Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about edges. The World of Ends, both in technology and in business, the marginalization of the poor and disenfranchised, the fact that most innovation starts at the edges. Five years ago when we were developing a strategy for innovation for the 100,000-person company that employed us, we made up T-shirts that read:
If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.
Needless to say, everyone who was part of that radical group has left that big employer, once we realized we were just poster children for innovation, and they didn’t intend to try to actually be innovative.
The other day, artist Andrew Campbell sent me a paper he had written a while ago on The Strong and the Weak. It quotes Laurens van der Post extensively, and in trying to learn more about his work and beliefs I stumbled upon this post by David T. Ratcliffe called Planting Seeds of Transformation. Ratcliffe’s paper also quotes van der Post extensively, and speaks a lot about humanity’s separation from nature, the grief it causes, and the fact that those of us who are still somewhat connected (or trying to reconnect) to all life on Earth are increasingly found at our society’s edges, surviving on our wiles and instincts. Here are some of the highlights from Ratcliffe’s article (emphases mine; if anyone knows what has become of Ratcliffe in the last two years please let me know):
On always analyzing instead of accepting: [quoting van der Post] `Why’ in any case is a severely limited question as the child discovers from the moment it begins to talk. It produces limited answers, limited as a rule to the mechanics and laws of the world, universe and life of man. But the human heart and mind come dishearteningly quickly to their frontiers and need something greater to carry on beyond the last `why’. This beyond is the all-encompassing universe of what the Chinese called Tao and a Zen Buddhist friend, in despair over the rationalist premises native to Western man, tried to make me understand as a newly-graduated man by calling `the great togetherness’ and adding, `in the great togetherness there are no “whys”, only “thuses” and you just have to accept as the only authentic raw material of your spirit, your own “thus” which is always so.’
On coming to grips with our separation from nature: [quoting van der Post] Until we transcend this darkness in ourselves, we shall never be able to deal with it in our societies. It is an axiomatic law that no human can take an institution or a situation or another individual farther then he has travelled himself, inside himself.
On the “process of self-rejection” that informs our separation from nature: [quoting van der Post] No human being is so completely helpless and lonely as at the moment of his adolescence. [Synchronicity: Yesterday I cited an article by James Kunstler that coined ‘Kunstler’s Law’ as: “Everybody feels inadequate…in any room containing 100 people, 99 of them each think that they are the only one in the room who doesn’t have his-or-her act together.” It is this very feeling of helplessness and inadequacy, ingrained in us early, that I think has allowed a tiny minority of our civilization to usurp all the power and resources.]
On the significance of the story of Esau, the hunter/naturalist, who was betrayed by his ‘civilized’ brother Jacob: [quoting van der Post] The essence of [Esau’s] being, I believe, was his sense of belonging: belonging to nature, the universe, life and his own humanity. He had committed himself utterly to nature as a fish to the sea. He had no sense whatsoever of property, owned no animals and cultivated no land. Life and nature owned all and he accepted without question that, provided he was obedient to the urge of the world within him, the world without, which was not separate in his spirit, would provide. How right he was is proved by the fact that nature was kinder to him by far than civilization ever was. This feeling of belonging set him apart from us on the far side of the deepest divide in the human spirit. There was a brief moment in our own great Greek, Roman, Hebraic story when his sort of being and our own were briefly reconciled and Esau, the first born, the hunter, kissed and forgave his brother Jacob, the strangely chosen of God, his betrayal. But after that Esau, like Ishmael before him, vanishes [readers of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael or Story of B will recognize this ‘vanishing’ as what Quinn calls ‘the great forgetting’] from our story and a strange longing hidden in some basement of the European spirit still waits with increasing tension for his return. [Ratcliffe adds:] There has been a fundamental abrogation in our culture and civilization to face squarely the fact of this rejection of an essential part of our nature that includes the feeling, the intuitive, and the instinctual non-rational states of human consciousness.
On how modern tribal groups like the Bushmen retain the memory of this connectedness with nature: [quoting van der Post] For years I would watch the Bushman as I shall always remember him by countless such fires at nightfall, so confident and at home in his immense wasteland, full of an unappeasable melancholy. He was the Esau being we daily betrayed in our partial and slanted modern awareness and instead of blaming ourselves for the betrayal, we projected it on to him to such an extent that we had to kill him as Cain killed Abel. Yet, though he himself is vanishing fast from the vision of our physical senses as Esau vanished from the great story which contained as it fashioned the foundations of our culture, he lives on in each one of us through an indefinable guilt that grows great and angry in some basement of our own being. The artist and the seer, even though the priests who should have known it best have forgotten it for the moment, know there is an Esau, a first man, a rejected pattern of being within us which is personified by something similar to a Bushman hunter, without whom they cannot create and sustain a vision of time fulfilled on which a life of meaning depends.
