Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wild (republished as Savage Grace)

If you only have time for one sentence, hear this: Jay Griffiths’ book, Wild, is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.  Wild is a celebration of wildness and freedom.  It celebrates societies that work, societies that have complete respect for their ecosystems, societies that have survived for thousands of years without suffering destructive whirlwinds of mass hysteria.

Griffiths is a brilliant heretic and a proud one.  Her book shows us what happens when madness collides with wildness.  It helps us understand the dark injuries that destroyed our own freedom, and put us on the path to what we have become.  It is 350 pages of full-throttle outside-the-box thinking, written with passion and eloquence.  For outside-the-box thinkers, it’s just awesome.  For light sleepers, it might provide a life-changing wakeup call.

Griffiths was born in deepest, darkest England, a devastated island that was once a magnificent rainforest.  She was blessed with the precious curse and gift of having an active mind.  She excelled at asking penetrating questions that were not proper for young ladies (or lads) to ask.  The wardens were not amused.

During her teen years, she hung out with fundamentalist Christians, but what they were teaching could not survive rational scrutiny, and her mind was highly allergic to blind faith.  Painful clashes inspired her to run away.  She abandoned the normal life for which she had been trained.  “I lost a walled city but found a wildness and freedom.  I never regretted it.”

She wandered around the world, but life was not always easy.  “Following a passionate freedom can mean loneliness, penury, humiliation, for we live in a world where the caged hate the free.”  By and by, she floated away into a healthy dance with depression.  Depression is one of life’s valuable idiot lights, warning us that it’s time to pay attention and change paths.

One day, the phone rang, and a friend invited her to Peru, where she could hang out with shamans, use powerful medicine, and recover her lost soul.  So she did, and it worked.  The heavy black clouds soon dispersed.  She spent the next seven years working on her book, travelling from the Amazon to New Guinea, Australia, and Arctic Canada.

We routinely teach our children that wild people are primitive, and that their way of life is inferior and undesirable.  In so doing, we erect a brick wall that prohibits fresh wild notions from flushing the crud out of our wheezing, slobbering imaginations.  Instead, we teach our children to live like there’s no tomorrow, to shop till you drop, to leave nothing behind for future generations.

Griffiths understands that the brick wall must be smashed, for the sake of all life.  Her mind is a sledgehammer.  She takes us on visits to wild ecosystems that stood in the path of the all-devouring global economy.  She listened to the wild people, in a caring and respectful manner, hearing their pain, rage, and despair.  They had a healthy way of life before the invasion.  They needed nothing from us.  They simply wanted to be left alone. 

She took long treks through the jungle with wild people who possessed immense knowledge of the plants and animals.  They perceived that all flora and fauna have spirits (except for domesticated plants).  They saw that all wild beings were animated by the same life force, but different species appeared in different forms.  We were all equal.  When humans lived like equals, rather than masters, they didn’t gang rape their ecosystem, because that would have been inconceivable.

After days of hiking through a perfectly healthy land, a treasure of abundant life, they stumbled upon the town of Maldonado, the cash economy, the modern world — electric lights, pop music, abundant booze and drugs, discarded syringes, splatters of puke, and overflowing outhouses.  Everyone seemed to be mad.  “To me, the forest had been wildly beautiful and the town was a hideous wasteland.”

One chapter was devoted to the vast wildness of the sea, the place where all life began.  The surface of Mars is better known to us than the floor of our oceans.  The underwater world is a realm of immense beauty, and diversity.  Cetaceans, like whales and dolphins, are incredibly intelligent, and they live in an incredibly intelligent manner, exactly as evolution prepared them to live, wild and free, without technology (a brilliant strategy for long-term success).

The ocean is a place where primates have little business, beyond the shoreline.  Civilized primates have become abusive, ravaging the sea life, and filling the waters with toxins, sewage, garbage, and noise.  Climate change is making the oceans so acidic that catastrophic harm now seems very likely.  Wild people didn’t do this — even when they lived too hard, the harm they caused was far, far less than the harm caused by our way of life.

