How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Friday, April 29, 2011

Wild Geese and Original Sin

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
                                -Mary Oliver

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, man is born into the natural paradise of Eden. But when Eve the woman, partakes of the forbidden fruit of knowledge, she forever marks the human race with the stain of sin. Expelled from paradise and cursed for eternity to wander imperfect in exile, the progeny of Judeo-Christian Western culture bear the scars of our forbearers’ original sin. We live upon the land but we are not of it. The Earth is not our home. We wander aimlessly in the wilderness, ever searching for the lost paradise we believe can only be restored beyond the grave. Our only salvation is to free ourselves from this world and take solace in another, perfect place, forgiven by a perfect (albeit strikingly similar in His imperfections to humans) God.

Other cultures do not define all of humanity as a fatally-flawed defect of natural order. In Native American cultures, people, and all other organisms, are charged with occupying a sacred space within an integrated whole. Understanding our function within the whole, we become whole. In Buddhism, everything is also a component of an interconnected single reality. Ecology confirms this hypothesis. In fact, most of the Earth’s peoples subscribe to variations of this timeless, self-evident truth.

The Judeo-Christian lives in exile from the place of his creation, always seeking a return to a mythical paradise. The Native American is part of it, seeing his place and time as perfect and whole. Indian tears and blood are the original sin of America.

I once had a beautiful Canada goose friend. One spring, three years ago, a pair of mated geese spent some time on our pond and then they disappeared. I think our potcake Steve, ever earnest in his duty to rid the property of all invaders, might have been responsible for their departure, but I can’t be sure. Certainly the geese intended to stay a while because they left behind a treasure of three gigantic eggs. I left the eggs alone for a couple of weeks, hoping the parents would return, but they never did.

Then, in a typical late April cold snap, urged by my youngest son who feared the eggs would freeze and die, I found myself breaking all my own rules, bringing the eggs into the house and throwing them into the incubator with some light Brahmas I was hatching. ‘They will never hatch,’ I told myself, but exactly 28 days later, I awoke to find two golden downy faces peering up at me through the plastic viewing hole of the incubator. The third egg was infertile.

No baby animal is more dependent than a gosling. Having made the decision to incubate the eggs, I was now utterly responsible for two babies who wanted to spend every second of every waking hour on a lap. To put them down or worse, in their pen, inspired an onslaught of incessant wailing that could bring the house down. If the screaming didn’t get to you, they would dash themselves on the bars of the pen for good measure.

Feeding was another issue. While their incubator mates, the chicks, were happy to peck and scratch at commercial feed, the goslings’ palates tended more towards wild foods, grass, dandelion and especially earthworms. Lulu and Jojo (Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner) were the highest maintenance animals of all time, but the intensity of their bonding was not to be resisted.

Then tragedy struck. Jojo broke his leg and passed away shortly after a surgery to repair it. Lulu became even more dependent without her sibling, but fortunately, Steve, Bruce and Prudence, the dogs, had stepped in by this time to act as surrogates, and Lulu gradually exchanged a permanent position on the lap for one on the porch with the dogs.

My cousin, an ornithologist, told me, “You are stuck with that goose. Since it is imprinted on humans, it will never leave.” Geese have a life expectancy of around 30 years, but by this time Lulu had settled into her place as a beloved member of the family, so this idea was just fine with us. In fact, trained by her friends the dogs to bark at cars entering the driveway, Lulu developed into the only decent guard dog in the family. She was earning her keep. Except for the numerous piles of excrement that now decorated the entrance to our home, life with a goose was good.

The winter came and Lulu did not fly south. The following spring, she seemed oblivious to the happy flocks of geese, returning from their southern holidays and bursting with the lust of the season. She stayed with us throughout a second winter, and we grew to love her more with every day. Then early last spring, our dear friend grew very restless. Instead of passing her days quietly on the porch with the dogs, she took to regular flight, circling the skies above the house. When she was on the land, she would spend her days up at the pond, plaintively honking. Lulu wanted somebody to love. Then one day, she found him, and she was gone.

The worst part was not knowing what had become of her. My mind raced through all the worst case scenarios, but in my heart I hoped beyond hope that she was flying free in the sky with her kin and having a wonderful goose life.

