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Born in sin

One of the most nefarious consequences of the delusion of progress is that it leads to a moral disengagement from the past. Progress erases the evils of previous iterations of Western civilization through a “present-ends-justify-the-prior-evil-means” logic where the present and active foundation of the status quo is entirely ignored. Simple case in point: the genocide of Native Americans was not merely something unfortunate that happened in the past, it was necessary in order for the US to exist in its present form. Perhaps a simpler case in point: black slavery was not just a regrettable period in US history, it was absolutely essential to produce the present circumstances.

And this is not just a theoretical exercise—it’s intimately personal. Rewind history to the year 1610, remove the slave trade, and then let history play forward again, and not only would the United States not emerge in anything comparable to its present form, but neither you nor I would exist. Our personal presence on the planet (regardless of our respective skin tones) is not independent of the entire history of events prior to our birth.

A common refrain of white privilege: “But that was then and this is now, and we shouldn’t dwell on things that we cannot change in the past.”

The logical problem with this refrain is that the past has not gone anywhere. It is still with us this very instant, in all of its brutal ugliness, right now, whether or not we have the stomach to acknowledge it. We are all reaping the concrete benefits of eight millennia of genocide and war and slavery and torture and chronic immiseration of countless millions of humans and beyond countless billions of other beings. We are all standing on a pile of corpses stretching back to the agricultural revolution.

We all were born in sin. But with devout and unwavering faith in progress all of our sins are resolved.

Satori through sound

A Buddhist master—was it Dogen?—said that listening is the gateway to enlightenment; our acoustic sense provides the true path.

Breath can be calmed, and the other senses can be stilled, yet sound still retains its capacity for intrusion.

It does not ask permission.

You can close your eyes, or gaze forward at no place in particular until your vision dissolves. You can sit in zazen posture until the skin of your entire body merges into a single pressure point in the universe. You can overwhelm your nose with incense such that no other scent can penetrate, and your tongue pressed into the roof of your mouth is quick to forget. But the presence-then-not-presence of sound remains unmoved.

Birdsong like a flurry of sparks across your ears; rain against the window like drunken soldiers upon your skull.

And the shimmering void between the notes, and the emptiness that separates each raindrop collision, in that piercing moment of absence—just now, and just now again—a single fleeting instant that traces the echo back to the origin of mind.

Misplaced fear

In the summer the cicada wasps take over the sidewalk outside of one of the buildings on a campus where I used to teach. They weave and bob just above the white concrete, in a solitary dance only they understand. As wasps go, they are gigantic, fearful looking beasts. But they are harmless to humans, or as close to harmless as a stinging insect can be. They are unlikely to attack even when provoked. Despite this, one of my colleagues wanted them poisoned. He is allergic to honeybee venom, he told me, better safe than sorry. I tried to tell him that his fear was unfounded, but his determination to have the insects killed was unaltered, and I watched as one of the campus grounds keepers soaked the grass around the sidewalk in pesticide.

Fear.

Not long ago, the dog and I were returning from a trip to the local quarry. An acquaintance, the elderly wife of another colleague from campus, was trimming the rectangular hedge in front of her house. I stopped to talk for a minute, and told her that the dog and I had just seen a family of foxes, an adult with several pups. Her face immediately contorted in a look of horror. The idea that such wild animals were living barely a city block from her house terrified her. They’re just harmless foxes, I tried to tell her. But she would have none of it. Foxes are wild animals, and, in her mind, the dangerous beasts of folklore and fairytale.

Fear.

Misplaced fear. The farm field behind her house was recently sprayed with atrazine, a potent endocrine disruptor known to cause cancer. On her porch was a bottle of Roundup herbicide, also a potent endocrine disruptor linked to a variety of diseases, declared carcinogenic by the state of California, and, in conjunction with the GMO crops it is designed to be used on, tied to the disappearance of honeybees. The electricity running her electric hedge trimmer originates in a coal power plant, a major source of greenhouse gasses that are likely rendering large portions of the planet uninhabitable for large numbers of organisms—including humans.

But she is afraid of foxes.

A moment on the train

The passenger train creeps into the heart of North Dakota. Rickety rail and a constant procession of freight trains carrying oil and coal make for frequent stops and slow speeds.

Outside the observation car window stretches an endless sea of virgin prairie grass and herds of buffalo so thick that they seem to form one giant amoebic mass that threatens to engulf the horizon as if to digest the few small clouds that linger there. The feeling is one of breath and life and endless space.

