Overshoot in my own Time

You may be wondering how it is that the human population went so deeply into overshoot in my time, and why we seemed so helpless to do anything about it. The quick and dirty answer is that it couldn’t have happened without agriculture and cheap oil, but so much more is involved in our race toward extinction—details and relationships that I think you will benefit from understanding. But first let’s take a quick look at the population dynamics of our wild, pre-agricultural ancestors, just to put things in perspective.

During the period of human dispersal across the globe—between sixty and ten thousand years ago—the natural world offered a rich array of ecosystems fairly overflowing with life forms, and thus with opportunities for humans to make a good living. As long as this condition prevailed, and there was new territory to expand into, there was no particular incentive to limit group size, except as it became unwieldy for group encampments and migrations, or as social tensions prompted a group to split up and go separate ways. But once all–or nearly all– available niches were filled with other humans a new urgency impressed itself upon our kind: we had to match population size to the available resources on a finite Earth. Failure to find this balance could lead to nothing but grief.

In the hunter-gatherer lifeway, the individual and group incentive is to take good care of their resource base. Human lives depended upon fully functional ecosystems as well as on maintaining a balance between prey species and the human appetite for them. Harm the resilience of the ecosystem, upset the balance of the predator-prey relationship (by over-exploitation, say), and you can be sure human lives will suffer the consequences. Living within the Earth’s annual solar budget in this way is living in the Gift. It is living off the interest of Earth’s natural capital, off the abundance of a fecund and generous Mother Earth. And there is a built-in disincentive to spending down the principal.

Agricultural man lives by a different life-strategy, which can fairly be described as living in the Theft. This lifeway is based upon the principle of spending down the principal; it has no staying power because it depends upon the mining of resources—both ‘renewable’ and non-renewable– unto exhaustion. But as long as the party lasts, great fortunes are made by a few individuals, while many others enjoy living in improvident luxury (including myself)—all at the expense of a living planet.

It is not possible for the Earth to support the more than seven billion of us without agriculture, without oil, or without living in the Theft. We couldn’t all be here if the world was still a commons and hadn’t been privatized. All of these cultural institutions make it possible to overpopulate the planet with humans—and this is beginning to be acknowledged by some of my contemporaries. But few ever contemplate the question: what makes it impossible (or all but) to stop growing our population– or, better yet, reverse our trajectory, and thereby lessen the pressure of our gigantic boot-print on the face of our Mother? Even among those who recognize that we are deep into overshoot, there is little understanding of why we cannot force a change in this self-destructive trajectory. But this is something you need to know.

Let’s begin with the enabling cultural injunction, found in the Book of Genesis, but already part of our culture before it ever became codified in print: ‘Go forth and multiply!’ It matters not a whit whether one is a practicing Jew or Christian for this directive to have resonance, because it is enshrined in our deep culture, and has been for thousands of years. Populating the Earth without limit has been planted deep in our collective psyche, as part of our operating program, and it shows.

Even if, by some miracle, the entire human population were to undergo an instantaneous global mind change at this very moment, and could shed this deep programming; even if we all felt compelled to severely limit the human population, I seriously doubt that we could act upon it, because of all the snares we’ve managed to entangle ourselves in. Some of these reside in our deep culture, and give us marching orders we are barely are of. For instance, within the same document that enjoins us to be fruitful and multiply we find sanctified approval for wealth creation and the storing up of great riches by favored individuals. This of course runs exactly counter to the egalitarianism of the hunter-gatherer, where all is to be shared equitably among everyone in the group; where no more is to be taken from Mother Earth than can be used immediately—thus insuring fairness and justice within the group itself, while also conserving the Earth’s Gifts for later, including for future generations.

As with the injunction to expand the human population, this encouragement to seek power and wealth had to have been well-established within the culture long before it was ever enshrined in print and made official doctrine. That is to say, it runs deeper than any one religion, and has, by my time, been taken for granted by almost everyone within civilized society. And also taken for granted is the (unacknowledged) fact that wealth creation is not possible by living in the Gift, but only by living in the Theft–that is, by spending down the Earth’s principal: its complexity, diversity, and resilience, accrued over 3.8 billion years of Earthly evolution. Living in the Theft is a life strategy that can work for a few, for awhile, but inevitably must fail completely.

With overpopulation and wealth creation as foundational principles, other cultural institutions would inevitably appear to facilitate these cultural marching orders. And this is where we began our problematic relationship with complex systems: systems that promised Power—and delivered—but not without exacting a soul-withering price for our elevated status as Masters of the Planet. Indeed, it may not be overly fanciful to see what has happened to the civilized human in the light of a Faustian Bargain or Deal with the Devil.

Complex systems are not well understood, and have only been the subject of close study for three or so decades—and looked into mostly by those trained in the traditions of materialist science. Thus, complex systems are assumed to be without personality or personhood of their own, and are thought to be more like mechanisms than organisms. And this may actually be the case–no one really knows– but I think it dangerous to underestimate what they are and what they can do. Accordingly, I find it useful to personify them to some degree and to see them as having agendas of their own: as if they were volitional beings with a will of their own. I wouldn’t call them the Devil, or Mephistopheles, or the incarnation of evil, and yet, their effects can run so counter to the purposes of all Life as to seem purposefully intent upon the destruction of a living Earth. If they are just mechanical entities operating out of a handful of principles, rules, or laws, and otherwise have no intentions of their own, you have to wonder why these rules are as they are, and why they couldn’t have been formulated in a way that was friendlier to Life.

Usury is the lending of money that must be repaid by a certain time– with interest: often, very steep interest. Usurers were long regarded as blood-sucking parasites that preyed upon the weak and poor, and were all but banned from civil life. Then came the Industrial Revolution, and with it the need for finance capital, and thus bankers became respectable and important members of civilized society. The problem with usury, beyond its predatory proclivities, is its built-in imperative for growth. Interest on debt is by its nature a pyramid- or Ponzi-scheme: it requires that new money enter the game, and not just new money but new players—new people born into the world, to service the debt of their elders. Usury only works in a world of perpetual growth.

Manufacturing depends upon the mining of resources; the mining of resources, in turn, depends upon machines and other manufactured goods to go about its business. Both mining and manufacturing depend upon a transportation network to move stuff in and out of their locations, and to transport goods to distribution centers. All of these interlocking systems are mutually interdependent, and they consist of both organizational and physical infrastructure. These are systems of systems as well as systems within systems. Some of these systems are linear, and therefore predictable. Others are non-linear and pregnant with surprise. What they share in common is a growth imperative: they all want to get bigger and bigger, and bigger still.

Our economic system—capitalism—also depends upon perpetual growth. Politicians like to talk about ‘growing the economy’—and preferably at a rate well above 3% per year. The prosperity of the (American) people depends upon it. Anything below this threshold creates anxiety among our Captains of Industry and causes them to hold their cash reserves close: no expansion; no hiring; no new ventures.

It is the nature of corporations to want to grow, to consolidate, to become a vast empire of interrelated businesses. Financial, organizational, and Power incentives drive corporate systems toward vertical integration and economies of scale. The byword is: Get big or get out. And the bigger you get, the more political clout you have, which translates into ever more favorable governmental policies, regulations, and tax loopholes. All the incentives built-in to the organization of our corporate systems favor, and select for, more Power, more business, more money—and the way to accomplish these goals is to grow larger and larger, and larger still. The pressure is on: Get big or get out.

Everything central to our way of life is in the growth mode: the banks, the corporations, all our extractive and service industries, and, not least of all, our population. More people means: more willing buyers of homes, cars, electronic gadgets, and all the trappings of modern life. More jobs, more prosperity, more everything. More, more, more. It is in the interest of banks and corporations, as well as businesses large and small, that the market for products continues to grow. More, more, more. Grow, grow, grow.

On a finite planet with degraded natural systems and diminishing natural resources this growth imperative, built-in to our systems and into our lives, is an irresistible force coming up against an immovable object. It is us hitting a wall, and doing so at speed. More and more people in my time now see this crash coming. Of course there is also plenty of willful and studied stupidity on this subject. But here again, consider the incentives. As we spend down the last of what is left, there are still fortunes to be made. But it is not only the power elite who gain by the liquidation of natural systems as we turn the Earth inside-out and upside-down in our frenzy to mine everything that can be mined. We are all implicated, all more-or-less willing accomplices, in this final dismantling—because we are dependent on all these systems not only for our improvident lifestyle, but perhaps even for our very lives.

It would seem to make perfect sense, given our trajectory toward doom, that we should reverse our course as quickly and completely as we can. One way to do this would be to de-grow our population. Another would be to make far fewer demands upon this ailing and injured planet. Doing both at the same time would be better yet. But there are a few problems with this obvious fix, not the least of which is our agricultural system which –(get this now)– takes ten calories of energy (by way of cheap oil) to produce one calorie of food energy to power people. The industrial agricultural system has been in place for less than three quarters of a century, but it s responsible for more than tripling our population in that short time. Without the high grade energy of cheap oil there could never have been more than seven billion of us. But the fact is: there are more than seven billion living humanbeings. And what individual, or group, is going to take the responsibility for whittling this untenable number down to size? Even if all seven billion of us could agree that our numbers must be reduced—which we emphatically do not—how would we go about implementing this concerted will that we do not have?

Or let’s say that we could all agree that we wanted to live under a no-growth steady-state economic system (for which, again, there is, emphatically, no agreement). What would happen to all these interlocking systems– in which we are invested and enmeshed– that only work under conditions of growth, and falter under contraction? We really don’t know exactly what would happen, because non-linear complexity is involved, but it is a good guess that it would look quite a bit like dominoes falling—and they’d be falling on us.

I want you to understand why it is, when there were at least a few of us who could see what was coming, that we did nothing, or next to nothing, to slow this juggernaut down. I can see where you might be harboring bitter resentments against those who left you a world so broken in so many ways. I don’t know if you yourself hold the value of intergenerational justice, but if you do, you will likely feel that you have been thoroughly betrayed. And you have, but not out of maliciousness; not even out of indifference—at least not complete indifference. I personally know individuals who feel strongly that we are doing you a terrible injustice—and we are. But I want you to realize that we really didn’t have a choice in the matter. Whatever little any of us might have been able to do on your behalf wasn’t going to be nearly enough, because this growth catastrophe is systemic.

