.

The point of our mutual engagements is to celebrate our common family together. Nature cannot be for sale, and cannot be bought, no matter what you hear in the market. Nature is a gut-level attraction we recognize when we go to open places and pay attention to the ambient energy falling on our sensory receptors.

We have to open our personal expectancy to such experience. No matter how many safaris we go on, and trophy heads collect, money won’t get it for us. To enjoy a truly natural experience, we must hold hands together, take the deepest possible breath, and breathe out a sigh of thanks for all that has come our way as a gift without our even having to ask.

The moral of this post:  We are stewards of our every engagement.

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(Copyright © 2010)

On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Haiti was ruined by an earthquake in ten seconds. There were no winners, only losers. For nine years, the U.S. has been waging war against the very Jahadis it helped to create during the Cold War, and the Taliban who gave them a toehold in Afghanistan. Again, no winners, only losers. Looking ahead, in fifty years low-lying shores on every continent will bear scars inflicted by rising seas, upland areas suffer droughts and massive extinctions. Devastation will be the rule, not the exception. Over the long- or short-term, every unique life leads to the same end—in each case unknown. There is no way to evade personal ruin. Life will invariably cease, cells disintegrate. No winners, only losers, unless . . . .

For such minds as can grasp this inescapable scenario, there is only one way to respond: Act at all times in such a way to create as many islands and oases of order, compassion, and social justice as possible to offset the inevitable. Otherwise, the miracle of life has no meaning, or is at best a forlorn hope.

Beset by, and causing, devastation, we live fleetingly in denial, pretending we can sidestep our fate, believing in life after death, the healing power of personal wealth, that deeds can bestow immortality, that death can be deterred, outrun, or defeated. All of which sap our will for doing good rather than simply answering the roll for as long as we can when our name is called.

Living as long as we can is not a good in itself. It’s what we accomplish—what we actually do—in whatever time we are allowed that really matters. What we do for those we leave behind. The certainty of moving from the column of the living to the dead is, in fact, not only our fate but our greatest gift. The tragedy in Haiti is not that life is cut short but, in addition to suffering, that there is no pattern to which people are felled: children, adults, and the aged are equally susceptible. That, together with the violent nature of each death and the utter lack of help, produces chaos, the very opposite of social order. We saw lesser versions in the felling of the Twin Towers, looting of Iraq in the calm after the initial assault, and in New Orleans during and after the passing of Hurricane Katrina.

In better days, mortality is our greatest strength because it frames each day as an opportunity, not a time to endure. It can motivate us to get off our butts and do something positive with whatever skills and energy we can muster on the spot. If death cannot be avoided, we are wise to make the most of what little time we have. Truism, yes, but a compelling one. None packs greater punch. Go for it, live each day to the max! Later is not good enough; now is my time to engage and to act. Not for self because self is invariably a dead end, but for those left behind. For the thread of life that survives us, not our narrow little life.

Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, said, “Think globally, act locally.” I add to that, Shape eternity, act in the now. Those who look ahead to consorting with forty virgins in paradise, or sitting on a cloud sipping margaritas, are committing the ultimate category error. Death is the end of consciousness as we know it, the absolute end. All else is myth, fantasy, or delusion. The test of our deeds is the world that lives after us. That is basic Darwinism. The measure of our success is the life (in the largest sense) we make possible. Not only in our genetic line, but in the natural conditions within which it survives. If we steal Earth’s wealth for ourselves today, mere money will not provide for our descendants tomorrow. The meaning or import of mortality—the 100% certainty of our end—is gauged by the living potential we are to leave, not the resources we take unto ourselves. Money in stocks or the bank is life converted to dead notes. It stands for consumption and death, not survival.

Consciousness is a sure sign of life, the realization of biologically-derived human values (reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, safety, etc.) through actions appropriate to life-giving surroundings. For the self, life is a matter of giving away, not taking from others. That is, it promotes authentic possibilities for action—actions that do not limit life’s choices tomorrow, but maintain or expand them. Acting in the now with eternity in mind is called stewardship. The Na’vi in Avatar live (if fictional creatures can be said to live) in that realization. More accurately, they represent that realization in James Cameron’s consciousness. Jahadi suicide bombers do just the opposite by destroying the possibilities of even their own lives and as many infidels as they can ruin along with themselves.

