Toward Becoming an Independent Critical Thinker

To be an independent critical thinker it helps to know your history, and it is vital that you understand how culture works, and has worked on you and everybody else. The independent thinker, Thomas Berry, shows an understanding of both in the following observation: “The current extinction is being caused by human action with a cultural tradition shaped in a biblical-Christian and classical-humanist matrix. The tragic flaw in both traditions seems to be an anthropocentrism that has turned into a profound cultural pathology.” Berry here mentions the dangers of extreme human-centeredness, and it would be difficult to exaggerate the consequences of anthropocentrism on the world. What is not mentioned, but also built into our cultural tradition, is a virulent strain of authoritarianism, and this tendency informs not only our monotheistic religious traditions but also the history of science.
Within all the monotheistic book religions, the common man is asked to cede his spiritual sovereignty to a class of individuals known as the priesthood. They are the experts in the book, and they assume the role of spiritual authority, acting as moral arbiter and intermediary between the individual believer and a putative deity. A couple thousand years of this has conditioned the people of our culture to accept this hierarchical, patriarch cal, authoritarian structure as normal—the way of the world. In this, it also helps to know your anthropology, and to be exposed to cultures other than your own: to recognize the difference between a cultural institution and the natural ordering of the world.
After Galileo, the Religious Establishment and the nascent Scientific Establishment divided the world between them. The world of spirit was claimed by the Church and the material world by Science; thus was created a false separation between the spiritual and material worlds–a human construct that does not exist in reality, but the pretense has had far-reaching ramifications, both within our culture and in the world at large.
The pattern of authoritarianism set in motion and perfected by the priest class, including its hold over the popular mind, has continued into the Age of Science. For many, science is their religion (it is called scientism) and scientific opinion functions for these true believers as the gospels have functioned for the christian faithful, especially in providing a sense of certainty. It is precisely here that critical distinctions can be made which define the difference between an individual becoming a true believer in science, or becoming an independent critical thinker with a scientific bent. Many who profess the faith of science conflate scientific fact with scientistic doctrine. It is scientific fact that the sun is at the center of the solar system, and that our planet (along with others) is in orbit around it. That is demonstrable fact. That the Universe is without meaning, and that Nature is indifferent or hostile to humans, is not fact: it is opinion: one of the doctrines of scierntism. Sorting out the difference between scientific fact and scientistic doctrine is the job of an independent critical thinker, but it is not for everyone. It requires a mind able to make meaningful distinctions, but more than that it calls for a high tolerance to ambiguity, accompanied by a willingness to live with many, many uncertainties. There is so much we don’t know, and never will know, and the deepest sort of intellectual honesty requires that we make peace with this condition of our existence. It is nothing more than anthropocentric hubris to assume that civilization’s project of total scientific knowledge and total technological control is anything but narcissistic self-delusion. It is living in the human-created world of separation from Nature rather than in the world of Nature itself; as this false world fails us, it is causing the world itself to fail.

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What do you do when there is Nothing to be Done?

   In his very short book, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, William Ophuls demonstrates the ways in which civilization is a complex, adaptive system. He also makes a strong historical case for all civilizations having discernible life-cycles, which can be broken down into identifiable phases. These two features of civilization, taken together with other contributing factors, lead Ophuls to the conclusion that “civilization is effectively hardwired for self-destruction.” Metaphorically speaking, we are all aboard a (globalized) speeding train, and somewhere ahead is the equivalent of an unfathomably deep gorge with the bridge washed out. I don’t question the essential accuracy of Ophuls’ conclusion, or the interdisciplinary methods by which he arrives at his dire assessment, but I am nonetheless left with the question of what we should do when there is nothing to be done. Before addressing that conundrum, however, it might be well to review some of this author’s deeper insights.

