Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Community Building in a World of Shrinking Energy Resources

In Around the web on September 10, 2009 at 6:59 am

Mendocino County

Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better … and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed – the ecological, social, demographic, or general breakdown of civilization – will be unavoidable.
–Václav Havel, then president of Czechoslovakia, in a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, February, 1990

The American political establishment and press were ecstatic that playwright Havel, the president of a recently communist country, should come the U.S. and praise freedom. But, they entirely overlooked what he was saying.

Earlier in the century, phenomenologist philosopher Edmund Husserl was contending that theoretical knowledge had lost contact with living human experience. In 1936, Husserl wrote a powerful treatise on the subject, “The Crisis of European Sciences” (in German), in which he asserted that the morally ordered world of our prereflective lived experience is inseparable from Nature, what he described as the common life-world. Lebenswelt. Havel wrote that Husserl’s understanding of “the natural world” and “the world of lived experience” are reliable vectors through which to approach “the spiritual framework of modern civilization and the source of the present crisis.” He identified children, working people, and peasants as “far more rooted in what some philosophers call the natural world… than most modern adults.” “They have not grown alienated from the world of their actual personal experience,” he wrote, “the world which has its morning and its evening, its down (the earth) and its up (the heavens), where the sun rises daily in the east, traverses the sky and sets in the west …” Have you seen the starlit sky lately? Others have described how traditional cultures were inseparable features of their natural ecosystem, their place. Whereas Western civilization, especially in its modern guise, is an industrially produced and packaged, Wal-Mart one-size-fits-all, culture detached from its roots. This essay is about regaining those prereflective roots.

Earlier, I wrote a long essay on anarchist views of the way forward. There, I described some of the characteristics a sustainable self-reliant community might, should I think, have and provided a history indicating this would not be “reinventing the wheel”. But, I left the hard problems unresolved: how such communities might emerge out of our present cultural shackles. How is it that a community can thrive to the seventh generation, as the Iroquois ask, in a post-crash world? How is it that such a community can be fashioned and prepared before the crash occurs? In order to continue the dialogue that many are undertaking, I propose some clearly preliminary answers for your consideration. They have been collected from many sources, but the packaging may provide something new. They clearly can only be validated in the event.

The flood of blogs and books expressing great anguish about our prospects while presenting in detail ways to fix the modern social/economic system distresses me; oh, the social and environmental devastation we’re leaving in our wake surely upset me, but our widespread ignorance of history and basic resource economics and our consequent inabilities to effectively respond depress me as much. That the world economic system is running out of economically-available non-renewable resources, including not only petroleum and other fossil fuels, but most metals, agricultural soil, fresh water, and ocean resources has been extensively documented. Nothing lasts forever, especially when so much is being buried in landfills. These specters, when combined with the mad rush to use resources up before someone else does that is burning up our climate, are wrapped in a bundle called capitalism or more inclusively, as some persuasively contend, civilization, i.e. the patriarchal culture of cities.

Many ponderous studies explaining in exacting detail why this economic system isn’t fixable have been published over at least the past half century. Yet, given the lack of references to them and their conclusions, the time and effort involved seemingly need not have been wasted. I’ve chronicled many of them elsewhere and shall not do so here. Much of the reason for ignoring them appears to be that each assumes basic understanding of history, philosophy, systems mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, cultural anthropology, and human psychology as well as economics. In other words, those ideas which Gregory Bateson described in his “Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity” as what every schoolboy should know, the patterns that connect, but which he was astonished to find almost none do. The book that especially has influenced what I have to say here is the 450 page “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process” written by Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and published by Harvard University in 1971. The author assumes Bateson’s list, so not surprisingly there is little evidence any current economics or political authorities have read it or would understand it if they tried. I will not assume you have, but will gently attempt to give you some of the gist as it relates to our central problem.

The Entropy Law, better known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is perhaps best introduced with an illustration. Recall if you can an old fashioned spring-driven watch. One winds the spring tight. As the spring unwinds, it drives the clock hands. Eventually, if not further wound, the clock stops. The act of winding adds energy to the watch system that is available for its further operation. This energy then does work, it drives the clock hands, until it is exhausted. Simple, except there is one theoretical difficulty with this explanation: the First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy can neither be created or destroyed. So, where had it gone when the clock stopped? If we had a super-accurate heat sensor, we would discover that in the act of doing work, the mechanism released heat resulting from friction that was subsequently dissipated into the surrounding environment. The available energy was converted to heat energy, which was lost to the clock mechanism.

