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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Behavioral Toxicity

Metaphor: We spend inordinate amounts of time detailing and arguing over the nutritional content, both real and imagined, of the several items on our plate... and none to the arsenic being sprinkled over the whole mess. We must, first as the thinkers and evaluators among us and then as a whole community, begin to recognize and seriously respond to the social and behavioral toxicities with which we presently live. But, like a water well poisoned with cholera, the toxicity is carried in forms vital for our needs and has only a probability of terminally infecting each drinker.

In the case of the cholera infected well, the biological toxicity can be exacerbated by the social ‘toxicity’ of the well being ‘owned,’ especially so if the wellbeing (apology) of the ‘owner’ depends of the water there-in-contained being used by the community. This is the basic form of one large category of social toxicity: a required activity carries a toxic element or addition and some segment of the community is committed to the activity’s perpetuation in its exact present and toxic form.

There are many things that we humans do very well, but backing off – slowing down – is not one of them. In fact, in the whole of human recorded history, and apparently beyond, humans have only slowed down when forced by epidemic disease and climatic or geologic process. We have, in almost every moment, increased in number, in consumption, in distribution and in impact on the world around us; albeit very slowly in the beginning but recently with rates of speed that are clearly toxic – at least clearly to an observer with a modicum of historical and biological perspective. It is classic biological understanding that any material in sufficient excess is a poison, i.e., the life sustaining stability of homeostatic order is defeated with dysfunction or death as a consequence. The immense capacity of humans to adapt becomes toxic when our adaptations snowball into adapting to adapting as a necessary part of social design.

This is a second category of behavioral toxicity. Our original adaptation prowess was applied to the environment so that we could reduce its dangers and increase our consumption of its possibilities. In a terrible distortion of that original and “biologically sensible” design, we today all but ignore the holistic presentation of the environment and apply our capacities to the great writhing mass of our previous creations as though the immediately perceptible were reality. I think of occasions when I would visit a great city dump and the accumulations of the discarded made the very ‘land’ upon which to walk – the random collections of lamps, tires, toasters, chairs, mops and other thousands of identifiable and unidentifiable things formed together to make a composite picture of a highly local ‘reality.’ We live on the surface of our dump and call its random presentation an ordered world. The consequence is the toxification of the adaptation process – a process with no capacity for discrimination, a capacity that can only respond as though what it receives is real.

These two forms of behavior toxicity are poisoning our relationship with each other and with the biophysical reality; that is, the fundamental substrate of all life and consciousness. That both forms of toxicity are major parts of the designs of our behavior make them no less devastatingly poisonous to our present and future wellbeing, and only indicates the degree of dedication and effort required to detoxify our actions and beliefs.

This is not a trivial matter that we can ignore or do a ‘work-around.’ These are true toxicities just as damaging to human life and ecological integration on the earth as pneumonic plague or cyanide are toxic to individuals. The latency is longer – more like lead or the AIDS virus – and so are more difficult to see as dangerous: Remember ‘sugar of lead’, a popular Roman beverage?

The political, economic, social and epidemiological events of our world are all either the direct result of these behavioral toxicities or exacerbated by them. The remarkable recalcitrance of what now passes, in the US, for conservatism and Republicanism – anti-science, anti-intellectualism, even anti-thought – puts power over the multitude in the hands of real societal insanity (see Robert Altemeyer’s work on authoritarianism).

So called liberals and progressives, while they take in a greater dose of The Real – incorporating some science and logical reasoning into their process – still form the core of their actions and beliefs from perceptions and experiences marinated in the toxicities of ungrounded adaptation and self-interest emptied of community-interest: ultimately as insane as conservatives (that is, just as free of any clear association with Reality).

The world’s billions are fixed in their trajectory, as are each nation’s millions, but individuals, especially small carefully formed communities [1], can avoid at least some toxic input. This is modeled well by the fact that a dedicated few can eat carefully grown foods, but the vast multitudes must eat what they can get regardless of potential harm.

The key is grounded adaptation, grounded in some source of The Real outside of social product and process – and present religious form is not it [2]. There is only biophysical Reality to perform this role in our experience: it always has and ultimately always will. Not to make this relationship central in the process of adaptation is insanity.

[1] This is a very tricky matter. ‘Change’ communities are almost always driven by the social system from which they devolve and function on some single-purpose principles. There is no growing relationship with Reality in their structure, and thus, no reduction in toxicity.

[2] Religion as hominid process, as a functional part of consciousness order, has been poisoned by being co-opted by adaptations to social process. Religion, in its original form, gave motivational force and duration to complex environmental adaptations and was part of maintaining the practical and spiritual connection to place.

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