Missionaries were high on the list of people that Griffiths most resented, because their mission was to destroy wild cultures, and convert wild people into literate, employed, Christian consumers.  In Peru, four different missionary groups, using helicopters and speed boats, competed to find uncontacted tribes.  They knew that they would import deadly diseases, but they didn’t care.  In some places, half of the people died within two years of their arrival.  The priests blamed female shamans for the illness, and the angry people killed the shamans.

Common gifts for the converts included axes, tobacco, clothing, and mirrors.  Mirrors enabled people to see their own faces, and become more aware of their individuality.  Jesus saved individuals, not communities.  God lived in heaven, and the Earth was a realm of wickedness, so it didn’t matter, it was worthless.  Missionaries built roads into the jungle, which were soon used by miners, loggers, and other destroyers.  Separated from the family of life, the modern heart gets hard.

Missionaries forced the natives to surrender their sacred objects, which they burned.  Within two generations, traditional knowledge becomes extinct, because it is no longer being passed down to the young, who spend their days in classrooms.  Cultural genocide is emotionally shattering.  In one Brazilian tribe, over 300 natives committed suicide.

In Australia, the invasion of civilization has been devastating for the Aborigines and their home, but the elders maintain a sense of patience, for the noxious cities are nothing more than ugly scabs.  Whites have never possessed the spirit of the land, which remains alive beneath the parking lots and shopping centers.  With time, the disease will pass; the land will heal and thrive once again, to the best of its ability.

Humans are not domesticated, we are genetically wild animals, but so many have been tamed.  “Tamed creatures are dolt-minded and dumb, insipid and bland,” Griffiths tells us.  “The tame are trained only to hear the voice of their tamer, having ears only for command.”  Our wild genes scream in despair, as we go berserk with cage rage.  “Sensible habits and good road safety skills will keep you alive till eighty.  So what?  If you didn’t know freedom, you never lived.”

The myth of human superiority has constructed an enormous ecocidal monstrosity, and its ongoing self-destruction will result in unimaginable harm.  If we cannot find a way to return to our humble place in the family of life, we will have no future.  That’s the message here.

Griffiths, Jay, Wild — An Elemental Journey, Jeremy P. Tarcher, New York, 2006.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Straw Dogs

When the philosopher John Gray looks out over the world, he sees a bloody madhouse, a hell broth of deranged magical thinking.  In his bestselling book, Straw Dogs, he turns into a ruthless vigilante who tirelessly pounds the stuffing out of ridiculous ideas that condemn us to mindless self-destruction.  What might happen if we ever succeeded at clearing the decks of loony whims?  Would this make it easier to think clearly, and move onto a path with a future?

By the time you get to the end of the book, not one sacred cow is left standing.  He rubbishes our entire belief system.  Readers who are thoroughbred critical thinkers may not find much to disagree with, but those who uncritically accept everything they are told by society will foam at the mouth and scream obscenities.  To some, he is an honorable and dignified iconoclast, and to others he is a super-pessimistic misanthrope.  Reader comments at Amazon are all over the place, and quite interesting.

Gray’s thinking is an unusual swirl of intellect and animism, minus mysticism.  In his analysis of our current predicament, the two primary culprits are humanism and progress.

Humanism is the illusion that humans are apart from, and superior to, all other beings in the family of life.  We have no obligation to obey the laws of nature, because they don’t apply to us.  Our sacred species does not really belong in the natural world, because we are so much better than filthy wild animals.  Humanism is a notion that we picked up somewhere on the path to civilization.  It has been passed from the Platonists, to the Christians, to the Enlightenment, and to modern secular humanists.

Life never stops getting better and better.  As long as we can maintain a fervent blind faith in scientific progress, there is little need for us to exercise our thinkers.  Witness the fact that nearly all of those who graduate from the most prestigious institutions of higher learning — and most other people too — cling to a magical belief in perpetual economic growth, a nutjob superstition.

