Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ecology, Ethics, and Inaction

It should be our Western prerogative to validate the intuitions of the Buddha with the clear sight of science.  Science has, after all, led us through the blasted Cartesian wilderness toward the long-suspected oasis of the One.  The late Enlightenment propels us toward an enlightenment, in which all things are finally and correctly understood as interdependent.  At least it is possible to extrapolate from the trajectory of our incomplete but growing understanding the location and nature of this oasis: it is where the arcs of cosmology, deep ecology, and modern liberal ethics intersect.

The principal mirage that obscures the way forward is the specialist's insistence that things be viewed, described, and explained in isolation from other things, from the systems of which they are parts.  As Buddhism insists on "correct view", in which every thing is connected to every other and there is no such thing as "independent origination", so science, gradually, perceives that there are no closed systems and that the distinctness of things is ultimately illusory, more the product of obscured perception than of objective observation.  Science, over and over, proves the empirical and takes it farther, beyond subjective perception and into what intuition has always seen: a vast and single entirety.  This should complicate our ethics and bring the runaway modern project to a wheel-locking halt.  I hope it does.

The central ethic of "progress" is, and always has been, to identify and solve problems.  The principal agents of progress are the people who stand to profit from solutions, and the managers and engineers they employ to do the solving.  When profit entices, it behooves the profiteers to define their problems as narrowly as possible and to employ specialists who know exactly how to provide a quick, efficient, and cost-effective solution.  For example, in the 1950s the population of the American southwest was growing very rapidly, and was facing the natural limits of water and power availability.  An association of Arizona ranchers, Nevada gambling magnates, Los Angeles developers, and the like petitioned the U.S. government for permission and funding to build an enormous dam in Glen Canyon.  The problem was lack of accessible water and power, and the solution, as the interested parties and their managers and engineers saw it, was to trap the Colorado behind a wall.  To engineers, this is an "elegant" solution, as it kills both problems with one stone.  The managers loved it because everyone involved worked on one tidy project, well away from the usual complications of competing interests.  And the profiteers loved it because they were suddenly empowered to extract enormous wealth from a natural resource.

They defined the problem narrowly, and solved it.  This is progress.  But what was the real problem in the arid southwest on the 1950s?  Had the ranchers, under pressure to produce more beef for the new sunbelt, begun to overgraze their fragile land?  Did the development of Las Vegas and Los Angeles depend upon shortsighted wishful thinking about water and power?  Did the Washington politicians and bureaucrats, the Army Corps engineers, and the citizens of Phoenix see the Colorado as an untapped resource that begged for exploitation?  Yes.  Of course they did.  As the late Dave Brower, head of the Sierra Club during those days, said to an as-yet un-enlightened Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, and beholden to the dam's backers in Arizona:  "You can't have been down in that canyon and have un-reserved enthusiasm for this grotesque project".  He was right.  The interested parties had not been into Glen Canyon.  They didn't know that it contained one of the most diverse and unique ecosystems in the country, that it was the northernmost outpost of many subtropical species, that it was full of ancient artifacts and that it had been home to several civilizations, or even that it was incomparably beautiful.  And even if they had known the place, how could Glen Canyon's real value, completely unquantifiable, compete against the relentless measuring and projections used in the calculus of progress?  Remember, progress is solving narrowly-defined problems.  It brooks no complication.

But what if Glen Canyon were seen, correctly, as one of the hearts of the world?  A place necessary for the health of the whole?  If the developers, ranchers, managers, engineers and politicians had known, in some deep, enlightened way, that Glen Canyon had its fingers and veins and neurons spread across the entire region and overlapping the edges of other regions and systems ad infinitum forever to the everexpanding edge of the One?  Their definition of the problem would have expanded, their calculations would have become infinitely complex, they would have become humble in the face of their own inexperience and ignorance, and they would have become immobilized by a kind of holy anxiety.  This anxiety arises from the mere suspicion that everything is interdependent.  This suspicion, more a matter of intuition or faith than a sure knowledge, utterly dams the modern project, based as it is on narrow perceptions and a greed for solutions.  What could have saved the canyon, and us as a species, and the world, is the inability to act decisively.  Certainty is our enemy.  Hubris is the impetus behind the grotesque "solutions" of progress.  Only ignorance, the father of certainty and hubris, could fail to see Glen Canyon for what it was: a magnificent local unfolding of the One and a part of us all.  The new people of the southwest needed more meat, so they identified their own heart as meat and cut it out and ate it, and now they wonder why they feel weak.

Of course, most of the above has been said, more or less, many times before.  In fact, I have become very, very tired of pretty much all standard forms of environmental-defense writing.  Some people still need to learn about the ripple effect and the principles of ecology, and some people will find "spiritual" defenses of the environment powerful and convincing.  I do hope that good writers keep coming to the defense of the natural world, and that the agents of progress will drop to their knees in humility and remorse as they read these defenses.  But I want to return to the notion of holy anxiety, because I have less faith in the efficacy of environmental defense than I do in the ability of people to become overwhelmed by the boundlessness of their ignorance, to the point of paralysis.

Because paralysis, of a particular kind, will save us.  Progress needs focus, haste, efficiency, power, certainty, professionalism, specialized knowledge.  It demands that we "leap into battle" and "just do our job", without dithering.  It demands firm, decisive action. But at the moment in which we see progress as a series of narrow solutions to narrowly-defined problems, each of which leads to ever-ramifying and unforeseen problems, the proliferation of which cannot be ever stopped with more engineering, we are open to insight.  And this insight suggests, in the place of progress, a tentative, provisional, second-guessing, contemplative approach to problem-solving.  It places little trust in callow, enthusiastic youth.  It is impatient with the ecstatic ignorance of faith.  It abhors jihad, and force of all kinds.  It favors minimal action with minimal tools, with the least effort possible.  It meanders where progress demands a straight line.  It changes its mind where progress is certain.  It hems and haws.  It wobbles.  It's actually downright feeble and pathetic.  Or so it seems. But when the rigid structures of progress have proven to be merely brittle, and have crumbled to dust, the wiry and lean, wily coyotes of equivocation will still be setting their snares, and mocking the weatherman, and dawdling in the deepest canyons in summer running their hands along the cool walls of what they suspect is their very own heart.


  1. Some of the vocab is unfamiliar or foreign to me. But the point you arrive at is very welcome. And the example is very scary. I think thinking people should read it.

  2. your writing here moves me to tears and stirs my soul. Thank you for (again) expressing something that is so true and nuanced.

  3. I wanted to get the time to read this seriously. I love it.

  4. Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

    Charles Darwin