Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature - Ian McCallum (2008)
Part II. LOOKING AHEAD
Chapter 10. HEADING OUT-COMING HOME
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR MANY REASONS—the radio, advances in automobiles and aircraft, space travel, the harnessing and unleashing of nuclear power, sound cinematography, television, computers, the Internet. It will be remembered for its weapons, its wars, for antibiotics, psychoanalysis, organ transplants, and the unraveling of the human genome. Sadly, it will also be remembered as the century in which the ways of the wild, the natural migrations, their habitat, and the capacity of the animals to find their own balance with the land changed forever. The reason for this is inescapable—the human factor—our insecurity, our arrogance, our ignorance. With few exceptions we have become the victims of our intellectual success, and it shows. By continuing to distance ourselves from Nature and from our fellow soul makers, we, too, have lost our sense of balance. We suffer from a loss of soul.
It is true, we’ve come a long way since that mythological day when Apollo announced that first great ecological admonition—know thyself. And yet we hardly know ourselves at all. This is ironic, given that our search for who and what we are has been almost obsessive. We have technology that can take us into what we believe to be the very heart of matter—machines that can measure one billionth of one billionth of a yard (10-19). As if this is not enough, we are presently assembling in Geneva, Switzerland, a 16.77-mile-long accelerator, or particle smasher, that will add an extra power of ten to our microscopic search for meaning. Known as the Large Hadron Collider, the temperatures created in the particle collisions will be around 1 billion times that of the center of the sun. Why are we doing this? By attempting to emulate the conditions that are believed to have existed less than one billionth of a second after the big bang, we hope to find among the scattered parti-cles the graviton or Higgs boson—the so-called God particle. According to the standard model of particle physics, the graviton, in the same way that DNA is the carrier of genes, is the generator and carrier of mass and gravity. Finding this particle, we believe, will go a long way toward a better understanding of dark matter, including the antigravity properties of dark energy.
With technology that can detect galaxies as far away as 10,000 million light years from us, we are searching in the other direction too. In the 1970s, in a poignant statement of how alone we are in the known universe, two separate Pioneer-project spacecraft took off into deep space carrying with them an engraved likeness of Homo sapiens sapiens, together with a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach and a hello message from Earth. As I write, those spaceships are already far beyond our solar system. Their journey, so far, has been profoundly silent.
As exciting and as metaphysically balanced as these two directions have been, they are essentially journeys that detract, in this crucial time of human history, from perhaps the most exciting and the most essential journey of them all—the inner one. Like the inward-hooking thorn of the ziziphus, this is the complementary journey, the one that will bring us face-to-face with the world and with ourselves.
The images of macro- and microspace are within us. It is time to give them a life that is immediate and specific. To do this, we need to develop an intelligence that is ecological.
I have attempted to describe ecological intelligence as a way of understanding and articulating our evolutionary links with all living things, the debt that we owe to the Earth, and the contribution of wild things to the evolution of human consciousness. It is an intelligence that can grasp the significance of the threefold instruction of Apollo. To me, these admonitions should be on the wall of every corporate and conservation boardroom. They should be part of the vision statements of developers and entrepreneurs, a mental map for lawyers, engineers, doctors, and teachers, as well as the silent mantra for every environmentalist. As we continue to live the questions surrounding our concerns for the Earth, I believe this intelligence will continue to define itself.
We are the human animal and there are profound ecological responsibilities that come with this privilege. We are the only creatures who can say yes and no to traditions, religions, and conventional wisdom. But what is the point of this if we can’t say yes and no to the timing and the intensity of our own threat displays, our compulsions, conformity, and our territorial acquisitiveness? We are not the masters of our fate, and we are not going to be rescued from the ecological predicament of our time, either. We can, however, without detaching our-selves from it, rise above it. We can change ourselves by changing our behavior, says philosopher and naturalist Richard Rorty—especially our linguistic behavior. Freedom of speech is not simply a freedom to think and to say what you wish, but to speak for yourself, to speak from the heart, and to be accountable for your words.
