THE DUEL NATURE OF EXTINCTION
The individual versus the species—Humans often rush to the aid of wildlife—a whale trapped in a pocket of open water as the ice begins to freeze the polar sea, deer and elk starving during very cold and/or stormy winters, feral horses dying of thirst during severe drought. Ironically, people will mobilize to rescue animals from imminent death through Nature's impartial evolutionary processes while doing nothing to prevent the extinction of entire species through purposeful exploitation or environmental degradation.
Why will society mobilize to rescue an animal in distress yet turn its back on a whole species facing extinction? What is our "need" to rescue? I think we will find it is not as benevolent an act as we would like to think, but rather a way to reduce our discomfort with in the impartial ways of Nature that govern our lives, ways we do not understand and therefore want to minimize in an effort to control them.
Deer and elk, for example, starve periodically in great numbers when they become overpopulated in relation to their food supply. To rescue them under these circumstances may relieve our stress at witnessing, what seems to us, the suffering caused by Nature's being out of control. To interference with Nature's population control, however, will only prolong the suffering caused by the overpopulation.
In other words, our attempt to "rescue" individuals is a form of participating only with the symptom, which will allow the cause to worsen. If, on the other hand, we do not interfere and allow Nature to treat the symptom in relationship with the cause, which is often created by our human tinkering, the entire herd will rebuild toward the next moment of balance, which will last only until the next ecological correction is necessary.
The species versus its function—Here, the question is: What happens to the forest when it loses the grandparent trees? When, for example, the grandparent trees in the forests of the Pacific Northwest have been liquidated, there will be no living monarchs to mark the centuries.
As the grandparent trees of valley, hill, and mountain are trucked to the mill, their age class and the ecological services they performed are added to the growing list of economically motivated extinctions. While some of their progeny may remain, and others of their kind will be planted for pulp or lumber, the grandparent trees are relegated, first to the halls of memory, then to the annals of history, and finally to the pictorial museum for the curious.
With their passing will go the large standing snags and large fallen trees, which lie for centuries decomposing on the forest floor, where they providing a kaleidoscope of habitats, and perform myriad functions as they reinvest their biological capital into the soil from which they grew. The large standing dead tree and the large fallen tree are, after all, only altered states of the live grandparent tree.
With the demise of the grandparent trees shall go such species as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, both of which have evolved in concert with ancient forests. In fact, the owl and the murrelet are closely adapted to particular features of that habitat.
The northern spotted owl nests in tall, old, broken-topped, Douglas-fir trees. The marbled murrelet, a seabird, nests on carefully selected large, moss-covered branches at least 100 feet up in the old trees, with other branches close enough overhead to protect the nest site. The murrelet's nest tree is located several miles inland from the coast, where it feeds. Because they are so specialized in the selection of their reproductive habitats, neither owl nor murrelet is capable of adapting to the rapid changes wrought by the liquidation of the ancient forest.
Now comes an interesting twist to the story. Young trees, which will replace liquidated grandparent trees, cannot provide the ecological functions performed by the old trees, such as creation of the "pit-and-mound" topography with its mixing of mineral soil and organic top soil. The "pit" in pit-and-mound topography refers to the hole left when a tree's roots are pulled from the soil and "mound" refers to the soil-laden mass of roots, called a rootwad, suddenly projected into the air above the floor of the forest. The young trees that replace the grandparent trees are much smaller and different in structure. They cannot perform the same functions in the same ways.
Of all the factors that affect the soil of the forest, the roughness of the surface caused by falling grandparent trees, particularly the pit-and-mound topography, is the most striking. It creates and maintains the richness of species of plants in the herbaceous understory and affects the success of tree regeneration.
Uprooted trees enrich the forest's topography by creating new habitats for vegetation. Falling trees create opportunities for new plants to become established in the bare mineral soil of the pit and the mound. In time, a fallen tree itself provides a habitat that can be readily colonized by tree seedlings and other plants. Falling trees also open the canopy, which allows more light to reach the floor of the forest. In addition, pit-and-mound topography is a major factor in mixing the soil of the forest floor as the forest evolves.