     Civilizations differ from other ways of organizing human society in a number of crucial, nonlinear ways.  It is not a simple question of numbers, though numbers do matter. “Beyond a certain point, growth leads to a fundamental, qualitative change in the nature of systems.”(36) That certain point can be thought of as a threshold: on one side of the threshold life is relatively simple and reasonably predictable; on the other side, complexity sets in, and complexity has rules of its own: In traditional societies governed by elders who incarnate and enforce the rule of custom, material conditions are relatively unchanging. Thus the same moral code tends to prevail for generations. In civilization, however, change is incessant. This exposes morals, mores, and morale to a continuous undertow of entropy. Hence the moral core of the society steadily erodes until vigor and virtue have been entirely displaced by decadence and decay.(52)

     Pre-agricultural societies tended to live in bands of twenty to thirty individuals, which might be loosely attached to a larger tribe and linguistic group, but were themselves essentially egalitarian and autonomous. Life at this scale, though interactive with complex adaptive systems, was not itself such a system. Amid the vicissitudes of a variable natural world, tribal man found stability and continuity by inhabiting a particular territory for generations and by seeking the wisdom of the ancestors who had lived in, and learned from, this very place. Bonded to the natural world, with a felt spiritual connection to the cycles of life, our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived their lives integrated into the Community of Life, and according to comprehensible Laws.

     The adoption of agriculture changed everything–not all at once, but irrevocably: crossing the threshold into complexity and setting in motion a cascade of uncontrollable, but discernible, effects. Ophuls has consulted a whole range of writers on the subject of complexity and collapse, including Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond, but finds most useful the insights of Sir John Bagot Glubb, better known as Glubb Pasha, an amateur historian with a good eye for pattern:  In Glubb’s view, the history of civilization describes an arc that starts with an Age of Pioneers (or Conquests) and then moves successively through the Ages of Commerce, Affluence, and Intellect before terminating in an Age of Decadence. Two implacable forces propel this movement. First, in a process analogous to ecological succession, each age creates socioeconomic conditions favorable to the emergence of the next. Second, each new generation therefore grows up in altered circumstances that foster a changed way of thinking and acting. The outcome is a positive feedback loop in which changed material conditions engender mental changes that foster still more material changes, and so on until the civilization declines into decadence.(46)

   With minor variations, depending on place and time, every civilization has historically followed this pattern. And no doubt every one of these has believed that it would be the exception to the rule, if it considered the matter at all. Is our civilization going to defy the familiar pattern? There are reasons to doubt this, reasons built into the nature of complex adaptive systems.

     One thing leads to another leads to another. Ophuls says: “ I do not posit an absolute determinism,” and yet one thing does lead to another, or rather, in feedback loops of multiple causes and multi-faceted effects things tend to play out in recognizably orderly ways, but are nevertheless beyond our prediction and control: Societies struggling with the dilemmas of complexity risk being toppled by what Homer-Dixon calls ‘synchronous failure.’ When formerly separate problems coalesce into a problematique, the society does not face one or two discrete challenges, as in simpler times, but instead a swarm of simultaneous challenges that can overwhelm the society’s capacity to respond, thereby provoking a general collapse (i.e., a catastrophe that propagates rapidly across a globe that is ever more tightly coupled).(39) There is one way in which the coming collapse will be different from all the preceding ones: being now a global civilization, the collapse will be general.

     But surely there is something we could do to avert at least the worst of what is to come. If so, it is not to be found in the usual places, such as in improved technology. “The idea that technology will allow us to do ever more with ever less is a delusion. The more humanity resorts to technology, the more it expedites entropy.”(25) Ophuls does point to one possible wild card, but not with a lot of conviction: “The only way out would be radically to transform civilization so that the human economy resembled the natural economy.”(29) But with so much already set in motion, even a universal change of heart  and an immediate change in behavior, the natural world has been so radically altered and degraded, that even this cheeriest of scenarios carries with it little promise of a world in balance.

     But is this instant global transformation of the human being into a benign, or beneficial, force in the world at all likely? Not really. Complexity is only one part of the challenge. As it develops, a civilization accumulates an investment in physical and social infrastructure that increasingly limits its freedom of action, and it adheres to a certain way of thinking that increasingly limits its freedom of choice. These entrenched habits, patterns, structures, institutions, ideologies, and interests prevent adaptation to changed conditions. In effect, civilizations suffer from a structural incapacity to respond to altered circumstances.(56) In this regard, one is reminded of the Greenland Norse, as recounted In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, who, when faced with radical climate change, clung ever more tightly to their traditional crops and livestock even as these continued to fail under changed conditions. Eventually, they either died or were driven out of Greenland. Meanwhile, the Greenland Inuit did adapt to the changed conditions and continued to thrive. The subtitle of Diamond’s book is How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, but, as Ophuls outlines above, choice is a rather optimistic assumption.