We are all invested in these systems, one way or another, and have grown utterly dependent upon them for whatever there is left to value in human life. The thing is, almost none of can see how we could possibly live without them—and truly almost none of us could. The bind we are in is this: it is suicidal to go on as we are, and it would be suicidal to stop, and collapse all these systems that support our lives. Most of us live day to day, putting one foot in front of the other, more or less on automatic pilot, taking whatever satisfaction we can from our life in bondage to these systems. Even if we realize that something vital to our being has been taken from us, and that our lives are hollow, this is still all we have: a life of sorts. Your life, on the other hand, is mere conjecture—a shimmer in the mists of a future that may never arrive. And so we go with what we know, here and now.

Would you, in our place, behave any differently?

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Population and the Future’s Deep Past

Now that you have seen the population mess we got ourselves into, and what was behind it, I want you to consider your own prospects in that department. And here much depends upon whether I am more or less correct in my assumptions about population dynamics, or if many of the so-called experts are closer to the truth. As it happens, I am acquainted with a group of population activists, who see very clearly that we are now in overshoot. What they do not see clearly, in my opinion, is what actually drives humans to overpopulate. Nor do they see population dynamics as scale-dependent, and so would perceive your situation, or the situation of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and the situation today as identical in principle. They are the experts, but I believe they are wrong in this. I leave it to you to decide which view best accords with your own sense of how thing work in the world.

One of these population activists has stated the problem thus: “We are genetically engineered to reproduce, and so we do; we are genetically engineered to consume, and so we do; we are genetically engineered to use our intelligence to maximize the above, and so we do.” This is fairly standard thinking among those trained in the traditions of scientific materialism, and tends therefore to be mechanistic and deterministic in outlook. My own educational bias would have me replace the words ‘genetically engineered’ with ‘culturally conditioned,’ thus making the population problem less about biological imperatives that drive and rule us, and considerably more about our proclivities as a social, cultural, and psychological animal who functions as a member of a group.

While it is undeniable that the human being comes with a strong sex drive, this is not identical to being genetically engineered to maximize reproduction. This construction seems to assume that the human being possesses little free agency, if any at all. We just behave as we have been genetically programmed to, with no choice in the matter of making babies. I believe it is much more nuanced than this: that the human tends to have a lot of children when it is perceived that the resource base will support many new humans. So, perception is a key factor, and is relevant at both the individual and group level. And because the human is a grouping, as well as a cultural, animal, group sentiment about population size will weigh heavily with couples considering parenthood possibilities. There is very little incentive to produce more children than the land base can support, because only grief can come from exceeding the carrying capacity of the land.

The concept of incentives—and disincentives—is in fact central to my understanding of population dynamics, and human behavior generally. I would think this should be self-evident to all, but somehow it is not, so I will try to spell out just how incentives can work to limit population.

Let me tell you a story about some people I know—a story with implications for your own situation. These are tribal people, three different tribes, who live on the Lower Klamath River, in the extreme north of what is now the state of California. The aboriginal territory of the Karuk Tribe encompassed about a million acres, extending from just above the confluence of the Trinity River with the Klamath in the west, to some seventy miles upriver beyond what is now the hamlet of Happy Camp. According to tribal tradition, they have occupied this land from time immemorial. According to the carbon dating of Western science, there is evidence of tenancy along this stretch of river going back nine thousand years.

The Karuk’s neighbor to the west is the Yurok Tribe, and their territory begins where the Karuks’ leaves off: from the where the Trinity and the Klamath Rivers join, downriver some forty miles to the Pacific Ocean.

The territory of the Hupa Tribe begins near the mouth of the Trinity and straddles that river for roughly thirty miles upstream. Historically, the Klamath and the Trinity Rivers have had abundant runs of migratory steelhead, eels, sturgeon, and salmon, with roughly a million fish entering the estuary in an average year.

Because of their location at the Klamath’s mouth and the lower forty miles of river, the Yuroks had first access to the fish that entered the estuary, giving them a possible chokehold on the finny resources they shared with their neighbors.

According to a worldview proclaimed by many scientists, and accepted by many non-scientists: humans are naturally selfish, competitive, and warlike. We are genetically engineered to be this way, as are all the other creatures in this dog-eat-dog world. This view is a form of Neo-Darwinism, but far removed from Darwin’s own careful observations of the natural world. It is a doctrine, an ideology, held by a certain faction within the scientific community– one which is not based in science, and, in fact, is clearly contradicted by many of the behavioral sciences, including much paleo-anthropology.

I bring all this up because these three tribes of the Lower Klamath River did not (and do not) behave according to the dictates of their presumed ‘genetic engineering.’ They did not overrun their resource base and they did not overrun each other. Why? Because they had strong incentives to live at peace with one another, and within their means.

You might think that because these three peoples spoke widely different languages that their cultural practices would also be widely different. In fact they are amazingly similar, and a prime reason for this is that intermarriage among these three peoples has been commonplace going back hundreds and even thousands of years. This intermingling of families and languages and traditions over long time has led to natural alliances as well as a blending of lifeways, spiritual practices, and cultural beliefs.

All three share a deep connection to their fish-rich rivers, and to the fish themselves– which is the mainstay of their collective lives. Then, too, the geographical area they share is one of the most biologically diverse in the world, giving rise to an incredible number of tree species, including five separate species of acorn-bearing oak trees– including the tanoak, their agreed favorite, for its superior texture and flavor.

Deer and elk are also plentiful, as are mushrooms, grouse, huckleberries, and scores of other plants and animals indigenous to this mountain and stream country of the Lower Klamath. Rich in diversity of landscapes as well as life-forms, this country is as much a delight to the eye as to the palette. This is, in short, highly desirable territory: a place where these people’s ancestors lived for untold generations, and where future generations might have gone on living indefinitely, had invaders not intervened.

I could tell you the brutal story of an idyllic life interrupted by gold-crazed white savages with murder in their eyes and hearts: of genocide, land theft, betrayal, and the spending down these peoples’ resource until little was left of this once-cherished world. But the ecocide and genocide perpetrated by European invaders is not the focus here. Instead, I want to look at some of the reasons why these people did not overpopulate their land base or make war upon one another when that is presumed by some as an all-but-inevitable outcome of our ‘genetically engineered’ human nature.

These three tribes of the Lower Klamath were particularly fortunate in their choice of where to call home, including the fact that they were so geographically isolated from the rest of the world that for millennia they were able to live their lives undisturbed by outsiders. This is fortunate for us, too, because it gives us an exceptionally long-lived undisturbed social experiment with scientifically verifiable results—results that in many instances turn conventional expectations on their head.

Those of us who have spent a good portion of our lives on a family homestead may claim some knowledge of what it means to feel attached to a particular place. Farming and ranching families very often claim to feel a ‘love of the land.’ City folk, who have never become intimate with a large piece of natural landscape, really have nothing significant in their experience to relate to the kind of attachment to place that I am going to talk about next. And if you yourself have spent your whole life in a bunker or a cave because it is too dangerous to go out into the light of the sun, I do not expect immediate and empathic comprehension of these people’s motives and mindsets. I would only ask that you use your imagination; that you put yourself in the moccasins of these fortunately situated people, and consider what you would do, if you had their lives to live.

Historically, we transplanted Europeans have been a footloose people, and though our ancestors may have yearned for a place they could call their own, very few families have been allowed land tenancy for more than a handful of generations. In such a case we are talking about a particular piece of land belonging to—that is, being ‘owned’ by—a particular family, for let’s say a hundred years or more. Along with the title for the land comes the presumption that this piece of ground can be used in any way that the ‘owner’ chooses, with virtually no prohibitions or taboos. Land is private property, real estate, and is valued as a more or less fungible economic commodity. Can a white man love the land he lives on? Of course. It happens all the time. But owning land—even if tenderly nurtured and cared for—is quite a different proposition than belonging to the land.

What does it mean for a people to belong to the land?

What does it mean for the people themselves, and what does it mean for the land?

When your ancestors’ bones, going back dozens or hundreds of generations, are buried in the ground beneath your feet, this gives you a special claim to the land you stand on. When the stories of your people tell about these ancestors, and put them in particular places on the landscape that you frequent yourself, this makes you feel rooted in this land your people claim as their spiritual home. When you’ve grown up learning from your uncles and elders where to find the best acorns, dig the best balsamroot, or find deer grazing at dawn ; when you have spent untold days on the river fishing with cousins and brothers, harvested medicinal plants with your grandmother, and picked huckleberries with a lover in the mountains; when you’ve learned where to gather the wild mushrooms, and when; where to find the best basketry materials, and the prime time to pick wild iris for the making of cordage; when you have gone to the sacred Elk Mountains to seek a vision, gone swimming in the deepest creek holes of summer, and hiked with friends to the high lakes for the refreshment of their clear waters—then you have begun to know what it is to belong to a place.

This is belonging that comes from knowing the lay of the land in all its physical variety, and in all seasons. This way of belonging is shared with others on a daily basis, and includes lore passed down from the ancestors–and with it a deepened sense of continuity in place. But knowledge of belonging to this place runs even deeper than this, because of the cultural lens through which all this is experienced. Unlike the reductionist lens through which materialist science would have us see the world– with matter itself as inert, lifeless stuff lacking in any of the qualities with which we humans are imbued, which of course begs the question of where our own intelligence, sentience, personhood, and volition comes from, as if something can come from nothing– these native peoples, and most indigenous people everywhere, recognize that the Earth is inhabited by what they would describe as spirits. In their world, which is known to them to be sacred, everything is individuated and possesses the dignity of personhood. Of course everything has its own particular kind of sentience and intelligence, its own reason for being, and the will to become what it is meant to become.

Of course this view of a world that is fully alive and sacred has far-reaching implications for how a people will live their lives, including how many children they will see fit to bring into the world. I have said that perception is a vital component to reproductive choices, as are perceived incentives. If you and your people have belonged to a particular place for a very long time, and it is a good place for your people to go on living, you have a strong incentive to avoid careless or reckless behaviors, and to live circumspectly in place, informed by attitudes of reverence and gratitude.

As for the mechanics of population control, there have long been several options open to humans. In the case of these particular peoples, the men and the women have traditionally slept in separate quarters: the women and children in the long house and the men and older boys in the sweat house. This segregation by gender has been accompanied by a culturally cultivated prudishness toward sex, and taboos against secret trysts. Most sexual activity, and most pregnancies, occurred in the high country during the berry season of high summer. Other birth control strategies, among these people who had a thoroughgoing understanding of their local pharmacopeia, included herbal equivalents of morning-after pills and plants that would induce miscarriage. They also practiced the nursing of infants until their fourth or fifth year, physiologically discouraging unwanted pregnancies thereby. And if all else failed, there was always infanticide.

