Cultural Artifacts and Culture itself

     “And God said, ’Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let him have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26

     “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Genesis 1:27

     “And God blessed them, and God said unto them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Genesis 1: 28

     A distinction needs to be made between cultural artifacts and culture itself. This is seldom as simple and straightforward as our either/or paradigm would have us believe, because there are often blurrings and shadings of one into the other, as well as questions about the creator of artifacts, who is herself inevitably a product of culture. Nevertheless (and while allowing for an ample ambiguity factor), a cultural artifact should not be confused with culture itself, as it often is.

     In the case of these passages from the Christian bible we have a fairly rare instance of a cultural artifact which is simultaneously a manifestation of culture, a carrier of culture, and culture itself. How is that for blurred edges? It is a physical artifact of culture to the degree that I can go pick up a book and find these injunctions to the human race, and so can you. It is a manifestation of culture because these words (whether from God or not) were written down within a cultural context by humans inevitably influenced by their historical mileiu. These passages are a carrier of culture in that they are, in effect, marching orders, and marching orders (ostensibly) from God the Creator Himself. These words, these injunctions, are culture itself in that they serve to inform and direct the human being in how to carry on in the world. They provide a worldview and value system by which to operate, and by which to rationalize a people’s behavior. And this brings up yet another distinction and category.

      It is entirely possible that a worldview and moral system that goes back five or six thousand years would by now be moribund, and irrelevant to people of the present age. Then, instead of being a living artifact, it would be of interest mainly to specialists in the antiquities, as with the goddess cultures of yore. Unfortunately, these cultural instructions are not moribund; they are insidiously alive and well, to the degree that a twenty-first century thinker and writer can state with no sense of irony, “By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.” (Charles Mann, “State of the Species,” Orion Magazine, Nov/Dec2012)

     Before we look more deeply into the nature of our own culture of civilization, I want to touch on what a lot of people confuse with culture. We have, for instance, this entity we call high culture, which includes the fine arts: orchestral music; painting and sculpture; the world’s great literature; philosophy and other contributions to the history of ideas; libraries and symphony orchestras; ballet and opera; and perhaps a few architectural marvels could be added to the list. The rise of scientific knowledge might be included in this category, or in one of its own. But you get the idea. This is what most of us think of when we think of culture. Indeed, all of these things are what I myself have thought of when I’ve thought of our cultural heritage. I was a literature major as an undergraduate and graduate student, and as such I worshipped at the altar of civilization—the altar of our own unsurpassable culture. Please, don’t anyone tell me that all I have learned to value about my culture—the music, the paintings, the great books—are artifacts of decadence and corruption. Twenty years ago I would not have accepted any such notion. Heresy of the lowest order, I would have said, a fringe opinion totally without merit.

     But all these wondrous artifacts of culture that we mistake for culture itself are not the outpourings of civilization or culture, they are the works of individual human beings, and are, collectively, a reflection of the human spirit. As such we can embrace and celebrate them, but let’s not confuse them with our own pathological culture of civilization.

     One thing to always remember: Civilization is nothing if not a self-promoting, self-aggrandizing propaganda machine. It is happy to take unto itself all the prestige and credit we will bestow upon it for the artifacts of our own (often agonized) creative urges and outpourings. I seem to be speaking of culture as if it were something apart from the humans it informs and manipulates. Some would say it has no such standing as a metaphysical entity unto itself. It makes us and we make it, and thus it can have no agenda or other characteristic that are other than (or apart from) us. Well, I used to believe something like that myself. It seemed to make perfect sense. But I don’t believe it now.

     Ours is an imperial culture, imperial and imperious both. It seeks power; it seeks dominion over every living thing upon the Earth. Those injunctions from Genesis spell out in detail its deepest urges to take over and overrun every creature of the air, of the ocean deep, and upon the land—and to do it through us gullible humans. Well, we have been good soldiers and followers. We have been fruitful and multiplied. We have taken what we thought was our own dominion over the Earth. And we have set ourselves up as the one creature, of all God’s creatures, who is like unto God Himself– for only we were made in His image. And all the other creatures, and the world itself, have no standing in His eyes, or in our own, as anything other than resources for our exclusive use.

     This is the story embodied in these three passages from Genesis, and it is the story we have lived in for thousands of years. For most of that time it seemed to work very well for us. There was plenty to go around, and few enough of us that it seemed it could go on forever. Even today, in the face of depletion and system failures, there are many who still believe this is a story that goes on forever. It worked before; it will go on working. Few of us are willing to contemplate that there might be something deeply flawed in this story—maybe even deeply evil.

