Saturday, April 7, 2012

Getting off “The Road”: the imperative of an ecological ethos

 [Note: I cannot possibly do this subject the justice it deserves or requires. My apologies in advance.]

Anarchy A to Z:
a guide to understanding our history unfolding for the anesthetized and apathetic

E is for Ecology.

   After a brief departure from academic inquiry, I returned to a graduate department hoping to broaden my perspective and enhance my critical analysis of the American empire. Choosing International Relations with a concentration in Peacekeeping was supposed to provide the information and tools necessary to tweak or replace the current system with a more equitable one. The reality is that I learned much more about violence and the hopelessness of the human condition than I did peace. All was not lost, though. In the milieu of prescriptions and analysis, I was able to glean an important fundamental flaw in our way of thinking, and thus, the fundamental flaw on which the injustices of our social system are based. 
   The human mind must process sensory information, and therefore, puritanical objectivity is an impossibility. We attach biases to everything we analyze and disseminate. These biases are inherent to our cultural construct. We need a way to surgically remove these biases, or at least reduce their effect so we can truly understand the problems we face. Ecology is wholeness. We are meaningless components of an empty system without it. Take Haiti, for example. 

   The minority/people of color analysis may see the Haitian material standard as a tragedy befalling the first successful state erected by former slaves. The economists could argue that Haitians lack the education and technical skill to raise their standard. Marxist historicism would emphasize the continued role of the plantation economy in organizing society. The close-minded peacekeeper may blame it on the culture of lawlessness left in the Duvaliers’ wake. Anti-imperialists and Wallerstein acolytes would point to dependency, both in aid contribution and through carefully crafted trade regimes that keep Haiti in a state of low-skill manufacturing. Health advocates may argue that there isn’t sufficient sanitation or health education to provide a strong labor pool. Evangelical zealots might dismiss them for the syncretism of animism and Christianity. 

   The ecologist would note all of the above, but would add the dynamic of land degradation that successful destroyed the basis of a robust economy, as free-for-all land use replaced plantations. If we embrace ecology, we can see that our entire perceivable and atomic existence is a series of systems, from small vibrations of energy within the atom to the relationship between a colony of single-cell bacteria and the success of a grove of mighty oaks. We can’t see that the energy we use and the way we use them—fossil fuels and insatiable consumption—directly reflect our worldview and directly affect human relationships. We take and use without completely understanding the consequences. This practice is antithetical to justice. How can we pretend we will treat individuals better or that we want more equitable distribution of wealth, or that we want a system that is truly fair and liberates our souls and advances our collective humanity if we cannot understand the most fundamental relationship between the living and nonliving?

   Energy is the basis of life. All relationships in all systems rely on some form of exchange of energy. It is neither created nor destroyed, right? Can we reserve a moment of silence for Einstein and this revelation that calls the significance of human history into question? Ecology is much more than understanding these relationships, but ecology requires us to ask what it is to be human and, thus, provides a platform for us to discuss where we would like to go. An ethos of ecology becomes critical to confronting our crises.
   Despite relativism and scientific skepticism, one thing is certain. Our economic system has proceeded recklessly, extracting its wealth from the land and then moving on. In its wake, the systems on which life depends are damaged for unknown lengths of time, although most certainly across several generations. This misuse of natural capital ignores the fact that all human economic and social systems are invariably tied to the earth. We face the gravest threat in the last four billion years of evolution of our planet, from when gravity squeezed a superheated ball of material into existence to the superheated global desert of Judge Dredd or The Hunger Games dystopian fiction. 

   Something prevents us from seeing that we must act. This is somewhat a surprise given the glaring dissimilarities between the crisp and clean rivers of my youth, safe to fish and swim, and the reality of my temporary residence in the Northeast, where one hardly gives notice to signs declaring the water unclean for swimming and fishing. Still, our dependency on the system, through the bureaucracy’s institution of debt-fueled consumerism, makes us look to others for answers if we decided to ask the question in the first place. Instead, we need to look at what is fundamentally human. The reason I chose to explore human thought and history in this A to Z challenge is because climate change scares me. I’m still reluctant to bear children into a world that will offer them nothing. 

   In Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road, the hero was a survivor. He was persistent. He was selfless in his sacrifice. No he wasn’t. These perceptions are biases inherent in the dominant worldview. These are biases an ecological ethos could dismantle. The protagonist was an anti-hero. He was selfishly dragging his child down a road that led nowhere. Naively holding on to hope and arrogantly believing that he could “carry the fire” and maintain the values of a civilization that was no longer living, he represents the barrier to overcoming our systems of injustice and confronting our crises. We are all anti-heroes in this respect.  

   We must embrace the wholeness of ecology. We must abandon the few virtues of our economic and social systems, understanding the flaws in our systems are immutable parts of it. We cannot reform capitalism. We cannot reform our way into an ecological ethos. We need a spiritual transformation. It is not only possible, but absolutely critical to moving into the next stage of human evolution. However, the task is great because it requires us to reconcile the limits of our knowledge and our biological limits as human beings, specifically, the self-preservation response: fear.

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