Now is my time on Earth, my time to live, my time to build a future for all life consciously and deliberately. I don’t have answers to many of the riddles and contradictions life throws at me, but collectively, cumulatively, we can share some few of those answers among us. Each can contribute her coherent actions to the body of the whole, and all draw wisdom and appreciation from that whole as needed. Give-and-take is the nature of our engagement on Earth. An engagement that will come to a definite end. Period. End of life. Maybe eight minutes from now, maybe tomorrow, maybe in fifty-three years. The point is not to obsess over but to deal with that certainty by building a life for ourselves, for those we love, for those we don’t know, and all members of other species. Then, when smitten, we will at least have done our best by Earth and its passengers for the long haul.

Which is far different from the life capitalistic assumptions and thinking would have us live. Capitalism is a farce, a heavy-handed caricature or cartoon of how to get ahead in life. It is drawn by the asset-rich to lure the asset-poor into their employ. It is a class-based system, dividing rather than uniting us. We now think of our lives in terms of the jobs we are offered rather than how we treat other people and other species through our stewardship practices. Sure, we get good at what we do, and earn money in the process, but that is not why we’re here. We are not born warriors, mechanics, or seamstresses, we are born Earthlings who must steward their gifts if they are to survive. We are meant to accrue an understanding of Earth’s truths, not wealth in and for itself. We are meant to act positively on behalf of life itself, not negatively for self alone. We are meant to create organic order, not the mechanized chaos we do by waging wars around the globe—as if that furthered the interests of life in any way whatsoever. There are no such things as natural resources meant for our taking; that is a fundamental category error. Consciousness is an emergent aspect of life itself, a self-contained guidance system. That, our bodies, surrounding communities, and natural environments are what we are given to work with and make the most of where we are. Now, not later on.

What I am trying to say is that ruined hope for a better future is a more accurate measure of any disaster than property losses or body counts. Hope lives in human consciousness as an urge toward a brighter light ahead. True wealth tells the capacity for hope based on possibilities for constructive action in today’s world. Husbandry and stewardship create hope; monetary wealth devastates hope through possibilities removed from the commons. Haiti lying in ruin from a shift in tectonic plates is tantamount to Iraq and Afghanistan lying in ruin from America flaunting its military might. We could not have prevented the one, but could have the others by holding eternity in mind. By making the most of our individual gifts rather than the least through flexing our military-industrial capacity for inflicting devastation and despair. Consciousness is given us as a gift; unfortunately the instruction manual—our living habitat or environment—is now largely made over by us, leaving us separated not only from nature but our own gift for life. With the result we are dead before our time, carrying on, true—but doing so ideologically, not weighing the moment and engaging the living Earth instead of our rote and sorry depiction of it.

Earth is rocked by enough natural disasters as it is without humanity inflicting additional devastation of its own devising. What we need is more compassion, sharing, healing, and hope such as are conveyed by our heritage of survival, and enabled by awareness of our common Earthling predicament. Taking the long view, keeping Earth’s evolving, biological eternity in mind, equips us to cope with natural disasters when they come upon us. That way we work with one another rather than against by taking more than our share, adding our small effort, heightening the possibility that, with or without us, life on Earth just may have a future.

Cannon

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I’d been a Signal Corps photographer in the Army. When I got out I went to work for a photo studio in Manhattan that took pictures for catalog houses like Sears Roebuck. The studio was really three studios, each with photographer (who adjusted lighting and clicked shutters), assistant photographer (who cocked shutters and changed 8×10 film holders), and stylist (who made clothes look good on thin models by taking tucks in back with clothespins). I learned early on that there were two classes of people, photographers and assistants; there was no way for an assistant to cross the barrier between them. Once an assistant, always an assistant.

Sensitive to such distinctions, I noticed that the janitor came to work in suit and tie, and carried his lunch in a briefcase. I figured he did it to show his kids he had an important job in the city. He’d arrive early, change his clothes, and get to work. What he really did was mop the floors. At the end of the day he’d reverse the process, put on the suit, and get on the elevator with an empty briefcase.

