Author Archives: UncommonLoon

About UncommonLoon

I'm a bumbling 20-something with a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife, no plans, and a lot of hobbies.

Do Ants Have Selves?

I had a mental experience the other day that seemed, at the surface, completely inconsequential but upon further inspection revealed itself to be rather interesting. I was sitting around idly while my partner did something routine and uninteresting. The specific thing he was doing isn’t actually important at all. What matters is that the activity had nothing to do with me and there was no usefulness or benefit to my being there. Now, I am a very impatient person. In most situations like this I would be perturbed that there was nothing useful I could be doing or that I hadn’t brought a book. Or I would be thinking about all the different ways I could use my time off, or how I’d rather be spending “quality” time with my partner instead of just watching him do some mundane task. But this time, strangely, there was none of this mental chatter. I remember simply gazing at him passively and thinking, “It’s good for him to be getting this out of the way. So, it’s good for me.”

Now, this may seem unremarkable. When you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re supposed to want what’s best for him or her, right? What do I want, a pat on the back for being happy for my partner? We all like to see our partners happy, and we all should cheer at the thought of them accomplishing things or improving their lives in some way. But although we’d like to assume this comes from a place genuine care and concern for another person, it’s often a little less romantic than that. Evolutionary psychology suggests the overwhelming majority of our thoughts are about ourselves.

Even thoughts that seem to be about other people still tend to revolve around how those other people make you feel. Even in the case of your romantic partner or best friend. When you carefully examine your positive thoughts about this person’s accomplishments you may discover they carry a much more selfish hue than you’d be willing to admit up front. Perhaps seeing them happy directly imparts happiness on you, or their success clears obstacles from your relationship. Though these thoughts are not selfish in the sense that they prioritize you over your partner, they are selfish in that they still revolve around your personal experience or happiness. Though the ability to feel genuine happiness upon witnessing another’s happiness can easily be attributed to what we call love, it doesn’t necessarily equate to altruism when that person’s life and emotions directly impact your own.

Now let’s bring it back to my seemingly unremarkable thought. In this case, I was not cheering a personal success for my partner or witnessing a big smile on his face. I was watching him do an errand, and a boring one at that. Yet I was still able to simply and convincingly tell myself, “This is good.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not using this occurrence to make some grand statement about the validity of my love for this person. Again, the thought I had was still completely hinged on my own personal experience with the world. What’s interesting about the thought is the dissolution of the individual self it suggests. The essence of the thought was almost exactly the same as one I’d have while completing an errand of my own: “This isn’t particularly fun but I’m glad I’m getting it out of the way and will appreciate it later.” It’s interesting to me that though I could, at the time, cite no direct reason why my partner’s completing this errand would benefit me in the foreseeable future, I still felt convinced by the thought and was not perturbed by any need to examine further why I was spending my time sitting idly.

To me, this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of sharing your life with someone. Your lives become so entangled that you (hopefully) start to realize that your interests are aligned in ways you can’t even consciously perceive. The lines that separate the two of you may seem to blur a bit, and the chatter in your head begins to accommodate the needs of a person who was originally recognized as “other.” The concept of boundary dissolution and the questioning of the personal “self” have deep ties to Buddhism and modern psychology. Still, most people don’t experience a release from the concept of self in their daily lives, and might not even understand what that means. However, I think many people could attest to having thoughts such as mine. Thoughts that simultaneously encompassed the needs, intentions, or desires of another person as more or less “second nature.”

When I was in college I read an interesting book in my animal behavior class titled Baboon Metaphysics. It was a chronicle of a multi-year behavioral study of baboons that sought to determine how the primates handle their social lifestyles. Does their behavior stem from complex thought and concepts of identity or is it predominantly instinctual? The findings of the study were rather inconclusive, as metaphysical awareness is a pretty hard thing to judge; there are no philosophical pH strips. The researchers observed that the baboons seemed to fluctuate wildly between moments of near-human social awareness and primitive anarchy. But it’s the character of the question that interests me more than the answer. What are we seeking to prove when we want to find out how an animal views itself? Do we want to establish how similar they are to us? How “intelligent” they are? We often question whether animals (specifically mammals) view themselves as individuals but seemingly neglect the alternative. What would it mean, for instance, if many animals did not recognize the boundaries of the self like we do?

Though the process of natural selection demands animals place their own needs above others’, social animals present a bit of a snag in the evolutionary machine. How can organisms compete to survive, yet simultaneously arrange themselves in a cooperative group? The science of animal behavior has generally assumed that supposed altruism comes in two flavors: kin selection and social bonding. Basically, animals do things for others out of instinctual concern for their own genes in relatives (kin selection) or to pay into a social bank to reap rewards from their comrades later (social bonding). While this description does a lot to explain apparent altruism from a functional standpoint, it doesn’t do much to explain how the animals themselves view the interactions. Does a baboon think, “I’m going to groom my friend so he will groom me next Tuesday” or does he simply feel some instinctual urge to comb through his neighbor’s hair?

