On The Wildness of Children

Lies the hope for the world

Deep in a remote jungle city in South East Asia, National Geographic reporter Hereward Holland writes that “in this gaudy mecca of eroticism and greed, the cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. Many items on the menu, including drinks, are derived from poached endangered animals.

“At one riverside bistro a tiger skeleton marinates in a dark alcoholic tonic in a 12-foot aquarium; its vacant eye sockets gazing down on patrons. The elixir is believed by its many aficionados to be a potent aphrodisiac that imparts the animal’s muscular vitality.

The tiger wine is good for men, says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. ‘It makes a man strong in the bedroom.”

Never mind the pathetic spectacle of a grownup man incapable of recovering his erotic power by no other means than quaffing the deliquescing remains of a tiger. What I’m wondering about is the disconnect; of what made humans so detached from the rest of nature to now see her as nothing but a storehouse for their rapacious and often deviant appetites.

What kind of mind, I ask, is one that looks at an ocean and sees only breaded fish sticks and Omega-3 pills? Who in every rainforest sees nothing but a pricey mahogany table or green pasture to raise a juicy burger? Who sees a cure for erectile dysfunction in every tiger or rhino, a trophy for his fragile ego in the rack of a buck, a convenient drain for toxic sludge in every river, a mountain as a jewelry store and wild spaces as just ‘unpeopled.’

Only a dissociative mind. The mind of a schizophrenic and sociopath. An ecocidal mind. The same kind that considers anyone superficially different from him as less than human, thus fit for extermination. A genocidal mind, like Adolf Hitler’s.

Humanity, I fear, is suffering from reactive attachment disorder (RAD), prevalent in infants living in institutions; foster kids who go from one caregiver to another, or children who are separated from their mother for long periods of time.

Our separation from Mother Earth can be traced to the start of the Agricultural Revolution, about 12,000 years ago. Prior, we had lived for hundreds of thousands of years as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Once we settled, we cut the umbilical cord and all hell broke loose.

The symptoms in those suffering from RAD include attention-seeking, neediness, infantile behavior, anxiety, detachment, and showing limited emotions. Pretty much the afflictions of the bulk of humankind.

Love is predicated on attachment, so it’s nearly impossible to love or care for anyone or anything from which you are far removed.

As it is, most of our sensitivities developed as hunter-gatherers are now all but lost. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or silkiness of a leaf have become unfamiliar. Constant exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality has blunted our sense of smell and taste. We no longer know what to eat without checking labels. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. Bleared by the glaring light of screens, our sight now misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic media images and shouting voices that incite us 24/7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage and fear have made it impossible for us to find serenity and equanimity.

Our species no longer resonates, vibrates, thrums, or harmonizes, so can’t play its once rightful part within the concert hall of nature. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth — from the Latin mater for “mother” — simply becomes a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.

We are living at right angles to the land and have commodified our aliveness, as said writer Maria Popova. And it may well be that our heedless violence against the planet is explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensual selves, so we seek to remove from view that which reminds us of what we have lost.

In his international bestseller ‘Last Child In The Woods,’ Richard Louv says that “since 2005, the number of studies of the impact of nature on human development has grown from a handful to nearly one thousand. This expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world.”

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority. — E.B. White

Curing adults from their acute nature deficit disorder seems hopeless. But I refuse to give up on the coming generations, which is why my book for boys seeks partly to call them out to the wild.

Here’s what I tell them:

Rewilding the American Boy2
Photo by Ashley Ann Campbell

For 99% of modern human history, or like forever, we lived as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth with our few clan members, carrying very little, owning nothing but the animal skins on our backs, our stone tools, light hunting weapons, cooking vessels, and our inventiveness.

We moved all the time and learned to read the land — the jungles, forests, mountains, oceans and streams — by being closely connected to Earth. We learned to adapt to different terrains and climates. We were fit, rugged, resourceful, and adventurous.