Two weeks ago, almost exactly one year to the day I last set eyes on her, Lulu returned, with friends. I heard her familiar honk, ran across the road to the pasture across the street, and there she was, saying hello. She didn’t stay. Her friends did not appreciate me very much, and they all took off down the field together. But now, every morning, a group of geese fly over the house to the pond where we first found Lulu’s egg. Steve the ancient potcake went back to the Earth last winter, after 13 years of loyal friendship, so Lulu and her new family are left undisturbed to do whatever it is geese like to do this time of year. She is home.

The deer also walk through from time to time and have a drink of water and a nibble of my blueberry bushes. The squirrels are busy, trying to remember where they hid last year’s walnuts and acorns. The goldfinches battle it out on the dried heads that still stand in the pasture and on the birdfeeders outside my window. Lulu returned to the place she is connected to. We do not own the land. They do. But if we walk gently and ask nicely, we can atone for our original sin and be part of paradise.

Recommended Reading

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Tragic Delusion of American Exceptionalism, Superiority Complex and the Nature of Reality

“Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak, When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound, When majesty stoops to folly.” – Kent to King Lear

On Friday night, my husband and I were very lucky to acquire a couple of tickets to see Bill Maher in Asheville. Anybody who is familiar with Mr. Maher’s particular kind of political and cultural satire knows he certainly doesn’t pull any punches but somehow makes the insanity of our American reality funny, at least for the few minutes one is listening to him. During his two hour monologue, Maher brought up (among other things), the popular American delusion of exceptionalism.

I had been thinking about American delusions a lot lately after reading American Fascists by the brilliant Chris Hedges, then reading an article on Alternet, then seeing Maher in Asheville. Last but not least, a blogger friend Gail raised the subject on her blog yesterday morning. The web of unreality being deliberately spread by some and greedily consumed by others appears to have finally matured enough to crave exposure to the light of day.

As Maher points out, most Americans subscribe to the theory that the United States is the most outstanding country on Earth. National pride is one thing, but pride based on falsehoods is foolhardy. In King Lear, a vain king bases the extent of his daughters’ dowries on their protestations of love for him. The eldest two, butter him up for maximum profit, but the youngest, Cordelia, speaks truth to her father, and for this, she is disowned. As the tragedy ensues, it becomes evident that Lear has a problem with constructive criticism. He cannot be at all objective about his own shortcomings and banishes all who in earnestness question his actions. In typical Shakespearean tradition, he realizes his folly after it is too late. The moral of the story: blind submission and protestations of greatness do not greatness make.

America is exceptional, but unfortunately, not exceptional in ways that would evoke admiration from the rest of the world. Here are a few of the ways the United States is exceptional:

• We have the highest healthcare costs in the world, yet the World Health Organization ranks our healthcare system at 37th, behind Costa Rica, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Chile to name a few.
• Among developed nations, the United States has the highest income inequality.
• We have the highest per capita carbon footprint.
• We rank among the countries with the highest percentage of circumcised men (odd trivia).
• Among developed countries, we have the highest rate of obesity and diabetes.
• We have the highest murder rate in the civilized world and the highest imprisonment rate on Earth (almost three times the nearest competitor on this one).
• We spend more on the military than all the other countries on Earth combined (all other stats here).

In spite of how life seems for the average American at the moment, the United States is still the wealthiest country on Earth, which is a sad testament given many of the above statistics. Americans have a lot to be thankful for, but we also, clearly, have a lot of work to do if we aspire to be the greatest nation on Earth.

“The superiority complex is one of the ways which a person with an inferiority complex may use as a method of escape from his difficulties. He assumes that he is superior when he is not, and this false success compensates him for the state of inferiority which he cannot bear. The normal person does not have a superiority complex, he does not even have a sense of superiority. He has the striving to be superior in the sense that we all have ambition to be successful; but so long as this striving is expressed in work it does not lead to false valuations, which are at the root of mental disease.” – Alfred Adler (the psychoanalyst who first defined the superiority complex)

The whole concept of American exceptionalism begs the question, “Why do some Americans need to feel superior to everyone else?” Isn’t this kind of comparative analysis a bit juvenile? Americans running around saying “We’re number one, we’re number one,” in spite of some very sad evidence to the contrary is like little kids fighting on the playground over who can spit the furthest. Like King Lear, the apparent need for some Americans to feel superior to everyone else points to an inherent inadequacy. Adler’s definition of the pathological superiority complex is telling. Who are the Americans that are fanatical about American Exceptionalism?