Maybe you recall that once upon a time bumbling inventors attempted to build perpetual motion machines, that is machines that never allowed energy to escape and, so, their reasoning ran, would run forever; they always failed. Inventors couldn’t understand why their playthings’ energy couldn’t be recycled endlessly. Very roughly, the Second Law states that when energy is put to work, a certain fraction is always, always, lost to heat in the process and is no longer available, can’t be recaptured. Thus, when gasoline is burned in an auto motor to drive the pistons and turn the wheels, the motor gets hot and would burn up if the radiator didn’t dissipate it. Of course, you could capture some of this heat by cooking your dinner on top of the motor, but not all.

More specifically, the Second Law says that the wastes from energy utilization that remain have high entropy, which is to say they have been shorn of energy available to the processes that wasted it; the energy has been transformed, sucked dry of usefulness to those processes, not lost. Heat is but one of these wastes, but one always present. Entropy is another word for disorganization; the Second Law may be restated as disorganization always ultimately increases. But there are temporary escapes. When a rock rolls down a hill, it may then roll up an adjacent one, thus capturing useful energy, but not as much as it lost.

A central idea that is now making its presence apparent across many science fields is that of an open self-organizing system. The crucial example is a living cell. Each cell has a cell wall that is selectively permeable, that is, certain molecules can pass through from outside to in and others from inside to out. Within the cell wall, a water solution sustains a vast number of chemical reactions on the order of many billions every microsecond. Some of these reactions result is various more enduring structures both inside the cell and out. Though each cell is constantly undergoing change, it may persist as an apparent individual for many hours to years to millennia. The organization processes that preserve it, that give it life, are exactly those chemical reactions that are constantly reconstructing it, permitting it to adapt to changes in its environment, providing the means by which it may divide into two cells or perform sexual merging with other cells, and more essentially seek out and capture sufficient energy and nutrient molecules to keep its processes running. The chemical processes within even the simplest bacteria cell are stupendously complex and, despite the efforts of multitudes of researchers, remain elusive.

Every chemical reaction requires energy. In a reaction, several molecules with a collective amount of energy jointly react and several other product molecules result. The collective amount of energy in the product molecules is less than the energy that initiated the reaction. The difference between these two energy amounts was lost in heat and is no longer available to the cell. That is, if the cell wall blocked off all internal reactions from the outside, in short order the cell’s molecules would run out of energy and the cell would die, we might say, from entropic exhaustion. But, every living cell today is the descendant by division and sexual merging from that first cell that appeared, what, three and a half billion years ago. One could say that it still is that first cell much transmuted by adaptation. So, during all this time, it must have been getting the energy required to drive its reactions from outside; it must be open or, like those supposed perpetual motion machines, would shortly run out of energy and stop running. Each cell does this by acquiring energetic molecules from outside, permitting or helping them cross the cell wall, or directly from sunlight by photosynthesis as do green plant cells. Because each internal reaction loses heat and perhaps generates other wastes, much more energy must constantly be consumed than needed to keep the engine running and rid it of wastes. Living cells are active and skilled energy hunters.

Once the open self-organizing idea was described, it’s spoor was seen all over. Indeed, there seems to be an evolutionary drive for living systems to become ever more complex and require ever more energy in an endless loop. For multicellular organisms such as your body, not only must there be sufficient energy to fuel each cell, but their interactions as well. There are about 1 trillion cells in your body, living alongside 10 trillion mostly friendly, or at least not unfriendly, bacteria. These teeming masses of bacteria make vitamins, power the digestive tract, and bolster the immune system. You have about 30,000 genes. It happens you have 100 times more bacterial genes playing a role in or on you all of your life. At the best, that which you see in the mirror is no more than 10 percent human, but more likely about one percent human. Your human cells provide the platform on which this immense community depends. Almost none of these cells, bacteria or human, live for more than a few days, more often hours. Yet, this body can appear to live 100 years or more by constantly rebuilding itself. As one instance, every one of your bones is constantly being torn down and rebuilt.

All of your human cells originated from one cell, your mother’s fertilized egg. In a few months, that one became many billions of several hundred different varieties, which superficially have little in common. Some, such as liver cells, derive all their energy from fats, preferably saturated. Others subsist entirely on sugars. Many, such as those of your immune system and those the reconstruct wounds and bones, are highly mobile. Others, such as nerve cells, can be several feet long and be constantly growing and probing between other cells. Since gene mutations randomly occur, these cells are not even genetically identical. Yet, your body operates synchronously, cooperatively, for long years.

Some of the feedback loops that keep us alive are now well understood by medical science. They are characterized under the name homeostasis. Thus, your body temperature is kept within tight bounds, while adapting only a few degrees when combating diseases; our hearts beat at least every second of our lives, while adapting to activities; your blood pressure is held fairly constant, again subject of short term adaptations; the percentage of salt solutes in our blood is tightly controlled – if too little, water flows from cells to the blood stream and cells and organs die, if too much, water flows the other way and cells explode; when invaded by disease organisms, your body turns on an acute stress response, but if allowed to continue unchecked, your body would be in danger of killing itself, so some cells respond with cool-down messages. Then, there are the sugar/insulin related messages and so on. To accomplish this, our bodies consume relatively enormous amounts of energy, 20 percent of that by our brains. For multicellular bodies, self-organization is complex beyond what we can imagine, yet scientists continue trying and make headway here and there.

