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

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Road Not Taken – Western Civilization’s Frenetic Dash Towards Destiny

A Road on Grand Bahama, Paved During the Speculation Boom of the 1970s, Fragments a Caribbean Pine Woodland

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost

A road. Such a simple construction seems fairly innocuous. They can trace gentle hypnotic paths, winding through breath-taking vistas or present as jammed tangles of exhaust fumes, short-tempers and noise, slapped against an urban background of concrete and glass. Either setting belies the truth of roads. Utilitarian, convenient, an artifact of human civilization, roads can be a path towards connectedness or one of the most powerful forces of environmental destruction on earth.

For most of Robert Frost’s lifetime (1874-1963), roads had a different connotation. They were metaphors for the trajectory of a life and the choices taken therein. The roads in Frost’s own life, lived largely in the wilds of New England, would have been primarily unpaved, winding country lanes, weaving an innocuous path from village to village, their existence maintained exclusively by use. Once their usefulness became obsolete, they would simply melt back into the landscape.

Travelers would have walked those paths or more expeditiously, traveled on horseback or by carriage. The foot of the man and horse or wheel of the carriage, wedded intimately to the earth beneath it. Cold in snow and ice, burdened in mud and rain, and joyous in fair weather, the journey was as much the story of the road as its destination.

Along with the hurry of Western civilization, came the interstate highway system, commencing in 1956 and completing approximately 35 years later. Roads evolved from the path of preferred travel and experience, winding through and connecting people to landscapes, into entities designed to ferry passengers from point A to point B, transmuting the journey from an experience of connectedness into a mere inconvenience to be abided. To remove the traveler from his surroundings even further, cars became air-tight capsules, air-conditioned and outfitted with radios, CD players and GPS.

Again the modern road is a metaphor for the contemporary human life. From the time he is born, the child of Western civilization is indoctrinated into a world separate from the natural world which sustains him. He lives in a house constructed from largely artificial materials, or if natural, then altered with screed and substance so as to render it into a lifeless resource. His food comes from a grocery store, wrapped and packaged, reduced to a chart of nutritional information rather than a composition of once-living organisms. From the constructed home, in the air-conditioned car, off to industrial buildings for education, the natural world from the beginning is an externality that would seem to have no bearing in the child’s life. He is a human, Homo sapiens, taught that this taxonomy separates him from the world around him. Indeed, the child can grow and even thrive without ever contacting or communing with the natural world surrounding him.

It is no wonder that capitalists, developers, bankers and warriors wander through the world, bent on destruction and without remorse. To them, the living world is an abstraction, separate from and subservient to the artificially crafted world of men. They travel past it all on roads, designed to transfer them from one destination to the next. As they commute from crafted home to crafted place of work, they pride themselves that the work they do, rendering nature into numbers on a balance sheet, is the real work in the world. They are the creators of wealth in their minds, job creators, purveyors of the American Dream. The insignificant and the natural tremble and fall at their hands. The road becomes a mere tool to extract from nature the resources that supply the world of men, a one-way street of destruction.

What is a blade of grass compared to Bill Gates? For all the billions of dollars in revenue, computers manufactured, jobs created, good deeds done, Mr. Gates cannot convert sunshine into food. All he can do is take that food and consume it, degrade it, and release its spent energy as waste into the world until another blade of grass can take that waste and using it, again convert sunlight into food. Who or what then is the greater producer? With each blade of grass mowed down and paved over, never to return, the finite productive capacity of the earth lessens. What will the great men use to fuel their empires when the externalities they have long exploited, neglected and abused have been rendered into meaningless numbers on a page?
A Road on Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Cuts Through Pristine Dwarf Forest and Paves the Way for Future Real Estate Speculation

And what for? What is the point of our incessant rushing towards destiny, ignoring all that stands along the distance? We are a culture obsessed with end points, destinations, the weekend, orgasms. What is overlooked is the point of it all. What takes place in-between the end points is journey, making love, life. There is only one finality, one destination at which we must all eventually arrive. Why hurry to get there?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Woodpeckers and Truth – Western Civilization is Incompatible with Saving the Planet

