3. ‘Connect, Only Connect’
So the question remains: how do we maintain our connection to the planet? Or should that be: How do we reconnect with this lovely planet? And can that prevent us from pushing the environment over the brink? Environmentalists and deep ecologists have been pointing out for years that it’s not economy OR ecology, since a degraded environment will no longer provide the services that drive economies. Certainly we have the technology—or at least the rudiments of it—to create more sustainable societies. Scientists at UCLA announced in July the prototype for a transparent solar film that could tip the balance in favour of affordable photovoltaic technology. 12 We also have cutting-edge, world-class thinkers like Janine Benyus, with her visionary biomimicry and the ‘cradle to cradle’ theory of Michael Braungart and William McDonough. 13 But far more merely than a technological ‘fix’ is needed.
Like crack addicts unable to get off the drug that is slowly killing them, those who control the majority of capital continue to prop up the very system that undermines all life on this planet. Case in point: also in July this year, the discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas reserves in North America was announced with glee by Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente. “The good news is that thanks to an astonishing array of recent oil and gas finds” there is in Colorado and Utah alone “more than a trillion barrels of recoverable oil. That amount is about equal to the entire world’s proven oil reserves.” Wente’s conclusion? “Everything you’ve ever heard about peak oil is obsolete,” so the “doomsayers,” as she describes them, can just shut up and go home. 14 Problem solved.
As McKibben notes in Rolling Stone, BP and Shell have already shut down their solar divisions. Meanwhile Wente’s strange logic makes no mention of the fact that discovering new oil reserves does nothing to address the escalating carbon load in the atmosphere. “We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn,” explains McKibben. “We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.” 15 One small problem: that would mean writing off $20 trillion in assets. Never gonna happen. So the unproven technology of carbon sinks—the technological fix—continues to be pursued, despite the fact that it lags behind our present environmental needs by years, if not decades. Worse, it avoids confronting the very issues that brought us here in the first place.
At what point did we miss “the road not taken,” as poet Robert Frost put it? How did we become so alienated from Nature that, as a society, we are willing to roll the dice on the future of Earth? We certainly understand the ‘how’—the emergence and increasing sophistication of consumer marketing that panders to instant gratification and peer group dynamics. As Joel Bakan notes in The Corporation, “The average American child sees 30,000 commercials a year on television alone,” according to Harvard Medical School expert Dr. Susan Linn. “Comparing the marketing of yesteryear to the marketing of today is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb.” 16 And we understand the motivation—capitalism’s fixation on the pursuit of maximum profit at all costs. But where is the spirit in all this? Have we become so spiritually empty that we’re prepared to sacrifice the planet to indulge our material needs and whims?
Part of the problem is that as technology has advanced, it has put further distance between ourselves and Nature. Most inhabitants of cities can now go from their air-conditioned home, to their air-conditioned car, to the air-conditioned underground parking lot, to their air-conditioned office. More and more work from home, hardly having to leave the house at all. Until it comes time to take the kids for an outing at the city park or the local waterslides theme park, there isn’t much to get us outside. To some extent this even affects those of us living in rural areas. According to one study, “A California statewide activity pattern survey conducted in 1987-88 showed that individuals spent, on average, 87% of their time indoors.” 17 That estimate has since increased to about 90% according to a 2006 study. 18 This is unprecedented in human history. Until very recently we have been more outdoor creatures than indoors. As little as 200 years ago, the technological wall between ourselves and the raw elements of Nature did not exist, beyond the four walls of a shelter. No wonder we have so little feeling for Nature—we spend so little time there.
