we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Hope in Confronting our Individuation

Climate Change is an existential threat, and many of us don’t know what to hope for any more, or even whether we should hope at all. My feeling is that if hope means anything in this case, its roots must run very, very, deep indeed. Here is Essay FORTY-ONE from the book, Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice: Fifty Short Essays on what it Means to be Human in the Natural World. This one essay was meant to provide a substantially complete context for the Extremophile Choice hypothesis.


That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet, believing what we don’t believe does not exhilarate. —Emily Dickinson[1]

If it were possible to experience from the perspective of a slow-evolving bio-association, human technology, with no part in the mutual feeding that ultimately drives Natural selection, would be ‘practically’ invisible, for it would be impossible to see that which changes too fast to adaptively ‘re-cognize’. Perhaps it’s knowing this at a latent (or we might say an Oedipal) level, that has in all human cultures inspired mythological cautions against Promethean hubris. So, risking the confusion of phylogeny with ontogeny once again, we might figuratively characterize our predicament as that of a developing child, who must face his existential fear and turn away from the known (his parents) to the unknown (himself). Sooner or later we must look at who we truly are and begin to own our technological emancipation, for only then can there be real hope for the phylogenic ‘mother tree’ whose little hominin bower we’ve outgrown. Such leaps of individuation are difficult enough for us mortal vessels, who grow up gifted by parents with wisdom ‘descending with modification’ from the immortal god of culture (for now we return to the truer, or less-figurative, case), but individuation must be harder yet for untaught humanity itself—an orphan god, not born but escaping, like a techno-genic Athena out of the head of a phylogenic Zeus.

We might think we have come a long way, but even now we don’t really need to imagine how traumatic the assembly of a first complete, or associatively ‘perfect’, language was for an animal that did not yet know it had an inner life. That animal still cringes in the shadow of our dualistic ‘self-knowledge’ (see Panic terror, Part I).

Perhaps cave-art, starting around 164,000 years ago, was an early response to the closing of the linguistic behaviour field. With the final expansion of arbitrary word-behaviour to associate with every-interior-thing, and with an animal mind raised to cultural ‘phylogeny’ by this speci-fying behavioural fragmentation, the powerful dualism illusion implied by ‘referring’ to a covert universe became inevitable. This has been both a gift and a burden to us these millennia, for the beauty of our thoughts and words can still pull us back from the very experiences they re-present. Only by seeing this thoroughly can we understand, and withstand, the pull of words; when words like ‘beauty’ even can grasp at moments during which the grasping, therefore the word, is exactly ‘wrong’.

So with the stage thus set, we are now finally ready to examine the benefits that flow from restoring evo-ecology’s daring Pan-like innocence, and our own, as we embrace this new perspective on a Mankind invisible to Nature. Is this vision as hopeless as we are asked to believe? This prospect of ‘rewilding’ our planet? Do a million years of humanized ecosystems, and the economics of ‘ecosystem services’, determine our future, or do they just reflect a more and more distant past? We commit on paper to some program of conservation, but then jobs are threatened and we choose the economics of Man over the economics of Nature every time, saying that the last depends on the first. E. O. Wilson calls this way of thinking, “people-first ethics”, but then, speaking for “environmental  ethics”, he writes: “no one says, ‘Let’s give it all back to nature’”, and he recommends instead that we “combine the best of short term and long term [environmentalist] goals”.[2]

Maybe he’s right; but what if we decided the economics of Man and the economics of Nature were not so naturally entangled as our hunter-gatherer past has constrained us to believe? What if our human-natural strategy is not that of a supreme opportunist, but of an adaptive extremophile? Let’s suppose that, looking Natural intelligence in its technology-blind ‘eye’, we chose to withdraw our burden from that innocent brow; is it conceivable that we can at least begin to build or feed on less productive Natural soils than the oldest and richest river floodplains? We have already farmed deserts and grown food on city roofs! Under glass! Underground! (Inco Mines in Sudbury.) Might our freeing up of Natural habitat have the same transformative effect as that of America liberating its slaves, and thereby itself? Might it even complete that human emancipation? The changes in the mind of a reformed slaveholder have consequences far beyond him, because the economy of Man is nothing but his psychology. One more good reason, by the way, to respect the economy of Nature, ecology, for it affirms and rightfully belongs to another intelligent being.