     Culture is embodied in a people’s language, and is carried in that language. Culture consists of values and a worldview which are expressed in its memes and stories. Theoretically, the genius of culture is that it can respond to sudden environmental or other change, thus supplementing instinct or genetic inheritance as a way of coping in the world. That, at least, is how it is supposed to work. It is what we have told ourselves. But ours does not seem to be showing that kind of flexibility, and that is a problem. Indeed, it is a problem of survival—for us and possibly for all of life on this planet. It is for this reason that I believe we have been hijacked by our culture; that instead of serving us, we are enslaved to it; and therefore I am led to speculate that our culture is an entity unto itself with an agenda of its own; that it is, in effect, a parasite upon us and upon the body of the Earth. And if we are to go by what we have seen so far, its agenda is to devour the Earth until all its vital functions fail; until it cannot be dined upon as something still alive. And our place in all this? We are its cat’s paw, its tool; and it is our master. At its behest, we are enacting an Earth-devouring story of destruction and death. That is precisely why it needs to have a stake driven into its heart, until it is dead forever.

     I believe this Earth has its own agenda and story. It has worked on that agenda for more than four billion years—and produced life in such abundance, complexity, and diversity, that it has been the wonder of a wondrous Universe. That is the story I want to be a part of, the story I want for my fellow humans and All My Relations, in which each of us has our own meaning. It is the story of Life overflowing, joyfully exuberant in its own fecund diversity. This is a story with staying power, but only so long is it trumps our cultural story of subjugation and dominion.

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False Dichotomies and the Virtue of Historical Perspective

America is a divided society in many ways, but the breach between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist scientific materialists would seem to be among the chasms most unbridgeable. The true believers in each group appear to live in totally different worlds, the paradigms out of which they operate irreconcilable. But are their differences as stark as they seem?

As a schoolboy in the ‘fifties, I used to hear the mantra “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Of course, now, West meets East at Walmart, where the meeting is stamped on most of what they sell: “Made in China.” But that is not my point. It is the dichotomy, the binary-ness implied in this aphorism. Growing up in Cold War America, the world was (conceptually) divided in two: us virtuous democratic capitalists and those godless totalitarian communists. Us versus them: the good guys against the bad guys. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” as I seem to recall someone once saying.  Seeing the world in this binary way goes back at least to Aristotle and his system of logic based on either/or. Either it‘s black or it’s white; it’s right or it’s wrong. Two separate, but interrelated, things are going on here. One is this either/or filter we put on our perceptions of the world—a filter handed down to us by culture. The other is our tendency to examine and parse the world in short time-frames.

     In the context of the twentieth century, communism and capitalism were competing economic ideologies, and they seemed to represent polar opposites. As a young person hearing about this great divide in the world, it didn’t occur to me to question the scale and scope of the division, and thereby see how hyped up the differences between us actually were. It was really only a dispute about how the pie of the world’s natural resources would be divided up and distributed among humans. Should it be:”From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” in a command and control economy?  Or should it be the “invisible hand” of the “free” marketplace left alone to work its magic of “equitable” distribution?  Never brought into the discussion were the shared cultural assumptions, and ways of life, between the Soviet Bloc and us in the so-called Free World. That both our industrial consumer societies were based on unlimited resource extraction and consumption never entered the discussion, nor, of course, was our extravagant and wasteful way of life ever questioned. Looking back, it is much easier to see than it was at the time that we were Tweedle- Dum and Tweedle-Dee arguing over who got what.

     Years later I would come to recognize that the really meaningful dichotomy was one that never got discussed, and that was the divide between the Indigenous Worldview and lifeway, and the worldview and lifeway of Western civilization. In America, beginning in the 1980s, books by and about Native people’s started to become generally available in bookstores and libraries, and I took to reading them, finding them so fascinating that I have kept on reading these kinds of books ever since—including lots and lots in the area of anthropology. And it was these years of experience reading books outside the dominant paradigm (including some outsider history books) that made me recognize two things. The first has to do with how you frame an issue– or rather, how others frame the issue for you—not only limits the ways in which you can see that particular issue, but the framing also sets a precedent in the mind, a kind of scaffolding or superstructure, which you will tend to use to organize your own thinking on other issues. And this is one way false dichotomies get set up in our own minds.

     The second hard-won insight that has come to me with age and experience has to do with historical perspective. When you are caught up in the Cold War, for instance, the issues of that particular time dominate your vision and the way you frame the world. What I am building up to here is: the same can be said for science and religion as can be said about communism and capitalism. The apparent dichotomy is not as fundamental as it seems—not if you put a long lens on it. And here I want to quote the scientific AND religious scholar, Thomas Berry. “The current extinction is being caused by human action within 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.” Just as communists and capitalists share the commonality of being highly extractive industrial consumer societies, science and religion share a human-centered view of the world.