A stable ecological system, such as a rain forest, is a self-organizing system fueled by the sun, rain, waters flowing through, the wind, and migrating creatures. There is abundant evidence that the Earth’s rainforests remained unchanged for millennia, until the last few decades. An ecological system’s energy budget not only includes that of all the living cells, including those in multicellular creatures such as humans and trees, living within it, but all the interrelations between them. The Earth’s biosphere, which consists of all its living organisms, is now being recognized as an even more inclusive self-organizing system known widely as Gaia, in this case fueled by the sun and the fires blazing within the center of the planet. In the Earth’s case, the waste heat resulting must be exhausted into space or the planet will burn up. Have you seen satellite infra-red photos of the Earth’s surface, especially of the cities? Greenhouse gasses block this escape. Climate change is the Second Law written large.

For Nature, complexity is the rule, far more pervasively than we understand, very likely more than we can understand as wise ones have often noted. Ecologist Simon Levin, in his study of ecological diversity, “Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons”, well documents this. How then do we respond? Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson, the editors of “The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge”, have selected a group of papers that explore this from several sides. In summary, we are advised to approach Nature with profound humility and appreciation that we, indeed, have not the knowledge, very likely cannot have the prerequisite knowledge, to “manage” Nature. We only don’t know.

Surely, economic systems have recognizably self-organizing features as well. Economists love to talk about money, which is a cultural artifact that has much to do with the life choices we make, but energy is the driver at every stage. Greenhouse gasses are among the resulting wastes. When energy accounting is taken into consideration, an economic system is seen to include all the ecological systems within its purview; the global economic system includes Gaia. Such are Bateson’s patterns that connect. Yet, as Georgescu-Roegen notes, classically and widely even now, economic science is narrowly focused on “the desire for wealth” that characterizes “every sane person” governed by the propensity to obtain “the greatest quantity of wealth with the least labor and self-denial”. Money is the only wealth denominator, not energy. But, no matter how much it is ignored, the Second Law won’t go away, unlike monetary wealth that is only numbers.

One consequence of the Second Law is that when work is done to convert one form of energy to another, we can never get as much out as we put in. Thus, if we burn petroleum to produce electrical energy and use that energy to drive an auto, we have performed two energy conversions, each resulting in heat losses and other energy wastes. If we had driven the auto using petroleum directly, only one collection of these losses would have occurred. When the Second Law is taken into consideration, most, arguably all, of the proposed industrial-strength supposed clean energy sources have been found to deliver less energy than required for equipment manufacture and operation, such as that in the electric car case for lithium batteries. This is especially true when workers’ and investors’ energy usages are taken into consideration.

Think for a moment about the American economic system as it was a few decades ago before globalization eliminated boundaries. From the beginning, it has been assumed that the economy would efficiently be self-organized by free competition. Such is modern economics in a nutshell, except of course competition has never been free. So, where is the energy coming from that drives this system? Human and animal labor fueled by simple foods were early ones, assisted by simple water mills and windmill pumps. Beginning in the eighteenth century, coal mining and petroleum wells began flooding the country with cheap easily available energy and the industrial age boomed. To keep the energy coming, explorers began roving the world to find other energy sources to maintain the growth that was making a few very wealthy. Many of us have insecure addictive personalities, so unremarkably we became addicted on all the resulting stuff under piles of which we could hide our fears – more, ever more. In fact, we should feel insecure, but burying our heads won’t give relief.

Since these ancient energy sources, which had been banked away deep in the Earth, were so productive when compared with human labor, the search for ever greater efficiency, that is the minimization of reliance on human labor, became central to business operations. When, in spite of all their efforts, American labor appeared to constrain their efforts, businesses turned to replacing that with foreign labor, yet another source of cheap and readily available energy, and globalization reared its head. The bottom line: economic growth requires ever greater supplies of cheap available energy. Now, these energy sources are becoming ever more expensive, especially energetically expensive, to extract and refine.

The coming scenario: As non-renewable resources, particularly fossil fuels but also metals, become rarer and more expensive and thus less available, fewer and fewer will be able afford anything produced using them. As a result, domestic industrial manufacturing and related service industries must shrink and unemployment continue a climb, which will further drive these goods beyond the reach of increasingly many. A negative feedback loop is forming that forces domestic manufacturing and employment further downward with no obvious bottom. The system is beginning to starve from insufficient available energy, as it must.

