Mythic Physics: How We See the World Changes the World

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By Madronna Holden

Our Goldilocks Planet

In The Universe is a Green Dragon physicist Brian Swimme asserts that physics needs a story large enough to encompass the meaning of the natural world and our place within it. Physics at least needs a story large enough to embrace its own puzzles. Ninety-six per cent of our universe, as New Scientist writer Michael Brooks puts it in 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense is “missing” – made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” that physics is unable to describe in spite of its wide scale effects. As our measurements grow more precise, science has also learned that those numbers once considered constants in the physical world vary in different places and likely in different times as well.

Such variability has spurred some physicists to suggest that our universe is actually a “multiverse” bubbling up fountains of “baby universes”, each with the potential to become a universe with its own variants of space and time—and laws of nature. Though, of course, we don’t know how or why this might happen.

For over a hundred years physics has been grappling with the fact that its theories describing the smallest and largest parts of the natural world do not fit together—they are off by a factor of millions. Relativity theory describing the behavior of the stars is wildly inaccurate when applied to the subatomic level, just as the quantum theory accurate at the subatomic level is wildly inaccurate with anything much larger.

Physicists are, however, sure of one thing. Whatever our ability to measure, predict and understand the laws of nature, here on our home planet earth, those laws pertain precisely as needed for us to exist. Like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, who found a place “just right” for her, the physicist’s “Goldilocks zone” refers to the “just rightness” of our own place in the cosmos. It is here we have come to life as if it everything has been prepared to us.

Astrophysicists searching for extraterrestrial life debate standards for locating other potential “Goldilocks” planets. But there is good deal more to our own “just right” planet than such things as being the right distance from a proper star.

In the eloquent words of native writer and naturalist Linda Hogan each of our lives is “the result of the love of thousands.”

Physics does not dwell on the poetry or ethics of our coming to life but it does count the odds—and they are literally astronomical. The Big Bang originating our universe took place with a temperature so precise that had it been off by a fraction of a degree so tiny as to be unimaginable all the matter in the universe would either have been instantly incinerated or condensed forever into a cold immobile point.

Instead it spread out to create galaxies like our own, in which stars spun off in the universe-making extravaganza, one of which was a sun like ours which broke off a piece of itself to become earth—a piece just the right size at the right time with the right orbit, with the right size moon itself breaking off from earth in a meteor strike—and as time went on, the right proportions of land and liquid water, as well as the right geological history under our blanket of air yielding breath, protection from most asteroid strikes, and warming us with just the right amount of solar heat while radiating the rest off into space. Thus physicists term ours the “Goldilocks planet” in a “Goldilocks universe”.

But we should perhaps take our analogy with the Goldilocks story further. Finding a planet so wondrously suited to our lives is not all there is to the story. There is a family of bears that created the home Goldilocks finds “just right” for herself. In like fashion, nature’s more than human lives prepared the way for our own.

And nature’s bears will also give us feedback if we don’t treat the home lavishly prepared for us properly—feedback such as the current cancer epidemic, the loss of our domestic honeybees and so many wild species that, as native writer Paula Gunn Allen puts it, no longer wish to be our companions here.

And increasingly tragic weather disasters and rising oceans are coming with climate change.

Just as the immature Goldilocks recklessly used whatever she found without any heed to its builders, we post-industrial humans have some growing up to do with respect to our treatment of our “just right’ planet.

Marrying the Bear: The limits of human thought

One hallmark of maturation is self-understanding.

It is not only physics’ mysteries that teach us humility with respect to our knowledge—but the limits of our own thinking. As Nobel Laureate Kurt Gödel’s theorem illustrates, our knowledge can go no further than its initial assumptions. Within any system of thinking, that is, the most elaborate findings can only be variations on the assumptions with which we start.

Thus if we build our society on the assumptions of a hierarchical worldview which places some humans over others and all humans over the natural world, for instance, we will be stuck with a society of winners and losers, of rich and poor– and a denigrated natural world.

Gödel’s conclusion that we can only properly assess any system of thought if we see it as a whole—from without—is supported by physicist Michio Kaku’s analogy of fish swimming in their small pond in his Physics of the Impossible. Such fish will know only the water in their pond—until the day it rains and stirs them to notice there is another dimension to their water: something from without.

In like manner, we need to get out of ourselves—and our worldviews– to understand our own world. Kaku uses his fish pond to discuss a many-dimensioned world like the one with the ten or eleven dimensions necessary for the string theory bringing relativity and quantum mechanics into alignment.

But stepping out of the human-centered worldview as a method for making choices is a practice of long-lived indigenous cultures—whose stories and rituals prompted perceptions from a more than human perspective. The Rose Red tale from Europe as well as numerous tales throughout Native America relate how the bear who appears dangerous and savage in one human view can in another view be seen to be so much like us that we fall in love with its distinction and spirit. Unlike the immature Goldilocks who treats the bear’s home with such abandon, these stories sport brave and compassionate heroes who marry the bear –who in turn becomes an ally essential to survival.

Discovering and honoring how the lives of others contribute to our own is science’s way of “marrying the bear” today, when expanding our limited worldviews is more important than ever.

It is especially important to protect remaining global biological and cultural diversity as the library of our own expanded consciousness.

How We Perceive the World Changes the World

Changing our perceptions of the world changes the world. Quantum theory tells us that the building blocks of the physical world go in and out of existence as waves and particles. In his uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg tells us more: if an observer sees these quanta as waves, they become waves, and if that same observer sees them as particles, they become particles.

To change our perception of the world is to change the world.

