Monday, January 30, 2012

Man and the Natural World

Keith Thomas published Man and the Natural World in 1983.  It was based on a series of lectures by the famous English historian George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962), an upper class outdoorsman who was sickened by how the Industrial Revolution was mutilating the natural world, and ruining a precious spiritual resource.
The subject of the book was how the relationship between humans and the natural world changed in England between 1500 and 1800, and Thomas documented these changes with fascinating thoroughness.  Prior to 1500 was the medieval era, a time of endless turbulence, bizarre superstition, and devastating plagues.  After 1800 came the hurricane of the Industrial Revolution, the world wars, the brief era of cheap and abundant energy, and the tsunami of hysterical insatiable consumers.
The period between 1500 and 1800 was also a time of explosive change.  Europe was being flooded with vast wealth and cheap food from a network of new colonies.  The rising age of modern science was reshaping our perception of the world, leaving obsolete religious beliefs in its dust.  Population was exploding, the human realm was spreading across the countryside, and England was speeding toward the elimination of nature.  It was three centuries of growth that enriched the greedy, exploited the powerless, and tormented tender-hearted nature lovers.
When Trevelyan delivered his lectures prior to World War II, he was deeply pessimistic about the future.  He fantasized that before 1800, the works of man had only added to the beauty of nature.  After 1800, the process reversed course and became rapid destruction.  His lectures tried to present the era between 1500 and 1800 as a time of awakening, of gradually spreading changes in awareness.  Unfortunately, the improvements that he noted did not change the course of civilization.
In 1500, the English commonly treated animals in a brutal manner — not because they were jerks, but because the notion of being respectful of animals had never occurred to them.  The church had programmed society to believe that humans inhabited the realm between angels and brutes, and that nature was created for the use of man.  So, the lords kicked the peasants, and the peasants kicked the critters.  Horses were often worked to death, and then pushed into the ditch to feed the ravenous packs of mangy dogs.
Thomas presented a theory that the miserable loneliness of growing urbanization created a pet fad, and that close contact with submissive doggies and kitties showed us that animals were not dumb lumps of walking meat.  Because of this new sensitivity, many people became more aware of animal abuse.  This led to the creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824.  Some came to believe that the killing of any animal was wrong, and these became vegetarians.  Thomas was sympathetic with the fair treatment of animals, but he was taken aback by those who referred to the deliberate systematic extermination of wolves as a holocaust. 
Most of the book examined the relationship between humans and animals.  But Thomas also discussed the countryside, the green world.  Prior to 1500, forests were extensive.  They were home to scary animals and mean outlaws.  Deforestation was seen as beneficial, converting wild chaos into civilized order.  Both farmers and industry rapidly gobbled up the trees, and as the forests vanished, people began to regard the survivors with increasing fondness.  Laws were passed to protect them, and to encourage tree planting.
In 1500, cities were the hip place to be.  By 1800, they had become filthy, crowded, and creepy.  Urban living inspired a growing number of people to escape to the countryside whenever possible.  Over the years, a trickle turned into a torrent, and the nobility became alarmed that their country estates would soon be surrounded by a rash of tourist traps.  They opposed new railroads in their homelands.
Wildness became trendy.  Geometric gardens were out, as were identical trees planted in straight lines.  Weeds were in.  Landscaping that resembled wild nature was totally cool.  Artists got rich painting gorgeous panoramas showing little or no evidence of human society.
Trevelyan’s pessimism was sane and reasonable.  In the years following 1800, nature has taken her worst pounding ever, and animal misery has reached breathtaking new heights.  There has never been a generation more isolated from the natural world than our own.  With his book, Thomas gave us a revealing glimpse into a forgotten era when life was filled with animals, a time when civilization was muscle powered, and every breath was sweetened with the intoxicating aroma of steaming fresh manure.
Today we are suffering in the final decades of a tragic experiment with fossil powered civilization.  Sane people eagerly await the year when the lights go out, the cell phones die, the machines go silent, and we return to a muscle powered way of life — the end of a long, miserable, stunningly destructive war on life, and the beginning of a much needed healing process.  The future will be filled with animals once again.  We will have no choice but to live in a radically different manner.  Many horrid habits will be impossible to continue.
