[C]hemicals organize[d] themselves into complex patterns requiring the coordination of trillions of molecules. And they did this with no instructions. No human organized them. Nor did they have a genetic blueprint that guided their actions. Their own intrinsic self-organizing dynamics directed these complex interactions…. The deep truth about matter, which neither Descartes nor Newton realized, is that, over the course of four billion years, molten rocks transformed themselves into monarch butterflies, blue herons, and the exalted music of Mozart.This scientific story, the authors argue, should make us rethink our own relationship to the environment, and call into question our tendency to see the non-living world as inanimate. In fact, physics shows us that the non-living world is incredibly dynamic, surprising, and creative — it’s just that the creativity happens over very long scales of time. It’s an important fact, they write, that the universe is itself ‘set up’ for creativity. The universe, they argue, isn’t anarchic, meaningless, absurd, or pointless; it’s creative in its essence. This should make a difference in the way we think about the meaning of our own lives: By being creative and creating novelty, we’re participating in a universe-sized process.
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime.
— Holden Caulfield
I spent a pleasant morning hiking up a small mountain to a steep overlook from a rocky outcropping. The fog was too thick to take any good pictures, but I didn’t mind. It was overcast and breezy, hinting at rain, just chilly enough to let you know that fall would be here soon. I only passed four other people along the way, so for most of the walk, there was nothing to listen to but the susurrus of the wind through the trees and the first leaves beginning their gravitational pilgrimage. After an hour, I got to the top and sat for a while to eat a banana and sip a thermos of coffee flavored with vanilla cha’i. The fog was thick enough to be vertiginous; if not for the rock underneath me, I could have just as easily imagined myself lost at sea.
So after sitting and meditating for a bit, I headed back down, only to see something etched on the rocks that I had missed on the way up:
Alas, ol’ Holden was right. But it made me wonder: what kind of person makes the arduous trip up the mountain, surrounded by all that natural beauty, with enough hate in their heart to make that the crowning achievement of the journey? There were worse defacements, many with spraypaint, but this was the only one I saw that was so angry. Not an affirmation of their existence, but a rejection of yours. Not a vain plea for attention and validation from indifferent strangers and an uncaring universe, but a denial of everyone else’s. This was the distilled essence of our unknown author’s eloquence, the depths of his or her poetic soul revealed to us, perhaps even to be found millennia from now by future archaeologists studying the collapse of Western civilization. A textual middle finger of salutation offered to the world.
As I pondered Caulfield’s words, I was inspired to a similar vision of being a protector of innocence. I wanted to do my part to shield unsuspecting children from having an enjoyable day in the mountains sullied by profanity etched into the splendor of the forest. I wanted to help preserve this little enclave of peacefulness for those who came out here to get away from the madness of day-to-day life.
So when I saw a small group of twenty-somethings coming up the trail, talking loudly, texting away on their phones, I became suspicious. Maybe I’m guilty of profiling, but it seemed to me that here we had a perfect example of the kind of people most likely to declare their eternal love for each other with a Sharpie on a rock, or a carving in a tree. These were likely the kind of people who left the empty beer can, ziplock bag and mismatched pair of socks I had passed on the trail below. Could I take a chance that the forest would be defiled further, right under my nose?
Of course not. So I waited for them to get directly underneath me before pushing one of the larger rocks loose, down onto their heads. One of the guys was only dealt a glancing blow on the shoulder, though, so to my severe annoyance, I had to give chase for a while through the undergrowth before I caught up to him. Luckily, his shrieks of terror and labored breathing made it easy to find him in the fog. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t about to lug his heavy carcass back to his companions, so he had to be buried separately. And to top if off, I got a really painful scratch on my calf! But at least I could rest easy, having done my duty as a vigilante park ranger.
It occurred to me as I was heading back to my car that I had apparently mixed my memories of Catcher in the Rye with Lord of the Flies, but please, let’s not quibble over the minutiae of classic literature.
Artificial thoughts aren’t limited to manufactured desire for certain products. No, it’s much worse than that. Our heads are being filled with manufactured desires for all manner of nonsense. Crazy religions. Psychotic politics. Sleazy new social mores. Consumerism is just the tip of the iceberg really. (Because these other things are often behind the push of consumerism.)
This is why it is imperative to practice an Ecology of the Mind. Spending time outdoors – where the only incoming messages are from the wind and the flowers and the birds – is an excellent first step in cultivating an unpolluted mental environment.
