Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going?

In their answer to our 2006 essay competition question 'What is humanity's worst invention?', Judy Pratt and Nicky Duenkel contend that it is not any specific invention. Rather, it is our need to constantly remake and improve our environment instead of seeking closer connection with the world as it already is.

by Judy Pratt and Nicky Duenkel

The Ecologist (October 2006)

'Oh, that was the worst! Totally the worst!' exclaims our young niece, describing the latest embarrassment she has suffered in her teenage life, to several of her bejewelled friends in the mall.

In the boreal forest of Alberta an operator demonstrates the efficiency and delicacy of the work of a feller buncher harvesting trees on a planned site, taking up to twenty trees in one grasp, while leaving a single seed tree standing.

The effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound were chronicled night after night on the evening news, showing harbour seals, sea otters, shore birds, and devastated humans trying to save a few individuals while surrounded by the smothering death of thousands upon thousands. This is now considered the most devastating environmental disaster at sea in history and yet Exxon's responsibility is still being contested in court some seventeen years later.

Walking through the holocaust memorial near Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, composed of tall glass pillars inscribed with six million tattoo numbers, stark crystalline reminders of those who died in the Nazi death camps, we weep and feel that this is surely one of the worst atrocities of humanity. And yet, we know that it is only one of too many evidences of centuries of persecution and execution of large groups of people perceived as threats.

We bear witness to the deaths of millions of 'by-catch' species in the massive drift nets of the world's fishing industries that indiscriminately harvested the seas.

Entering the site of ground zero in the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico, on the single day that the public is allowed in, we are flooded with images of the consequences of atomic weaponry at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and are overwhelmed with the immense power, fear, and ignorance that this site had its part in engendering (not to mention the effects of this mere 'test' on its witnesses that day).

As we consider, in a superficial scan, some of humanity's ill-conceived inventions, it truly doesn't seem to matter which is the worst. Just as it has proven to be detrimental to create a hierarchy of oppressions, pitting one inequality against another, we believe that there is little to be gained in arguing which of a plethora of humanity's destructive devices has been most damaging. The comparison over thousands of centuries and across multitudes of cultures, living and dead, merely seems to lead us further astray. We see this tendency to focus upon the problems, rather than upon the grace, the gifts, and the solutions to the dilemmas that humanity has encountered and produced, as counterproductive. We suspect that the intention of The Ecologist isn't to make such a list, but in naming what we have done as a species, to work to undo it and to come to awareness so that we try never to create such things again.

It may be more useful to consider the parallels and interconnections among these different atrocities - to seek the matrix and patterns that illuminate the common cause for these creations. Is there a root ill out of which all such invidious inventions grow - the original source from which stems humanity's acts of ignorance? We would boldly suggest that the source of our destructiveness might be better described as a flawed worldview. In considering the relationship between our flawed woridview and our dreadful acts, we reflect on recent words by His Holiness The Dalai Lama that ask questions about the underlying structures guiding our ability to create whatever we will:

"There is almost no area of human life today that is not touched by the effects of science and technology. Yet are we clear about the place of science in the totality of human life - what exactly it should do and by what should it be governed". This last point is critical because unless the direction of science is guided by a consciously ethical motivation, especially compassion, its effects may fail to bring benefit. They may indeed cause great harm.

Modernity's lens has led us on the one hand to highlighting our habit of focusing on the worst, and then an aversion to what we see through this lens leads to a concomitant habit of denial and avoidance. The result is a worldview that brings into being a lifestyle of disconnection and separation, where we can be disassociated from the consequences and also the true joys of our actions and existence in the world as communal beings. In our shock and dismay, we've created a belief system that fosters the absurd notion that we can be disconnected. This 'box' that we've created of the individual - isolated and inviolate, each separate in our single skin - is truly harmful; we put ourselves and others in such a state to the detriment of all.

We believe that it is this sense of disconnection and solitariness that allows for many (if not all) of what we'd name modern, highly developed, often profligate, societies' ills - from the creation and unleashing of the atomic bomb, to plastic surgery to increase the size of women's breasts, to the steady decimation of the world's forests, to children who don't know that eggs come from chickens.