There’s nothing quite like getting a message smashing into your window at 6 am to make one stand up and pay attention. The forest that surrounds my home is full of birds. Outside my living room, I have a couple of feeders, and I love to watch the black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals and others come and go all day while I sit and write and/or work. When my son Duncan was home from college for the holiday, he kept telling me that woodpeckers were visiting the feeders. While the woods are full of marvelous members of that bird Family, such as my favorite, the giant pileated woodpecker, I have yet to see any venture to the feeders close to the house. Could it have been a nuthatch instead that Duncan was seeing? Perhaps, he contended, and so I dismissed the notion with a twinge of disappointment.
A Red-naped Sapsucker I Photographed at Jackson Hole, WY
Then a few days ago, a flash of red and knocking about of feeders renewed my optimism. I sat quietly on the sofa, and sure enough, a brilliant red-bellied woodpecker alighted onto the tray, grasped a kernel of corn and flew away, quick as a flash. So deft was he in his foraging, that had I blinked, I would have missed him. My pulse quickened, I held my breath and felt the faint burst of inexplicable joy that is known to birders but seems incomprehensible to others. The knowing that this red-bellied woodpecker shares my habitat makes me feel my life is just that much fuller. I accepted this blessing and thought nothing more of it until this morning.

At 6 am, I was awoken by the dull thunking noise that makes the heart of a bird lover jump into the throat with despair. I rushed into the living room to discover a tiny downy woodpecker lying on the ground under the window. Fortunately, she was just dazed, and as I approached her to check on her, she flew away.

Native Americans believe that animals are messengers and that they bring enlightenment to those willing to pay attention. Last year around this time, I was plagued by an onslaught of skunks. It wasn’t until I did some research on Native American skunk medicine that the skunks returned to a normal frequency of occurrence in my life. Perhaps the woodpeckers had a message for me too.

Interestingly, I discovered that according to Native American lore, I was born under the woodpecker totem, which corresponds to the astrological sign of Cancer. I have always believed that I was born under a lucky star or perhaps, guided by the principle that luck is the phenomenon where hard work meets opportunity, I have thus far led a relatively charmed existence. I have a wonderful family, my basic needs are adequately provided for, and I have work that I find satisfying, rewarding and challenging. I have no complaints and feel genuine gratitude for my good fortune.

In general, I have floated through life with the belief that everything will work out for the best if I just keep on plodding, that every cloud has a silver lining and that I can achieve whatever goals I set my sights upon. I maintained a steadfast belief that the universe is essentially a just place where what goes around comes around and that those who strive in a positive direction are eventually rewarded for their efforts. But lately, my trust in the reliability of the universe has been challenged.

A recent string of unfortunate events in my family has cast a shadow over my usually optimistic demeanor. While I personally have suffered no ill fortune, my precious loved ones seem to be besieged by negative turns of fate. Outside the chill and dull gray overcast sky of winter obfuscates the clarity of light and mirrors the opacity in my psyche. Thoughts are scattered. Truth seems hard to grasp. Nothing is certain anymore.   

So what insight can be gleaned from a family of birds noted for drilling trees with their beaks? While it addles the mind to contemplate the realities of such species, their determination is to be admired.  Hours of constant drumming yield small gratifications of an insect or two, yet the woodpecker persists undeterred. Many taps are required to uncover a single delicacy, yet the drumming continues with a reliable, rhythmic certainty.

I have been searching for truths, certainties, solutions of late, yet find them difficult to come by. A fleeting flash of insight flits through the recesses of my cloudy mind and then disappears again like a wisp of ether, like the flash of a red-bellied woodpecker that allows me a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, but not the full breadth of appreciation. I find the full light of truth obscured perhaps because I shade my own consciousness from the harshness of its veracity.

I have been bombarded lately with the same insistent question, from publishers, readers and friends. “You talk a lot about problems,” they say, “but what are the solutions?” I have thought long and hard on this topic and can honestly contend that the solutions required to save ourselves from ourselves are so dramatic that they will very likely be unrealized. The harshest reality is that planet Earth simply has too many Homo sapiens living upon its surface. We have breached the natural carrying capacity to such an extent that there is no conceivable way to maintain the human population with a reasonable quality of life at current levels and to maintain ecological integrity of the planet. Yet nobody speaks of this unspeakable truth in public discourse.

Another unspeakable truth is that the Western way of life, the American dream, is inherently inconsistent with the maintenance of Earth’s life-force. It is a culture of death and destruction, and we cannot simultaneously embrace the concepts of environmentalism and perpetual development and growth, which necessarily consume and devastate Earth’s living resources. The two realities are mutually incompatible.