Commercial liquidation of the grandparent trees changes the entire complexion of the forest through time, just as the function of a chair is changed when the seat is removed. The "roughness" of the floor of the forest, which over the centuries resulted from the accrual of pits, mounds, and fallen grandparent trees, will become unprecedentedly "smooth."
Water moves differently over and through the soil of a smooth forest floor, one devoid of large fallen trees to act as reservoirs, storing water throughout the heat of the summer and holding soil in place on steep slopes. The huge snags and fallen trees, which acted as habitat, are gone, as are the stumps of the grandparent trees with their belowground "plumbing systems" that once guided rain and melting snow deep into the soil.
This plumbing system of decomposing tree stumps and roots comes from the frequent formation of hollow, interconnected, surface-to-bedrock channels that drain water rapidly from heavy rains and melting snow. As roots rot completely away, the collapse and plugging of these channels forces more water to drain through the soil matrix, which reduces soil cohesion and increases hydraulic pressure, which in turn causes mass soil movement. No matter how many young trees are planted, they cannot replace the pluming system made extinct by the economic liquidation of the grandparent trees.
Alas, even after all these thousands of years of cultural evolution, we still find it easier and more gratifying economically to drive species and groups of individuals to extinction rather than change our thinking and consequently our behavior. Put differently, we find it easier to take rather than to share, which thus far has inevitably led us to the trilogy of extinction.
THE TRILOGY OF EXTINCTION
George Horace Latimer wrote: "It's good to have money and the things that money can buy, but it is good [also] to check up once in a while and make sure you haven't lost the things that money can't buy."
Despite Latimer's admonition, we are today moving through an accelerated process of losing many things that "money can't buy," such as our spirituality, the quality and livability of our environment, and our dignity as human beings. We are also losing an ever-increasing number of fellow travelers on our planetary home in space. Such losses come about because we are progressively linear and materialistic in our view of the world and in our measures of success. We have accomplished all of this through the introduction into human culture and society of economically oriented, purposely created extinction.
The motive behind this introduction is something called "conversion potential," which is oriented almost completely toward the control of Nature and the conversion of natural resources into economic commodities. Conversion potential dignifies with a name the erroneous notion that Nature has no intrinsic value and must be converted into money before any value can be assigned to it. All of Nature is thus seen only in terms of its conversion potential. It's this distorted, fun-house-mirror view of Nature that gave birth to the trilogy of extinction. To this end, we must deal with four things: (1) intellectually created extinction, (2) the economics of extinction, (3) manifested extinction, and (4) a lesson in a box.
Intellectually Created Extinction
The trilogy of extinction begins in the human mind as a tiny worm of blindness that distorts wholeness into salable parts and relegates the "leftovers" to the trash bin. The grandparent trees of ancient forests are a case in point.
The capitalistic idea of getting the maximum profit out of all resources—with the minimum economic investment—is used not only to dictate but also to justify the unmitigated corporate/political exploitation of our home planet. In this vein, the purposely planned, permanent liquidation of every available grandparent tree, without recompense or replacement, to feed the corporate/political machine's appetite for free profit constitutes the "intellectually created extinction" of the world's ancient forests.
In Nature's forest, old trees often develop root rot, which so weakens them that they are easily blown over by strong winds. This is how Nature reinvests biological capital in the soil, which in turn nurtures and grows the trees of tomorrow's forest. In the mirror of our linear, materialistic, human-centered society, such wholesome reinvestment is seen only as "economic waste."
Neither seeing nor understanding the life and processes of a fallen grandparent tree as Nature reinvests of biological capital, economists and people of the timber industry at large continue to seek ways of eliminating such "wasteful loss of wood fiber." To them, trees blown over by the wind, which then simply lie on the ground rotting, are "good to no one and for nothing."
This concept of economic waste drives the corporate/political planning system to liquidate all possible grandparent trees because the corporate/political pundits think of them simply as "free profit that will be wasted if not cut and used." And there is no plan to ever again allow trees to reach grandparent status. When they are cut, they are gone—not only the large live tree but also the large standing dead tree and the large fallen tree. "Intellectually created extinction" is a person's conscious thought coupled with a purposeful plan to eliminate something from a particular area. The effect of intellectually created extinction too often makes a potentially renewable resource into one that is irreversibly finite, thus impoverishing all future generations through the economics of extinction.
