Sunday, January 27, 2008

So the thesis of my book is maybe that voluntary simplicity is one of the most important movements of our time. Westerners have had plenty of time to enjoy the excesses of materialism. Now it’s time to mature into a new paradigm.

In most cultures that have Westernized there does seem to eventually be a backlash against at least some aspects of the Western lifestyle. Indigenous people initially want all the Western goods and comforts and are eager to leave their traditional lifestyles behind, but eventually they start to realize that something great has been lost...e.g. the Indian Pride movements that have emerged in South America, after quite a spell where people would deny their own origins, embarrassed by their “backward” heritage; returning to the old traditions and rituals; trying to preserve nearly extinct languages and lore; taking a keen interest in protecting their traditional lands from further exploitation by outsiders. All of these things seem to re-awaken eventually.

And among those of us mostly-Europeans, who were indoctrinated into the paradigm of progress and materialism longest ago and have therefore forgotten the most, even some of us are awakening from the dream.

Returning to simplicity and harmony as supraconscious beings--what a beautiful thing! And yet I still can’t get around the twin issues of overpopulation and urbanization. If everyone got the urge to simplify and return to the land, there just would be no room. The impact of people scattered and dispersed everywhere would be so much worse than their concentration in cities.

Population growth needs to be stopped and even reversed. Empowering women is the key to that—they automatically tend to limit family size as their opportunities improve. As they escape from grinding poverty too and become somewhat educated and self-aware they’ll be better able to reflect on what’s truly important in their lives and in their communities and hopefully one day return to simplicity. It’s bound to be a long slow process if we can even pull it off at all—if we don’t destroy ourselves in the meantime.

But even if the most affluent third of humanity could re-awaken now, or very soon, it would have a huge impact on the environment and it would set an example for the rest of the world, so that maybe the pace of transformation could be quickened.

Somehow this line of thinking has me feeling a little more hopeful today.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Yesterday on the drive to school just west of Brighton we saw a pair of bald eagles in a tree alongside the road. This is now the third January I’ve seen bald eagles here in Colorado. I know there are nesting pairs around here now, but my guess is these January sightings are birds who are just passing through. It’s awfully neat that they’re making a comeback.

So I finished reading Guns, Germs, and Steel. It has only served to raise more questions. In a nutshell, he said that certain features of the land, in certain places of the world, gave rise to food production, sedentary lifestyles, city-states, advanced weapons, etc—all of which proved advantageous for conquering other peoples who lived in lands that didn’t possess these unique features. The rise of culture seems in this context to be an inevitable process of the earth, as does the conquest of less “advanced” indigenous peoples by more advanced ones. Yet, it’s so obvious to me that advanced people’s pillaging is not a productive trend; it only leads to destruction. So what are we to make of all of this? Where is this leading if not to extinction?

I guess maybe it all gets back to Jung and Wilber and our spiritual evolution. As we moved from clans and tribes to city-states to globalization and urbanization, we’ve also moved from unconscious mythic identification with the cosmos to becoming conscious and separate egoic individuals. Our concept of the Divine shifted from it being immanent in all things when we were hunter-gatherers to now (as we’ve urbanized and separated from nature) being an abstract concept—God as Other. The next step in our evolution ought to be a return to Oneness, as supraconscious beings. We needed this period of abstraction to be able to see what we had always been immersed in. Now we “know that we know” and can return in a state of supraconsciousness.

What will that look like here on earth? Consumerism must die. We must stop killing the earth. We desperately need a post-consumer paradigm.

A supraconscious individual—what does that person look like? He or she would not identify with the ego, not be interested in power, prestige, money, or material things, would base all of his or her actions on preserving the health of the earth and all of its inhabitants, would not recognize political boundaries as having any intrinsic meaning, but would recognize the equality of all people. He or she would live simply and focus on the nonmaterial side of life (beyond those things required for survival).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

My crazy reading binge continues. Since I moved to Snyder two and a half years ago I’ve read one hundred eleven books, not counting children’s books—eighty-six of those just last year! I’ve just now finished my seventh book of 2008.