We face other difficulties: Industrial manufacturing can’t exist without an extensive infrastructure: roads and bridges, dams and water delivery systems, electricity generation and transmission lines, port facilities, manufacturing plants, school and hospital buildings, educated engineers and managers and hence schools and teachers, medical care, farmers, and a coterie of willing and trained workers and enforcers. All of these require the continued inflow of immense energy, if a society it to resemble this modern one to any extent. One can imagine that as available energy sources continue to shrink and become more expensive, this life will increasingly be forcefully reserved for the few. One can imagine this favored community, drugged on purchased happiness, increasingly walling itself off from the hungry waiting outside in the style of the Brave New World. But, non-renewable resource problems will persist. Such a society can only shrink so far before it can no longer afford infrastructure maintenance and the infrastructure will crumble, at which point it will die. In fact, the U.S. is far behind, arguably many trillions of dollars behind, in infrastructure maintenance at this moment. More to the point, the necessary energy is thought to be required for more “productive”, i.e. wealth-generating, purposes.

This economic system can only continue by forcefully commandeering the energetic and non-renewable resource wealth of the external world, and that capability is slipping away. Walled communities are being built everywhere. As far as I’m concerned, this is all a sickness; the sooner it dies, the better. “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold,” poet W.B. Yeats worried at the end of the First World War as empires collapsed. He concluded, “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” May it be. Here, I believe lies hope.

In order to build a self-reliant, self-sufficient community, that is one that is self-organizing and adaptive, it is mandatory to consider the effects of the Second Law at every step simply because external energy will be required to keep it operating. From whence is this external energy to come? Back-to-the-land types assume they can trade what they raise for, say, farm equipment, metal tools, clothing, shoes, guns, and other energetically expensive manufactured goods as well as for rent or mortgage payments to those rentiers who are themselves relying on purchasing energetically expensive goods. But, that has never been a winning hand simply because farm produce contains only low levels of available energy compared with that required to manufacture those goods. As non-renewable energy sources become ever more expensive, the simple farmer will be increasingly locked out of this market. Selling farm produce directly to consumers won’t aid their cause, because few potential purchasers will have any money. A market economy simply will no longer be a possibility. A self-reliant community must have a way to avoid this trap, to cut loose entirely from dependence on the industrial, the moneyed, world. What are our alternatives?

For examples of how to proceed, I look to indigenous village cultures from all over the world. Among the most sophisticated of these and most related to our own culture were peasant villages of Dark Age and Medieval Western Europe. The primary source of available energy in those villages was human and animal labor derived from consuming foods derived from green plants or from green plant-consuming animals. In that, they differed not at all from their ancestors from several million years previously. Yet, these tool-making animals had however mastered a few skills that permitted them to leverage a sophisticated culture; that is, information, skillfully employed knowledge, may leverage energy utilization. Some among them had become skillful in the agricultural arts of raising domesticated plants and animals and in training and driving oxen. Others had become excellent weavers, potters, cobblers, woodworkers, and butchers who were expert at preserving meats. Some mastered simple technologies to collect energy from falling water, which was used to grind grain and saw wood, and from the wind for pumping water. Some became herbalists, the healers. Most magically, or so many thought, some had learned the skills necessary to produce metal tools using charcoal.

It appears to me that very few of us will be able to revert to Stone Age lifestyles that use only heat-hardened wood, bones, and chipped stones. Those old European villages relied on iron tools in a variety of ways, while sources of that iron may have been far away; trade of some sort was necessary. In our case, waste metal will be readily available for some time after the crash for those who are prepared to use it. Blacksmithing that relies on locally produced charcoal will be vital to creating communities somewhat resembling the one we will be losing; while the old metal-working ways required skill, they weren’t high tech, hardly more so than fine stone working.

Charcoal is produced by burning wood almost starved of oxygen. In the old way, wood fires were covered with non-burnable material, such as sod kept moist, until they were nearly, but not quite, extinguished. To accomplish this, the fire had to be constantly monitored lest it get too hot or go out. This could take many days and nights before the charcoal was reckoned to be ready. Conclusions: If we intend to depend upon charcoal burners and blacksmiths, we may be waiting a long time. Get your metal hand tools now – especially those saws, scythes, and chisels, sources of which are difficult to find even now. Indeed, get several of each, since some will be ready to seriously trade for them once they’re no longer commercially available. Boxes of nails will be like boxes of money. An associated book I can’t recommend too highly is Matthew Stein’s “When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency”.

Surely it is clear that the skills I’ve described and many more are very unlikely to be mastered by a single individual or small family on their subsistence farm. I conclude that a community of skills is vitally necessary for success. Think how impossible the task will be to learn these skills while attempting to survive each day. Yes, it is imperative that we learn to feed ourselves, but without a supporting community how is it that survival will be possible? Consequently, I see community building, including particularly the support of those training in complementary skills, as crucial to success. So, how does one create a durable community that marches to a common drumbeat? Where are our mentors, the skillful ones who will take us by the hand?