Darwin drove a stake through the heart of the humanist fantasy, demonstrating that humans were simply animals, like all the rest, and we have survived by luck alone.  The humanists were not amused.  They pulled out the stake, seized Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest, and proclaimed that our remarkable success was indisputable proof that we are, without a doubt, the greatest!

Gray looks outside his window, perceives thousands of serious problems, and concludes that catastrophes are on the way.  Humanists look out the window, disregard thousands of serious problems, and see reality as an unfinished masterpiece — our species will be saved once we are all fully illuminated by precious reason.

He acknowledges that there has been real progress in science and technology, but sees little progress in morals and ethics.  While progress does reduce human suffering in some ways, it is simultaneously inventing bigger and better weapons for killing people.

In 1543, Japan had more guns than any other nation.  In that year, they banned firearms, and the nation was gun-free until 1879, when Commodore Perry arrived from the modern world, and frightened Japan into a process of rapid industrialization.  Their era of isolation was over, and they understood the diabolical law of civilization:  “Any country that renounces technology will become the prey to those who do not.  There is no escape from a world of predatory states.”

The greatest atrocities in human history have been enabled by advances in modern technology.  Innovation is impossible to control.  Horrid inventions that are banned in many countries will be eagerly produced by others.  Some technology, like biological weapons or cyber warfare can be pursued in the shadow world, unknown to governments or corporate entities.

At the same time, the traditional concept of warfare as being nation versus nation is dissolving.  With the rise of movements like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that exist entirely beyond government control, we’re seeing a revival of religious warfare, where there are no standing armies or front lines.  The woman standing beside you might be a bomb.

Humanists envision a secular world that is educated, rational, and ethical, but few societies are secular today.  In primitive countries, like the U.S., millions of educated people reject the notion of evolution.  Millions of fundamentalists, of every variety, insist that their specific interpretation of sacred texts and visions is the one and only correct way to live, and that the rest of humankind must be converted to their beliefs — or else!

With regard to the Earth Crisis, Gray does not assign all blame to agriculture and civilization.  He believes that our problems began far earlier.  “There was never a Golden Age of harmony with the Earth.  Most hunter-gatherers were fully as rapacious as later humans.  But they were few, and they lived better than most who came after them.”  Throughout our long journey, the cost of every “advance” has been ecological injury.

He acknowledges that some cultures did manage to live sustainably for long stretches of time.  An essential component of their success was restraint.  They used practices like infanticide, geronticide, and sexual abstinence to limit the size of their clans — no crowding, no scarcity, no conflict.  These brilliant hunters clearly understood that, in a world of finite food sources, perpetual growth was dumber than a box of rocks.

Unfortunately, farmers threw restraint out the window.  Growing population forced us to become deeply addicted to agriculture, and we burned our bridges behind us.  Today, a return to living in balance is obstructed by our enormous population.  We could greatly reduce our misery by reducing our numbers, but this will never be done voluntarily on a global scale.  We’ve entrusted the remedy to Big Mama Nature, who will effectively clean up the mess without mercy.  The human herd might shrink at a rate as rapid as its explosion.

Throughout the book, Gray is a tireless fire hose of criticism.  He tells us that consciousness, reason, and self-awareness are highly overrated; Homo rapiens bears a striking resemblance to cancer, and so on.  This does get tiresome.  Is he a dark man with an unhealthy mind, or is he a sane man who is clearly and competently describing a dark reality?  He encourages us to turn on our thinkers and reexamine our beliefs, a pastime that can often be quite profitable.  The book has been a best seller.  It’s short and easy to read.

Here’s a line that intrigued me:  “It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.”  Gray bets that humankind will succeed in our crusade of self-destruction, at which point the healing process can begin.  Earth will forget us, and life will move on.  On the other hand, modern folks spend their lives wearing their freaky Master of the Universe masks, which conceal their ordinary animal faces.  In theory, humans could “cease to matter” by taking off our masks, abandoning our achievements, humbly returning to the family of life, and disappearing into the crowd.