It was called World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred And Global Instability, by Amy Chua. Her point was that when there is a market-dominant minority (especially of foreign ethnicity, such as the Chinese in the Philippines, or the Jews in Russia, or whites in many African countries) who represent only a tiny percentage of the population but control the bulk of the nation’s wealth and resources, and then democracy and universal suffrage is introduced more or less overnight, it is a recipe for disaster. The angry, disenfranchised majority, whose hatred has been seething for a very long time, suddenly find themselves politically empowered, able to elect one of their own, thus turning the tables on the market-dominant minority. In many places this has led to violence, outright genocide, atrocious human rights violation, forced expulsions, seizures of land and assets, and so on.

I feel like the universe wants me to figure something out. All of these books seem to be leading me somewhere, trying to guide me to make some kind of novel connection. Amy Chua’s book is just one among many that’s pushing buttons in the back of my mind, trying to help me grasp something, trying to get me to the insight.

I think it centers around my need to understand if there’s a way the human race can save itself at this point. Our problems seem so enormous and intractable—yet is there a way to evolve through this successfully?

Another book I read this week annoyed me from almost the first page. I was having a hard time figuring out what exactly was rubbing me the wrong way—after all, here was a woman discussing how to empower ourselves both individually and societally, to explore our full human potential—an issue I believe is being sorely neglected in these times. It should have been refreshing to read a book on this subject. I think what bothered me was her oversimplistic optimism. She would only mention our global problems in passing, hardly giving them any attention because in her belief instantaneous change is possible. She has the New Age belief that if enough people are doing their own private inner work we’ll soon reach critical mass and the whole world will suddenly be transformed. She cited all of these rapid shifts that have occurred evolutionarily in the past, and yes, of course she’s right. I don’t deny that it often works that way or that it could work that way this time. I just also believe there’s likely to be death (maybe a massive die-off) and anarchy as well as, and in advance of, a full transformation.

She was ignoring the major issues and problems—Amy Chua’s example being one of them—that make her utopian transformation laughable. It seems like she is too immersed in our elite American culture to grasp what we are actually facing, globally, as a species.

Let me try to put down some of my thought as to what’s bothering me, what I’m trying to sort out. My thinking is kind of cloudy today, so I don’t know how helpful this will be.

This consumer paradigm bothers me. Globalization bothers me—corporations going into foreign countries, raping the land, destroying what should be left to sustain the people. Huge profits made by the elite few—an instant gratification that pillages the future. Indigenous people are rightly angry. Outsiders do not have respect for local lands, people, and resources.

The whole concept of profit and acquisitiveness feels like a totally off-base paradigm. I think it is evidence of a deep insecurity in the human psyche. It is that urge to hoard—that deep survival instinct, the self-preservation instinct of the ego. We think of ourselves as so civilized, but I see us as still caught up in a barbaric quest for individual survival at the expense of all that is Other.

I am about to start Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel, which I’m hoping will help me sift through my thoughts more thoroughly. I believe that his premise in this book is that geology, and the unique features of a region, help to shape culture and explains the vast cultural differences throughout the world. I don’t expect he will go into the spiritual dimension of the land, but I’m thrilled to at least have found a Westerner willing to address the issue of the effects of land on culture, however superficially.

See, the land is actually what I’m suspecting underlies consumerism and the exploitation of third world countries and Amy Chua’s whole discussion about the rise of market-dominant minorities. People who have lost their connection to the land become those who are obsessed with materialism and those who are likely to exploit the land, particularly on foreign soils where they don’t have to see the damage they do. Amy Chua found that when market-dominant minorities were driven out of a country the countries often collapsed economically because the majority who remained didn’t possess the business skills and financial acumen necessary to keep the country going. What occurred to me was that this was not a failing of the native people but simply demonstrates a very core difference in cultural values. Business skills, financial acumen—those are skills valuable to people who have no connection to the land. They don’t possess the land in their hearts or their souls, so they seek through transacting and exploiting to possess the earth physically. Indigenous people, however, still at least to some extent are part of the land, inseparable from it. Capitalism has little appeal to them. There is not motivation to become materialists, brilliant entrepreneurs, leaders of industry. Manic capitalism, manic materialism, represents alienation from our true identity. Indigenous people are often thought of as lacking in intelligence to succeed in business, or as plain unmotivated and lazy, when in fact they still remember how to live in harmony with the earth.

