421. Watersheds

February 2, 2015

Watersheds are land basins that often contain large amounts of soil. Soil, by definition, is porous. It consists of particles of rock and organic material nestled more-or-less closely together (more closely in the case of clayey soils, less in sandy or gravely ones). Spaces between particles invite water to flow in-and-around them, picking up air and dissolved nutrients and minerals, which that underground water conveys to thirsty roots and microbes on its relentless journey downslope toward the ocean.

The early stages of that journey do not take place across the land so much as within it, by winding routes between soil particles of remarkable complexity leading on to more and more of the same. We are fascinated by the wonder of ocean depths and outer space, while the wonder of the soil beneath our feet eludes us. The French peasant who held up a clod of soil from his field and exclaimed (in translation), “This is France!” had it almost right. He might have said, “This is life!”

The local transport system of individual plants is an extension of the watershed in which it grows. Powered by evaporation through the surface of leaves, a lifting force draws water taken in from damp soil upward into the presence of chlorophyll, where it intercepts energy from the sun, ionizes, and frees a hydrogen ion that triggers the process leading to the production of glucose—a form of sugar containing energy in a form plants can use for maintenance, growth, repair, reproduction, and defense.

With roots in the soil, leaves in the air, vascular plants such as trees have the best of both worlds. If they were not able to rise aboveground to spread their leaves in the sun, or able to draw water up to those leaves, plants would exist only in areas where water, air, and sunlight come together at ground level—humid places such as where nonvascular plants like mosses and liverworts grow in glens and at the bases of cliffs, or in bright and shallow wetlands, streams, and ponds.

But by enabling the aerial, sunlit world of wind and leaves to combine with the dark, subterranean watery world of soil and roots, plants bring two aspects of a watershed together, the upper and lower, light and dark, in a way that radically expands the biosphere’s potential for growth, producing the lush world of sap, fruit, seeds, and leaves where every meadow vole, weasel, hawk, person, fungus, and bacterium lives today.

Plants are the creator of this modern world, and watersheds throughout the biosphere are their patrons, mentors, supporters, and protectors.

In a very real sense, brains, too, are watershed extensions, elaborate expressions of damp soils and sunlight. They take in energy from two sources, food (including drink), and sensory or molecular stimulation through eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Food fuels bodily life-support processes, sensory stimulation provides the signal that activate the components of consciousness such as perception, memory, understanding, meaning, thought, judgment, and subsequent behavior.

Sensory stimulation sends ions across brain cell boundaries, causing currents to pulse toward axon terminals, where neurotransmitters carry those signals to others next in line, creating sensory patterns of activation and inhibition that spread across groups of neurons, and those patterns can be compared point-for-point with other patterns, creating consonant or dissonant signals, such as those that provoke consciousness.

Consciousness, then, is an extension of the engagement between a mind and the watershed that provides it not only with life, but patterned sensory stimulation in addition. To even partially understand consciousness, we must consider the life-sustaining environment in which it occurs, the patterned stimuli impinging on the senses within that environment, as well as the actions with which particular minds respond to that evocative sensory stimulation, so constituting a particular engagement between our minds and their surrounding worlds.

In my thinking, a mind interprets or translates patterned sensory stimulation as a situation laden with meaning in light of previous experience (sensory stimulation such as one or two lanterns shining from a tower is not meaningful in itself), and organic intelligence in that situation judges what response to make that would be most appropriate to that (perhaps unique) situation.

Minds, then, convert watersheds, sensory signals, and actions into meaningful life situations, and it is those interpreted situations that minds respond to, not watersheds, signals, or actions in themselves. We all develop repertories of situations we are familiar with, and courses of action to take in responding to just that range of situations. Our world at any given time is a construct composed of such situations as delimited by their specific mix of dimensions to which our intelligence responds, the situation serving as the psychic environment standing in for the “real” environment consisting of watershed, stimulation, and appropriate action.

I assume that watershed, sunlight, and gravity contribute to the context within which consciousness exists in the natural world. In watershed I include a sense of the natural resources available in a given situation. In sunlight I include climate, weather, season, wind, and other natural phenomena. In gravity I include the unstated but assumed background of forces to be dealt with, including mental habits, routines, rituals, prejudices, and other psychic influences.

If I were to hold up a clod of soil today, I might well say, “This is consciousness!”

I carry on like this because I think we often overlook the natural influences that affect everyday consciousness and behavior. Even in a cubicle in a skyscraper in a modern city, we depend on water and food that undoubtedly come from watersheds we may not be aware of. Without such unacknowledged watersheds, urban civilization would not exist, as ancient Rome would not have existed without its roads, baths, and aqueducts. Such hidden dimensions of experience are implicit in our modern-day engagements with artificial intelligence, the internet, drone strikes, and covert security operations.

In a very real sense, modern consciousness rests on basic factors such as watersheds that many of us are oblivious to, yet support our minds in everything we do. To the extent that we might mindlessly undermine those natural factors, such unstated assumptions pose a potential danger to our well-being and security.




(Copyright © 2009)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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