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Responding to Instability
Consider this. We became who we are as a species around 200,000 years ago, responding to some greater urge to evolve that prevails within the biotic community. By the end of the Pleistocene, we practiced a time-honored hunter-gatherer lifestyle, relying on our individual and collective wit to survive by reaping the bounty offered by the flow of Nature. The whole of our planet was a wilderness where sometimes we ourselves provided a wholesome meal for other predators, our decomposed remains enriching the soil to provide nutrients.
During the warming trends of the early Holocene, we began to develop agriculture, and with that, civilizations began to blossom into being, a condition that thinkers like Paul Shepard and Edward Abbey considered to be the beginning of the nightmare of human history. It certainly heralded the moment when humanity began to lock into becoming the keystone species of this planet. Metaphorically, we left the “Edenic” phase of existence, and segued into a different level of consciousness.
We are now 11- or 12-thousand years into the Holocene that some people consider to be at an end, having waned into the Anthropocene epoch, so named after ourselves; our species now seems to be the most powerful force on the planet. That is a profound distinction, an element of which is that we can apparently no longer be self-governed because there are far too many of us, and not everyone is altruistic because the survival instinct is more compelling than mutual cooperation—as is the urge to power.
Governance has taken many hues over the millennia, as has religion. At times, the two have integrated and empires have arisen, most of them now settling into the dust of antiquity. Voltaire pointed out that “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” which author Edward Abbey loved to re-attribute to Louisa May Alcott, much to the dismay of the faculty and student body at the University of New Mexico. But that’s a different story.
Two-and-a-third centuries ago, the newly born nation of the United States of America formed a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It required a revolutionary war to wrest this land from the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of this new nation, himself a slaveholder, looked to the future through an agrarian lens whose clarity was soon obscured by the Industrial Revolution. Thus the new nation of farmers was gradually subsumed by growing technology that was vigorously applied until we became what we are today—something of a technocracy; an empire unto ourselves, having perfected the parlaying of natural resources into a giant system of economics where, until recently, most of us luxuriated in the highest standard of living while concurrently spewing monstrous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a by-product of our perceived energy needs; a nation where the government serves the will of the people less than the corporate will of those who have specialized in making lots of money with which to buy power—political and otherwise. Lord John Dalberg-Acton, the so-called magistrate of history of 19th century Britain, is quoted as having said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This, of course, is obviously a simplistic rendering of the extraordinary course our nation has taken. We have been a great nation, a compassionate nation. We have defended other nations against that which they and we regard as wrong-minded attacks from without. While being perhaps the greatest military force in world history, we ostensibly seek world peace. We have produced great art, great music, great literature, great institutions of higher learning, while at the same time we have wrought extraordinary havoc within our biotic community, our life support system. We are a particularly complex study in conflicting absolutes. It would be a grievous shame if we were to collapse because we failed to muster the consciousness to thwart the growing probability of disaster of our own making.
We are now launched into a realm of climate instability created by our species. Much of this instability is the result of the inordinate amount of carbon dioxide that we have emitted into our atmosphere from the smokestacks of power plants, the tailpipes of our cars, our jet engines, the hot air exuded by politicians—our lifestyles. None of us is exempt. Each of us bears some responsibility for the dwindling state of our biosphere, thus contributing to a form of jeopardy that is not reliably predictable, but with which we and our descendants must now contend, ready or not.
In the August 4, 2012 issue of New Scientist Magazine, Michael Marshall wrote an intriguing article entitled “Ruined,” wherein he pointed out that over the last four millennia, great civilizations including the Akkadian, Hittite, Egyptian, Mayan and several others went belly-up during times of extended drought. Some might chalk this up to coincidence; however, we can imagine how running out of water must be a major contributor to cultural instability, conceivably leading to collapse.
As the climate becomes less stable, basic necessities, including water and food, are likely to become less abundant, more expensive and increasingly difficult to come by. As culture destabilizes, mutual cooperation gives way to personal survival mode. Chaos must ensue if the progression ultimately plays out to failed habitat, collapse of biotic community that includes the human community. Cultural instability and climate instability inevitably coincide.
Doom mongering is not a classy pastime. And for one like myself who is genetically optimistic, the irrefutable evidence that assails my intellect on a daily basis causes me to cast about, all but announcing, “The sky is falling!” Granted, we are vastly more equipped with technology and scientific understanding to deal with problems of this magnitude than were folks of earlier civilizations. But they lived in a time when the human population was under one billion. We are now at seven billion and rising.
We’re coming up on a major election in this democracy of ours. Thus far, democracy has seemed to be, if not proved to be, the best political system yet devised in the civilized world. However, Lord Acton cautions us yet again: “The one prevailing evil in democracy is the tyranny…of that party…that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” Does anything come to mind?
Another evil that has come to this democracy of ours is the limitation of political choices that have come to prevail. Not only are we a two-party system; both parties are dominated by a form of economics that is based on extracting finite resources to provide jobs and energy to run a civilization that is faltering. Neither has as yet put health of habitat at the top of the agenda. Without long-term healthy habitat, economics in its current form is doomed. Growth for the sake of growth is obviously doomed anyway in a world of finite resources.