(…)

We are creatures of nature and are paying a heavy price for living apart from it. Some have called this “nature deficit disorder.” The average American kid now spends over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Compare that to the life of an American Indian boy as described by Charles Eastman who was a member of a Sioux tribe in 1858 and whose original name was Hakadah.

In his book, ‘Indian Boyhood,’ Hakadah says that “he enjoyed a life almost all boys dream of and would choose for themselves if they were permitted to do so. What boy,” he asks, “would not be an Indian for a while — the freest life in the world?”

“This was my life,” said Hakadah. “Every day there was a real hunt. We were close students of nature. We studied the habits of animals just as you study your books. No people have a better use of their five senses than the children of the wilderness. We could smell as well as hear and see. We could feel and taste as well as see and hear. Nowhere has the memory been more fully developed than in the wild. All boys were expected to endure hardship without complaint. [We] had to go without food and water for two or three days without displaying any weakness, or run for a day and night without rest. [We] had to traverse a pathless and wild country without losing [our] way, either in the day or nighttime. [We] couldn’t refuse to do any of these things if [we] aspired to be warriors.”

I don’t know about you, but if I ever got lost in the wilderness, I would hope to find someone like Hakadah to guide me to safety rather than a modern-day boy with a cell phone or tablet.

I realize many kids today live in places where there is no immediate access to open natural spaces. But it doesn’t have to be a gigantic wilderness. With the right imagination, your local park or nearby creek will do just fine. Anything but sitting around playing video games or glued to screens which is causing two additional disorders:

The first one is psychataxia, a disordered mental state causing confusion and an inability to concentrate.

The second disorder caused by too much screen-time is social-emotional agnosia, the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation in social situations. In other words, kids suffering from this disorder can’t relate to others.

(…)

In all my walks out in nature I have never seen a bird’s nest that’s two stories high with a hot-tub and a 60-inch plasma T.V. Have you?

I have never seen an obese, out-of-breath squirrel leaning against a tree unable to keep up with her fit friends because she ate more acorns than were necessary to keep her body fit.

I’ve never seen a bear hauling a ton of trash and dumping it in a river.

All I’ve seen in nature is balance.

Maybe that’s why I also haven’t seen a therapist couch, a drug rehab clinic, nor a prison in the wild. You only need those when things are out of whack or unbalanced. And the only ones who are unbalanced are humans, which is probably what made British philosopher Bertrand Russell describe planet Earth as the lunatic asylum of the Universe where the inmates have taken over.

Good for the Planet, Good for the Child

Rewilding the American boy is not only good for the environment but good for the boy.

Reporting for the National Center for Biotechnology, Susan Strife and Liam Downey say that increased urbanization combined with dwindling natural spaces and increased time indoors has sparked recent concerns regarding children’s diminishing direct contact with nature. Evidence that children are spending more time indoors and less time in nature has also sparked research across the health and psychological sciences that links children’s diminished contact with nature to important childhood health trends, including increased levels of depression and increased incidences of cognitive disabilities, obesity, and diabetes. This research indicates that exposure to nature has physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive benefits that not only buffer the symptoms of the above disorders but also positively affect children’s overall development.

A child’s brain develops stronger connections when exposed to a rich environment. A recent study shows that the brain’s hippocampus, involved in learning and memory, is highly susceptible to plasticity. Neuroplasticity induces lasting change to the brain throughout an individual’s life. Neuroplastic change has significant implications for healthy development, behavior, learning, and memory, and can be elicited by thoughts, emotions, and environmental stimuli.

Navigating nature also develops spatial thinking, described by Temple University’s Dr. Nora Newcombe as “seeing in the mind’s eye,” allowing us to “picture the locations of objects, their shapes, their relations to each other and the paths they take as they move.” In a 2013 report on maps and education, National Geographic concluded that “spatial thinking is arguably one the most important ways of thinking for a child to develop as he or she grows. A [child] who has acquired robust spatial thinking skills is at an advantage in our increasingly global and technical society.”