     As most of us know by now, we have built a global population of seven-plus billion based on the availability of abundant, cheap, and easily accessible fossil fuels—and there could not be seven billion of us without this non-renewable resource. Peak oil–and the dawning realization that everything is peaking–including topsoil, water, and food—is beginning to cast its shadow over our rosy human future. We are beginning to notice that the way we live is fast-tracking entropy. Creating the amenity that elevates civilization over savagery therefore involves converting concentrated energy and matter into useless waste products while extracting a modicum of useful work along the way.(24) Natural systems make use of everything, and create little or no waste. We don’t come close to this. According to Ophuls: The human mind is still fundamentally Paleolithic—that is, it was hardwired for the life of the hunter-gatherer on the African savannah, a life centered on day to day survival in small bands of intimates and kinsmen. In practice, this means that human beings excel at concrete perception but are much less adept at abstraction. And they are quick to perceive the immediate and dramatic but likely to overlook long-term trends and consequences. They are therefore strongly present-oriented and tend to neglect or devalue the future.(17) Evidently, we are in way over our heads, and are meanwhile expediting entropy as well as our own (and many others’) extinction.

     We have embarked upon enterprises of ever increasing complexity that we can neither understand nor control. And all this is compounded by what Albert Bartlett has called “the greatest shortcoming of the human race: our inability to understand the exponential function.”  In our feckless ignorance and brassy hubris we have not only overpopulated a finite planet but continue to mine its resources unto exhaustion. So, I think it is fair to say that we are in a bad way: the future looks grim, if not downright hopeless, and, it seems, there is not much we can do about it. And this brings me to the existential question of our age: what do you do when there is nothing to be done?

     I suspect that most people are going to go on just as they are, until that is no longer possible. But what about those of us who recognize the pickle we are in, and recognize too that whatever we might try to do to change an untenable future is likely to have no effect at all? Do we just give up? Collapse into despair? Do we party down? Surrender to a life of escape and distraction? Just what is the appropriate response to knowing what we think we know about the human future?

     Probably everyone is going to have to answer this question for themselves, and in their own way. But I will share with you my own tentative conclusions on this subject. First, I see nothing to be gained by giving up. We don’t really know what the future will bring, no matter how persuasive our models, scenarios, and conjectures. For the same reasons that we can’t understand or control the complex adaptive systems that we have unleashed, neither can we comprehend nor predict all the variables that might come into play as the Earth Crisis unfolds. Black swans and white buffalo are rare, but they do appear now and then. Untried combinations of things could suddenly fall into place and create a synergistic effect that works toward non-extinction. If such a thing were to come about, it probably would not achieve the miraculous all by itself. In fact, it might require every bit of effort that every single one of us can contribute to the Cause of Life—which is to keep on keeping on.

Someone might object that I do not know this to be the case. And that is true, I don’t.  But how would anyone know that this isn’t true, and what is to be lost by proceeding as if it were? Even if there is no planetary immune system that may yet kick in, and our individual efforts are absurdly insufficient to the task, what have we got to lose by fighting for Life as hard as we can? In terms of psychology and morale, we are better off, and remain healthier specimens when we cast ourselves in the role of Warrior for Life than when we capitulate to the role of helpless victim. For me, that is good enough reason to go on fighting.  I may not be able to save the world, but if I can help reduce the number of trees that are logged in my own neighborhood in the central Oregon Cascades, I feel I am doing a good thing.