Gray, John, Straw Dogs — Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Granta Books, London, 2003.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

What Is A Human Being?

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a gorgeous tropical rainforest in Africa.  Among the many beings living there were three tribes of primates.  They were the ancestors of modern chimps, baboons, and humans.  All of them were tree dwellers.  Primates, who evolved whilst bounding from branch to branch in the forest, have highly developed senses of sight and touch.  On the other hand, mammals that evolved for life on the ground have highly developed senses of smell.

By and by, the climate cooled, the rainforest shrank, and grassland expanded.  The tree dwellers were not amused.  Living on the ground was dangerous, because there were many predators eager to invite them to lunch.  There came a time, some say between 4.2 and 3.5 million years ago, when the human ancestors became fed up with the hardships of life in the trees, and began walking on the ground.  Evolution had not fine-tuned them for surviving in the midst of large predators, and they were easy prey.  Unclever pioneers became cat food.

A bit later, between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, the human ancestors evolved into Homo erectus, a meat-eating, tool-using animal.  Around this time, many large carnivores in Africa went extinct.  Some believe that this was not a coincidence.  Later, when Homo sapiens emerged 250,000 years ago, we were tool-using hunters from day one.

Now, let’s fast forward to the twenty-first century.  The chimps, with whom we share 94 percent of our genes, have remained close to the trees, where they build nests.  They have both day nests and night nests.  The olive baboons have also remained in Africa, and they inhabit rainforests and deserts, but most of them live in grasslands near open woodland.  The humans abandoned tree dwelling, and have spread across the planet, spending much of their time in manufactured nests.

All three tribes eat meat.  All three use tools, but those used by chimps and baboons are still very simple and no-tech.  Chimps and baboons do not read or write.  They have not developed complex language or abstract thinking.  Neither have exploded in numbers or ravaged the global ecosystem.  Both do their hunting primarily with bare hands and teamwork, snatching small critters.  They have found no need to till the soil or enslave other species, because they live in accordance with natural law, and never had an urge to become unusual smarty-pants.

Both chimps and baboons have remained in tropical Africa, the ecosystem for which evolution had fine-tuned them, their home.  Thus, they have no need for clothing, fire, substantial shelters, cell phones, or psych meds.  They continue to enjoy a healthy, pleasant, and traditional wild life — in a genuinely sustainable manner that could not be more intelligent.  Their major challenge is the growing destruction caused by exploding numbers of you-know-who.

Baboons have lived on the savannahs for a very long time, without complex tools, in neighborhoods frequented by hungry large predators.  Hence, spears and javelins are not necessary for the survival of ground dwelling primates.  Thus, humans were not forced to choose between tool addiction and extinction.  Projectile weapons were a half-clever experiment that resulted in colossal unintended consequences that continue to multiply.

Evolution brilliantly encouraged a balance between predators and prey.  If the predators gradually became one percent faster, the prey gradually became one percent faster, not two.  Our development of complex tools blew this ancient balance out of the water, because tools gave us powers that far exceeded those provided by evolution.  They allowed us to kill megafauna.  As our hunting tools became more powerful, we killed more and more animals, while our own numbers grew.  Eventually, this expansion inspired humans to migrate out of Africa, in search of happy hunting grounds.

Leaping beyond our evolutionary boundaries was a risky move, and the unfortunate result is the world you see around you, and the growing storm that’s moving in on us.  At this point, a heretic who thinks outside the box must propose a core question.  Is it better to live simply and sustainably, or to have lots of amazing gizmos and live in a toxic, self-destructive manner that has no future?  The heretic is asking what does it mean to be human?