     And that is not all they share. Both science and religion are based in a culture that goes back about ten thousand years, to the beginnings of civilization– based in agriculture and built upon specific foundational assumptions about the world (our ontology). Perhaps chief among these assumptions is that the human being is separate from Nature, which, along with its corollary:  that Nature is ours to use as we see fit, and ours to dominate. This foundational axiom, central to our cultural belief system, I call the Big Lie. I call it that because we manifestly are NOT separate from Nature; but, false as it is, the Big Lie informs almost everything we see, believe, and do. It permeates our perceptions of the world, our value system, and all our cultural and social institutions, which means that myriad smaller lies are built into every area of civilized life, because the Big Lie has been accepted and passed on through scores of human generations within civilization.

  Institutional Science and Institutional Religion are at odds with one another over some fundamental ontological issues: that is, they disagree about the nature of reality. The Christian view is based in Platonic dualism, which posits two worlds: the mundane and imperfect world we inhabit now, and a world somewhere else where all is perfect and ideal. The scientific view, in its essence, is based on the original work of the ancient Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, who declared that all which exists is made up of atoms in the void. This is a materialist view and is compatible with today’s dominant paradigm of scientific materialism. I once had a philosophy professor who made the memorable statement that in terms of Western philosophy, Plato and Democritus wrote the book (or rather, two books), and all philosophy since has just been footnotes to their work.

     So, here we have another dichotomy: A two-world view in which one world is gross, physical, imperfect; and another world where everything attains to perfection, and where a whole wish list of desirable conditions may be possible, including spirituality. Atomism and scientific materialism deny the existence of this ideal world. Believing themselves to be realists and empiricists, the materialists say, in essence: what you see is what you get. If you cannot demonstrate something empirically then it probably isn’t “real.”

     And what about this dichotomy between realism and idealism? Is it merely a false dichotomy, as I might seem to be implying—or is it real?

     At this point I need to qualify my terms: the dichotomies between communism and capitalism, or between science and religion, are not, strictly speaking, false dichotomies so much as they are secondary or tertiary dichotomies, and not the primary dichotomies they may seem.

     Western science and Western religion are both born of the culture of civilization. They share foundational assumptions, and not only the Big Lie of separation form Nature and our narcissistic anthropocentrism, but authoritarianism is also common to both, as is the meme (or myth) of progress. Indeed, the number of cultural memes shared between Western Science and Western Religion are far too numerous to count, even if they could be untangled, one from another. And this brings me back to my central theme. Just as the disagreements between the communist bloc and the “Free World” was all within the family of industrialized consumer societies, the ideological schism between science and religion is all within the context of the culture of civilization—a culture with a history of about ten thousand years, which science and religion both share.

     When we go back that far– to the beginnings of agriculture– we finally arrive at a truly meaningful divide. I think of it as a threshold, a bifurcation point, a time of fateful decision. On one side of the divide is a worldview and lifestyle that might be characterized as living in the Gift. Living in the Gift is living off the interest of nature’s bountiful economy; living within the annual solar budget. It is, to use Daniel Quinn’s elegant phrase, “living in the hands of the gods,” trusting Nature to take care of her people. It is acknowledging the human’s kinship with all other living beings and recognizing the world and its creatures as intelligent and sentient, possessing both selfhood and volition. This is the Indigenous Worldview, and it knows that the world is animated by spirit, and that life, and the Earth itself, are sacred. The lives of hundreds of generation of our wild ancestors were lived according to this deeply apprehended understanding of the world.

    This worldview and lifeway stands apart from the worldview and lifeway that succeeded it, in what I would call a fundamental or primary dichotomy. This is not a trivial distinction. The indigenous worldview is decidedly and emphatically Earth-centered, and this orientation has far-reaching implications.

     Before there was such a thing as science or Greek philosophers, the Abrahamic religions disinvested the Earth of all spiritual value. All of the reverence, awe, and gratitude that had been invested in Mother Earth by hundreds of generations of humans, all of her sacredness, was ripped out by the roots and flung into the farthest reaches of the heavens. In this way Earth was rendered as something to be despised and degraded, on the one hand, and exploited and devoured, on the other. Western science, born within this cultural paradigm, holds the Earth in this selfsame scorn: random, hostile, purposeless– the scientific materialists say–meaningless, brutal, bloody in tooth and claw. In their contempt for Earth, science and religion are in full accord.  What ultimately unites the atheistic scientific materialists and the religionists they love to hate is their common belief that the human being is some kind of alien to planet Earth, who does not really belong here.

