A space for conversations in a time of global disruption
By Tim Fox
While industrial society has the collective momentum of nearly seven billion humans, wild
aliveness has the collective momentum of everything else in the universe. Tap into that.
Miles Olson (Unlearn, Rewild)
Cases like that of the Koyukon offer little support for the widely held view that humans are by
definition a blight; that we cannot exist without destroying our environment; that we have no
rightful place on earth. These self-accusations many not reflect a human condition so much as
a cultural condition brought about by agriculture and domestication – what anthropologist
Hugh Brody has called “the neolithic catastrophe.”
(“Searching for the Lost Arrow: Physical and Spiritual Ecology in the Hunter's World”
in The Biophiolia Hypothesis edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson)
In a healthy culture, the tendency to knee-jerk reject modes of human existence that deviate from the cultural norms gives the members of that culture a profound adaptive advantage. This is the case because the odds are great that deviance will lead to conditions that are sub-optimal when compared to the cultural norms, long-adapted as they are to integrating the humans who live by them into the greater Community of Life, which is the ultimate measure of health for any culture.
However, when, over millennia of deliberate efforts by a few beneficiaries of the short-term, exclusive gains made possible through various forms of cultural corruption, a cultural matrix comes into existence that is, in almost every way, maladaptive for the vast majority of the constituent humans who compose it (as well as the biosphere as a whole), then this aspect of human nature – being extremely well-evolved to preserve the cultural context into which one is born and comes of age – is potentially catastrophic. It compels a most bull-headed form of conservative stubbornness and denial in the face of inarguable evidence pointing to the dire necessity for deep cultural change.
What this means is, contrary to prevailing near-universal sentiments, today's global socio-ecological crises in all their forms are not the result of an inherent human flaw. They have reached present catastrophic proportions for the exact opposite reason. They are born of a learned misapplication of our inherent human integrity. In other words, we are unconsciously passing on our broken culture with near-perfect fidelity, generation after generation, exactly how humans are supposed to pass on their culture, and have always done. The problem lies not with our humanity, but with the cultural matrix we are unconsciously passing on.
Only through consciously overriding the subconscious impulses that compel us to hold to habits largely learned in utero and in our pre-lingual childhood, will we turn from the catastrophe toward a viable health-fostering cultural matrix. Since stories are the vehicles of cultural inheritance, replacing the dysfunctional stories with viable stories will be key in this effort.
And an ideal story to start with is one of the core fallacies of the prevailing cultural matrix. That fallacious story goes by the name of “original sin” among the adherents of the Abrahamic religious traditions. Many other traditions, both Western and Eastern, as well as the scientific and secular and others, have different conceptualizations of the idea that humans as a species are inherently broken. It is a deep myth of our culture that transcends religion and infuses our every action. It is actually what I call a lynchpin myth; without the behavioral rationalizations it offers, a whole cultural superstructure of dependent, subsidiary rationalizations and mutually reinforcing behavioral responses to those rationalizations built up over the last ten thousand years, collapses.
Due to the extreme age and reach of this lynchpin myth, to see its fallaciousness requires something that is, these days, nearly impossible to find in the global monoculture of consumerism. It requires a contrast; going outside the conceptual frame of the myth. Yet, Nelson does exactly this in the quote above. By entering the alternative frame, we can see that the deep error we’ve too often ascribed to the human organism is not now, and never has been, universal to the species. Rather, it is cultural in origin. The human organism evolved as a thoroughly integrated well-adapted being – in fact, we could not exist if this were not the case given that flawed organisms quickly go extinct. If our most definitive trait — culture — represented an evolutionary botch-job then we would not have lived well for tens of thousands of years with that very trait only to have it reveal its maladaptiveness now. Only the relatively recent transformation of a single human cultural potential into a cultural reality can account for the turn of that culture's members from being ecologically well-adapted to being on the fast track toward oblivion.
To blame the species is to miss the scale at which the wrong turn occurred and thus, to impair remedial efforts by focusing them on the wrong level of cause, a level where the specific problems in need of solutions don't exist. Thus, when our efforts inevitably prove futile and we blame it on inherent defects in the species, we’ve effectively entered into a nice circularity that circumvents affecting any real change. Blaming the species is also a convenient absolver of responsibility to, and for, the here and now as well as future generations. In other words, it is a cop out.
