Tuesday, October 26, 2010


New Map for the Planetary Era (For the Children, Part Two)

In a key chapter, “A New Map for the Planetary Era,” Dumanoski anchors the discussion with the ecological anthropologist Roy Rappaport's observation that all cultures face the same critical problem, “the discrepancy between cultural images of nature and the actual organization of nature.” She goes on to sum up his argument, “Whether a culture's explanation of the world is correct in a scientific sense may not be important... what matters is whether its cultural rituals and beliefs guide behavior in ways that allow the group to survive in its partucular circumstances.”

The planetary emergency we face is a crisis of context. According to the cultural map that global modernism has been following, nature is not an actor, but simply an object, merely a stage for the human enterprise. Tellingly, she points out that even those protesting exploitation frequently portray the Earth as the passive fragile victim, ignoring that we act from within a natural system that is a formidable force that may well strike back. We are not masters, nor stewards, but a cancerous part of the earth organism that sees the body only from its own peculiarly virulent perspective.

She notes that the cultural historian Thomas Berry characterized this potentially fatal disregard of perspective as cultural autism; the behavioral norms of global capitalism are in fact pathological when seen from the Gaian perspective. But unlike moralists and prophets, she does not take our current self-destructive path as evidence of a “fundamental deficiency in human nature.” From the broad sweep of anthropological perspective, our present global monoculture, mass civilization predicated upon unsustainable material growth, is not fundamental. Bill Clinton was dead wrong when he said that global trade and concomitant growth was a “force of nature.” This mass culture, homo economicus, only emerged after WWII. For most of human history, culture has been predicated upon gift-giving, which was even a form of conflict resolution for the Eskimos in the form of the ceremonial potlach.

Those Eskimo tribes, and other First Peoples, lived in a world where the inputs and outputs were readily observed. Their gods and means of livelihood were all local. Place and intimately understanding it was everything. In a world where God is one, but conveniently distant, and the means of livelihood are spread throughout the globe, with a system that makes harvesting, mining, and fabricating them dizzyingly efficient, it is critical that “global citizens” be educated in the new context. Dumanoski gets this, and cites James Lovelock's collaborator Lynn Margulis' insistence that we learn natural systems theory, the elaboration in the last quarter century of Lovelock's paradigmatic shift, the Gaia theory. If we are to understand the new planetary map, natural systems theory is the key to reading it. “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking” (Margulis). Unfortunately, it is still a tiny elite who have learned to see from a global perspective what elders from the First Peoples know without the theory: the earth is one, with exquisite interconnections and feedback loops. We live in it, not on it, and owe our existence to it, not to our fabrications of it.

Without an accurate map of the world we live in, attempts to change our behavior based on notions such as stewardship have only local or regional efficacy. We need to understand the perspective and proper scale of the current global crisis. It is a planetary one. Seen from this perspective, Dumanoski suggests Rachel Carson's “reasonable accommodation with Nature” is more appropriate. I would add, addressing what Dumanoski laments as the “taboo” of discussing economic growth, Lovelock's notion of a “dignified retreat” from the manic quest to make 7 billion human beings kings rather than subsistent coevolutionists with the rest of creation.

Dumanoski ends her book with a chapter entitled 'Honest Hope.” Hope without clear knowledge of the situation we are in is sentimental, rooted in denial. But honesty without hope is disempowering. Recognizing that we are in a planetary crisis – Carter's “moral equivalent of war” - can galvanize us, bringing out the best in our evolutionary heritage. But I fear that honest hope has a sunset somewhere between 2012 (expiry of Kyoto, not as effective instrument, but as token of the possibility of a binding international treaty) and 2017 - the end of Hansen's 2007 warning, since echoed by other climate scientists, that we had “10 years” to make a serious start in curbing carbon emissions. As Sally Bingham, founder of Interfaith Power and Light, said last week, “My hope is hanging by a thread.” Now that's honest hope. May the thread be a strong one.

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