The motivation of these people to control population was strong. Recognizing that they lived in a territory that provided high-value nutrition, but could support only a limited number of humans, the people were forced to make a choice. If they allowed their population to exceed their resource base, children, elders, and others they loved would die. The single other option would be to expand their resource base by killing off their neighbors—many of whom were also family. One group having no particular technological or numerical advantage over the other, the outcome of such an enterprise was likely to be highly unsatisfactory all around. All out war made no sense, but this is not to suggest that there were never tensions or clashes among neighbors.

All three tribes built temporary weirs out into the river to trap and retrieve migrating salmon. Usually these were built in pairs: one from one side of the river, the other from the opposite bank and just upriver. When constructed according to tradition, these weirs allowed considerable escapement of fish to proceed on their upriver journey. But what if some enterprising young Yuroks decided to build a third weir above the other two and thereby take fish that would normally be harvested by their neighbors upstream? Two things would happen. The womenfolk would know of this right away, and many of these would have kinship ties to the Karuks, the Hupas, or both. Not wanting to see her relatives suffer privations, they would talk to her own menfolk about taking out that third weir. If they didn’t respond favorably, she would get word to her relatives upriver. And soon a contingent of hotheaded young men would be down in Yurok territory taking things into their own hands. Blood would likely be shed, but whoever’s blood it was, that third weir would come out—as would, in time, the other two.

Everyone would know that it wasn’t right for one people to take more than their fair portion of a shared resource—including all but a few of the Yuroks. ‘Take no more than you need’ is a fundamental principle of the hunter-gatherer lifeway, and it is not just some abstract ideal. It is a guideline that conserves the resource base over long time even as it respects the sacredness of all life forms.

Empathy is a key factor here, in both the human and the other than human realm. In addition to the intermarriage which brings these peoples into each other’s orbits, their ritual lives also intersect. All three tribes are fix-the-world peoples whose World Renewal Ceremonies are nearly identical, because they have been invited guests to one another’s multi-day ceremonies and have shared in their spiritual practices. This close interaction among groups has had the effect of investing their neighbors with their full humanity, thereby countering any tendency to demonize them as an alien Other, who might then be treated with disrespect. Empathy and mutual respect make for better relations among humans than their opposite, and both can be cultivated at the personal as well as the group and cultural level.

When it comes to enforcing cultural norms, scale is critical. Like their more mobile forager cousins, these people of the salmon tended to live in groups of twenty to thirty people, with one or two strategically located villages reaching as many as fifty individuals. There were no ‘chiefs’ among these tribes, though there was slightly more stratification than among immediate return hunter-gatherers. That is, some families and village sites had more prestige than others, and healers and ceremonial leaders were held in higher esteem than others. In general, leadership tended to arise out of the particulars of the moment and then recede as the situation was resolved. For instance, each of these peoples had worked out its own schedule of fines to levy against wrongdoers, ranging in severity to match the wrongful deed. Everyone knew the cost of each infraction, but a particular individual would have to emerge to extract the fine from the perpetrator and pass it on to the victim(s). With no police and no judicial system, these people regulated behavior with simple peer pressure—as humans always have—and when group pressure wasn’t sufficient to control all behaviors, this system of fines was used to enforce group norms.

In a group where everyone knows everyone else, what is perceived to be the common good is socially enforceable on a day-to-day basis. This would include the number of people that any village’s land base could support in an average year, and thus the number of children that any such living unit could safely allow into its fold.

In a mass society, like the one I live in: where we have lost this intimate connection with the people around us, and are ruled by anonymous authoritarian systems of externally imposed enforcers and laws that may or not be just; where the growth demands of our systems take precedence over, and short-circuit, our own deepest interests and human needs; where land may ‘belong’ to people, but almost no one belongs to the land, and no one is thinking about the seventh generation; where we are so out of touch with Nature and Mother Earth that we behave as if our resource base has no limits; where everything has grown far beyond the natural human scale, and the inborn capacities that our evolutionary history has provided us with—it is easy to see how some get lost in the abstractions of biological determinism, and believe that we are run by locked-in automatic programs that we have no capacity to override; that we are feckless victims of our own biology.

If those who say that we are genetically engineered to reproduce and consume, and to use our intelligence to maximize our reproduction and consumption, then I would say that you (and our species) are doomed—doomed to consume and over-reproduce yourself into oblivion, like the snake that eats its own tail, and keeps on eating until there is nothing left but teeth and gaping appetite.

I cannot believe that the Project of Life is built on such a model, that it could have endured for four billion years based on a balls-out ‘genetically engineered’ zero-sum winner-take-all program of maximization. This model is, I believe, a reflection of our human-devised predatory/parasitic economic system, and has been made into an ideology to rationalize our living so out of balance with Mother Earth and all our relations. It is a rationalization to justify our living by Theft.

I believe that Nature works on the principle not of maximization–for one particular (favored) species– but of optimization for all. This has been called the Balance of Nature, and it operates on the principle of reciprocity, in a world where all flourishing is mutual. I believe you are being asked to choose between two worlds; one made by Nature and one made by man. And what you believe about your world will go a long way toward making that world what it is.

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Technology as a Force in Human Life

I worry about technology as a force in human life. I see how much harm it had done in the past; how it degrades our present; and how it might ruin our future. This is a minority view at present, as technology seems to be embraced by almost everyone as an unambiguous, unmitigated good. Let me begin by invoking the words of Marshall Mcluhan: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” to indicate one of my concerns. I think it is a fair question to ask just how much we want to be shaped by our tools, and to further inquire as to whether we even have the volition to choose. I have seen very little evidence that the people of our culture have ever been able to say no to technology, no matter how horrendous in implication that technology might be. I am thinking of things like the building of the atomic bomb, genetically engineering life-forms, and pursuing nanotechnology. All of these seem extremely dangerous to me, and, once brought into the world, difficult if not impossible to control. But it is not just these extreme technologies that concern me. I worry about virtually all technologies as having the potential to draw human societies into territory that is not good for their long term prospects. Here let me introduce a stanza or so from a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Things are of the snake,
The horseman serves the horse,
The neatherd serves the neat, [sheep]
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

There are two laws discrete
Not reconciled
Law for mankind and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet
But it runs wild
And doth the man unking.
‘Tis fit the forest fall
The steep be graded
The mountain tunneled
The land shaded
The orchard planted
The globe tilled
The prairie planted
The steamer built.” (from Ode Inscribed to William H. Channing)

I wish Emerson had expounded further on these “two laws discrete” that he brings to our attention. Discrete and not reconciled, he says, as if this were a proposition he understood. Not knowing exactly what he means or intends, I will venture a speculation.

The word unking suggests the loss of sovereignty, as do all the verses quoted here. Loss of sovereignty in these “days of chattel” (chattel being personal property that is moveable), is nicely captured in the line, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” This poem, written in the time of chattel slavery (1847), could not foresee atomic weapons, Frankenfoods, and itsy-bitsy self replicating nanoparticles, nor quite envision how technology would come to insinuate itself into human institutions and our common experience, as well as embed itself in individual human lives. But Emerson grasped the principle that technology, and “things,” are “of the snake.” We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. Believing that tools would somehow improve their lives, our distant ancestors shaped spear points, arrowheads, knives, baskets, and bowls, and I would be hard put to say that those particular items did them more harm than good, as those items helped keep them alive. Now, in the global world of the twenty-first century, we as a people hold the faith and belief that technology has brought us better lives than those who have gone before, and that technology will continue to better our lives into the indefinite, but ever-improving, future. This is a faith; it is part of a belief system—but it is a faith that I question, and in fact doubt.

I have publicly expressed these doubts in the context of speculating about future human survivors of the coming, and converging, catastrophes. I call these (conjectural) survivors the People of the Fresh Start, and I raise the question of just how much technology they can safely and morally allow into their lives. Both of these words, safely and morally, arise from lines of thinking I’ve explored in other places, but let me speak to them briefly here. I see the culture of civilization as being based upon theft, deception, and violent destruction. Civilization itself is founded upon empire, which is in turn based upon injustice—to other people, to other places, to other species. And I see all artifacts of this culture as carriers of the perceptions, values, and stories of this same imperial culture–and technology is certainly included among the artifacts of culture. A giant earth-moving machine assumes that gouging out the flesh of the Earth is permissible and desirable. There is nothing neutral about this, or any other, technology. Even something as simple as an ax has far reaching implications: changing interpersonal dynamic within a group as well as making the chopping down of trees an easy option.

The conditions I am assuming are post-energy-bubble, when the remaining survivors of cataclysm have to live within the daily solar budget. Not having resources to squander, and meaning to live in such a way that many generations of humans could follow them, my People of the Fresh Start need to have a clear understanding of their actual situation, and leftovers from a failed culture and civilization are not likely to serve their needs. People today, who are anchored in the present and are reluctant to envision a future without all the amenities of the present, ask me pointed questions. I’ll include a few exactly as I received them:
“At what point would the People of the Fresh Start draw the line in adopting technologies? Is agriculture okay? How will they enforce these taboos? And by what means did they come to understand the rather advanced concept of Holonic Reciprocity? If they devised an ax would it inevitably lead them to do something bad with it? Do they need to have taboos against particularly helpful tools lest their inherent inability to use them only in constructive ways lead them into problems? My point is that you are perhaps brining in holonics to ensure their safety, but not really trusting it to protect them from the potential harms of new technologies.”

By way of response to these good questions, let’s start with these two words: trust and technology.

If you look at the history of our people, you see one long unvarying pattern: technological advances continue to be made, and our people (almost) never say no to them—if we can tunnel we tunnel, if we can till or plant or grade, we do it, and usually without much thought to what is being transformed, or understanding the long-term effects of those transformations. It is difficult to explain within the metaphysical framework we have inherited how technology could have a will of its own, but it nevertheless continues to be the case, as Marshall McLuhan has noted:”We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Or, as Emerson suggests: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” So the word trust, or its opposite, is appropriate. How much technology can these People of the Fresh Start handle? And by what criteria do they come to their own decisions about this?

The Law of Holonic Reciprocity is alluded to in one of the questions, and let me here state that the holonic worldview may not come all that intuitively to the people of the culture of civilization because we have been taught to believe that we and Nature are separate, that it is the Other, and (laughably) that it is subordinate to the human order. Within such a context the concept of holarchy and holonomy may seem advanced, but most indigenous tribal peoples, including our own wild ancestors, not only understood the concept but lived by it. The anthropological literature is replete with data supporting this view. But this does bring us to another one of the questions, and that is: By what means do they come to understand the holonic worldview?