To simplify matters, I’ll say there are two kinds of people: doers and thinkers. Hands-on and minds-on. There are all manner of gradations in between, but the basic distinction still holds: labor and management, students and teachers, stage crew and talent. You can tell the difference by looking under fingernails, feeling calluses, noticing who shines his shoes, who wears overalls and who a tweed jacket. 

In Maine, there are fishermen who hold their catch in their hands, and then everybody else. Fishermen look like fishermen. They wear aprons, slickers, and boots, and get wet a lot. The others try to stay away from water and out of the rain if they can. Fishermen are doers. After all these years, they still work with their hands and speak basic English. Many of the rest of us type with our fingertips, work in cubicles, write endless reports, go to meetings, and speak jargon that sounds like a foreign language.

One of the chief reasons I am writing this blog is to figure out how hand workers and mind workers can come to a common understanding about managing natural resources (fish, clams, worms) to guarantee steady catches over the long term. I speak a lot about sustainability and stewardship, which are words labeling conceptual categories, not concrete items such as living lobsters or bags full of bait. Categories don’t smell like a mixture of herring, oil, and gasoline.

As kids we are all much the same, born with a few rudimentary skills centered on our mouths. We eventually learn to hold up our heads, look around, coordinate arms and fingers, and eventually walk. We all go through the play stage of learning how to use our hands. Then we go to school to learn how to use our minds, and that is supposed to lead us on the way out of childhood. Some of us end up putting everything into words and symbols, not coordinated motions. Or if we do practice fine motor skills, we take drum or violin lessons, color within the lines, and strive for neat handwriting. You can’t learn to fell trees in school, raise cattle, dig potatoes, catch lobsters or fish. And if that’s what you want to do in life, then you’re better off apprenticing to someone who does those things for a living. If you work hard enough, long enough, and pay attention, you’ll train your muscles to behave as you want to get the job done.

The classic put-down used to be:  If you can, do; if you can’t, teach. For some reason, our culture turns that around and puts a higher priority on teaching and mind work than doing and making things. While we know that the most important people in any school are the students, not teachers or administrators. The main thing with us seems to be not getting our clothes dirty, which is a sure sign of social status. No mucking out the barn for us. So we dutifully dress in blouses and button-down shirts, stand behind our counters or file into cubicles (much like desks in school), turn on the computer, and have at it, engaging our minds—and little else of our basic equipment such as muscles, senses, and personal judgment.

Broadly speaking, our culture creates two classes of people who can’t talk to each other very easily because their life experience is so different. What they do is so different. How they talk is so different. How they make themselves happen in the world is so different. How their minds work is so different. Either you’re a photographer or a photographer’s assistant, perhaps bringing your lunch in a briefcase or a brown paper bag.

So much for discriminating two sorts of people. In truth, even fishermen and cubicle dwellers are unique individuals, as are we all. The issue is, how do we learn to talk with one another in the spirit of democracy so we can work side-by-side for the good of all people and the one Earth we share in common? Where self-interest and competition split us apart, how do we put ourselves together again in order to deal effectively with dwindling resources, global warming, pollution, poverty, and overconsumption? Many of us seem to find it easier to stand apart, calling those we don’t agree with offensive names, than gather beneath a common banner.

That’s what language is for, but people on fishing boats and people in cubicles tend to develop dialects within their common language that require translation from one to the other. How do they make themselves clear when they meet face-to-face? How do they hear what the other is saying? That’s what schools are supposed to be for, but they are better at emphasizing individual differences than general commonalities. That’s because differences are concrete and recognizable while the commons is an abstract idea you can’t point your finger at. Differences are up-close and personal, while the commons is vague, fuzzy, and apt to be ideological or reduced to a caricature of itself (Uncle Sam, John Bull) or some kind of mascot. Where individuality is specific, unity is symbolic. It is easy to say, “No man is an island,” “God is love,” or “All are one,” but extremely difficult to put into practice. I know there are such places as Fiji, Timbuktu, and Ultima Thule, but I have a hard time picturing them in my mind; to me they are conceptual abstractions, like “objects,” “things,” “items,” “entities,” “geographical locations.”