     This is in vivid contrast to all the life-affirming, Earth-centered spiritual traditions of our wild ancestors; and in this contrast we find a dichotomy about as basic as they get. As we try to come to an understanding of the Earth crisis we are facing today this is a dichotomy between distinct worldviews which warrants scrupulous scrutiny. The difference is almost as basic as Earth-loving versus Earth–hating, and when you consider the degree to which human behavior is determined and incentivized by cultural belief, it is not a real brain-strainer to see that you treat something according to how you value it, or devalue it. Seems pretty clear that the Earth-lovers treat the Earth with respect, reverence, and gratitude—and the Earth thrives on this treatment. From the Earth-haters you get pretty much what you’d expect: something like what you see around you now, with science and religion bickering amid the ruins.

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Natural Resources: A Minority Report

I want here to explore the proposition that certain things that the people of our culture have identified as “resources,” put here for human use, are no such thing. What we call “renewable resources” are gifts of Nature, and their use is permitted to humans, as long as they are in fact renewed. The forests of the British Isles and of Europe have been cut down for human use, but not renewed. When a renewable resource is used in this way, it is mining the resource for one-time use, and, I would say, is in violation of an ancient human compact with Nature– the ultimate source of our lives. It is allowable to live off the interest of Earth’s solar budget and to partake of Nature’s emergent abundance. It is not permissible to live off the principal; that constitutes mining, and is theft.

According to the ancient worldview which preceded the culture of civilization, taking another creature’s life is allowed only under specified conditions, including the asking of permission, and the giving of thanks, through prescribed ritual activity. And, as with all ritual, it is most meaningful when sincerely felt. Respect and reverence for all life forms is appropriate and should arise naturally out of the recognition that all life is sacred. Accordingly, when a life is taken for human sustenance, nothing should be wasted. Waste shows disrespect. These simple principles have been practiced by humans for tens of thousands of years, and, for the most part, those humans did not degrade or diminish their world—which they recognized was not theirs alone. Living in this way honored the compact between Nature and the human, and might have continued indefinitely on just these same terms, in a way of life we would now call “sustainable.” Living within the planetary solar budget was inherently durable because it was in balance with the whole.

In addition to renewable resources, the people of our culture have identified another part of the living planet to be used by humans, which they call “non-renewable resources.” These include fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas; metals such as iron, copper, nickel, silver, and gold; various other elements, including the rare earths, and any number of miscellaneous compounds. All of these are integral to the Earth, are under the Earth’s skin, and can be accessed only by ripping into the Earth itself. Inevitably, it is a violent process, whether accomplished directly by humans using sharp prying tools, or giant machines that gouge out the Earth, tons of flesh at a time. Few, if any, of these non-renewables come to the surface in pure form. They come with a lot of the rest of the Earth, referred to as “overburden,” which is treated as waste. In the case of mountaintop removal, everything that is not coal is bulldozed toward lower ground, including into creeks and rivers. Much of what is brought up to the surface of the Earth, along with the sought-after treasure, is toxic to life. As long as it was buried, its life- and health-threatening properties were no problem. But, once above-ground these poisonous and/or greenhouse gasses are released into the biosphere to work their ongoing harm.

Metals, such as gold, require highly poisonous chemicals, like mercury and cyanide, in the mining and refining process. Where do these chemicals end up? In the biosphere, of course, and in the bodies of animals and humans, even decades and centuries after mining operations have shut down. To this day, the Rocky Mountains retain the toxic legacy of its mining history, with no relief in sight. The hydraulic fracturing process introduces a dangerous brew of chemicals (including benzene) into underground aquifers, even as this risky process releases methane (a highly potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. The Gulf Oil Spill is a reminder of how environmentally devastating deepwater oil extraction can be, while the Alberta tar sands continue to expand the sacrifice zone of that dirty, corrosive project. In the world of mining, a few people get filthy rich, the consumer gets a certain amount “stuff’ of some kind, and everybody else gets the toxic legacy, while the tissue of the Earth itself is ravaged and left for dead.

All of this, by itself, should tell us we are doing something wrong. As a practical matter, simply in terms of costs and benefits, this equation does not add up. The epidemic of cancer and other diseases coincides with a witch’s brew of chemicals we are all exposed to through our chemical agriculture and our deepening reliance on pharmaceuticals just to live “normally.” Meanwhile, industrial processes release a plethora of dangerous chemicals into our air and water, nasty things like PCBs and dioxins. All but a very few of these compounds come from under the skin of the Earth, and what seems obvious to me is that they should be left there–based simply on cost-benefit calculations which look beyond quarterly profits for the few to the long-term welfare of the whole.