There is no doubt that many Americans are exceptional, but they aren’t the ones going around with a superiority complex on their shoulders. Most of those spouting “USA, USA,” have actually never even set foot inside a foreign country and therefore don’t have any first hand experience or knowledge of whether America is exceptional or not. And while the United States has enjoyed a certain set of variables (for example a wealth of natural resources thanks to the fact that our predecessors, the First American People left them intact) and a bit of good fortune that has allowed us to develop a ridiculous military and economic hegemony, this hegemony in no way implies superiority.

In a recent blog post, I touched on the speciest concept of human exceptionalism. Perhaps not coincidentally, the same demographic that subscribes to the idea that Homo sapiens is superior to all other life forms also suffers from a superiority complex when it comes to nationalism. These people are obviously compensating for their own inadequacies and mediocrity. For those deluded souls, no amount of logic or reason will sway them from their steadfast pathological ideals. It is also not surprising that among this same demographic are those who would deny basic civil liberties to immigrants, gays and any others they determine are inferior to themselves.

Unlike the self confidence that emanates from real accomplishment, a superiority complex is a pathology that in no way reflects any genuine supremacy of the person who demonstrates it. On the contrary, the superiority complex is usually a classic cover up for what is lacking or inadequate.

With the Tea Party movement in full swing, religious fundamentalism on the rise, and Donald Trump vying for the leading position as Republican candidate for President, it becomes painfully obvious that an increasingly large proportion of the American public are having difficulty with the concept of reality. To a psychoanalyst looking in from the outside, perhaps this is not surprising. As day to day life for the average American gets steadily worse (while the elite get wealthier), the diminished and impotent masses cling to their delusions of grandeur.

“How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” – Abraham Lincoln

As Americans march blindly forward to the 2012 Election Day, subscription to American exceptionalism is taking on a new fervency in right wing circles. Newt Gingritch’s new book is entitled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. Fundamentalist Christian wingnuts believe that America is God’s chosen land and that Americans have a divine mandate to rule the world in the name of Jesus. The fallout from the contaminated ideology is infecting Democrats as well. All candidates give the concept lip service. After all, who would elect someone who didn’t openly spew the mantra that America is “the greatest nation on Earth?” But within the worn-out shpeel of American hubris lies the seeds of timeless tragedy sown by all Western Civilization’s empires, and their inevitable declines shine a ray of light on a reality that most Americans would rather not see.

Given the state of the world right now, The United States does not need obedient sheep stoking the fires of an overinflated mass ego. Sure we can bomb the crap out of anybody who pisses us off, but this is not a quality that should foster fanatical nationalism. Hitler demanded a similar compliance from his citizens and look how that turned out. Like King Lear, the United States needs citizens of true patriotism who like Lear’s youngest daughter, will stand up and speak truth to power. If we don’t get our act together soon, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions surely awaits us.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Earth Day 2011 – Do One Green Thing - Saving the Earth One Plastic Bag at a Time

How quickly we forget. On July 12, 2008 in a radio address, President George W. Bush said, “Technological advances have allowed us to explore oil offshore in ways that protect the environment (1).” In hindsight, Bush’s speech seems tragically myopic, but the constant pressure to pursue offshore drilling continues in the United States and across the world, as nations clamor for the coveted crude elixir.

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Today, the hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil suffocating the Gulf of Mexico are an abstracted post script for everyone except the aborted dolphin fetuses that continue washing up along Florida’s shorelines. The blowout of the BP Horizon offshore oil rig was not the first disaster of its kind, nor will it be the last, but how quickly we forget.

In 1969, a Unocal oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara blew, spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the beautiful California surf. At the time, it was a disaster of unprecedented proportions (although the event is now dwarfed by the recent BP disaster). Seabirds, otters, seals and dolphins suffocated in thick, black tar, washed up in the thousands, dead along the Santa Barbara coast. Although disastrous, the event precipitated a national environmental wake up call.