     I have been a tree hugger for decades, taking a succession of stands to preserve forests from the unrelenting chainsaw. I don’t know if my actions have helped preserve a single standing tree–and probably never will know. What I do know is that I have been on the right side—the side of Life– in civilization’s war on Nature. David Brower has said that all environmental victories are temporary while all defeats are permanent. The way I see my job is to be an obstruction to the machine, the juggernaut that is devouring the living world. I know it is just a holding action, to keep something alive and healthy until the next assault. This strategy is based on the hope that something will happen to divert that next assault. I don’t know what that something might be, or when it might appear—or even if. But I want the Life Force to have something to work with when we handmaidens to entropy are either out of the picture or have matured into good planetary citizens. I have to believe that fighting for Life itself is a cause worth joining and giving my best. I’ll never know if ongoing Life and burgeoning biodiversity will overwhelm, for a time, the forces of entropy and death. In a dynamic Universe, there are no final victories, only changes in fortune. Not knowing what the future will look like, I want to remain committed to the best cause I know of: fighting to the very end for the possibility of a better world. Together with others, and unknown allies, we might just turn things around. You never know.

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Which Part of the World Would You Save?

 

     The world as we know it cannot go on. Some part of it might survive, almost intact, with determined human effort and a lot of luck. If any one of us were given the power to save half of the world, and let the other half go, what would make it to the top of our list of priorities, and what would not? I am proposing this situation as if it was purely hypothetical, but in fact it is not. It is the situation we face today, or the one we refuse to face.

     Among those who can see the arc or our present trajectory and recognize that we are propelling ourselves toward utter disaster, or even oblivion, I note a near-consensus for what must top the list of valuables to be saved: foremost, we must save civilization. Not far behind civilization, and perhaps conflated with it, is the gut-felt notion that we must save our way of life. Not just electricity and indoor plumbing, but cities and symphony orchestras and global trade: the world as we know it today, but smarter, more efficient, better engineered. Most within this group get at least some of their information outside the mainstream corporate media. They have assimilated peak oil, climate chaos, resource depletion, environmental degradation, and they recognize the threat of planetary ecosystem breakdown. They know what overshoot means and recognize that the present human population is far beyond the carrying capacity of the planet—a condition that is necessarily temporary. And yet, well-informed as they are, almost all of these bright and educated people share the same blind spot, thanks to the thoroughness of their cultural conditioning.

      A foundational assumption of Western civilization is that the Earth belongs to humans, and it has no purpose beyond serving us. Going far back into our cultural and intellectual history, it has been an unquestioned assumption that everything—the Universe itself– is really about us exceptional, very special, humans. This particular brand of narcissism is called anthropocentrism, and I call it a blind spot because it seems to prevent clear and rational thinking about our actual prospects for survival here. That is to say, it denies the true human situation on Earth and posits a Big Lie in its place. Trying to enact this lie dooms us to fall by our own hand because our pretense won’t allow us to acknowledge the principles of Ecology 101.

     Intellectually, we may recognize that human life, and all life, depends upon global and local planetary systems functioning within a given optimal range. If these interconnected and interdependent global, regional, and local systems are stressed beyond their optimal range, radical changes can occur—possibly in a cascade of failures, and also, possibly, to a regime change so extreme (and irreversible) that  extinction of species would be general. This scenario goes far beyond the futures entertained by those advocating for wind power and electric cars. With widespread ecosystem failure, survival itself is in question– never mind the amenities of advanced civilization. Yet, even knowing all this, in an abstract way, it is common among the cognoscenti to believe that we could go on living the way we do, if only there were fewer of us. Their ultimate goal is to preserve a way of life, not Life itself, and this is where their models and assumptions fail them.

     Working toward a world with fewer people, with a reduced energy/carbon footprint, is a desirable goal, and a necessary eventuality. But as a response to the Earth crisis it is feebly insufficient, because (as usual) our focus is too self-centered, and thus misdirects our actions. It is still all about the human, and only about our fellow Earthlings, and the Earth itself, as they relate to our most obvious survival requirements. For instance, the Earth is losing unique species to extinction at the rate of about 200 species a day. A small number of people find this fact abhorrent, and an even smaller number are trying to reverse the trend. The loss of iconic mega fauna—like elephants, pandas, and tigers–is seen as unfortunate, and even gets a little mainstream press, now and then. Occasionally, someone will pay lip service to the concept of biodiversity, but none of us really understands the full implications of losing a single species; when we consider tens of thousands of life forms a year, we are in territory far beyond our comprehension.