I have introduced poetry as the language that can best convey the essence of an ecological intelligence, for it is the only language I know that can adequately redress the Human-Nature split. Disobedient to the force of gravity, as poet Simone Weil puts it, it is not only a language but an attitude. It is a language and an attitude that takes us to the edge of our imagination, bridging the gap between science and nonscience, between the actual and the imagined. It speaks from the heart. I hope there was at least one poem quoted in this book that spoke to you in the way that all of them have spoken to me.
Poets may or may not be the “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley claimed them to be, but their work continues to have a profound influence on our thoughts. “And it is because of the cataclysms and transformations of the past century,” wrote literary critic Lord Gorell, that poetry, “the undying, is more, and not less, necessary.” Poetry above all, because it looks beyond the surface of things, is a language that takes us deep into the world and because of this, in the words of Mark Freeman, a literary scholar, “the world is always capable of being thought anew.” And then there is Wordsworth’s admonition: “On all poets is laid the duty of hope.” If this is so, as I believe it is, then poetry is the language that, for now at least, can best define an intelligence that is ecological.
We have looked at the wake-up calls of the past millennium, identifying their areas of impact—physics, cosmology, evolution, and depth psychology. Copernicus redefined the center of our solar system and with it the relegation of the Earth to one of a handful of planets. Galileo discovered that we are not the only planet with a moon, and then came Newton’s laws of an absolute universe. “I am standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Newton in acknowledgment of those who had helped him formulate his laws. Newton’s laws went unchallenged for two hundred years until Einstein came along with his dual theories of relativity. “I am standing on the shoulders of Newton,” said Einstein. Suddenly, there were no absolutes of space, mass, or time. Light traveled in waves or particles—it all depended, at the subatomic level, on the intention of the observer. What kind of a psychological truth was this? And now we know that the speed of light is no longer a universal limit.
Einstein’s genius opened the way for quantum theory and with it the stunning realization that the influence of atomic particles, one upon the other, irrespective of distance, is instantaneous. What is more, they do not move from one point to another—they manifest at their new locality as if they had always been there. This gave credence to the probability of quantum fields, to field thinking, and to the socio-biological notion of a web of life.
Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species gave us something to ponder. I believe it was something to celebrate. The decoding of the human genome tells us that we are indeed related to the animals, the insects, and the plants, and that, like it or not, Earth is where we belong. Once again, the old poets were right. Edward Abbey, in his book Desert Solitaire, puts it this way:
All men are brothers, we like to say. Half wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged therefore to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear…that all living things are kindred.
Yes…there’s a menagerie inside our ribs, beneath our bony skulls, says Carl Sandburg, and we are the keepers of the zoo. Is this not a good enough reason to be alive? Could we ask for a privilege more meaningful than this?
And then came those great pioneers of psychology, Freud and Jung. Between them they gave us the first meaningful maps for the journey into the human psyche. They both understood the importance of the unconscious part of our psyche in our daily lives, as well as its nocturnal language—our dreams. It was Jung, however, who understood its evolutionary significance. Seeing it as more than a personal unconscious, he called it the collective unconscious. Within it, he said, are the archetypes—the guiding, psychological motifs and images that have steered us through our 2.5-million-year tenure as a social species. Not only did he understand the evolutionary roots of human nature, he understood what comes with it—our dark side. He called this psycho-logical blind spot our shadow.
It is hard to accept that the intellect, which has made the human animal appear so clever, so ingenious, invariably fails to recognize what comes with it—the early steps of its undoing. It is difficult to acknowledge that a blind spot comes along with the all-seeing human retina. And yet if we know this, then it is not difficult to see within the blind spot of kinship recognition and the evolutionary fear of strangers, the early dynamics of in-groups and out-groups, of racism and xenophobia. Addressing our shadow has been an important part of this book.
To rediscover ourselves in Nature, a sense of our evolutionary history is going to be important, but it is not sufficient. It is sobering enough to remember from where and how far we have come, but it is even more sobering to consider where we might be headed. Viewed from a perspective of cosmic time, our history of adaptation and advancement as a species has been a relatively short one. But has it been successful? In terms of technological advancement, it would appear so, but is this really the case? Adapt we have, but does it not make sense that successful adaptation should be a win-win situation, or are we still stuck in the Old Testament notion of having to have dominion over every living thing? We have yet to get our language right. Successful adaptation does not mean dominance and neither does it mean forever.