And then my eyes blink through into the modern era, the mechanical now, and the prairie becomes coal and oil in the form of GMO corn and soybeans arrayed in GPS guided rows upon the sterile ground, and the black amoebic masses of buffalo are foreshortened into an endless passing parade of tanker cars, their sides dripping with the dark toxic lifeblood of civilization.

The word sabotage comes close, but misses the mark. It evokes a dark gallantry, careful backroom plans, cunning craft. We are not saboteurs. We are neither cunning nor crafty. We fight for no higher cause. We know of no higher cause than our own greedy oblivion. Self-immolation comes closer—a symbolic sacrificial suicide—but it too falls short, with hints of faith and virtue.

Imagine killing a lover because you were overwhelmed by your own feelings of love and compassion. Imagine your lover’s dying breath forgiving you.

Imagine a sea of dead coral or a forest of driftwood.

The elephant in the butterfly net: a fable

From Born Expecting the Pleistocene:

Suppose there was an elephant who somehow managed to get a butterfly net stuck across the front part of the top of his head. Suppose further that the elephant knew that the purpose of a butterfly net was for capturing butterflies. Suspend your disbelief a bit further and suppose that the elephant thought that because it was caught in the net, it was, like a butterfly, trapped, and had no recourse but to submit to the demands of the person holding the other end of the net. And suppose that, tragically, there was in fact no one on the other end of the net.

You are walking through the jungle and happen upon this elephant, which is by this time well on the way to starvation because, being trapped in the net, it has not been able to move from the spot for several days. What would you do to try to save the elephant? Feed the elephant by hand so that it doesn’t die? Inform the elephant that there is no one holding the other end of the net? Attempt to convince the elephant that it is not a butterfly, and thus not subject to the rules of butterfly nets, that a butterfly net is powerless against its massive bulk? It seems the simplest solution might be just to remove the net.

There is one other possibility, however. Since the elephant is already convinced it is helpless and at the mercy of its captor, you might simply grab hold of the other end of the net yourself and start issuing commands.

Brief reflections on the writing process

For me, writing as an art form is very much analogous to sculpture. Generally speaking, there are two main (and not mutually exclusive) methods employed when “sculpting” a written piece: build-up and chip-away. During build-up, I begin with a general idea and then, to the degree possible, I let the structure evolve organically as words and sentences are added (although I do a fair amount of mid-sentence editing along the way). During chip-away, I take what I have already written and then bend it, balance it, shape it into a clearer, crisper form—here the added texture and fine detail change what I have written from a blankly stated idea to a meaningful expression: a reflection of a small part of my mental and emotional topography as it relates to the subject at hand. Word choice is a major focus during the chip-away phase, but crafting the right syntax is equally—if not more—important. Syntax can add subtle shades of meaning, giving a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole section a flavor that mere words cannot carry.

I enjoy both parts of the process, but the chip-away phase leads to the most satisfying experience of “flow.”

What I lack is a more general top-down organizational schematic that could somehow serve to regulate and coordinate the direction of these two phases of the process. This is intentional on my part: having such top-down control interferes with the creative impulse. But because of this, I will occasionally write myself into a corner where I am forced to make a painful choice. In terms of the sculpture metaphor, imagine that you have sculpted a highly textured and most beautifully detailed wing, where each feather is perfectly placed and folds seamlessly in with its neighbor, but then you discover that the overall form is not that of a bird after all, and that from the beginning you have really been sculpting a horse. At this point it becomes very tempting to keep the wing and change directions completely, to abandon the terrestrial horse you started with and go with a Pegasus instead. I have found that the best solution in these cases is to put the wing in a box to be taken out sometime in the future when I know that I have a more avian goal.

Although, truth be known, it can sometimes be very hard to let go, and I have amassed a sizeable collection of hideous and unpublishable chimeras over the years.

Dead wolf selfie

The visceral effect was immediate and without prolog. I almost doubled over. The caption in black and bold font beneath the image on my screen was “No it’s not a bear. It’s a 152 pound wolf!”