Our culture is addicted to solutions and happy endings. We are told that we can carry on with our self-indulgence and that the same technology that created the global disaster will surely save it. The fallacious nature of such logic is self-evident. The reality of nature, minus its beauty, can be brutal. There are no guaranteed happy endings, just reliable rhythms to count on. Through no fault of their own, bad things happen to good people. Justice is frequently not served. Little birds dash their brains on the glass walls of human obliviousness. Predators prey upon the innocent. Disease ravages indiscriminately. The best solution for Earth is a stark one for Western civilization.

The woodpecker pecks, and specks of virgin wood come to light. I can grasp at them for a fleeting second but then realize that in the vastness of the infinite, I am incapable of understanding the synchronicities that bring skunks and woodpeckers to my doorstep. As I write, the little downy woodpecker that dashed herself on my window this morning is back, nibbling on the suet cake I just put out for her and her kin. The calories provided by the lard and seed will improve her chances of fledging her young in the spring. There are no happy endings but those we create for ourselves. A small bird flew into glass and by chance encountered a human with a peculiar fondness for her kind and provided her with the sustenance that may see her through the winter and ensure the survival of her progeny in the spring. In spite of adversity, the rhythm of life continues, and so it will once we have extinguished ourselves from the planet.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Looking Behind Curtains and Other Acts of Anarchy

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” – the Wizard of Oz

In Frank Baum’s famous political satire The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a naïve Dorothy is manipulated by a totalitarian ruler (the wizard) into putting her life at risk to suppress his political rival (the Wicked Witch of the West).  After fulfilling her end of the bargain, Dorothy is told to “come back tomorrow.”  When the truth is finally revealed, the all-powerful apparition of Oz turns out to be nothing more than a pathetic little man, hiding behind a curtain.

Perhaps all power structures are nothing but a sham, hiding the truth behind propagandist obfuscations and promising desired outcomes “tomorrow.” Members of Western culture are almost unanimously convinced that our way of life is superior to all others. We hold this belief as if it is a self-evident fact, but it is a belief that can only be maintained by ignoring large fractions of reality.

I had a recent conversation with my husband on this topic. He did some work in Cuba several years ago (he is a foreign national). Playing devil’s advocate he remarked, “Western culture does offer the best quality of life. Take Cuba for example. The people there have nowhere near the same quality of life as people in the Western world.”

My husband’s statement was both true and false. As two educated, working professionals, my husband and I certainly enjoy a high quality of life as compared to the average Cuban, and it was from a perspective of our own fortunate circumstances that my husband was making his comparison. I asked my husband to do a quick assessment of all of the other households in our rural Southern Appalachian community to see if the same comparison could be made.

Cubans are undoubtedly poor by American standards in terms of net worth. While they have recently been awarded property rights to their ancestral homes, most of these properties represent a bare minimum of accommodation. Wages are for the most part at subsistence levels, so from a U.N. standpoint, which measures quality of life based on wages, Cubans are poor. On the other hand, all citizens of Cuba are entitled to free healthcare (rated higher by international analyses than the U.S. healthcare system), education to the post-graduate level, lifetime pensions and guaranteed food rations.  No Cuban lives with the fear of not being provided with the basic necessities of life.

In Southern Appalachia, several of my neighbors live in sub-standard housing in the form of old, dilapidated trailers and single-wides. Cuban accommodation is luxurious by comparison. Few here have health insurance and even fewer have the funds to send their children to college. I know an intelligent, hard-working young lady of 23 who has managed the Subway down the road for the past 5 years, while she is putting herself through community college. She is currently not taking any classes because she cannot afford to. She says that when she turns 24 she will be eligible for more financial aid because her parents’ income won’t be included in her financial status, so she waits.  Others pray they don’t get sick. Still other Americans are juggling utility and food bills. Cubans are free from these worries.

In the United States, we are always asked to do myopic calculus when considering the facts in order to maintain the delusion of the great and powerful American Dream. Electricity from coal is the cheapest, we are told, but if one adds up the costs of ruined watersheds, decapitated mountains, respiratory disease, acidified and dead forests and ruinous weather events from global warming, just about any renewable energy source would be cheap by comparison.

Our country was founded on unparalleled ideals of freedom and democracy, only if one ignores the sticky reality that the United States was stolen from this land’s Original People, who were systematically eliminated in one of the most brutal campaigns of genocide in Earth’s history, involving germ warfare and the brutal slaying of women and children.