This is very different, however, from controlling the world. That would only work if we were alone in it—if there were no other lives here with their own perceptions and purposes. We are instead in intimate and inescapable relationship with others in our world in the way of any two atoms that once touched. Move them to the opposite ends of the earth and what happens to one is registered in the response of the other. This “action at a distance” is another of contemporary physics’ mysteries.

This is also how intimately connected our world is: our gaze upon it changes it—as in the traditional belief that directing an appreciative gaze on a plant helps it grow. As we direct our gaze upon the earth we create a wave-or-particle-world by turn certain and visionary: as solid and sure as the earth beneath our feet and as fraught with possibility as the seed pressed into that earth.

Thus the world turns in our eyes—as it also turns in the eyes of others. His Lower Chehalis ancestors told Henry Culture, “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, explaining that it is before those eyes that human understanding of right action emerges. The Chehalis also believed those eyes of the earth judged human longevity as surely physicists believe that our observations of them construct waves and particles.

As I write this in January of 2015, I cannot predict what waits for us in the year ahead. But I can predict this much: the way we perceive our “just right” home planet will change the world. And if we shape our perceptions with respect, gratefulness and care, this will be a very good year indeed.

How Prairie Dogs Cry for Rain: Reflections on Shelter, Rain, and Drought

By Madronna Holden

“If you kill off the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for rain.”

Traditional Navajo warming

One former prairie dog town stretched 25,000 square miles with its burrows sheltering 400 million animals.  When 20th century industry encountered such prodigious lives, it exterminated 98 per cent of them. However, the rains disappeared along with the prairie dogs, as both Navajo and Hopi individuals observed, looking out over the startling barrenness of lands from which prairie dogs were gone. Permaculture creator Bill Mollison proposed this explanation:  prairie dog tunnels join those of other earth borers to create “alveoli on the lungs” of the soil that discharge moisture when underground aquifers expand and contract with twice daily earth tides. Thus prairie dog burrows helped conduct water into the air from underground water sources, instigating cycles of rain.

If we view our actions according to the results they solicit, we might well say that the prairie dogs cry for rain. Perhaps we might also see the extermination of the prairie dogs as crying for drought in the results that action solicited—though the exterminators apparently did not think in terms of the relationships perceived by the Hopi and the Navajo. The latter cultures featured sophisticated use of metaphor to expose and elaborate the connections between one thing and another. Notably, like the prairie dog burrows, Navajo and Hopi also built their homes on a sense of interconnection.  Traditional Navajo hogans reflect the relational dimensions of the cosmos. Hopi kivas embrace their dwellers in the umbilical relationship with Mother Earth from which all humans emerge.

Industrialized western society has a very different conception of its houses—expressed in the story of the Three Little Pigs who build houses of straw, sticks, and brick respectively. The moral of this story emerges when the wolf (depicting nature as predator), blows down all the houses but that with the most solid walls—the one made of brick. The worldview exhibited in this tale impels humans to build walls between themselves and the natural world.  Indeed, those who hold this worldview not only build stout walls, but fences and borders and dams—and develop pesticides and antibiotics–  as they also separate individual humans, individual backyards—and individual nations– from one another.  In the division between insider and outsider in this scheme, the outsider is readily devalued—and if inconvenient, can be moved out of the way without a second thought, as was the case of the prairie dogs. Those with this worldview, as indigenous Chehalis elder Henry Cultee from Washington State put it, would rather “chew through a mountain than go around.”

However, walls do not make their builders as secure in safety or privilege as those same builders might think. In fact, a society’s emphasis on building walls has characteristically coincided with its imminent demise, as observed in a recent National Geographic article discussing the walls the Roman Empire built in Britain and Germany. These walls not only stood at the geographical terminus of the empire, but at its historical terminus as disintegration of the Empire took hold within and without.

All told, those who would split the world into insiders and outsiders face an impossible task — since the world is inevitably interdependent. Pesticides placed on lawns enter water tables and from there the amniotic fluid of pregnant women throughout the US.  Thusly underscoring the interdependence of the natural world, poisons used against outside creatures enter the most intimate of chambers in the human body. In fact, walls cannot keep us safe– they only blind us to what is on the other side of them, delaying our knowledge of and responsibility for the effects of our actions beyond those walls.  If a single hungry wolf cannot blow down a brick house, there are stronger winds in climate change-instigated tornados.  It is a deadly irony that self-enclosed climate-controlled cars emit carbon dioxide eroding the stability of the earth’s own climate.

The wall-obsessed ancient Romans are hardly unique in human history. The impulse to control things by segregating them is one of those “instincts of self-destruction”, as Nigerian Nobel Laureate Chinua Achebe put it, that successful human societies must find ways to discourage. In a pointed warning tale from ancient India, the protagonist destroys inconvenient nature spirits by drinking up the water in which these spirits live–which also happens to be all the water in the world, since the waters of life are interconnected. He thus instigates a drought that dries up all of life.

Early fur traders in the Pacific Northwest might have used such a warning story as they instigated their own planned drought.  They set out to trap the beaver to extinction, thereby establishing a “fur desert” to discourage other trappers from moving into the area and creating economic competition.  What resulted was an ecological desert where river courses narrowed and river estuaries dried up with the removal of the beaver from these habitats. Today conservation agencies are making attempts to re-introduce beavers in Eastern Oregon to help restore these lands, but a proactive understanding of interdependence would have saved both humans and beaver considerable woe.

Like the actions of prairie dogs, the actions of the indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest facilitated natural connections. Indigenous actions supported extensive biodiversity. The Willamette Valley was so flush with life that fur traders went there to stock up when their supplies ran low, terming it the “Gourmand’s Paradise” for the ease of their obtaining food there.