I think it’s pretty obvious that certain forms of life do not have much in the way of metaphysical awareness. Ants likely do no “view” themselves as anything, let alone individual members of a group. Their “thoughts” are probably more like electrical impulses that give explicit instructions like “turn right” and “search for food.” Ants operate much like an interconnected network of individually operating but interdependent bodies. They are closer to neurons in a brain than individuals in a community. But what if the experience of an ant wasn’t all that different from that of a baboon? What if, like ants, baboons didn’t always recognize each other as independent “selves?” The neurological limitations that exist in ants may not exist in baboons. Baboons likely have the full mental capacity to recognize their individual bodies and distinguish their intentions from those of other baboons. But perhaps the conditions under which baboon social structure evolved formed a much more malleable version of self than we currently experience in human society. Perhaps baboons waffle back and forth in their metaphysical capacities not because of a lack of intelligence but as a symptom of their social evolution.

Though my proposal is completely exploratory and hypothetical (I am not an evolutionary psychologist or and animal behaviorist), it does have interesting implications as a thought experiment. If other social animals operate on a different understanding of the “self,” or even operate without one at all, couldn’t we feasibly will our minds to do something similar? Weren’t we forged by the same evolutionary fires that gave us ants, dolphins, chimps, and baboons? Perhaps our obsession with ourselves—our identity, our emotional lives, our aspirations, our appearance—is not so much an innate product of intelligent life but a vestigial mental module from a time when we weren’t so reliant on others. And maybe it’s our individualistic culture that has simply fanned the flames of this obsession, ever widening the gap we perceive between our interests and others’.

Though it’s common knowledge in Buddhist and meditation circles that the temporary dissolution of the self is achievable through practice, I do not believe the general populace recognizes the availability of this experience. From the first day we come into contact with the world outside our mother’s womb, we are treated as individuals and taught to perceive and categorize the boundaries of other people and objects. To go against this conditioning is not merely a difficult task, but a mythical one. Many might assume the experience comes only from the ingestion of psychedelic drugs or in the midst of a psychological “break.” We are limited by what we believe is possible and we will never try to dissolve a boundary that we do not inherently recognize as optional. But billions of people experience what they would define as love for others every day. They make choices that prioritize others’ needs with or even over their own, and the others don’t always share their genes or reciprocate favors. Though the content of their thoughts may still be inherently “selfish,” it is possible that their concept of self has been warped by their interconnectivity with another person. Could it be possible for people to use their own observation of love for others to open the door to an experience they didn’t know was possible: an experience of self that does not end with the boundary of their skin?

 

 

Further reading on the subject of the self, Buddhism, animal behavior and evolutionary psychology:

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Waking Up by Sam Harris

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth

Categories: Animals, Culture, Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

IN LOVING MEMORY OF LITA 2002-2018

It’s been two months since my world fell apart. Every time I’ve even thought about sitting down to write this my mind, and often even my body, has seized up. I suppose sitting in front of a blank page to write about the most horrible experience of your life is not exactly something most people would look forward to doing. But this was a special kind of despondent procrastination. Mixed in with the anguish was fear, even a terror, that I would somehow fail at this task. Just as the fear of failure stalks me in other aspects of my life, I was petrified by the idea of attempting something that could never be done well enough. In this case the lack of confidence stems not just from doubts about my abilities, but also from the sheer insurmountability of the mission.

To commemorate my beloved daughter is impossible. It is impossible in verbal, written, photographic, or any other form. It is impossible to convey the magic of her presence, the softness of her fur, or the intelligence of her gaze. It is impossible to say a damn thing about her that doesn’t pale in comparison to who she really was. But nevertheless I have to try. I cannot go on silently suffering when I have always turned to these blank pages to really feel. I need catharsis and the world needs a record of this miraculous creature.

I am aware that to a large portion of the human population, non-human deaths will never seem earth shattering. I acknowledge this fact and I do not expect those people to empathize or even sympathize with this outpouring of emotion. But, contrary to popular belief, telling someone their feelings are not valid does not actually invalidate them. My experience of grief has been sincere and excruciating. How I feel does not devalue human death, nor does it elevate every non-human death to tragedy status. Every loss is felt in its own way and with its own particular weight. And this loss has been heavy. So very heavy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel a love so pure, comforting, and uncomplicated as the love that emanated from Lita (or “The Floof” as we often called her). The greatest gift my parents ever gave me, the tiny grey cat entered my life just as I was falling off the cusp of childhood into adolescence. We bonded to one another with an intensity that can only come when two beings truly need each other. She was my first soul mate. Over the years Lita and I were nearly inseparable. In her kittenhood she would follow me around the house, meowing desperately should a door be closed between us. I wanted to take her everywhere with me, and brought pictures of her when I had to be away for more than a day or two.