As we took across the gulfs of disassociation, we recall reading Wendell Berry's claims that:

"Our most serious problem, perhaps, is that we have become a nation of fantasists. We believe, apparently, in the infinite availability of finite resources. We persist in land-use methods that reduce the potentially infinite power of soil fertility to a finite quantity, which we then proceed to waste as if it were an infinite quantity. We have an economy that depends not on the quality and quantity of necessary goods and services, but on the moods of a few stockbrokers. We believe that democratic freedom can be preserved by people ignorant of the history of democracy and indifferent to the responsibilities of freedom."

It seems that we have to have this fantasy in order not to face what it is that we are allowing ourselves to do through disconnection from the effects of our selfish and escapist behaviours. It may be that North Americans, to whom Berry refers, have heard about how everything is connected, and that some few still know it from experience and tradition, as do many of earth's people, yet this knowledge is discredited as quaint, simplistic, and obsolete in today's economy. Standing in contrast to this western fantasy is a large percentage of the human population who still live lives directly connecting them to earth's systems. Yet these people have been largely powerless to advocate for policies against ecological devastation as the global market keeps them subject to the depreciations of an extremely powerful minority.

Even for those of us benefiting most from the power elites, things are not so clearly what they seem in the realm of disconnection. Despite our cultures of separation we seem to be frantically seeking connection through relationship, religion, walks in the woods, yoga practice, and chatrooms. We marry and create families, we volunteer, we create communities in person and on the web, we act to benefit our local environs and reach out to others in need across the globe. We often are, and more often wish to be, of service.

We are seekers, trackers, pursuers, and practitioners, but always unsatisfied with the findings. We carry an ideal as a lamp, but what the lamp illuminates never matches the image, and so the best is rejected for the perfected idealised images of nature in National Geographic, of women In fashion magazines and on television, of relationship as described in the self-help books, et cetera. As we walk on a beach and see a sunset, we are unconsciously measuring it against some standard image. We no longer see and appreciate what surrounds us in the moment - what the world is offering us. We turn away from what is real to the flawless images.

While we are looking for the connections, we continue to be seduced by our pull towards the edges of human experience. We believe that it may be our tendency to embrace extremes that has created such a massive gap between our destructive and redemptive actions; our stated values and the evidence of how we fail to come close to our ideals. This chasm fractures our ability to be responsive to, and responsible for, the necessary changes in humanity's direction.

The false notion of our separation is not borne out by the evidence of our effects on the systems of this single planet. We don't need any further information from the experts and analysts or chiding from the doomsayers to see the direction our actions need to go. The environmental field has matured over the years and we believe we now understand that the core of our work is as much with economics, culture, and human-to-human communication as it is with understanding the other biological systems with which we are in relation. As we can readily see, even the smallest children are aware that we live in an interconnected web. E O Wilson, in his book Consilience (Knopf, 1998), indicates that we already know what we need to know to bring ourselves into balance with the planet's systems. What we don't know is how to get humans to change their behaviour in accordance with what we know.

In his book Earth in Mind (Island Press, 1994), David Orr addressed this deadly divide between what we know and what we do by suggesting we reclaim the concept of virtue, defined as "the result of choosing intelligently between extremes". He spoke of the necessity to rehabilitate this word and to begin to apply virtue as an antidote to unsustainable choices and behaviours; that virtue, as conceived by the Greeks and Romans, could never he "separated from politics and from participation in the civic life of the community".

What is needed is a paradigm shift of global proportion to lift the world's people from the perceived need for such tragic and appalling inventiveness. We are hopefully beginning to turn the corner from this bout of isolation and privatisation to concern and compassion for others - human and otherwise - and for the public good. Having followed the path of atomisation - of breaking things down into smaller and smaller parts - we are now called to piece it all back together again in a new way. A new worldview doesn't spring out of a nowhere, it is built upon past learning, previous worldviews. We have the evidence to demonstrate that carrying individualism to an extreme leads to disconnection. What would it look like if each person were encouraged to grow in ways that served themselves and the whole?

We need some time to figure this all out. Time for reflection, for remembering who we are, what we value, where we come from, and for a real consideration of whether we are heading where we want to go. While we wrestle with the wave of extinctions humanity's progress engenders, we are facing the question of our species' extinction brought into light with the splitting of the atom and re-emphasised with effects of global warming and climate change. We may not exist in the future because of our actions.

Runner-Up in the Annual Ecologist/Coady International Institute Essay Competition 2006

Bill Totten


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