When Chief Seattle gave his famous speech in January 1854 to Isaac Stevens, the new Governor and Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the Washington Territories, he drew from a tradition that had managed to retain an intimate connection with Nature. Quoting from Chief Seattle has become somewhat cliché. Yet his persistence lies in his relevance—all the more so now that we are raising children whose contact with Nature is peripheral at best. For the Suquamish people of whom he spoke, this connection had much to do with the presence of ancestors on the landscape. “Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.” 19
This, and the North American Native philosophy of Wakan Tanka, often reduced by ethnographers to primitive animism, served as self-limiting spiritual devices. By culturing generations in the belief that everything on Earth is a manifestation of Life and therefore possesses life force in varying degrees, Natives were unlikely to see the landscape as inanimate stuff to be endlessly exploited. The principle was well articulated by Black Elk, the Oglala Lakota holy man whose teachings were transcribed by Joseph Epes Brown in The Sacred Pipe (1953) and by John Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks (1961). To the Lakota Sioux, wherever one stood was the center of the universe, the ground of all being. “This center which is here, but which we know is really everywhere, is Wakan-Tanka. The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” 20
Aha. Is this the fundamental ground we have lost in modern technocratic society? Is this why depression and other psychiatric disorders are at an all-time high? And more importantly, is this the way back to peace of mind? And how is the awareness of Wakan-Tanka best cultivated if not in stories and songs? Black Elk and other Native holy men were steeped in this kind of lore. Ethnographers will tell you there isn’t a single culture in history that has been without a body of wisdom lore, a bardic tradition equal parts cultural memory and socialization cues. Cultures for millennia have relied upon poets and storytellers to tell the stories that root their people to the land. When Right wing politicians lament government subsidies spent on the arts, or claim that these are non-essential services, they miss the entire thrust of human culture. As Onandaga teacher Oren Lyons explains, “We are under one common law here. This is the common sense that comes from the long experience of Indian Nations being in one place: if you do not work with the laws that surround you, you will not survive. It is quite simple. We are animals, but we are animals with intellect. Intellect is what makes us dangerous…” 21
Once again, science meets spirit, but the poets and shamans got there first. This could be proof positive that storytelling in whatever form—poem, song, film, epic tale—is an essential service to humanity—and by extension, to the planet. To return to Lopez: “The purpose of storytelling is to achieve harmony between the (interior and exterior) landscapes, to use all the elements—syntax, mood, figures of speech—in a harmonious way to reproduce the harmony of the land in the individual’s interior. Inherent in story is the power to reorder a state of psychological confusion through contact with the pervasive truth of those relationships we call ‘the land.’” Therein may lie the path to the healing of the nations—what Lopez calls “the power of narrative to nurture and heal, to repair a spirit in disarray…” 22
It may be therefore that the only way to repel the modern equivalent of the waves of invading hordes is from within. But wait—I haven’t yet considered what I call the ‘psychopath factor’—the incredible damage that can be inflicted by that tiny percentage of the population who seem to lack a conscience. This was the great insight brought to us by Joel Bakan, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, makers of the documentary The Corporation. The very tool we have used to create wealth (for a few anyway) in society not only rewards psychopathic behaviour but enshrines it in the corporate charter. It ‘externalizes’ all social and environmental costs as if they somehow don’t exist on the landscape.
A recent psychological study found that the richest citizens tend to be less compassionate and that the majority of charitable donations come from the working class. 23 Only 17 people on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest people in America are also on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the most generous American donors. 24 A few high profile billionaires like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Ted Turner are trying to turn that around. California and five other US states have led the way in creating a new type of ‘triple bottom line’ corporate charter that allows companies to pursue not just profit but social and environmental goals. 25 Economists are realizing that an economic system based purely on profit cannot continue indefinitely. New books are being written to illustrate how research proves that societies founded on greater economic equality actually do better in every respect. (e.g. The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Penguin 2010.)
Anthropologist David Graeber, in his magisterial work Debt: The First 5,000 Years, is taking it a step further. His premise is that the entire foundation of the ‘science’ of economics rest on a series of assumptions amounting to myths. “The one thing that all these misconceptions have in common… is that they tend to reduce all human relations to exchange, as if our ties to society, even to the cosmos itself, can be imagined in the same terms as a business deal.” 26 Graeber makes a powerful case for the absence of historical or anthropological evidence to back neo-classical economics. But what is just as striking here is the use of mythology—a story or series of stories—to justify a system that has been responsible for more environmental and social damage than any other in human history. Stories are a tool like any other—they can be used or abused. In this case, the founding stories of modern economics seem to rest upon concepts that have no connection to the landscape.