Even in those bizarre and torrid teenage years, when many young people lose interest in their family pets, Lita remained a stable and reassuring force in my life. Her presence was invaluable in reminding me that I was not alone, and that I was needed. I will never forget the first time I began to struggle with depression and looked to her as a reason I had to be here. We were in this together. She would go on to serve as one of those reasons many more times in my life.

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Us, circa 2002 and 2015.

In our adult years we still remained tied to one another. Her absence was felt deeply in college, and I returned her to my life as soon as my post-college housing situation allowed it. One of the most exciting times of my adulthood was moving into my first studio apartment on my own with her in tow. I would come home from work and literally dance around the minute space with her in my arms, ecstatic in our simultaneous independence from outside forces but comfortable codependence on one another.

Even when that dream came crashing down as I discovered the apartment to be hopelessly infested with parasites, her reaction is one of the most memorable aspects. I recall sobbing on the phone with my partner while she walked in circles around me meowing incessantly, clearly disturbed that I was so upset. Later, as I sat feeling defeated in my partner’s condo, I held her close and thanked the cosmos that the little life-ruiners hadn’t gotten to her.

The next several years of my life would be marked by indecision, frustration, change, and more defeat. My partner and I decided to make a cross-country move that didn’t stick, and Lita happily accompanied us on multiple nine-hour car trips there and back without complaint. She supported me through the confusion of feeling utterly directionless in life and isolated in an unfamiliar city. Her soft body curled against me each night continued to remind me that I would be ok.

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Lita waiting for me to come home to our DC apartment.

Lita’s health was also a large factor in our intense bond. Her biological brother died suddenly of kidney failure around the same time I moved her back in with me after college. Though his death was shocking and sad, it allowed me to move quickly to get Lita the treatment she undoubtedly needed ahead of the disease’s progression. The extra care I provided for Lita helped me feel even more needed, and I felt in some unexplainable way she knew I was doing a lot for her. Luckily, Lita’s demure nature made her a perfect candidate for the semi-invasive administration of subcutaneous fluids and oral medication, which kept her kidneys functioning for years. It wasn’t until she also developed symptoms of colon cancer that her health truly started to decline.

It would be disrespectful to her character to imply that Lita’s value and impact on my life was tied solely to her service as a de facto emotional support animal. She was so much more than just a comforting presence. She was a brilliant and unique force of life unlike any I ever expect to see again. She weighed all of nine pounds at her heaviest and yet she commanded the respect of all other animals in a room. Never interested in making quadrupedal friends, she generally preferred to boss other cats and dogs around and stick to charming only the humans in the room. But when it came to charming humans, she was a star. She always greeted guests in a matter of minutes from their arrival. She loved the company of her humans and lamented being alone. Lita’s charm came through both in her behavior and her appearance. “Your cat is a person!” proclaimed one of my animal-inclined friends upon first meeting her and looking down at her contented face as she sat swaddled in her arms. There was just something in her eyes that seemed to say, “I may be a cat, but I understand you.”

Lita’s death has been the most painful and destabilizing experience of my life. I’m aware this communicates an embarrassing level of privilege, but I can only say that I wish more people could assign their greatest woes to the loss of a loved one. I’m lucky not to have experienced trauma or neglect in my life, but that doesn’t mean I am impervious to emotional pain. In fact, it is probably part of the reason I feel this so deeply. Her physical decline and eventual loss pulled an existential rug from my feet; making me question whether anything is worth the pain we endure when we continue to open our eyes each morning.

As I held her lifeless body after her euthanasia and wailed into her fur, I thought things could never get any worse than that moment. But the weeks that followed didn’t offer much reprieve. I’ve struggled with hopelessness, desperation, dissociation, sleeplessness, nightmares, and lethargy in rapid succession. I have collapsed into a chair after work and not moved or done anything for hours at a time. I have googled suicide helplines and then deleted my browser history. I have considered trying to convince myself in the existence of an afterlife in order to cling to some shred of hope I might see her again. I have sobbed so deeply I’ve worried my body might collapse in on itself with one final heave.

I wish there was something else I could say. I wish there was some magic word I could use or perfect poem I could write that would instantly communicate the importance of the relationship I had with Lita. The knowledge that my memories of her will fade over time terrifies me. As I pass her ashes each day, sitting atop an altar among our favorite pictures and her favorite toys, I beg the universe to allow me to always remember her the way I do now, even if it continues to hurt this much.

If you or someone you know has lost someone, please remember that the species of that person does not matter. We are all made of the same complicated, bizarre, goopy stuff and our capacity to build relationships does not recognize the boundaries of phylogenetic trees. Love is love.

I love you so much Lita and I will never stop missing you. Thank you.

