Preparing for an interview for an executive director position with a national environmental advocacy organization, I asked myself why I was passionate about environmental issues. The funny thing about such passions is that sometimes you have to reach down into yourself to find them, to find their source, to remember why you want to live a life that is something more than mere existence, a life dedicated to more than one’s own comforts and immediate (e.g., familial) concerns and responsibilities.
I grappled with the question, searching for the answer that was real and true. As with all things in my life, the core answer involves my sense of wonder (see The Value of Wonder). In my late teens, I used to write a lot of poetry expressing metaphysical or personal yearnings and contemplations, generally couched in the imagery of nature. Throughout my twenties and to a lesser extent through my thirties, I spent enormous amounts of time, usually alone, in wild places, hiking, camping, cross country skiing, canoeing. The sights, scents, sounds and sensations experienced in those times and places are the essence of life for me, the source of a profound spiritual euphoria.
Of course, my interest in environmental issues is motivated by more mundane considerations as well. It matters, to those who are concerned with human welfare, that even a systemically non-catastrophic environmental contamination can be personally catastrophic to those and the families of those whose health may be devastatingly impacted by it. It matters to those who look beyond the present and consider the future that we are, at an ever-accelerating rate, outpacing with our industrial activities in service to our growing populations and appetites the Earth’s ability to rebound and recuperate, destroying the planet on which we depend for our continued survival. It matters that accelerating global warming will cause increasing and increasingly catastrophic and costly challenges that would be far wiser to mitigate proactively far more assertively than we are currently doing.
But, almost more important than all of these tangible reasons to be passionate about our enviromental concerns, is the fact that we are a part of something unique and beautiful in the universe, this living planet of ours, an entity from which we, and our consciousness, emanate, and of which we, and our consciousness, are a part. That euphoria I described above isn’t just another recreational pleasure, but is rather something deep in our souls, some major part of our souls, given physical expression in the beauty and wonder of Nature.
It’s not that I subscribe to the notion that there is some actual, essential distinction between the products of human artifice and the natural context from which they emanate. The same hubris that considers Nature something to be conquered considers humans to have somehow removed themselves from it. We haven’t, we can’t, it makes no sense. Humans and all that humans produce and do is as much a part of Nature as is an ant colony or a bee hive. (See, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). The issue is not our “naturalness” or “unnaturalness,” but rather how we articulate our social institutional and technological systems with the other complex dynamical systems of which we are a part.
Our social institutional and technological landscape is a beautiful blossom of Nature, and merits the same appreciation as the larger whole of which it is a part. Human consciousness certainly ranks high among Nature’s wonders, and, despite the temptation to attribute a status of exceptionality and superiority to that to which we belong or identify with (e.g., “American Exceptionalism,” religious fundamentalism, racism, ethnocentrism, species centrism, intolerance or devaluation of the “other”), human consciousness is a quintessential example of the beauty of the living planet of which it is a part, from which it emanates, rather than some external thing existing upon it.
But the naturalness of our existence, and even of our industry, does not mean that it is benign. The diseases which kill us are natural too, and yet we seek to save our children from their ravages. Few if any would argue that it is not right and just to do so. Some of those diseases involve parasites and some involve viruses (among other causes of illness), both of which have parallels at the global level, considering the Earth as the organism, and the things which threaten its continued survival as the illnesses.
Humans have become parasites on the body of Gaia, consuming that body more quickly than it can recover from the ravages imposed. We are killing our host, which, for a parasite, is suicide, unless it can migrate to another host (i.e., colonize other planets). But even if it accomplishes this expansion, it will kill host after host, perhaps surviving, but doing so by means of wreaking a devastating path of destruction in its wake.
Given the fact that we have not yet identified anywhere in the universe another living planet, that we are nowhere near possessing the technological ability to turn a dead planet into a living one (especially given the fact that we seem only able to turn a living one into a dead one, even though it is the only one we have), and that we require a living planet to sustain us, it is far from clear at this point if we will even have the choice of becoming a galactic scourge rather than merely dying with the host that we are killing.
As conscious beings, we can contemplate these facts, and can choose, through our processes of collective action (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), to strive to be symbiotes on this planet rather than parasites, to discipline our industry to operate in harmony with the larger organic systems into which it is interwoven, preserving the health of the living planet rather than mercilessly exploiting it to the fullest of our potential, and killing it in the process.
Those processes of collective action are where the viral parallel comes in, because the “viruses” that affect how we articulate with the larger context of which we are a part are cognitive ones, spreading through our body politic and determining who and what we are (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change). These “viruses,” these contagious memes that define our consciousness and, through it, our social institutional and technological landscape, can be beneficial or malignant, or some combination of the two. And they can operate on deeper or more shallow levels, catalyzing more profound and far-reaching changes, or merely forming ripples on the surface of our constantly fluctuating social reality (see The Variable Malleability of Reality). The challenge we face is to spread the viruses that catalyze beneficial changes in consciousness, moving us in the direction of identifying with this living planet of ours, of identifying with all humanity, and of living lives in service to the compassionate, imaginative, rational, pragmatic, disciplined, and expansive celebration of life.
We are forever at a war with ourselves, and among ourselves, over whether we are just grasping, covetous animals, or conscious beings, and, if the latter, just exactly how conscious. Everything else we do, everything else we believe, everything else we are, should be disciplined and liberated by a growing, loving, joyful commitment to being and becoming fully conscious beings, living in service to one another, and to this beautiful planet on which we thrive.