Inspired by the California disaster, Senator Gaylord Nelson established on April 22nd, 1970, the first Earth Day. Events across the country on that day cemented public support for environmental conservation. In what would today be unheard of, Republicans and Democrats joined together to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and to pass the landmark Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts.

On Friday, April 22nd, 2011 we will again pause for a few minutes from our distracted, frenetic lives to pay homage to our home and habitat, the Earth. While the events of Santa Barbara and the Gulf of Mexico seem far away from most of us, we cannot escape our connection to them. The gasoline that propels our vehicles, the power that electrifies our day-to-day lives and the plastic bags and bottles that we use once and then carelessly toss away are all products of the necessary evil that is crude oil.

Just as crude oil slips into the niches of an ecosystem, it creeps insidiously into our every day lives without observation. Almost every consumer good sold makes its way to our grocery and big box stores aboard a fossil fuel-propelled rig or freighter from China. The food on our tables, cement in our houses, and chemicals in all our household products can trace their origins to fossil fuel. While one could argue that in the case of subsistence items, the cost of oil extraction is outweighed by necessity, in many instances our consumption of products produced from fossil fuels is simply careless and lazy. In the United States the production of plastic bags alone accounts for the consumption of 12 million barrels of oil every year. It is estimated that the manufacture and transportation of bottled water consumes the equivalent of 32-55 million barrels of crude oil every year. The price of convenience is high (2).

The same lightweight and sturdy physiology that makes the single use plastic bags and bottles convenient also makes them a perfect vehicle to catch the wind or float into waterways. As the refuse of our convenience blows away from open landfills and floats downstream, it makes its way to the ocean where it collects. In the Pacific Ocean, plastic now outweighs living biomass by a ratio of 6:1 (3). In the ocean, plastic is misinterpreted as food by marine animals and seabirds. The Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation estimates that a million birds and over 100,000 turtles and marine mammals are sacrificed each year on the alter of human laziness by ingesting single use plastics (4).

The single use plastic bag and bottle are the ultimate icons of our throw away culture. By some estimates, plastic bags are the most ubiquitous consumer good on Earth, with up to one trillion produced and used every year. Once a bag is consumed, it is here to stay, taking up to 1,000 years to decompose. At the Pacific Ocean Gyre, a great trash heap the size of Texas now plagues an ocean whose name literally means “to make peace.” As with all peaceful and passive entities on Earth, the human species is slowly but surely killing her.

Every bag used and carelessly tossed has the potential to take life, the life of a sea turtle, bird, whale, or ocean. The catastrophic environmental impacts associated with the extraction of oil and the toxic byproducts of production are also murderous residuals of human convenience. Conversely, every time a reusable bag or water bottle is employed, lives and the ecosystem are saved. Most people feel rightfully overwhelmed when confronted with the multiplicity of environmental problems that plague the planet. We feel like we are helpless to effect change, but we can all be environmental heroes by simply rejecting single use plastics. This small gesture goes a very long way.

Reducing our consumption of plastic will not ruin our lives or the economy. It is not an inconvenience to keep reusable bags and a refillable water bottle in the car at all times. The reusable bags, hold more, don’t split and are easier to carry, and who really uses those ridiculous plastic utensils anyway?

On Friday, April 22nd and for every day after, forever, commemorate Earth Day by putting your money where your mouth is and remember our lust for oil has consequences. Plastic bags, bottles and other convenience items are crude oil derivatives. We can carelessly gather them by the hundreds at the grocery store, allow them to blow off the backs of our pick up trucks, and throw them away. Or, we can be sentient, conscientious, citizens of Earth and for the price of convenience save a bird, a turtle and our world.

1- Background on Santa Barbara and Earth Day history
2- Energy cost of bottled water
3- Great Pacific Garbage Patch website
4- Blue Ocean Society website

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Religious Fundamentalism and the Relativity of Good and Evil

Then the Lord God said, “See the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”- therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. – Genesis 3: 22-24
According to legend, when Earth’s first woman Eve partook of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and persuaded her gullible husband Adam to do the same, sin was born. It is interesting that scripture defines good and evil and sin according to knowledge. It is also interesting that the first sin recognized in the Bible was nakedness. Presumably, although Adam and Eve were naked and frolicking in the garden before original sin, their nakedness only became a sin once they were enlightened by the serpent and subsequent consumption of fruit.