But as human beings lucky enough to live in developed countries, there is never a lasting respite from the relentless attempts to insert artificial thoughts into our brains. It’s apparently just part of the price way pay for running water and central heat and air. We might throw out our TV or radio or even unplug the Web at home, but as we move through the world we will be subjected to a constant onslaught of manufactured desires. At those times, awareness is our armor.
This is really one of the primary purposes behind Unbridled Existence: to make people think about the things they’re thinking.
Reminded me of a recent essay from Micah White:
Since Zola, however, mental environmentalism has been stuck in a philosophical morass. To claim that advertising is metaphorically mental pollution is one thing, namely an easily dismissible rhetorical flourish. To say that advertising is literally a kind of pollution and that TV commercials and highway billboards are more closely related to toxic sludge than to speech is another matter entirely. And while mental environmentalists have always tried to make the latter argument, they have more often been forced to retreat to the former. Where is the evidence that advertising is a species of pollution? Isn’t it obvious that a corporate slogan is nothing but glorified, commercialized speech?
Into this difficult question has stepped one of the greatest living philosophers, the eccentric Michel Serres, who has written the inaugural philosophical work of the mental environmentalist movement. Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? is a radical reconception of pollution that cements its primal relation to advertising. The big idea of this recently translated book is that animals, humans included, use pollution to mark, claim and appropriate territory through defiling it, and that over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to “hard pollution,” industrial chemicals, and finally to “soft pollution,” the many forms of advertising.
It strikes me that “natural/artificial” is one of those almost subconscious distinctions that brook no opposition, much in the way that politicians talk about America — yer either fer it or agin it, and you dang sure ain’t agin it, is you, boy? Likewise, who wants to argue for nuance when it comes to all things “natural”?
But I don’t feel like making an issue out of literal nature-romanticism here. And I certainly am in favor of people “thinking about the things they’re thinking”, which happens to be one of my favorite definitions of philosophy. I just find this arbitrary Platonic (of course) divide to be so tiresome and silly: here, in this column, we have the true, the good, the beautiful wants and needs; for community, close-knit family, love, meaningful work and peaceful worship. In this column, the false, the contrived, the greed, the jealousy, the petty vanity and feuding. The ones that don’t “naturally” exist, of course, having been smuggled into Eden via some nefarious scheme that always goes unexplained. If only people would get in touch with their “true” nature, blah blah blah.
I trust I don’t have to remind you what I think about consumerism, the contemplative life, etc. All I want to offer here is an observation that I suspect a lot of people would find terrifying if they really took it to heart; namely, that your “self” is much more fluid and malleable than you’re likely willing to admit. The thoughts and desires you count as “yours” are part of the cultural atmosphere, likely absorbed from your parents or peers and are simply ones you’ve become habituated to over your lifetime; they predated you and will outlast you. Mental evolution, like its biological counterpart, is about adaptation, not progress. Perhaps the vast majority of people want a world of bright lights, sleek gadgets and an ever-changing array of personal accouterments. Maybe the “purpose” of human activity is to prepare the ground for a super-race of radioactive cockroaches to rule the planet for eons, didja ever consider that?
I was in town running errands this afternoon, but I never heard or felt a thing. In the grocery store, I started hearing people jabbering about the earthquake and wondered what the hell they were talking about. I shrugged it off as the usual ado about nothing, gaining more drama and apocryphal detail in each retelling. Then I get home and find that Shanna has been trying to get hold of me and find out if I’m all right. I get back to her and reassure her that I somehow managed to miss the collapsing buildings, overturned vehicles in flames, zombie hordes, looting and giant radioactive lizards stomping through downtown.
Your key word is meaningless. Everything is natural. Everything in the universe is a part of nature. Polyester, pesticides, oil slicks, and whoopee cushions. Nature is not just trees and flowers. It’s everything. Human beings are part of nature. And if a human being invents something, that’s part of nature, too. Like the whoopee cushion.
— George Carlin
But for most of us the idea of back to nature might be a myth. In our past we might have been closer to nature, but we probably were never truly happy living in it as a group. And for the planet this may be a good thing. Towns and cities, artificial as they are, might have saved the rest of the planet from our kind. If human beings didn’t concentrate in highly populated areas, they would be more uniformly spread out across the continents and human beings are harder on the environment than a herd of elephants is. So cities it is!