The Economics of Extinction
Intellectually created extinction through the process of economic planning is the precursor of the economics of extinction. It leads to the completion of the trilogy in the concept of manifested extinction and is thus the epitome of the materialistic, utilitarian view of the world, a view that totally disregards the sanctity of life and its intrinsic ecological/spiritual functions.
The motto of the economics of extinction is profit over all—even if it means the loss of most of the world's species of plants and animals and the ecological functions they perform. Liquidation pays, even in the purposeful extinction of a species. Conservation costs, and cost is unacceptable to profiteers.
In the United States, the "profit over all" motto is therefore the guiding force of those in the timber industry—which is be no means everyone—who justify the liquidation of as much of Nature's remaining ancient forests and grandparent trees as humanly possible. They then use this same motto to justify the conversion of the liquidated forests into economically designed crop-like plantations of young trees to be harvested—theoretically, at least—over and over and over into the distant future, like fields of corn. But trees are only one part of a forest, the only part to which an economically narrow vision assigns "conversion potential." By converting a forest into a repetitive plantation, the rest of the forest is destroyed, its soil impoverished, and its myriad organisms and processes dismissed as worthless impediments to the sanctity of the profit margin.
In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt, concerned about the "profit over all" attitude in general and the timber industry in particular, convened the first-ever meeting of all the governors of the states to address the topic of the environment. His opening address to the conference is as pertinent today as it was 98 years ago. He began:
I welcome you to this Conference at the White House. You have come hither at my request, so that we may join together to consider the question of the conservation and use of the great fundamental sources of wealth of this Nation.
So vital is this question, that for the first time in our history the chief executive officers of the States separately, and of the States together forming the Nation, have met to consider it….
This conference on the conservation of natural resources is in effect a meeting of the representatives of all the people of the United States called to consider the weightiest problem now before the Nation; and the occasion for the meeting lies in the fact that the natural resources of our country are in danger of exhaustion if we permit the old wasteful methods of exploiting them longer to continue.
What Roosevelt went on to say is as pertinent today as it was in 1908: "Just let me interject one word as to a particular type of folly of which it ought not to be necessary to speak. We should stop wasteful cutting of timber; that of course makes a slight shortage at the moment. To avoid that slight shortage at the moment, there are certain people so foolish that they will incur absolute shortage in the future, and they are willing to stop all attempts to conserve the forests, because of course by wastefully using them at the moment we can for a year or two provide against any lack of wood."
Roosevelt's argument was that any right-thinking parent strives to leave his or her child reasonably prepared to meet the struggle of life and a family name to be proud of. "So this Nation as a whole," said Roosevelt, "should earnestly desire and strive to leave the next generation the national honor unstained and the national resources unexhausted…"
Even in Roosevelt's time, intellectually created extinction led to the economics of extinction, which claimed the hearts and minds of those individuals who sold their souls to the corporate/political machine. Thus are the thoughts of the human mind translated into action against Nature. Now, almost a century later, we see the trilogy of extinction nearing completion with the visible loss of not only species but also whole ecosystems.
As the trilogy of extinction is consummated in the forest, the grandparent trees and their shadows of death, the large standing snag and the large fallen tree, will simply fade into oblivion with the passing of the last human to see the last grandparent tree in the forest.
Suddenly the artistry and the ecological sustainability of Nature's ancient forest has vanished, and with its banishment go the lifestyles of a special breed of logger, log-truck driver, and mill worker, those who felled, hauled, and sawed the ancient trees, perhaps never to be replaced. Where once stood Nature's mighty forest in the parade of centuries now stands humanity's pitiful, ecologically sterile economic plantations—the epitome of the nonsustainable specialization embodied in the corporate/political motto: "profit over all." Now the trilogy of extinction is complete.
