2010年6月28日月曜日

The Dissent of Man




We are stardust, we are golden

we are billion year old carbon

and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden


- Jonie Mitchell, "Woodstock"



   Ferrets are more determined than they are bright. Case in point being my own pet ferret, Rosie. Rosie explores nooks and crannies with the unrestrained zeal of a fanatic. Wikipedia tells me that ferrets have been domesticated (they are the domesticated version of the polecat) since perhaps the time of Socrates and Buddha, and all that breeding - for going down holes, for ferreting out pest rodents - has resulted in a lovable freak of nature that behaves nearly suicidally in its compulsion to know, KNOW!, what's down that hole, or in that crevice! Even if that hole leads to a drop off of ten or more feet (that's like a twenty story building to a ferret), and a fatal fall, the only thing that will stop a ferret is the loving hand of its  exasperated owner. We can't understand ferrets in this regard; it's something they "just gotta".


   Or perhaps we can understand them, and all too well at that. My thoughts are now joined with those of so many others as we contemplate the unspeakable tragedy that is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. As the oil spews out from a mile below, it is staggering to consider how technology has been so horrifyingly misapplied in this instance. Explorers were able, through sophisticated devices, to discover that there is a vast reservoir of oil out there beyond sight of land. Engineers developed machinery that can dig through solid rock, three more miles below the ocean floor, in order to get at that reservoir. Because we "just gotta" have that oil! Cruelly ironic that we have developed astounding technology in order to drill through bedrock, but have not developed applications to produce or harvest energy that doesn't send the environment, our one and only home planet, down a tailspin of degradation. Humans, like ferrets, are more determined than they are bright.


   Lemmings, on the other hand, don't really commit mass suicide. It turns out that that is a myth. The whole myth developed like a meme in reaction to some wildlife footage shot in the mid 1950s, and televised frequently thereafter, for a Disney-produced wildlife documentary. Multiple generations gathered in living rooms and watched in horror, on their upholstered couches (and I was among them) as a mass desperation forced the pathetic critters to fling themselves out over a cliff, into the cold, cruel sea, where they swam a futile swim to exhaustion and a watery death. This was a culling process of nature, we were taught to believe; that as their population exploded beyond a certain point, instinct forced them into behavior that they would never otherwise consider, as if a switch had been thrown by Mother Nature. The footage itself, and how it was presented, was hokum. First of all, the "documentary" aspect of the scene that fused itself in our brains has been challenged. The animals we saw were herded, it is now alleged. The rush hour subway density of lemmings was staged in order to heighten their panic. Lemmings do behave radically when their population exceeds a certain quotient. They do fan out in all directions in search of new habitat. They do, if they encounter a body of water, jump in, in order to explore the land, and its food potential, on the other side. But lemmings are very good swimmers. More often that not, as in WAY more often than not, the majority of them reach the other side. Therefore, the fact that they were transported to an inhospitable coast by filmmakers is all the more ghastly. Those critters thought they had a good chance of crossing over, because in a natural situation, they would have. Thus, this all too convenient, and frequently used, metaphor for our own existential situation is forced and inaccurate. We do not have allies among our fellow animals (or at least if we do, it is not the misunderstood lemming) in plunging carelessly toward our own demise. We as a mammalian species are alone in engaging in obviously suicidal behavior, with the concomitant collateral side effect of taking billions of other life forms with us.  


  And there can be no mistake, this IS the direction we are heading. One of Einstein's most famous quotes is that problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness at which they were created, and yet many hasten to assure us that technology, for all the devastation it has wrought since the Industrial Revolution, is nevertheless the solution to the ills we face today. Apparently, according to this way of thinking, it is now incumbent upon our technology to transform itself into Superman, and rescue us from the death trap its Lex Luthor alter ego has placed us in. Uh....right.