Besides the documented benefits to a child’s health and mental wellbeing there are profound life lessons to be found in the wild. “Every aspect of Nature,” said astronomer Carl Sagan, “reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos will penetrate its deepest mysteries.”

An old tree, for instance, felled by age and storm and surrounded by fresh green shoots that had been waiting for their chance to rise, can teach a child more about the inevitability of death as a precondition for new life than any dry old textbook.

A stagnant, pestilent water pool can serve as a metaphorical warning against inactivity… to never allow their dreams to wither on the vine of life.

Watching a river flow effortlessly around rocks will teach them the power of persistence, flexibility, and yielding when confronting obstacles.

A bent tree sapling, struggling to get out from under the shadow of older trees to capture sunlight, is a testament to the rule by which we should all live — to find our own light, truth, authenticity and destiny, and stop trying to be an imperfect copy of someone else.

While I may not be able to save the tigers from being turned into wine to rejuvenate the flagging libido of older men, my hope is that my book will reach the new generation before the rest of nature succumbs to the rapacity of humanity’s dissociated, unwise, and unnatural mind.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

Parent resources:

Vitamin N (public library link), by Richard Louv, author of the New York Times best seller that defined nature-deficit disorder and launched the international children-and-nature movement. Vitamin N (for “Nature”) is a complete prescription for connecting with the power and joy of the natural world, with 500 activities for children and adults.

Sense of Wonder (public library link), by Rachel Carson. A celebration of nature for parents and children by the acclaimed conservationist and writer of ‘Silent Spring.’

A Black Swan and a Dark Age

Changing course before it’s too late.

There was widespread devastation and death on a scale never experienced before. Major cities were destroyed, diplomatic and trade relations severed, whole civilizations fell…

2020?

Not exactly.

The events narrate the near-sudden collapse of the world’s great civilizations of the Bronze Age (3000–1177 BCE) which plunged humanity into its first Dark Age.

A concatenation of events, both human and natural — including climate change and drought, seismic disasters known as earthquake storms, internal rebellions, and systems collapse — coalesced to create a perfect storm of calamities that brought this age to an end. — Eric H. Cline, ‘1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed’

The parallels between this historical event and the modern-day are striking. Now, as then, the world is intimately linked through global trade, travel and diplomacy, and the downfall of one nation affects the fortunes of every other. As Cline notes, “in a complex system such as our world today, [a tipping point] is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to collapse”

We have now reached modern history’s first tipping point — a Black Swan event.

It is likely that once the worst of the pandemic is over, the world will gradually get back on its feet, bruised and battered, ready for the next round. But the blows will keep coming and growing ever more powerful. “The international COVID-19 pandemic is many things,” writes astrophysicist Adam Frank in the online journal ‘Think,’ “but its impact may be fostering a recognition that [the] machine of civilization is a lot more fragile than we thought. And that is why, in the long term, the coronavirus will one day be seen as a fire drill.”

The eerie similarity between the events which led to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations and the state of our world today are worth repeating: climate change, natural catastrophes, growing social stratification and inequality, class warfare, over-dependence on global trade, and the migration of large populations displaced by poverty and conflict.

Ignorance is lack of knowledge. Failing to act on knowledge is lack of wisdom. And those who do not learn from history, warned philosopher George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it.

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that continuing with business as usual once the pandemic ends could well plunge the world into the next dark age. The only thing that might prevent it, I believe, is a substantive shift in human consciousness. Post Covid-19, our priorities, our values, the way we think, consume, invest, vote, educate our young, and interact with other groups and the natural world will determine our future.

Luckily, we don’t have to reinvent the entire wheel.

Amid humanity’s first dark age, a series of guiding lights began to flash. Around 800 BCE, with no obvious cultural contact with each other, the world witnessed the emergence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the rational philosophies of ancient Greece. Like navigational stars showing us the way out of darkness, these new stories spoke about balance and temperance, about compassion and nonviolence, about tolerance and acceptance, and reason over ignorance. In short, about living right. Known as the Axial Age, it was “one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, and philosophical change in recorded history,” notes scholar Karen Armstrong in ‘The Great Transformation.’

