As an outsider, I have a bird’s-eye advantage of looking down at the fires raging across the American political landscape and the internecine clashes which threaten to tear the “United” States apart.
Being a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, non-partisan, and pledging allegiance to nothing else than the Earth and all living beings, I sit far removed from the circus arena and watch the clowns and carnage while munching on metaphysical popcorn.
A shrill tragicomedy unfolds before my eyes on this Theater of the Absurd.
For several weeks, the main act featured the clash of two puppets, male and female, Kavanaugh and Ford, whose strings were manipulated in shadow by the doctrinaire forces rending the fabric of this nation. Meanwhile, exploitative reporters thronged the front row feeding spectators raw meat and venom which devoured their entrails and made them vomit it back without once passing through the sieve of their intellectual integrity. Thus poisoned, and burning with self-righteous rage, they cast doubt on the testimony of these two players, based not on objective evidence, but in blind allegiance to the dark forces pulling their strings. One side claiming there should be a statute of limitation for wrongdoing, while the other insisting on imposing perfect morals on imperfect beings, they precipitated their judgment, and, like Roman Emperors, lowered their thumbs condemning their despised to death.
Consider drugs as another example. Since 1971, the United States has wasted 1.5 trillion dollars on its “war on drugs,” but done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Why? Because addiction is not a “drug problem” but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the self-destructive manifestation of despair. A country with good imagination would invest its treasure on mental health, not ineffective wars.
What about guns and mass shootings? Here again, this country faces a problem of anguish, one which mostly afflicts young men. Bad imagination would have government confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans or have teachers carry concealed weapons at recess. The good kind would focus attention on the underlying issue.
What about walls? Bad imagination conjures idiotic ideas that immigrants are determined to take over the country or are somehow afflicted with irrepressible wanderlust and must therefore be stopped at the border with ever-higher fortifications. Good imagination understands that most immigrants originate from neighboring countries as yet not sufficiently developed to afford everyone the opportunity to provide a decent living for themselves and their families. “Tough luck!” Bad imagination would say. “Not our problem. Build that Wall!” forgetting that necessity is the mother of invention, so, while laying another row of bricks, the ground beneath their fortress becomes tunnel-riddled like Swiss Cheese. President Truman’s 1949 inaugural speech outlining his vision to assist developing countries is a perfect example of good imagination:
“We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas.”
How those intentions were later translated into action is a perfect example of bad imagination.
Climate change is yet another example, pitting those who insist on wasting time trying to pin the blame on humans against those who deny it, often with such vitriol and vehemence it reminds me of the Spanish Inquisition. To my mind, it is not ultimately a matter of who is responsible, but what we do about it. Whether man-made or not, it is a phenomenon which poses a serious threat to human survival, so we might want to stop splitting hairs and, instead, roll-up our sleeves and get to work before it’s too late.
The forces of bad imagination — preferring strife over compromise, war over healing — now control the United States and threaten to tear it apart. One can only hope that the millions of puppets under their spell will soon wake up from their hypnosis, start thinking for themselves, take back power, and unleash the right kind of imagination on their country.
I’ll still be perched here, munching on metaphysical popcorn, to report on the awakening, or watch in disbelief as Rome continues to burn.
It’s 97 degrees today with 93% humidity. The forest is eerily silent, the atmosphere is laden and sticky, the sky phosphorous yellow, the A/C is shot, and I sweat and rage.
As I write this (7.6.18), the heat dome extends its red and orange mantle across most of our planet. It’s the proverbial gasping canary in the coal mine. Ominous. How many must choke until we get it?
During the Great Smog of London in 1952 ten thousand had to die before the country woke up from denial and did something about it. I’m not talking canaries anymore. Nearly three-hundred people had to die from smog pollution in New York in 1953 for the Clean Air Act to pass years later. We had to reach the point in which 30% of our drinking water was unsafe – as were two-thirds of the country’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters – for the Clean Water Act to become law two years later.
Why do we do this? Why do humans wait until smacked on the face to wake up?
Ecological Scientist, Dr. Jason Bradford offers this explanation in ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’:
“Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought.
