Tuesday, December 01, 2015


Some years ago there was a movement called “deep ecology” that tried to get people to look beyond saving their favorite landscape or species so as to get to the roots of the system and the forces that try to derange everything, including humans.  It was severe, even harsh, and didn’t last except as something maybe in the backs of some people’s minds.  Here’s what the Wikipedia writer says: Deep ecology is a contemporary ecological and environmental philosophy characterized by its advocacy of the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, and advocacy for a radical restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas.”  I wish I knew who this writer was -- I would look further for more of his/her writing.  (This is one of the major flaws in wikipedia, that it breaks the chain of attributions.)

I have two problems with this statement:  It only includes living beings, when the ecology always includes -- indeed, derives from -- the environment with all its rocks and rills.  That’s not counting viruses which we haven’t figured out yet.  Are they alive or not?  They certainly participate regardless of human needs.

"Jack Strong"  totalitarianism

The other problem is the human craving for total control.  My movie last night was “Jack Strong,” a painful "true story" about a spy trying to save Poland by collaborating with the US.  It’s not so black-and-white as the usual accounts because it was a Polish film.  In explaining why an intelligent and honorable man would be a spy, they illustrated the effects of totalitarianism.  Most of the reviews of the film were interested in how much money it made: not much.  It was promoted as a thriller, not that total control isn’t a horror.  No human, even with the aid of computers, can plan the world.  

More reassuringly, no human can destroy the world, not even with atomic bombs or plagues or global warming.  It can only change the conditions that make human life possible.  I suspect “deep ecology” dreaded to make that explicit.  But Arne Naess, with this basic idea, prompted a lot of thinking and some pretty effective movements.

Deep ecology takes a more holistic view of the world human beings live in and seeks to apply to life the understanding that the separate parts of the ecosystem (including humans) function as a whole. This philosophy provides a foundation for the environmental, ecology and green movements and has fostered a new system of environmental ethics advocating wilderness preservation, human population control and simple living.”

An Ayahuasca vision

The central spiritual tenet of deep ecology is that the human species is a part of the Earth, not separate from it, and as such human existence is dependent on the diverse organisms within the natural world each playing a role in the natural economy of the biosphere. Coming to an awareness of this reality involves a transformation of an outlook that presupposes humanity's superiority over the natural world.”   That knocks out most religious institutions, since institutions need money no matter how elevated their goals may be and the begging program always claims to be superior.  When snails and bamboo pledge and tithe, they can come to the table of argument and budget.  Of course, coal pays its own way, but at a suicidal cost: immolation.

“Deep history” has the paradoxical effect of getting at questions about humans in the future.  To understand who we are and what we have done is -- hopefully -- to figure out what we can do in the future, particularly now that we have this enormous technological ability to perceive how the world fits together from sub-atomic particle to cosmos.  It assures us that every individual person carries this story.  

A first advantage is our new ability to go far deeper than the written word, back to the beginning of spoken language and the development of its structure.  This is done two ways:  the ability to analyze “trace” in human remains, their environment and material culture; and then the new knowledge that human brains actually extend through the whole body since skulls are only the location of the processing centers for information gathered from the skin in or from empathy among living things, esp. our own species.  We can “see” our brains and neurons gathering and sorting.  With empathy -- and even imagination -- we can see others.

We have known that living beings “burn” oxygen or carbon dioxide in a reciprocating cycle through plants without quite understanding how we do it or how we use the energy except for the obvious food and shelter.  Now the strongest theory is that the human mind is dependent on our ability to code sensation of many kinds.  Not only that, but also to form memories and stories by using that information.  It is these that enliven material culture and make us into families, tribes, nations -- and, oh, how much we need to figure out the next step.  It is stories and images that will take us there.  The proof that the desire is already kindled is in the raft of dystopic tales about destroyed cities and a lesser number of idyllic places, usually primitive, childlike, rural or wilderness.

“Deep history” is about these two strands: first language, and metaphorical thinking derived from material culture.  Both are what we call “arts” or “humanities.”  It endangers our ability to weave these ideas to have arts constantly belittled, defunded, or defined in terms of greed, mere commodities.

About the time human fossils and artifacts were being found and the project of organizing thought about them first began, a museum displayed its holdings in terms of their idea about materials.  They grouped the artifacts in a continuum: stone tools, then copper, then bronze, then iron and finally steel.  I suppose now we’d have to add plastic.  From that came the idea of “ages,” the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, et al.  This domination of “progress” required the notion that humans were also getting more clever and upright, in that familiar line from simians to pre-humans to knuckle-dragging Neanderthals to modern humans -- now often mocked by adding a robot or a miserable workaholic.  Recently there has been an overwhelming conviction that everyone was a hunter-gatherer, but then -- partly because of inter-glacial weather changes -- we all converted to agriculturalists who stored grain, domesticated animals, and raised up temples and trading ventures out across the land.

You're just data.

All the lovely bones and hides, ivory and hair, all the vegetation, all the paintings and ceremonies, disappeared except in deep caves.  And one other place: the recent lives of plains buffalo Indians who were hunter-gatherers until a couple of centuries ago.  But also collaborators with dogs and growers of tobacco -- in some places also corn, squash, beans.  They are not gone -- only transformed by horses, pickup trucks, tourists, and computers.  Their memories and visions are there in the arts, which have been part of their salvation.  Check out Native American art -- not just the romantic 19th century stuff but the abstractions like those painted on tipi skins (polymer paint on cotton canvas).  

This is something rarely considered in a Euro-centric world whether you think the tribal population of the Americas came over the Bering Straits or arrived by boat-hopping in pursuit of whales, its genomic core was Asian.  As the world tips towards circum-Pacific Ring of Fire concerns, this becomes more relevant.

By Valentina LaPier

So much to think about, so many stories to frame besides being lost in the galaxies.  So little reason to limit and exhaust ourselves by trying to force everyone into old ways of living.  So much to be learned by sitting on your own doorstep making something with your own hands.  A drum, a sweater, a song, a necklace . . .

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