After all, species change is far less open to conscious alteration than cultural change. So, if the species is just broken, well there's really nothing we can do. But as I alluded to above, the global socio-ecological crises of the present era stem not from a species level defect. In truth, a flawed, relatively recent (6 to 10 thousand years old) cultural emergent has learned to use the strengths of the species against the greater Being of which both culture and species are but two facets.
We are called then, for the sake of our species' integrity, to expose and dissolve the treacherous cultural warp that has infected so many of us, to the point that the very atmosphere and oceans of Earth (two other facets of the greater Being) are in the process of initiating their own remedial response. The target of that response is not humanity writ large, but rather one aberrant human cultural tradition that went rogue ten thousand years ago and has now gone global. We can ally ourselves with the remedial response in sound conscience even though it means actively working to dissolve much of what we have for centuries, if not millennia, built up, come to take for granted and even celebrated: the human condition defined by greed, warfare, tragedy, suffering, misery and loneliness.
It is time to undertake the most radical conceptual leap imaginable in the modern era and celebrate our beautiful humanity in its generosity, wholeness and integrity.
Only from such a viewpoint can we have a positive vision toward which to aim in the necessary reconstitution of our broken cultural identity into, not only a viable, but a truly awe- inspiring expression of our multi-faceted Being-ness. The first step is to see and admit that we have deceived ourselves into believing our cultural identity is our species identity. From this awareness, we can then direct our response at the level of identity that is truly in need of major alteration. And I reiterate, the species level is not it.
At this very moment, the profound strength, beauty and integrity of the human species are as sound as ever. The human organism belongs within the Earth community as much as any other form of Earthly life. Western culture, on the other hand (and all other cultures suffering from the contagion of westernization) omni-prevalent as it may seem, is threatening to take us with it as it begins its death throes. We need to realize, that without our cooperation, without our collusion in passing on and enacting the broken stories that preserve the culture, those throes could not manifest in reality. And the first step in becoming non-cooperative is awareness of the real situation. Abandoning notions of original sin and the like is that step. This will require the understanding that potentiality does not equate to inevitability.
Yes, humans can embody a flawed existence — an addict's existence. That potential is part of our humanity. But so is the opposite — living by cultural habits that foster a healthy fulfilling existence as positive contributing members of the Community of Life (1). Coming to understand and embrace that opposite may be the most challenging, yet essential, conceptual revolution we as individuals and as a culture face. Nothing short of a complete personal/cultural make-over will suffice. But we should be heartened that, even so, the integrity of our species is an asset of which we must take full advantage.
That means re-learning the human ways that contribute positively to the Community of Life. I say re-learn because those ways represent the deepest traditions from which all subsequent cultural traditions, even the most defective, ultimately find their source. The vast majority of the ancestors of every human alive today lived by healthy cultural ways. These ways represent who we are as a species far more than anything born of the 6-10 millennia mis-step that is civilization. But over those six to ten thousand years many fallacious myths were, and continue to be, devised to keep us blind to that fact.
The Nelson quote shows us a way out of our blindness, for if his observation about the Koyukon is true, then to claim that the species is flawed is an insult to them as well as to ourselves. It is an insult to our species and to the evolutionary life-processes by which our species came into being.
Convenient as the flawed-species view may be for rationalizing selfishness and inaction, it holds no merit. And I knee-jerk reject it every time it is trotted out in response to the all-to-frequent instances when a human, or group of humans commits some pathological atrocity. It is time to be honest and admit yes, the pathos is human-derived, but it is not the inevitable result of an inherent flaw in all of humanity (other species are capable of pathos as well. For example, the lions known as Ghost and the Darkness, who trophy-hunted railroad workers in Africa in the late 19th century, and the tiger in John Vaillant’s book The Tiger.). Every instance of pathos is simply a possibility someone, or a group of someones, has manifested as a result of enacting an extreme expression of a cultural story we have spent the last six to ten millennia actively perpetuating and reinforcing a story that amplifies rather than mutes the pathos. Given our present near-total inundation in this story, is it any wonder there is so much pathos in the world today? Blaming it on the species is like saying that because the Titanic sank, all boats are doomed by design. The nonsense of this should be clear, as should the real danger. We need to stop damning the characteristic of boats that makes it possible for every single one of them to sink (buoyancy) and start emphasizing that the very same characteristic, first and foremost, keeps them from sinking. Perhaps even more importantly, we need to emphasize the most obvious truth of all boats: they can only sink because they were afloat first. And to float at all, they must be sound before they ever touch the water.