This book is a feast of material for creative people who are busy imagining the new stories and visions that will inspire the herd to wander in healthier directions.  It provides us with perspective on how trends have flailed and floundered over the centuries, and it helpfully marks numerous approaches as failures.  Attempts to reform civilization have enjoyed little success — its swift currents always sweep away intelligent ideas.
Obviously, the only “solution” for the problem of industrial civilization is to summon a priest to perform the last rites, and then take it off life support. We have been stumbling and staggering for centuries, lost and confused.  Many powerful new stories will be needed to help us remember what it means to be human, to remember the long-forgotten treasure of wildness and freedom, to remember what it feels like to be fully alive.  Go for it!
Thomas, Keith, Man and the Natural World, Pantheon Books, New York, 1983.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Others

Paul Shepard (1925-1996) was an original thinker who could soar far from the realm of mainstream thinking and view modern society from a perspective that saw the Pleistocene as the zenith of the human journey, and the high-water mark for the health of life on Earth.  Many professors can’t do this.
Why were we furiously destroying the planet?  Why was our society a crazy freak show?  The Myth of Progress had no sensible answers.  Shepard’s unconventional viewpoint actually provided a rational, but uncomfortable, explanation.  He documented his thinking in a series of books.  The Others: How Animals Made Us Human explored the many ways in which our development was influenced by evolving in a wild ecosystem, and how our growing isolation from wildness was harming us. 
Animals taught us hunting skills like tracking, stalking, and ambush.  They taught us how to sing and dance.  We wore their skins and feathers, and made tools with their bones and horns.  We ate them, and they ate us.  They were central archetypes in our spiritual world.  Our mental powers were largely shaped by paying intense attention to wild animals — their sounds, smells, colors, footprints, droppings.  Hunting made us the highly intelligent beings that we are.  We can’t be fully human if we do not live in wildness. 
The domestication of plants and animals dealt a devastating blow to the ancient harmony, and things have been going downhill ever since.  As the tamed world expanded, the wild world diminished, and the human world drifted farther from health and wholeness.  Hundreds of millions of children now have almost no contact with wildness, or even livestock.  When observing a herd of wild deer grazing in a park, they quickly become bored, and return to their electronic gadgets.
Wild people lived in a realm rich with spiritual beauty and mystery, and they spent their entire lives in paradise.  Tamed people created new religions that focused on salvation and escape.  Death was the ticket to heaven.  Creation was no longer sacred.  Animals became demons, machines without souls.  The world became a filthy and horrid realm of evil.  Tamed people perceived humans to be above and apart from all other life on Earth.  They devoted their lives to destroying forests, wildlife, fisheries, and soils.  They became masters of warfare, enslavement, and exploitation.
Shepard confessed to having been a dog owner, and he wrote almost two sentences about the positive qualities of dogs.  But more than 100 pages were devoted to explaining the negative aspects of dogs and other domesticated animals — they were deficient animals, monsters, biological slaves, and so on.
Evolution was a slow motion game.  Normally, if lions gradually became two percent faster, then gazelles would also become two percent faster.  Ecosystems collapse if predators can easily kill anything, or if prey can escape from any attack.  Shepard came to the surprising conclusion that the domestication of dogs was the crucial turning point: “The history of ecological catastrophe begins with the hound.” 
“Wolves didn’t decide to become dogs and don’t want to be dogs.”  In the early days, wild humans and wild wolves hunted together as informal partners.  Their cooperation benefitted both, so it became a habit.  Then the habit deteriorated into a master and slave relationship.  With this new alliance, the predator team suddenly made a big strategic advance, unsettling the ancient equilibrium with the prey team.  Since then, the disequilibrium has been snowballing, leading to our era of mass extinctions.
The domestication of dogs taught humans a dark lesson.  By utilizing confinement and coercion, wild animals could be transformed into dim, neurotic, submissive slaves.  By and by, we eventually proceeded to domesticate a number of other species.
