Saving the World


I was born in 1940. About fifteen years later, my eyes opened to the world, and I didn’t like what I saw. The Cold War was upon us, and we were drilled at school to get under our desks in the event of an attack. The world came close to an exchange of nuclear weapons.

Sometime after, I came to the conclusion that I could save the world. I was smart enough to figure out what was needed, after all. My efforts to properly inform myself began with two years of undergraduate study at the University of Chicago, which didn’t go well. I was 17 when I started. Next came the University of California-Berkeley, but I lasted only a half-semester, leaving with a girlfriend to ski-bum in Colorado. Ski-bumming in the winter and mountaineering in the summer consumed the next few years, and included two years of world travel. I was then (as now) a socialist in my thinking, and spent a few months on a kibbutz in Israel, to see how a functioning socialist society worked. It worked well, in my opinion, and I could have stayed indefinitely, but my next objective was to check out eastern mysticism in India. Before searching out an ashram, however, I did some mountaineering in the Indian Himalaya, and it was there that I came down with hepatitis. This was the result of having been inoculated for yellow fever, six weeks before, with an unsterilized needle, while preparing to leave Tehran (where I had worked for the summer) for India. So … no mysticism. I recovered in the US, ski-bummed that winter, got married to Karen and re-enrolled at Berkeley. I was then 26. At Berkeley, I invented an individual major which I named Human Ecology. I wanted to know what made humans tick, and what was our obligate relationship to the environment. This major led to Anthropology in grad school, first at Berkeley and then at Harvard. As a PhD candidate in a branch of anthropology best described as human evolutionary biology, I attended the highest level seminar in evolutionary biology, taught by a German emigre who was, at the time, considered the world’s leading authority on the subject. The thesis topic he assigned me was to document his belief that black Americans were out-reproducing white Americans. He thought this was a bad thing, since he was of the opinion that blacks were less intelligent than whites, and, if whites were being out-bred, this would lead to a lowering of the average IQ of the American populace. I subsequently came across these thoughts of his, in the final chapter of his tome: Animal Species and Evolution. For humans, intelligence was everything, as far as he was concerned. But, at the same time, I was becoming convinced that it was the product of our intelligence – technology – that would soon do us in.

Did I write on the subject he had assigned me? Of course not. So what did I write about? I wrote about “over-specialization”. I argued that, since it was clear that humanity would cause its own extinction, this made our great specialization – intelligence – an over-specialization. A species is judged to have been over-specialized when its specialization leads to its extinction, usually because the specialized species cannot adapt to a changed environment. Humans were doubly damned in this regard, since it was we who would cause the environmental change that we could not adapt to, that change being in the form of nuclear radiation and/or pollution and/or over-population and resource depletion and so on (climate change wasn’t even on the radar yet). The Professor and his acolytes did not take kindly to my thesis, and I barely escaped his classroom with my life. This event marked the beginning of the end of my graduate studies. They definitively ended when I accepted a job in my alternate profession of designing Outward Bound-type outdoor programs. And, later, Harvard awarded me a Masters Degree.

Soon to leave Massachusetts for the wilds of southern New Mexico, I wrote and distributed the following poem:

Parting Shot

My friends
I would like to have stayed
and played
for Truth, the Knowledge
that shall set you free
the game of reasoned discourse
but, you see
soon will be the shit storm

Now, far be it from me
to tell you
what to do
but, by the same token
don’t tell me
I need the Ph.D
to know enough
to say “stuff it”

If it’s games you’d play
take a tip from poker
and drop out
when the odds are against you

I know how that goes
against your grain
to think in probabilistic terms
in terms of loss and gain
I’m sure the world could
be saved, but will it?

Yes, will it
Will it with all your might
but that won’t do the job
as long as you’re a job-holder
something bolder is called for

Can you go away?
Not as a strategy to save the world
but as a strategy to save
your own ass,
there’s no mass solutions
because there’s too much mass

When they all start running
I don’t want to be over-run
and there’s still a chance
to have some fun

You say you want to stay in the city?
You don’t like the woods?
Pity

But, I was still committed to saving the world! I did not stop thinking about, or lecturing my friends and acquaintances on the central issue of humanity’s collective folly. What is that folly?  It is humanity’s attempt to control Nature. I delivered my “hunter-gatherer” speech time and again. It goes like this: For as long as we’ve been Homo sapiens, up to the time that we invented agriculture and animal husbandry (i.e. “civilization”), about 10,000 years ago, humans lived in small groups, which were generally at peace with each other. These small societies were politically and economically egalitarian. We lived long and disease-free lives and were sufficiently well-fed. But the adoption of agriculture, in particular, changed everything. Humans became settled into towns and populations soared, as we began to accumulate stored food stuffs. Stored food became the first wealth, which became sequestered by the few, to the disadvantage of the many. This was the beginning of class society, which consisted of an elite that ruled over impoverished masses, conscription and wars of conquest and large-scale slavery. Empires flourished and then collapsed as their soils became exhausted or other resources ran out. Absolute control of nature was never possible. This state of affairs has continued right up to the present day (with the exception, perhaps, of the middle class that existed, here and elsewhere, for a short while).

The usual response to my story was: “Okay. So what, then, what are we supposed to do?”. My answer to that question was often considered to be of no help at all. I said then, and say now, that we must disassemble, and return to small and politically-autonomous self-sufficient communities, along with (somehow) reducing the population of the world. Only in small-scale democratic communities can we regain equality with one another, while farming in ways that limit damage to the environment. The kibbutz in Israel (Kibbutz Lahav) is the best model I’ve yet encountered for that. “Well, that’s impossible. We can’t go back.” was the refrain I would usually receive in return. But not so usual nowadays. In the decades since I came to these realizations, others have too, and it is now more common to see these ideas in print. Perhaps it’s because we see an unpleasant future looming. Many authors are now stating that disastrous climate disruption and the ensuing collapse of modern society is inevitable.

But that doesn’t stop individuals from coming together, looking to create “intentional communities” outside of the cities. Though I have, indeed, failed to save the world (I guess I didn’t try hard enough!), some of you may be able to save your own asses. To those who say that we can’t go back, I answer that we can no longer go forward with a technocratic order that lays waste to the world. For those who love the world, and wish to live out their lives in Nature, there is increasingly little choice in the matter.

And here, published on the same day that I wrote this post, is another example of a small intentional community:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About believesteve

I am a photographer and have published a book of photography and accompanying text on running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The first (print) edition is out of print, but a second edition is available as an iBook (eBook) through the iTunes bookstore. All Grand Canyon, river and nature lovers will enjoy my book: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-grand/id672492447?ls=1 I have also published two additional iBooks: 1. The Salt River: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-salt-river/id1244922282?mt=11 2. Coyote Buttes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/coyote-buttes/id1271773201?mt=11
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2 Responses to Saving the World

  1. “When they all start running
    I don’t want to be over-run
    and there’s still a chance
    to have some fun”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. believesteve says:

    Still having fun … but looking over my shoulder

    Like

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