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Categories: About me, Animals | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Ode to Landscaping

Keep your edges on game
Maintain, clean shave
Burn the remains of life slain to regain control of a brain
That won’t stop you living in pain
Don’t pay for sins til clouds spit on your grave
What’s in a name
But a soul; control
Nine number’s all it takes to harvest energy like cattle
Don’t think you’re not chattel
A mastermind no but a system on fire
Ever searching for a buyer of higher designer ideologies
That simmer men to create psychologies
Reduced to nothing but the need to repent and beg apology
For daring to set foot atop a crust of a bludgeoned rock under an unloving god
So what’s the shock
When your grass keeps growing
When your ignorance keeps showing
When you wrote the script but still don’t fit it
What’s your limit
Your mind’s a hornet’s nest, ain’t it best not to kick it

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Untitled

Progressive, relentless, merciless
An uninhabitable truth or an uncomfortable lie
Sit still in your decaying skin
Personality evaporates
Crystals emerge from pools of liquid chaos
Give back in anguish all you never meant to take

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Simple

I am simple. Everyone wants to proclaim their intricacies; expounding endlessly on the ways they are enchantingly singular. But I am simple. You are simple. We are the same, you and I. There is not so much between us as there is underneath us. Just like a cat in a box that might be both dead and alive, I am both enduringly unique and painfully bland.

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Big City Probs

As my time living in a large US city comes to a close, I’m reflecting on my experiences and general observances of life here. Setting aside the astronomical (and totally not worth it, in my opinion) price tag, I found Washington, DC to be clean, well laid-out, and often charming. So why would I almost never consider living in a big city again? People are dicks. 

Are you surprised? Probably not. Everyone says people in New York can be rude as hell, and DC is just a smaller, lamer New York with politicians. Gross. But I think this rule probably applies to almost every large, ambitious city on the globe.

When we live in big cities, we are surrounded on all sides by people. This is what we would traditionally call a “community.” But if you consider yourself part of a community in a big city, it’s likely your neighborhood or profession, not the greater population. It’s literally impossible to befriend everyone who crosses your path in a day, let alone everyone who lives in your city of choice. You can’t possibly remember the details of 600,000 lives. There’s an important difference between being introverted and just recognizing the futility of your social advances. In big cities, people stop being people and become hordes, numbers, and statistics.

Quite often, I just have no interest in talking to other human beings and would rather focus inward. But on rare occasions (typically when I’ve had a good amount of sunshine and food), I could fathom the idea of striking up on conversation with a stranger. Yet I still almost never do. The times I do, it’s with an individual I’m highly likely to see again. The concierge of a building I work at frequently, a person who lives in my apartment complex, you get the idea. The reason behind this is obvious: building relationships with people helps us to not only enjoy our interactions with them more, but to win their favor in the hopes it might benefit us someday.

This is what being a social animal is all about. But what happens when you force human beings together repeatedly, but remove the reward of these relationships? Rudeness. That guy on the subway who takes up two seats for no reason, the person who collides with you on the sidewalk while looking at their phone without so much of an “excuse me.” Anyone who’s lived in a city will probably complain that the people they cross paths with every day just don’t seem to give a fuck.

But why should they? For the vast majority of human history, we lived in small, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands or agricultural communities. Each individual’s survival and wellbeing relied heavily on his or her relationships with others. Be a dick to one of your neighbors, and it would almost certainly come back to bite you in the ass. Be a dick to everyone, and risk ostracization—a prescription for a swift and definitely not painless death. Much like small living spaces force people to pick up after themselves, small communities literally force people to value positive interactions with their fellow humans. Don’t shit where you eat. Once a society or gathering becomes large enough, individuals stop caring as much about how they treat one another. The likelihood that you will have to deal with someone you’ve been unpleasant to shrinks dramatically.

Still, some people in cities seam to be interested in friendship and communication, while others are walking nightmares for everyone around them. It’s not uncommon for city-dwellers to point out that upper-class folks tend to be more dickish. This goes to show that the old rules of human social structures may still apply, but only for those below a certain economic threshold. As a pleb, be a dick to your roommates, boss, or a police officer, and you’ll find yourself in a world of pain and financial trouble. But for many (a shrinking number, I’ll point out), a steady supply of magical green paper ensures beyond any doubt their needs will be met regardless of whom they piss off.

asshole

The recipe for a community of dicks goes like this: Take a bunch of people from all over the world and put them very close together. Add in the privacy obsession of sex-negative and body-shaming cultures for some reclusiveness and paranoia, if desired. Stir in a heavy dose of the individualistic ideals touted by capitalist economics. Simmer for at least a half-century.

Cash flow has replaced social support as a means of overcoming challenges, thus success and independence have eclipsed social interaction as the prime directive. Even lower class individuals will often turn to crime rather than ask family or friends for help. In capitalist society, pride is not a deadly sin but a central aspect of a person’s self worth. People respect “the hustle” more than vulnerability, honesty, and friendship. With no dollar sign on politeness and little opportunity to build lasting relationships, where does the incentive even lie for the average person to be kind? The poisonous result of this cocktail of individualism and population density does not just cause the wealthy to condescend and the impoverished to resort to crime however. It entices absolutely everyone to only look out for number one.

