Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

There will come a day when the consumer way of life dissolves into an embarrassing freak show episode of history.  Our descendants will struggle to survive on the devastated planet they inherited.  They will resent their crazy ancestors, and repeatedly ask, “What were they thinking?”

History professor Yuval Noah Harari provides answers to this question in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  It documents common perceptions of mainstream consumer society, a culture famous for its remarkable advances in irrational exuberance and cognitive dissonance.  This culture imagines that humans are gods, our technology is miraculous, and the best is yet to come.

Readers learn how humans soared to the top of creation in three leaps — the Cognitive Revolution of 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution of 12,000 years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of 500 years ago.  Prior to this, we were “insignificant” animals, much like our closest living relatives, the bonobos and chimps, with whom we share more than 98 percent of our genes.  They have remained insignificant, living in the same place for two million years without destroying it.  What was wrong with them?

I disagree with the “insignificant” tag.  Technological innovation artificially catapulted our humble ancestors into the elite club of apex predators.  This transition was not the result of genetic evolution gradually providing us with better teeth and claws.  It was the result of bypassing the limitations of our genes.  We manufactured prosthetic teeth and claws.  This opened the gates to a joyride in tool making that has grown to staggering proportions.  Thus, our ancestors were significant ecological oddballs even before Homo sapiens appeared.

Harari is not a cheerleader for the Agricultural Revolution, which he refers to as history’s biggest fraud.  Farming was backbreaking work, not a brilliant invention.  It did not provide a way of life that was more secure.  The diet was less nutritious.  People were less healthy.  Farming spurred population growth and conflict.  The costs have exceeded the benefits.

Like the consumer culture in which it was born, the book is primarily humanist in viewpoint.  Ecology only gets brief moments on stage.  The devastating environmental impacts of agriculture are not mentioned.  Readers are not encouraged to contemplate why sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron.  Here are some words not found in a search of the book’s text: erosion, deforestation, overpopulation, sustainable, materialism, climate change, methane, dioxide, acidification, anthropocentricism.

Agriculture was an unfortunate experiment, but highly addictive.  Each generation continued marching in the same dirty rut.  By the time the game had become hopelessly miserable, there were way too many people, and nobody remembered the path of simple living.  The same is true for consumerism, a fad designed to fan the flames of perpetual economic growth.  It has become the lifeblood of our economy, and most consumers have no memory of simple living.

Consumers have been brainwashed into believing that shopping like crazy is the golden path to fulfillment and happiness.  They go deeply in debt buying unnecessary status-boosting stuff, and promptly discard it with every shift in trendy styles.  Like hamsters racing on a treadmill, they spend their lives chasing impossible expectations, whilst gobbling Prozac by the fistful.  There is no socially acceptable alternative.  Living in a frugal manner is indisputable evidence of demonic possession.

Harari is not a fan of the consumer lifestyle.  It is just the tip of an ancient iceberg that he barely mentions, the skanky duet of stuff and status — a major blunder in the human journey.  Hunter-gatherers owned almost nothing, and had zero interest in hoarding belongings.  In those days, nobody owned the aurochs, and the aurochs were free to live as they pleased.  Eventually, we reduced them into passive, half-bright domesticated cattle.  They became personal property, and the more you owned, the higher your status.

Status was more important than the health of the grassland.  This led to overgrazing and desertification.  The rustling of cattle and horses became a widespread enterprise, and the cause of countless bloody conflicts.  The emergence of private property created insanely destructive status cults.  The hunger for status turns people into idiots who stampede to the latest bonanza, eager to get rich quick via gold, gems, oil deposits, or smart phones.  Status seekers gaze at a forest of ancient redwoods and see a gold mine.

Agricultural civilization provided an unstable foundation for the turbulent centuries that followed.  Harari describes how science, empire, capitalism, and intolerant religions have brought us to the brink of both consumer utopia and ecological helter-skelter.  The benefits of our great achievements have all come at great cost.  Was it worth it?  Are consumers happier than the cave painters of 30,000 years ago?  “If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science, and industry?”  Wow!  Super question!

I would add more questions.  Are we happier than the bonobos who enjoy abundant food, no jobs, no money, no bosses, no governments, and have sex all the time?  What good is a happiness that requires a ridiculously destructive dead-end way of life?  Sustainability is far better proof of intelligence, wisdom, and success.

