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

Young Buddha’s Dreamscape, Part-3: Our Relation to Each Other

A short selection from Essay Fifty  one of the longer essays, and THE LAST  in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice

The Great Way is not difficult; just avoid picking and choosing. —from the Hsin Hsin Ming [1]

A Buddhist monk commits to pay attention to whatever “arises” in his or her daily life and, when it’s clearly helpful, this can even demand intellectual engagement; but the Extremophile Choice understanding of what it means to be human in the Natural world is encumbered by the pull of a more cloistered monasticism even among intellectuals, because paradigmatic thinking has profound biological support. We have simply to look a little deeper for “what arises” in our minds, and here we might find a stubborn animal expectation, Naturally-selected for a life with inhumanly stable requirements, that assures us “there is nothing new under the sun”.

From what I‘ve seen, whether you’re a pious believer or an enlightened heathen, this liberation from the burden of uncertainty is believed to be fully realized only when we take up the life of a monk who, moment to moment, relies on Kierkegaard’s promise: “if only the task is established, then much is already gained”. [2] But the task of a technological animal, at least when it has reached our advanced stage, is not established is it? We might like to think it is, but there’s always room for more questions, with answers that don’t depend on moral conviction alone.

Established tasks are an ‘ontogenic’ animal expectation, but once we know technology’s ‘phylogenic’ freedom of choice, then “far be it for us to help to circulate the lying reports, that little by little it becomes easier on the narrow way … it becomes harder and harder.” The hardness of being human in the Natural world isn’t just that insight is bottomless, and its application endless (Kierkegaard’s meaning here [3]), but that we must know when to retreat and know when to engage. We ride the waves of our competing supra-Natural (and ‘sticky’) human impulses as we always have, but also, we must learn “the marriage of form and spirit”, so we can ride without losing our balance.

And ahead we see a fuller liberation yet: our original liberation from Nature’s body-behaviour conformity imperative, our mindfulness-insight freedom from mental suffering, and a liberation from ecological guilt so that ‘right innovation’ (do we have a nine-fold path now?) becomes possible. Such is the final liberation for an immortal creative mind that’s fleetingly responsible for, but not attached to, the body of an individual ontogenic organism.

So, except for this extra challenge of a jerry-rigged ‘barrier’ against confusion (See: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2022/08/16/young-buddha-meets-old-buddha-part-1-realizing-that-humans-are-naturally-compromised/), the human task is more like the eons-long enterprise of biological evolution. When we look on the right scale, the tree of life is nothing like the life cycles of its creatures, and its task is not so idyllic as the life of a monk with his established duties; Nature is neither a parent nor a child, but, like our technological ‘species’, it is an untaught innovator. Even before Darwin, Søren Kierkegaard expressed the difficulty of the human task this way:

The adult is indeed authoritative, he is to be his own master. But it is the Lord and Master who will assign the task, as the parents and superiors do with respect to the child; hence the adult is at one and the same time master and servant; the one who is to command and the one who must obey are one and the same. That the one commanding and the one obeying are one and the same is undeniably a difficult relationship … [4]

After Darwin we are not even this sure “who will assign the task”. For it turns out that neither the god of Genesis, nor Natural selection, “the Lord and Master” who brought our world into being willy-nilly, cannot tell another master what to do with it. Kierkegaard, who lived in a time of relative technological and ecological stability, concluded that an adult, who is to be his own master, must follow the “way of affliction”, so as not to “demoralize his energy”. And perhaps this advice will be seen as prescient after all for a post-industrial world, and for an animal who, we now know, is living off the fat of the land without any theistic or Natural regulation whatsoever—just his inconsistently rationalizing conscience.

But, so what if our innovations come much faster than Nature’s? If this makes us ‘inherently untrustworthy’, it’s in a way that we can now embrace and take responsibility for. And indeed it can even be argued that, if our most frightful social problems, whether they be self-centred crimes, unprincipled concentration of wealth, or nationalistic wars, are seen as arising from a loss of faith in our own freebooting species, and from an animal territoriality in defending ‘natural resources’ that we must learn to step away from anyway, then shouldering our extremophile responsibility will move us forward on the social front as well as the environmental. With this in mind, I will revisit The Once and Future World one last time, for I value MacKinnon’s ‘predatory’ analytics to keep me on my toes when I confront the contemporary thought ecosystem regarding Man’s relation to Nature.

Near the end of his last chapter, “The Lost Island”, we find MacKinnon offering us “A few words about hubris.” [5] I confess it’s not what I expected from someone trying (against his own doubts perhaps?) to toe the environmentalist line, for he writes only about the past failures of those who assumed they knew how to correct, through the introduction or extirpation of species, the damage done to island ecologies. That is, he warns us about the hubris of meddling. Then he offers this hope in the last paragraph: “They lacked the collective intelligence and technologies of the globe’s several thousand cultures, not to mention supercomputers capable of performing nearly twenty quadrillion calculations per second, and they had no one who could build on their successes or support them through their failures.” [6]

What surprised me most was that this rightly alarmed environmentalist didn’t take the opportunity, in a last chapter on hubris, to drive home his earlier point about the folly of “attempting to make an impossible world, in which humans are separable from the rest of life”. [7] Again, maybe he’s right, because after all which is the greater hubris: assuming we are equal to, or assuming we are beyond, the task of managing Nature? Does the folly of the last go without saying? But then, why would an environmentalist, committed to a symbiotic coexistence with Nature, focus his final remarks on what should be, at least for an environmentalist, a residual worry: that even well-intentioned interference can be harmful?

I still say there’s a little extremophile bug ready to chew its way out of every human being. And I submit that this alone can disillusion us, and in so doing save us, from the confusing and destructive animal hope that our newly acquired technological intelligence might both take part in, and yet not be defined by, evo-ecological intelligence.


1. There is controversy over who wrote the Hsin Hsin Ming (Faith in Mind poem) around the turn of the seventh century in China. Some think it was Seng-T’san, Third patriarch of Chan Buddhism, which would become Zen in Japan.

2.Kierkegaard, Søren. 1958 in Paul L. Holmer, ed., David F. and Lillian Marvin Swenson, trans., Edifying Discourses: a Selection. New York: Harper & Brothers., p. 219.

3. Ibid. p. 219.

4. Ibid. p. 216.

5. MacKinnon, J. B. 2013. The Once and Future World: Nature as it was, as it is, as it Should be. Toronto: Random House of Canada. (Vintage Canada Edition, 2014), pp. 211-212.

6. Ibid. p. 215.

7. Ibid, p. 210

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