If we can go by what has worked for many thousands of years, a partial answer would be oral culture: the stories they tell themselves about their past; who they are, what they are here to do; and what is valuable. But where do the stories themselves come from? Judging from the past, and from those few cultures relatively uncontaminated by our own, a people’s body of cultural beliefs derived from present group experience, from past group experience (the ancestors), and from the land itself, including from the spirit world that inhabits (and perhaps animates) a group’s immediate life-giving environment. Animism and shamanism have been the spiritual traditions of tribal peoples everywhere–for tens of millennia–and I would say that makes animism and shamanism the archetypal human spiritual tradition, and one that is hard-wired into our human collective unconscious—no matter how we moderns may deny it, with our overlay of monotheism and science. Remove the overlay of the culture of civilization, and I believe our descendants could easily be back in touch with their own deep ancestors and with an animate Earth. Or, granting them not even that much, but just an intellectual capacity equal to our own, wouldn’t you think that after seeing our ways of living in the world crash so spectacularly– with cascades of ecosystem failure and the breakdown of civilization–these People of the Fresh Start might be able to come up with some stories and taboos of their own? If there is any hope for their success at all, it is a requirement that they be at least adaptive enough to question the assumptions, and lifeways, that have brought us to the brink of collapse—and soon (I’m sure) beyond. As for how these people will enforce their new cultural taboos—that would be the same way as always: group consensus, peer pressure, and punishment for offenders (from ostracism to fines to banishment). In small groups, these methods are time-tested and proven.

At what level of technology do these People of the Fresh Start draw the line? By their time, they have to have figured out that technology is a slippery slope that leads humans to becoming tools of their tools. In addition to this cautionary insight, they are out of the resource and energy bubble that plagues the world and supports our delusions today. They have their daily solar budget and their daily ecosystem services (we hope) and they have no choice but to live on the interest of Nature’s economy, and not (like us) on its capital. They aren’t making rifles and loading ammunition, for instance, nor forging ploughshares. Not only have we mined everything there was to mine of all the non-renewable resources, we’ve mined all of the fish in the ocean and all of the forests of the world and other such resources that could have been “sustainable” had we lived off the interest instead of the principal. By living as we have (and continue to live) we leave our descendents very little to work with. Of course it is inter-generational injustice of a most pernicious and self-centered kind, but our narcissism doesn’t permit us to think much about others, and our economic system doesn’t allow us to think very far ahead—and of course our political system is owned by our economic system, so there is no help for the future there. If these People of the Fresh Start are living by the Law of Holonic Reciprocity, then they are considering the seventh generation, and beyond; and not only the seventh generation of humans, but of All Our Relations; and of not just the Community of Life, but of all that supports that Community, including the air and the water and the Gaian systems that make life possible.

One big question remains. How do these people feed themselves? If the domestication of plants and animals–what has been alternately called the Neolithic revolution and the Neolithic catastrophe—was a branching in the human path that led ultimately to the failed experiment of civilization, how much agriculture, if any, can these People of the Fresh Start allow into their lives? I think the answer has to be, not much—and for two reasons. The only agriculture that was really ever “sustainable” was practiced on flat river bottoms that were supplied with fresh fertility from distant mountains. Right now, water backed up behind dams has drowned most of these once-rich areas. Practices like permaculture offer, perhaps, a transitional technology, but permaculture, like all forms of horticulture or agriculture, requires the importation of fertility to keep things going. Importation of fertility, without fossil fuels, means a huge expenditure of energy to transport it—and that is not the worst of it. With our present imperial mind-set, we think nothing of stealing “resources” from other places, other people, other species, but our descendents are going to have to think differently than that. Justice, sustainablilty, and the Law of Holonic Reciptocity require fairness to all, and to the All. That is the Law of the Universe, and though we have circumvented it for a time, and the Law of Cause and Effect has been temporarily deferred, the Law will not be denied. Because everything is interconnected and mutually interdependent, stealing from Peter to pay Paul has no long-term viability.

Does that mean bows and arrows, obsidian knives and willow and hazel-wood baskets are going to be the preferred technology of the human future? Is hunting and gathering really the only viable way for humans to go on living on this finite and damaged planet? Well, I don’t know. We can speculate about the future, but it is not really ours to see. When you think in terms of trends and trajectories, it seems that the trend of agriculture leads, ultimately, to the parade of horribles now visited upon the world, including, of course, our massive population overshoot, resource overreach, and our poisoning of the biosphere. Agriculture is another one of those slippery slopes where our technique for feeding ourselves, by transforming Nature into something not Nature, has the effect of enslaving the human, and making us the tool of our tools.

The anthropologist Marashall Sahlins, author of Stone Age Economics, has called those who practice the lifeway of the hunter-gatherer “the original affluent society,” because our ancient ancestors usually devoted only a couple or three hours a day to “earning a living.” With the rest of their time our wild ancestors could do whatever pleased him or her, in a life that offered variety and great potentials for individual growth and development. This is the opposite of what he have been schooled to believe by our own self-promoting culture of civilization. In this way our culture is like our economic system, and like technology itself: it has its own agenda, and just uses us to serve its ends. Most of us haven’t figured this out yet. I am trusting that our People of the Fresh Start will.

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How Science and Religion fail us Morally

I know of only three basic approaches to morality. The one that has been around the longest looks to Nature itself for direction in how the human should live. There have been variations on this view, ranging from the animism of hunter-gatherers, to the shamanism of tribal peoples, to the Taoism of the historical Far East. Then, some four thousand years ago, a monotheistic religion arose in the West, which declared that all morality was decreed by a male god-figure in the sky, and that the Laws of Morality were codified on clay tablets miraculously delivered to the Earth, to be discovered by a special chosen people. This was the doctrine of Judaism, which was later picked up by the Christians and declared to be Universal Law, with the injunction to spread this Law, and this religion, all over the world. Some fifteen or sixteen hundred years later, with the rise of the Scientific Revolution, a wholly different doctrine of morality would begin to take shape. Among scientific materialists, morality would come to be seen as a strictly human invention. Morality might well have social benefits– they would say–providing some basis for a social contract, perhaps, but had no relevance or validity beyond this limited, and somewhat arbitrary, application.

The better to understand and sort out this muddle, it is instructive to view it in historical perspective: to see how one thing led to another led to another: how the egalitarian spirituality of animism, which located meaning and morality in the spirit-filled Earth, was transformed into a monotheistic religion which put the human at the center of everything, subject to the directives of a distant all-powerful patriarch, while the Earth itself was demoted to lowest possible statues within this rising new hierarchy. With its roots in the Agricultural Revolution, this cosmological and ontological reversal of an ancient understanding of the world took several millennia to fully develop and become codified, but in its effects it has proved to be a cognitive and ideological revolution on a scale never seen before or since. This revolution–which has never been given its proper name—was a usurpation of Power on the most grandiose scale imaginable. At the heart of this revolution was the dual claim that the human was separate from Nature and that the Earth was the sole property of human beings. In place of Sacred Earth we now had Empire Earth—and when enough people came to take this proposition seriously, and commit themselves to its assumptions, the Revolution of Empire Earth was on its way.

This is the historical context in which another, but lesser, revolution was to take place: the Scientific Revolution. And here again it is important to understand the historical situation when Establishment Religion and Establishment Science divided the world between them, in a Power-sharing compact that still informs, and shakes, the world today. In essence, the deal was: the Church would take the ‘soft’ and less visible side of things: the spirit, the emotions, the soul, along with all the doctrines that attach to their sacred text. Science would deal with the physical and material: those things that could be weighed, measured, and computed. That wholeness does not divide itself so neatly into discrete categories of mind and body, matter and spirit, did not seem immediately troubling to either side of this grand bargain. One reason for this has to do with our Western philosophical tradition, in which (Platonic) Dualism and (materialistic) Atomism had been at loggerheads for two millennia and more. Christianity had long allied itself with the two-different-worlds view of Plato, replacing Plato’s world of perfect ‘forms’ with its (distant) Christian Heaven. The Earth, in both Christianity and Platonic thought, remains as a flawed, and rather despised, lesser realm.

Atomism is monistic and materialistic, and is philosophically irreconcilable with dualism. It is also reductionist, and sees things in terms of their smallest constituent parts—long thought to be the atom. Working within the reductionist-materialist cognitive framework that Science inherited as their part of the bargain, it is not surprising that they came up with the explaining story they did. The world as they saw it through their materialist lens, had no mind, no spirit, no creator, and thus it came to seem that it had no meaning or purpose, either. Instead, at least among the more extreme materialists, the Universe and the Earth would come to be understood as random, meaningless, and indifferent to humans, with the Laws of Life cruelly set up as one-life-against-another in pitiless competition for survival. This view, I should point out, has not been derived scientifically, but is instead a bedrock assumption taken for granted and passed on from one generation of scientists to another, as unquestioned, and unquestionable, doctrine. With such a nihilistic worldview it is little wonder that morality is seen by Science as a wholly human construction– something we pretty much make up as we go along.

When Science parted ways with Religion four or five hundred years ago, they did not start fresh with a brand-new set of underlying assumptions. Instead, Science embraced the entirety of our long cultural tradition, going back to the beginnings of agriculture. What they did, by way of distinguishing themselves from Religion, was embrace one school of Greek philosophy over another (Atomism over Dualism), making that the basis for their inquiry into Nature, and also the basis of their worldview. That is, Science is nothing more than a schism within the Revolution of Empire Earth. In both the religious and the scientific paradigms, the human being is still at the center of everything; none of the other plants, animals, or fungi has status of any importance, except in how they serve the human being. And the desacralized Earth remains as nothing more than a storehouse of resources, a waste dump, and a Power to be outdone and overcome. The Community of Life is not recognized as an interdependent, holonic community which far exceeds the sum of its parts. Nor is the self-organizing, life-nurturing Earth itself recognized as anything but an indifferent machine. Stuck in a scientific model where organism is simplified to mechanism, and complex, non-linear systems are reduced to a cartoon version of their relational intricacy, it is perhaps not surprising that Science has so little to offer in the area of morality.

It is true that there was once an ecologist who was also a moralist of Nature, and here is an example of his thinking: ‘A thing is right,’ he said,’ when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ Aldo Leopold was an unusual man, and a brave one, because thinking in whole systems like this very much went against the grain of the scientific community of his own day– and it still does. In fact, this kind of thinking is much more allied with the Indigenous Worldview than with that of the West. His Land Ethic is very similar to that of indigenous people: it ‘simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.’ Within our culture, such talk is worse than heresy; it is counter-revolutionary, as it would topple the human from his lofty throne and invite him to transform himself ‘from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.’ An Earth-centered and system-centered Land Ethic ‘implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.’ Schooled to see the world through the prism of the isolated individual, neither scientists, nor anyone else, is encouraged to notice the kinds of relationships that are implied by the word: ‘community.’