Attunement to the larger world is the enduring basis of human security. Such attunement is, after all, how living systems operate– as the lives within them attune themselves to one another over time.  There is no more profound security than assuming essential belonging in such a well-tuned system– as the stability of indigenous Northwestern societies attests. By contrast, the strategy of wall building is a lonely as well as an ineffectual one in its attempt to set humans apart from (and above) other lives. If we wish to establish ourselves in long term security, the lessons of history would have us relinquish the impulse to divide and control the natural world, just as they would discourage choices serving simple convenience and individual rewards for some over others.

Instead, such lessons would have us create stories in which those with whom we share the living world act as our teachers–as might the prairie dogs model the way to build a true home on this earth:

Perhaps you have felt the prairie dogs digging under us, opening the beating heart of the earth, shaping their burrows into the living cells of earth’s bloodstream that urge the rains to come. 

Suppose our homes did the same. Suppose what we built to shelter ourselves quenched the thirst of the grass, swelled water into the vine.  Suppose we too acted as the pulsing cells moving with the tide of the earth, praying for rain that stirs all things to life with our thoughts and our actions.

Suppose the beauty we made in our skin no matter what our age or shape or color was refuge for the swan and the hummingbird.  Beauty enough so his ivory no longer condemned the elephant.

Suppose our houses grew as green and leafy as trees, and memory traveled in our bodies with the echoes of a thousand other ways of being, tuning them to the hot and the cold that belongs to the land along with life-giving water.  

Suppose we sheltered the earth as it has sheltered us, sharing that climate-blanket that kept our ancestors safe for 100,000 years as they became human.

Suppose we sheltered ourselves following the lessons of sweet beauty as we look out upon a living landscape calling to us as the flower calls to the bee, asking for pollination.

Following the model of nature’s honey, we can build refuges of hope and inspiration and motivation–and healing.

Where nature can lead, we can follow.  Where nature has need, we can act out of our belonging to the land; praying for rain with the work of our hands.

We can regale other lives with our stories, gathering all the thirsty lives to the river we have set free.

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This post, along with other materials on this site, is copyright Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link to this essay, but it cannot be reproduced in any form in whole or in part without permission.

Why Science Will Never Know Everything

By Madronna Holden

“Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I’m now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery.”

— Stephen Hawking (courtesy of M. Goldstein’s Physics Foibles)

———————

James Watson, co-discoverer of the code of DNA famously declared,“If we (scientists) don’t play God, who will?”

It is comparable arrogance that has brought us so many environmental crises today.  We have been going full steam ahead with the idea that whatever we can do we should do, evidenced by the 84,000 human-made chemicals released into the environment without testing. I would argue that nothing better supports our need for the precautionary principle.

Watson’s statement licensing scientists to play God indicates the disjunction between scientific achievement and self-knowledge—a hazardous disjunction indeed. When our power outdistances our knowledge, there is trouble ahead.  This dangerous attitude is summed up by a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Report assessing geo-engineering plans that include placing mirrors in space to deflect sunlight in order to compensate for global warming.

The report noted that such a plan assumes that though we are not smart enough to manage our own behavior, we are somehow smart enough to manage the behavior of the entire planet’s climate system.

Unforeseen consequences have already arisen with the idea of seeding oceans with nutrients to encourage the growth of tiny creatures to lock up carbon.   Larger creatures ate the smaller ones before they had a chance to do their carbon-sequestering duties.

This reminds me of Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s essay (in her book, Dwellings)  featuring a wizened grandmother’s tongue in cheek response to grandiose experiments to prove something that careful and respectful observation of the natural world would just as well tell us:  “We knew that probably would be true”.

As to the mirrors in space proposition, there is already a drawback to this plan on grounds of justice—since it is predicted to change weather patterns for the worse in certain poorer countries.  Seems like we have enough of that result already, as a film on the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples in Banglades documents.

Still, there is something in us that wants to believe that any unforeseen consequences to our actions can all  be handled by some magic bullet.  I don’t find this vein of thinking comforting.  To the contrary, I find it troubling when anyone offhandedly asserts that science will one day know everything–as now and again one of my students asserts.

They might easily get this assumption from the “magic bullet” instant-fix attitude in our culture.  But I will give them more credit than that and assume that science majors are getting this idea from the scientific search for a unified field theory:  a  “theory of everything” with which scientific laws might predict the consequences of all actions in the natural  world. Currently, physics is grappling with the fact that the laws by which it describes the operations of large bodies do not match the laws that describe the operations of very small bodies– such as those on the quantum level.  A “unified field theory” would purportedly solve this dilemma.

I second the attempt to discover the interconnections in our cosmos, but this is a far cry from knowing—or being able to predict– everything. Indeed, I would argue that our own connections with the living world must honor its ability to surprise us.  If we think we are simply “managing” that world, we are obviously missing its own living essence.

At the very least a theory of everything should include a theory of ourselves that entails responsibility for our choices. Whereas I hold out hope for better ways of understanding ourselves, the most sophisticated scientific theory counters the idea that science might yield the knowledge to allow us to act as God of nature.

I am thinking of the work of mathematician Kurt Gödel and his “incompleteness theorem”.  What he proved with this theorem for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize is that no conceptual system can prove more than it originally assumes. That is, the proofs that derive from within any conceptual endeavour are only elaborations of what we already know– or assume we know– to begin with.