A Lesson in a Box
The trilogy of extinction—beginning in secret with the hidden intellectually created extinction, passing through the hidden economics of extinction, and completed with the visible manifestation of extinction—is a result of the linear, product-oriented thinking of our Western society. Such thinking is based on the linearity of economic and statistical theory, neither of which accounts for the novelty of Nature's creative processes, because neither economists nor statisticians understand Nature. And Nature in turn cares not a whit about the lack of understanding of economists or statisticians.
Linear economics and statistical theory focus on the wrong end of the biophysical system. They not only omit the novelty of Nature's creative processes but also omit humanity itself. This omission was recognized by Albert Einstein in 1931 when he wrote: "It is not enough that you should understand about applied science in order that your work may increase man's blessings. Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods—in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations."
The upshot is that we are focusing on the wrong end of the system in our attempt to "manage" it, be it a forest, grassland, ocean, or our society. "Management," after all, is only a metaphor through which we justify our attempt to control a system, whatever the system is. The concept of management allows us to focus on the desired economic product rather than the ecological processes that produced the product in the first place. In forest management, therefore, "crop trees" take precedence over the biophysical sustainability of the forest. In range management, domestic livestock take precedence over the long-term viability of the grass. In agriculture, crop management, and/or potential housing developments, take precedence over the biophysical health of the soil.
What, one might ask, does focus have to do with management? If you walk to the door of your living room and stop to survey the room, you see everything in your living room in focus and in relationship (the forest, the grassland, the agricultural field). But if you walk to the coffee table in the center of the room, pick up the newspaper, and begin to read a story on the front page (the tree, the cow, the crop plant), your focus on the story causes everything else in the room to effectively disappear from view—to go out of focus.
This narrowness of focus brings me to "a lesson in a box"—a box of cake mix, that is. A critical ecological lesson lies inherent in making a cake from "scratch." If I were teaching a course in ecology, every student would have to learn how to make a cake from scratch because then she or he would know what ingredients go into a cake, why they are important, and why the cake comes out of the oven as it does.
Today, however, few people know how to make a cake from scratch. Instead, they buy a box of cake mix and erroneously think they have bought a cake—which, of course, they have not. They have purchased a box of some of the ingredients for a cake, but they don't know what those ingredients are, where they came from, what proportions they are in, how good their quality is, who or what put them into the box, and whether or not everything is as it should be inside the box. They are taking all these things on blind faith.
Suppose you buy a box of cake mix, bring it home, and dump the contents into a bowl. Is there an instant cake in the bowl? No. Why not? Where is the cake? If there is no cake, then, what's in the bowl? A dry, powdery mixture of some of the ingredients resides in the bowl—nothing more.
If you read the instructions on the box, you will find that you must add two eggs, a half-cup of oil, one and a half cups of water, and stir. Now do you have a cake in the bowl? No. What do you have? You have the batter, a gooey blob, which consists of all the ingredients now in the bowl. But where is the cake? Why don't you have a cake? What could possibly be missing?
If you continue reading the instructions on the box, you will find out that you must heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, transfer the gooey blob to a cake pan, and bake it for 40 minutes.
When the forty minutes have passed, you open the oven and withdraw the pan. Is there a cake in the pan? Yes. Why? What happened in the oven that did not happen in the bowl when you first emptied the contents of the box into it? First of all, you didn't have all the necessary ingredients in the box, so you had to add some. But even then something was still missing: heat.
It was the heat of the oven that caused the chemical interactions to take place among the ingredients, interactions that in turn caused the cake to come into being. Heat was the catalyst driving the chemical-physical processes that "created" the form and function of the cake.
Therefore, you can understand a cake, including what happens when an ingredient is omitted, only when you know how to make one from scratch, because only then can you see all the ingredients and their interrelationships among one another before and after being heated. A cactus, grass, shrub, or tree are much the same as a cake. Each is but the physical manifestation of the chemical-physical interactions among, in their case, a seed, soil, water, air, sunlight, climate, and time.