The transformation, in other words, begins from within. It starts with each one of us.

“The Axial sages,” says Armstrong, “were not interested in providing their disciples with a little edifying uplift after which they could return, with renewed vigor, to their ordinary self-centered lives. Their objective was to create an entirely different kind of human being.”

From the look of it, it is clear that the bulk of humanity chose to ignore their wisdom. The Black Swan event of 2020, much like the shock therapy used to treat manic disorders, might make us think twice about burying our heads in the sand once again.

A self-centered person is one who is willfully ignorant and callous about the consequences of his actions on the rest of the world. So long as his ego and status are propped up, his insecurities temporarily assuaged, and his addictions satisfied, the rest of the world and the planet can pretty much go fuck themselves.

My cell phone, for instance, contains about 62 different types of metals. But had I ever bothered to find out where these metals come from, how they’re mined, and the impact their extraction is having on the people who mine them and their environment? Not at all. Not until the Black Swan shocked me. I’ve since learned that the tin used as a solder in our phones’ circuit boards has all but destroyed the paradisiacal island of Bangka where excessive tin mining has dramatically changed the natural landscape, leaving acidic craters in place of lush forests, and making clean drinking water harder to come by.

Tin mining Indonesia
Bangka Island, Indonesia

A self-centered person is one who doesn’t think twice about drinking an elixir made from a tiger’s carcass left to rot for years in a vat of rice wine just to ease his sexual insecurities.

“The tiger wine is good for men,” says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. “It makes a man strong in the bedroom.” — Extract from Hereward Holland’s National Geographic report: ‘China’s Expanding Middle Class Fuels Poaching, Decadence in Myanmar’

Never mind the tiger and its almost certain extinction. The possibility of infecting the rest of the world with a deadly virus from the consumption of wild animals never occurs to a self-centered individual.

Today, an eight-year bottle of tiger wine will set you back $290. The Samsung Galaxy S20 5G: $1600. A pair of Buscemi Diamond Sneakers: $135,000.

A self-centered existence at any expense — human and ecological — was precisely what the sages of the Axial Age were trying to warn us about.

Perhaps the most obvious change during the Bronze Age was the rise of the privileged. It is hard to think of this process in terms other than those of aggrandizement of the few. — J. M. Coles & A. F. Harding : The Bronze Age in Europe

I can think of no better symbol for the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations than the vast deposits of crushed shells from the mollusk bolinus brandaris found on the coasts of Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon. Driven to near extinction in ancient Phoenicia, these medium sized sea snails were used to extract the purple dye used to color the garments of the elite. According to historian B. Caseau, 10,000 snails were needed to produce one gram of dyestuff worth more than its weight in gold. Tyrian purple became a status symbol representing power, prestige and wealth.

Yesterday’s sea snails are but today’s sea cucumbers, now being driven to extinction to boost the weak sexual libido and indulge the palate of the wealthy few.

Amid collapsing economies, mass layoffs and mass burials around the world, the insights of the sages of the Axial Age are more relevant than ever:

The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates

Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire. — Buddha’s second truth

Desires unsettle the heart. — Chuang-Tzu

Nothing in excess — Confucius’ Golden Mean

Racing, chasing, hunting, drives people crazy. Trying to get rich ties people in knots. The wise soul watches with the inner eye not the outward. — Lao Tzu

Covid-19 has placed a deathly pause on humanity’s intemperate, unbalanced and frenzied existence. “We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going,” says author Yuval Harari in ‘Sapiens.’

The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations tells us exactly where we’re headed.

It seems wise, then, to use this period of isolation to detoxify ourselves from our addictions which are placing inordinate strains, not just on the environment and its life-sustaining systems, but on our physical and mental well-being.