   Technology is not the answer. Nor is it the problem, per se, so much as it is a symptom. There is a sickness affecting humanity that threatens our very survival as a species. We have lost touch with our center, our very DNA, and are behaving as if we are not part of this earth any more. We base our way of life on a system that will stop working in less time than the duration between now and Shakespeare. It is utter madness, but we go about our lives as if it will all work out somehow. We are the true "lemmings", and our divorce from our naturalness will not, and cannot possibly be, solved by forcing ourselves even deeper into the ouroboros that is the left hemisphere of our brain, there to extract ever newer technologies to serve as antidotes to the technologies that are being run with such destructive consequences in our modern civilization. 


   Our survival as a species has nothing to do with technological geekery or, as some technophiles have suggested, "heading out to the stars". Imagine the audacity! We trash life on this planet, but hey, it's okay, so long as we learn to cultivate our own moon, or the moons of Jupiter or wherever. The very fact that some would consider this to be a solution is indicative itself that something is really wrong with our current mindset. A species, a contributing member of the biosphere and completely dependent on it, deluding itself that it can pick up and move elsewhere if need be. The Sufis advise us to "be in the world but not of it". Sound advice when its meaning relates to an individual striving for peace of mind. But for the human race as a collective, the admonition should be, "Be in the world and don't forget for a moment that you ARE of it!" Ours has been a history of pulling ourselves out of the real Matrix, the impeccable miracle that is our planet's propensity to, generously, host ecosystems based on the simplest and most brilliant of exchanges - oxygen for carbon dioxide, food for fertilizer, death for life - and placing ourselves in an unreal Matrix that weakens us fundamentally and threatens us existentially. And we must learn how to stop. 


   Surely Tokyo, where I live, is one of the most wasteful cities on the entire planet. The foods that are thrown away each day, the electricity used in the neon signs and giant televisions advertising bubblegum pop music in front of the major train stations; the air conditioners blasting out from four million domiciles in the summer, raising the temperature two degrees (Celsius) higher than outside the city; the appliances and computers and cellphones that are pitched and replaced rather than repaired, etc.; taken together this would easily provide enough food and energy and sundries to supply a city of a million or more people each day. And yet, a mere hundred and fifty odd years ago, Tokyo, or as it was then called, Edo, was a very different place altogether. It was, as has been suggested in a book by novelist/historian Eisuke Ishikawa titled "The Edo Period had a Recycling Society", the most environmentally efficient city on the face of the earth. The Japanese of Old Edo were not self consciously preserving their environment so much as they were subconsciously aware of themselves as part of the environment. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the commercial use of "night soil", a lovely euphemism for human excrement, as a fertilizer. If you were to go back to Edo and stop by a roadside teahouse, you might meet a man who would proudly tell you, "I sell shit". And why not be proud? While Europeans were risking plague at every turn, throwing their raw sewage out onto the street, the Japanese were living healthily and sanitarily, giving their produce back to the earth, so that it could continue to yield its produce for their use. This is the way of things, it is what Nature teaches us, and yet it is something that we have forgotten. Instead, we eat chemically fertilized foods, laced with pesticides and denuded of nutrients, and dump (literally) that into our water supply, of all places! We have night soil for brains, it seems!


   We have to, metaphorically if not literally, return to the wilds and become creatures of the forest again. In a forest, absolutely nothing is wasted. Not air, not sunlight, not a drop of rain or sweat, not a carcass or a pellet of shit. A forest can run, continually rejuvenating itself, for millennia, once a system is set in place. In a place called Gaviotas, in Colombia, a group of scientists and environmental engineers figured out a way to put a rainforest back where the desert had encroached, and not by simply planting trees. They built it up from the ground floor, beginning with the small plants that would have originally grown there, and moving forward incrementally. Almost miraculously, the birds began to appear as if from nowhere. And the lizards, and the rodents. Over time, the forest was back, and all its creatures were working in harmony. Gaia knew what to do, and just needed a nudge.