Thus as a bakery produces cakes, so a forest produces trees. But as a cake does not make a bakery, just as a tree does not make a forest. A bakery is housed in a building with electricity, water, ventilation, sewage disposal, an owner, a baker, a bookkeeper, a salesperson, delivery trucks that maintain a supply of ingredients, and so on. And part of the profits from the bakery must be reinvested in infrastructure to ensure that it functions properly if the bakery is to continue producing cakes to sell. Now consider that if a bakery is the sum total of the chemical, physical, and biological constituents that combine to make the cakes, so a forest is the sum total of the chemical, physical, and biological constituents that combine to make the trees.
Suppose, now, that you enter the bakery as a customer with only one thing on your mind: to buy a cake. At that moment, your thinking is not only linear but also focused only on the product you want to purchase. If, however, the bakery can produce only 75 cakes a day and 76 customers show up, each intent on buying a cake, self-centered competition rules, tempers flare, and the polarization of duality sets in—mine versus yours, right versus wrong. Thus, if one person buys two or even three cakes, for whatever reason, real trouble ensues.
So it is in a forest. Each timber company enters the forest as a customer intent on securing as many trees for itself as possible, at the least cost, to maximize its own profits in the shortest possible time. Thus, while timber companies and "environmentalists" fight over who is going to get the last grandparent tree, for whatever reason, society loses sight of the forest and the need to understand the complexities of its processes, because all focus is on the tree.
Here, one would do well to ask: What is the lesson secreted in the box? The major, economic cause of extinctions worldwide is focusing solely on the product one would exploit, while ignoring, even disdaining, the processes that produced the product to begin with.
EXTINCTION AS A MORAL ISSUE
We have made the extinction of species into moral issue, when it's really a biological issue, a condition of creation. And we have ignored the extinction of processes and habitats at our peril.
Extinction of any biologically oriented phenomenon is as much a biological issue as was its creation, and it is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, moral nor immoral. The morality of the issue attaches not to extinction as an act but rather to the choice one makes about whether or not to cause the extinction and reason for doing so.
To illustrate, humanity has purposely attempted to eradicate (cause the extinction of) smallpox as a feat of modern medicine. Is this choice moral or immoral? Why? By the same token, if a mosquito in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest were on the brink of extinction, would logging be halted? How about the northern spotted owl or the marbled murrelet? How about indigenous peoples, such as the Indians living in the rain forests of the Amazon? Where is the line of morality drawn? Where is the balance in the milieu of social values?
Consider, for example, the sentiments of the "turtle-shell artisans," craftsmen who include handicapped Japanese survivors of the World War II atomic bomb blasts. They complained in 1991 that the U.S. government was "driving them to extinction" by naming the marine hawksbill turtle as an endangered species whose bodily parts it is illegal to sell or own.
The Japanese people, explained Bunki Nakakoga, president of the Nagasaki Tortoise Shell Federation, have a "special feeling" toward turtle-shell products. "America," he said, "has only a 200-year history, yet your country is going to destroy a 400-year-old technique." But critics of the turtle-shell industry saw the conflict as just one more example of Japanese refusal to acknowledge or accept moral, biological limits on resources from parts of the globe not under Japanese jurisdiction. This attitude of allowing a species to be exploited to extinction to save an industry for a little while longer is described as "village morality," in which one thinks only about one's own village.
The morality of the issue lies not in the manifested biological act, but rather in the intent residing in one's soul. In turn, the extinction of a species is almost always caused by the destruction of its habitat, the morality of which stems from the intent of the destroyers. Although we seldom think of habitats becoming extinct, that's exactly what happens when habitats are so altered they no longer function in a way that sustains a particular species or group of species.
Let's examine a species on the brink of extinction because its habitat has been systematically destroyed in society's myopic pursuit of profits. The California condor once graced the sky of southern California, riding the thermals on its ten-foot wingspan. The sky is now all but empty of this majestic bird.
A few years ago, personnel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the last wild condor to give it a stay of extinction, but at the cost of its dignity. And what about our dignity? Is not our dignity linked with that of every living thing that shares the planet with us? How can our dignity be intact when we unilaterally choose, through our actions, to erase even one form of life from the Earth? Extinction is forever, and the species we make extinct have no voice in that decision.