If we learn and act best when we put our bodies where our values are, then when two people generally have their bodies in different places, to get along they have to shift their consciousness to the place where they meet in order to take the physical presence of the other into full account. If they speak from their customary locations (their respective Aways), they won’t get very far. It works better to acknowledge the other, and move on from there in small steps, always waiting for the other to catch up. Cooperating on a shared task or project makes a good beginning, both taking part in something they can do easily and well. I have seen women sitting in a circle, each spinning yarn or knitting, having a great time. Drinking coffee or eating a meal together might work, but I personally find it hard to talk and eat at the same time.

Once the ice is broken—and it may take some time—the real work can begin. Which is to include the other in your thoughts as you make yourself happen there and then in her presence. Inclusion is the first priority in any group process. Excluding the other is self-defeating if you have to work together toward a goal you both share. Such as sustainable harvests of natural resources, stewardship, or saving the Earth.

The trick is to identify a goal you both can agree on from your separate perspectives. The more specific a goal the better. It’s easy to say we are both human, or both love our children. It’s harder to bring it down to a personal level on which you can identify with each other in equally concrete and meaningful ways. Sharing your biological values might be one way to identify a goal you could work toward together, such as food, shelter, clothing, safety, health, companionship, community, cooperation, learning, and so on.

I once taught a summer workshop built around finding a common project that a diverse group of eighteen high school students (who had never met) could not only work on but finish together in six weeks. That was the summer Apollo astronauts first landed on the moon. Students decided to bring out a publication commemorating that event, each contributing to the overall project, in addition to being responsible for content and layout of one page. Within three days, animosity blossomed within the group, so I included addressing that in the lesson plan. I identified pairs of students who didn’t get along, and gave them the afternoon off, with the stipulations that they had to stay within five feet of each other the whole time, and report back how it went for both of them. Each of the nine pairs worked things out between them, many coming back best friends. Another exercise was for each student to do something with the class to prove they were alive (however they interpreted those instructions). One girl led us up to the roof of the three-story building, then left, locking the door. Being trapped together is a wonderful way to build group spirit. I can’t remember how we got down, but we were up there for several hours.

Thinking about how close those students were to one another at the end of the workshop, I identified facing a common challenge, humor, and respect for both originality and ability as key factors in binding the disparate students into a cohesive and productive group. Of course they were all volunteers, but there was no way they could tell what they were getting into when they signed up. The workshop was built around their unique contributions, but no one knew in advance what they might be.

How about having fishermen, researchers, shorefront property owners, wildlife watchers, and kayakers, for instance, join forces to produce a portrait of the part of the Maine coast they all share in common? Each could tell her own version of the story of that part of the coast as he knew it. Could that work? Not only would it provide a starting project, but it would serve as a reference ever after, a document of what actually happened. The Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, does 15-week workshops in developing skills in writing, radio, and photography. As one student said: “15 weeks at Salt rearranged 80% of my brain. The person I was when I arrived at Salt was not the person I was when I left.” I think a bay-wide project of this nature could be a life-changing event, bringing people together instead of perpetuating the social divide between them.

Including the other in your loop of engagement with your personal surroundings seems an obvious place to begin working together toward a common understanding. Getting their body and your body in the same room together so you can interact in a safe location, engaging conscious minds with each other, starting to build a constructive relationship instead of trying to wear the other down. Two kinds of people? No, there are almost seven billion. Things happen only when a few gather together in mutual engagement. Then there is no limit to what they can do, no matter what the odds.

Two Lobsters

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In Reflection 65 (I’ve Got Mine, February 18, 2009), I wrote of conflict as arising from competing needs “to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level.” Possession and control of resources is what we generally mean by “wealth.” Wealth comes in three basic forms. 1) Earth resources ranging from food and water to goods and real property; 2) human resources such as skilled labor, healthcare, and, ultimately, life itself; and 3) financial resources sufficient to obtain resources of the first two types. In brief, wealth comes down to possession and/or control of land, labor, and money.