The United States is a democracy because citizens have the right to vote for their representatives, but when all of the representatives one has to choose from represent the same private interests, voting is meaningless. The U.S.S.R. had an electoral process that was not dissimilar.

Unlimited growth in the economy is desirable only if one ignores the fact that such calculations are impossible in a finite ecosystem. While those profiting promise “market solutions” for the necessarily consequent destruction of the planet, opening one’s eyes reveals a starker reality. The basis of life on Earth is being steadily and continuously eroded by those same Western markets. Nothing the market has done has changed this trajectory. It is insanity to believe that more of the same will not result in an ultimate complete and utter destruction of the basic faculties of the living world.

Don’t look behind the curtain because if you do you might see that the American Dream is not a pervasive artifact of Western culture but rather a rare exception in a system that exploits everybody and everything on Earth for the sake of a few elite patriarchs. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Selfishness Defines Western Culture, not Human Nature

In Howard Zinn’s masterpiece A People’s History of the United States, he describes the reaction of Columbus and his brigade of Spanish invaders when they encounter the First People of the Americas. Zinn writes:

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone…”(Zinn, 1999, p. 3).

Columbus was not alone in his surprise at the beneficence of the native peoples of the Americas. Countless 
European explorers encountered the same generous nature in the indigenous inhabitants throughout the New World. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, the late National Historian, Bertie Sadler, observed that the Lucayan people, who once inhabited those islands, were so generous in their bearing that women also gave freely of sexual favors. In fact, the most promiscuous Lucayan women were accorded the highest status in society and were universally admired (Sadler, 1986).

In the same year as the founding of the United States, 1776, a Scottish economist, Adam Smith, published his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. While Smith’s monolithic book is a veritable encyclopedia of economic philosophy, Western economists seized upon a single thread of Smith’s thought to serve as the foundation of their economic theory, the idea that individuals acting out of self-interest and without the restraint of regulation, will miraculously serve the common good, as if guided by an “invisible hand.”

Similarly, in 1968, Garret Hardin, a biology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, penned an article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” that was to become the topic of myriad analyses regarding resource management. Strangely, the article in its entirety was a commentary promoting human population control, but as with Smith’s work above, the primary argument was largely ignored in favor of a tangential sentiment in the piece.   In the article, Hardin declares that privatization of public resources or “commons” is the most effective means of sustainably managing a resource. Hardin argues that free access to a commons will result in environmental degradation, as each person will act according to their own self-interest to the detriment of the common good. For example, a shepherd grazing his livestock on common pasture will be inclined to add more animals even if the addition of more animals degrades the pasture, since the loss of the carrying capacity of the pasture is borne by all, while the profits of additional animals accrue to the individual (Hardin, 1968).

Smith and Hardin are not exceptions in Western Culture, they are products of it, and their ideas were formed within the framework of indoctrination of Western thought that most citizens of the globalized Earth now take for granted as “human nature.” Whether one is speaking of economic theory or environmental management, all of Western ideologies are based on an accepted premise that humans, when left to their own devices, will act out of self-interest; consequently, Western cultural prescriptions are all based on the idea that people will necessarily be guided by selfishness.

The myth of Western culture becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As each malleable youth is reared on the idea that his fellow beings are ruthless and self-interested and that one must compete in a hostile world for scarce resources, he becomes selfish out of a resultant cultural fear, guided by the interests of self-preservation. In the selfish world that results, every man and woman for his or herself scrambles to accumulate every last shred of resource wealth available. Humans fill warehouses with meaningless consumer goods and render vibrant ecosystems into numbers on balance sheets, irrational and utterly destructive acts, ironically deemed “productive” and “successful.” As we live within the artificial confines of these Western ideals, the reality of the natural world, within which we actually do exist, is hobbled to the brink of collapse.

In an address to John Smith of Virginia attributed to Powhatan, the venerable brave states, “Why will you take by force what you may have quietly by love? Why will you destroy us who supply you with food? What can you get by war” (Zinn, 1999, p. 13)? Powhatan, his kin and their culture of generosity and love have long since been extinguished from the planet, and the Western war of selfishness continues to rage against what remains of Earth. Selfishness defines Western culture but it does not define human nature. It is an aberration that needs to be rooted out and condemned wherever it rears its ugly head. The selfish need not inherit the Earth. 
It's not too late...

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