A gigantic warning: pre- and proto-agricultural societies generally lived in energetic balance with their enclosing ecosystems for very long periods. With the discovery of grain agriculture ten thousand years or so ago, that changed. Very suddenly, it appears, someone recognized that with a few clever skills they could raise more food than they needed for sustenance. That is, they discovered the first apparent cheap and readily available source of energy much beyond immediate needs. Thus began that economic boom, fueled by intensive agricultural and slavery, that we call civilization and the ancient sustaining wild world was forgotten, chopped down, and plowed under. As Genesis recalls, Able slew Cain. This came at enormous cost to the environment as exemplified by the Mesopotamian desert. The Second Law has ridden herd on intensive agriculture from the beginning, spreading wastes and misery over the landscape, while being ignored by the profiting humans.

One thing should be obvious from the above: If a community is to be constructed for the long term, energy sources must be perpetual and the green environment conserved if only because our only ultimately sustainable source of energy is sunlight captured by green plants and the weather. That is easy to say, because cheating is always a temptation. Thus, trees will need to be felled to make charcoal and for opening agricultural land, but this must not be done any faster than they may naturally be replaced – too many agricultural activities along the Mediterranean and in the Mesopotamia stripped the forests very soon after the invention of iron working if not much earlier with the arrival of intensive agriculture. How does a village accept without question an environmental ethic? How do we learn to accept all other creatures, the very rivers and mountains, as worthy of respect?

We are fortunate that wandering cultural anthropologists surveyed the few remaining pre- and proto-agricultural cultures remaining before they were flooded with tee shirts, cigarettes, and other civilized necessities. It seems the answer is all about the children. As a rule, children were constantly carried by their mothers during their first year and, as they felt the need for comfort, into their second year and beyond. Oversight of children’s activities was permissive with discipline reserved for situations where a child was interfering with some adult activity. Children spent much of the first few years playing in close physical contact with each other while freely roving about their environment. One result was that they were very intimate with others’ feelings. Anthropologists observed that when any child was unhappy, all her companions were concerned and attempted to help. Sharing was unquestioned, no money required. In effect, such childhoods resulted in equalitarian cultures in which individual selves were submerged in what was described a common tribal self-image. That is, each person was so in tune with others that its was difficult to impossible to separate their preferences from those of others. Few had anything that could be thought of as personal possessions other than those supportive of their skilled activities. This ethic was enhanced by rituals awash in dance, music, and stories – always enchanting.

At least as importantly, tribal cohesion extended to the surrounding environment. As tribal members were intimately familiar with each other, they were as well with surrounding plants and animals. Consciousness wasn’t seen as reserved for humans, but common to all other organisms and even the non-animate rocks as Graham Harvey has documented in “Animism: Respecting the Living World”. It has been said that their surrounding natural world, their place, was a living presence. Just as they were concerned for the well-being of other tribal members, similar feelings were extended to, as the Sioux taught, all their relations.

It has been documented for many such groups how the introduction of Western cultural artifacts very rapidly destroyed their cohesion. As we look back to the beginning of agriculture-fueled civilization in the Middle East, we observe that this sundering began very early for the tribes resident there. Availability of energy in excess of immediate requirements appears to have ever been a poison pill for humankind and its environment; that fire-breathing dragon known as Entropy invariably engorged.

How do we escape the trap we’ve so cleverly set for ourselves? From all I have learned, I feel it very likely will require ascending a figurative Mt. Everest. Bradd Shore, in his “Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning”, has so well described how our cultures become imbedded, hardwired so to speak, in our brains from early ages to the extent that it is onerous to “change our minds.” As he explains, of all the primates, only human babies are born with immature brains that continue to grow until puberty. Fully three quarters of the brain develops outside the womb. During that period, we are immersed in our culture to the point that it is wired into our neurological system, into how we perceive our world. That we experience phenomena as does a camera is now recognized as nonsense. There are many more neurons directed downward from the high levels of our brains into the sensory pattern matching areas than passing upward. Almost all perception is a kind of rapid, unconscious, and automated thinking, a stream of judgments, analyses, and extrapolations about what is happening and its relevance to us. We see as we have been programmed to see in order to adapt to in our environmental and, especially, cultural contexts, which can be dramatically dissimilar in different cultures. David Matsumoto has written a complementary book, “People: Psychology from a Cultural Perspective”, that all who venture out should read.