Emotions motivate and guide us.
When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards or punishments and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our mental models, setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are.
When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption.
Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal.
The conscious brain is not a simple dupe however. It can actively participate in the act of denial or rationalization. People can erect fancier houses of cards and hold on to their cherished beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Many will admit that is what they are doing by resorting to the expression, Well, I just have faith, even when the subject is not overtly religious. This signals that the mental model being challenged is very important for the person, and to remove it would cause a serious and painful identity crisis.
Because scientists are challenging fundamental assumptions of our culture, such as the basis for progress and the consequences of [untrammeled] economic growth, many cannot agree with [them] without losing their identity. This threat to the mental model is simply too great to accept. Hence you encounter two modes of response from those accepting the prevailing paradigm: (1) the scientific data are not reliable, and (2) faith in technological progress and/or human ingenuity.”
Think of Italian scientist Galileo, forced by the Church to recant his discovery of a heliocentric universe which challenged the notion of the time that humans were at the center of everything.
Or Giordano Bruno, the Dominican-monk, who was burned at the stake for claiming that the earth’s sun is just one of many stars.
These threats to human preeminence and grandiosity were just too great for some to accept making them kill the messenger as I wrote in ‘Off with Her Head!’
Some claim there are as many “credible” scientific studies out there that prove humans are not altogether responsible for the warming of the planet as those proving the contrary. Even if true, who gives a shit? It’s like discovering a giant meteorite hurtling towards earth and doing nothing about it because we did not cause it. Even if scientists were to confirm that it was only highly probable – but not 100% certain – the meteorite would impact earth, wouldn’t it make sense to do everything we can to prevent it?
After 9-11, both the American and British governments borrowed a page from the Green Movement and adopted its ‘precautionary principle,’ which says that not having the evidence that something might be a problem is not a reason for not taking action. It requires imagining what the worst might be and applying that imagination upon the worst evidence that currently exists. You don’t take out car insurance because you believe you’re a shitty driver but because you consider the roads to be chock-full of morons.
What both Bush and Blair argued was that faced by the new threat of a global terror network the politician’s role was now to look into the future and imagine the worst that might happen and then act ahead of time to prevent it. If it made sense to use the precautionary principle to preempt a terrorist threat, why not apply it to an existential one?
Others argue that as long as other countries continue spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere without abatement, the U.S. is right in staying its course. While self-destructive, the argument would hold water if the country – with only 4% of the world’s population – was not responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide heating the planet. It’s like you trashing your neighborhood in an all-nighter and refusing to clean up because you saw one neighbor throwing an empty beer can into the mess.
Finally, there are those who faithfully assert that mankind will eventually get its act together. It might, but at what cost, and will it be too late? We are but a monstrous locust plague, and no matter how valiantly she struggles to heal after every onslaught, the earth’s regenerative magic is no match for the speed and intensity of our rapacity.
Crises are a matter of bad imagination over good imagination. The United States used to be a country of undaunted imagination, one which never shirked when confronted with a worthy challenge. Throughout history, the ingenuity and can-do attitude of Americans have led the world in times of great need or opportunity. It’s in their DNA. Or perhaps was. It could well be that this once indomitable spirit has been tamed by lashings of selfishness and greed. It seems we are living, not in the midst of an advanced culture and heroic civilization, but inside a feverish ant-heap made of concrete, steel and silicon, ruled only by the imperative and ideology of a cancer cell: growth for the sake of growth.
What’s frustrating is that I believe we are wrong to consider the challenge of global warming as one asking us to retrench; one requiring a drastic degradation of our way of life. Quite the contrary. I believe that the country with the courage to lead the effort towards a sustainable economy, planet and future will not only reap great material rewards but will be looked upon with great respect and admiration by the rest of the world. Were it to resuscitate its fighting spirit and lead the way, the United States could then rightfully claim its cherished exceptionalism.
I say this not only because of this country’s feckless leadership, ruling corporate special interests, and our collective silence, but out of guilt. For what have I really done to contribute to the solution? Not enough, I’m afraid. True, I don’t own a house or car, and my possessions could fit in two boxes. But this choice is selfish, motivated by my desire to live a simpler, unencumbered life. Much as I love this place, Earth did not weigh in my decision.