The best our most up-to-date science can do is notice, and quantify, whether or not certain moral strictures serve some practical purpose in the real world. They can say that treating cows as sacred in a country like India has particular practical results—which they can demonstrate with graphs and charts. But it is not theirs to comment on this practice as moral doctrine.

Moral doctrine is supposedly the province of Religion—and certainly Establishment Religion claims morality as its own—but their vision of what morality is, is truncated and foreshortened by their myopic and narcissistic anthropocentrism. That is to say, when you look at something like the Ten Commandments you see that it has only to do with how people relate to their jealous god, or how they relate to one another. Nowhere do you find any injunctions about how to relate to the Earth, or to the other creatures of the Earth. Nor is this simply an oversight; instead, it follows quite logically from the Big Lie of Separation and the cultural and philosophical Revolution of Empire Earth. If everything is about people, and people only, then it follows that morality can only be about people, too. The thinking is circular, solipsistic, and tautological, but few have seemed to notice just how much has been left out of what passes for morality—namely, the more-than-human world. Having no cultural taboos against destroying other life forms and taking their habitat for our own, and, with no prohibitions against tearing apart the living Earth, paving it over, and choking it on our poisonous wastes, we have systematically committed acts for which our language has no name—and no shame.

We have lately had to invent our own words to describe what are essentially crimes against Nature—words like ecocide or omnicide—but these do not begin to cover the multitude of sins that the Church itself does not acknowledge as wrong. We can speak of the human extirpation of species—which is ongoing at about the rate of 200 species a day—but we have no terminology for this offense. When you kill a king you call it regicide; when you kill off an entire species, you are left speechless, at a loss for words. You can try coining a clumsy word like species-o-cide or planet-o-cide, and someone might have a vague idea what you mean, but the fact is, we have in our culture no prohibitions against depleting the species of the Earth, or against so degrading the Earth that it will no longer support Life. With no such cultural taboos–deeply understood and felt by all–mere neologisms carry little weight.

It is difficult to believe that a dominant culture like ours could live in the world for thousands of years and remain so oblivious to the world that has given us our lives. But this is what we have done: we have built a false world inside the real world, and all we have seen is the one of our own making. The voice of Aldo Leopold is, to my mind, a voice of sanity in a world gone mad, speaking simple, obvious truth: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ Integrity and stability are qualities that might be rendered in some measurable form, and may thus seem appropriate to the concerns of the scientifically trained ecologist. But what about this quality of beauty: How does that figure in? I think it is first and foremost a human response to the self-willed and spontaneous beauty of the natural world; not just the sunsets and the grand views, but the aesthetic way in which Nature organizes itself, at all scales: from the microscopic to the telescopic to the everyday. Moreover, beauty does not just exist for its own sake, but is a talisman and marker for something else: and that is system health. In the world of Nature, when something looks good to the eye, it is probably because balance and symmetry manifest themselves from the inside out. Beauty and system-health go together, and whether that system is an organism, an ecosystem, or a planet’s biosphere, it is a pretty good guess that when natural beauty has been replaced by its opposite something is amiss.

Western Religion and Western Science fail us morally because they are obsessively human-centered, and made accordingly blind to the larger context of our lives– blind especially to the health and beauty of the complex systems that make our lives, and all Life, possible. A system of morals that does not recognize biotic systems, and our dependence upon them, is worse than dysfunctional: it is suicidal—along with also being ecocidal, species-o-cidal, and planet-o-cidal. And this is moral failure on the grandest scale imaginable. What is needed in place of our myopic human-centered ethical shortfall is, of course, an Earth-centered moral system that recognizes our dependence upon everything else for our survival. And it is not like we would have to start from scratch to arrive at such a system. Our wild ancestors (and indigenous people alive in the world today) understood (and understand) the relationship between the human and the rest of the living world. They understood (and understand) that all systems, at all levels, are mutually interdependent, and rely upon reciprocity to go on working at their optimum best. These systems require something of us, and we owe them a moral debt, for giving us precious Life. We are born into the world with responsibilities to the Whole, and any morality that fails to recognize this basic truth has failed us and the Life System at one and the same time. This, it turns out, it the price of living the Big Lie. We are not Separate from everything else, and we never could be. All flourishing is mutual, and any morality that does not stand on this truth is a sham.

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Civilization’s Three Cultures: Superficial, Artificial, and Deep

Most people assume they know what culture is and how it works, but culture is a slippery character and is neither what it appears, nor is it just one thing. The common-sense, everyday notion of culture looks at what I would call superficial culture and believes it is seeing all there is to see. This would include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Mona Lisa, War and Peace, and the plays of Shakespeare—that is, all the works that the “experts” tell us is high art—which then qualifies them as high culture. Beneath this lofty plane reside all the other contributions to art, architecture, philosophy, music, and literature—that second tier of artistic and intellectual endeavor which occupies the great middle ground of our cultural heritage. In the last couple centuries, science and technology have also made substantial contributions not only by way of intellectual achievement but also in a vast array of creature comforts and consumable commodities that have come to define the physical infrastructure of our lived environment—our material culture. Also central to this level of culture are the interlocking systems of extraction, production, and distribution–as well as our technological and economic systems–which deliver, and make possible, our way of life.

If all this (which only hints at its totality) is to be considered “superficial” culture, what in the world might deep culture be? Deep culture is deep in at least three senses: it goes way back in our cultural history, often several millennia back; it works at a subterranean level, and so remains invisible to most; and, it is so deeply embedded within the individual and the group mind that–despite its invisibility, and also partly because of it–it all but determines human behavior, both at the level of the individual and the collective. Deep culture is what gives history its shape, in much the same way that our skeletons give shape and structure to our bodies. Looking back over our ten thousand year history, using an X-ray-like lens, it is possible to discern how the patterns and trajectories of our ancestors’ lives have been informed and directed by deep culture. Using this same culture-penetrating lens, it is also possible to trace how this same deep culture has led us, step by step, to the converging global crises that bear down on us now.

Deep culture is far less visible than superficial culture, but far more potent, because it addresses our primal nature as cultural animals. When anthropologists speak of culture, it is generally to this deeper culture they are referring. In this more specialized view, culture is a body of knowledge, a collection of stories, myths, and memes, a repository of values, and–embedded invisibly in language, and passed from one generation to the next—culture provides people with the cognitive structures they use for framing life’s vital issues, as well as lenses through which to see and interpret the world. In philosophical terms, a people’s culture includes their origin story cosmology); their notion of what is “real” (ontology); their beliefs about how they know what they know (epistemology), and; their sense of right and wrong (their ethical or moral code). All known cultures ask these questions about life and living, and each comes up with its own particular answers—though, of course, there is much overlap among the beliefs of different cultural groups. Among hunter-gatherers, for instance, while there will be stories and beliefs unique to each particular people, and grounded in the place where they live, certain features of their culture will be held in common among nearly all peoples who share their way of life.

Thus, while it is important to acknowledge the particularities and uniqueness of each indigenous group, it is just as important to recognize that beliefs held in common among nearly all such peoples amount to a worldview. Nearly all hunter-gatherers, for instance, speak of Mother Earth and Father Sun as sacred and exalted beings who synergistically provide the conditions for Life to flourish in wondrous abundance. Both Sun and Earth are personified and understood to be spiritual beings, and, because they give the people the means to live and thrive, they are held in high esteem: loved and respected, but not without an edge of apprehension, or even fear. Among these peoples, all the creatures of the Earth are considered to be kin, and are understood to be individuals with personhood. Thus they can speak of beaver persons, eagle persons, lizard persons, salmon persons, cricket persons, granting each individual within each species its own intelligence, sentience, interiority, and volition. And just like human people, each has the spirit nature of its kind, as well as its own unique expression of that spirit. When indigenous people speak of All Our Relations they are acknowledging the human relationship to the entire Community of Life. While they may rank one species above another in terms of the quality of its spirit—the spirit quality of a panther being quite different from that of a mouse—they do not see the Community of Life as a hierarchy, nor do they put human persons above all the others. This does not mean they are oblivious to the special gifts of humans, but rather that they tend to see these gifts as conferring special responsibilities to the Community of Life rather than inviting special privileges—in accordance with the Law of Reciprocity.

The Law of Reciprocity recognizes that all of the systems that make life possible, from the smallest to the largest, require that those who are served by these systems give back as good, or better, than they are given. This is necessary for the Life Systems to operate at their optimum best. Free-riders drag the system down; those who obey the Law—the vast majority of the entire Community of Life—enhance the Life Systems and help keep the four-billion-year Project of Life alive and well.

Showing reverence for Mother Earth, Father Sun, and the Community of Life, while respecting the Law of Reciprocity, constitutes the essence of the Indigenous Worldview–whose function is to inform and direct the people how to behave in the world. This is deep culture working in accordance with the Laws and Systems of Nature; deep culture that is therefore viable, resilient, and durable. But deep culture also carries the potential to do great harm; harm made more dangerous by deep culture’s primal pull on the human psyche, and by its ability to mesmerize, captivate, and colonize those who fall under its spell. Deep culture, with this kind of power over the human mind, can thus be perilous unto ruin—as many of us are now beginning to see.

For hundreds of human generations the Indigenous Worldview orchestrated the way humans lived in the world. Humans were in right relationship with Mother Earth and Father Sun; they were well-integrated into the Community of Life; and they were observant of the Law of Reciprocity. Then, with agriculture, and all the changes that agriculture brought in its wake—private property, social stratification, and the rise of authoritarianism; food surplus and food storage, and the burgeoning populations these made possible; the mining of topsoil, unto exhaustion, with the consequent need to expand into new territory, thereby generating the need for warriors and (endless) war—the old way of living in the world was transformed into something quite different. The old stories, myths, and code of ethics were inconsistent with this new way of living in the world, creating confusion and cognitive dissonance. A new cosmology, ontology, and epistemology were required—along with a moral code to match. Thus, over the early centuries of agriculture a whole new belief system took shape, and in the process our culture of civilization was born—and with it what I call the Big Lie.