If there is to be a future human presence in the world, I believe we must break this Western cultural stranglehold, we must learn how to create new mutually supportive cultures, largely from scratch, with characteristics closely similar to those so-called primitive ones. Ideally, they would have become engrained without question beginning at birth. Alas, these new villages will be peopled by older individuals who have grown up in a culture of greed and half-truths, of competitive drives for personal gain and property. How is it that persons so corrupted can acquire empathy for other community members and to their surroundings? How is it that younger people so drenched from birth can become sensitized? We are fortunate in that as learning occurs, neurons rewire and new neurons are born; this continues even when we are very old. We must concentrate on relearning, with nothing held sacrosanct.

Hunter/gatherer, also known as forager, cultures won’t be successful, because we have so corrupted the world with introduced species that very little wild remains. How is it, then, that such a community can rely on agriculture without becoming infected? Some thoughts: in old Northwest Europe and Northeastern North America, agriculture was widely practiced but seldom intensively because of the topographic and climatic constraints. Those cultures appear to offer promising compromises. To mimic them in our situation will require a radical consciousness revolution, or so Václav Havel concluded and I concur, a return to wildness in deep touch with the natural world such as that with which those children were gifted. There are some clues scattered about as to how we might do so.

In her “The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost’, anthropologist Jean Liedloff writes of mothers in primitive cultures carrying the children until they are a year old and picking them up when asked until they are two or more. She describes this as the “innate expectation” of “in-arms experience.” Anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson, in a series of papers, concluded that such close physical contact with other tribe members, when continued into later childhood years and beyond, resulted in “intuitive rapport,” “heart-felt rapprochement based on integrated trust.” Sorenson at one point summarized, “In the real life of these preconquest people, feeling and awareness are focused on at-the-moment, point-blank experience – as if the nub of life lay within the complex flux of collective sentient immediacy. Into this flux, individuals thrust their inner thoughts and aspirations for all to see, appreciate, and relate to. This unabashed, open honesty is the foundation on which their highly honed integrative empathy and rapport became possible.”

Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, Norbert Schwarz have edited a nearly 600 page book, “Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology” recording scientific studies in every which way well-being can be studied. As I see it, however, the heart of the book, which consists of few pages, is entitled “Close Relationships and Quality of Life.” In competitive, individualistic cultures, those who are successful enjoy more personal freedom, take greater pride in their own achievements, and are less restricted by others’ prejudgments. They enjoy more privacy, behave more spontaneously, and feel freer to move about and choose their own lifestyles. The price is loneliness, more divorces, more homicide, more stress-related disorders, more addictive behavior, and endemic depression. Success is a will-o-wisp for most, with resultant feelings of failure. In bold contrast, close relationships have been found to be highly correlated with psychological well-being. Other cultures, specifically Asian and Third World, that place greater emphasis on collectivism, sharing of both the good and bad times, and a higher priority on the goals and welfare of their groups report greater happiness. Those cultures with the highest ratings observed are those indigenous ones yet only minimally influenced by civilization.

So, what will be “correct” behavior in the post-civilization world? Liedloff tells us: “What is meant here by ‘correct’ is that which is appropriate for the ancient continuum of our species inasmuch as it is suited to the tendencies and expectations with which we have evolved. Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design.” How is that a community can reestablish this primeval continuum? I conclude the ancient Taoist/Confucian skillful practices of wu-wei, not-doing, and wu-chih, not-knowing, may be wisely employed.

Those psychologists and others who study perception conclude that the very earliest stages of perceiving most accurately reflect that which is perceived, In agreement with Bradd Shore, they find that very quickly we wrap that-out-there with imaginative metaphors in attempts to fit it into our world view; literally, we attempt to make sense of it, we attempt to know it. But, while flooding it with our imaginations, its essence is lost to us. By not-knowing, it is meant that one captures sensory impressions whole uncluttered by this mental baggage. Indeed, even these mental phenomena may be observed by not-knowing. Surely easier said than done: Henry David Thoreau posed the key question: “How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time?”

Ordinarily, when we execute some activity, we also overlay it with knowing. Whereas, a skilled athlete or potter, say, is observed to perform without adding mental noise, apparently without conscious effort; their movements seamlessly flow; that is, they are spontaneously not-doing. Not-doing well requires skills, which can be learned by not-knowing and not-doing. That is, as did those children, skillful practices are mastered by artlessly, playfully copying others and practicing unhindered by the rational left-brain’s directing, judgmental, and presumptive noise – gut understanding and abilities seem to simply appear. For instance, some report that when children are surrounded by readers and reading material, they apparently effortlessly become skilled readers themselves, just as they learned to speak their native language.

Cognitive neurophysiologist Francisco Varela, a specialist in studies of perception and by whose efforts self-organization ideas were introduced into neurological science, outlined his insights on not-knowing and not-doing in a series of lectures captured in his “Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition”. According to Varela, a confident of the Dalai Lama, those who successfully practice meditative mindfulness of their own feelings and the world about them, bare attentive awareness uncluttered by verbal commentary, find that empathy naturally blooms. For such practices to thrive, they must be a matter of not-doing and not-knowing.