Huge, powerful, and intelligent wild aurochs were domesticated into fat, stupid cattle.  Shepard had no compliments: “If the auroch was the most magnificent animal in the lives of our Pleistocene ancestors, in captivity it became the most destructive creature of all.”  “More than axe or fire, cattle-keeping is the means by which people have broken natural climaxes, converted forest into coarse herbage, denuded the slopes, and turned grasslands into sand.”
Shepard was especially horrified by the taming of horses.  The trio of horses, humans, and hounds turned into a powerful killing team, greatly increasing the effectiveness of hunting.  They also revolutionized warfare, enabled the creation of sprawling empires, and fueled sizzling growth in the casket making and grave digging sectors.  Horses stimulated big advances in soil mining.  They helped farmers eliminate forests, expand cropland, and feed an exploding population.  Thus, enslaved horses and dogs “became weapons against the earth.”
Throughout most of history, dogs have not enjoyed a good reputation.  “Over most of the planet the dog is a cur and mongrel scavenger, feral, half-starved, the target of the kick and thrown rock, often cruelly exploited as a slave.”  But the Industrial Revolution expanded the middle class, which took great interest in keeping pets as status symbols.  Disney has done much to alter our perception of animals by presenting them in an infantilized and humanized form — living toys.  In recent decades, pets have become a huge and profitable industry.  High priced four-legged fashion accessories are the latest thing.  When we bring animals into our world, we destroy them.
Shepard was disgusted by ever-growing cruelty to animals, but he had little respect for the animal rights movement.  It would be wiser to aim higher and focus on ecosystem rights.  “The ridiculous code of medicine that prolongs human life at any cost and advocates death control without birth control has damaged life on earth far more than all the fox hunters and cosmetic laboratories could ever do — perhaps beyond recovery — and leads us toward disasters that loom like monsters from hell.”
He believed that humans have not yet been domesticated, because our genes are nearly identical to the genes of our wild Pleistocene ancestors.  Thus, the genes that enabled our grand adventure in tool-making and world domination were forged by hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and gathering.  Imagine what humans might become if we were able to spend the next 200,000 years sitting indoors on couches, engorging on calorie-dense food-like substances, suffering from anxiety and depression, whilst feasting on entertainment services.

Paul Shepard, The Others — How Animals Made Us Human, Island Press, Washington, 1996.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael is certainly the best selling environmental novel of all time.  Over the last 20 years, it has blown hundreds of thousands of minds by presenting an exceedingly important story — a believable explanation of how modern society became so deranged and destructive.  It provides us with a believable explanation of the last 10,000 years, an era when much of humankind got lost and confused, and strayed far from our ancient path of harmony.  This story is a safe and effective treatment for painful and highly contagious historical ignorance.  Many readers experience a flood of bliss upon discovering that they are not alone with their unconventional ideas.  “Hey!  I’m not crazy!”  That’s always a great thrill.
Quinn spent 13 years tweaking and polishing Ishmael, and it is beautifully easy to read, unlike history books, which tend to stimulate soaring daydreams or snoring naps.  Indeed, historians could not have written this story, because their field of study is chained to large, heavy, exceedingly irrational dogma: the Myth of Progress.  Quinn drives over this wacky myth with a tank.  Well, not a tank, but a highly intelligent talking gorilla named Ishmael. 
The Myth of Progress is so deeply rooted that genuine rational analysis simply bounces off of it and rolls away.  It seems to be bulletproof.  But it is possible to slay pathological myths, and the most powerful tool is passionate creativity — imagination, visioning, storytelling.  We have zero trust in human experts, but we’re perfectly willing to carefully listen to provocative lessons from an imaginary talking gorilla. 
In the novel, Ishmael is interested in saving the world, so he seeks to find human students.  If he can change the way humans think, then there will be hope for tomorrow.  The book revolves around the process of illuminating one of his students — a series of lessons and discussions.
In a nutshell, humankind arrived at a fork in the road with the emergence of domestication and civilization.  Those who wisely remained on the traditional, sustainable path are called Leavers, and those who plunged headlong into the cesspool of weird new ideas are called Takers.  The Takers have now conquered most of the world, only a few Leavers remain.  Takers have exploded in numbers, destroyed everything they could touch, disemboweled the Earth’s ecosystems, and have put us in the fast lane to catastrophe.
