…extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. …moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue
— Barry Goldwater, 1964
I remember hearing this shortly after it was spoken. I was immediately impressed with its rhetorical force and then by its stronger second taste, anxiety. My life was a, if not carefully, then somewhat successfully constructed, house of cards: work, savings and bit of larceny, deferments, class schedules, grad school applications and a serious relationship all run through and through with the pretty ribbon of ‘the plan.’ Extremism in the pursuit of anything sounded to me like danger.
My roots were nourished in the bloody soil of WWII; extremism was not unknown to me as a concept or actuality. In fact, my generation was never far from the tiger ride. McCarthy, Russians, Cuba, the Bomb. Growing up in the south and the violent swings of hate, love and confusion that were its daily bread only spiced up the mix.
And I was a young man and wanted a future.
I reflect of these things since I am reprising Goldwater’s lines, though with quite different goals – they would have sounded the same to me back then with any intention; it was the embracing of extremism that frightened me most, not the insanity of Goldwater’s worldview. I had seen people with crazy ideas, lots of them. It was the ones who were willing to go to the mat for those ideas that concerned me then; ‘upsetting my plans and all!’ I actually didn’t know that much about the ideas themselves, but could easily see who was trying to make big changes that might, sort of randomly, tumble down onto my little house of cards.
Goldwater’s Manichaean libertarian conservatism, informed out of a stew of Calvinism, individualism and incipient xenophobia, appealed to a world of saintly Americans in mortal (and universal) combat with the evil Ruskies. It was like a boil on humanity’s butt; and it got us wrong as a species: not Calvinist, not individual. We are Manichaean and xenophobic, and other things that make getting out of our present mess problematic; but rather than appealing to them to energize our politics, we need to realize and mitigate them in the present world.
I didn’t understand these things back then; I only believed that extremism was dangerous. And yet today I see that only a particular extremism is all that can save the biophysical world we live in. But I expect that extremism will be rejected just as I rejected it. This is made especially difficult and confusing since the political descendents of Goldwater have learned the same lesson: they are just as extreme in their narrow crazy way, but they now begin every sentence with, “I am just following the will of the people,” as though they have no personal position and are moderate neutrals responding to the masses.
Because of the extremes to which we humans have gone in our attempts to “conquer” nature over the last few thousand years, we must embrace new extremes – even greater extremes – if we are to return to living in biophysical reality. It is a simple fact available for all who will see, either with their own eyes or with the literature of science, that our changing of the earth’s surface and processes has a limited future. It is also clear that the economic systems that presently run our human existence are unfit for the problems that confront us. And, finally, there are only a tiny number of years in which to make the shifts in attitude, understanding and action required.
Taken together these facts dictate extreme solutions. More and more people are saying this — Derrick Jensen, Bill Mckibben and others; what Rachel Carson told the world 50 long years ago, what Malthus understood in general form 200 hundred years ago. And so here we are, once again needing to do our chores at the last minute.
What are the things we need to change? I have prepared my partial list. There are others that I may have missed, but for the most part these would be a good start. I have written the list in the form of what we need to understand and believe – there are many many objections to these ideas, but they are not the point – these are the ideas that would reform our relationships with each other and with the world around us in ways that would allow other species and ecosystem relationships to continue on in some harmony with us.
1) Humans are animals that must integrate their behaviors into ecological processes (even if they can get away with not paying attention to ecological reality for some extended period of time). As animals we have behaviors characteristic of our species that, so long as we were sufficiently connected to the natural environment in which they evolved, took care for themselves, but which today take special attention to understand, support and mitigate as we confront the “unnatural” world we have created. 1
2) Nothing can be owned by anything. All claims of property and ownership are relationships in which one party is arbitrarily devalued based on short-term power imbalances – always the result of the failures of full system integration (usually because we are driven by desire for ‘gain’ dependent on limited understanding). This doesn’t mean that human political and economic systems don’t have to address the use of space and material, but our ways of thinking about them must change.
3) Wealth accumulation is an aberrant behavior – a form of psychopathology. Emotionally healthy people strive for sufficient material wealth to be safe in reality and realize the damaging effect that excess has on both environment and specieshood. The concepts of property and wealth accumulation are among the most dangerous ideas and behaviors of humans.
4) The measure of normal in the world must be from places and processes that are uninfluenced by human action (except where humans are fully integrated into the relevant ecologies). Finding such places today is difficult, but can be reasonable well modeled still.
5) There are no normal or natural human behaviors, group or individual, of any scale remaining in the human repertoire. I wish that you would read that statement a couple of times. Normal, that is the behaviors and feelings of specieshood, has to be rediscovered with focused intention. All references to “normal and natural” that depend on present behaviors are seriously suspect. Since most of the information we receive from the world is created by some human with an agenda to influence us in some way, we must become careful of what we subject ourselves to, when and how. Just as we are learning to eat with a mind to additives and nutrients, actively avoiding some and selecting other foods, so we must also be careful of our perceptual diet.
6) Humans are a community-based organism. We are individual only with the support of a community. It is ironic that as we have come to depend on more and more others, some of us have taken to trying to see themselves as more and more individual and independent – to the point of proclaiming absolute ‘individualism.’ The absurdity of this is obvious if you simply imagine them without the millions of people that they depend on (yet deny and reject – see #2) as supporting cast.
7) Our understandings of, and relationships to, health, illness and death have become terribly distorted. A biological body is not evolved to continue functioning for much more than the average live expectancy of the species. The devotion of individual people to their own ‘individualism’ gives the impression that there is something there to ‘live long and prosper.’ But that is only appropriate in a community design where living long and prospering supports the community. Healing individuals and defeating death (for a time) to the detriment of the species is madness.
8) Our spiritual understandings and habits are the distorted products of the pre-scientific forest life made to serve the interests of kings and other authoritarians. We need to recognize the incredible creation that is the Consciousness System of Order, its immense power to support our relationship with reality and its devastatingly dangerous power to distort it. Our connections to the universe are vital and can grow into forms and in ways of being that we cannot guess if given the opportunity to do so in Reality.
These all combine to suggest a life beginning by being raised in a loving and supporting community, being trained and educated in the Realities of the situation in which one lives: an education formed around a combination of the best of factual material from the sciences, the best of epistemological understanding of reasoning, studies of human historical and cultural experience, and all wrapped in the ideas of personal joy in living life well through the experience of it.
The goal would be to gain the greatest joy and pleasure in life from the using up of the least amount of the world’s material. The greatest human consequence would be to have lived a life of fulfillment while only leaving footprints. The idea of leaving factories, vast highway systems and other mountains of waste should create the greatest sense of horror and shame. As the body failed or as disease began its assault, a fulfilled person would not cling on in the hope of some mythical happiness, of meeting some unmet need. They would go, the community would grieve and go on.
Such a way of living would in no way be utopian; it would be filled with all of the difficulties that confront people today less one: human life would be integrated into biophysical reality and delimited by that reality the way it is for every other species. Human rates of change would be slowed to allow the evolution of other species and ecosystems to keep up.
These are extreme views and would require extreme changes in how we live. It is clear to me that most will reject them even if realizing their necessity. But these ideas and others like them need to be planted in as many minds as possible, planted and nurtured. And as they wither in the sterile rain of our craziness, then replanted for as long as we are able.
- Each individual of each species is formed from an informational template created by the evolutionary process in completely interpenetrating integration with environment – the “two” are really a common process. As a result, every species has an ecological and behavioral description as defining as the structure and physiology of its body. In other words there is a way that each species lives; the term that I am using for the total behavioral/emotional formation of a species is specieshood. [↩]