Imagine a world map that indicates where nonhuman primates live today.  They live in sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia, Central America, and the warmer regions of South America — the tropics.  They do not inhabit Europe, most of North America, or most of Asia, because evolution has not prepared them for surviving in these cooler habitats.  The only reason that humans can inhabit non-tropical regions is because we developed complex technology — clothing, warm shelters, fire, food storage, stone-tipped spears, and so on.

I’ve been reading about shamans lately, old-fashioned healers who could communicate with the spirit world.  In the tribal mindset, all misfortune is caused by evil spirits sent by sorcerers via invisible projectiles, tiny darts.  This belief is common to many places, including Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Peru, Amazonia, and Australia.  In Ireland, the darts are fairy darts or bolts, and the victims are elf-shot.  The healer’s job was to locate the dart, and suck it out of the victim’s body. 

Is it possible that this widespread belief in evil projectiles reflects an archetypal truth?  Is there an understanding in the collective unconscious that our addiction to spears, javelins, and arrows threw us out of balance and put us on a bad path?  Many old cultures also perceived dark magic in reading, writing, and metal making.

It’s clear that there is an enormous gulf between the primitive mindset and the industrial mindset.  The shaman Martín Prechtel says that we all possess an original, natural, indigenous soul struggling to survive, but it has been largely suppressed by the modern mind, which we use to understand the world.  Healing requires us to rediscover our soul.

Carl Jung talked about the archaic or original mind, which thinks in images, like dreams.  It is the mind of young children.  The modern mind is very different, because it engages in directed thinking — thinking in words.  Jung believed that our minds had many layers, and the oldest layer was the unconscious.  Maybe at some level our minds are similar to those of chimps and baboons.

Our ancestors obviously perceived that humans were unique.  No other animals were killing mammoths with spears, or sitting around campfires in stylish fur coats.  Over the eons, we have been getting more and more clever, and more and more out of balance.  Somewhere in the process, humans developed consciousness, which greased the wheels of cleverness. 

We are very proud of the wonders of consciousness, but Jung thought that it was also our worst devil.  He saw the modern mind as unstable, infantile, and a dangerous loose cannon.  Near the end of his life, in 1963, he had a vision of global catastrophe, maybe 50 years away.

The domestication of plants and animals profoundly altered our relationship to the family of life.  We developed the ability to redesign and dominate entire ecosystems.  Chimps and baboons, on the other hand, are perfectly happy to remain wild, free, and simple.  It’s easy.

In his book, The Parable of the Tribes, Andrew Bard Schmookler discussed the problem of power.  It meant forcing your will against the will of another.  Power was a new form of energy on the planet, and it led to conquest and exploitation.  Once a belligerent bully arrives, the party is over.  Power can only be neutralized by greater power. 

Many, many tribal people around the world developed mindful ways of living in balance with their ecosystem.  The tribes of the Pacific Northwest lived in a relatively sustainable manner, and would still be living like that, if they hadn’t been overrun by bad craziness that metastasized in the Fertile Crescent — on the other side of the world!  Power trumps mindfulness.

As we move beyond peak energy, peak food, peak people, and a stable climate, much of our knowledgebase will become obsolete.  Our glowing screens will go dark, our world will shrink to the nearby locality, and survival will involve spending much of our time outdoors.  How badly will ecosystems be damaged?  Will gardening be possible?  Will humankind survive?

As we work to envision the path forward, it would be wise to be wary of the dangers of tool addiction.  A century or two down the road, we might return to a life of pure jungle simplicity, like Tarzancíto.  If we did, I suspect that our complex and chaotic modern minds will become much calmer and quieter.  If farming and herding become impossible, or if we abandon the habit, and outgrow our obsession with wealth and status, maybe bully power, like patriarchy, will go extinct, too. 

Importantly, we will no longer be able to live in a manmade world, in isolation from the family of life.  We will once again become acquainted with our relatives in the family of life, and learn to live with them.  I don’t think we’re genetically flawed; we just tried a new path, had a bad trip, and made a big mess.