Thus we will never have a “theory of everything” that applies to our universe unless we are standing outside of it. And even if there are multiple and parallel universes, one could only understand the “everything” they are part  of by standing outside of them. I think even those engineers designing mirrors to deflect sunlight in outer space will find moving outside everything that exists a daunting task.

This perspective necessary for understanding our assumptions is why standing outside our own worldview gives us such important material for self-reflection.

As observers, we are intimately caught in the net of our observations, like the Hindu “net of jewels” that weaves the lives of  the world together– an analogy that coincides with Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This principle states that  on the quantum level, wave-particles can only be observed as waves or particles but not both.

And why should that be?  Because, Heisenberg postulates, the dynamic relationship between observer and observed is such that the very way we observe a quantum particle changes its essential nature.

There is more:  some modern physicists have documented how the very laws of physics may be changing over time.

This coincides nicely with the indigenous view that the world is alive- since change is a characteristic of life.

Two linguists, Benjamin Whorf and  Edward Sapir, speculatethat modern science might have come to quantum theory more quickly had we been speaking Hopi rather than Indo-European languages.The latter’s dualistic subject-object configuration more nearly coincides with the Newtonian worldview than does the space-time quanta that characterize Hopi languages.

In the traditional vision quests of the Coast Salish people, finding your spirit-power was linked to humbling yourself before the spirits of the natural world—who might thus find favor with you and speak to you in a language a mere human could understand.  The spirit power-knowledge found on such a quest was exercised throughout one’s lifetime as a joint affair, rather than as a manner of controlling the world.  One should always “ask permission” to use it—as a Snoqualmie traditionalist once told me.

According to such belief systems, children become mature adults who understand how to act in the world by humbling themselves to the more than human world.

My own belief is that the universe will always be  mysterious to us —for which I am grateful.  I find considerable hope in our human limits—perhaps this will someday motivate us to partner with nature rather than attempting to rule it as a god.

Sophisticated scientific theory and indigenous views of the world both indicate we can only get perspective on our culture by seeing it through the eyes of an alternative–and perspective on our humanness though the more than human world.

This is humbling.

It replicates the insight of Paula Gunn Allen’s Laguna Pueblo people who asserted that we need our enemies to show us who we are .  And thus if we outcast “others” from our world, we only diminish ourselves.

On the bridge between modern science and indigenous philosophy, there is this insight:  knowing the world is a matter of relating to it–and such knowing is bound up in the self-reflection we can only gain by suspending our egoism.

The discussion of the scientific certainty continues. here.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.

Think before you buy: Consumerism warning labels

By Madronna Holden

Updated 5.17.2012

Many of us buy too much for the wrong reasons and throw away too much as well. Even as we gauge the health of our economy by continued “growth” in dollar exchanges, the earth is groaning under the weight of our consumerism.

This is vastly different from the kinds of person to person exchanges that we find to nourish us at local small businesses and farmer’s markets—and a few larger businesses of conscience.

We have some hard-won warning labels outlining the health effects of cigarette smoking and side effects of drugs and pesticides (though the latter may be placed in print so tiny it is virtually unreadable).

But what if we looked at the larger picture?   My student Alyssa Bellamy suggested this warning label be places on all consumer items:

Warning: Consumption of this product means you have been brainwashed. Continued use may lead to your becoming ignorant, ill, and to further degradation of our earth and of the women and children and slave labor used to produce this product. And also, you may be tormented with never being satisfied and always trying to catch up.

My student Amanda MacKenzie suggested the items on this list:

Caution: Think before you buy this product.

  • Are you purchasing an item that supports making a quick buck for someone rather than ensuring the planet’s health for our future and for our children’s future?
  • Do you really need this product?  Do you want to be responsible for the way it was produced?   Continuing to purchase unsafe products produced by laborers working under conditions you would reject for yourself or your family will exaggerate these environmental toxins and labor practices.  If we keep buying such products, there is no incentive for companies to change their ways.
  • When we turn to consumerism, we become desensitized little by little.  We start feeling entitled, which opens up the pathway to competition’s replacing caring in us. This causes other humans to appear as potential threats.  This may manifest itself in small ways, like trying to keep up with the Joneses or starting a rumor so you get promoted instead of your co-worker.  This attitude can fester in a society and become more insidious, leading to war, rape, starvation, poverty, and a general disregard for the well-being of others.

I think Amanda’s analysis of the ways in which consumerism erodes our social fabric are especially astute.

Such “think before you buy” cautions ought to go not only on consumer products, but on the ads that we are liable to see flood the media with every political campaign as a result of the recent Supreme Court decision approving unlimited corporate campaign spending.

I would add the following items to the list above in assessing both purchasing choices and campaign ads:

  • Someone somewhere is paying for this ad.  YOU or your quality of life or that of your children may be part of the cost.
  • All consumer products or ads support particular values. An alert consumer will assess these values and if you don’t want to support these, don’t buy the product—or vote for it.
  • Does this ad speak to your ability to make decisions for yourself or does it attempt to manipulate you?  Don’t support anything that demeans you.
  • Who really benefits if you buy this ad or vote this way? (hint: check out who funded the ad.)
  • Does this ad attempt to scare or threaten you?  There is no reason to support this.
  • What information or support is there to back up the statements in this ad? Beware of fake “experts”.  Do you know, for instance, that many of the supposed “doctors” on tv ads are hired actors?
  • If you see the same ads over and over that you didn’t like the first time, stop watching them. There is a subconscious effect of such ads—even if you consciously feel you are ignoring them.

To keep our shared earth as well as our democracy safe and vital we need more than ever to follow the dictum:  Think before you buy”.  Here are links to websites that share information on consumer choices.