Today, knowledge still defines the boundary between good and evil. Adherents to fundamentalist faiths are told that only one truth exists, the truth proscribed by a rigid and literal reading of scripture, further defined by powerful religious leaders. All other interpretations of scripture or rejection of scripture entirely as “fact” are evil. Individuals are discouraged from quests for personal knowledge and to question the rigid reality defined by church autocrats is heresy.

Fundamentalism, is not unique to America or Christianity. Within Islam and Judaism strict fundamentalist views are also prevalent. While these ideologies may be separated by geography and the religious dogmas they adhere to, they have a number of characteristics in common including:
  •  A belief that their view of the world is the only “truth”
  •  The subjugation of women and feminine values
  •  A view of the world that is defined by polar absolutes – good and evil, black and white, male and female
  •  Violent rhetoric
Every religious fundamentalism on Earth subscribes to the belief that it holds the exclusive monopoly on “truth.” With this view of the world, all other beliefs are not just misguided, but evil. The American fundamentalist Christian movement, which traces its roots to Calvinism, began in revival tents on the American frontier. Through creative reading of Biblical scripture, combining “prophecies” in Daniel, Thessalonians and Revelation, American Christian fundamentalists believe the world will end in an epic battle between good and evil at Armageddon. Those who subscribe to their rigid interpretation of Christianity will be saved and raptured up to heaven with Jesus, while the vast majority of people on Earth, Jews, non-fundamentalist Christians, non-believers, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and all the indigenous cultures that are left, will be left behind on Earth to endure seven years of unspeakable hardship and tribulation. At the end of seven years, Jesus will return to slaughter those who have still not converted to fundamentalist Christianity and have joined forces with Satan and the Antichrist. What would you call a philosophy that would subject the vast majority of people in the world to torture and genocide?

The fundamentalist lust for end times is not a position of virtue by any measure, but those seeking the Rapture and wishing tribulation on the rest of us believe they occupy a moral high ground. For the most part, earnest believers sincerely believe their position is the only righteous one in the world of black and white and good vs. evil.

On April 4th, 2004, a telephone caller identifying himself only as “Officer Scott” persuaded a McDonald’s manager to strip and body search an employee, an 18 year old high school student, on the grounds of suspicion that she stole a purse. The call later turned out to be a hoax, but what is most alarming is the McDonald’s manager’s willingness to follow along without question the insane and degrading demands of the caller. The manager, like many in our culture, was accustomed and programmed to submit to authority. When the caller identified himself as law enforcement, the manager blindly followed his instructions without question (1). Blind faith often leads to unspeakable acts of evil rather than good.

The fundamentalist rhetoric is spattered with claims of moral superiority. The righteous few, according to their own dogma, have an exclusive monopoly on happy families and chaste teenagers, but statistical facts (real facts) paint a picture of exactly the opposite. Teen birth rates are highest in states that have the highest rates of Christian fundamentalism, the classic red states, while teen birth rates are lowest in the “liberal” states of Vermont, New York and the Northeast (2). Similarly, while the Southern Baptist Convention boasts that the divorce rate among born again Christians is only “1-2% (3),” in reality U.S. Census data reveals that divorce rates are higher among born again Christians than any other religious group and that divorce rates among atheists and agnostics are the lowest. I guess the family that prays together doesn’t really stay together at all. Massachusetts, a liberal state that has legalized gay marriage, has the lowest divorce rate in the country, while Texas, conceivably the most conservative state in the country, has the highest. Clearly gay marriage is not the pariah to the institution of marriage that conservatives paint it to be.

The most frustrating thing about Christian fundamentalists is their blatant hypocrisy. They distort the facts, painting fiction as “truth,” all the while viewing themselves as morally-superior to all others, when plain scientific data reveals them to be as flawed and ordinary as the rest of us.

Good and evil do not exist outside the psyche. Good is not dictated from a pulpit or the pages of a book, and evil does not arise from an external Satan harvesting human souls and influencing the world. Within each of our minds exists a dichotomy of admirable and not very impressive compulsions. We all exhibit selfless acts of kindness, gratitude and generosity, while simultaneously harboring feelings of pettiness, selfishness, greed, jealousy and rage. Nobody is immune, and those who pretend they are above the fray are just lying.