I’m sure many will throw up their hands in frustration and proclaim that I’m ignoring the silent kindness that goes on every day. The people who, to no apparent benefit of their own, are continually kind to every stranger they meet. These people are emblems of altruism, and the true representation of human nature. The others are just assholes. This leads me to two unsavory logical conclusions: 1) the majority, if not vast majority, of humans beings are assholes and 2) kindness is some sort of mental disease suffered by a small, but noticeable, portion of the population. However, these individuals are to be held up as “correct” human beings.

Like many bad logical pathways, this one’s error lies in an assumption early on in the reasoning: the assumption that kind people are selfless. The truth is that kind people have simply decoded the truth about the world: that independence does not make you happy,  relationships do. Many people misunderstand this to mean happiness lies in a perfect romantic partner, family, or the right number of friends. They focus on having “their people” and often end up saying “fuck you” to the rest of the world. They still fell under the spell of self-reliance and isolation that tells us there is no inherent value in non-repeatable positive interactions. And they have been severely misled.

The truth is that positive interactions, be they with strangers or long time friends, have both immediate and lasting effects on happiness. I know this because science. But I also know this because of my own day-to-day struggles. As a severely introverted and under-confident person, I typically avoid social interaction as much as possible. Conversations with people, especially strangers or casual acquaintances, are so stressful and taxing, that I feel I need an hour of solitude to recover from every one I have. However when I’m forced to let this wall down, either by work or an activity I’ve chosen to take part in, every positive experience I have improves my day.

Using cognitive behavioral therapy tactics often referred to as “taking in the good,” I dwell on these positive interactions and they create lasting impacts on my brain, helping to battle the depression and hopelessness I struggle with each day. My motivation for being kind to people could not be any more selfish. I am literally doing it to improve my own mood temporarily and my life as a whole. As far as I know, the person I have been kind to has received nothing tangible from our interaction (except for maybe some awesome customer service at the place I’m working). Yet, when I’m kind to people, they are (almost) always kind in return. My guess, which isn’t really a guess, is that they are receiving a boost from this interaction too, whether they know it or not.

Many people may never realize the degree to which they have isolated themselves. They may have a family, a good job, and friends so society tells them they’ve done everything right. But they continually search for a nonexistent community. Many find supplemental happiness in the tribal institutions of sports teams, churches, or political parties. It definitely doesn’t hurt to have a group to associate with. I know I find serious healing power in the community environment of small music festivals and artistic gatherings. In today’s world, a common interest is often the only tool we have to sift through the masses of people who exist around us, and help us decide who is worth investing our social energy in.

But what these groups really do is take the community process and turn it on its head. They allow us to decide we like people’s hobbies or opinions before we decide if we like them as people. Meanwhile these “friends” probably don’t live near you, and they probably value you more for your utility as someone to spend time with than as a trustworthy and caring member of their extended family.

Perhaps this is part of the reason so many people in the United States struggle to make friends in adulthood. While their school years gave them plenty of time to sort through the people they interacted with, deciding if they were a good fit for them or not, their work life or social group friends are just kind of, well, there. I wouldn’t exactly tell someone to drop everything in their life to pursue their old high school or college mates, but I think everyone could stand to be a little more invested in the community they build around themselves.

And hey, if you do live in a big city. Stop being such a dick. It can’t possible be worth shoving an old lady down the escalator to make your metro car. The place where you’re standing is VERY CLEARLY a thoroughfare and you’re impeding dozens of people a second with your idle chitchat about the weather. It’s rude to stare. Give a homeless person a fucking dollar while you’re standing in line to get into a overpriced club and buy drinks for people you hate. Give someone a hug. A real one. With both arms.

Categories: About me, Culture, Humanity, Lifestyle, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Be the Religion You Want to See in the World Part 1: What is Paganism?

The emaciation of the lexicon of human religious ideas in recent history is, in my humble observance, cause for concern. On a planet with seven billion intelligent and emotionally complex apes, shouldn’t we have a more diverse set of mythical paradigms? You there, reading this right now! I implore you: explore your own mythology. I don’t care if you are a Hasidic Jew or an atheist. Unless you are in a situation where practicing unique religious or a-religious ideas could put you or someone else in danger, I encourage you to look around, really look. You need not apostate your religion or atheism, but at the very least enrich it. The world is magical. If you have to redefine magic to believe this, redefine away. We’d all love to hear what you come up with!

In the interest of expanding the lens on religion, I’d like to talk a bit about nature worship, or “paganism.” Though this term has endured many meanings, I find the general gist it implies useful. Examining how nature worship came into being gives us a fascinating new context to put so-called “modern” religion into context.

It’s important to remember that today’s cultural views on “nature” are fairly new. With the dawn of agriculture, humans began viewing the environment around them as something under their control. If plants could be grown, animals tamed, and ground repurposed, the world could bend to suit the needs of man. The resulting “settlements” were built on the implicit assumption that the earth had finally been “tamed” and would continue to support life without the arduous need to move about the globe to forage and avoid inclement weather. If this assumption were not solid, it would have been hard to encourage nomadic humans out of their hunter-gatherer ways. Still, even in this new era of Earth seemingly under humanity’s thumb, culture began to evolve  to accommodate the forces of nature.