    I am not idealizing forest life as if it is some sort of trans-species hippiefest waiting to welcome us back. I am well aware that it is not. In any given clump of dirt in a forest that you may happen to pick up with your bare hand, an atrocity is occuring. The little things of this planet dispense with each other in ways so gruesome and cruel that they would blush the face of the most depraved Medieval torturer. It can easily be surmised that such very terrors of the natural world have impacted our psychology and seeded our destructiveness. We needed to learn to use our brains for protection, for offense and defense. We would not have survived had we not learned to attack, fight for our very lives, take without asking. It's part of who we are, and it was bequeathed to us by Gaia. We are her legacy. Nevertheless, that is not an excuse to stay on our present course as it leads down a road toward extinction. We can use our minds to imagine, and create, a new Eden. Our children can be the butterflies and birds that spread the seeds, through their vigor and curiosity. Our senior citizens can be the massive sycamores that hold the very life of the forest in their hearts and minds. Every one of us must discover our place in this new "human forest" before we can reintegrate ourselves with the broader ecosystem both on our terms and its. As wasteful as our modern society is, what we are wasting more than anything is our minds. As destructive as we are to the planet, what we are destroying perhaps even more rapidly is our humanness. We have to remember what that means first, to be human. If we want to be sane again.

2010年6月6日日曜日

Change He Can't Believe In



Well, Joe Biden was certainly right when he said that President Obama would be "tested" soon after taking office. The question is not so much "how did he do" on the test as it is, "when will the tests ever stop?" It is perhaps more accurate to look at these entire four years of the Obama administration (first or only) as an ongoing test, and one that grows increasingly difficult and challenging as it progresses, like the LSAT. Furthermore, much more is being tested than this still young presidency. The entire nation is being asked difficult questions about itself. Encapsulated into one question, what we are being asked is - As a nation, what are we?


- Are we a nation so divided by vapid ideologies that we can do nothing but shout at each other and hold those with whom we disagree in the utmost disdain, a disdain fueled by obnoxious purveyors of half truths and grotesque characterizations on our airwaves and our computer networks?

- Are we a nation that, forty years after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech must nevertheless experience a form of shock that we finally, finally, have managed to elect a person of color to the highest office in the land?

- Are we a nation that truly can envision no other course for itself than to keep fighting wars and wreaking destruction, even as the jury is no longer out about how effective these military escapades are in actually solving the problems our country faces in its dealings with adversaries?

- Are we a nation so beholden to the economic powers that essentially run things in this country that we powerlessly bear witness to the destruction of two of our most valuable national assets, the American Middle Class and the Gulf of Mexico, conceding all responsibility to big, self serving corporate entities that have shown time and again that their interests are, charitably, clearly not prioritizing the health and well being of our floundering country?


In the middle of the fray stands President Barack Obama. Born in the last year of the postwar Baby Boom, campaigning with the invigorating, motivational catch phrases, "Yes, WE Can!", "Change We Can Believe In" and "The Audacity of Hope", his victory in November 2008 inspired and uplifted a large portion of the American public, many of whom had nearly given up hope that the trajectory of self serving government, and the decline of America's status globally, could ever possibly be reversed, particularly after eight years of a presidency that felt downright alien and Orwellian to them.


Yet, a few short months before crucial midterm elections, those catch phrases ring hollow. The Obama presidency, viewed as a whole has not delivered in a way that justifies their bold and cheerful optimism. Indeed, many, I'm guessing millions, of Americans feel deceived about those words, and sold out by this presidency. It is as if Obama never really, truly, understood the nature of the  "change" that the majority of the American people wanted so desperately to believe in. 