Our two-party system reflects vastly different realms of consciousness. One realm asserts that we must charge in and extract what’s left of our waning oil and gas reserves regardless of damage to habitat in order to revive another decade or so of false prosperity. That seems to be the realm of consciousness that presently prevails in the office of the Governor of New Mexico, and also the mind of the man who would dislodge our current president from office.
The other realm of consciousness seems far keener, far more encompassing, although greatly handicapped by having inherited the shambles left by the previous administration, thereafter continually hampered by a Congress intent on thwarting every attempt to restore order to our dreadfully bifurcated culture. Better, then, to head Congress off at the impasse and seek solace in the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?”
Perhaps human conscience, once thought to be one of the highest attributes, has been rendered obsolete by the system of economics in which we have been rapaciously engaged ever since 1845 when John L. Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” thus firing westward expansion and empire.
I believe that conscience continues to exist, as does true consciousness. I also believe that liberal application of consciousness will provide the clarity to proceed in “good conscience” through the coming decades—part of which will include a careful scrutiny of the very way governance is actually achieved by federal, state and local governments, and initiating a gradual practice of decentralized governance from within home habitats/watersheds/bioregions. This consciousness must also include the relative health of homeland, and indeed include homeland as the “chair” of the homeland council which is comprised of citizens duly elected to their seats, and who hold their unpaid positions for no longer than two years. The primary concern should be health of habitat. It would wise for habitat residents to make well-informed documentation of species of plants and animals, annual precipitation, nature and capacity of aquifers, average dates of seasonal cycles, and far more—in a word, the lore of the land.
We desperately need to devise and perfect a system of steady-state economics, abandoning the limitless growth system that accompanies unchecked population growth that has brought us to the edge of the precipice. We also need to revise an education system to include “ecosystemology,” for lack of a better name, so that the young learn their place in Nature from an early age.
We live in the land of clear light where the Sun shines far more than it doesn’t. And the wind blows, frequently with an intensity that may seem alarming to those unfamiliar with wind gods who stir dust devils to action, and range freely across the face of the high desert. Sun and wind are the sources of energy that can be tapped and thus allay gouging yet more coal and uranium from the soil, and pumping oil and gas from beneath the Earth’s surface. This may cut across the corporate will—but it’s now time to cut across the corporate will and take control of homeland with clear conscience and conscious recognition that much of the law of this land was designed to serve a corporate will to power.
In his brilliant essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” Henry David Thoreau wrote: “All men recognize the right of revolution: that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” Although he wrote these words in disgust of a government that condoned slavery, they certainly apply to the unconscionable conduct of the Congress of the United States over these last four years. Less than two decades after Thoreau wrote his essay, our country was engaged in the Civil War, our culture sundered in a way that took more than a century to heal.
In this time of climate instability, we have to admit to our cultural instability. But rather than engaging in violent revolution pitting conscience against greed, we can nurture grassroots activism and invigorate consciousness as to the needs of homeland. We can think like a watershed and react accordingly. We can continue to use the democratic process to elect government officials who recognize that the needs of homeland far exceed the needs of coffers to be filled. And we ourselves can become engaged at home. My old friend John Nichols once said to me, “Growing a tomato is a political act.” Indeed it is, and by extension, nurturing the foodshed within the watershed is a vital step in restoring the handcrafted lifestyle that we all may soon be required to adopt in order to survive.
To do these things in the spirit of mutual cooperation is far better than in a state of mutual antagonism. At this point, no one can accurately predict what the next decades will bring, but we are all well advised to proceed in good conscience and clear consciousness. In his compelling essay, “The Land Ethic,” Aldo Leopold wrote the following passage: “Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. …Quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Jack Loeffler is the author of numerous books, including Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat. Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler are contributors and co-editors of Thinking Like a Watershed, an anthology of essays published by the University of New Mexico. For more info, visit www.loreoftheland.org
Thinking Like a Watershed
by Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler
ISBN: 978-0-8263-5233-0, 280 pages
Anthology Explores Past, Present and Future of Water Use in the Southwest
In North America’s arid Southwest, water is the rarest of the four elements. Yet for thousands of years, the landscape has nurtured and influenced many cultures, its history recorded in fossils, rock art and tree rings, as well as written accounts such as essays and interviews collected in Thinking Like a Watershed (University of New Mexico Press).
Produced in conjunction with the documentary radio series Watersheds as Commons, this anthology offers a variety of voices, including members of Tewa, Tohono O’odham, Hopi, Navajo, Hispano and Anglo cultures, sharing perspectives shaped by the consciousness and resilience that comes from successfully enduring the harshness of their environment. Inspired in part by the thinking of the great explorer John Wesley Powell, who articulated the notion that the arid American West should be seen as a mosaic of watersheds, and the pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold, who recognized the need for a land ethic guided largely by conscience, the work’s true inspiration can be attributed to the spirit of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest.
Thinking Like a Watershed is available at bookstores or directly from the University of NM Press: 505.277.2346, www.unmpress.com
About the author
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