The first human religion was arguably what we often refer to now as “paganism.” It’s generally accepted that the word pagan first appeared as a pejorative term for peasants of the Roman Empire, those who didn’t conform to the teachings of the Christian god. It was likely used as a catchall term for polytheists, atheists, and practicers of magic. But nature worship and polytheism appear much earlier in human history than ancient Rome. Though Hinduism is regarded as the oldest religion in the world by many noted Historians, dating back to at least 1500 BCE, polytheism and theism in general are regarded as much older. Primitive cave drawings and sculptures dating back thousands of years before Common Era depict god-like supernatural forms, such as the impossibly voluptuous Venus figurines and impressive animal-human hybrids. It’s impossible to say in what way primitive humans viewed these representations as deities, but it’s certainly not outlandish to infer they looked to them for comfort or guidance.

800px-Guennol_Lioness

“The Guennol Lioness is a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian statue depicting an anthropomorphic lioness. The statue was found near Baghdad, Iraq and is on display in New York City’s Brooklyn Museum of Art.” [Wikipedia Commons]

The creation of art that represented otherworldly forms may have been the spark that fueled the creation of more complex and organized polytheistic religions such as Egyptian gods, Hinduism, and Chinese folk religion. It’s likely our nomadic ancestors created deities to make sense of the often-chaotic natural world and passed these gods onto their agricultural descendants to aid them in harvests and war. Thus it’s not surprising to think Paleolithic humans may have prayed to idols of women and animal-human hybrids. The female form, especially in its oft-exaggerated relief, is a perfect symbol of fertility and perhaps, by association, power and creation. Lion, snake, and goat-headed humanoids may have been dreamed up to inspire the channeling of strengths from the “natural” world, acknowledging that there is a little of these animals in all of us (which, evolutionarily speaking, there is!).

The construction of belief paradigms based on “natural” forms and phenomena can easily be conflated with the Christian church’s definition of “paganism.” Yet the people persecuted across the ages were hardly the goat-worshipping witches we often think of when we see the word pagan. More likely than not, pagans were just believers in the traditions that had been absorbed from the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures. The celebration of Saturnalia, a winter solstice holiday, and praise for the many Greek/Roman gods existed for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Still, it wasn’t long after the reign of Emperor Constantine (the first “Christian Emperor”) that these beliefs were shunned into obscurity, leaving us with the fragmented understanding of paganism we have today.

Despite its seemingly long history of persecution, the reverence and worship of nature has actually endured longer than any other “religion.” Throughout history, paganism has enjoyed its fringe believers, often in some of the darkest corners of human history. Supposed “witches” in Europe and the Americas were aggressively hunted for allegedly “casting spells” on innocent God-fearing citizens, using twigs, bones, and animals in their sacrificial routines. In reality these people, most commonly poor women, were likely the shamans and spiritual guides of their small pagan villages. It seems crying witch was a convenient way to get rid of bothersome or threatening women (and what intelligent woman isn’t threatening, right?). Slaves brought to the Americas from Africa also maintained complex polytheistic beliefs before many were forcibly converted to Christianity. Their unique culture and shared faith likely gave them hope in beyond desperate times.

Truths held by human cultures are based on specific experiences, and the shape of the world can vary greatly through each individual set of eyes. The prevalence of Abrahamic religions today (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) denotes a departure from the specific identification of the forces of nature and an embrace of a more mythically obscure god. While devotees of these religions may scoff at the idea of a fire god or god of fertility, they seemingly have little trouble acknowledging a single omnipotent being that controls all reality. Though much of the intolerance for archaic religions seems to have evaporated, supposed “witches” and “heathens” are still persecuted in many countries and in some cases, these attacks still kill hundreds or thousands of people a year.

Will we ever turn a true corner on religious freedom in which we don’t care what deities people choose to pray to or abstain from? Will we ever stop blaming supernatural forces for our human quarrels? Should our goal be to eradicate myth and superstition or simply to evolve it? I’d like to explore these questions in the coming months in this blog series.

 

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The Race

 

Go on and rush to your deathbed

Collecting titles and plastic power as you go

Leave your instincts in the primordial hindbrain where they belong

And break cosmic silence with the success only you could sow

 

Put living on indefinite hiatus to have a life

Ignore the screams of suffering

You know nothing, owe nothing, for their strife

 

Love one, one and only one ’cause love is zero sum

But hate, hate all you can ’cause “us and them” spells endless fun

 

Bust ass to make cash for a family you never see

Tell em money can’t buy happiness, but nothing in life is free

 

Make a small fortune

Buy clothes made by kids half the age of yours

Give to charity

Keep the real wealth to even score

 

Leave your ethics at the door of the million-dollar church

Where the little people go to be ascribed a sense of worth

Put a dollar in the hat and pass it on in holy song

Take forgiveness with a grain of salt, get dressed to be blessed and get gone

 

Feed the rabid underdog with imagined criticism and adversity

Don’t give into the nagging voice that says you’re inherently worth something

 

Go on and rush to your deathbed

Leaving trampled others in your wake

Your awards are meaningless without an audience

So keep breeding–God makes no mistakes

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Instinct

Do you sense it?