Of course, I’m only touched the surface of this vast not-knowing and not-doing subject. The only way to master understanding is by long skillful practice. Also of course, knowing and doing are what have got us in our fix and more of the same give no promise of escape. This doesn’t imply that the ever noisy calculating brain isn’t valuable – with it, we learn to communicate with complex language – just that there is immeasurably more to our immensely complex world than we ordinarily takes time or effort to notice or that we can communicate when we do. I don’t see how I can avoid such superlatives, except to speechlessly bowing down in awe.

Many classic meditative practices dictate focusing tightly on one’s breath, one’s discursive and emotional mind, or the light within, whatever that may mean. Neuroscientists have observed that such narrow concentration lights up the neurons in one’s left cerebral hemisphere, the one in which speech, numbers, and rational argument originates. In contrast, as development psychologist Alison Gopnik reports in her fairly technical, recent “The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life,” children’s consciousness is like a lantern rather than a spotlight. They see wholes, typical of right brain activity.

In the early seventies, I was experiencing disabling migraines. A young psychologist who was working on his thesis advertised for migraine sufferers. He taught those of us who answered to be lantern mindful of our bodies using autogenic practices that had been developed in Europe (for instance, see Beata Jencks, “Your Body: Biofeedback at its Best”). In a few weeks, my migraine was conquered and I had learned deep relaxation. An approach that I’ve found that ties all these threads together has been captured by psychologist Les Fehmi in his approach for reconstructing a lantern consciousness, which he calls an open focus. Fehmi’s approach is similar to autogenic training, but extends mindfulness to one’s sentient surroundings as well as to space, time, and awareness itself. The material in Fehmi’s book, “The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body” skillfully refines these ancient practices without muddying them with the distracting overhead of various religious prescriptions or New Age promotions. Fehmi’s practices teach concentration, but in such a way that one is aware of what is happening all about, visually, sounds, smells, body feelings, emotions, thoughts, and even awareness itself. all enveloped with not-knowing and not-doing. Practicing in this way lights up one’s holistic right hemisphere as well and, with increasing skill, awareness becomes diffuse. (A footnote: while Fehmi may have recognized this approach on his own, it is closely related to other meditation practices, for example those of the Avaita tradition.)

Francisco Varela and other cognitive neuroscientists, whose who study how we know, have been discovering that when some thing or idea attracts one’s attention, the associated area of the brain lights up with synchronous neuron firing for a few fractions of a second. That is, if it is the smell of an fresh baked apple pie, that sensory area will fire up as well those associated with remembering previous pies. This will happen as well if a great idea comes to mind. Otherwise, our brain cells normally fire randomly like a busy shopping center. Others have discovered that the brains of some skilled meditators fire synchronously more widely and for longer periods. In both cases, the neurons synchronize their firing at what are known as low frequency alpha and theta rhythms. Fehmi, whose expertise has been in the EEG monitoring of the brain and associated feedback technologies, discovered nearly four decades ago that he could synchronize his entire brain and those of others by various easily learned ways of increasing and broadening their awareness sensitivity. Various benefits fell out: deep relaxation, decrease in stress and relief of stress-related disorders, relief of ADHD, control of pain, increased openness to insights and creativity, increased beneficial suggestibility, increased ability to master athletic skills, and increased responsiveness to others. At least as importantly, those who have practiced longer report deep affinity with, inseparably from, and empathy for others and their surroundings as Varela expected.

There is another gift we may receive, as Les Fehmi and others have frequently noted, by opening one’s perceptions beyond the expected, of not-knowing and not-doing: creativity, insight, inspiration, intuition, whatever you wish to call it. If a question is well asked and one can get one’s presumptions and prejudices out of the way and be aware enough to recognize insights when they arrive, answers will come – answers that typically need further left-brain refinement to be realized.

Many personally experienced examples come to mind as they likely do to you. For example, a couple of days ago I was reminded of Jerome Malcolm’s best selling “Blink”, which I hadn’t thought of in years. Malcolm relates that very first impressions, before they are cluttered by mental noise, enhance intuition. I said to myself that this would be a good reference for you, but I’d forgotten the author’s name. Two days later, while looking up something else in another book, the first item that attracted my eyes on a just opened page referred to it. Another instance: a few days before, I was picking apples and forgot my cane as I trundled a heavy load home on my back. I didn’t notice it was missing for a couple days. When its absence came to mind, I immediately thought of the tree and headed out to check if the cane was lying nearby. It wasn’t. Continuing on my way, I had taken three steps when I was almost yelled at: it’s leaning against the tree! And there it was, hidden by leaves near and practically indistinguishable from the trunk. Someone must have picked it up and left it there. Such events happen to me all the time; I depend upon them. Indeed, they pretty much write these essays. As Malcolm explains, however, supposed intuitions may only be habitual responses; question, always question. Do we have questions, do we need answers today?!