It's difficult for me to write about the condor because I am also writing about society as a whole, which includes me. Both the condor and I represent ecological functions without which the world will be impoverished. True, someone else may be able to take over my functional role, but what creature can take over that of the last condor? And we are more than simply creatures that perform ecological functions; we represent the health of the ecosystem—I as an individual in a much smaller way than the last condor.
If the condor becomes extinct, its ecological function becomes extinct, and both the condor and its function become extinct because the habitat required to keep the condor alive has become extinct through its alteration to serve the economic gains of society at the cost of the condor's existence. Therefore, the whole portion of the ecosystem, of which the condor was once a part, would shift to accommodate the condor's absence. Do we know what this shift would mean in terms of the ecosystem? No, we don't!
And what about the hundreds or thousands of species the industrialized West and Japan are making extinct around the world through the motive of "profit over all," which inevitably leads to the aforementioned trilogy of extinction through the destruction of habitats? How will the ecosystem respond on a global basis to these cumulative losses? What repercussions will human society face as the ecosystem adjusts to the growing absence of species? How much of the world must we humans destroy before we learn that we are not, after all, the masters of Nature, but rather an inseparable part of Nature—one creature among the many—and thus exist at Nature's forbearance?
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, understood the feeling of extinction. He could remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, recalled Frankl, but they offered sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a human being but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, the freedom to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. Can the California condor choose its own way behind the bars of it zoo prison, or is that right also usurped through human arrogance?
Frankl quoted a fellow prisoner who said, "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." The condor, by its nature, is worthy of its suffering. The question is: What have we as a society learned from its suffering?
We have relegated the condor to death row, making it pay for our iniquities and transgressions. Then, to salve our social conscience, we have plucked it from the sky and put it behind bars, and then we continue to destroy its habitat. Now we spend money on breeding programs and perhaps purchase a small reservation on which to free a few individuals—if they survive.
Would it not be more honest to simply restore the remaining condors to the dignity of freedom, there to watch them become extinct in the majesty of the sky, and to accept responsibility for our human failings? How else can we grow in consciousness of the effects we cause with our greedy ways than to watch the sky slowly become empty of a child of millennia, a creature that it took from the beginning of our planet to perfect, a creature eliminated in a few decades by an act of humans—not of Nature or God?
If we as a society were called before the throne of judgment today, how would we answer the questions of each species' intrinsic value in the universal balance, of the trusteeship we each inherited as custodians of our home planet for those who follow? I do not know, but I think a good place to start is to restore the condors to their birthright, the freedom and dignity of the sky. Then perhaps our consciousness will be raised a little, and their suffering and ours will have value. And should the condors survive, their survival might lead to a time in history when human society and condors can live together. But the question remains: Who makes this decision, and based on what motive?
Questions about morality, human society, and the environment are becoming more urgent in their need to be recognized, asked, and faced, because, when all is said and done, we will find that the morality of an issue lies embodied in the questions we ask. After all, the questions we ask are but the outer reflections of the inner harboring of our souls—our individual notions of morality, which are among the many faces of extinction.
THE CHOICE IS OURS
A human social system is governed by the same universal, biophysical principles that quite literally "grew us" and that govern the survival and evolution of all living things. This is true even though a human society is composed of individually conscious and unique beings, each of whom possesses a relatively large measure of free will—albeit, not without consequences. We have, in the short term, compounded this simple statement, however, because we have superimposed our human will onto Nature's cycles and balances in the biosphere.
That the universal, biophysical principles govern human beings and their societies the same as they govern Nature was not understood, or perhaps even considered, when the Europeans invaded the "New World. " Thus, it's little wonder they spoke grandly over the decades and centuries of "clearing the land" and "busting the sod," of "harnessing the rivers" and "taming the wilds." In keeping with this mentality, they begrudged the predators a right to life—and in the process became what they were against: the most voracious predators the Earth has ever hosted. And yet, they only did the best they knew how in their time and their place in history. How could they have done otherwise?