      Ecology is a very young science, and we know so very little about the various interactions among species, and how these interactions contribute to the web of life. And it is not only our knowledge of detail that is lacking: we are also astoundingly ignorant of how complex geological, chemical, and biological systems interact to make the larger Gaian system so nurturing to Life. Because there is no apparent profit in this kind of research, and no other obvious incentive, some of the most important questions relating to our survival never get asked. And so, the fabric of life unravels day by day, as species after species is extirpated. Though we don’t know exactly what this means, we should be aware that we, and the world, are losing vital components of a living planet; that everything counts for something, and there are no spare parts. As Aldo Leopold has said: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” A complex, integrated whole (or holarchy) is whole by virtue of all of its parts (or holons) being present and in functional order. Keep subtracting parts and order devolves into disorder.

     Life emerged on this planet some four billion years ago, and has been evolving ever since. Out of that evolutionary process has come ever greater complexity and ever greater diversity. We Johnny-come-latelys are now in the business of reversing that trend, as we carelessly, and ceaselessly, unweave the Web of Life. Under the domination of industrial/ corporate man, the world grows ever more ugly and unlivable. The Alberta tar sands (visible from space), is our brand stamped upon the planet. What was once a living boreal forest ecosystem–with flora and fauna to match its trees and streams–has been transformed into a lifeless industrial muck wallow, massive in its gooey sameness. This is an extreme example of what civilized man will do to the Earth for a short-term energy fix, and of course for those addictive petrol profits. Extreme, but not uncharacteristic: We are blowing the tops off mountains to feed our addiction to dirty coal, and burying freshwater streams in the toxic slag of the overburden. We are poisoning freshwater aquifers with the dangerous chemicals of fracking, while introducing isolated pockets of natural toxins into people’s drinking water—and, while we are at it, releasing perilous amounts of the greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere. It seems a form of insanity, but it is insanity normalized within our culture and society, and regarded as somehow rational—or at least consistent with the principles we live by, and therefore inevitable.

     We can normalize these extreme behaviors partly because we, as a society, are addicted to high-power fossil energy and the way it streamlines our lives and amplifies our personhood. But there is something deeper than this that goes far beyond our individual culpability, something so embedded in our culture as to be foundational to our identity as a people. Historically, the civilized people of the world have been transformers of Nature. Consider, for example, the transformation that has been visited upon the North American continent in the last five hundred years.  Starting at the eastern shore, we worked our way westward, felling vast forests to make way for agriculture, industry, and towns. We were colonists, and colonization was what we did. We swept across the Great Plains, transforming vast natural grasslands with millennia-deep topsoil into scalped farmsteads, whose rich soil we readily depleted, then left to blow away as dust. To water our croplands, we dammed rivers, transforming their natural ecology into something less natural. And we were miners not only of topsoil and streams and trees, but miners of everything that could be turned to a profit. Land fever and gold fever drove us to grab everything we could, to rip riches from the Earth, turning the natural world inside out, poisoning it with cyanide and mercury, blowing away stream banks with pressurized water to get at little specks of shine, transforming mature landscapes into wastelands with careless disregard. There was nothing in our culture to tell us this was wrong. Instead, our culture authorized and validated all these transformations of the natural world. Striking it rich was, and still is, the American Dream; and there are no rules, no taboos, no prohibitions. Whatever you can get away with, for the sake of profit, is okay. This is the American Way. It’s who we are.

      The transformation of Nature is not a genetically determined species-wide attribute, but is instead the particular project of the culture of civilization. At the heart of this project is the culturally sanctioned belief that the human being is separate from Nature. Without this underlying conceit it would be psychologically very difficult to go up against Mother Nature and presume to exert our will over hers. With this belief, and its corollary– that the human is the center of everything, with the world ours for the taking—there are no limits to what we might do. No rules, no restraints; no responsibilities, only rights—and, specifically, the right to take whatever we want, whenever we want, in whatever quantity we can get away with.