The Big Lie is pretty much a reversal of the Indigenous Worldview. In this new version of ourselves and the world the human being is separate from Nature, and Nature, rather than being sacred is seen as subordinate to humans: an antagonist to be overcome, on the one hand, and a storehouse of resources for human use, on the other. As hunter-gatherers, we had “lived in the hands of the gods,” to use Daniel Quinn’s elegant phrase; as agriculturalists, we were bent upon taking the food supply into our own hands, at once defying the gods and becoming like gods ourselves. In this process we grew ever more self-absorbed and vain, no longer seeing ourselves as an integral part of the Community of Life, but rather, apart from, and above, all the other animals. In our anthropocentric narcissism, we came to see ourselves as some kind of wondrous anomaly, unlike any other creature on Earth. By the time of the writing of the Book of Genesis, some three-thousand to thirty-five-hundred years ago, all of these cultural memes were well-established, and only remained to be codified in print and sanctified as the Word of God.
Consider the far-reaching implications of these three verses from “the good book:”

“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
In this story, born of the agricultural way of life, the human being is in charge of the Earth, and every living thing upon it. Dominion implies not only domination but also ownership. Everything on Earth that the human might desire is his for the taking, as his exclusive right. All sense of community and mutuality with the other creature s of the Earth has, by this point, been replaced by a relationship of domination and exploitation. And, as we see in other parts of the Old Testament, this exploitative relationship is not to be tempered with moderation, but pursued to the maximum to build up riches and become a powerful patriarch upon the land. And, of course, have many children.

These (putative) divine injunctions amount to a set of marching orders, and a template for how to live in the world. This is deep culture, and it matters not at all whether we are devout Christians, militant atheists, or something in between in terms of personal beliefs. These injunctions constitute a foundational myth which underlies all, or nearly all, of our stories. Since, as cultural animals, we live by story, we really cannot escape the assumptions about the world that our stories are built upon, subterranean as they may be. Or, as pathological as they may be. Each of us imbibes these stories and memes with our mother’s milk and at our father’s knee. Deep culture is encoded in language and penetrates all our cultural institutions; and we get a dose of it every time we interact with others of our culture, reinforcing” the story of our people.”

Though invisible to most, deep culture (like our skeletons), provides structure to our everyday lives. And it is the foundation on which our superficial culture is built. It is vital to understand this, because whatever might be wrong with our culture cannot be fixed by tinkering with superficial culture. If we don’t get down to the root causes in our deep culture, all our fixes will be as superficial, and the fundamental changes that are required will elude us.

To illustrate the difference between deep culture and superficial culture, consider, for instance, the Great Chain of Being. With its intellectual roots in the thinking of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, the Great Chain of Being is a schematic ranking of all that goes to make up the physical world and what is believed about a putative world beyond. Medieval and Renaissance churchmen painstakingly expanded upon this way of viewing the world, putting God at the top of the hierarchy and Earth at the bottom, with angels ranked above men, men above the beasts, with all of the animals ranked by type according to perceived superiority, one over another, but well above plants, which are themselves ranked according to their “virtue” and usefulness. Below plants are the metals and minerals, with Earth and its skin of dirt inferior to all else. The Great Chain of Being is a product of more than two thousand years of our cultural history, and this way of thinking about the world so insinuated itself into the culture at large that it would come to influence the way early scientific thinkers viewed he world: that is, as an elaborate, but intelligible, hierarchy. Even today, the scientific discipline of taxonomy, among many others, continues to bear the imprint of these earlier ways of understanding the world. Nevertheless, ancient and long-lived as this elaborate cultural meme may be, it still qualifies for what I am calling superficial culture. And that is because its assumptions about the world are based upon the founding assumptions of deep culture, including the Big Lie of Separation.

The Great Chain of Being is the near-antithesis of the Indigenous Worldview, which is not hierarchical, but holistic and holonic: a view that comprehends the interdependent and synergistic nature of living systems; understanding the world in terms of connection and relationship, based upon the Law of Reciprocity. It is a view that locates value and sacredness in Mother Earth herself, and not somewhere outside this living system that both supports Life and is Life. The Great Chain of Being degrades the Earth to the lowest possible level in a rigid hierarchy that separates spirit from matter, body from mind. In order to arrive at such a construction it was necessary that the foundational Big Lie of Separation had already been well established and taken its place in deep culture. Deep culture is primary culture, foundational culture, and the secondary culture that builds upon it—what I am calling superficial culture– could not exist (as is) without its antecedent(s).

Let’s say there is a reform movement that sees problems with the Great Chain of Being, and they want to amend all the incongruities they perceive which do not align with present knowledge. Let’s say they are atheistic scientific materialists and they want to expunge the entire category of angels: No more seraphim, no more cherubim; goodbye to thrones and principalities, archangels and angels. And of course there can be no God at the top. Then let’s say there are some deep ecologists, with a minor in evolutionary biology, who are deeply unhappy about the placement of the human being above all the other animals, because, after all, we are all in this together: plants, animals (including humans), mountains, rivers, oceans, ecosystems–everything that goes to make up the biosphere—including the physical and chemical processes that help make this planet pulse with Life. And let’s just say this latter group was influential enough, after writing dozens of peer reviewed articles in all the prestigious journals, to force a re-thinking of this rigidly structured hierarchy of one kingdom or genera or species over another. And let’s take it further yet, and suppose that, after much wrangling and debate, a consensus was reached, and the whole Great Chain of Being was discarded as a patent absurdity, with no merit whatsoever, except as an artifact of our benighted history.

What has happened in this hypothetical overturning of a revered (if lately underappreciated) institution is the reform of (or elimination of) one offending secondary cultural institution, without in any way touching the primary culture that is its ultimate source. The idea that hierarchy is the natural order of things, the way the Universe organizes itself, remains. The Big Lie itself—that the human is separate from Mother Nature, the Earth, and the Community of Life– has never even come into question. Nor has the notion that the Earth is the exclusive province of man, to take for his own whatever he wants. And, naturally, the anthropocentrism that comes along with these self-serving notions stands just as tall and proud as ever. And this why reform of any of our present systems or institutions will never get us where we need to go: because our dysfunctional deep culture is in no way disabled, nor is its pathological program for planetary ecocide. As if taking sustenance from a fading, failing Earth, this program—written into deep culture– only grows stronger by the day.

Although deep culture carries the potential for the gravest of dangers, as we now begin to see, deep culture need not be dysfunctional in this way. The deep culture that underlies the Indigenous Worldview, for instance, is evolutionarily adaptive to the ecology of planet Earth, because it is well-matched to the actual (not invented) conditions, and Laws of Life, on Earth. Our artificially concocted deep culture, and the worldview built upon it, is not. But changing several millennia of habit and belief is no easy thing, and is made even more difficult by the artificial culture that has developed over the last hundred years.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Edward Bernays would become a propagandist (working within the Wilson administration) promoting the American role in World War One. Following this success, of “making the world safe for democracy,” Bernays founded an enterprise he insisted on calling Public Relations. That is, propaganda with a more acceptable name. Ever since that time, the role of the tribal storyteller has been hijacked by the corporate media and turned into a marketing platform to sell a wide range of consumer goods and a rather narrow range of ideas—mostly those that make the world safe for capitalism and corporations. Thus the human need to live by story, and be guided by cultural meme, has been subverted to the will of the corporate power elite.

This artificial culture, as provided by the corporate media, has insinuated itself into nearly every home in America, where its distractions, “entertainments,” selective disinformation, and celebrity worship all follow a highly orchestrated script. Televisionland is a parallel Universe that bears a striking resemblance to our everyday world, but is as fake as the Fox News slogan: “fair and balanced.” What media moguls dub “Public Opinion,” is not dispassionate reasoning based upon careful consideration of the “facts,” but is instead the product of manufactured memes, first tested on focus groups, then manipulated to produce the desired results. (For more details, see the excellent BBC documentary, “Century of the Self,” on Youtube.)

Artificial culture creatively combines elements of deep and superficial culture in such a way as to seem an authentic cultural voice—and in a certain way, I suppose, artificial culture is a genuine reflection of who we are now: venal, cynical, amoral, self-absorbed. But it is not a reflection of our higher, better selves, and is therefore a rather distorted glass in which to see and evaluate the human enterprise.

Many believe that culture is nothing more than the sum total of the contributions made by all those living today and all those who have gone before us. This view assumes that culture is an exclusively human enterprise: of, by, and for the people– and that it exists for the sole purpose of serving humans. But it is not nearly that simple. I like to say that the culture of civilization is nothing if not a self-promoting, self-aggrandizing propaganda machine. Invisible, and not exactly benign, it casts a spell over us that few ever break. It colonizes us with its myths, stories and memes, making us believe that what we believe and value about the world is our own individual perception. In this way our own identity is so entangled with our culture that most of us are unable to untangle the two and still have a sense of personal identity. This bond between the human and his culture can be a wholesome relationship, or it can be a kind of insidious bondage that smothers all instinct—including our very best instincts. As a wise person once said: “Culture is not your friend.” Nor is it in any way neutral.

Following the lead of the anthropologist Albert Kroeber, I reify, or personify, culture, seeing it as an entity with a will and agenda of its own. If culture—and especially deep culture—is consistent with the laws and conditions of planetary health, culture’s agenda will then be fundamentally wholesome. But if deep culture is based upon wrong-headed misperceptions or outright lies–as I have been insisting here about our own—that deep culture must be rejected if we are to have any hope at all of halting its program of Planetary Death, and our part in enacting its will. But before you can reject it, you have to SEE it, and see it for what it is.

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Choosing Power over Belonging: a Rough Timeline

At what point in human history or pre-history did we actually have a free choice between Power and remaining as a contributing member of the Community of Life? For quite a long time I would have identified the Neolithic Revolution and our embrace of agriculture and settled, hierarchical communities as the fateful turning point in human history. Some would go much further back, to our use of fire for cooking and heat, or to the development of language. But I don’t think that either fire or language caused any estrangement between us and all our relations. I think that began when our tool-making morphed into weapon-making and our technology began to give us, as a top predator, so much of an edge over our prey species that it threw the predator-prey relationship severely out of balance—which in turn threw the whole ecosystem out of balance.

The predator-prey relationship is a fine-tuned affair where predator and prey co-evolve to be well-matched antagonists, and as long as this relationship remains in balance both species benefit. The prey species is kept genetically and biologically fit in this symbiotic relationship, as it is the weak, malformed, or diseased that generally falls as prey. The predator species is also kept genetically and biologically fit, while enjoying the bonus of some high-protein nutrition. For early human hunters, the spear, by itself, could be effective at close quarters on an animal of some size, but this level of technology likely didn’t tip the scale dramatically in favor of humans. The atlatl (or spear thrower), on the other hand, may have been just innovation enough to give the humans that extra edge, thereby upsetting the co-evolutionary balance. Now, if we put ourselves in the place of a Paleolithic hunter who has an extended family to feed, it is hard to imagine that we would have the foresight to see that this new technology was anything but a boon. And even when we found our favored prey species declining, I doubt we would choose to abandon out atlatls for the sake of ecological balance, and for our positive standing within the Community of Life. But this, or something like it, was an important turning point in terms of human destiny. Knowingly or not, we chose Power over Belonging, and thus began our first step in the direction of our present alienation from Mother Earth and the Community of Life.