We, however, stand today at a different time and a different place in history. We are present now, and we are making history now. Yet even today, at the dawning of the 21st century, we fail to understand and accept that the biophysical principles by which the world is governed function perfectly, that only our perception of the way the world functions is imperfect. What distorts our perception is that we focus only on that portion of the world we intend to exploit—the products, and we ignore the ecological processes that produce those products. This warped sense of Nature as a mechanical entity gave rise to the platform of "deep ecology."
A group of Norwegian environmentalists, primarily the philosopher Arne Naess, introduced the term "deep ecology" in the early 1970s. The term is meant to characterize a way of thinking that approaches environmental problems at their roots, whereby they can be seen as symptoms of the deepest ills of our present society.
The idea of deep ecology contrasts with "shallow ecology," which I think of as material ecology, because it merely addresses the symptoms through technological quick fixes, such as the installation of pollution-control devices and other regulations theoretically imposed on industry. It does nothing, however, to heal the problem.
Although "new" technologies and reforms in our current political system are much easier to implement than any fundamental changes in our thinking and our materialistic sense of values, these "material solutions," and the people who propose them, are clearly avoiding the heart of the problem. Avoidance of the real issues faced by human society—those seated in spiritual bankruptcy for which there is no Chapter 11 protection—may ultimately cause the collapse of our social system.
In Nature, all parts are interactive and unified by the novelty of the creative process—particularly the spark of life—in which everything is always in the process of becoming something else. We industrialized humans, on the other hand, have chosen the linear metaphor of a machine, not only for ourselves but also for our world.
While a machine has many parts, it has neither internal intelligence nor moral sense to guide it. In addition, the parts are unaware of either their purpose or their functions. And while we can usually find, or make, one or more "spare" parts for a machine, we cannot do so with Nature. Therefore, if the condor becomes extinct, it is extinct. There is no way to reproduce one, no matter how noble the reason.
Thinking like machines is only one step away from living like machines. Such a synthetic lifestyle alienates us from both ourselves and one another, as well as from Nature. In addition, such a mechanistic lifestyle leads to economic problems through the separation of social classes and to philosophical problems seated in the duality of thought in terms of either/or, right/wrong, and so on. Our synthetic, linear, mechanical thoughts and lifestyles pit us against Nature, which makes our lives increasing complicated beyond the total complexity of Nature's diversity.
And it's precisely because of our mechanistic thinking that we contend we can have more and more of everything simultaneously, if only we can control Nature—manage Nature, as it were. In so doing, we save the pieces we value and discard those we do not. We are thus simultaneously simplifying the biosphere and separating its parts by purposely discarding and accidentally losing pieces of it. We are redesigning our home planet even as we throw away Nature's blueprint in the form of both species and processes. In short, we focus so narrowly on the products that we are destroying the processes that produce them.
We, in Western society, have become so linear and mechanical in our thinking, and so irrational in our knowledge and the use of it, that we have forgotten everything is defined by its relationship to everything else, which means there is no such thing as absolute freedom. In the end, we must both understand and accept that everything—everything—is a relationship that fits precisely into every other relationship and is changing constantly, wherein change is a constant. This means the nature of Nature is systems supporting systems, supporting systems in all scales of space and time ad infinitum.
As human beings of Western society, the way we deal with, and fit into, this pattern of constantly changing relationships is by thinking. We are thus call on to recognize that any human influence in the biosphere—positive or negative—is a product of our own thoughts, because our thoughts, after all, precede and control our actions. We do nothing without first having the thought to do it. This means the problem of pollution, for example, is not in the soil, water, or air, but rather in our minds (the cause). The problem only manifests itself (the effect) in the soil, water, and air.
We cannot, therefore, find a solution through science, technology, or activities whereby we manipulate Nature without changing our thinking, because all these things, which lie outside of ourselves, are the results of our thoughts. The only possible solutions to our social-environmental problems lie within us.
Until we turn the searchlight inward to our own souls and consciously change our thinking, motives, and attitudes—and thus our behavior—we will only compound our problems. This being the case, the question before each and everyone of us is: Do we have the personal courage and political will to change our thinking in the present for the benefit of the present and all the generations to come, or do we continue to impoverish the children of every generation—as we are doing now?
©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.