Join us in expanding this list. What warning labels would YOU place on media ads, campaign ads or consumer products?


To lead us off here is Marla Chirstensen‘s think before you buy warning label:

“Have you done your research? Which company is behind this product? How are their products manufactured? What toxins are in the product that will harm your body, the employees that manufacture it and/or the environment? What policies does this company have with regard to employee safety and long term protection for our earth?”

And here are Shawna Canaga‘s warnings:

“WARNING: Purchase of this product will lead to destruction of your self-esteem, your planet, and your voice for change.

WARNING: Families, women, and children world-wide have been displaced, lost farmland, are starving, incur disease, and are being violently oppressed so you may have this item. Is this what you want your dollars to do?

WARNING: This ad contains material which leads to anorexia, bulimia, self mutilation, violence against women, low self esteem, depression, severe personal debt, oppression of minorities, suicide, patriarchal support, increased division between the poor and the rich, addiction, sexual assault, and the continued consumer driven reinforcement of the idea that YOU’RE JUST NOT EVER GOING TO BE GOOD ENOUGH.”

And here is Molly Saranpaa‘s warning label:

“WARNING: We are attempting to distract you from anything and everything that does not concern amassing or consuming material goods. Over the years, we have spent billions trying to figure out how your mind works so we can subconsciously persuade you to buy this product (and countless others). We know that you really don’t NEED this product, but beware; we know how to make you WANT it.

“Be careful, without you being fully aware of it, we can skew YOUR values so that they line up with OURS. We value money and stuff above all else. We don’t care about our planet or the people who live on it. We have no conscience, no feelings and ultimately no remorse for what we do because we are a corporation. We can distort your personal values so much that before you know it, you will equate your own value (and that of those in your world) by the useless material possessions that you will never be able to get enough of. We think you are foolish and naive enough to by whatever it is you are selling.”

And Kirsten Tilleman added this:

“Warning:  Would you want your child to visit the farm where this meat was raised?

And we might add, would we want our child to visit the factory where other products are manufactured?”

From Darcy Meyers here is an additional  reminder of the importance of images in selling (and labeling) c0nsumer products:

“Since people consume goods based on images, I think we should also warn consumers about the effects of this consumption with images. For example, would you want to buy a can of tuna with a dead dolphin or seal on the front of the can? Or, what if a picture of the oil spill in the gulf was on every gas pump?”

And here are some suggestions from Carol Davis:

For media:
WARNING: The intent of this ad is to make you feel bad about your physical appearance in hope that you will buy our product(s) so we can laugh our way to the bank.

For campaign ads:
WARNING: This is part of a huge popularity contest and the purpose of this ad is to tell you exactly what you want to hear so you will vote for me/us. Be advised, I/we will not actually do what I/we said, it’s just for your vote.

On this point I would add,

Warning:  Know who is funding this candidate.

For consumer products:
WARNING: Should you decide to purchase this product, this company will make more from this item than the laborer that assembled it will make in a month, maybe a year, oh, maybe even 10 years. They will continue to struggle to feed their family, while our company president will buy more food than he/she needs.

Here is “warning” from Marissa Dubay  to place on conventional meat products:

WARNING: This product has been factory farmed, prepackaged, and laced with chemicals, hormones and food additives/dyes for your convenience. Ingesting this product can result in health risks that may include cancer, heart disease and high cholesterol. The animal that was slaughtered for your consumption may have been subject to brutal abuse and unsanitary living conditions, denied natural instinct or diet, and raised in an area so small it could not complete a 360 degree rotation for the duration of its short life. The production, processing, and transportation of this product uses large quantities of fossil fuel, depleting finite resources and contributing to global climate change. Your purchase ensures the continuation of these practices and increases demand for them.

And here is a pointed caution from Lindsay Longwell about the ways that modern products supplant our own knowledge and skill:

“ Warning: You did not put the work into growing this product, you did not sew it, ship it, package it, harvest it, you put no effort into this purchase at all, What would you do tomorrow if the world you knew disappeared forever?”

What Labels Really Mean Today

Labels can be very helpful in making healthy and responsible choices.  However, you will also want to avoid “greenwashing”– labels that mean absolutely nothing, such as “natural”, “cage free” or “antibiotic free”.  For what labels really mean, check out this detailed explanation in the March 2011 Audubon

Lessons from Yellowjackets: Speaking with the Natural World

By Madronna Holden

Some years back, my then three year old daughter and I were sitting in our front yard when a decidedly threatening man appeared and insisted I hire him.

For what, he never said.

In fact, without listening to my answer–which was an instinctive “no”– he let himself through our side gate and went around to the back of the house.

I barely had time to register my alarm at the fact he didn’t leave when I asked him to than he came out of our yard again, shouting that he was being attacked.

He was indeed. He had a swarm of yellowjackets in hot pursuit.

We never saw him again.

We ourselves came into daily contact with the yellowjackets who had a nest in our yard, but they never bothered us. I felt no qualms about sharing our garden with insects that had the capacity to be a nuisance, but also assisted us with pollination in the spring and consumption of other insects to feed their young later in the year.

I liked to imagine they refrained from stinging us since we tended the place where they found their sustenance—and they sensed this in whatever way yellowjackets might sense such things.

I liked to imagine that our daily rounds had become an accepted element of their world like rain and grass.

I know there are less poetic explanations for the yellowjacket attack on the stranger when they were so peaceable with us.  But I am reminded of the response Albert Einstein gave when asked if humans might one day reduce everything in nature to scientific explanation. His answer was yes, but that would be like explaining Beethoven through the measurement of sound waves. We could do it, but it would tell us nothing about the music.