The creature’s head faced the camera at an angle that was not quite right. It was like one of those Victorian age death photos: a daguerreotype showing the corpse of a young child seated on her mother’s lap with her eyes taped open. Only it was a high definition digital color image and the dead emptiness of the wolf’s gaze was unmistakable. Kneeling on the ground behind its enormous lifeless black-furred body was a puffy-faced young punk decked in Walmart camo and leaning against a high-powered hunting rifle. For a brief moment, I wanted someone to shoot him with his own gun, I wanted to see the bloated pride drain from the shit-eating grin on his face as he bled out on the ground next to his trophy, I wanted to see a faded sepia tone photo of his body propped against a tree with his eyes taped open and staring blankly at the camera.

OK, so maybe for something more than a brief moment.

The civilized human approach to predation is in many ways the antithesis of that practiced by other predators. Other predators go after the weak and the sick. It is the lame deer that the wolf pack shares, it is the sick wildebeest that the lion pride tackles, it is the slow fish at the tail end of the school that is eaten first. But civilized humans go after the strong and the healthy. We throw the puny fish back and keep the strong mature ones. We shoot for the largest buck with the most antler points. These two predation strategies—take the young and the weak versus take the mature and the strong—impact prey populations in dramatically different ways. When you take the weak and the sick, you have removed their ability to propagate their weakness and sickness into the next generation, and the population as a whole becomes stronger and healthier. When you take the strong and mature, you remove healthy breeding adults in their reproductive prime and leave behind the small and weak and the reproductively fragile, which interferes with the natural replenishment of the species. The result is a population that as a whole becomes physically smaller and weaker, and population numbers can decline precipitously. Or perhaps the developmental progression is altered. For example, in response to industrial fishing, heavily harvested ocean fish have evolved to stay small and to mature more quickly so that they can reproduce before the fishnet removes them from the gene pool. The average adult cod is considerably smaller than it was even a couple decades ago.

But the dead wolf in the image was not a victim of predation. Civilized humans hunting for sport are not predators, at least not in the way that that term applies to wolves or leopards or sharks or rattlesnakes or spiders—or to uncivilized humans hunting for food. A predator hunts out of necessity. Although I have witnessed crows killing ducklings for what looked to me like sport, predators typically hunt as a biological imperative. Killing for food is one thing. And hunting deer or elk for their meat can be a potent way to reconnect with essential parts of our authentic humanity that have been hidden beneath the asphalt and touchscreen circuitry of the modern world. But sport hunting—killing an animal simply for the enjoyment of the act itself—is a response to psychological deficit. Civilized humans kill for sport in response to their lack of wholeness. They hunt in response to a powerfully felt sense of personal deficiency. Ten thousand years ago, killing a bear-sized wolf would have had profound spiritual significance. It would have been an event worthy of reverential reflection by the hunter and calm circumspection by his friends. Today it’s a selfie-worthy photo op in attempt to placate an insatiable ego; a pathetic attempt to fill an emotional vacuum—a psychological blank space that results from living a shallow and inauthentic life.

The last rabbit

At one point my wife and I had nine rabbits living in our garage. They were a large silver-grey variety called “Champagne D’Argent.” We were, ostensibly, raising them for their meat, but we kept putting off the killing and eating them part of the process. It eventually became apparent that neither of us had the nerve to don the executioner’s mask, and so they lived in cages in our garage in a state of captive limbo for over two years. But we were good jailors (if you will pardon the oxymoron). We kept them comfortably fed and watered, we gave them interesting things to play with, and on sunny weekends we let them exercise in the yard inside a four-by-eight foot portable rabbit “playpen” that I built that had easily detachable sides made of wooden slats and wire mesh.

A planned winter trip to the west coast for several weeks gave us the incentive we needed to get rid of them. Continue reading “The last rabbit”

Space invaders

In an upcoming BBC documentary called Expedition New Earth, Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, offers the dire prediction that humanity has less than 1000 years left on the planet, and we need to have functional space colonies within the next 100 years in order to avoid extinction as a species.

The Earth is very likely to be uninhabitable in the next 1000 years, according to Hawking. Climate change, pollution, pandemic disease, nuclear war, asteroid collision, each of these threats contribute their own individual level of risk, but their cumulative threat makes our extinction a “near certainty.” Unless we become a multi-planetary species, that is. By spreading the human seed to other planets, we can help ensure the continued existence of our species even after the Earth has become an uninhabitable cesspool, a toxic viral wasteland, or a lifeless rock. But we need to get cracking soon!

There are so many things wrong with this thought-form that I literally don’t know where to begin.