This is not a fanciful call to asceticism. I’m not suggesting we all wear saffron robes and roam our neighborhoods carrying begging bowls once allowed back out. But neither do we need purple robes and diamond-studded sneakers. My call is for judicious consumption. For balance and temperance. To slow our pace, reorder our priorities, and, critically, to allow this shocking period of collective suffering to crack open our hearts, thereon extending our concern beyond the center of our own existence to encompass, both, our planet, and the lives of the less fortunate whose future has been further blighted by the Black Swan of 2020.

What Now, Pandora?

If anything, now is not the time for hope.

Written about 3000 years ago by Greek poet Hesiod, the myth of Pandora may shed some light on humanity’s current predicament and contain a hidden clue for a better way forward.

In her ‘Short Story of Myth,’ religious scholar Karen Armstrong warns that “it is a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought that can be cast aside when human beings have attained reason. Myths give explicit shape to a reality that people sense intuitively. It is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave. It puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action. It helps us cope with the problematic human predicament and to find our place in the world and our true orientation. It lifts men and women onto a different plane of existence so that they see the world with new eyes. A myth, therefore, is true because it’s effective, not because it gives us factual information. If it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.”

This is exactly what we need right now: To silence the voice of reason and listen to our intuition, to see the world with new eyes and change our minds and hearts to find a new orientation. Our traditional ways of thinking, I’m afraid, are not going to cut it this time. Humankind needs a new story, fast!

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

The myth recounts how Zeus, ruler of all gods, ordered Hephaestus to fashion Pandora from clay, thereon to live among humans as punishment for Prometheus having stolen fire from the gods and gifting it to mankind.

In Hesiod’s poem ‘Work and Days,’ we read:

“To make up for the fire, I will give them an evil thing, in which they may all take their delight, embracing this evil thing of their own making.”

Thus spoke the father of men and gods, and he laughed out loud.

Then he ordered Hephaestus to shape some wet clay and to put into it a human voice and to make it look like the immortal goddesses…

And he ordered Aphrodite to shed golden charm over her head; also harsh longing and anxieties that eat away at the limbs.

And he ordered Hermes, the messenger [of the gods], to put inside her an intent that is doglike and a temperament that is stealthy.

And [Hermes] put inside her a voice, and he called this woman Pandōrā.”

Let us skirt the obvious patriarchal allusions of women being the bane of man’s existence and dig deeper to discover the symbolic meaning of Pandora.

“For us moderns,” says Karen Armstrong, “a symbol is essentially separate from unseen reality, but the Greek symballein means ‘to throw together.’ This sense of participation in the divine was essential to the mythical worldview. The purpose of a myth was to make people more fully conscious of the spiritual dimension that surrounded them.”

Famous mythologist Joseph Campbell put it this way: “The life of a mythology springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols. These deliver more than just an intellectual concept. The symbol, energized by metaphor, doesn’t just point to something else but awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and reality itself.”

So what does Pandora symbolize?

We get an inkling from Hesiod’s poem. Pandora, he said, is the evil of our own making; the harsh longings and anxieties that eat away at us.

In ‘The Wisdom of the Myths,’ Luc Ferry elaborates: “Hermes gives Pandora the mind of a dog, which is to say she always asks for more than enough. She is insatiable on all levels: food, money, gifts. She always wants more… her appetite is without limit.” “Always dissatisfied, demanding, self-indulgent, she is the sum of all the contradictions of our existence,” adds Jean Pierre Vernant in ‘The Universe, the Gods, and Men.’

Sound familiar?

Ferry and Vernant could well have been describing a good chunk of consumers in affluent societies. Us, in other words.

It is through symbols that we enter emotionally into contact with our deepest selves. — Trappist monk Thomas Merton

After Hephaestus fashions Pandora from clay, the myth recounts the moment Zeus whispered in her ear tempting her to open a strange jar that the gods had given her. Commonly known as “Pandora’s Box,” it contained all the ills, all the misfortunes, and all the sufferings that would thereafter rain down on mankind.

Hesiod again:

“Before this, humanity lived on earth

without evils and without harsh labor,

without wretched diseases that give disasters to men.

But the woman took the great lid off the jar

and scattered what was inside.”

