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Where do you think you're going, humanity?

Yesterday, my wife and I went to see "One night with Janis Joplin" at the Zach Theater in Austin.  Kacee Claton looks and sings eerily like Joplin.  Janis Joplin was a bright comet that lit up the skies decades ago and combusted in front of our eyes wide-shut.  Fifty years later, we continue to bask in Joplin's light and wipe off tears when she touches us with her raw emotions and makes love to all of us.  The timeless Janis Joplin, who tragically died when she was barely 27, is the essence of what a human can give to others, including her loneliness and drug addiction.

For decades, Joplin's Cry Baby, has echoed in my head whenever I think about the wounds humans have been inflicting on this Earth of ours.  But why are we stumbling down a slippery path of environmental destruction that must lead to an inevitable collapse of modern civilization?  My explanation is that most people have a wrong frame of reference.  For example, what is the essence of agriculture? As Martin Heidegger has taught us, the essence of technology is non-technological.  Therefore, the essence of agriculture must also be non-agricultural.  We think of agriculture as a human technology, a meta-machine that uses nature as one of the inputs, and spits out the desired products we see and the environmental destruction we don't.

In fact, Monsanto's model of agriculture is one of a giant, super-efficient machine that uses nature as an invisible substrate for the carefully engineered plants.  Monsanto researchers are playing God with nature.  Nature of course runs circles around Monsanto's technocrats, who are dripping with hubris.  Bacteria, fungi, viruses, phages, weeds, worms, and insects will inevitably have the last laugh at Monsanto's clumsy attempts to control them while ignoring nature. But when they all dance on Monsanto's cold dark grave, you and I and our children will be the collateral damage.

And what is technology?  In its essence, technology challenges and reveals the Earth, teaches Heidegger.  Such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is in turn distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew.  Everywhere, everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for further ordering.

Technology is a standing reserve of energy for humans to order and consume nature.  In turn, warns Heidegger, humans are ordered and consumed by the technology they have created and naively think can control.  Can you see how agriculture and agrofuels are embedded into this metaphor?

When we think about machines, most people envision the fossil-fuel-driven motors, cars, and such.  These machines are quite efficient. So when agriculture is thought about as a machine, by extension we endow it with a similar efficiency.  Because of many complex factors, this notion of efficient agriculture ordering nature to give us energy is false. In truth, agriculture is a pitifully inefficient means of converting solar energy, carbon dioxide, inorganic nutrients, and water into biomass. What agriculture lacks in efficiency it makes up by taking over the giant swaths of the formerly most nutritious Earth.  

Hill slope erosion.
To make things worse, for anyone who has seen an agricultural crop being harvested from a field, it is difficult to accept that to be sustained this field needs to be completely renewed each year.  This was true for a few thousand years on the rice paddies of China.  They were continuously renewed by hand-carrying the washed out soil and shells and dead fish back to the fields.  Women carried this soil in baskets on their backs. Natural fertilizers, ash from the stoves, even old clothing, were all recycled back to the fields.  Not anymore. Today we pour mineral fertilizers and chemical poisons on the huge fields that are impossible to manage with human labor alone.  The once fertile soil resembles sterile dirt, a substrate for the artificially fed plants, easy to wash away by rain and blow to dust by wind.

Is it possible to switch to a more sustainable agriculture?  Yes.  And that agriculture would have to span much smaller scales and have people, animals, and small infrastructure intermixed with it.  For the time being, as you watch your favorite TV distraction, or focus on the Royal Baby, this life-giving planet of yours is being trashed in front of your eyes wide-shut.

If you want to see what is in store for our children, observe the Middle East and North Africa, the harbingers of things to come for most of us. Also, parts of north and northeast China are becoming hellish polluted deserts, where no one lives too long.

Are you still sure you know where you are going?


  1. Wow...some heavy thinking! I had to look up the philosopher I'd never even heard about...

    "Heidegger believed the Western world to be on a trajectory headed for total war,[51] and on the brink of profound nihilism[52] (the rejection of all religious and moral principles),[53] which would be the purest and highest revelation of Being itself,[54] ... rendering the West: a wasteland populated by tool-using brutes, characterized by an unprecedented ignorance and barbarism[56] in which everything is permitted.[57] He thought the latter possibility would degenerate mankind generally into: scientists, workers and brutes;[58] ...and an unfettered totalitarian world technology.[58] enables Humanity to comprehend Being more profoundly and primordially than the Pre-Socratics."(Wikipedia)

    There's a common phrase people use when they can't find the words to describe an experience, "You had to be there...", especially for rock concerts. Music is a very spiritual thing for people because it takes us out of ourselves and whoever we are in order to communicate on another level, beyond the capabilities of other creatures on Earth; dogs, cats, whales, etc.

    *** Watchtower magazine, 1958 12/15 p. 764 Questions From Readers

    ● I have been told that it is improper to speak of a human being. Yet being is defined in this way in the dictionary. What is the proper viewpoint on this matter?—J. P., United States.