Natural selection is often misunderstood as being a polite analpgy for the outdated but deeply ingrained notion of the survival of the fittest, and with it, the idea that the different species on Earth exist in hierarchies of dominance. It is not about that at all. Instead, it is a process of give and take, governed by the coexistence of species. It accounts for the way organisms successfully fit into and with the environment. The very essence of natural selection is that organisms come to match their habitats by being the fittest available or the fittest yet: they are not the best imaginable. Technological progress, therefore, is a misleading gauge of successful adaptation. In spite of its apparent benefits, we have failed to acknowledge the shadow that comes with technology and as a result are in danger of becoming less fit in terms of the definition above. We need to answer Antonio Machado’s question: “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” Honor the gods, said Apollo. Be aware of the intelligence in every living thing. And after you have done that, ask permission to enter the space of the other.
In evolutionary terms, it is too early to speak about the successful adaptation of the human animal to this little planet. Compared with the long, imperial reign of the dinosaurs, let alone that of our scaly cousins the crocodiles, the snakes, and the birds, we are pip-squeaks in the evolutionary hall of fame. And yet few would argue the astonishing impact on Earth of the creature that suddenly stood up, freeing not only his hands to grasp the Earth’s elements, but a mind that could mould the elements, shape them, and make symbols of them.
We are an Earthbound species. We are born out of it and we return to it. What we do to it, we do to ourselves. It is in this light that I have difficulty believing that an ecological intelligence is something that is being reclaimed—an implication that our failed ecological strategies reflect some kind of historical fall from grace. I doubt that there has ever been a golden age of ecology in the world, a time when men and women lived in perfect harmony with the Earth. Instead, out of dire necessity, I believe it to be an intelligence that is evolving. The word perfection is foreign to evolution and so is the word harmony, which implies a world devoid of dissonance and tension. In other words, paradise has probably never existed outside of the human imagination. Of course we miss the good ol’ days when the rains came, when firewood was on one’s doorstep, and people were generally happier than they are today. I don’t think I am being cynical when I say that human memories tend to be selective, but we forget that our modern environmental and political predicaments are rooted in those socalled good old days. In other words, our forefathers are also in the dock. Like Oedipus, they should have known. What will our children say of us? Are we able to look beyond our own lifetime?
The future of humans as an interdependent species is precarious. It is difficult to name any other force quite as threatening to the planet as the growing human population and with it the increasing pressure on the land for housing and food production. The population factor is a challenge that is perplexing, painful, and awesome. Douglas Chadwick, writing in 1992, put the population bomb into perspective:
It took more than a million years for human numbers to add up to 1 billion. That mark was reached around the year ad 1800, two centuries ago. The second billion was added during just the next 130 years. Barely thirty years later, the third billion had arrived. Fifteen years later, the total was 4 billion. We reached our current 5 billion in another dozen years.
By the year 2000, we had six billion people on Earth. With this trend we can expect ten billion by the middle of the century. We have taken the Genesis admonition to be fruitful and multiply too literally.
To be fruitful is not only to be biologically fertile, but to be fruitful and fertile in our thoughts also. To multiply is not restricted to arithmetic, either. It does not only mean producing more of the same thing.Rather, it is to be expansive in our thinking, to be flexible and multi-faceted. It is to develop the capacity to embrace the multiplicity of all living things and living expressions on Earth. If anything, we are the ones who need to be a little more subdued, and by this I mean not only the subduing of our growing numbers, but of downplaying our inflated notions of human divinity.
And so, what are we to do about it? Can history help us? I’m afraid not. The present population of human beings on Earth is unprecedented. Let us not forget that. What we can do, however, is to become more aware of the harsh social realities of human reproduction. We would do well to remember that people who are poor tend to have more children than those who are materially better off. Paradoxically, it is part of their survival. Insurance and retirement annuities are the security of the haves and the inhabitants of the welfare state; children are the security of the have-nots in the developing nations. Carl Sagan, in his erudite and humbling book Billions and Billions, wrote:
There is a well-documented, world-wide correlation between poverty and high birth rates. In little countries and big countries, in communist countries, Catholic countries and Muslim countries, Western countries and Eastern countries—in almost all these cases, exponential population growth slows down or stops when grinding poverty disappears. This is called the demographic transition. It is in the urgent long-term interest of the human species that every place on Earth achieves this demographic transition. This is why helping other countries to become self-sufficient is not only elementary human decency, but is also in the self-interest of those richer nations able to help.