And so ended the golden age for man, just like it ended when Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden. Same story, different characters.

Let us step away from the realm of myth and into the real world to find out if humankind has ever enjoyed a “Golden Age.”

We have, of sorts, suggests Yuval Harari, author of the international bestseller ‘Sapiens.’ It lasted for 99% of the time modern humans have been on the planet when we lived as hunter-gatherers.

“On the whole,” says Harari, “foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, laborers, and office workers who followed in their footsteps. They were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants. They had a varied diet so were less likely to suffer when one particular food source failed. They also suffered less from infectious diseases.”

Harari suggests that this golden era ended about ten, to fifteen thousand years ago with the Agricultural Revolution; a turning point he denounces as “history’s biggest fraud.”

“The extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure,” Harari says. “Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. Wheat did not give people economic security; the life a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. On the contrary, that’s when raids began. The pursuit — through agriculture — of an easier way of life, resulted in much hardship. One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations. From the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theater of the human mind.”

Why did humanity make such a fateful miscalculation? Harari wonders.“For the same reason people throughout history have miscalculated,” he says. “They are unable to fathom the full consequence of their decisions.

Since the Agricultural Revolution — ramping up during the Industrial era — humans, like did Pandora, have been endlessly lifting a dangerous lid with their voracious and insatiable “dog-like” appetites, with their greed and avarice, their self-indulgent addictions, thus unleashing on themselves and the planet one scourge after another in a plundering orgy of consumption — plagues, pollution, climate change, wildfires, wars, floods, famine, deforestation, desertification, droughts, dust bowls, etc. The latest ill to escape from the box is a deathly virus directly linked to man’s arrogant, mindless, and relentless assault on the rest of nature.

Let’s be honest. Before coronavirus, we were already infected. Only this time by a deadlier pathogen — our own befouling rapacity.

Seeing nature as nothing more than an inexhaustible source of stuff and a dumpsite for human waste, we are blind to what environmental philosopher John Muir intuited more than a century ago, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

An addiction is the habitual avoidance of reality, and while you’re free to avoid reality, said novelist Ayn Rand, “you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

Here we are, 2020, face-to-face with the first major consequence of our longstanding avoidance, and I fear it won’t be the last. This latest pandemic is but an ominous foretaste of what’s to come.

Pogo

Is there hope?

Therein lies the clue in the myth of Pandora.

‘Hope,’ it so happens, was the only thing that did not escape the box when she opened the lid.

Sounds comforting, but I have a hard time with the notion of hope. It’s too fuzzy, passive, sunny and cheerful, of course, but numbing, like a shot of Pollyannaish Novocaine for the spirit. I seriously doubt prayer, candle-lighting or crossing fingers are going to alter reality, unless, we — individually, and as a species — take decisive action.

My preference, rather, is for the classic understanding of hope.

For the ancient Greeks, hope was not a gift. It was a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope was to remain in a state of want; to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain unsatisfied and unhappy, just like Pandora.

That’s why hope remained in the box.

Therefore, to find our way out, we must examine the root cause of our irrational behavior.

According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is a never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. Even when experiencing pleasure we are not content because we fear the feeling might soon disappear and wish it to remain, and, ‘hopefully,’ intensify.

Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet cave? If not, what’s the point? — Yuval Harari

“The most important finding of all,” says Harari, “is that happiness does not depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations,” meaning, your life as it is, compared to your expectations of how you’d like it to be, or worse, how others tell you it should be. In such constant state of want and dissatisfaction, we become easy prey to the hipnotic enticements dangled in front of our eyes by mass media and the advertising industry.

If happiness is determined by expectations, the two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting our reservoirs of contentment. — Yuval Harari

In an earlier piece, I included a sobering indictment by German philosopher Theodor Adorno warning pointing at how capitalism craftily repackages our longings so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our well-being. “The hidden persuaders of capitalism,” further observed social critic Vance Packard, “see us as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, and irrational emotional blockages. We are image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts. We annoy them with our senseless quirks but please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us to action.”