Once again Oren Lyons states the case with admirable simplicity: “We know that there is no mercy in the natural law whatsoever. It will exact retribution in exact ratio to violation. You cannot discuss this—there are no lawyers, only retribution. The problem here is that we visit this retribution on our children and on our grandchildren. We leave them the problem of our excesses.” 27 Long after we’re gone, the wave of ‘invasions’ we unleashed will carry on through the forces of Nature, answerable only to their own inscrutable logic.
That is, unless we close The Book of Invasions and write a new story.
12. LA Times, ‘UCLA’s new transparent solar film could be game-changer,’ by Dean Kuipers, July 28, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/environment/la-me-gs-ucla-transparent-solar-film-could-be-gamechanger-20120727,0,4271267.story
14. The Globe & Mail, ‘The new energy revolution,’ by Margaret Wente, July 24, 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/the-new-energy-revolution/article4436783/?utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_source=The%20Globe%20and%20Mail&utm_type=text&utm_content=TheGlobeandMail&utm_campaign=96483015
15. Bill McKibben, ‘Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,’ Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719#ixzz21s9xSGFc
16. Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2008, p. 123.
17. Alfred T. Hodgson and Hal Levin, Volatile Organic Compounds in Indoor Air: A Review of
Concentrations Measured in North America Since 1990, E.O. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA and Building Ecology Research Group, Santa Cruz, CA, Introduction, April 2003.
18. Christopher Black, M.A.Sc., RDH Building Engineering, Vancouver, BC andJohn Straube, Ph.D.,Assoc. Professor, Civil Eng. Dept. and School of Architecture University of Waterloo, Mould Growth Experiments of Full Scale Wood Frame Wall Assemblies, Introduction, 2006 (est.).
19. How Can One Sell the Air? Chief Seattle’s Vision, Foreword by Marilyn Jones, Suquamish Museum Director, Native Voices, Summertown, Tennessee, revised edition, 2005, p. 27. Based on Dr. Henry Smith’s version of the speech published in the Seattle Sunday Star, October 29, 1887. There has been controversy about Chief Seattle’s speech, given that it was spoken in his native Lushootseed language, translated to Chinook jargon, and then translated into English from Smith’s notebooks, which were lost in a fire. Still, as Jones notes, “This speech presents Seattle’s message in a flowery Victorian style, more typical of Smith’s background than Seattle’s. However, after consultation with the elders of their tribe in 1982, members of the Suquamish Museum determined Smith’s version to be the most accurate account of Seattle’s speech.” (pp. 32–34)
20. Black Elk, Wikiquote, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Black_Elk#The_Sacred_Pipe_.281953.29.
21. Great Speeches by Native Americans, edited by Bob Blaisdell, Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 2000, p. 217.
22. Barry Lopez, Story at Anaktuvuk Pass, ibid., p. 52.
23. Daisy Grewal, ‘Rich People Have Less Compassion, Psychology Research Suggests,’ Huffington Post, April 11, 2012, reporting on a study done by Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/10/rich-people-compassion-mean-money_n_1416091.html.
24. Donna Gordon Blankinship, ‘Gates, Buffett Lobby The Rich For Donation Pledges,’Huffington Post, June 16, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/16/gates-buffett-lobby-the-r_n_614376.html.
25. ‘California Creates New Class of Corporation: One That Benefits Society,’SustainableBusiness.com News, October 13, 2011, http://www.sustainablebusiness.com/index.cfm/go/news.display/id/23027.
26. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House Publishing, 2011, p. 18.
27. Great Speeches by Native Americans, edited by Bob Blaisdell, ibid., p. 217.