Que Sommes Nous?

Ronald Wright starts his inquiry into our current condition with Gauguin’s famous three-part question: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Wright spoke mostly to the first question on Monday, April 27. But over the years, Illahee attendees have heard plenty about the second two.

It’s fitting that we finish the last four years of Illahee Lectures – on money, God, sex and power – with a talk that recaps much of what we’ve heard. Unless you’re a bible literalist, then Wright’s summary of the human endeavor as a last minute evolutionary experiment by a clever ape that squeezed through a couple of population bottle-necks, is no surprise. Neither is his contention that the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago changed everything. Wes Jackson made much the same point in March.  But Wright’s emphasis was a bit different.

Agriculture didn’t just change the way we live on the planet, or the impact we’ve had on natural systems. It gave rise to a means for acquiring and consolidating power. Hunter-gatherers could increase their caloric intake, and decrease their home range. Which meant better survival, larger populations, excess individuals for specialized tasks, and emergence of a ruling class for distributing those tasks.

And one of the earliest ecological consequences of the agricultural revolution? Habitat destruction. Early Mesopotamian civilizations essentially destroyed their own larders by over-irrigating their lands, creating salt flats along the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Habitat destruction has plagued civilization ever since, from the Mediterranean to northern Europe, to the American southwest, to east Asia. Along the way, humans have managed to increase their numbers exponentially, a population explosion that will finally meet its inevitable ceiling in a few decades. So, that’s where we come from.

What are we? To over-simplify, we’re a very clever, if not wise ape. Over the past few years we’ve learned more about how our behavior is influenced by our evolutionary history – why it is we want things that can be both personally beneficial and broadly destructive. Up until a hundred years ago, western civilization always had an answer for the destructive part: move on to greener pastures (often belonging to other people). We’re out of pastures. Recently we’ve been treating the atmosphere and the oceans like unlimited pastures. Oops. (This expression might be the most succinct summary of human environmental history).

The cultural component of this second question – what are we – is “what is civilization?” This is important, because it leads directly to the third question: where are we going? Understanding humans and civilization helps us divine where we might be going in two ways.

Most policy-makers and future-scenario planners now build models of human / environmental systems, and run them into the future. Pump more fossil fuels to increase crop yields, and you get degradation. Implement cooperative treaties, and you increase chances for a sustainable future. Throw in a black swan or two (like the U.S. bank failures) and you get collapse. Or not. These are just model scenarios after all.

But another way of looking at where we’re going, one that authors like Ronald Wright and Morris Berman contemplate, is to ponder the question, “what IS civilization?” And if, like Wright and Berman and McKibben, you believe we’ve overshot the planet’s capacity to support our current civilization, then you have to ask, “what parts of civilization should we keep, and what should we toss?” This may seem like depressing exercise, but in a way it’s affirming and positive and directed. It asks us to make decisions.

For example, some of us would be happy to toss traffic jams, and fast food, and stealth bombers, and i-Phones (OK, if the latter actually functioned as phones instead of call-dropping-devices, maybe we’d hang onto them). Others would toss our health-care system, or Social Security, or organized religion. The point is, some of us have come to the conclusion that we can’t have it all. And that forces us to contemplate the question, what IS civilization, and what parts of it do we value most and want to carry forward into the future?

That’s a complex question, requiring a lot of discussion, and looming economic and political choices.

(A note from Ronald Wright regarding the Pendleton blanket we gave him at the end of his talk: “They tried to take away the blanket at the boarding gate, because I had it in a bag and therefore one bag too many.  So I said, ‘I’ll wear it then’, and walked across the tarmac like a Tlingit chief at a potlatch.”)

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