A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Human Plan

“If we are to act, if human beings are to organize and act, the individual actions must be relatively simple. This is not just true for the masses, but also has been true for the elites who have, in the many simple acts of excessive accumulation, created a complex and well-defended bulwark against changing their grasp on power and entitlement. Any plan to reform and reconstruct the most damaging designs in our blah blah blah blah.”

I have started any number of essays in this and similar ways. I always know that what I am writing is true, not generally understood and reasonably important. But… it is not what I want or need to say, to others or to myself. I put the chances of making the necessary changes, reduction of consumption, reduction in total human ecological footprint, to avoid most measures of catastrophe at about 5 percent; enough to work for, but not enough to realistically make into a life plan.

What is the most likely to happen is what people should plan for even as they work to make other futures possible. We should be planning for a series of economic and ecological shocks that, at first, lower material living standards for the masses in those places where they are now high and eventually make even what we consider essentials more and more difficult to acquire. The long human expansion is at the beginning of its inevitable retraction [1].

There isn’t a ‘plan to reform and reconstruct the most damaging blah blah.’ There can be no such plan. With the greatest of luck and the highly improbable unifying of much of humanity in meaningful common purpose, we might just pass through the coming changes with only a minor extinction event, the complete reordering of human societies after 2 to 4 generations of drama and trauma, but with much of our human knowledge and technological base intact – without passing through a medieval plague/Mad max period. Or we could truly hit the wall: billions dieing off at the hands of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as we fight it out for the last drink of water and delicious cockroach – with broken bottles and atomic weapons. This major extinction event would set the stage for a completely unknown “new beginning”; all bets would be off.

You might say that there is no way to plan for either extreme, or any place in the middle, if that is to be the continuum from which the future must be chosen. That would be correct – almost. There is one plan still available; that has always been and will always be available. It is the one that most humans have used except for the last 200 years or so. They had (We have) the option to try and live the life pressed upon us by our approximately 7 x 1027 atoms (we are each made of thousands of times more atoms than the number of stars in the universe) randomly collected from all over this region of space and modeled into our particular human form by the DNA molecules among them. We are, each and everyone, a living thing made up as a species with both physical and behavioral designs; like almost every member of every species in the history of life, we can try to be what we all potentially are: a fully functioning member of our species.

Discovering what this is was once as ordinary as being born; today it is a life’s work. And as a life’s work, it supercedes most of the madness that moves and mystifies most of humanity. Success becomes living in purpose and the practice of specieshood everyday. The greatest enemy of living in specieshood is not global climate change, peak oil, nuclear terrorism or any of these and more real and terrible dangers. It is the loss of connection to the daily events of the natural world, including the ‘world’ within our own bodies, and the loss of human community as the organizing, adapting and sustaining human unit [2].

But the social world (now the social/economic/political world) has betrayed us. In a procession of tiny uncomprehending steps we have disconnected our adaptive actions from the natural world substituting, in each tiny iteration, culturally derived content for an ecologically based bit of information. Today only volcanoes, hurricanes and the like attract our attention. Most people cannot name and give a human use for a single plant that grows wild in their neighborhood, do not know where the food they eat comes from or where and how they might find a sip of clean water should the faucet go dry. The very lives of our cells are at the mercy of a social system that is only marginally aware of and responsive to the biophysical realities upon which life depends.

Humans try to believe the social world. It has, in almost all of our history, been the grounding design for our wildly active and untethered intelligence and consciousness. For hundreds of thousands of years that social world was the complex extension of the ecology in which we lived. And we are, each and everyone, born into the world with that relationship as a biological expectation. Being guided by the community was being guided and adaptively responding to the full force and power the natural world.

Our present societies leave the greatest part of life out of the equations that describe trajectories and destine outcomes; and so, creates a terrible tension. Each human contains the full potential and history of life on earth in their person. Each and everyone ‘knows’ through the collected force of their fifty thousand billion living cells, each cell adding its tiny contribution to fighting to stay alive, that their life is important. When the social order in which their lives are embedded tells them that they do not matter, humans try to believe society’s design; and thus the tension. Their very bodies name the lie of the surrounding social world.

