24 April 2011

Earth Day Reflection

I participated in Earth Day yesterday. I find I do not want to write about it because I do not much like my thoughts. I feel more than a bit cynical.

Overall the endeavor of my writing can be considered a kind of reflection on the several things, from my point of view. One of the themes I find myself returning to is the shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. For the people who study such a shift it seems to be a study of the record left in and on the earth at a planetary scale. Different people seem to have different interpretations about these records. Some people start counting the shift to the Anthropocence with the advent of agriculture and the 'record' left on the earth by this. I prefer the interpretation that says the Holocene has lasted for the past 10,000 years, since the last ice. In that interpretation it is the changes taking place on the planet in the past two hundred years that create a record that will be seen 1,000 years from now as the point at which the geological era was changing. There are several unique things about this particular shift.

This shift of geological era is the first in which human beings have had the capacity to be globally conscious of the shift itself, as well as our participation in that shift. The particular importance of the Anthropocenic is that we not only have this ability to be conscious of and observe the shift, but we can understand how we are participating in and even causing such a shift. The basic notion is that we are now involved in a global, institutionalized, action that matches the scale of the planetary systems themselves and so changing the dynamics of those systems through our actions. The stored atmospheric heat of the industrial era melting the ice caps is an example of this. Acidification and thermal expansion of the oceans are examples. The mass extinction currently taking place (and the fossilized record of that) will create another example. The large quantitates of burnt earth we call concrete will make another example. There are many more examples. This is a simple, straightforward way to consider the shift that is currently taking place.

What becomes more difficult, in my view, is when we begin to consider the nature of 'structural coupling' with regard to what is occurring. One of the ways to consider structural coupling is to consider 'point of view' and the structures of attention. The basic notion here is that our individual and collective point of view is not isomorphic with the reality we inhabit. This is what is meant in the most fundamental sense by Korzybski's expression "the map is not the territory." It is also expressed in Maturana's observation that in any moment we cannot know whether what we experience is real or a hallucination. It is the basic exploration in Mahayana Buddhism and one aspect of the teaching offered by the realizer Adi Da Samraj, which he offers the evocative myth of Narcissus. This question is explored in some way by most aspects of the human wisdom tradition. Scientific Materialism is more or less a proposed, closed system answer to this question, in which one point of view expressed as a process is exclusively prioritized as a mapping. Additionally, it is often taken as an exhaustive mapping, which through the authorization of a point of view, pretends that it has no point of view. Even so this apparent dilemma is a recurring theme within that process.

Yet we function. Maps are useful in this to the extent that the structure of the map and the structure of the territory match in some way. We get 'feedback' about our simple actions correlated to some resonance between map and territory at the structural level. Structural coupling might be thought of as the dynamic in which these structures seem to match. We can consider this as a basis for, or expression of 'learning.' This sort of coupling within a system is both structurally deterministic and dynamically interconnected. This phenomena can be considered for the biological organism and it can be considered for humanity as a whole. Such a consideration is itself a metaphorical undertaking in which we are mapping between what we experience as fundamental structures and other systems.

I often make observations about the attempt to address the phenomena occurring within some moment as a 'problem' from within the same set of assumptions, or point of view, that created the problem itself. Overall the basic activity of 'seeking' falls into this category, regardless of how we might wish to romanticize it. Consider 'happiness.' A common equation on the planet is that the acquisition and consumption of material leads to or is a basis for happiness. We may say that we know this is not true, even while we behave as if it were.

In this equation the basic assumption is that happiness is external to us and steps must be taken to attain the missing, external happiness. We are separate from happiness, except in the moment where we are graced, or where we might confuse form and stimulation for happiness. The dilemma with such a confusion is that all forms and stimulation are thoroughly impermanent, arising and going out of existence even as we experience them. Of course this leads to the belief and associated behaviors in which we then simply need more form and stimulation in a constant steady stream. In this system we seek happiness. This is the basic presupposition of the materialist consumer based world.

Since the most fundamental assumption creating this structure is that happiness is outside of and separate from us the behaviors that make sense within this point of view tend to keep such happiness outside of us... except when it doesn't which we might call grace. We also might call it accident. In either case it has to do with glimpsing a structural reality beyond our inhabited and enacted point of view. We tend to then fit such moments into our preexisting model of happiness, rather than taking the opportunity of such moments to consider the structural correlation of map and territory, or even more radically, the arising and habituation of such maps altogether.

This dynamic associated with seeking is also true 'internally' or spiritually. That is, we are spiritually acquisitive in ways that are very similar to the ways in which we are materially acquisitive and often with a very similar structure, even though the forms and content of the structure seem different. The basic conception that happiness is something external which must therefore be sought after and thusly acquired is the same. The seeking, acquisitive activity keeps the basic structure in place. The parallel dynamics of acquisitive material consumerism are played out in this spiritual dimension. Often we are doing both. This is a kind of simple example of what it means to reinforce the 'problem' through the attempt to solve it. This structural dynamic of 'seeking' is one of scarcity, separation, and asserted necessity. It is a structure of and participation in suffering. It functionally reinforces happiness as external. The more we invest the more externalized happiness becomes in our experience.

