AS HUMANS, WE THINK PRETTY HIGHLY OF OURSELVES

By Paul

It is probably not much of a stretch for humans to think of ourselves as pretty wonderful creatures, by and large at least.  After all, look at everything we have accomplished, not only in the present era, but in all of the history of the race.  We have moved rapidly from tiny groups of hunter-gatherers scratching out a living, to highly organized groups of farmers and city dwellers with multiple hierarchies of job specialization, from users of rocks to break open the bones of hunted animals to creators of machines that fly and, very nearly, ones that think, as well.  And these enormous leaps in both cognition and tool-making have taken place in an almost unbelievably short period of time.

As such, we often forget that the first animal that could accurately be associated with “anatomical human beings” emerged only something like 200,000 years ago.  That’s astounding enough, but then imagine that it was only 60,000 years ago that what we might call “true humans” first claimed their place upon the planet.  60,000 years!  That’s even less than the blink of an eye, shorter than the flash of lightning in the summer sky, compared to the 4.5 billion years of the planet’s existence, to say nothing of the 13.8 billion years the universe is known to exist.  In other words, in spite of all the importance we grandly give to ourselves, we are the newest of newcomers.

So, the question remains, what exactly was it that distinguished us from our simian cousins, or from any other creature on the planet for that matter?  And when did that “distinguishing something” emerge?  We won’t even ask the question of how it happened, since no one appears to have the slightest clue when it comes to answering that inscrutable question.  But the replies to the first two queries (i.e. when and what) are simpler to give.  Most scientists agree, as mentioned above, that “true humans” emerged in Africa approximately 60,000 years ago, and then somewhere between that point and 50,000 years ago we began several successive waves of migration from that continent.  Slowly, we drifted from place to place, populating one continent after another, and making homes for ourselves.  In the process, we ran into some earlier cousins of ours, namely Neanderthals (homo Neanderthalensis), the last of whom probably died out about 20,000 years ago, probably as a result of direct interaction with homo Sapiens (that is, with us).  So, what was it that “made us human,” and in the meantime what gave us such an edge over other creatures, including the bigger and stronger Neanderthals?  The answer is simple, if the act of doing so and its consequences are not:  humans were capable of symbolic thinking.  We’ve seen this because we have the archeological record that dates back into the early ages of prehistory, and that shows that humans were able to make not only artifacts, but also art. We know, for example, that our ancestors created pictures (i.e. cave paintings) and they carved statues that, in a sense, “stood for” something else.  No doubt, it was about this time, too, that language, as we think of it today, also first emerged, allowing and encouraging high levels of communication and organization.  And after that, the poor Neanderthals, to say nothing of all the even more mute beasts of the wild world, never had a chance.

In the tiniest of nutshells, that is a very quick overview of the evolving history of humankind.  We emerged from creatures who descended from trees and learned to live and thrive on the savannas and who organized themselves into coherent groupings of thinking, communicative, and self-referential beings, and in the process we have come to utterly dominate planet Earth.  And all this with lightning speed, such that there are now well over 7 billion of us living in every part of the world, even the most inhospitable, which – through our technology – we have made hospitable.  Our big brains have indeed served us well.

But if we are to continue to think highly of ourselves, we had better take a long, hard look at who we are and what we have become.  In terms of evolutionary maturity, as a race, we human beings are probably at best in our rebellious adolescent phase.  I want to emphasize that I am speaking of mass, or collective, consciousness here, not of individual examples of human beings.  Naturally, there have always been, and always will be, some people who are more advanced in terms of consciousness than others.  But again I am talking here about the pooled level of communal thinking that together shows our shared human consciousness.  In these terms, we have to admit, it is hard to think of us as highly mature.  If we were, why would we rely so continually and so insistently on violence as an obviously useless way of solving so many of our problems?  How many decades, how many years, indeed how many weeks or even days pass by on this planet, when somehow, someplace there are not people who are shooting at each other, hurling bombs or missiles at each other, putting others in jail, torturing, mutilating, even killing one another, because they are thought not to belong to the proper race, religion, political party, or sexual identity etc.?   How many of us consistently act with compassion when it comes to others, how many are quick to condemn but slow to forgive, how many dismiss and diminish those who look, sound, or act differently from themselves?   Indeed, as a species we may be highly intelligent, but we have learned little wisdom.