The pervasive vibration that makes your insides cringe and reject all the love you think you’ve put in.

The putrid smell of failure, of crying, of trying but never holding on to all that you win.

The foul taste from the cup that you’d sworn was pristine.

The demons that hide, safe and quiet in your dreams, their shadows remaining though your mind is wiped clean.

The creeping sensation that there’s something you’ve missed.

That your life may not best be made with a clenched fist.

 

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Like Humans, Earth Deserves Protection Under the Law

[Written for and with collaboration from Earth Law Center]

The taxonomic classification for humans, Homo sapiens, can be translated roughly from Latin to mean “wise man.” As the wisest of hominids, we humans excel at analyzing and conceptualizing the world around us. While this remarkable ability to understand both ourselves and the interworkings of the world around us has led to our unprecedented success as a species, it has also led to a dangerous divide. Human beings are members of a select group of organisms with the mental capacity to ponder metaphysical concepts such as state of being, identity, and the nature of reality. While it’s difficult to measure the metaphysical capacities of other animals, many expect our close relatives, the great apes, as well as some marine mammals such as dolphins to possess at least a rudimentary version of this ability. Yet Homo sapiens has gone above and beyond to use its self-awareness for creation and proliferation.

Our ability to manipulate our surroundings is tied, perhaps fatally, to our ability to divest ourselves from it. We use terms such as “the environment” and “nature” to describe everything other than ourselves and our creations. We view this other as something to be used to our advantage, something to dominate and exploit. Only more recently has nature become a romanticized other—something exotic and beautiful we ought to protect. While this mental division between man and nature seems a terrible flaw in our evolution as a species, it can also be viewed as a direct and unavoidable externality of our intellect. To see ourselves is to prioritize ourselves. It’s not outlandish to proclaim that humans wouldn’t exist as we are today without our penchant for putting ourselves on a pedestal.

Luckily, it’s recently become apparent to a large fraction of the human species that we are, in fact, part of our environment. While this is something many indigenous peoples have arguably known for millennia, it’s a recent revelation to the industrial, “civilized” world. It’s tempting to argue a return to these indigenous roots is in order. Perhaps we must fall back to our nomadic foraging ways to plug ourselves back into the global biome and reduce our impact to that of a less “wise” species. And yet, the solutions to human problems have almost never come from our past but from continuing to move forward. While our current global crisis affects all life on Earth, it’s still a human problem. Problems human ingenuity creates require human ingenuity to fix.

The history of modern agricultural humans is punctuated with periods of progress and periods of relapse or stagnation. After the transition from a nomadic species to an agricultural one, human societies underwent a series of experiments in civilization structure and culture. Social evolution has not necessarily followed a steady path, but the reduction of violence and increase of personal freedom that has accompanied human population growth is unmistakable.

In parts of the world where personal freedom appears highest for the most people, we see societies scaffolded onto a framework of democracy based on rules to protect rights. These rules are known commonly as laws. Since its inception, the law has not just enabled, but forced social evolution through logical argument based on fact and observable truth. While the assumption that certain groups of people are subordinate by nature allowed legal slavery to continue in a civilized world, this flawed assumption eventually fell prey to legal argument, regardless of the attitudes of the general populace. Law is unequivocally our greatest tool for change.

Cormac Cullinan, environmental attorney and author of Wild Law, refers to laws as the “DNA of society.”[1] Much like our genes form the genetic blueprint of our bodies, our laws form the structural blueprint of society. Laws allow humanity to undergo massive structural shifts without violence and revolt. Yet, rarely does this type of social change happen spontaneously. Oppressed individuals must speak out for their situation to gain attention. Thus it’s no coincidence that some of the most marginalized groups tend to be the quietest. It is imperative that our legal framework allow the voiceless to gain allies against abuse.

In Christopher D. Stone’s Should Trees Have Standing?, a collection of essays that was likely the first to suggest nature may need legal rights, he argues that extending rights to certain parties has always been “unthinkable.”[2] Reaching back into human history, children and women were once considered a man’s property. Far more recently, African people were considered property of white men. In both cases, the party with rights could not imagine extending these rights to their property. It would be madness to allow a woman or child to object to being beaten, or a slave to own land. Yet in both cases, these assumptions dissolved under the weight of facts. Facts that indicated children, women, and slaves maintain the same capacity for human experience white men do.