Until we undergo this shift in emphasis, we will keep bemoaning our circumstance, while at the same time stoking the boilers and driving our Titanic on ever faster. Why? Because we have deluded ourselves into thinking that every boat is bound to go the way of Titanic, so there's no way to escape our fate. And thus, it self-fulfills.
The perceptual sea-change we must undergo will only be possible when we see that, for most boats, being afloat is not synonymous with being doomed to sink, but rather, is definitive of being what they are, as they are meant to be, ever at risk of sinking, but given proper care, far more likely to remain afloat indefinitely. The Koyukon represent such a cultural boat. From the Koyukon, and countless other examples like theirs, including the example of most of our own ancestors, we Titanicans can begin transforming our doomed vessel into lifeboats capable of remaining afloat indefinitely — note: I am not talking about saving civilization. Civilizations are, by definition, Titanics that have already struck the proverbial ice berg and are in the process of sinking (Toynbee's A Study of History shows why this is the case). If the real Titanic took a little over two hours to founder, we might think of our culture's two hours as the ten thousand year existence of agriculture/civilization relative to the 200,000+ year existence of our species. Agriculture represents the sighting of the ice berg and the turn to civilization/conquest represents the collision. As with the real Titanic, nobody noticed a thing at first – the band played on. But eventually, the slipping deck chairs could not be kept in place. And now, the stern is rising high out of the water. Yet, even so, denial prevails – the crew continues to reset the breakers so the lights keep shining.
By seeing that the real problem is our titanic cultural boat and not boats in general, we can see that real options are available. Failure to act on that knowledge — failure to dismantle the monolithic superstructure and build life-boats out of it — is then nobody's fault but our own. And the reason we might fail to act despite the overwhelming evidence for the need to act is the discussion that opened this piece. We're in the habit of our singular luxury liner, and long adapted to hold true to our collective habit no-matter-what because, over the span of our species' existence, holding true to cultural habits has proven the best likely strategy for optimal survival. Now, however, reality for the members of the 10,000 year old agricultural/civilized tradition is exactly the opposite, and our well-evolved loyalty to our cultural identity has become a liability, quite possibly a fatal one. Yet, the inherent wholeness of our species is the well-spring from which we can draw in the regeneration of healthy cultural traditions, the human traditions that are our deepest birthright.
(1)When the measure of personal success within a culture (productivity/monetary wealth) is inversely proportional to the measure of personal success within the Community of Life (integrity/long-term viability), the result can be an inner conflict capable of tearing a conscientious person apart. Most people are content to restrict the recognition of success to the cultural sphere. And in a healthy culture this works fine because the culture is well-integrated into the Community of Life, so the persons of that culture are covered from birth to death no matter their personal quirks. But when the culture is not well-integrated, and is in fact diametrically at odds with the imperatives for preserving the health of the Community of Life, then the celebration of people who work well within that culture, no matter how fully, generously and happily they live their lives, comes across as hollow. Such people can be considered upstanding citizens by one measure only. This situation represents the ultimate betrayal: people betrayed by their culture. They are, as persons, living as they have been long-evolved to live – as full participants and contributors to their culture — but their actions are corrupted by the culture itself such that the greater their cultural success, the greater the damage incurred by the Community of Life. Nobody in the present cultural matrix can fully succeed in both realms. And few choose, or even can choose, to focus on success in the Community of Life. The people who do tend to disappear from the cultural radar in direct proportion to their success. And so we're left with wealthy tech entrepreneurs, wealthy politicians, wealthy celebrities, wealthy athletes (see the common denominator here?) etc. as the exemplars of success. They are, however, the people least suited to deliver the message so desperately needed today: how to succeed as members of the Community of Life. And so, the hollow feeling remains . . .
Add a Comment