At the very heart of morality lies the simple Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Variations of the sentiment can be found in almost all human cultures across time. Interestingly, humans are not the only organisms with the propensity for compassion and good will. Dolphins, apes and elephants have been studied and found to exhibit the ability to engage in selfless acts of kindness. These animals, we know, are not being influenced by a scriptural hand of God or the Devil. They are acting and behaving as we all do, according to their own conscience where the only real capacity for good or evil actually resides.

2- Teen birth rates
3- Divorce rates




Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Human Exceptionalism and the Fundamentalist Culture of Death

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it… (Genesis 1:28)”
In the Old Testament, when God uttered the above words to Adam and Eve (around 4,000 B.C.E. according to fundamentalist doctrine that insists the earth is approximately 6,000 years old), only two people lived on the planet. In reality, archaeological evidence clearly supports the hypothesis that at 4,000 B.C.E., all the continents, excluding Antarctica, were inhabited and the global population was approximately 7-10 million. Today there are almost 7 billion people living on a finite earth. One could say that God’s commandment has been fulfilled, but zealous fundamentalists (not just “born again” Christians but also Catholics, Mormons and Muslims) continue to procreate exponentially. This is a problem.

The human species already sequesters half of the Earth’s productivity for itself. For every photon of sunlight captured by every plant and converted to biomass in the world, humans are consuming half of that biomass. This reality does not bode well for the other 30 million or so other species that inhabit the planet who also require productivity for their own survival. In basic math, what humans consume is unavailable to others, and as human population increases, other species populations will necessarily decrease: more people = death to everyone else.

Americans consume so much that according to most environmentalists, we would need the resources of 5 earths if everyone on the planet lived as we do (1). Genius is not required to see that this is unsustainable and that the above alarming mathematics are almost entirely attributable to too many people, but that doesn’t stop the faithful from filling up the earth even more (2).

The fundamentalist Christian ideal of having many children arises from the beliefs that:
1. Overpopulation is a myth. “The real problem is not overpopulation, but corrupt governments, war, abuse of natural resources and resource distribution (3).” Fundamentalists insist we have not fully exploited the agricultural potential of the land base and that technology will accommodate an increasing population.

2. Fundamentalists subscribe to the belief of human exceptionalism or the idea that our species Homo sapiens is superior to and has dominion over all others.

There is no denying that much of the world’s poverty could be alleviated if food and other resources were more equitably distributed. The problem is that having more children will not resolve these problems, and having more children that enjoy the western lifestyle will only increase the inequity.

It is also true we have not developed every acre on earth of arable land for agriculture. We could cut down more forests (as is taking place at an alarming rate in Latin America) and drain more wetlands (almost half of the world’s wetlands have already been lost). The world we would end up with would be one that provided food for humans but little habitat for any other species. The agricultural earth would also be hotter and dryer with much higher sea levels and dramatic weather patterns, since forests are huge regulators of global weather. The fundamentalist argument for creating more agricultural land to support an increasing population is reasonable if we want to live in a world packed with people but without any biodiversity, bird song or shaded spaces.

What kind of planet do you want to live on? The earth I love and feel blessed to live on has open spaces teeming with wildlife, vast acreages of unspoiled forests, wetlands and prairies, birds, butterflies and wildflowers galore just outside my door and oceans with coral reefs and fish. I don’t want to live in a world without these things. Human exceptionalism insists that our numbers are more important than a healthy ecosystem, which is fine if you want to live on a planet that is dominated by humans, crab grass, flies, rats and cockroaches.

Humans are exceptional in one respect - in their ability to sequester all the resources for themselves. In nature, when a virus or bacterial infection spreads unchecked, it is called a disease. When an organism multiplies without restraint, it is referred to as a biological nuisance. When cells grow out of control, it is cancer. Within nature, people are a cancer upon the planet.