Harmony might be possible on this earth if everyone reconnected with the land. But in this global society where people have become so rootless, how is that possible?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The other day I read the quirkiest book. It was called Washed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam, by Skye Moody. It was so fascinating, filled with stories of messages in bottles, sunken treasures, ambergris (expensive whale vomit used in perfumerie), cargo containers ejecting Nikes and BMWs into the ocean…. But it was also really disturbing. The picture on the cover of the book is of a Hawaiian beach completely covered in plastic jetsam. One story was about a shipment of rubber bath toys (28,000 ducks, frogs, turtles, and beavers packaged for The First Years company) that washed overboard somewhere near the international dateline while enroute from China to the US. The first toys washed ashore late that year (1992) in Alaska. They continued washing ashore there for many months. Computer models predicted that currents would take them through iceberg-infested waters to Greenland and then to the Atlantic Ocean. To date they’ve been found in Washington state (meaning some went south), but also in Maine and Scotland. The problem with plastics is that they never biodegrade. They crumble into smaller and smaller bits, are ingested by sea critters, release dioxins into the body and move up and up the food chain.

I think the most disturbing (but fascinating) part of the book was the description of gyres, the great big circular ocean currents in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans which are like “toilets in which the water constantly whirls but never flushes”. The centers of the gyres have virtually no wind, so they are a sailor’s worst nightmare. One guy, with a diesel-powered catamaran, intentionally sailed through the North Pacific subtropical gyre, which is about the size of Africa—empty of islands and other boats. He discovered in the center (actually it has two centers) what is now called The Great Garbage Patch. The gyres suck in garbage and hold it there for hundreds of years, the garbage circling around and around, with each circuit taking several years. Eventually each piece of garbage might be spit back out into the current again, but not for a very long time. The guy (Charles Moore) calculated the garbage to weigh roughly three million tons. And that’s just in one of the world’s gyres!

On the drive to school yesterday (going over Wiggins hill, of course—where I always do my most insightful thinking) I began to imagine watching the earth and its processes from outer space, as if time were condensed and I could see air and water currents that wouldn’t actually be visible to the eye. I saw how the air currents created and interacted with the ocean currents, how the ocean currents influenced the air and therefore the weather patterns on land, how when weather patterns shifted, places like the Sahara dried out. I saw the dust of the Sahara moving on air currents to the Amazon where the minerals and micronutrients nourished the rainforest. In places where I saw green turning to brown I saw war and conflict almost like an infection, particularly around the edges of the brown. I got impressions of initially vast migrations of species, wide distributions of animals, that eventually shriveled up and became small pockets here and there, very isolated.

I’ve always known that most wars are about scarce resources (even when they may seem to be about religious or ideological differences). But this meditation tweaked my understanding. In another fascinating book I’m reading (The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, by Paul Shepard) there was one sentence talking about sky gods and how in ancient times the skies ruled human destiny. Reading that sentence following the earth meditation it flashed in my mind: the seas, the skies, and the land rule human destiny.

Culture rises and declines in response to the confluence of sea, sky, and land—how they interact and cause shifting conditions. To that you could also add the geophysical forces, earth’s magnetic field, its molten core, its plate tectonics and volcanism. This image in my mind could not make it any clearer to me that we are products of all of these forces, that we appear and disappear in exactly the same manner as the Sahara blossoms in green abundance and then browns. Wars and suffering in the brown spots—that’s an organic process, a part of desertification, inseparable from it so long as humans are part of that ecosystem.