Theoretical physicist David Bohm’s area of expertise was quantum mechanics. That quantum mechanical peculiarities were all wrapped up in consciousness peculiarities were recognized very early, though resolution remains obscure. Bohm attempted to resolve these issues and became fascinated in consciousness, which you might think of as our common ability to be aware of being aware, scientific grasp of which remains ever elusive. In a search for understanding, Bohm established friendships with the Dalai Lama and Krishnamurti. Those dialogues let him to consider how it might be that a community could act cohesively and a common consciousness, culture if you will, evolve.

Perhaps you have had the experience of sitting with others around a campfire after cooking and eating an evening meal somewhere in a wilderness overhung with more stars than you ever imagined. Stories spontaneously flow. Such a scene must have been repeated an immense number of times during the past 1½ million years or more since we mastered fire. Many have been attempting to recreate such circles in order to organize communities for some aim or another. Bohm’s efforts and those of those many he influenced have created an industry. Yet, the principles that he enunciated were very few.

As Bohm saw it, a discussion is a conversation in which each participant presents and argues for their beliefs, conclusions, presumptions, opinions, or whatever they might be called, everything very left-brained. In a dialogue, as he explained it, each person agrees to put these aside, listen without judgment to others (i.e. not-know), and respond spontaneously (i.e. not-do). Ideally, in Bohm’s eyes, the circle should have no specific charge. The intention is for a group consciousness to form that will penetrate beyond individual conditioning, but more vitally beyond the cultural conditioning of the group as a whole as well. A long reading list could be appended here, but I will mention only Bohm’s “On Dialogue”. Not unusually, if such a group can last long enough and meet frequently enough, they reportedly may near his target.

It seems to me that individuals often go into such groups with few interpersonal skills. For the group to prosper, each must first master these. My suggested prerequisites: The first would be honing of skills in active listening as described in, for instance, “The Wisdom of Listening” edited by Mark Brady. As Milton Erickson, the master hypnotist illustrated, there is listening to the words someone is speaking and there is skillfully, not-knowingly, being aware of their changing intonation and pauses, the emotive nature of their choices of words, their changing facial expressions, their gestures, the ways they are directing their eyes, and the ways they are holding their body – see his “May My Voice Go With You” and the writings by his many students for details. If you were in a group and had been trained by Erickson, you would also be aware of how others were responding and how their responses were influencing the speaker – as well as your own part in the game. That is, you would be effortlessly practicing lantern, open focus, prereflective, awareness. I would further insist that the circle be held outside in natural surroundings, which is ideal for enabling lantern awareness. Here, I believe, is a means, a powerful if only first step, for building cohesive self-organizing communities in the ancient way enveloped by the immediacy of place.

All the sensitivity training imaginable however won’t work, if we don’t understand how we’ve gone astray so we won’t continue digging the same economic and political rut and if we’re not otherwise prepared with more mundane skills and tools. We think we can in a few weeks become skilled survivalists by reading books, buying seeds, and rototilling some spare ground. Our ancestors had skills and guiding stories that were legacies from the deep past, which we have mostly lost. Marlene and I were raised by skilled gardeners, myself on a family farm. I’ve traced our farm, and occasional village blacksmith and butcher, heritages back several lines to the early eighteenth century and before, in one case the mid-sixteenth. Marlene and I have gardened and occasionally raised livestock our entire lives, sometimes on a fairly large scale. Yet, we are constantly learning, making mistakes, and realizing how much we don’t know. When supporting skills are added to the mix, about which we’re mostly babes, as noted above we have an Everest to climb Still, all the preparation in these areas will come to nothing, I conclude, if we don’t have cohesive communities in tune with place and invested with not-knowing creativity.

My conclusions: Humankind will likely survive in the very primitive areas of the world, but it is questionable if it will do so here. We’re quickly running out of time and should have begun preparing decades ago. But, of course, a few of us did back in the sixties and seventies and some even many years before that. To have hope, we quite literally need to blow our minds, our cultural presuppositions, nothing sacred except the prereflective immediacy of Grandmother Gaia about and within us and Grandfather Sun lighting our way — without whom we wither. As Jesus summarized so succinctly, we must become as little children, if we are to enter the Kingdom – about and within us.

Your thoughts? Please, we need dialogues on these topics to sprout everywhere, all constructive thoughts joyfully accepted. Smile. It’s a glorious, beautiful, wondrous world. We are so blessed. But, we are faced with a Herculean task if it is not to be lost.


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