 

Because survival depends on such wealth, a major portion of human consciousness is devoted to these three issues. The Haves have them in sufficient amounts, the Have-nots want more. Money isn’t really a survival resource in its own right, it is a means of obtaining such resources. The basics of survival, then, come down to two types of resources: tangible resources derived from land on planet Earth, and life which endures over time. World enough and time—that’s what survival at a desirable level comes down to. That is our wealth.

 

As a resource, land provides the essentials—food, water, energy, minerals, and place with enough room to move around in. As a resource, life is essential to the procurement and enjoyment of those material resources. If you have little property but live a long life, you can count yourself wealthy. On the other hand, if you have vast stores of goods—but live only for one day—you rank with the poorest of the poor. As resources, land and life are both essential components of personal wealth, which is found by multiplying your property times your lifespan, producing the wealth equation:

 

Land x Life = Wealth, or simply L1 • L2 = W

 

where L1 is in units of area (the size of your Earthly footprint) and L2 is in units of time (your lifespan in years). Wealth, then is in acre-years (or the metric equivalent).

 

Consciousness, of course, is an aspect of life, so is a vital resource in and of itself. Which elevates human consciousness to a survival necessity. Something you’d never suspect, given the ease with which we project our beliefs onto the world rather than strive to understand it, or drink and drug ourselves into warped states of awareness unto oblivion. This adds additional terms to the wealth equation to account for being bullheaded or messing up:

 

L1 • L2 = W – (BH + MU)

 

That is, each of us is accountable for the stewardship we exercise over our property and our lives. Mahatma Gandhi is off the scale upwards, Bernie Madoff doesn’t even register. Stewardship is where consciousness comes into the picture of personal wealth. Measuring personal or corporate wealth in dollars doesn’t even begin to tell the true story. Lack of conscious stewardship devalues the gross total, often severely. Usury? Forget it. Ill-gotten gains? Uh-uh. Tax avoidance? Go back to Go.

 

Think how much time and effort we put into balancing checkbooks, figuring taxes, looking for jobs, earning money, saving, spending, borrowing, worrying, fighting—all for the sake of surviving at our preferred level of wealth. While ignoring the footprint we are stomping into the Earth, as well as the waste and consumption we are inflicting for the full duration of our lives. In the U.S., most of us end up in the poorhouse, indebted to our planet, which has put up with our abuse for so long without complaint. That indebtedness is our true legacy. Maybe we did manage to get the kids through college, but then condemned them to a life of servitude on the very same planet we did our best to deplete. As I wrote in Reflection 65:

 

As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The sum total of our collective pursuit of wealth is told by global warming, peak oil, and the current financial crisis that is so extensive and so devastating that no one can think what to call it. For now, it is the crisis so shameful that it has no name. We have been living—and continue to live—at the expense of the Earth and all its creatures. We have become agents of global depletion, degradation, and destruction. Entropy, thy name is humanity.

 

Well, folks, here we are. The crisis is not out there somewhere, not on Wall Street—it is in here, inside our own consciousness, so-called. Which, much to our surprise, is now bankrupt. Our lack of stewardship over our personal consciousness has gotten us to this point. We could have seen the crash coming, but chose not to. We averted our gaze out of politeness so not to make waves.

 

What do we do now? Leave it to Obama? The only viable solution is to rock the ship of state by making the biggest waves we can to dump the sleeping passengers out of their beds onto the floor. Each one is then in charge of picking himself up, opening her eyes, and becoming fully conscious of the need for stewardship in living every aspect of life from now on. Not stewardship as an afterthought but stewardship at the core.

 

If we can do that, we may be able to restore the wealth equation to a state of balance in our case. But if we keep on being bullheaded or messing up, our personal portion of the crisis will spiral downward. I have written earlier on in this blog of various failures of consciousness. Well, our take on today’s world is what they look like. And feel like. The study of consciousness is not academic; it has profound implications for humanity and its living Earth. To save ourselves, we must first know who it is we are trying to save. As the Oracle at Delphi advised, that journey starts with an inward turn.

 

Take full responsibility for every action; look inward; act outwardly. Not later. Now!

 

¦

 

Reflection 47: Stewardship

January 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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