I am currently acquainted with a good Christian woman who is incubating her 7th child. I am not ashamed to admit I am disgusted by her excessive fecundity, even though I can acknowledge that from her myopic perspective, she sincerely believes she is fulfilling her Christian duty. I recently overheard my acquaintance telling one of her brood they couldn’t go to Sonic™ because they couldn’t afford it. It’s bad enough overpopulating an already overpopulated planet, but someone who can’t afford to feed her children fast food has no business having more children (in my opinion). If one cannot afford fast food for seven children, how can they possibly afford college educations? Most likely, the children will not go to college and will end up uneducated and superstitious like their parents, believing it is their Christian duty to bring even more children they can’t afford into an already overpopulated world.

For all the conservative disdain of public welfare, all these fecund fundamentalists are placing a huge burden on the tax base. Even if they are not on food stamps and Medicaid (which plenty of them are), a public education for a child from k-12 now costs over a hundred-thousand dollars. Many fundamentalists will home school their progeny to protect them from the evils of a science-based education, but in the case of my acquaintance and many others, this is not the case. She spends way too much time at the gym to be schooling or even spending quality time with her six, soon to be seven children. Our taxes will be paying close to a million dollars to educate her children.

Fundamentalists insist that fertile couples need to have “at least three (4)” children in order to deliberately increase the population according to Biblical dictates. To produce fewer is considered “selfish.” I think it is selfish for one organism to place its own welfare above the welfare of all other living things.

1- You can check your own footprint with the consumption calculator at
2- offers Biblical justification for fundamentalist doctrines, very interesting.
4- Ibid.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ode to the Sacred Trees - Deforestation, Prozac and Enlightenment

“The self desires only what is real, thinks nothing but what is true. Here people do what they are told, becoming dependent on their country, or their piece of land, or the desires of another, so their desires are not fulfilled and their works comes to nothing, both in this world and the next. Those who depart from this world without knowing who they are or what they truly desire have no freedom here or hereafter.”

Siddhartha Gautama was said to have meditated under a rose apple tree (Eugenia jamboscensis) as a small child. Under the shelter of the evergreen, fruit-bearing tree, the child who was to become Buddha first intuited a simple truth: the roots of suffering are greed, selfishness and ignorance. Thirty years later, under a different evergreen, fruit-bearing Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), the Buddha became enlightened.

Young Siddhartha was not alone in his moments of connection with trees. In the absence of television, video games and other digital stimulation, children naturally gravitate towards trees. Back in the days when children used to play outside without fear, it was unusual to find a fine specimen of tree without the melodic sound of little voices ringing from somewhere within its canopy. A large tree with an easily-accessible trunk begs to be climbed and loved by children.

My own childhood was blessed by two memorable trees with whom I had personal relationships. The first was an unidentified and what seemed to be gigantic fig tree of some kind that lived in the backyard of a Miami duplex my family rented when I was 6 and 7 years old. We were inexplicably poor, given that my single mother with three children was receiving one of those very high public school teacher’s salaries that we are hearing about in the news these days. Our toys were a deck of cards, maybe a single Barbie and the great outdoors.

The neighborhood was a bit rough. A block over from our house lived a family from Brooklyn with a scrappy child (Debbie) who was younger, smaller and a much better fighter than I was. She was a wicked puller of hair. Fortunately, my tree climbing skills were superior. I suppose that spending her formative years in the concrete jungle had restricted Debbie’s familiarity with the fine art, so whenever Debbie was looking for a brawl, I would seek refuge with my tall friend in the backyard. I would climb high up into the canopy and secure myself in the fork of a branch where I couldn’t be dislodged by the swaying of the wind. Sometimes I would have to wait it out for hours while Debbie took out her frustration on the tree that bore the brunt of her wrath as she beat its trunk with a two by four or other weapon of choice.

My time in the tree was not spent in fear. Once I reached the canopy top, I knew I was safe, and when my head peaked out just above the foliage, I had a vantage point across the flat plain of South Florida as far as the eye could see. From the treetop, I would fantasize about my future life in exotic places far away from the slums of Little Havana.

A year later, after my mother had been employed by the Dade County school system for a few years, we were able to afford a detached home in a marginally better neighborhood. The interior of the new house was modest, but the outside was a treasure trove. The owner of the house was an avid gardener and collector of tropical fruit trees. In the yard were avocado, mango, key lime, guava, grapefruit, loquat and sea grape trees, but my favorite was an old rose apple tree.