But given all this, the question can be asked, should we expect any more from ourselves?  We are after all, as we have already shown, very young in evolutionary terms.  Perhaps even to claim that we have reached the adolescent phase may be something of a stretch.  Remember how brief 60,000 years is in terms of planetary and cosmic history.  And yet, if we are to survive, it is surely in our own best interest, to say nothing of the interest of the planet as a whole and of all things living upon it, for us to hurry along in this maturation process.

The only way I know of to do so is for each individual to work on herself and himself, to put the time and the energy that it takes into learning, and growing, and developing, first of all in our thinking, and then in our actions.  In the end, there is no “deus ex machina,” no great hero to save us from ourselves.  Or, put another way, each one must become the hero of the story.  We have, in other words, no one to rely on but ourselves, and if we do not do the work, then we can be sure that it will not happen.  You may think that it all sounds too ominous to say that time is running out, but the truth is that it is.  Symbolic thinking is all fine, and it turns out we are quite good at it.  But what is needed now is not so much symbol, as action.  Run-away over population, pollution of the air, continued acidification of the oceans, warming of the globe, loss of biodiversity, extinction of whole species, diminishing land and water resources, growing scarcity of food, increasing disparity between the have and the have-nots, and threat of the use of nuclear weapons, are only some of the problems that come to mind.

But time has not yet run completely out.  We can still make a difference.  Let us honor our clever ancestors, but at the same time do whatever we can today for humanity and for the world we live in.  We know that we have such great potential.  It is the job of each of us to help maximize that potential, while at the same time minimizing the mistakes we have made in the past.  We owe it to ourselves and to our children, and to all life forms on Earth.  We have made a huge difference, and we will continue to do so.  But let that difference not draw from what is lowest and most negative within our human nature, but from whatever is highest, most positive, and most life-affirming.  We know we have the capacity; only now let us muster the energy and the will to make it happen.

EARTH: HOW FAR CAN IT BE PUSHED?

By Paul

The earth is alive.  It is a conscious being.  It suffers and rejoices and feels, just as you and I do, just as any animal or tree or other plant does.  That does not mean that it has consciousness in exactly the same way that human beings do.  It is emblematic of our human arrogance, and our ignorance, that we believe that only we have consciousness, that only we can feel and reflect.  That is not so.  All sentient beings, as the Buddhists say, are capable of doing these things, even if we all do them in very different ways.

Human consciousness is brilliant and glorious, if limited most of the time.  Plant consciousness is also limited, but plants are more than capable of feeling joy in the movement of the breeze or the falling rain.  Plants move and sway and feel and breathe, and, in a very real sense, they are quite aware of their surroundings.  They love their rootedness, their ability to continually grow and reproduce, and in cold climates they sleep, bear-like, for the winter months and awake to the warming touch of the spring sun.  They feel a kind of happiness, or at least an exhilaration, in being able to continually grow and produce offspring.  Each type of animal, too, has its own kind of consciousness.  Predators, for example, do not kill out of anger (unless they have somehow been tortured and tormented and rendered “crazy” through pain and confinement), but instead they do so out of a desire to survive and to feed their young.  It is also true that the preyed upon feel fear in the moment of the chase.  They do not, however, feel the same type of fear of death that human beings normally do, but experience it more as a continuation of the cycle of being.