Fuck that!

I say it’s time to revolt!

Time to take arms against our collective delusions and irrational emotional blockages! Time to recover from our addictions and define our own standards of success, worth, attractiveness, and well-being! Time to stop lifting the lid off Pandora’s box and cease our relentless assault on the natural world just to satisfy our caprices, ease our insecurities, and feed our insatiable appetites! Time to choose between continuing our covetous existence as human-havings, or start living as who we’re meant to be — human beings.

Covid-19 has sent us on a collective time out. Perhaps our last chance to forge a new path forward. Why not seize the moment? What’s there to lose? As it is, the world-as-we-knew-it is in shambles.

“Cracks in the foundations of life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” suggests philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

“The Homo Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little we can be proud of,” Harari laments. “We seem as disoriented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going. Self-made gods — with only the laws of physics to keep us company — we are accountable to no one. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

You act like mortals in all you fear, and like immortals in all you desire. — Stoic philosopher Seneca

I’m not suggesting we go back to a hunter-gatherer existence. That would be as impractical and unsustainable as staying the course. I am simply proposing we slow down, that we become more embedded and dependent on our local communities for our sustenance, contentment, and sense of belonging; that we rewild ourselves, especially our children, to heal the rift we’ve caused between us and the rest of nature; that we listen to our youth and dare become infected with their idealism and divergent-thinking magic. Finally, that we focus on what we truly need rather than on what we desire and limit our consumption within the regenerative capacity of the environment.

In Faustian Economics,’ author Wendell Berry proposes that “to recover from our disease of limitless consumption, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent. We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and necessity of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. We will have to reexamine the economic structures of our lives and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places.”

Only then do we stand a chance.

We need a new story. A daring story of self-revolt!

The enemy is us — a group of deranged, godlike primates whom we must topple from their hubristic throne before it’s too late.

Not the End of the World

But a new beginning, perhaps.

It’s neither the end of the world, nor the end of humanity. Not yet, at least.

But it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? Now that a virulent microbe has stopped us dead in our tracks making an eerie hush descend upon humanity’s frenzied existence.

Were it not for the tragic loss of life and financial pain, I would allow myself to feel vindicated for having called for a collective time out less than a year ago:

“Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would stop. Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel; flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude. Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.”

Well, here we are. What now?

Necessarily, for most, sheer survival will take precedence over philosophical or existential questions. I am in that same boat, with no life jacket, and taking-in water at alarming speed. But like the musicians aboard the RMS ‘Titanic’ who played to their tragic end, as a writer, I feel called to lend my mind and voice to discover and share whatever can be learned from the current crisis. For this is precisely when artists go to work, said Toni Morrison. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

From a practical standpoint, I could limit my work and actions to urging the United States to demand that China permanently ban the trade of wildlife for human consumption as a non-negotiable condition to resume trade talks. For that’s how this whole mess started, as far as my research goes. Such a ban would lower the probability of a new contagion. Once the current one subsides, we could go on with business as usual.

But business as usual, I argue, is precisely what is pushing humanity to the brink, so I think it wise to not let this crisis go to waste and explore what it’s trying to tell us.

“Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” says philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

The loud cracks now being heard around the world are symptomatic of a system beginning to show signs of structural fatigue and nearing collapse, none louder than the silent crumbling of our illusions.

Our cherished illusions of certainty, security, and human supremacy… gone!

The illusion that our relentless and voracious encroachment into the natural world can proceed without consequence.

The illusion of our separateness from nature which makes us blind to what John Muir once said, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The illusions of limitless growth, progress and economic prosperity now crumbling at a dizzying speed.

Finally, our illusory and hubristic faith in human reason and technology which makes us blind and deaf to our natural instincts and nature’s wisdom.

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. — American playwright Arthur Miller.

The Anthropocene era, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, appears to be ending. That, at least, is my most fervent hope.

The emergence of a new era, called ‘The Ecocene’ by many, will depend on a new understanding of human-nature relationships and on ecologically informed ways of thinking and living.