Indigenous cultures that honor the wind really understand that the wind gives us life. As weather patterns change, life can dry up in places that were formerly lush and abundant. The earth, the sky, the wind, and the water have given us life.

The horror of being alive in this moment is watching everyone behave as if we’re independent of these things. As if we’re immune to withering and drying up. We act as if we have the option of divorcing ourselves from the land—what a ludicrous notion! We are emanations of the land, a phenomenon of the land. The land houses our soul.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

I finished a book the other day about the Kalahari Bushmen (The Old Way, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas). It has left me sadder than ever about the current state of affairs here on earth. The author lived among the Bushmen with her family in the 1950’s, when they were still purely living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, in the same way they had for thirty-five thousand years. The last section of the book showed how all of that has changed in the mere fifty years since the author first visited.

The “Old Way” is how we all once lived, as full, integrated participants in the local ecosystem. It was beautiful in the book to see how the people had co-evolved with all the other creatures in the ecosystem and therefore filled a vital but intimately interconnected niche. Her description of the co-evolution of the humans and lions was particularly interesting. Because they evolved together, humans were not typically prey for the lions. Only with the advent of farming was that balance destroyed, and then with a vengeance. Then, humans killed lions, and lions became man-eaters.

The exquisiteness of a balanced ecosystem is what moved me, especially because I had never seen an example of a balanced ecosystem that included humans. Once upon a time we all lived in that kind of harmony, fully integrated into the natural world. But not anymore.

Everything has gone downhill since we stepped outside of our niche and began to dominate and control everything. Is culture a blessing or a curse? At this point I’d have to call it a curse since unbelievable damage and desecration has occurred as a result. Maybe ultimately there will be a bigger picture and this will just have been a necessary evil to get us to some enlightened way of being. But I have some serious doubts.

Maybe the development of culture is ultimately a blind alley—an evolutionary dead-end. I find our survival as a species less and less probable these days. I truly think we’re headed towards a very massive die-off.

Again I reach the question—does our survival matter? Really I doubt that it does.

I’ve already reached the conclusion that my own life, personally, doesn’t matter. Whether I live or die is insignificant. It’s just an extension of that thinking to conclude that the survival of our species doesn’t matter.

Some months back I was doing a little mental exercise pertaining to the end-of-oil scenario. If society collapsed, what would I do? I had come across a prophecy given by a Native American elder to Tom Brown, Jr. about the collapse of civilization. It said that when the sky turns blood red you’ll have one year to flee to the wilderness, and once there you must stay for ten years before coming out again. If you came out any sooner you would die. In the course of that time society would largely be destroyed.

I imagined myself fleeing to the wilderness and surviving there. I asked myself, if I were threatened by other humans, would I defend myself? Would I kill other people simply to ensure my own survival? Why would my survival matter, and how could my life possibly have more value than anyone else’s? I’m not going to have any more children, so I don’t need to survive to propagate the species or carry on my bloodline. So, why would my survival matter?

I concluded it just wouldn’t. I would want to survive because it sounds like an adventure, an interesting test, but it wouldn’t matter.

Why do we fight so desperately for survival? That’s something I will never quite understand. I know it’s instinctive, maybe even the will of the species to survive that manifests through us. But man killing man can never make any sense, especially with modern weapons, since the weak genetically can kill the strong and it’s not a matter of the fittest of the species surviving necessarily.

The rules of the physical world say dog-eat-dog. I for one would rather be eaten. As Spirit we live on forever. So why does this world matter? It’s a manifestation of the Divine, but when we’ve so defiled and diminished it, it’s lost so much of its glory.

My survival doesn’t matter. When I leave this world—today, tomorrow, next Wednesday, in fifty years—it doesn’t make a difference. But while I’m here my duty is to honor the Divine and the natural world and to maybe fight for it, to protect what is still intact and to try to re-awaken others.