I find myself asking, "Why did Barack Obama want so desperately to be president?" I am frankly stumped by this question. The question is much easier to answer when applied to his recent predecessors. Richard Nixon (a Shakespearean character if ever there was one) wanted the job because nothing short of that would satiate his monumental ego and lust for power. Jimmy Carter had an evangelistic and fervent belief that the country itself was far more decent and honorable than its leadership, and that its true heart and soul were crying out to be affirmed. Ronald Reagan was so driven by his Ayn Rand-influenced philosophy about government, capitalism and communism that he stormed into office as a True Believer, ordained, or so he believed, with the power to remake the country into a sort of real-life version of "Atlas Shrugged" (it is interesting to wonder if he, and not Gary Cooper, had landed the lead role in the Hollywood version of "The Fountainhead", that he may have gotten his  ya yas out that way, and spared the rest of us the consequences of his Objectivist wet dream). Bush the Elder and Bill Clinton were both convinced that they were the smartest guys in the room, and that nobody else was as capable as they were of running the enormous machinery that makes the world's most powerful country tick. And Bush the Lesser was just a frat boy who, his entire life, basically proved the Peter Principle, simply coasting along on the zephyrs of forces and connections far more powerful than him to increasing Levels of Incompetency.


I am quite certain that Obama did not become president, to, paraphrasing Churchill, preside over the demise of the American Republic as a great nation, and yet why does it appear that this is what he is doing? Is the job bigger and harder than he imagined it to be? Are many of his detractors right in proclaiming that he is in over his head, a "community organizer sent to do a president's job"? Are the problems our country is facing too large and complex and metastatic for any leader to make headway against them? Is our president, like Hamlet, caught up in such a swirl of dark doings that he can only retreat into a cool, calculated inertia? At a time when the economy, the war in Afghanistan, the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf, etc.  - nothing is going right, does anyone really believe that this hesitancy to seize the zeitgeist and place his stamp upon it is a matter of him "playing chess" and "thinking three steps ahead of his adversaries"? If so, how does that Kool Aid taste?


Returning to the American public and the landslide victory it gave him, what was the change that we pinned our hopes on Candidate Obama to achieve? These were not small things. In a word, what we were hoping to see was a reversal of Reaganism.  Just as Hamlet was haunted by the ghost of a king, so it is that the Obama presidency, and the nation as a whole, are even now haunted by the "ghost" of a former president whose disdain for government shows up like fingerprints on all the troubles we are facing today. Remember James Watt? Reagan appointed him to head the Environmental "Protection" Agency as a slap in the face to environmentalists. This country has more than enough trees, rivers, large bodies of water, etc. -  King Ronald decreed. While I'm president, no tree huggers are going to tie the hands of industry and keep this country from reaching its full economic potential! Now, because the environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico is foremost on everyones mind, that example seems particularly glaring, but run through all our current problems, the ones President Obama is charged with dealing with, from banking to the military, to healthcare, to corporate outsourcing, etc. and they can be connected as if by Day Glo dots back to King Ronnie's obsession with small social government and a huge military, and his Holy Mantra, "deregulation". That was what we believed in as we threw our support behind Obama, that that could change. We're not so sure anymore, are we? It appears abundantly clear that that was not the change that our president was referring to or envisioning. 


I truly believe that he is at heart, a good, decent man who wants his presidency to be a great one, one that goes far toward uplifting this country, morally, economically, ecologically.  I believe that, much as MBA George W. Bush believed that this country should be run and operated as if it were a company, former community organizer Barack Obama believes that this country can grow and flourish through outreach, networking, coming together and working together. Cooperation and sacrifice are his lifeblood, and what he has the power to extol us toward. But we need that voice! We need to believe that it applies to everyone, most obviously the arrogant, "Too Big To Fail" (Too Big to Make Sacrifices?) entities that have caused so much trouble with neither governance nor guidance from elected officials. "Guidance"; that is what they need. Even big companies are made up of little people, just like us. If the U.S. government, with Barack Obama as its leader, could take responsibility for telling the suits, "We are going to do things differently now. You are going to play a different role. Your interests and the interests of this country as a whole are going to conjoin. You are going to  play a large role in making this a great, safe, prosperous, and happy nation and you will have the gratitude of its people as you do so", things would change. The nations of Europe, Japan, etc. have achieved this with far greater success than any of our leaders since the Reagan Revolution have managed. It's doable, clearly. But if the country sees that its president and elected officials appear to be abdicating that role - the very role for which they were elected - then "hope" and "change" seem to be as hollow as the reassurances of BP officials, and as void of life as large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico have become.