I doubt humans have ever been “truly happy”, though I also have to wonder if previous generations grappled with the sort of existential meaning of happiness that we do, where comfortable, reasonably meaningful lives aren’t enough, thus leading people to imagine that some sort of magical transformation will blissfully envelop them if they leave it all behind and go live in a cabin in the forest while growing and hunting their own food.
I can see where the shift in perspective can seem beneficial to harried, overworked people who just want days to go by at a slower pace, but that’s only because you’re contrasting it with your modern, frenzied lifestyle. Your kids, lacking that contrast, will grow up bored out of their skulls, and go off to the cities in search of adventures. T’was ever thus.
Deep ecologists pride themselves on finding a supposedly intrinsic worth to nature, independent of whatever practical use humans can derive from it. Granted, there are numerous solid reasons to not simply treat the rest of the world and all the other species as tools or raw clay for humans to mold to their liking. But the idea of intrinsic worth and value is an old Platonic/Christian inheritance. There’s no moral redemption for the ideological children of Rousseau, any more than there is moral damnation for those who live modern lives in big cities. Humans invented the latter because they wanted to escape the drudgery of rural, rustic living. Now we think we cast ourselves out of the Garden and want to find our way back. But if it’s Biblical metaphors you want, it might be more useful to think of us as descendants of Cain, doomed to wander, never feeling at home anywhere.
Although Parks And Recreation is currently in its annual downtime, Nick Offerman has still found a way to bring stability to the world through his facial hair: He’s growing out his reassuringly stalwart Ron Swanson mustache into a full-on beard—not just as a vacation from his character, but as part of an effort to conserve water for World Environment Day, which takes place this Sunday. Offerman has teamed with Budweiser in the “Grow One. Save A Million” campaign, asking other men to join him in not shaving, thereby helping to save the average five gallons of water every guy consumes when he uses his non-electric razor.
I drove down a rural road this morning, turned around and came back the other way a minute later. Not only was the pollen still swirling through the air in my wake, like a grainy mist or fog, but I could see my tire tracks, as if I had driven through a light dusting of snow.
In July, Amazon.com revealed that sales of e-books were now outstripping the sales of hardcover books, with the possibility that their sales will double that of hardcovers by the end of the year. With the appearance of Apple’s iPad in April—and its stunning sales of four million units in its first four months—Barnes & Noble dropped the price of its Nook e-reader and Amazon announced the release of a cheaper version of its Kindle in July. Each of these companies is expected to unveil souped-up and cheaper e-readers in time for Christmas. All of which has media gurus heralding this as the year that publishing will finally go paperless—and trumpeting that change as the latest step in the greening up of American consumerism.But the New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader—factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuels along the manufacturing process—is roughly the same as fifty books. At first that sounds encouraging; after all, even the smallest personal library contains fifty volumes. But the real problems come in lifespan. At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books—not used or rare editions, 250 million new books—each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.By some estimates, small electronics already account for more global carbon emissions than the airline industry, and the wave of new handheld and portable devices—from smartphones to laptops to e-readers—stand poised to wreak untold havoc, much of it in developing nations.…Taken together, these essays reveal the hidden price of the paperless revolution. Every MacBook and iPad, every Kindle and Droid contains the labor of hundreds of invisible workers, uncounted lives foreshortened by poisoned water and air, and a landscape permanently scarred by our voracious scavenging. No matter how sleek and earth-friendly these devices may appear, they rise from the dirt and are mined with sweat and with blood. This is not to say that our information age is inherently bad. The protests after last year’s elections in Iran were largely organized over Twitter and documented via YouTube. Across Africa, farmers are using smartphones to access daily market prices via the Internet, assuring fairer compensation for their crops. This summer our government used Facebook to enlist and organize volunteers for the cleanup of the Gulf oil spill. But in our rush to embrace the new—the smaller, the faster, the more powerful—we must not confuse revolutionary products with revolutions in production. We must not forget that even in this age of enlightenment, much of the world remains stooped in black tunnels, tracing veins deeper into darkness.