Is it so naïve to suppose that it’s only this denial of our psychological burden (the burden of a recurring verbal disconnect, grasping, and loss of intimacy) that keeps us from seeing the individuation of Man as a practical hypothesis? Especially if all the while we’re trying not to face the further burden of a freeloader’s guilt? Surely it’s simpler to see our environmental predicament strictly as a problem in motivation: we have this growing but repressed and guilty understanding that naturally obstructs the bumpy road to independence, even as it opens up before a tool-inventing non-species. And now imagine also that this subliminal guilt is the psychological engine that’s driving the present steep and gluttonous curve of technological growth. Guilt clearly makes us restless, but it doesn’t drive us in a clear direction. Can we deny it’s a sort of misdirected guilty restlessness that creates conflict even amongst ourselves?

But our first steps in the right direction needn’t be a wild flight from Promethean guilt (or from the original sin of self-knowledge for that matter). In even the most desperate human circumstances —such as Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, has described in Africa, where impoverished farmers grow “roughly a third of the average yield in other developing countries”—these first steps need not take us to complete independence, or even be necessarily high-tech. As Sachs sees the African scenario unfolding: “In practice, it is a group of interacting technologies that matter … farm inputs, health services, safe water, latrines, computers and training, motor vehicles for village use, on-grid or off-grid electricity and all-weather roads.”[3] So here’s my point: without knowing where we’re going we seem to have little inclination to do even this, whereas an extremophile, even ‘unfinished’, might see that this humanitarian solution also frees up two acres of natural habitat for every acre cultivated. At the very least, viewing ourselves this way breaks an emotional log-jam, because it accounts for our failings in a more productive way than calling each other lazy or greedy. Where has casting stones got us lately?

Today, a growing certainty that our restlessness is spilling over into the Natural world, a world we seem to be connected to in ways alarmingly beyond our means of control, is urging us more to a resolution as the damage becomes more obvious. And even when we deny the obvious, unspoken doubt increases the urge for technological advances, though we don’t know to what end. Perhaps, just perhaps, the desperate growth curve of technology will flatten out a little as we approach that independence from wild nature that will serve both intelligences? If nothing else, this ‘extremophile choice’ is a no-regrets policy that can’t help but benefit wild species. And of course any culture that adopts such a policy will suffer no disadvantage in relation to other cultures on account of its technological dependency: the commitment would be its advantage.

Listening to the latest news of the world, of atrocities committed by frustrated youth and their cynical elders, I find hope in imagining what an ‘individuation from the mother tree’ policy might do for our traumatized sense of belonging in the world. The history of slavery teaches us how “absolute power corrupts absolutely”; but was it just the power, or was it really a freeloader’s dependency that corrupted? Whether we’re depending on a three-hundred-million-year-old fossil fuel ‘reserve’, or the ‘natural resource’ of nutrient-rich soil made by a clear-cut forest, or even a corporate ‘bottom line’ choice made on behalf of non-participating stockholders, it’s not the power to take, but the habit of taking without giving back that corrupts. And if it excites a man even to leave his parent’s house, what exhilaration will come when he quits the ultimate freeloader’s pretense that a physically mutable opportunist has the right to despoil a Nature that’s powerless to respond, phylogenically? The latest news of the world is haunted by the politics of fear. But this won’t motivate to any good end, because humans thrive only when we believe in ourselves. Clearly the environmentalist sales pitch has this same problem, and I propose that it’s our knowing what it means to be human in the Natural world, not our fear for the loss of ecosystem services, that will save the ‘mother tree’.


1. Dickinson, Emily. 1993 Everyman’s Library edition in selection by Peter Washington, Emily Dickinson, Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 205.

2. Wilson, Edward O. 2002 Vintage Books edition. The Future of Life. New York: Random House. p. 152.

3. Jeffrey D. Sachs, Scientific American, 4/07.

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