We are faced, then, with a great and terrible choice: a society disconnected from the fructifying sources of earthly life or the biology of the body and mind formed by 6 million years of hominid evolution. Our present dominating societies have ten thousand years of history marking the progress of the loss of connection with a guiding and informing environment, and the increasingly eccentric expressions of human behaviors: bizarre beliefs and practices, strange body coverings and the actual manifestation of the most remarkable imaginings; and these things occurring simultaneously with an increasing comprehension of material science, natural philosophy, mathematics, the physical sciences, biology and even some little touch of comprehension of our own nature and capacities.

Human beings, our societies and institutions have been disconnecting from the grounding source of our species’ nature for about 500 generations; disconnecting from the evolved experience that goes back even beyond our present species through the hominids of our origin and through our primate ancestors that set the primate patterns for sociability, infant raising, and other deeply formed behavioral designs. Just as one doesn’t need to know the vitamins to recognize the deficiency of one, to realize that something is missing, absent behavioral opportunities and expressions can lead to sensations of insufficiency. People have, from the very beginning, questioned the loss of a deeply felt experience not yet attained, and questioned how something not yet experienced could be known to be missing. The thought traditions that most directly deal with these sensations are Taoism and Buddhism supported by Vedic materials. I cannot recommend anything called religion – this is another way to give up specieshood – but the understandings of those who, long ago, recognized the loss of connection and who struggled to recover what they perceived as missing is an essential study for all who feel that need to reconnect to the evolved nature of the species.

We, personally and individually, are faced with this choice: to unquestioningly accept the standards and directions of society or to recognize society as the present iteration of an increasingly arbitrary existence. We can choose to live within the social framework realizing that we function in it as one might swim in the ocean or climb a mountain, an adaptation to necessary conditions, even as we engage the true existence of rediscovering the specieshood from which we were redirected from the first moments of postpartum life.

Such a goal and way of life doesn’t necessarily become “navel gazing”, though it can especially when the society is strongly rejecting of the effort. More importantly it can be empowering to engage the social ills that are so apparent today, engage them from a place of perspective. But with these personal and community goals one’s quality of life is not held hostage by the society’s Madness and a life of depth and satisfaction can be lived even if we lose the world that most humans find essential.

But at another level, if more and more people began to understand and explore this way – something that I see in conversation that many people recognize almost immediately as having value – then the more the fight for ecological integrity, changing consumption patterns, maintaining biodiversity and the other planet wide goals are supported by individual actions in the environment rather than diminished. But what is essential to understand is that this way is not intended to save our world from the increasingly damaging consequences of our excesses, it is intended to give each person the opportunity to be a complete human being with purpose and joy in life regardless of social and institutional madness; though this just might be the only thing that can save us.

[1] Our human numbers and consumption will continue to go up for at least another generation, but the signs of decline are clear; the most obvious are that we are using the productive capacity of the earth beyond replenishment levels and that every corrective action we take is exacerbating the failings of some other system that begs correction, all driven by our massive excesses. Those who reject these ideas using the fact that warnings from Malthus to Ehrlich and others, of coming ecological catastrophes, have not yet materialized are missing two vital points: one is that catastrophes have occurred, but we, in the first world, using our economic and military power, have been able to deflect them onto the third world and, two, that these warnings by prescient people are more like earthquake predictions: the conditions are clear, but the moment unknown. Los Angeles still requires ‘earthquake proof’ construction standards even without a date certain for ‘the big one.’

If we look at bases of the arguments that reject what the world’s most respected scientists and philosophers see as the most likely future, they are: that humans are exceptional and not, therefore, under the same rules as other life on the earth; all problems in the past have been solved by technology and so will these problems; there is really no problem in the first place other than trouble makers who are jealous of successful people; not every data analysis supports an unambiguous unitary prediction: These are actually a listing of logical error types of the sort that are most commonly used to distort and misrepresent reasonable and responsible decision-making processes.

[2] Community is a very difficult project these days. It is possible, with our powers of communication, to live in a community unbounded by time or distance. I can listen to Alfred Whitehead read his books in my mind-built study, ask him questions and hunt for the dead answers. Or write a note of question to Herman Daly over the Internet with an expectation of getting a living answer. And I can meet the local ones I love in person. If we truly understand them, communities are within our reach.

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