Let me start with asking “Who the fuck is Stephen Hawking?” Seriously, he’s a mathematician, not an expert in space colonization—nor a psychic, for that matter. OK, granted he is a really smart guy who has thought about this stuff a lot; and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here and take his prognostications at face value. But perhaps we should take a closer look at some of the orthodoxies and assumptions that his ideas rest upon.

At the most basic level, space colonization is just a modern expression of the nineteenth century US expansionist doctrine of manifest destiny. There is a powerful sense of inevitability being expressed here, as if civilization is an unstoppable natural phenomenon that is built into our species’ design, rather than a historical artifact. Let’s be clear, Western civilization emerged from historical circumstance, not from our DNA. This sense of inevitability, however, is not entirely without merit. Western civilization is a very finely tuned colonizing machine. But it is a machine without an off switch, and there is very little on Earth left to colonize. So it appears that we have only two options: we can let it run idle until its land-devouring gears eventually grind themselves up from the inside, or we can unleash it on extraterrestrial targets.

A more subtle feature of the space-invader thought-form is that it is constructed around a conceptual abstraction. There really is no “humanity” that must be preserved. There is no humanity, there are only humans. And the idea of a “human species” is a fuzzy and somewhat arbitrary categorical distinction—“species” is a useful fiction. The human animal, as a biological entity, is continuous with all other living entities. And we are, all of us, of the Earth. This Earth.

Philosophical and taxonomic considerations aside, and on a more practical level, if we have the technological savvy to colonize other planets, why don’t we fix things here? Seriously, we already have all of the tools and knowledge that we need to ameliorate—perhaps even prevent—many of the risks Hawking cites. If we are smart enough to colonize Mars, then surely we are smart enough to reverse the industrial accumulation of atmospheric carbon on Earth; surely we are smart enough to reduce the human population to something below carrying capacity (over time and without killing a single person now alive). And, frankly, the population problem is the only real problem. It is the source of all of our other major problems. Climate change would never have occurred if the global human population remained in the millions; pandemic disease emerges with population density; and the risk of war is an inverse function of resource availability.

This relates to another feature of the space-invader thought-form, one that for some reason bothers me more than the others. Take a close look at what civilization has done to this planet, take a close look at the horrors it has brought to other people and other creatures, and take a close look at the massive despoilment of the biosphere and of the Earth’s natural geologic features. Take a close look, and then ask yourself “Why would we wish the horrors of civilization upon another world?” Why would anyone want to export death and despoilment? If there are other intelligent, technologically “advanced” societies out there, it is surely in their best interests to obliterate us the moment we stick our nose off-planet, just as a matter of their own self-preservation.

And, finally, at the very most fundamental level lurks an unquestionable, yet, ultimately unsupportable, presumption: that the human species needs to continue into the future. Why? Why does it matter whether the distant future is inhabited by our progeny? It makes no difference to anyone alive at this moment if every human on the planet disappears two hundred years from now. Our lives will be as rich and full and complete (or not) regardless of the future of the species (or lack thereof).

It turns out that psychology has a pretty good explanation for the “humans must persevere” orthodoxy, something called terror management theory, for those interested in further pursuing this particular belief’s psychological underpinnings.

The real meaning behind that meaningless job

I recently listened to an interview about “autonomous technology.” The main message was that increasing automation means that more and more people are losing their jobs to robots.  And apparently it’s not just assembly line factory jobs that are at risk. White collar jobs are being absorbed at a rapid pace as well.  We don’t need to worry so much about all those jobs being shipped overseas; the real threat is the microchip.

The technology part of the discussion went into all of the predictable places: “It’s part of an inevitable and unstoppable process.”“Progress is irreversible.” “We can’t turn back the clock.” Etc.

Then the conversation took a rather unexpected philosophical turn, which began with the idea of providing a universal government wage so that the consumer economy could continue to function. We could easily provide a living salary to all persons in the country right now, and at a microscopic fraction of the defense budget. But the problem with providing a universal wage in lieu of actual employment is that people derive meaning from being gainfully employed, and without a job their lives would become meaningless.  And what’s even worse, life without meaningful employment brings into question the true purpose of industrial civilization—and the whole meaning of humanity! What is at risk here is nothing less than a culture-wide slide into crippling nihilism.

So, let me see if I have this right. We need jobs, even mindless factory jobs, in order for our lives to have meaning. And without the meaning we derive from wage-slave employment, we would all suddenly realize that the whole thing—industrial corporate consumer civilization—has no human purpose?

Interesting.