In the last five paragraphs of the book, Harari reveals his concerns about the dark side of the human juggernaut.  He concludes that we are lost, discontented eco-terrorists.  Looking back over the human journey does not make us glow with pride.

But we’re not merely a clown act.  Look at us!  We are the wealthiest generation of all!  Human genius has enabled us to consume ever-growing amounts of energy.  We have discovered “inexhaustible energy resources,” and now enjoy access to “practically limitless energy.”  Modern medicine miraculously saves lives (largely by reducing mortality from the diseases of civilization).  Humans are far less violent today, international war is nearly extinct, and large-scale famine is now rare.  Everyone joyfully celebrates demise of patriarchy.

This review began with the question, “What were they thinking?”  The book provides answers, a recognizable portrait of today’s consumer society.  This mindset is a whirlwind of human exceptionalism, acute awareness, and magical thinking.  We’re smart, and we’ve learned how to do many cool things.  Yes, there are also some serious problems, but the overall story here is one of progress, not foolish incompetence.  This is exactly what consumer society wants to hear.  The book is selling well, and reader comments are primarily praise.

The bedrock fantasy of consumer culture is that technology will solve all challenges, the future will be powered by safe, clean renewable energy, and the consumer way of life can continue on its current path, without any sacrifices, until the sun burns out.  Edward Abbey once wrote, “Where all think alike, no one thinks much.”

I wish that Harari had been raised in a sane society.  I wish that his history had documented a clear thinking culture on a far healthier trajectory — well educated, wide awake people who understood the mistakes of their ancestors, and were fully committed to a return to genuine sustainability.  We’re long overdue for a fourth revolution, a homecoming, a healing.

Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper, New York, 2015.

Here is Harari giving a 15-minute TEDx talk.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Braiding Sweetgrass

Science is a painfully tight pair of shoes.  It perceives the family of life to be little more than a complex biochemical machine.  It has created powerful tools for ravaging the planet’s ecosystems, creating a hard path for our descendants.  It gives us knowing, but not caring.  It’s not about wisdom.  It’s about pursuing the wants and needs of humans, with less concern for the more-than-human world.

Robin Kimmerer is a biology professor.  After being trained in the rigid beliefs of science, she heard a Navajo woman talk about the realm of plants from the perspective of indigenous knowledge.  For that woman, plants were not subjects, but teachers.  In a flash, Kimmerer realized the shallowness of her scientific training.  It only provides a pinhole view of reality.  Science is not enough.

Her grandfather was Potawatomi.  When he was a boy, the government sent him away to the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he was trained to become an English-speaking wageworker.  He forgot his language and culture and drifted away from his people.  He never felt at home in either world.

Kimmerer has worked hard to reconnect with her Native American roots, because traditional indigenous cultures are blessed with a far more holistic relationship with the family of life.  All people on Earth have tribal ancestors who once lived close to the land, but so much has been lost with the passage of centuries.  Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, is a collection of stories that focus on living with respect and reverence for the land.

She once asked a city lad where his sense of place felt strongest.  He immediately responded, “My car.”  Her book is especially important for the impoverished millions, who have grown up indoors, in a ghoulish netherworld of glowing screens.  She has a strong and respectful relationship with the land, and she describes it beautifully.  It’s a perspective that is almost absent in our culture, and without it, a long-term future for humans is impossible.  We must remember.

While explaining the culture of sharing, respect, and gratitude, she does not conceal her scientist badge.  So, readers are less tempted to automatically dismiss her stories as daffy rainbows of New Age woo-woo.  Science is not worthless.  In the centuries of restoration that lie ahead, it can offer some useful ideas, if we keep it on a short leash.  Nature will play a primary role in healing the land as much as possible — it knows what to do.  The far bigger challenge is dealing with the monsters that inhabit the goop between our ears.

In the native world, when a patch of ripe strawberries is discovered, the plants are warmly greeted.  The people ask permission to take some berries.  If the response is yes, they take only what they need, never more than half of the fruit.  The plants are thanked for their gift, and the pickers leave an offering of tobacco.

Gifts and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin.  The berry pickers now have an obligation to promote the wellbeing of the strawberry people, by depositing their seeds in good locations (not a toilet).  This is a relationship of reciprocity between berries and people.  The berry eaters need the plants, and the plants need the berry eaters.

On the other hand, the relationship between mainstream people and nonrenewable resources is not reciprocal.  The oil, coal, iron, and other minerals do not need the miners, nor is their wellbeing improved by the mining.  The planet’s atmosphere does not appreciate our toxic offerings of carbon emissions.  The ecosystem does not enjoy being treated like an open pit mine.