Like so many times in the past, our current legal framework must be revised based on new evidence in order to enact necessary change. Our dealings with the world around us have become so unregulated and toxic that our own pollution threatens our existence as a species. In If Nature had Rights, Cullinan laments that “Climate change is an obvious and dram symptom of the failure of human government to regulate human behavior in a manner that takes account of the fact that human welfare is directly dependent on the health of our planet and cannot be achieved at its expense.”[3] Though the list of environmental offenses occurring before and/or contributing to climate change is extensive, notice has only been taken due to its direct threat to human existence. Our inability to tie most environmental damage directly to human suffering or loss may lead to one of the greatest catastrophic events for mankind the world has ever seen.

It’s in this way that arguing for environmental action on the behest of human suffering is limited. Currently, a team of lawyers is attempting to sue the United States federal government on behalf of children.[4] The lawsuit claims that the government’s inaction regarding climate change is actively spoiling the future quality of life and financial prospects for these children. While the claims made in the lawsuit are surely true, many speculate on the case’s ability to stay in court due to its unconventional approach and tenuous prediction of future events. It’s the second case of its kind to be tried; the first was dismissed in 2011. Even in the event of success, the federal government may end up settling the issue like so many offending persons and corporations: paying up. If the lawyers for these children are arguing on the basis of lost opportunities, be they financial or otherwise, our current system’s answer may be to throw money in their direction to make up for the loss, not necessarily to fix the problem.

We see this again and again with American corporations. Polluters just choose to pay for the damages, either in the form of government fines or payouts to victims. The cost of paying to pollute is too often cheaper than changing the system responsible for the pollution. A devastating example of this cost-benefit decision was the case of the Enbridge oil spill. In 2010, a ruptured pipeline spilled more than one million gallons of heavy crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Prior to the spill, Enbridge had failed to repair some 300 defects in the pipeline [5], likely assuming the risk of a rupture was worth taking over the expense of repairing the 41 year old piece of equipment. Though it’s clear in these cases higher penalties for polluting would encourage this behavior to change, it’s an unsustainable solution. Constantly needing to shift the legal requisite for payouts regarding pollution in response to factors like the total evaluation of externalities, as well as just inflation or the success of the offending corporation make this approach weak.

Instead, we must look to change the way we argue for environmental action. Rather than enumerating lost opportunities or putting a price tag on natural entities, we must believe there is a better mechanism to care for the ecosystem that supports us. This mechanism does not need to shatter the fabric of society, or take us back to our nomadic roots. It simply needs to modify the basic legal framework we already have to align with the reality of facts to grant rights to the “unimaginable.”

Stone also makes the important point in Trees that the law does not exist solely for those who can use it to argue on their own behalf. In fact, the law exists in part specifically to represent those who cannot speak. Stone points out that infants, animals, and corporations do not have voices, yet all have been given rights under the law. If we are to make any progress in fighting in the interest of the environment, we must first give the environment the right to have an objective interest. While people can argue endlessly over whether it’s financially more beneficial to preserve a river or pollute in the name of enterprise, the interest of the river will always remain the same.

Furthermore, the interest of a river to flow or a forest to remain diverse and unspoiled is directly tied to our own rights to exist on this planet. Cullinan does well to remind his audiences that human rights are not inherent. Rather, the Universal Declaration of Rights adopted by the United Nations after World War II was the first internationally-accepted document to set standards for basic human decency and existence. The most fundamental principle of this document is the right to life. All other human rights—thought, movement, religion—cannot exist without the means for staying alive and free from the most basic wants. Yet our current social and legal system encourages the destruction of the ecosystems that generate the resources that support us. As the courts allow industry to foul the water we drink and strip the top soil in which we grow our food, our ability to exist free of basic want on this planet diminishes. More and more the capacity to eek out a living is reserved only for those who have figured out how to capitalize on others. By giving rights only to humans and considering all we rely on as property, we ensure our own destruction.

Moving forward in our social evolution as a species calls for a paradigm shift. As environmental law firms struggle to gain traction for their causes, it becomes more and more apparent what we need are not just changed laws, but changed assumptions. The assumptions behind anthropocentric law have built humanity a house while completely neglecting the neighborhood. We stand now in front of a tremendous opportunity to compose the building blocks for a better society. The physical DNA of our species has given us the intelligence to organize and modify our world. The social DNA of our species must give us the ability to protect ourselves within this world, as a part of this world.

 


1.      See talks by Cormac Cullinan from the World People’s Summit on Climate Change in Bolivia and the 2012 Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

2.      See “Introduction: The Unthinkable” and “The Rightlessness of Natural Objects at Common Law” in Should Trees Have Standing?—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.

3.      Published in the January/February 2008 issue of Orion Magazine.

4.      Landmark U.S. Federal Climate Lawsuit championed by nonprofit Our Children’s Trust.

5.      “Report: Hundreds of defects in Enbridge oil pipeline.” Mlive.com. August 28th, 2010. http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2010/08/report_hundreds_of_defects_in.html

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