The earth itself has a vaster, more all-encompassing consciousness.  It is quite aware of all of the transitory beings who live and walk and crawl on its body, and has a kind of love for these creatures, made from its own body.  This is why many people feel a natural tendency to refer to the earth as “Mother,” because we can, if we attune to it, feel that love.  But the earth takes what might be called the long-term view of things.  A few thousand, or even a few million years, as humans reckon time, represents only the tiniest fraction of the lifespan of the earth.  As such, the death of an individual insect, or a tree, or a wolf, or a rabbit, or a man, or a woman is not a cause for sadness to the earth.  The earth knows that all life is born, matures, and eventually passes away.  The same is true for its own life, just as it is and will be for the star of our galaxy, the sun, or for our galaxy itself, or for the entire universe for that matter.  There is no escaping this universal law, which all manifest creation must abide by.  Therefore, a great storm, or a fire, or an earthquake, or the eruption of a volcano, which wipes away “all life” in its path is recognized by the earth as part of this unfolding of creation, in a similar way to the death of a rabbit in the jaws of a coyote.  It is not a tragedy (as much as it may seem to be in our eyes), but a continuation of the change that must always move forward.

The earth strives always for balance.  It is balanced in its daily rotation and its revolution around the sun.  It spins for a reason, so that it experiences constant movement and with it an ability to go through its own set of regular changes, those of day and night, winter to summer, year to year, millennium to millennium, age to age.  It could also be said that the earth loved and rejoiced, that it felt something akin to pride even, at the emergence of the first tentative signs of “life” on it.  There is no need to attempt to define when life, as we normally speak of it, began on the planet.  The earth is already – has always been – alive.  What we usually think of as life is merely the culmination of certain processes that lead to movement or reproduction and to a different kind of consciousness of the self.

Initially, this desire to live was mostly manifest in the need to reproduce, first of all non-sexually, and then later through sexual means.  The first bacteria had their own awareness, not self-awareness exactly, at least not in the self-reflective sense in which we usually use that term, but a consciousness whereby they knew they had a desire to keep on living.  Life, again as we normally think of it, was snuffed out more than once in various ways, most of which had to do with the crashing into the earth of fragments of the primordial universe.  However, the evolution of life was strong, and continued to show itself, and eventually to advance and expand.  Life is a glorious reflection of the aliveness of the Divine Spirit, and mimics that ability to go on and on, no matter what.   That is why it is foolish, and yet another example of our arrogance and ignorance, to maintain that there is no other life in the universe.  Of course there is, and its forms are vast and beautiful and almost unending.

Just as any parent has to sometimes discipline unruly children, so too the earth sometimes brings its own brand of discipline to the creatures that it supports.  While it is part of what it means to be alive in the usual sense of that term to grow and to propagate, there is also what could be called a kind of natural selfishness in that desire.  This impetus  is, in fact, so strong that one life form is quite willing to push all other life aside in order to take over, if opportunity arises.  However, the innate wisdom of the earth to maintain balance has so far always come to the rescue in such cases.  Otherwise, one species, or one animal, or one life form, whatever it may be, might utterly dominate all else on earth, leading in its most egregious form to the elimination of the others.  Additionally, the earth knows that life, which has evolved so beautifully and with such incalculable variety upon it, must have that variation in order to continue to grow and prosper.  As such, the over predominance of one single life form on the earth can ultimately result in the death of all other life forms.  This cannot be tolerated, inasmuch as that result could eventually signal the demise of all life forms on the planet, ironically including the life of the one species that had taken over.

This is the predicament in which we, human beings, currently find ourselves today.  And it is not completely unfair to harken back once again to human arrogance and ignorance as a cause.  Even so, as noted above, any life form would do the same thing, any one would take advantage just as humans have, if they had the strength and resources to do so.  It is in the very nature of what is meant by the overpowering urge to grow and to propagate.  There is clearly a kind of selfishness in our desire to exist at all cost.  But again, for the most part, over the course of millennia the earth has been quite able to maintain this balance, with periods of excessive heat, or cold, or long stretches of flooding, or drought maintaining the equilibrium whenever one life form, or a few of them, threatened to take over.  So, too, may be the case today with human beings.