Cultures that enjoy a direct and intimate relationship with their ecosystem have far more respect for it than those that forage at malls and supermarkets.  Consumer culture receives enormous gifts from the land, but gives almost none in return.  Kimmerer’s students clearly understand that the relationship between consumers and nature is abusive.  It’s difficult for them to imagine what a healthy relationship would look like. 

Kimmerer lives in the Onondaga Nation.  At the school, the Haudenosaunee flag blows in the breeze, not the stars and stripes.  There is no pledge of allegiance to a political system that claims to provide “liberty and justice for all.”  Instead, each day begins with the Thanksgiving Address, in which the students express gratitude for all of creation.  It helps them remember that, “everything needed to sustain life is already here.”  We are wealthy.

I had one issue with the book.  Natives from corn-growing cultures see corn as sacred.  Corn was a recent arrival to the region of the eastern U.S.  Its expansion spurred population growth and conflict.  We know that hunter-gatherers could succeed in achieving genuine sustainability when they lived with the wisdom of voluntary self-restraint.  But environmental history has not documented a culture achieving sustainability via intensive agriculture.

Potawatomi legends describe a dangerous spirit called the Windigo.  It wanders across the land in the lean months of winter.  It is always hungry, and never stops hunting.  It’s a selfish spirit that is obsessed with its own survival, by any means necessary.  The Windigo is notorious for having an insatiable hunger.  The moral of the story is to share, to take care of one another.  Don’t be a greedy butthead.

Much to the horror of the natives, the colonists imported a diabolical spirit of incredible self-destructive overindulgence — Super Windigo.  In white society, mastering the madness of insatiable consumption was seen as an admirable mark of success!  Kimmerer winces.  “We spend our beautiful, utterly singular lives on making more money, to buy more things that feed but never satisfy.  It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave.”

After a lifetime of shopping and discarding, we don’t return our bodies to nature.  The dead are placed in heavy caskets and buried deep in the ground, where nature will struggle for centuries to retrieve the nutrients.  I’ve always hoped that my corpse would be eaten by mountain lions in a wild location, an offering to an ecosystem upon which I have lived far too hard.

From other books, I have learned about cultures that did something like this.  Carl Jung noted that the Maasai tribe did not bury their dead.  Corpses were left outdoors for the hyenas to eat.  John Gunther wrote that the Bakutu people of the Congo recycled corpses by laying them on a termite hill.  In sky burial, corpses are fed to the vultures.  This is done in Tibet, and in Zoroastrian communities in India.  Evan Pritchard noted that the Western Algonquin people also practiced it.

Over the years, Kimmerer has heard the Thanksgiving Address recited countless times.  It is so inspiring to listen to people express gratitude for all of creation.  She longs for the day “when we can hear the land give thanks for the people in return.”  So do I.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 2013.

Questions for a Resilient Future is a 17-minute talk given by Kimmerer.

Returning the Gift is a brief essay.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Original Wisdom

Original Wisdom is an unforgettable book.  Like all humans, author Robert Wolff was born a wild animal, ready to enjoy a pleasant life, romping around in a tropical wilderness.  He grew up in Sumatra, the son of Dutch parents.  His father was a doctor.  The young lad suffered the misfortune of being educated by the dominant culture.  It trained him for an unnatural life of schedules, destinations, and anxiety.  His wildness was paved over, and his consciousness became disconnected from All-That-Is.

Wolff was interested in healing, and hoped to become a doctor, but World War II interrupted his plans.  After the war, he became a social psychologist, and worked on a number of government projects.  Work included numerous visits to rural villages in Malaysia, where life was very laid back.  The people were “soft, gentle, polite.”  Villagers were the opposite of city people, who tended to be “crude, loud, insensitive.”

Oddly, the patients in Malaysian mental hospitals included whites, Indians, and many Chinese — but no Malays, who were half of the population.  Malay villages had a healthy sense of community.  They accepted the presence of people who were odd; there was never a thought of sending them away.  Everyone knew the village thief, and no one reported him to the police, because he belonged where he was.  Malays respected one another.