The tree had smooth limbs and several intersections formed cradling cups perfectly sized for my childish rump. When I sat in one of the small depressions, it felt like the tree was hugging me. The tree also provided nourishment in the form of a strange but delicious fruit that tasted both of roses and apples. Whenever I was persecuted by my older teenage siblings, I would run away to the tree for solace and refuge. My mother, paraphrasing a popular song of the day used to say I was “take[ing] a trip but never leave[ing] the farm.”

One day I returned home from school to find my rose apple tree being cut down. It seems our land lady, worried about liability and responding to stories from our neighbors about a wild and scruffy child living in the tree, took it upon herself to kill my friend.

As a middle aged adult, I must admit that my climbing skills have deteriorated to a pathetic state, as I discovered on a recent seed collecting expedition, but I still find solace in the company of trees. I have been fortunate to make my adult life far away from the pavement and congestion of cities. Lost within a tangle of woodland or forest, where none of humanity’s scars on the planet are visible, I find deep, absolute peace.

When I first moved to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands 20 years ago, the entire western portion of the island was completely undeveloped. When the stresses and strains of day to day life got to be too overwhelming, I would take the Best Dog in the Whole Wide World, Chad, out to the island’s Northwest Point and walk along the perfect shoreline. Meandering in and out of the shrublands and woodlands for hours and delighting in the friendly blue gray gnatcatchers, scolding me for disturbing them, I revitalized my body and spirit with an elixir of salt-drenched and sun-baked earth.

Then one day, inevitably, the bulldozers came and pushed a road through paradise. A jarring rumble of steel scraping rock overpowered the whistling wind and the twittering of feathered inhabitants. In the wake, broken sentinels lay ruined and slaughtered. I sat down in the rubble and wailed a now familiar all-consuming despair.

During a routine check up I broke down in my doctor’s office when I told him about the road. He said, “That’s not normal. You must be depressed,” and so he provided me with a prescription for Prozac and sent me on my way to presumably better mental health. I tried the Prozac for a while but frankly didn’t like the way it turned me into an emotionless zombie. If crying over trees is some kind of psychological pathology, then I would rather be mentally ill than “healthy.” I think it’s sad we live in a world that people need to medicate themselves against just to cope.

It hasn’t always been this way. Throughout our natural history, humans have enjoyed an expansive symbiotic relationship with trees. Trees provide food, shelter, fuel and beauty. Beyond our anthropocentric view of the world, trees are keystones in the natural world. Their presence anchors ecosystems, cycling nutrients, building topsoil and providing homes and fodder to myriad organisms. The complexity of the connections they weave among themselves and their wider communities is something scientists are just beginning to scratch the surface of. Perhaps for these reasons, and for the airy fairy reason that sensitive people can sense connection to the complex organisms that are trees, sacred appreciation of trees is endemic to almost all cultures and races except ours.

“You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the alter that you make for the Lord your God…things that the Lord your God hates (Deuteronomy 16:21).”

The ancient Canaanites worshipped the Great Mother goddess Asherah and her living embodiment, sacred groves of fig trees. When Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, she was likely participating in an ancient ritual of reverence for the supreme goddess of creation. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh demands the destruction of Asherah’s sacred trees, and mankind has been faithful to His dictates ever since.

Two-thirds of the world’s primary forest cover has now been cut down. An area the size of Great Britain is lost every two years. Every day land is clear-cut in America to make way for strip malls, condominiums, oil rigs and roads. Old growth forests are rendered to pulp that ultimately gets thrown on a trash heap or flushed down the toilet. In Latin America, tropical rainforests are razed to grow soybeans and hamburgers. Money, money, money. All is done without a second glance or thought to the individuals bleeding and dying under the machinery blades.

Our culture reduces the living world to “less than” and places humans and human reasoning at the pinnacle and yet for all our human invention we are miserable. Antidepressants are now the most prescribed drugs in America. We are living the American Dream but it seems more like a nightmare. Why? Siddhartha’s childhood rose apple tree breathed the eternal truth to him more than two-thousand years ago. Is it any wonder we suffer? Everything we are programmed by society to strive for is superficial and meaningless, so we swallow our Prozac and pay homage to the misery gods of selfishness, ignorance and greed. All the while peace, happiness and enlightenment lives just outside our clouded windows, stretching lofty branches up to the sun and blowing in the wind.