We are unfortunately not nearly as smart as we usually give ourselves credit for.  Or at least our ability to see, and even to imagine, is quite restricted.  By nature, we are barely capable of thinking of our own lifetime – some seventy or eighty years on average – as “the long term.”  Add to that the innate urge to propagate, and we have what is happening on earth today.  Demographers tell us that there are already well over seven billion people on the earth.  It is axiomatic to say that the planet is vastly overpopulated.  On top of all this, we have a great ability to create new technologies, and in doing so, we have pushed back the earlier limitations on lifespan, as well as on our ability to raise and care for offspring.  This combination of too many people, and not caring what their predation causes, has brought us to the brink.  To be more precise, it has brought us, humans, to the brink, though not necessarily the earth.  We do not yet have the power to obliterate an entire planet, as much as it is not inconceivable that such a day could at some point arrive.  But unless we radically change our ways and make new and different choices, it will not be long before the earth, our mother, if you will, will chastise her wayward children.  Imbalance can only be allowed to go on for so long before something must take place that will redress the imbalance.  It is true that humans have evolved beautifully, but we are not the highest life forms in the universe, as we normally think of ourselves.  And the earth is capable of making whatever changes are needed in order to rebalance itself.

In spite of this, all is not lost for humanity’s survival.  Not yet, at least.  The earth is a patient mother, and is willing to put up with wayward children, in a way similar to a mother bear, huge and powerful as she is, who willingly endures her cubs biting her ears and tail.  But she may occasionally give them a warning swat from time to time, just as a reminder not to go too far.  We have seen some of these warning swats already delivered by the earth, although so far with depressingly little effect in the longer term.  Many human beings consider it an impossible leap of faith to think that even animals have consciousness, let alone plants, and there are fewer still who can imagine the earth itself as having a kind of consciousness.

I understand that some may see these views I have expressed as being extreme.  Others may consider them utterly fanciful, or at best symbolic or allegorical.  To me, they are simple, straightforward, and truthful.  However they may be viewed, it seems clear enough that one way to unburden the earth is to lessen the population of human beings inhabiting it.  Let us hope that it will not come to a kind of radical cleansing, due to unpredictable weather patterns that could devastate large swaths of humanity, but that we can do so voluntarily by reducing the number of births.  As is so often the case, though, religions have not been of much help when they preach against and even outlaw reasonable forms of birth control.  It is a travesty, and a sin (to use their own language) to cite books written thousands of years ago, when the planet was far less populated, to justify an outdated belief that people ought not to limit the number of their offspring.  No matter what may have once been the case, these days no one couple should give birth to any more than one child, and the more people who produce no children the better.

Overpopulation is, of course, only one part of a long list of problems.  Overuse of fossil fuels, fracking, and other ways of pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere are others.  What I return to again, though, is the place of the consciousness of the earth itself in the equation.  The earth insists on balance, and balance will be achieved one way or another, with – as it were – or without our cooperation.  Morally, ethically, spiritually, even economically, however, it is our duty to make an all out effort to do what we can to help restore that balance.

Let us remember that humans have lived and bred and dabbled in life here for only an extremely short period.  In “earth time,” if it can be put that way, it is the length of an infinitesimally brief flash of lightning in the summer sky in comparison to the four and a half billion years lived by our mother planet.  We forget this, and mistakenly feel as though we have always been.  But it also behooves us to imagine a time when we might not to be here.  The great Creative Force of life would then have to carve out a new path, some new race perhaps, which might live and grow and prosper and reflect intelligently upon itself.  If that were to happen, all of the great inventions, all of the knowledge gained by science, all the most insightful books, all the deepest thoughts and most inspired art ever made by women and men would be utterly lost.

This is not what the earth wants.  It remains a loving mother, who has so far had compassion on her wayward children, but even the patience of the most loving mother can be pushed too far.  Therefore, the time for us to act is now.