Then, too, it may be that the subterranean zones of Earth constitute their own kinds of ecosystems, whose functions we have not begun to understand. Just for an instance, the iron that is in the Earth may function in important ways in terms of Earth’s electro-magnetic field, affecting the stability of Earth’s orbit. The point is, we do not understand the implications of everything we are doing. A cost-benefit analysis, even leaving out such mysteries as these, suggests the costs far outweigh the benefits—and this is based strictly on practical, materialistic considerations, leaving out any possible spiritual components to the equation.

But what if the Earth is sacred? What if all Life is sacred? What if the Mayan spiritual perspective, as presented by Martin Prechtel, is a more profound understanding of our Universe, our world, and our place in it, than our own? What if, as he suggests, taking “resources” out of the hide of the Earth creates a “hollowness that’s been carved out of the universe” that can only be made right by ritual sacrifice, to reciprocate for what has been taken? What if it’s true that: “The universe is in a state of starvation and emotional grief because it has not been given what it needs in the form of ritual food and actual physical gifts. We think we’re getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence.” What if he and the Mayans are right and we are wrong?

What if all that is under the Earth’s skin belongs to the Earth, and not to us at all—and that taking what we mine from the Earth is indeed theft? That it is culturally sanctioned theft does not make it anything other than theft, it just means we have given ourselves permission to be thieves, and sanction the plunder of the Earth. We have been at this plunder for a few thousand years now, but only in the last few hundred have we gone about the job systematically. And where has that left us now in 2014? All of the ‘easier’ resources to get at have already been mined, and what is left is generally of lower quality and harder to get at. All these “resources” are on the down side of depletion. The availability of oil is likely past its peak. All the non-renewable resources we’ve come to depend upon are in decline, and it looks as though we are willing to fight with other humans for what remains. (See Michael T Klare: The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources.)

This is violence begetting violence, in a self-amplifying positive feedback loop. “We think we are getting away with something by stealing from the other side, but it all leads to violence. The Greek oracle at Delphi saw this a long time ago and said, ‘Woe to humans, the invention of steel.’” As I see it, all the violence and disorder of our own time is the price we are paying for breaking our compact and bond with Nature. If we had stuck to that bargain, and lived only on the interest of Nature’s abundance (living in the Gift), and not helped ourselves to the principal (living in the Theft), we and the world would still be thriving in a state of ever-renewing balance.

If we are to ever reach that balance again, it will be by going back to the simplicity and honesty of living in the Gift.

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The Pretense of Objectivity

 

     In critiquing the institution of Science as it is actually practiced (versus the image it likes to project), I have failed to address a central issue, and that is the pretense of scientific objectivity. There are two aspects to the problem of objectivity: one theoretical, one practical.  In practice, scientific objectivity is difficult (if not impossible) to come by because scientists, like everyone else, are working out of a whole range of (unquestioned and unproven) assumptions that are part of our cultural paradigm, and many of these assumptions, were they to be questioned, would be proven to be partly or wholly wrong. For instance, in our culture we tend to see the individual as the primary unit of our focus and concern. Scientists, like nearly everyone else in our culture, take this truism for granted both when they design experiments and when they arrive at conclusions. The fact that other scientists can replicate these experiments and come to the same conclusion is not surprising, because they share the same assumptions. But what if the individual, within the larger scheme of Nature, is not the primary unit at all? What if, instead, whole systems, and their optimum functioning, were the primary unit of concern?

     This obsession with the individual, derived from thousands of years of cultural belief and assumption, is precisely where Richard Dawkins goes astray. His notion of the “selfish gene,” for instance, is all cast within this erroneous frame of the individual as primary unit. Looked at in terms of whole systems, this theory has little merit.

     But besides the practical difficulties of implementing culture-free objectivity, there is a deeper philosophical (ontological and epistemological) issue inherent in the very idea of objectivity. The assumption seems to be that there is a god’s-eye view of reality, and this represents the one true Truth—the “objective” truth. And the corollary is that this objective, one true Truth, is available to humans through scientific inquiry. And not just any humans, but our kind of humans: we of the supreme elite, the bastions of civilization.

     I don’t believe that it has yet been proven that there is such a one-true-Truth, or that we humans have access to it, were it to exist. Therefore, scientific objectivity is an empty pretense.    

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