Readers with open hearts and minds are likely to find Ishmael’s vision of reality to be far more coherent than the vision of reality taught by families, friends, schools, churches, and the mass media — the brainwashing civilized mindset that Ishmael refers to as Mother Culture.  Mother Culture is like our shadow, following us everywhere, constantly feeding Taker memes into our thinking.  Thus, most of us live in the Taker mindset, like fish live in water.  The idea of questioning it never occurs, because it seems to be totally “normal.”  Our society has been entranced by a malevolent spell, and this is never fun.
Thankfully, Ishmael does not serve us magical thinking or false hope.  He never suggests that the Technology Fairy will rescue us via astonishing miraculous inventions.  We’re not going to be able to shop our way out of this mess by buying solar panels, electric cars, and other unsustainable industrial products. 
Our only hope is to change minds.  But, is this enough?  “Of course it’s not enough.  But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all.”  Before you can address behaviors, you must first address beliefs and values.  Is it possible that changing minds can succeed in bringing humankind back into balance with the living planet?  Well, it’s as “improbable as hell but not unimaginable” — the BS-free bottom line.  Since we have nothing to lose, and nothing better to do with our lives, it’s worth a try.  Nothing is more embarrassing than self-extinction.
During Ishmael’s 20 years on the planet, environmental awareness has grown exponentially.  The class of 2012 is far better informed than my class of 1970, which was tragically swept away by the consumer stampede, devoting their entire lives to mindless hoarding.  Ishmael first appeared when there were five billion in the world.  Now, we’re seven billion, and counting.  Storm clouds are growing.  The road ahead is flashing and rumbling with danger.  Optimists fantasize that we’re moving closer to an amazing “tipping point,” when ever-expanding human consciousness will achieve a critical threshold, leading to a sharp shift toward enlightenment and compassion — humankind will move into a bold new era, a beautiful paradise for all living things!  Skeptics have some doubts about this.  So do realists.
But it now seems likely that the tipping point lies on the other side of turbulent times, and that’s OK.  The path to a genuinely sustainable future must pass through the collapse of industrial civilization, because industrial civilization is the opposite of sustainable.  Collapse is a necessary component of the healing process, and it will be a powerful force for changing minds.  When the lights go out, we’ll remember what really matters.  Huge quantities of infantile nonsense will quickly be abandoned and forgotten.
On the other side of collapse we’ll come to a crucial fork in the path.  In the 10,000 year history of civilization, there have been many collapses.  In almost every case, when a failed society arrived at this fork, they chose the path of repeated mistakes.  It was easier.  They already knew how to mine minerals, forests, soils, wildlife, and fisheries.  So they regrouped, did it all over again, and suffered the same inevitable results.  In the coming years, we too will arrive at this important fork of destiny.  Will we chose, once again, the well-worn path of repeated mistakes?  We don’t have to.  It wouldn’t be wise.
Ishmael is a masterpiece.  My only quibble is this: Quinn thinks that primitive agriculture is OK, and I think that it often isn’t — tilling is dangerous juju.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books that I’ve read three times.  Ishmael is one of these.  It’s a useful book to read and share and remember.
Quinn, Daniel, Ishmael, Bantam Books, New York, 1992.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Human Cycle

The anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1924-1994) was born into an upper class family in England.  His mother did not breast feed him because of the “health risks.”  He was raised by a long string of nannies.  His father was distant and rarely spoke to him.  His brother lived in a separate nursery, and had other nannies.  Colin really wanted to get to know him, but never did.  He was forbidden to visit portions of the house where his parents, brother, and the servants lived.  When Colin was twelve, his last nanny was fired, and he finally got to spend some time with his parents. 
Following school, he graduated from Oxford University, attended Banaras Hindu University in India, became an anthropologist, spent several years living with the Mbuti Pygmies, wrote books, and became a Buddhist monk before dying of AIDS.  He had a life of prosperity and privilege, but his journey from infancy to adulthood was painful and left permanent emotional scars. 