All this makes me want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, limb-locked with a swarthy native girl, wait for Armageddon while I enjoy what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet…the only inhabitable one we know of.
By the way, my 87-year-old father can’t afford to repair the A/C because he lost most of his savings in the stock market crash and Great Recession of 2008. That’s progress for you.
In “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”, Plutarch chronicles the battle of Triganocerta between the forces of the Roman Republic – led by Lucullus – and the army of the Kingdom of Armenia led by King Tigranes the Great.
As Lucullus’ forces advanced across the Tigris towards Armenia, Plutarch reported:
“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming, was so far from pleasing Tigranes, that he had his head cutoff for his pains, and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”
In the ongoing mud-slinging contest around climate change, many heads are falling.
“Why can’t we talk about climate change?”
Mary Thompson’s question weighed on my mind as I crossed a crystal landscape painted by a heavy snowstorm the night before, then frosted by early morning icy gusts. Every bare branch in the forest was garlanded with sparkling ice, and the snow crunching under my boots glinted like sifted flour of a full moon.
Why can’t we?
Mary is not only a dear friend, but a wild, wise woman, a modern-day Shaman and renowned author of the essential book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul’. More than the jargon contained in all the reports from the International Council of Science, to me – through her vivid landscape poetics – Mary does more to mend the umbilical cord that once tethered us to the Earth, and to evoke a visceral shudder when witnessing the consequences of our species’ rapacity and indifference born from our estrangement from the Wild.
“Another couple passes me, thighs like pistons. They’ve already climbed and descended two other valleys and are freely sweating. “It’s too warm for this time of year,” the woman tells me. I agree, and then hear their story: they live in Santa Rosa and only just escaped last October’s devastating fires. Heat and drought are not words they welcome; they have already been scorched. I say, “I’m afraid this is the new normal, the climate is changing.” The man looks away from me, quickly changing the subject. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to hear what I am about to say…”
I’ll tell you why I think he much rather cut off your head, Mary, than hear what you have to say (My emphasis on his gender is pertinent to the first part of my answer).
The reasons, I believe, are threefold: A twisted story, our neurobiology, and our addictions.
A Twisted Story
Myths are the dreams of cultures. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – our cultural DNA.
Here’s a sampling of the Western World’s stories of the ‘Great Mother’:
In the Olympian creation myth, Uranus (Father Sky) came every night to mate with GAIA (Mother Earth), but he hated the children she bore him. Uranus imprisoned Gaia’s children deep within Earth, causing pain to Gaia. She shaped a great flint-bladed sickle and asked her sons to castrate Uranus. Cronus, the youngest and most ambitious of her sons, ambushed his father and castrated him, casting the severed testicles into the sea.
In Greek mythology, DEMETER is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over the fertility of the earth. Demeter’s virgin Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, and, preoccupied with her loss and her grief, the seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die.
In the religion of ancient Babylon, TIAMAT is a primordial goddess of the sea. She is the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation. In fierce protection of her progeny, she rebelled against her husband. Her rebellion brought down the wrath of all the gods, and Marduk was chosen to defeat her in battle as she was perceived as the demon of chaos. This archetypal masculine hero rent her in two during the power struggle. He turned Tiamat’s severed body into earth and sky, took over rulership of earth, and recreated humanity ruled by an all-male divine council.
GAIA, DEMETER & TIAMAT are all archetypes of the Great Mother: elemental creator and destroyer – the Womb and Tomb of life. She is the vernal spring and the harvest, as well as the blasted landscape, ravaged by drought, fire, or flood. In myths she is often destroyed, as humanity fears her all-encompassing power, her desire to never relinquish her children and to keep them infantile forever. The ambivalent mother archetype is projected in infancy onto the actual mother, who is both loving and protective, and at the same time, all-powerful
My mother loved to bake. As a young boy, in Shop Class, I made her a wooden kitchen palette, painted it fire-engine red, and lovingly gave it to her on Mother’s Day. My brothers never forgave me. It became her chosen instrument of flagellation – always at the ready – landing on our tender hides with loud smacks until it finally cracked. No one messed with my mother.