Reportedly the anthropologist Branislaw Malinowski once grew impatient with the Trobriand Islanders as they related the reverent actions that made their yam gardens grow. Attempting to elicit a more pragmatic basis for their methods, he asked them whether they didn’t notice cause and effect.

They told him that was the simple explanation. The one reserved for things that didn’t have any meaning.  And growing the garden that gave them life did not fall into that category.

Czech ex-president Vaclav Havel once observed that it is an ” arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be put into a computer with the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

I agree.  I prefer the story of natural creatures who express themselves in their own ways—and sometimes, if we are lucky, do so on our behalf.

I like to think that such creatures—even those we may be least apt to recognize as brethren—might choose to accept us into their communities and form alliances with us.

If we take a different view of the natural world– that of a “mere puzzle to be solved”, we lose considerable capacity for both wonder and vision.

The following Plains Indians story of a vision quest is illustrative.

A man who is seeking a vision fasts for several days.  He cries for his vision, humbling himself before the spirits of the world.

When he has done this for many long days and still no vision comes to him, he becomes desperate.  He climbs to the top of a great waterfall, determined he will live with a vision or die without one.

He jumps, abandoning himself to the roiling water.  And at that moment a magnificent white buffalo appears and swims him safely to shore.

From that day forward, the white buffalo becomes his spirit guide.

For the Indian audience that is the end of the story.

Still, the storyteller knows non-Indians will have questions:  “Was that really a white buffalo that pulled him out of the water?  What would someone standing on the shore see?”

So the storyteller adds something for their sakes:  “Something pulled him out of that water,” he asserts, “And whatever that was, belongs to him.”

It is only because the observer is a mere watcher on the banks of the river of life that he questions the life-saving vision another has found for himself.  Such an observer, with his self-proclaimed “objectivity”, is all too ready to declare his view of reality superior to that of the one who has chosen to dive in.

When I worked among the Chehalis Indians several decades back, elders were indignant that members of non-Indian culture might deem their traditions as “just stories”.   In such stories, passed down through thousands of years, was the collected wisdom of a people.

For their part, the elders who kept this knowledge on behalf of their people expressed considerable epistemological sophistication.  They understood that their individual views of the world were not reality.  To make such an assumption would be to insult those who shared their world. They honored all their unique voices as they asserted, “No one speaks for anyone else”.

By contrast, “even the best scientists” in Western tradition have made the profound mistake of believing, as Wes Jackson, director of the Land Institute, put it, “that the world operates by the same method they use to study it.”

With parallel arrogance, colonizers regularly deemed the beliefs of those whose lands they usurped as “superstition”.  Anthropologist Ruth Benedict had a response to that:  an analytic response that makes the way modern industrial society uses technology the real superstitious behavior.

According to her, superstitious behavior is based on adhering to simple stimulus and response. (This is the view of cause and effect without deeper understanding that the Trobrianders decried).  We do something—wear a black sock– and something happens—our team wins.  And so we continue to wear that sock every time our team plays in hopes of controlling the outcome.

Superstitious behavior attempts to control the world through magical thinking.  And thus we cast our lot not only with the black sock but with science’s magic bullets.

Incidentally, the story of the yellowjackets with which I began this essay could  also become an instance of such superstitious thinking  if I interpreted it to mean that I might blithely trounce through the natural world without ever worrying about yellowjackets.

Like all stories, this one belongs to a particular time and place.  I have been elsewhere–out in the woods–in the front of a line of other humans on a hike when I inadvertently stepped too close to a yellowjacket nest and was stung.

And I can tell you a yellowjacket sting is no fun.  But the appropriate response seems to me not to try to get them because they got me– but to pay attention.  I have not learned to magically control all yellowjackets but to live with some of them for our mutual benefit.  They still are very much creatures of their own.

By contrast, our characteristic pesticide use is an instance of superstitious behavior by Benedict’s criteria.  We spray pesticides and insects die—until they no longer do because they have grown immune. But our behavior has becomes a reflex action.  So we spray more, still hoping to control the world for our convenience–not noticing the effects on the environment and our own health that a deeper assessment would bring us.

According to Benedict, the contrasting attitude is based on dialogue. It is about reverent communication with the world.  Thomas Berry eloquently expressed the same view when he stated that the world is not a “collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.”

The first kind of behavior—the manipulation of our world—has left us with climate change and cancer epidemics and skyrocketing autism rates. The other one left us with sustainable models by which humans lived in harmony with their natural environments for thousands of years.

Wonder cannot be commanded, but if we view the world with humility and respect, there is just a chance it will respond to us with marvelous rather than deadly surprises—as happened in the modern community of Gaviotas in Colombia.

The consequence of their careful partnership with place was the serendipitous restoration of the rainforest in all its biodiversity on once ravaged aluminum-laced llanos.

We should all be so graced.

Confusing Discovery and Conquest: A Recipe for Destruction

By Madronna Holden

The worldview that links discovery with conquest has caused considerable social and environmental harm.   This attitude has deep roots in Western history.  Julius Caesar’s famous motto Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), featured on some  modern t-shirts, couldn’t be more clear on this point.  Discovery is a prelude to conquest.

Caesar himself didn’t invent this approach.  It was the guiding principle of the Athenian colonial empire, as illustrated in the tragedy of Melos. The people of Melos sent the Athenians a missive indicating they wished to live in their own way rather than join the empire.  The Athenian response was to massacre them.  In their proposal of neutrality the people of Melos violated the first rule of colonial empire, which is that whatever lands or peoples the conqueror casts his gaze upon, he owns.  In this context, the only alternative to assimilation of the Melos was their obliteration.