Wolff was grateful that he had learned to speak several languages, because this ability expanded his awareness.  Languages are unique products of the cultures in which they evolve.  Different cultures perceive reality in different ways, and many ideas cannot be accurately translated from one language to another.  Consequently, it was clear to him that the Western worldview was not the one and only way of interpreting reality.  Most Western people never learn this.  Insanity seems perfectly normal to the inmates of the loony bin.

His career began in the 1950s, the dawn of the most horrific era in human history.  Population grew explosively, as did the ecological blitzkrieg.  Traditional cultures were being exterminated by a plague of bulldozers.  Wolff worked hard to learn and record the knowledge of traditional healers.  He believed that their skills were the time-proven results of thousands of years of trial and error.  A tremendous treasure was on the verge of being lost forever.

He remembered the days before antibiotics, when Western doctors were little better than witch doctors.  He detested modern healthcare, where doctors practiced medicine, not healing.  They were highly skilled at temporarily postponing death via extremely expensive treatments — even if the additional weeks or months of existence were meaningless.  Not long ago, most of those with fading spirits would simply have been allowed to pass to the other side in peace.

In his crusade to preserve ancient knowledge, he met a number of healers who had not been the apprentices of venerable elders.  They acquired their skills via inner knowing.  Intuition told them what herbs to use, and the way to prepare them.  These healers told Wolff to relax; a treasure was not being lost.  The wisdom was always accessible.  When it was needed, someone would find it.  This notion gives Western folks cramps, because they process reality via thinking.

One day, Wolff learned about a tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in a remote mountain forest — the Sng’oi (or Senoi or Sakai).  Meeting them opened the door to a series of life-changing experiences, a great healing.  They were masters of intuition and inner knowing.  They lived in a spiritual reality, “where things were known outside of thinking.”

Their camps were not close to the road.  Whenever Wolff arrived unannounced for a visit, one of the Sng’oi would be waiting for him in the forest.  The guide would stand up and, without a word, lead him to the village.  This baffled Wolff.  How did they know he was coming?  When asked, they told him that they had no premonition of his arrival.  They had experienced a feeling to go to a place and be there.  When Wolff appeared, they understood why they were there.

They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, communicating telepathically.  Their shaman could sometimes foresee future events.  In the mornings, the Sng’oi discussed their dreams.  Once, Wolff described a dream.  Its message, they told him, was that he was needed at home.  He returned to his family, and learned that a child had had a medical emergency.

“They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.”  They loved to laugh and joke.  They were often singing and smiling.  Angry voices were never heard.  Each new day was a blank slate — no plans, no jobs, nothing that had to be done.  They floated, inspired by feelings.  Life in a tropical rainforest was not a tough job.

One evening, while sitting in a group, Wolff went into a trance, and spoke to the others, an experience he did not remember.  A Sng’oi shaman recognized that Wolff had shamanic powers, and offered to open spiritual doors for him.  His name was Ahmeed, and his job description was “to bring new knowledge to the People.”  Wolff accepted his offer.

The learning process involved long, silent walks in the forest, with no food or water.  Wolff was frustrated, because he was thinking like crazy.  It was impossible to still his furiously roaring mind.  He could not hear his inner voice.  At the end of the walks, he was exhausted; his mind fried.

Eventually, his thinker got more and more flaccid, and he learned to pay attention.  Some days, he could float away from his mind, and vividly experience the sounds and smells of the forest.  Everything changed.  The world became intensely alive.  He ceased being an observer, and became a living part of All-That-Is.

After months of practice, he gradually remembered how to be a human being.  “The all-ness was everywhere, and I was part of it.  I cannot explain what went on inside me, but I knew that I had learned something unbelievably wonderful.  I felt more alive than I had ever felt before.  All of me was filled with being.”  He felt great love for the people.  The trees and mosquitoes were his family.

Back in the civilized world, Wolff was no longer the same person.  Inner knowing could be painful, and sometimes had to be turned off.  He could sense the feelings of the people around him, and this could be overwhelming.  “It was frightening to discover how many people think nothing at all, but feel waves of anger, resentment, and bitterness — although they act as if they are deaf and blind to their own feelings.”

As the years passed, Wolff became whole and confident, as his humanness recovered.  Being human was so much healthier than being civilized.  That’s his message.  Even adults can heal.  It’s never too late to try.  Knowing inside is not something unusual; it is how we are.  All humans can have that connection with All-That-Is.  The connection is within us.”  Cultures without the connection are on a bleak path.

Wolff’s website is here, and many of the stories in his book are here.

Wolff, Robert, Original Wisdom — Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2001.