Saving the lives of children and prolonging our own life spans does not make objective sense, and yet no one would dare advocate that we abandon our attempts to do so. There is something in our psyche that will not allow it. We are survivors and we are a social species. We do care, but we are going to have to learn to care differently—about the land, about the animals, and about ourselves.
The choice is ours and it has to be made now. As E. O. Wilson says, we have to decide whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic. Urging us to look deep within ourselves and to decide what we wish to become, he chooses the hard path—volitional evolution. “Alter the biological nature of the human species in any direction you wish, or you may leave it alone,” he says. “Either way, genetic evolution is about to become conscious and volitional, and usher in a new epoch in the history of life.” It is going to present the most profound intellectual and ethical choices humanity has ever faced, which means, above all, that we are going to have to learn how to say yes and no to the forces of human nature. Without being naive, we must adopt a stance that promises a concern for the intelligence and well-being of every living thing.
Zoologist Jonathan Kingdon puts it this way: “We must remake our-selves in some fashion that retains and develops the countless benefits of technology and culture, yet does not cut us off from or destroy all the physical processes that created us as animals.” And then there is that other imaginative and courageous spokesman for the Earth, James Lovelock. Out of a deep concern for the human impact on our planet, he issues a bold challenge. If, because of the evolution of the cortex, human beings can reflect upon themselves, then we need to see our-selves as the reflecting cortex of the Earth. “Through human beings,” he says poetically, “the Earth can become conscious of itself.
In this book I have made several references to the traditional hunter-gatherers of the world, more especially to Africa’s ancient nomads, the Kalahari bushmen. As we review our present ecological thinking, we might be mistaken into believing that their way of life is a model for the ecological intelligence that we are trying to define. The bushmen no longer live in the traditional hunter-gatherer way that they used to, but even if they could it is obvious that theirs might have been a life to be admired, but not necessarily envied. Compared with our world of running water, electricity, flush toilets, and including our pursuit of material comforts, instant gratification, and insurance against the unknown, their physical existence was a tough one. There is no turning back.Very few of us would be willing let alone able to free ourselves from our first-world cosmologies and comforts in favor of their spartan, but by no means uncivilized, lifestyles and life views. To reflect on this is a reminder that the intelligence we seek will be meaningless unless it can be translated beyond the worlds of traditional hunter-gatherers into our complex world of cultivation and consumerism. We have to reexamine what Jacquetta Hawkes once called “the fetish of the standard of living,” replacing it with “a standard of values, in which beauty, comeliness, and the possibility of solitude have a high place among human needs.”
We must learn to be poor in the right way in order to become richer in the right way, says Indian social ecologist, R. Guha. In other words, to favor wiser ways of living off the land and the sea, we have to be more careful in differentiating between what we want and what we need. The pantry complex—taking more than we need—is deeply ingrained in our evolution. It is part of our opportunistic or, to be less polite, our scavenging nature. Separating needs from wants is poetic thinking, but it will mean nothing unless we can make it workable.
Barry Lopez, in his hard-hitting book The Rediscovery of North America, does not mince his words when he deals with the subject of human greed. He calls it a crisis both of culture and character. “We have an obligation,” he says, well aware of the revolutionary significance of his words, “to develop a hard and focused anger at what continues to be done to the land, not so people can survive, but so that a relatively few can amass wealth.” We are obliged therefore to nurture an intelligence capable of making the shift from short-term survival thinking—me versus you—to one that consciously grasps the long-term significance of I and Thou. In essence, it requires that we be careful of our language and refuse to be seduced by jargon and slogans such as “ethical hunting,” “sustainable utilization,” “downsizing,” “ecofriendly,” “transparency,” “biodegradable,” “development,” and “growth.”
While it carries such positive connotations when used in an intellectual or economic context, the word growth is also the name for a tumor. Cancer is a condition where host cells become autonomous and multiply. It spreads, it invades, it occupies, eventually killing the host. We fight it, we look for and claim all kinds of causes for it along a biopsychosociological spectrum and yet, unless it is caught early, there is often very little that we can do about its relentless course. Notwithstanding the genetic influence regarding the natural history of various illnesses, could it be that cancer is one of the diseases of our time, our niche, and our evolution? And if so, is there anything we can learn from it, for it is indeed a chilling metaphor for human behavior?
