Whenever I contemplate the spectacular mischief
that we humans have wreaked on our world, I am compelled to ask how
this could have possibly happened. The despoilment of our planet seems
to be the exact opposite of how I would expect a thinking, feeling,
caring creature to treat their home. What could have driven us to this,
and what perverse qualities could have allowed us to ignore the
consequences of our actions for so very long?
At first blush, our problems seem decidedly physical. Dangerous gases
drift in the air; acidity rises slowly in the ocean as the fish
disappear from its depths; garbage and detritus of all kinds fouls the
land where lush forests and grasslands once ruled. All these
disturbances point back to human actions.
The proximate causes of this planet-wide distress include economics,
politics, and personal and corporate greed – all facilitated by a
technological cleverness that rests on a bed of dispassionate science.
I have spent over 50 years of my life trying in vain to
understand our environmental problems as purely physical
problems. When I viewed them in those terms, the fact that such
problems even existed in a rational, scientific culture seemed
nonsensical. However, when I recently began to understand them as
consequences of a rupture in the human spirit they finally began to
make sense to me. Yes, they are compounded by political and economic
forces, but in my view even politics and economics are simply
consequences of the same qualities of the human psyche.
Since the dawn of consciousness, human societies have been driven by a
complex web of factors with their roots embedded deep in our evolved
human nature. Power relationships and hierarchies, kinship and
xenophobia, selfishness and altruism, competition and cooperation,
curiosity and apathy, and countless other polarities mingle together to
form the infinite variety of human dynamics.
Underneath it all, though, lurks our self-awareness. Human
self-awareness is the root of our sense of separation from the natural
world, and from each other for that matter. It’s the crowning paradox
of the human condition – at once both our greatest glory and our fatal
flaw. It is behind the dualism – the perceptual split into subject and
object – that gave us science. It’s the source of our ability to see
others as “different yet the same”, giving us the power to act
altruistically. It’s also behind the sense of self and other that has
allowed us to assume dominion over all we survey, whether animal,
vegetable, mineral or human. Our sense of separation is the rupture of
the human spirit that has allowed our current predicament to develop.
If this is the case, then no physical, political or economic
remediation will heal the wound. The solution to our predicament is not
– cannot be – material, political, economic, or simply philosophical.
If a “solution” exists at all, it's orthogonal to all those domains.
Only by healing our belief in our separateness will we be able to
finally and fully restore our balance with Nature.
When I began to view the situation like this, I was finally able to see
that there are in fact solutions, where none had previously been
visible. These new solutions don't attack the predicament directly as a
series of material, political, economic or technological problems.
Instead, they seek to effect change from the center, by encouraging
people to mature into an inter-connected adulthood and assume personal
responsibility for their actions.
This approach follows Gandhi's dictum, "Be the change you wish to see in the
The mischievous idea of science and technology as a post-modern
"religion of salvation" with Ray Kurzweil's transhuman
singularity playing the role of the Rapture and an economist making
a cameo appearance as the Devil (think infinite growth on a finite
planet...) resonates very strongly with me.
But to be a little more precise, it's not exactly science that has
failed us. We have been undone by a toxic stew of classical economics,
technological cleverness, love of progress, an attitude of Manifest
Destiny and an unwillingness to accept any limits on our growth.
Technology lets us use scientific discoveries to satisfy human desires
of all kinds. When we harness scientific knowledge to human ends, the
outcomes we choose to implement are based on our wishes. If our wish is
dominion over nature, we will use scientific principles to invent
technology like mining machinery, continental energy grids, factory
farming and the automobile.
Of course, each of those inventions is presented within our cultural
narrative as an obvious, irrefutable boon. One of the points of having
a cultural narrative is to put a positive spin on human activity. The
spin is always in line with the narrative – or more precisely, in line
with the wishes of those who create and sustain the narrative. The fact
that these inventions, the technological expressions of science, have a
subtext of dominion over nature is carefully camouflaged, and the idea
that this might possibly be a bad idea is thoroughly discouraged.
None of this would have been so damaging if people didn’t have such a
natural ability to delude themselves into believing that whatever they
wish for hard enough is possible. It’s kind of like clapping for
Tinkerbell. "The future is always
going to be better than the past," and “My kids will have better jobs, bigger
houses and faster cars than I did,” are examples of such magical
thinking at its finest.
Those two kinds of wishing – the wish to improve the human condition
and the wish to see the human milieu keep growing forever – are not
inherently different. I see them more as two points on a continuum. On
one end is simple desire; on the other end is unreasonable desire. They
are distinguished less by any intrinsic difference than by the attitude
and realism of the one doing the wishing.
It can be very difficult to tell when the reasonable morphs into the
unreasonable."I wish to own a small
piece of land" becomes "I
wish to own an entire island" which inflates into "I wish to claim a continent for my King"
and eventually becomes "I wish to
rule the world." The underlying desire is the same; it's
just the scale and reasonableness of the wish that changes.
Whether or not a wish is realistic or deluded depends very much on the
one doing the wishing. There are people who wish for our (and by
extension, their own) material wealth to continue growing forever.
There is no shortage of economists who will tell them that such a
strange thing is possible. Are the dreamers deluded? Are the economists
deluded? What laws of nature would need to be violated for such a
delusion to become reality? How is the worship of the Charging Bull of
Wall Street materially different from worshiping the Golden Calf of the
Bible, when both imply a violation of the laws of nature?
The world changes only when enough people have made a choice to change
themselves. At what point will we each say, “Enough!” and choose a different
path? Is anything keeping you from making that choice right now?
As you finish reading this article I invite you to say it quietly to
If you listen closely with your heart, you may be able to hear the life
that shares our planet say,
November 3, 2010