So what do we have as working assumptions?
  • A shift of geological eras that can be considered a structural shift in our conditional reality on a grand scale
  • The importance of structural correlation between the map and the territory, the absence of which can be considered delusion
  • "Problems" as the product of structural inconsistency between map and territory
  • The attempt to solve such problems from within the structural incongruence reinforcing and amplifying the conditions we experience as problems

Add to this that we tend to understand the 'self' as an expression of the map or point of view intended to allow us to function in a way that is meaningfully and structurally coupled in the mapped territory. This means that when the structural nature of the territory shifts that we experience the shifts required for appropriate structural coupling as an identity crisis. Culture shock can be understood as an example of this.

If we look at these taken together, the basic notion is that our global way of functioning is delusional, since it is not now structurally coupled with the geological reality we are creating. We are in a collective identity crisis, and therefore death and dying process, about this. Because of the nature of this particular dynamic (i.e. it is our actions in this very regard that are creating the structural shift), our efforts to address the structural disconnect from within the now delusional mapping are increasing the lack of parity between the map and the territory. We are attempting to solve the problems of the Anthropocenic Era using a Holocene, Industrial Age mapping and such efforts are accelerating the shift to the Anthropocenic era and so increasing the lack of parity. We are becoming increasingly delusional in this way.

Why am I talking about this with regard to my Earth Day experience? There are many good things to be said about the day and the sense of community and dialogue of the day. However, what was most striking to me about the day was the consistency of the day with late time Industrial Age, Holocene assumptions and ways of being associated with that. The Earth Day was more a market place of consumption than anything else, it seemed to me. It was all about vendors and very little to do with local resilience or a shift to ways of being that are appropriately coupled with Anthropocenic structures. Many of the things in that market place were not actually locally produced and relied on industrial age supply chains and globalization to exist. Much of it was about profit maximization and consolidation, sometimes expressed as ideology. Moreover the contradiction of this was not apparent in anything that was happening as far as I could tell. Almost no local crafts and skills were being practiced. People were selling the consumption of the 'green.' Of course there were exceptions, but they were exceptions. There was a booth nearby the Transition Town table that was selling vermiculture and a (large) system to make compost tea. This seems great and is so much better than selling so many other things I can imagine. The difficulty for me is the inclination to desire a pre-made solution, the acquisition of which more less requires no community interaction or social fabric. My purchase of the pre-made solution does not require any re-mapping, or fundamental shift in behavior and 'way of life.' Quite the reverse. It seems to me to be occurring within and reinforcing the already fractured social fabric of the industrial age. It seems to me to be part and parcel with all of the structures and dynamics of consumerism, with no real examination of that.

What is my problem anyway? We have to make a living don't we? Yes, of course. It is the way we consider what this means and the structure that produces that meaning and particular sense of necessity that is difficult. This seemed to me a late time industrial age, Holocene Earth Day. Essentially it was an Earth Day mall, that seemed more palatable because it was outdoors and selling 'green' consumer products and experiences. I know this is immensely preferable. Structurally it is still delusional in the sense I mentioned above. It is the application of the industrial, Holocene map and its recent expression as consumerism. In essence the day felt to me more a celebration of consumerism and attempt to maintain a delusional way of life than an authentic celebration of the earth. I wonder what an Anthropocenic Earth Day would look like? Would it even make sense? I wonder about the Anthropocenic version of many of our ways of living. I do not find nostalgic romanticization of pre-industrial Holocene structures particularly evocative in that consideration.

Perhaps we do not know or see a ready made alternative? The Anthropocenic way of being is not evident. Since we do not see a ready made alternative then is this better, perhaps even necessary, to do? The difficulty is that when we do not really confront the absence of some ready made alternative, we cannot authentically come up with real alternatives. We are caught in a delusional, artificial duality. It is the felt conflict or tension, sometimes only noticeable in our act of denial, that indicates the structures and informs the mapping process. At least this is one way. Contemplation is another, as are certain dispositions of devotion and faith.

In the internal interpretation of the Confucian 'Seven Steps of Attainment' as given by Nan Huai-Chin, the first two steps are "Awareness" and "Stopping." These are intimately and dynamically linked. It is only in the presence of awareness about what we are enacting that we have any chance of cessation. It is only in the presence of such cessation, at a deep level, that we cease participating in and reinforcing the delusional participation in a the functionality and behaviors of a map that is structurally incongruent with our conditional reality. We can come to such awareness by a process of 'self interruption' or reflection or we can be brought to such an awareness by an apparently external interruption or reflection, perhaps in the form of crises of sufficient scale and immediacy, that the incongruence between map and territory cannot be maintained without recognition of our own individual and collective delusion. The moment of such cessation is alos a moment where cultivation can actually begin. One form of compassion might be to explore delusion prior to such crises arising.

We can also be 'given' such awareness through acts of grace. I feel much more might be considered about what happens once we become aware and have some moment of cessation and that has to do with a 'new' map, many aspects of which are ancient and known. What do we then cultivate and how? How is this enacted individually and collectively, aprropriately and strcuturally coupled with the 'territory.' Perhaps I will bumble through all my misunderstandings of that in another missive.

I apologize for what could feel like a cynicism about the all the positively intended efforts and participation in Earth Day. I apologize for not offering ready made alternatives. I myself am delusional in a wide variety of ways, as I am sure is evident from my writing.

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