Intimations of what this new era promises are already manifest. Nature is presenting us with a picture of her rapid healing power when unburdened and unsullied by man’s heavy footprint. Skies are clearing, so are waterways. Once more, dolphins frolic in Venice canals. Birds are back in Wuhan. For those who demand more objective metrics of well-being, consider that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths per year, and that close to 9000 children die of malnutrition every-single-day. To put those numbers in perspective, the latest (4.1) death count from Covid-19 is forty five thousand.

The emergence of the Ecocene, however, depends entirely on what we do once the dust settles.

“In a very real sense,” says American author Jeff VanderMeer, “the history of the world can be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations.”

I believe we are now starting to experience the real consequences of our bad imaginations, consequences which make no distinction between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, or between generations. We are all in the same boat, or Ark if you will, called Planet Earth, facing a common enemy… not just a virus, but ourselves.

Meanwhile, the voice of good imagination has grown steadily louder as humanity rushes towards the abyss. We just haven’t been listening.

For example, in her eye-opening 2014 TED Talk, English economist Kate Raworth wonders, “what if economics didn’t start with money but with human well-being?” She then examines the two sides of that story. “On the one hand,” she says, “our well-being depends on us having the resources we need to meet our human rights to food, water, health, education, housing, energy. And on the other hand, our well-being also depends on our planetary home. For the last twelve thousand years, the conditions on this planet have been incredibly benevolent. We’ve had a stable climate, plentiful water, clean air, bountiful biodiversity and a protective ozone layer. We’d be crazy to put so much pressure on these life-support systems [to the point where] we actually kick ourselves out of the very sweet spot that we know as home.”

But that’s precisely what we’ve been doing: moving dangerously away from that sweet spot, particularly since the Industrial Revolution.

The voice of good imagination is also coming from the young who look upon the actions or inactions of their elders with dismay. “We deserve a safe future,” says 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Is that really too much to ask?”

No, Greta, it’s not. We all want the same thing. But I’m afraid nothing will change unless we change.

By “we,” I mean those whose way of life is at odds with the planet. Who live at right angles to the land. Whose interactions with the natural world, excess consumption and investment decisions compromise the health of the world by undermining its support systems and regenerative capacities. I’m talking about the fortunate ones who live in developed countries. The change must begin there.

No government or international body can save us from our addictions or temper our auto-destructive impulses. Technology, alone, won’t help either; this is just one more human illusion currently crumbling before our very eyes. And no, Mr. Musk, none of us want to join you in Mars.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

Every disaster

Changing our way of thinking starts by becoming informed citizens of planet Earth. In this quest, we have only one choice: either accept the science or not. Science is not a matter of belief or disbelief. Those who choose not to accept the science should do the world a great favor and book themselves the first space flight out of here.

For all the rest, a good starting point is learning how humans impact the environment and the top 10 solutions to reverse climate change.

Next, take a hard and honest look at your consumption. Not through the lens of sustainability alone, but far deeper. Examine all the stuff you purchase and ask yourself: Do I really need this? Has all the stuff I’ve been accumulating added to my happiness and well-being?

The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates

If you are among the lucky few to have investments, exercise the right to demand that your money stop funding companies which are part of the problem. Become a conscious investor, as Vinay Shandal urges in this TED talk. If you, like me, have a pension, write a letter to the fund’s manager asking her to divest from industries which are undermining our collective well-being. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (okay… maybe not China).

For those who believe their individual actions won’t make a difference in the grander scheme, I offer you the story of seven year-old Benjamin Ball.

The current crisis is humanity’s first, and perhaps last reckoning moment. The perfect opportunity to quickly move back to that sweet spot Kate Raworth talks about. If anything, with death lurking so closely at everyone’s doorstep, it should make each of us question how we’ve been living up to this point and seize the moment to change course.

When we finally come out of this, we’ll be stepping up to a crossroad where we’ll have to choose between “business as usual” and the ultimate survival of our species. Let us wisely use this sheltered time to decide which path to take.