The Pygmies blew his mind, because their social system was far better, in many ways, than the Western way of life.  Observing them, it was easy to comprehend what a dysfunctional upbringing he had received from his dysfunctional society and family.  Near the end of his life, Turnbull wrote a powerful book, The Human Cycle.  It examined the ways that people in different societies progressed through the phases of life — childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood, and old age.
Pygmy culture relied on their ancient traditions for guiding people through life in an optimal way, with generous servings of self-confidence, integrity, happiness, and fall-down-laughing gaiety.  Western societies were skilled at producing damaged people.  We tend to regard our childhood as a golden age of innocence and joy — before we’re shipped off to dreary schools, jobs, and nursing homes.  The Pygmies did not idolize childhood, “because, for them, the world has remained a place of wonder, and the older they get the greater the wonder.”  Imagine that.
The Pygmies taught their children everything they needed in order to thrive in their sacred forest, especially a strong sense of social consciousness — “we” not “I.”  Sharing, cooperation, and conflict avoidance were core skills.  But Western education was more like a factory where heads were filled with knowledge.  Students spent years faithfully absorbing facts and dogmas without questioning them.  The goal was to produce aggressive, competitive, self-absorbed individualists.  “It would have been good training for a life in prison.”
The Pygmies performed rituals of initiation, which ceremonially transformed adolescents into adults.  A vital component of this process was reintegration, when the new adults were returned to their community, where they would remain for life.  Each young man built a new hut.  When Western youths graduated, they bypassed reintegration, and were shot from a cannon into the outer world.  They often left behind their family and friends, and spent their lives in urban isolation, with little connection to their neighbors.  Because their initiation was unfinished, it was common for them to suffer from terminal adolescence.
Westerners formally practiced religion once a week, which focused on beliefs and rituals.  The Pygmies lived every minute of their lives in a shimmering world of spiritual power.  They were at one with the forest, the source of their existence, and they regarded it with complete adoration.  The forest was heaven.  Humans were sacred members of the family of life, not masters, managers, or stewards.  They enjoyed a complete lack of religious freedom — everyone was on the same channel, unified by the same belief system — zero conflicts.  Turnbull once said that the Pygmies were without evil and infinitely wise.
Western society teaches us that sex is naughty, shameful, dirty, sinful, and disgustingly bad.  At a school for the upper class, Turnbull watched in horror as a boy was gang raped by other students.  The Pygmy initiation process taught boys and girls about the joys of sacred sex.  Premarital sexual relationships were normal, healthy, and not promiscuous.  Curiosity about sex was “encouraged to flower into exuberance.”
In the Western world, adulthood usually majored in work, and minored in play — and work was often miserable, soul-killing drudgery required for survival.  In the Pygmy world, it’s hard to see a clear boundary between work and play.  The vital task of maintaining social harmony required generous amounts of singing and dancing, followed by gathering ripe fruit, or hunting, or fireside chats, or teaching the children.
Westerners sent their old folks off to retirement homes when they became a drag on the independence of their children — away from regular contact with family, friends, and other age groups — away to a place where they had nothing to do, “a pre-death limbo.”  Retirement denied the elderly of the joys of old age.  The Pygmies had tremendous respect for their old folks, who remained tightly integrated in society, and never retired.  The elderly provided valuable services like arbitration, babysitting, teaching, counseling, and guarding the camp.
As they lived, Pygmies moved from joyful childhood to joyful youth to joyful adulthood to joyful old age.  “They discover that each stage of life is rich, but that the next stage is even richer; nothing is lost.”  Turnbull learned huge lessons from them.  It’s gratifying to see how he learned, healed, and grew in the second half of his life.  Turnbull gave us a precious gift — the awareness of other modes of living that are far healthier than our own, rooted in social responsibility, functional communities, and spiritual connection to the family of life.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Continuum Concept

Jean Liedloff was a New Yorker who went to Europe and pursued modeling and journalism work.  She met some Italians who were leaving for the jungles of Venezuela to hunt for diamonds.  On a whim, she joined their expedition.  Over the course of five expeditions, she spent two and a half years living with Stone Age people.  As she bounced back and forth between the modern world and wild freedom, she became acutely aware of the staggering differences between the two ways of life.