The source of our new-found Power was technology, and our relationship with Power and technology has been a slippery slope ever since–the gradient growing steeper over time. “We shape our tools,” says Marshall McLuhan,” and then our tools shape us.”

But let’ say there were Paleolithic foraging groups who had the prescience to see where all this was leading–and thus refused to use their atlatls, thereby remaining in dynamic balance with their chosen ecosystem. If you believe Andrew Bard Schmookler’s account in The Parable of the Tribes: the Problem of Power in Social Evolution, what must inevitably happen is that their neighbors, the atlatl users, having stripped their own territory of game, invade the non-atlatl users. Enjoying the military advantage of a larger population (thanks to their technological innovation), and advanced weaponry that kills at greater distance, they overrun the ecologically benign group, whom either they kill, drive away, or incorporate into their own population. (A fourth option he mentions is the peaceful group taking preemptive action against their aggressive neighbors—in this case by becoming atlatl users themselves. The depressing result is that in each of these cases Power ultimately triumphs). It is a dark picture that Schmookler paints, because naked Power rules, and there is no escaping it. But Schmookler came up with this scenario by projecting backwards from the present, assuming that our wild ancestors would operate out of the same cutthroat value system and worldview as we do. But maybe they didn’t.

In Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality, Morris Berman devotes his keen intellect and prodigious research to demonstrating the marked differences in human consciousness between Paleolithic and Neolithic humans. Berman describes Paleolithic consciousness as one that lives quite comfortably with paradox, in a world filled with incongruent truths—each of which is dealt with as it appears by a mind focused on the particulars of the moment. Among our Paleolithic ancestors, social relations tended toward the egalitarian, and this corresponds with an orientation to the world that Berman identifies as horizontal. This is in stark contrast to the vertical plane that defines the world of the agriculturalist. This mode of consciousness is characterized by rationality, abstraction, hierarchy, and a will toward transcendence. There are complicated reasons for why we are not content with the world around us as it is, ever seeking to transcend its concrete “hereness.” Much of the book is devoted to explaining our alienation from Mother Earth, but one salient factor is what Berman identifies as the Sacred Authority Complex, which locates all sacredness not here on Earth itself but at a great (vertical) distance somewhere far above. The Earth-centered, egalitarian way of being in the world has much to recommend it, but in the face of the violently Power-possessed: “Paradox and egalitarianism are extremely fragile flowers; it doesn’t take much for political and religious hierarchy to overwhelm them.” (78) Now, I am not imagining that the dichotomy that Berman sets up is in any way absolute or definitive, but it does strike me that the horizontal, egalitarian, paradoxical way of living in the world is well-suited to living modestly and in balance with the Community of Life, and that this is how most of our human forebears have lived.

The fly in the ointment, the spoiler, is the rising up of an aggressive sub-group of humans that has sold its former integrity and intimate connection to the Community of Life for Power–and (insatiably) seeks more Power by way of conquest. It only takes one such group to set in motion the dynamic described by Schmookler, which, given enough time (say ten thousand years) manages to contaminate, by way of colonization, nearly the whole world. Civilization’s live-as-we-do-or- die imperative now advances toward absolute hegemony under the flag of “globalization.”

The social and cultural institutions that came into being with the advent of agriculture—including private property and the consequent social stratification and authoritarianism; the reaping and storage of guarded surplus food; the rise of standing armies, ongoing wars, and ever-expanding ecocide—are doubtlessly implicated in the accelerating degradation of the living world. Add to these our population overshoot, which is directly attributable to agriculture, and you have part of the recipe for a world out of balance—but only part. Our resource over-reach, our ongoing drawdown and depletion of the geo-physical and bio-ecological world, could never have reached this stage by way of agriculture and its perverse institutions by themselves. Agriculture has all along had a partner in crime, and that partner is technology.

Maybe our fall into the technology trap began with the atlatl; maybe it was the bow and arrow or the stone ax. Identifying which particular technology started us down our present path is not important. What is important is coming to recognize technology for what it actually is: it is choosing Power over relatedness to our fellow Earthlings; it is choosing alienation from that which gives us life—our Mother, the Earth—and from her four billion year Project of Life. We have been told that technology is neutral, but technology has never been neutral, and never could be. To grasp what technology actually is it helps to understand the relationship our wild ancestors had with Mother Nature, when we were just another animal among many—before we got the big head that characterizes us now. Prior to becoming hunters and predators we were scavengers, and, sometimes, prey. We were part of a world in dynamic ecological balance. Our tools, our technology, gave us a leg up from this unfavorable condition. With the invention of the spear, we became hunters. As we refined our hunting technologies and improved our skills we became a top predator, and only occasionally prey. As I sit in twenty-first century technological comfort, I find it difficult to fault these ancient ancestors for embracing their improving status. It is hard to imagine any of us rejecting this new status of Power–Power conferred by technology. In hindsight, I can see it was a trap, one that has ensnared not only humans but all our relations and a fully functional living planet. But hindsight comes easier than foresight.

We sometimes distinguish between weapons and tools, and sometimes there is logic to the distinction. Generally, weapons are used against our own species, as in war or other conflicts, and against other species that we might want to kill for food, or “sport”, or out of antipathy. But our tools are very often weapons, too, and while the steel ax or the long-handled shovel might have once served humans in seemingly constructive ways, they and their technologically improved successors have managed to deforest more than half the globe while turning over, drilling into, or blowing up much of the other half. This is that slippery slope I spoke of, greased by greed and gravity and driven with accelerating urgency toward ruination. In this way, by technological succession, our tools become weapons against the Earth, turning the biosphere upside down, violently turning its accrued meanings inside out. This is what technology is, because this is what technology does.

Did we ever really have a choice? At what point should we have said no the Power and the rising status it offered? I have no answer to this. Certainly I don’t see anything like that happening now, at this late stage in the game. We are in too deep, too entangled in systems beyond all human control. Still, I think it is important to understand what happened to us; how things got to be this way. If ever, in some unknowable future, there were to be a few human survivors, I would wish them out of this trap—this Earth-devouring trap that is technology and agriculture locked-together as synergistic partners in ecocide.

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The Faltering, Foundering Ten

What gives us our sense of right and wrong, our beliefs about fairness and justice? Before we’re trained to a particular moral code, before we’ve been programmed, do we have an inborn sense of how we should behave? I ask these questions not having the answers, having only a hunch, an intuition, that we humans have our moral inklings from very early on, and sense that some order built into the universe is going to require something of us, some sort of integrity. At least that’s the way I remember feeling from an early age: that to be a good person, honorable and worthy, meant living by a very specific Code. Later, when I was exposed to the Ten Commandments, I felt that this wasn’t it, not the Code itself, but only a broken part of it, at best. Of course it’s wrong to lie, cheat, and steal. Obviously it’s wrong to kill. But you would know this automatically if you knew the real Code. You would know these things, but so much more besides–bigger things, which applied to every moment of your life.

It would take me awhile to figure out what was wrong with the Ten Commandments, probably longer than it should have. The fact that a lot of people seemed to accept them as the absolute word of God– and therefore by implication as totally sufficient and beyond question–no doubt this contributed to my failure to probe, and articulate, their insufficiency. The problem that was right in front of me, but for a very long time invisible, was that these strictures dealt only with people’s dealings with one another, and with how they related to a rather insecure and self-proclaimed “jealous” God. What got left out was any hint about how people should deal with everything else that belongs to this world: the skies, the rivers, the earth beneath our feet, as well as all the other creatures who live here with us. Were there no rules governing how we behaved toward the (supposed) Creator’s Creation? That’s a tremendous oversight, when you think about it, and one that’s allowed for a lot of mischief to go unnamed, unnoticed, and unaccounted for.

What I was hoping for, as a young person, was some deep wisdom about how I should conduct my life, something that would inspire me to do my best and be my very best self: give me positive direction. What I found instead was a list of things I shouldn’t do, and most of those had little relevance to my young life. Indeed, I found some of these commandments to be more than a little morally confusing, and I’ll give an example of what I mean from Deuteronomy.
13. For six days you shall labor and do all your work:

14. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.

From what had gone before, it was clear that this was a jealous and vengeful god, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, unto the third and fourth generation (Deuteronomy ). This seemed unduly harsh to me, but now here was a god who evidently gave his full approval to slavery. Sure, give them a day off, just like you do your donkey and your ox (but not your wife). But the point that I could not overlook was that here was a god who didn’t say get rid of your slaves, because slavery is immoral.

Did I know that it was immoral out of some primordial inkling or insight, something inborn, or did that come from my culture? This was the 1950s when I was exploring this moral territory, and even though racism was still very much alive in America, the culture said that slavery was wrong. When I asked adults about this Commandment, I was told this was the Old Testament, and there were parts of it that you couldn’t take too seriously. The New Testament was really more relevant to us today. Fine, but that didn’t really get at the heart of my question. An all-knowing all-powerful god would have known that slavery was wrong whenever the subject might have come up. If it’s wrong it’s wrong for all time. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me.

So, in looking for moral certainty I found only mortal confusion in the one place that was supposed to provide all the answers. As for the other commandments, I had to agree that murder, adultery, and theft were clearly not what people should be doing. But I was bothered by the commandment to honor one’s father and mother.

16. Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
What bothered me was not the honoring, but the reasons for it. What I thought should be there was some reminder about how much your parents have given you, including your very life, and that you owe them a debt of gratitude for all they have sacrificed on your behalf. Something like that. Instead you get threats. You’ll do as he commands if you want things to go well for you in this land he’s (not so graciously) giving you. Motivated by fear that a tyrannical god will take from you all the good things you’ve been given, you’d better honor your parents, or else! This commandment was very heavy handed, it seemed to me, and it did not project the kind of god that I thought a god should be. This one seemed very full of himself and his power to inflict harm upon those who did not do precisely as he commands. There was nothing here of loving kindness, or benevolence, or sweetness of nature. Thus I didn’t find much in these Commandments to either inspire affection or to give direction to my young life.