     The people who lived here before the European invasion had a different worldview. They believed that the human was an integral part of Nature and that the Earth itself was sacred; that all the other creatures of the Earth were kin, and each relative was an individual worthy of respect. Gratitude for the bounty and beauty of the Earth, and for life itself, was an attitude to be cultivated in everyday life, and expressed through ritual and ceremony on special occasions. When you believe that the Earth and all Life are sacred you walk upon the land with circumspection and humility. You don’t take more than is offered, or more than you need, and you give back to the Earth in every way you can. In the words of the Potawatomi elder, Robin Kimmerer: “One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.” (Braiding Sweetgrass, p.190.)This worldview, and the code of ethics it engenders, was practiced by some five hundred Native tribes over a period of ten thousand years; the legacy it left on the land was continent-wide ecological wholeness. Could there be a lesson here for us?

     I think there could.

     What needs to be understood by those who would save the world is that only part of it can be saved. If we try to save the trappings of civilization, along with its underlying culture, we are bound to continue promoting the transformation of living systems into dead zones, of converting life into death. Why? Because the cultural meme of our putative separation from Nature runs so deep, and has so many corollary memes. Cherry picking the “best” aspects of civilization is more easily wished for than actually accomplished, because culture is a network of interconnected perceptions, beliefs, and values. Opt for a few of your favorite technologies and along come the assumptions that made those technologies possible. You can’t have one thing without getting a lot more besides. This is one reason why it is best not to try to save civilization at all. Another is that civilization is, and always has been, based upon the over-exploitation of resources. On a finite planet, over-exploitation has no long-term future. And let’s not forget, as we tend to, what these “resources” actually are: they are other species, and the habitats of other species; and everything we gouge out of the land we take from the flesh of Mother Earth. None of these “resources” are freely given, but are the products of Theft– Theft on a global scale.

     Within the culture of civilization, we suffer from wrong relationship with nature, and it is this wrong relationship that has caused us to overpopulate, and to create a false human-dominated world—urban, ugly, and far removed from the world as Nature made it. We have fabricated this faux world by dismantling the real world that gives us, and everything else, its life. All of the hockey stick trajectories, all of the negative trends, are enabled and amplified by this wrong relationship to Nature: this absurd pretense that we humans are separate from, and above, Nature. As long as we cling to this falsehood, the world will continue to crash down around us. And this would be true even if there were only a billion of us, or a million. Yes, there are too many of us, but it is not merely a question of numbers. The ultimate cause behind almost everything that is wrong in the world today is our wrong relationship with Nature. Want to save the world? Fall in love with it first; embrace it as your larger Self, and give the lie to separation. If by some miracle we all came around to reality at once, and changed the story we live in, we—and future generations– might actually have a chance to go on living here.

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     The focus of this blog is the Earth Crisis: how to understand it and how to navigate it. Not that anybody has all the answers, but it is important to ask the right questions. That is what I would like to attempt here.

Holonomy refers to a fundamental condition or property of the Universe—one of nested interrelatedness. A holon is a self-bounded whole which is part of a larger whole, and which cannot exist independently of that larger whole(or holarchy). Such a holon might be a cell within the human heart. The cell takes its life within the context of the heart, and cannot live separately. The organ of the heart takes its life within the context of organ systems, which in turn take their life within the context of an entire organism, a living human being. That human takes its life within the context of local, regional, and global ecosystems. The Earth, or Gaia, is itself a self-bounded holon within a larger solar system, and that system is in turn embedded within a galaxy, which is likewise part of something larger still. Everything is connected; everything is interdependent, and there is nothing woo- woo or mystical about this. It is an obvious fact of life. Trouble is, the people of our culture have for thousands of years tried to live in the pretense that humans are separate from everything else—separate, special, god-like, exceptional in every way– and this has led to the Earth Crisis we find ourselves in today. The truth is we are none of these things, except special–just as all living beings are special. What we are instead is holonomous. We are part of something far grander and much more wondrous than a single narcissistic species. Within this larger, grander identity, we are wholly holonomous. Unless we own up to this obvious fact of life, and live its truth, we will end up exactly where we now seem to be headed—a destination not worth pursuing. Much better to embrace our holonomy, and our place within the Community of Life. —WildEarthMan

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