    According to modern dictionaries every human creature is a human being because he has being or exists. Dr. Joseph B. Rotherham in the foreword of The Emphasised Bible discusses the meaning of God’s name, Jehovah. Because this name means, according to Dr. Rotherham, that Jehovah God manifests himself as always alive in one capacity or the other, Rotherham, too, argues that Jehovah is the only being and that all other intelligent existing things are merely creatures. For some years now the Watch Tower publications have ascribed the quality of being only to Jehovah God, in view of the basic significance of his name. So it has reserved the word “being” as a sort of title of Jehovah out of respect for the significance of his name and has referred to humans as mere creatures. So the Watch Tower publications have refrained from applying the term “being” to humans in order to enhance the inherent quality of self-perpetuating existence that persists in Jehovah God. However, as you say, according to the definition of modern dictionaries human creatures are human beings. If anyone wants to use the modern dictionary meaning he is free to do so, but in the light of what is above said we trust you will understand why our publications have restricted the expression to Jehovah God.

    This also brings to mind 2 Peter 3:11-13

    "Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought YOU to be in holy acts of conduct and deeds of godly devotion,  awaiting and keeping close in mind the presence of the day of Jehovah, through which [the] heavens being on fire will be dissolved and [the] elements being intensely hot will melt! But there are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell."

    The "things" to be dissolved are those activities and people associated with a corrupt system; any man-made institutions (including those of higher learning). Corruption involves more than a moral breakdown, it means physical deterioration or imperfection. Humans die and everything they touch eventually goes away, too. So, this being the case, what kind of persons ought we to be? Do we INDIVIDUALLY have a legitimate reason to have hope in the future on Earth and can plans be made now to endure the inevitable collapse of human governments and institutions? I encourage you and your readers to ponder this question while reading the entire Bible and especially the ones having to do with "the promise".

    Thanks TAD!

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Kountry Mouse.

    Heidegger was probably the most influential European philosopher of the twentieth century. He is not well known in America. He had his share of errors, when for a while he pinned his hopes of saving the West on Nazism. Heidegger also uses language in novel and unexpected ways. This habit makes his writings difficult to read and limits his popularity.

    Music is an intensely spiritual phenomenon. I cannot imagine my life without listening to music. In fact, recently, I have been listening to music much more often, simply because I can no longer take in the crap that passes for news here.

    Even Public Radio is getting infected with this all-American malaise of talking about nothing for the longest time. Sad...

  3. Tad - thanks for all your articles. We do seem beset by multiple adverse trends for which there is no end-point except catastrophe. Stagnating economies, increasing national and personal debt, global warming, the end of cheap oil, stripping the oceans, and unsustainable agriculture. It is very difficult to imagine how humanity will solve these problems when almost no progress is being made now in addressing them. Or, maybe I'm just suffering the disease that older folks get when the declare that the world is going to hell.. My kids don't seem very concerned, but then they have a different baseline.


    1. Fred - thank you for your thoughtful comment. The different baseline of our young ones should be of concern to all. Most of them lost connection to nature, gardening, animal husbandry, and agriculture. Most never hike high in the mountains, and do not sleep under a tent for a week or longer, braving the elements and connecting to the Earth.

      Replacing real life experience with Nature with computer games and Facebook pulp and images is in my mind the most dangerous side of technology that now orders and eats humans in real time.

  4. The science is out - we're on a path to destruction - yet I see no clear signs of change. And there are many fingers that point at politicians. Yet, I think the problem is with all of us in that any one individual's action may not matter - but if we all acted it would matter. And no one has the answer for how we're going to live not with less CO2 emitted, but with no CO2 emitted (net).

    Just take the car. This symbol of status and success. And in most of the US it's also honestly hard to live without. Even in my community where the grocery store is < 1 mile away I struggle to convince my wife (and sometimes myself) that we can bike and get groceries. And for 9 months when it rains it's even harder.

    Think about how many jobs are linked to the production of cars, or the "production" of fuels that propel them. While I applaud BMW for the i3 electric vehicle, our economy is upside down. How many poor that could use a fuel sipping car can afford the $41,000 price tag?

    So I've come to the conclusion that we will burn all the fossil fuels out there as long as there is a "business" in doing do. The only thing I could envision changing this is a serious disaster. And obviously Katrina or the current drought in New Mexico is no enough.

    And here is the problem: Nature will delay the worst consequences for a few hundred years. So all I can do is to try to not participate so much in the destruction myself (and tell my friends which doesn't exactly make friends.) - but even that's hard as I would like to visit my parents in Sweden once a year, and thereby I have crossed the bar for carbon emission by a wide margin, and probably even exceeded the emissions by the average American.

  5. Tad I wonder if you've seen this latest Monbiot on chemicals in ag, really scary:

    Also, I have to disagree that a fundamental reason we are going to hell in a handbasket is that people are separated from nature. I love nature and moved as far out in the country as I could to raise my kids out here. But there are many people who live in the city who love nature and understand that we rely upon it, meanwhile, there are an amazing number of people who live out in the country whose favorite thing to do is tear it up with their atv and think trees are made for cutting down. For that matter, there are fishermen who spend most of their time outdoors, on the water, who couldn't care less about life in the ocean or the collapse of fisheries as long as they are hauling in the catch. Whatever it is in our dna that makes us ecocidal, it's not a cultural lack of connection with nature (although personally I think nothing is nicer).

    1. Gail, I smiled when I read your comment. Yes, there are many of us who adore nature and tread on her with light feet. However, we need to understand that for each such person, there is perhaps a million of others, who don't. It is a question of scale, and humans have little notion of the scale that is appropriate to our relation with the planet.


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