As with any life-threatening illness, perhaps it is this: as we face our death, it inevitably changes our lives. It opens us to many possible outcomes. It challenges us to live our dying and to say goodbye to those we have loved. It reminds us that death is not an enemy but an inevitable turning point in life, a shift in a molecular-chemical dance as old as the universe itself. Jung, more than half a century ago, had already come to the conclusion that the meaning of life lay in a complete adjustment to the laws of nature…with a gradual maturing toward death as a final goal. “Death must be regarded as the fulfillment of life’s meaning and its real aim,” he said in 1934. In a way that one might regard the life of a subatomic particle, he believed that the human psyche was deeply involved in a “time…and spaceless form of existence which might symbolically and inadequately be called eternal.” To me, the notion of dust to dust is poetry and science. It is at the heart of what it means to think molecular.
Some years ago, while working as a doctor in a small mining town along the west coast of South Africa, I was witness on the same night to what could be regarded as life’s two great mysteries—birth and death. One of my patients, a man in the terminal phases of a bronchial carcinoma, was breathing heavily as he slipped in and out of a coma. Seated at his bedside was his wife. She was holding his hand, fully aware of the warmth that was slipping away from her. Standing opposite her, I held his other hand, my fingers acutely aware of the pulse that was now racing toward its ultimate fate.
“She’s ready, doctor,” said the nurse who had opened the door just enough to show her face. It was a half-whisper, with enough urgency in it to show that she was serious. Down the corridor, a young mother in the final stages of labor was close to delivery. Excusing myself, I headed for the labor ward, rolling up my sleeves as I made my way through the doors of the delivery room toward the hand-washing basins.
Fifteen minutes later, a healthy, ten-fingered child was warmly wrapped and cradled in the arms of her exhausted mother. I headed back to the dying man and his wife, who greeted me with a silent, imploring look. He was still with us. About half an hour later he let out a long sigh. It was his final breath and it coincided with a sound I will never forget. It was the cry of a newly born infant echoing down the corridor. Later that night, I wrote this poem, “Deliverance.”
Tonight is my night she said
I can feel it deep inside
And tonight is my night he said
I can feel there is nowhere to hide
The pain comes and goes she said
This life deep inside moves about
The pain comes and goes he said
This life deep inside wants out
My breathing is deep she said
With labor there’s so much pain
And my breathing is pain he said
I will not labor again
I am ripe to deliver she said
I can feel it all below
And I am ripe to deliver he said
There’s a need deep inside to let go
O what a song she said
It is life and the young child cried
O what a song he said
It is life and the old body died
Is there any cheer in this speculative analysis of our fate and of what it means to be the human animal? I think there is. It is in that tiny fraction of the genome that makes our consciousness different from that of a chimpanzee. The human animal can make choices that no other creature, as far as I am aware, can make. We can choose to drift into oblivion, to turn our heads, pretending we did not see, or we can refuse to be victims, as Oedipus did. We can choose the hard path—the one that demands accountability: the one that demands that we give beauty and meaning, in our own way, to the Earth and to the countless living things that share it with us.
Finally, we can choose to turn our usual image of the human animal at the apex of creation upside down. Instead of seeing ourselves at the point, let’s imagine ourselves instead at the open edge of a rose, a spiral shell, or a cup into which we can look to see all things taking shape and where the stem and the edge are one. Let’s try to imagine ourselves as the living equivalents of an ark upon a great evolutionary sea. Let’s become conscious of the animals that we have on board with us and of what they mean to us—that we need them as much and probably more than they need us. If we are divine, then so is every other creature on this planet. We have no right to drive any of them into extinction. Instead, let’s learn to say thank you to these older brothers and sisters.
Does the image of the ziziphus speak to you? Do the poets and those ancient admonitions of Apollo—to know thyself, to do no thing in excess, and to honor the gods—make sense? Is an ecological intelligence possible? If so, then say yes, quickly. This could be the last watch, and there are things to do.