The worldview which mingles discovery with conquest persisted in the history of the Pacific Northwest—and it still persists today in our modern technology.  It is signed by the failure to see what we discover for what it is rather than for what we would make of it.  Indeed, an essential part of this discovering/conquering gaze is what it doesn’t see. Rather than Caesar’s I came, I saw, I conquered, the slogan of the conquering discoverer would more accurately be, “I came, I didn’t see, and I conquered”.  Or alternately, “I came, and I destroyed what I didn’t see.”

Take some examples from Pacific Northwest history.  Several decades after explorer Alexander Henry declared the Willamette Valley Kalapuya a wretched and homeless lot who lived out under the trees, those same Kalapuya began saving Oregon Trail pioneers from wholesale starvation—and it was the pioneers themselves that took shelter in the trunks of trees when they first arrived here. As for the traditional Kalapuya, one of their houses on Marys River (near Corvallis) was sixty feet long, and the ones near Tualatin might be twice that big.

But the denigration of the Kalapuya in the pioneer worldview led to the Senate’s refusal to sign treaties with them on the logic of those like Senator Sam Houston, whose Senate speech declared them “insignificant”.

The reduction of native villages to “huts” on lands that were “wastes”, as early  missionary Father Francis Blanchet wrote of the Chehalis, licensed their destruction. In fact, the Chehalis houses where Blanchet traveled, constructued by whole communities working together, included a potlatch house nearly two hundred feet long, to accommodate intertribal horse races inside in the wintertime.  But if one saw native houses as huts, that licensed their obliteration and replacement by a shipping port on the Chehalis River, as Blanchet proposed.

The blindness of those who crowded into a tiny cabin roofed with sail canvas and the camping mats of native people–and declared their abode the first house on Puget Sound– might simply have been humorous from the perspective of those at Port Madison whose cedar longhouse covered an acre of ground. In describing this contrast, historian and novelist Archie Binns stated that many pioneers foolishly assumed that, “a house is not a house unless built by whites”. This blindness  provided a license for destroying that which the pioneer worldview rendered invisible.

Throughout the Northwest, the cleared land upon which Native villages stood was favored by pioneers—and they seized it as they destroyed native homes, usually by burning. This is the mortal danger in the discoverer/conqueror’s blindness:  that which he renders invisible, his actions work to banish in fact.In the claims case pressed by several Puget Sound tribes in the early 1900s, indigenous peoples testified how the houses in village after village were burned by pioneers, who sought the land on which they stood–and ignored the fact that this land had been cleared by native people.

In fact, lands pioneers favored throughout the northwest were those specifically modified by native labor:  as was the broad Willamette Valley early fur trappers nicknamed the “gourmand’s paradise” for its profusion of natural foods. But Lyman Abbot, major spokesmen for the ironically named “Friends of the Indians” who lobbied Congress to assimilate Indian peoples to white ways in the nineteenth century (and take their land in the process) argued that the Indians did not even “occupy” the land.  Real occupation, he argued, would consist of things like mining operations.

Or the beaver trade.  The destruction of beaver homes along with human ones was something Chehalis elder Mary Heck remarked in the claims trial above.  This gets to the heart of the discovering conqueror’s blindness—the conqueror destroys that which creates the very things he favors. Pioneers throughout the continental US coveted beaver meadows as choice farmland, as Carolyn Merchant details in her analysis of ecological changes in New England with the coming of pioneers.

But at the same time, Euroamericans brought the beaver to the brink of extinction.

Val Plumwood outlines the blindness of the “dominator” logic—or more properly, illogic—expressed here.  The conquering mindset divides the world into dualistic sets such as progress/backward, civilized/savage, human/nature, civilization/wilderness, man/woman, master/slave, boss/worker, insider/outsider, friend/enemy– with the idea that one is higher and one is lower.

From the perspective of the ones above, those below become “objects” for their use—and invisible in their own right.  And also invisible in terms of the ways in which those at the top rely on them.  As Carolyn Merchant also observed, seeing nature as an active process means recognizing the contributions of natural life in creating the landscape upon which we make our own lives. But today we are still laboring under the induced blindness of the discover/conqueror in this respect, which sets humans above nature and renders natural systems as there for our use–and invisible in their own right.

Thus  globalization and industrialization are systematically destroying seventeen ecosystem services priced at $33 trillion a year, treating these aspects of ecosystems as it they were merely objects for our use–and thus invisible both in  their own right and in their contributions to our survival.

It is a matter of logic and of justice that we recognize and honor the living communities that charge water tables, contain and filter storm water, hold hillsides together with their roots—and provide us with the air we breathe and the soil on which to grow our food.   But we are hampered in doing this by the mentality that mixes discovery with conquest.

The mentality does not ask the “discoverer” to assess the consequences to natural lives (including human ones) in the use of his newly discovered technology. Modern industrial society simply gives the rights of usage to the “discoverer” as a patent.  The dangers involved in this approach have led the European Union to institute the precautionary principle in its REACH program.  According to this principle, a new chemical must be proved safe before it can be distributed.

There is the further question of who owns something derived from an ecosystem– something created and sustained by other life. The notion that if we “discover” something it is ours to do with as we will brings to mind a quip comedian Dick Gregory made about the discovery of the American continent by Europeans. Following this historical precedent, he declared that he would like to discover himself a car.