Are we looking at a future of edible balconies and backyard chickens and rooftop beekeepers? Most city livers (and we are now a majority) have felt to some degree or other that a life without occasional access to nature feels empty — or, not empty enough. We make our cities bigger and bigger, and still can’t fully shake the feeling that the things people build, the things that most remind us of our humanness, also rob us of an essential part of our humanity. We have come to think this absence can only be filled by being in an environment that has nothing to do with us, that is bigger than we are. An environment we can’t control, that allows us to relinquish control when we are inside it. A lack of access to the natural world, that world we fought so very hard to protect ourselves from, has always left us a little colder inside.…Maybe the city is not such an obvious choice for agriculture. But then again, why not? Agriculture is, after all, culture. We can cultivate fountains in the desert; why not grow tomatoes on the windowsill? Urban gardeners tell us that we don’t need to leave the city to have a relationship with nature, nor do we have to leave nature alone in order to appreciate it. Whether or not urban growing truly brings us closer to nature, I cannot say. Perhaps, though, in turning farming into an aesthetic venture, urban growing will tweak the way we currently think about agriculture.Certainly, many urban gardeners are interested in the environmental (i.e. moral) consequences of city growing. The eco-ethical dream of those like Folke Günther is that urban gardening could move beyond aesthetic concerns and really help feed the world’s urban poor. For now, though, the movement outside my window is not subsistence farming. No one in Brooklyn is going to starve without urban gardens. Even so, urban gardeners are earnest in their agricultural pursuits. I think most commercial farmers would be pretty surprised to see how much children in Prospect Park have learned about irrigation techniques. What’s surely exciting is that urban gardeners have us imagining cities as we’ve never seen them, that move beyond public parks and designated green zones: rooftop apple-picking, gardens in school cafeterias, skyscrapers that emerge out of forests. The modern city as the new Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Gardens — and still Babylon, too.
I still impatiently roll my eyes at Joe Bageant’s overgeneralized prose and romantic fancies, but I do agree with him and his Italian acquaintance here:
“What do you believe allowed such abuse and calamity?” I ask.
An intense young woman leans across the table, all black hair and red lips, making an old man moan and sigh inwardly.
“Fossil fuels, of course,” she says. “An unnatural supply of energy. But once that is gone, we’re going to have to go back to a whole different way of doing everything. Everything.”
“Spot on,” I agree. At that moment she could have gotten me to agree that the earth is flat.
But the truth is that each gallon of fossil fuel contains the energy of 40 man-hours. And that has played hell with the ecology of human work, thanks mostly to the money economy. For instance, a simple loaf of bread, starting with the fossil fuels used to grow the wheat, transport, mill, bake, create the packaging materials and packaging, advertise and distribute it, uses the energy of two men working for two weeks. Yet this waste and vast inefficiency is invisible to us because we see it only in terms of money, jobs and commerce. Cheap oil allowed industrial humans to increasingly live on environmental credit for over a century. Now the bill is due and no amount of money can pay it. The calorie, pure heat expenditure as energy, is the only currency in which Mother Nature trades. Period.
…If there can be a solution at this late stage, and most thinking people seriously doubt there can be a “solution” in the way we have always thought of solutions, it begins with powering down everything we consider to be the economy and our survival. That and population reduction, which nobody wants to discuss in actionable terms.
Almost all other issues pale in significance when you stop to think about it — what are we going to do when we exhaust our cheap energy supplies? It’s not as if we can just make an even trade of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power for oil, coal and gas, especially if there’s somewhere around nine or ten billion people on Earth within the next century.
The difference is, unlike so many others, I don’t gleefully anticipate the end of our fossil-fueled civilization, as if we’re going to “return” to an authentic way of life that was stolen from us, and we’re all going to sit around in leisure, having stimulating, philosophical conversations with ideal friends and lovers. One of the things I came away with after reading Bill Bryson’s latest book was a strong sense of just how uncomfortable and dreary a lot of human existence was before the last century or so. It’s something we all know, of course, but it was brought home to me really vividly in this case. I daresay a large percentage of people who pine for a pre-industrial way of life are allowing their familiarity to breed contempt — it’s easy to romanticize a simple life in “harmony with nature” when you know full well you can always go back to hot showers, soft beds and comfortable clothes whenever you feel like it.
I would never minimize the miseries of industrialism or its environmental consequences, but at the same time, I can’t help the urge to walk widdershins around what often strikes me as the smug moralizing and vindictive delight accompanying proclamations of environmental reckoning, the epicaricacy in the visions of humanity finally paying a steep price for its hubris. True, we may have catastrophically overreached, but some part of me takes an insolent pride in being part of a species that was even capable of doing so. There is no moral lesson to all this. Virtue will not save us either. We might return to a sustainable way of life for thousands of years, only to be wiped out by a convergence of disease, famine and a gigantic asteroid. Given that, I’m glad I was alive during the short window in time that may turn out to be the pinnacle of human existence.