On the need and process to re-connect with nature: [quoting van der Post] [Jung told me] “you know so many civilizations have used their power to deprive primitive, vulnerable people of their story. And when their story is taken away from them they lose their meaning and they get corrupt and they cease to live. They lose the will to be an integrated society.”…As I thought of the first man’s instinctive sense for the meaning of life, I seemed to be more aware than ever of the loneliness creeping into the heart of modern man because he no longer sought the answers of life with the totality of his being. He was in danger of going back precisely to those discredited collective concepts and surrendering this precious gift of being an individual who is specific for the sake of the whole, an individual who believes that a union of conformity is weakness but that a union of diversities, of individuals who are different and specific, is truly strength. A grey, abstract, impersonal organization of a materialistic civilization seemed to be pressing in on us everywhere and eliminating these life-giving individual differences and sources of enrichment in us. Everywhere men were seeking to govern according to purely materialistic principles that make us interesting only in so far as we have uses.
On how animals on ‘the edge’ of their communities behave, and how being on ‘the edge’ can enable greater self-awareness and perspective: [quoting van der Post] It occurred to me in time that this kind of separation, even in the animal, was necessary to create a greater awareness which it was impossible to acquire in the context of sympathetic numbers of their own kind. In the years I had already spent in devout observation of the creatures of Africa, it was most striking how these lone phenomena developed senses so keen that the beasts who preyed on them and their kind would leave them alone, because they realized they were no match for the qualities of vigilance produced by loneliness and isolation. It was, in fact, far easier to prey on animals who assumed that there was safety in numbers. If this were true and necessary for the increase and renewal of animal awareness, I often wondered how much more necessary it was for the human being. Unlike the animal, the human had no sheer, blind obedience to the will of nature which is instinctive. On the contrary, he had an inspired kind of disobedience to the laws of nature which led to a recommitment of life in a more demanding law of individuality designed for the growth of consciousness. This growth set the implacable pre-condition that any new awareness had to be lived out in isolation before it could be understood and known, and made accessible to society.
So van der Post and Ratcliffe are saying (1) that in order to reconnect with nature and ‘remember’ our true place on Earth and our true meaning and purpose as part of all life on this planet, we must first disconnect from the noise and influence of civilization’s incredible ‘gravity’ by moving out to its edge; and (2) that if we hope to help others reconnect, enough others to make a difference at this critical point in our evolution, we must first make the journey alone, and then draw others out with us, rather than pushing them to make the journey with us. Yes, I know Gandhi said that, but I just got it.
I tried to draw this graphically, and came up with the diagram above. Sorry it’s a bit messy. Here is what, I think, it says:
Once our civilization starts to come unhinged, brought on by nuclear or chemical or bioterrorism, epidemic disease, horrific economic depression, ecological catastrophe, and/or economic collapse stemming from our inability to wean ourselves off oil fast enough, we will suddenly find a lot of people looking to us for models and solutions, other ways to live. We only change when we have to, and by the end of this century, as I have argued repeatedly, we will have to change big-time.
I intend no romanticism, no ‘outlaw’ reimaging of the groups on the edge. We all still have a lot of work to do to complete our own personal and lonely journeys to the edge, before we can presume to offer answers and insights and direction to others. Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in doing that is in freeing up time for this journey, especially when we get weary and there are so many tempting distractions. But, perhaps ironically, what can make this lonely and individual journey a little easier, a little more bearable, is the knowledge that, out hereon the edge, so close to wilderness, we are not alone.
Thanks to Andrew Campbell for getting this whole train of thought started.
Other Writers About CollapseAlbert Bates (US)
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David Petraitis (US)
Dean Spillane-Walker (US)*
Derrick Jensen (US)
Dmitry Orlov (US)
Doing It Ourselves (AU)
Dougald & Paul (UK)*
Gail Tverberg (US)
Guy McPherson (US)
Ilargi & Nicole (CA)*
Janaia & Robin (US)*
Jim Kunstler (US)
John Michael Greer (US)
Kari McGregor (AU)
Keith Farnish (UK)
NTHE Love (UK)
Paul Chefurka (CA)
Paul Heft (US)*
Post Carbon Inst. (US)
Roy Scranton (US)
Sam Rose (US)*
Tim Bennett (US)
Umair Haque (US)
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Preparing for Civilization's End:
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Dean Walker Interview (video)
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