To address this issue in modern globalization, Vandana Shiva has instituted a “no patents on life” campaign. According to its guidelines, discoverers can neither own nor lock up from others the use of what they “discover” if it is part of a living ecosystem.  This pertains especially to the patenting of food and medicinal products traditionally used by third world peoples.  In the case of Shiva’s India, corporations patented both basmati rice and neem—and attempted to use those patents to keep these products out of the hands of those who used them for generations.  Shiva’s idea has been picked up in a European Union proposal.

All in all, it is time to clear up our inherited confusion between discovery and conquest—and the near-sightedness that goes with it.

Let us re-imagine discovery as a matter of meeting and mutual learning—rather than overrunning and obliterating the others who share our earth.

After all, blindness to the natural sources of our lives is not a survival tactic.

Thomas Berry 1914-2009

By Madronna Holden

“We must rethink all our basic values, the structure and functioning of our entire cultural tradition…This is undoubtedly the most awesome moment for rethinking our situation since the beginning of the Western civilizational enterprise some five thousand years ago.”
Thomas Berry, “Foreword”, Earth and Spirit


On the occasion of the death of Catholic priest and theologian (or “geologian”, as he preferred to call himself) Thomas Berry at age 94, I would like to reflect upon his model of a morality centered in the earthly community of life.

Thomas Berry’s philosophy was strikingly immanent and earth-centered.  In his seminal Dream of the Earth, he lamented the fact that too many Christians placed themselves in “a state of exile from our true country”, in that “the natural world is little mentioned”.   This state of “exile” was due to an inordinate emphasis on the hereafter in Christian theology.

But for Berry humans are an inescapable part of an earth community and thus “We should be clear about what happens when we destroy the living forms of this planet…we destroy the modes of divine presence.”

He took the bold step of siding with ecofeminist authors as he described the dynamics of Western history in which patriarchy ushered in social and environmental injustice.

Berry also stressed the necessity of recognizing our national obligations to native peoples: “Our first duty is to see that the Indians dwelling here have the land, the resources, and the independence to be themselves”. Our second duty is to honor the ways in which native traditions belong “among the great spiritual traditions” of humankind. Thirdly, we should respect the historical continuity of native communities.

Berry joined many modern ecologists in stressing the need for an earth-centered stance to replace the human-centered one of the industrial age. Such a stance is the only realistic one given our  interdependence with other natural life. As Berry noted, not a single species on earth nourishes itself.

As opposed to the worldview which sees the natural world as set in place for human use, Berry stated, “We need to present ourselves to the planet as the planet presents itself to us, in an avocatory rather than a dominating relationship.  There is need for a great courtesy toward the earth.” This is a courtesy; he went on, that we might learn from indigenous peoples such as the Iroquois, who modeled reverent gratitude toward the earth in their thanksgiving ceremonies.

In this context, he developed a detailed outline supporting the rights of all the beings with whom we share our earthly community. He insisted that all earth others (including not only plants and animals but natural landscape features such as rivers) have three essential rights: the right to existence, the right to habitat, and the right to “fulfill their role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community”.   Human rights do not cancel out the rights of earth others to exist in their natural state. Indeed, human rights are limited in a community which recognizes the rights of all life.

Whereas rights of nature are enduring, they are limited to the unique identity of those involved:  rights of a river or a tree are specific to themselves.  It would mean little to a river, for instance, to have the rights of a tree—or a human or an insect. Thus these rights are not in competition with each other, but an expression of the interdependent cycle of life in which each plays a role. In this context humans also have a right to wonder, beauty and intimacy that only our connection with a vital earthly community can fulfill.

Berry’s guidelines for a healing technology come down to following the patterns of nature—as gained most clearly in the intimate knowledge of place in bioregionalism. As we set such a technology in place, “the earth itself would be seen as the primary model in architecture, the primary scientist, the primary educator, healer, and technologist, even the primary manifestation of the ultimate mystery of things”.

Coincident with his work with indigenous and Eastern traditions, Berry felt that each subject in a universe of subjects had a story– and that story was interwoven into the universe’s story.  He found hope in the work of modern scientists who abandoned the objective distancing of their tradition to tell the story of natural life.  If we told the story of the natural world in this way, we would understand how to treat it differently as we developed a new “mythos” to replace the all too prevalent Judeo-Christian one that sees humans as standing over and apart from creation as a collection of objects–and licenses so much destruction as a result.

Berry offered a different interpretation of Christianity that led to responsibility to creation.

He joined with physicist Brian Swimme in developing a “universe story” in which humans had a special role as witnesses of the universe’s self-development and evolution.  The human role was not one of dominating or controlling creation, but of appreciating it.  In this sense, the human sense of wonder was a holy impulse: as Matthew Fox put it, Thomas Berry “sacralized curiosity”.   His intellectual and spiritual openness in this regard was linked to his personal engagement.

Notably, Swimme with whom Berry developed the “universe story”, emphatically declared himself an ecofeminist (“How to Heal a Lobotomy” in Ecofeminism and the Sacred) as a means of healing the dangerous dualism in Western thought that splits the world into hierarchical frames of subject/object, human/nature and male/female.

Though Berry saw nature as imbued with spirit in that it was the cradle of life (and he saw everything that lived as having a soul), he did not romanticize or idealize the natural world.  In that it existed for itself and not for humans, it could be destructive as well as life-giving from the human point of view.  But humans should become intimate with the larger story of nature that both gave them life and interwove all lives in its vast cosmic story.

Here are the words Berry chose to feature on his website—words that eloquently express the guiding principle of his work:  “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

Thomas Berry left us with much to think about—and much to live up to.