The natives were “the happiest people I have ever seen.”  She found their lack of unhappiness to be spooky.  The adults maintained a high state of social harmony — even when everyone was drunk.  Their children were all well-behaved, never argued, never hit each other, never had tantrums, never suffered boredom, and were never punished by their parents. 
Returning to the modern world was always a ghastly experience, because the people were so strikingly unhappy.  Why?  Liedloff explored this question in her book, The Continuum Concept.  It compares wild people to civilized people through the eyes of an eyewitness reporter, and tries to explain how communities of the same species could be as different as night and day.
Liedloff observed that the misery of civilized people began shortly after birth, when the newborn was immediately carried away from its mother, placed in a crib in the nursery, and left to scream.  Welcome to civilization, Bubba!  The sense of wellbeing enjoyed in the womb came to an abrupt end at birth, and most of these kids would never again recover it.
The Indians, on the other hand, raised their children in accordance with ancient instincts — a specific sequence of normal developmental experiences that Liedloff called the human continuum.  From the moment of their birth, newborns were held and nursed and loved — and this warm, secure, continuous contact lasted for months, until the child indicated that it was ready to begin the creeping and crawling phase.  Raised in the Indian manner, the kids lived with a sense of wellbeing throughout their entire lives.  They were happy.
Our animal instincts are very much in tune with our evolutionary journey.  In the civilized world, “primitive” instincts were disregarded, and society was dominated by intellect.  The Indians were intelligent, and they knew how to reason, but for them intellect was a servant of instinct.  The rise of civilization corresponded with the rise of intellect.  Unbridled intellect is the father of unstable societies, like the one outside your window.
Today, civilized mothers are so removed from natural life that they actually have to read books by childrearing “experts” like Dr. Spock to learn how to raise their young.  But when these non-continuum instructions are followed, civilized mothers “produce children they cannot love, who grow up like themselves, anti-self, antisocial, incapable of giving, destined forever to go hungry.”
Indian children, raised via time-proven instincts, develop normally, in a sequence designed by evolution.  Civilized children do not.  We miss vital developmental steps in childhood, and this frequently leads to adults who have infantile components in their personalities, for their entire lives.  Here is the most striking paragraph in the book: 
“Man can ‘survive’ in appallingly anti-continuum conditions, but his well-being, his joy, his fulfillment as a whole human being, can be lost.  From many points of view he might be better off dead, for the life force, in its ceaseless tending toward repair of damage and completion of developmental phases, among its instruments employs anxiety, pain, and an array of other ways of signaling that things are wrong.  Unhappiness in all its forms is the result.  In civilization, a frequent outcome of the operating of the system is constant misery.”
She wasn’t fond of modern society.  Liedloff eventually became a psychotherapist, and she used what she had learned to help some people reduce their inner pain.  She didn’t discover miracle cures, but she believed that some degree of healing was possible for some people.  Her book has helped many new mothers avoid making some of the classic mistakes. 
She presents us with compelling descriptions of both ways of life, and these fit nicely with studies done by many others.  The symptoms of our illness are numerous and easy to see.  But her diagnosis is primarily focused on the child-rearing process, and I suspect that this might be too narrow. 
There are many other major differences between wild societies and civilization.  Wild people live in wild lands filled with wild animals, and they spend most of their time outdoors.  They rarely experience strangers, crowds, or machines.  They are not controlled by others, they are free.  Their sense of rightness is not suffocated by contact with school systems, corporate systems, religious systems, or greedy, exploitive, dishonest people.  Civilization damages us in numerous ways, throughout our lives.
The good news here is that we can quit blaming our parents for screwing us up, because the entire society is screwed up.  “All one can discover from horizon to horizon are victims of victims.”  The bad news is that we are locked into powerful, unhealthy patterns of living, and damaged parents create damaged children.  There are no simple solutions.  The good news is that Peak Cheap Energy is going to disrupt our patterns of living, and one of the possible outcomes is positive, beneficial change.  Liedloff provides us with some important pointers for the road ahead.
Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept — In Search of Happiness Lost, Addison-Wesley, New York, 1977.