Men fear the irrational, the capricious, the chaotic, and distrust intuition – all those mysterious forces that constellate their unconscious.
For psychologist Carl Jung, the transition from unconscious life to conscious life in the development of humanity and the individual is mirrored in the separation of the child from the mother: “The first creative act of liberation [of the unconscious] is matricide” (Jung, ‘Collected Works’ 1954c, p.96).
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28
In ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’, author Barry Spector says that our world has been conditioned by 5,000 years of andocracy: a social system ruled by men, in which the stories are primarily of male heroes who create the world by killing Mother-Serpents.
These old, twisted, or lopsided narratives, were given greater authority by the Scientific Revolution’s conception that matter (from the Latin mater: mother) is lifeless.
When men agreed that the world was dead, the world itself became ‘Other’ – Barry Spector
“Progress typically runs from simple, dark, slow, primitive, and natural, to complex, light, speed, rational, and enlightened; in other words, from feminine to masculine. Our notions of masculinity are tied up with the myth of progress and the imperative to transcend nature.” (Spector)
That’s the reason, Mary, we don’t want to hear what you have to say.
“You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.” – Jonathan Swift.
Counter-arguments produce anxiety, because we perceive them as attacks upon our blind faith in progress. If one grows from wet/dark/feminine to dry/light/masculine, appeals to sustainability become entwined with threats to masculinity. (Spector)
If you would have asked the man, instead, about our species’ current-day plans for terraforming Mars and establishing the first human colony in outer space, he would have been all ears, cheerfully riveted.
Having befouled our Mother’s kitchen, left the stove burners on for days, and shattered her crockery, we wish to flee from our recklessness and her growing wrath. The scale of our destructiveness is so grand, we feel there is nothing we can do, so we pine for another chance, somewhere out there.
“History is replete with examples of social organizations, whether a business or a nation, that failed to perceive the realities of a changing environment and didn’t adapt in time to prevent calamity. Hubris and a self-reinforced dynamic of mass delusion characterize the waning phases of these once powerful groups. In hindsight we ask, “What were they thinking?” (Bradford, Jason. ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’).
Think back to the Great Smog of London of 1952, the Deep-Water Horizon Oil Spill, and The Bhopal Disaster. Now think ahead to June 4, 2018: Day Zero for Cape Town, South Africa – the day when fresh water taps are expected to run dry.
What are we thinking? Or better said: How are we thinking?
Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought. Emotions motivate and guide us.
When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards (feels good) or punishments (feels bad) and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our “mental models,” setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are. When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption. Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal. (Bradford)
You, Mary, are disrupting and threatening our cherished, “feel-good” notion of progress.
It also appears that humans are inveterate optimists. We like to see our glasses half full, our clouds silver-lined.
Using and MRI scanner, Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London, and neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events they asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.
A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. We hugely underestimate our chances of getting divorced, losing our job or being diagnosed with cancer. We expect our children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision ourselves achieving more than our peers; and overestimate our likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. But, while mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. (Sharot)
Ajit Varki, a biologist at UC San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.
You are raining on our parade, Mary, so off with your head!
“The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.” – Erica Jong
And addiction, is the habitual avoidance of reality.
From where I now sit, at sunset, cross-legged on a hardened snow berm by the river’s bend, the reality of global warming seems dubious. It is 30 degrees out here. Ice falls are stuck fast to the rock wall, and ice floes rigidly to each other blocking the river’s flow at various points. Much like our opinions, to which we desperately cling, impeding rational, civil discourse.
“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” – Paul Mazur, leading Wall Street Banker. 1929
To consider the alternative reality, according to the prevailing – “full steam ahead” – narrative of those championing the status quo, would mean that we would have to give up our desires, comforts and conveniences, to scale back our consumption; to radically change our way of life. And we don’t want to do that, Mary, and that’s why we won’t talk about climate change.
We much rather be flattered and comforted, like King Tigranes the Great.