Only very recently, after years of muddling along as best I could with my own sense of what was right and what was wrong would I find a different set of commandments that spoke meaningfully to the question of how a human being ought to conduct himself in this world. They are:

1. The Earth is our mother; care for her.
2. Honor all your relations.
3. Open your heart and soul to the Great Spirit.
4. All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect.
5. Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more.
6. Do what needs to be done for the good of all.
7. Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day.
8. Speak the truth; but only of the good in others.
9. Follow the rhythms of nature; rise and retire with the sun.
10. Enjoy life’s journey but leave no tracks.

These are not commandments, delivered from on high from an authoritarian God, but are instead moral precepts that offer insight into the nature of life and how to live it. This is precisely what I was looking for as a youngster, but nothing like this was available to me then. Why? Because of the culture I come from. Certain people of my culture might be able to endorse some of these precepts as making good moral sense. Some might say that, yes, we should live like this, but they would be in the minority. These Principles Toward a Good Life did not arise from our culture, and indeed they derive from a worldview mostly foreign to our own: that of the Americans who lived here before we Euro-Americans arrived, and who, though marginalized and partly subsumed by the new America, still retain this much wisdom to live by.
The moral vision behind these precepts is perfectly consistent with the Law of Holonic Reciprocity. If everything is connected to everything else in a far-reaching web of reciprocal interdependencies, then anything we do will have an effect on the whole. If the Earth is our mother, it makes moral sense to care for her—out of gratitude, yes, but also because anything we do to her we do to ourselves.

What does it mean to honor all out relations? Partly it means just what the fourth precept states: “All life is sacred; treat all beings with respect.” Honoring all our relations also means recognizing our kinship and our common destiny. This is even more profoundly true of those relations on whom we rely for sustenance. If we don’t take care of them—whether salmon, or deer, or the acorn oak–they won’t be able to take care of us. That’s another good reason to “Take from the Earth what is needed and nothing more.” In that way we won’t disrupt or destroy the source of all abundance.

Live lightly on the land, or, “Enjoy life’s journey but leave no tracks.” The implication would seem to be that human happiness is to be found in relationship—to the Great Spirit, to fellow humans, and to all our relations—and not in things material. “Give constant thanks to the Great Spirit for each new day.” Feeling gratitude and recognizing how sublimely lucky we are to be alive in such a world is a step in the direction of happiness, as is opening one’s “heart and soul to the Great Spirit.” When you open up in this way, you bring into consciousness an awareness of the larger Self, the Whole, and in so doing you may override the narrow and petty interests of the smaller self, and this is good for your spiritual life, your character, and the larger enterprise of life.

These precepts address not just outward behavior, but the interior state of the individual. Nor, would it seem, is a priestly class required to mediate between the individual and the Great Spirit, or to interpret words in a book. In this tradition, each individual can and should have his or her own relationship to the visible and invisible world. One’s peers may be there to offer support, or notice egregious shortfalls, and the tribal individual will likely also have group observances and rituals for purposes of purification and to deepen connections with the spirit world. But in general these Rules of Life do not require much explication or elaboration. The important thing is to keep them daily in mind and do one’s best to live by them.

Of all these simple but essential Rules, one stands out as having special profundity, and indeed as being an articulate expression of the Law of Holonic Reciprocity. “Do what needs to be done for the good of all.” Although very general, and presented in a soft way, this precept asks quite a lot of each of us, including some serious soul searching. For instance, the “all” whose good must be considered can have implications at several holonic levels at once. If you happen at a given time to be part of a group of three, and a moral decision must be made, do what’s best for all three, and not just for yourself. That seems pretty straightforward, but what if what’s good for the three causes harm or loss to the larger community? This must be factored into any moral decision as well. And one’s moral responsibility doesn’t end with the human community, but radiates out to the entire community of life, and to all the systems that support and make life possible.

Say you’ve had a very successful day at the river, and have caught more salmon than can easily be carried back to camp in one trip. Those back at camp will welcome every fish you’ve caught, but you’re so tired from the day’s fishing that two trips seem out of the question. Should you carry all you can and leave the rest to rot? Should you try to work a deal with your fellow fishermen where they have to come back but you don’t? A moral decision is required of you. On what basis will you arrive at an answer?

I can easily picture myself in this situation, because I am a fisherman and have had similar ethical dilemmas. Putting myself in the place of one of these young fisherman, I would know that we should have anticipated our present problem, and quit fishing sooner than we did. But we were having too much fun and none of us wanted to quit. Now, though, we had all these fish to deal with. It’s not altogether clear that we have violated the Rule that says not to take more than is needed—not yet, anyway—because, once back in camp, all these fish would be used. Then I recall that all life is sacred, and that we must treat all beings with respect. Leaving fish to rot, or throwing them back in the river, would clearly violate this Law of Life. From what I’ve heard from the elders, there’d be a very good chance that my people’s fishing would soon turn sour if we did such a thing. The salmon spirits would be that angry with us. Maybe there will be someone back in camp who can come for the rest of the fish. If not, then I’m going to have to do it myself, no matter how tired I might be feeling—knowing that I was doing what needed to be done for the good of all.

In this instance, knowing what needed to be done was not that complicated: choices were informed by considering several of the Rules of Life, weighing them against each other, and in combination. In other circumstances, arriving at the best course of action might require considerable deliberation among the group as a whole, and much could depend on the collective knowledge base accumulated over time. The experience of the elders could prove important, as might certain of the old stories. The charge to “Do what needs to be done for the good of all” implies a rather comprehensive understanding of what might be included in that “all”—that is, an understanding of the relationships among several holonic levels, and how an action at one level might affect other levels, including the overall well-being the whole. Among people who have lived in one place for thousands of years, or even for hundreds, a long-term knowledge base accrues about how their particular ecosystem works, and the various cycles their ancestors have observed. This knowledge, and all knowledge specific to place, helps to inform better decision making about how best to live in harmony with one’s chosen place, and doing what needs to be done for the good of all.

Take, for example, a group of fish-dependent people that decides to place limits on itself in regards to their fishing. Maybe at some point in the past they failed to show restraint in their fish taking, and so thoroughly depleted a salmon run that fish were in short supply for years afterward. Recognizing that they had taken more than they needed for subsistence, thereby breaking one of the Rules for Life, a group decision was made to limit their take. They would do this by allowing a certain number of days to pass from the sighting of the first spring salmon in their part of the river, and would not begin fishing for them until the appointed time. As is the case with many such moral decisions, by following the imperatives of their moral code, and showing restraint—treat all beings with respect; take no more than you need—they are actually serving their own best long-term interests.

Why should that so consistently be the case? Because everything is connected. What you do to any holon or system upon which you yourself depend, you do to yourself. And the more deeply you look into the matter, the more clearly you see that there is no holonic level or system from which you are absolutely independent. And, again, that’s because everything is connected to everything else.

Lacking these simple Principles toward a Good Life, the dominant cultures of our world have managed to deplete fisheries all over the globe, and driven many to extinction. No one believes this is a good thing, yet we go on doing it. Whatever guidance we’ve taken from our moral codes has clearly been insufficient to the task. I would suggest that this is because those codes come from a time and place that failed to recognize the holonic nature of our lives and our world. Instead of seeing the Oneness, and all the implications of that Oneness, their worldview seems to have been a muddled conflation of atomism and dualism. From atomism came the idea that everything was made up individual material particles, and that every whole (or holon) could be broken down into individual component parts, and could be understood in terms of those parts. The hyper individualism seen in Western societies, and made into a veritable cult of the individual here in America, has its roots in atomism.

Dualism posits that there are actually two worlds instead of one. As handed down to us by way of Plato and his theory of Forms or Ideals, we are asked to believe that the world we live in is a flawed copy of a second world where everything is perfect. This other, perfect world is evidently far away, and its perfections unattainable in this one. Following Plato and his precursors, the Abrahamic religions elaborated upon this dualism and asked of their followers that they concentrate their best hopes on an after-life in a better world. Whatever unity there might be between Heaven and Earth was something only understood by God.

Between the two of them, atomism and dualism have been the underlying foundations of Western thought for two millennia and more, and have informed both our religions and our science. Our worldview, confused as it is, derives from this amalgam of incompatible notions about who we are and the nature of the world we live in. At a theoretical level, neither atomism nor dualism is totally absurd or without merit. It’s just that neither, separately, accurately describes the world we actually inhabit, and, taken together, they’ve created a moral monster, as our ravaged planet clearly demonstrates. We’ve known no restraint when it comes to taking from the Earth far more than any of us has needed, and certainly it can’t be said that we’ve left no tracks behind. We’ve scarred and marred every inch of the Earth we and our machines could get to, and we’re not done yet. And we won’t be until we change our view of the world, and our place in it.

Conceptually, the Law of Holonic Reciprocity is easy to grasp. Once you understand that everything is connected to everything else, one holonic level nested within another within another, all the way up and all the way down, you recognize that a moral order is implicit in the the Oneness of All. It’s very much as Aldo Leopold has observed: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The charge for the human being is identical to what is required of every other holon within the holarchy: to make a positive contribution to the health and wellness of the whole, to keep the entire enterprise going at its optimum best. That’s it, it’s that simple!
Oh, but wait. We’re still hung up on atomism and dualism, our unconscious minds committed to the old worldview that isn’t working.

The larger assumption behind this moral imperative is that the holarchy, as a whole, and at each constituent holonic level, is something to be maintained at an optimum level of health and well-being, and not allowed to sink into dysfunction

If it involves the whole tribe or immediate human community, do what’s best for all. If a moral decision pertains to the Earth itself, or the entire community of life, do what’s best for all. Knowing what’s best for all in every circumstance is undoubtedly a huge challenge; so can knowing what needs to be done. In the more complicated cases, study and deliberation may be required before action can be taken. At other times, knowing what’s best for all is straightforward and obvious. When there’s doubt, some of the other Rules may cast some light. Does it honor all your relations? Does it take more from the Earth than is needed? Does it harm or help Mother Earth?

None of these Rules are arbitrary. They’re not just somebody’s idea of what might be nice. Practicing these Rules—not to absolute perfection, but conscientiously and assiduously—makes a real difference in the world. Not practicing them also makes a difference, as witness the broken world we live in today.

Part of the problem , it seems to me, is that we’ve forgotten what knowledge is for.

The Golden Rule seemed to come closer to the kind of all-encompassing Code I was looking for. Its truth could be stated in a single sentence, but with far-reaching implications. Yet, it too, suffers from the same human centered anthropocentrism that flaws the Ten Commandments. It tells us how best to live within the human community, but not how to live in relation to Mother Earth or within the larger community of life.

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