Wondering About Wonder

There’s a phrase in Oswald Spengler’s Man and Technics:  A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (1931) that strikes me as of particular relevance for today’s world: ((Not that I have any admiration of the man! This about him: “Spengler is regarded as a nationalist and an anti-democrat, and he was a prominent member of the Conservative Revolution. However, he criticised Nazism due to its excessive racism. Instead, he saw Benito Mussolini, and entrepreneurial types, like the imperialist mining magnate Cecil Rhodes,[3] as embryonic examples of the impending Caesars of Western culture ….”))   It appears on p. 48 of this version of the book.

we cannot look at a waterfall without mentally turning it into electric power;

What this phrase suggests to me is that there are at least two ways of perceiving a waterfall (as one example):

As something that one perceives with a sense of wonder, awe, appreciation, etc.


As something that one perceives in strictly utilitarian—i. e., use—terms.

With the latter being the dominant way of perceiving elements of nature today, in “modern” countries such as the United States.

If that’s the case (and I believe that it is!), it reveals that we “moderns” think of ourselves as apart from Earth System, rather than being a part of it.  And if that’s the case (which I believe it is!), such a perception of Earth System likely—inevitably?!—has had, and continues to have, implications for our behaviors relative to Earth System.  And perhaps relative to one another as well.

My reading in the literature about foraging (i. e., hunter-gatherer) groups leads me to believe that foragers, past and present, are embedded in their Surround.  That is, whether or not they are conscious of that fact, their way of life—involving constant close contact with the Surround—causes them to be, in effect, a part of their Surround.  And being so, I suspect that although their lives require them to make use of elements of the Surround (after, for example, killing animals to eat), their embeddedness in the Surround also generates in them feelings of awe, appreciation—and wonder!  And those feelings, in turn, prevent them from engaging in destructive actions relative to Earth System.

Their way of life is not one that they have consciously chosen; rather, it is one that developed over time, and was/is learned by each new generation (by both observation and listening to elders).  Thus, one’s life as a forager is such as to make “natural” perceiving elements of Earth System with wonder, awe, etc.; and such perceptions may be the basis of the development of feelings of reverence for the Surround.  In having such a perception, one would “naturally” refrain from any actions sensed to be harmful to the Surround.

The above discussion leads me to ask at least two questions:

  1. If widespread feelings of awe, respect, wonder, etc., have only—historically—been associated with forager groups, would only a return to such a way of life enable feelings of wonder, awe, etc., to become widespread again?
  2. Can our current utilitarian perception of the Surround continue on indefinitely?

Let me first address the second question:

The fact that some scientists are now able to ask “Will humans be extinct by 2026?” suggests, clearly, that some (most?) scientists don’t believe this possible.  They believe that human activities—our burning of fossil fuels and deforestation activities, in particular—are causing 1,000,000 species to be in danger of going extinct soon, with our own species also in such danger!  And it is our utilitarian perception of Earth System that is “behind” our actions.

But—referring now to the first question—need we return to a way of life based on foraging to “save” ourselves from extinction?  One person has answered that question this way:

People from modern societies can sometimes live in a wilderness, if they learn the basic tricks.  It happened a lot on the North American frontier, and in other places.

The problem is population density. It takes a lot of land to support a hunter-gatherer, and more to support a family of them.  Land tends to get filled up.

This perspective is more optimistic:

if our working culture is an artefact of the Agricultural Revolution and the economic problem has by and large been solved then we should take comfort from the fact that hunter-gatherers show that even if we are purposive we are more than capable of leading contented lives that are not defined by our economic contributions, that automation provides exactly the opportunity we need to rethink our relationships with the workplace, and in doing so wean us of our dangerous obsession with growth.

This is, of course, easier said than done as the Ju/’hoansi residents ((See this, for example, on the Ju/’hoansi.)) of Canaan know all too well. And if you were to ask those among them that still remember their lives as hunter-gatherers they would remind you that “their primitive affluence” depended on far more than just a willingness to make do with having few needs easily met. It also demanded a society in which people cared little for accumulating wealth and in which everyone played an active role in jealously enforcing their fierce egalitarianism.

However, although it may be conceivable that we could “return” to a way of life that in some respects copied hunter-gatherer life, I believe it doubtful that that will occur.

For one thing, anthropologist Peter J. Wilson wrote in 1988 that “the products of culture tend to accumulate” ((In The Domestication of the Human Species, p. 8.)) —and I would add to that point that that “accumulation” creates inertia.  As a result of that “inertia,” consciously-planned societal system change is very difficult to accomplish!

A possibility exists, however—one that does involve conscious planning, but changes the societal system by adding an element to the Larger Society.  Here’s how this would “work”:

Those of us who are currently members of the Larger Society are, in effect, inmates of it!  What I mean in making that claim is that basically, at least, we are presented with just two options:  Become a member of it, or vacate it (if one can afford to do so, and if one can find a better alternative).  Put another way, one is basically presented with a “take it or leave it” option. ((“America, love it or leave it”!))

Basically, but not entirely—for there is an option, but few are aware of it:  The ecovillage option.  This on the  ecovillage:

Have you ever thought about getting away from it all and moving to an ecovillage?  What’s an ecovillage you ask?  Ecovillages are communities whose inhabitants seek to live according to ecological principles, causing as little impact on the environment as possible.

Ecovillage: medium.com

It’s a rather appealing idea to a growing number of people as self-sustainability and self-governance are a growing trend. Ecovillages are popping up all around the nation with a few common themes.

This map gives one an indication of the general distribution of ecovillages in our country at present:

Given that ecovillages tend to strive for a measure of independence from the Larger Society, one can say that although they exist “in” the society, they strive not to be “of” it!

My reason for advocating for a proliferation of ecovillages is twofold:

  1. Were there a “sufficient” proliferation (here and elsewhere), and were this proliferation to occur quickly enough, our species might be able to avoid extinction in the near future.
  2. Such a proliferation could not only serve to help stave off our extinction; it could provide housing for those, here and elsewhere, who are currently homeless ((That number estimated to be about 580,000 in our country at present! DISGRACEFUL!!!)) or are dissatisfied with their housing—or attracted to the possibility of living an ecologically-responsible life.

But will this occur?

If, for example, Marc Lore and Bjarke Ingels would abandon their Telosa project and focus instead on striving for a proliferation of ecovillages, our species might be saved!  The “project has a target population of 5 million people by 2050,” and that large population size is a problem!  We humans, during the lengthy period when our ancestors were foragers (at least 95%!), became “designed” ((Anthropologist Alan Barnard, Hunters and Gatherers: What We Can Learn From Them (2020), p. 56.)) for such a way of life.  Given that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in small groups, and that we are “designed” to be hunter-gatherers, it’s safe to conclude that a part of our design is to live in small groups. ((Which means that I do not accept this statement by Jonnie Hughes: “We are a social animal but have no optimal group size; we live in groups from 1 to 35.6 million.” On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) (2011), p. 13.)) “Dunbar’s number” merely confirms this!

According to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, ((Here’s some information about Dr. Dunbar.)) the “magic number” is 150.  Dunbar became convinced that there was a ratio between brain sizes and group sizes through his studies of non-human primates.  This ratio was mapped out using neuroimaging and observation of time spent on grooming, an important social behaviour of primates.  Dunbar concluded that the size, relative to the body, of the neocortex – the part of the brain associated with cognition and language – is linked to the size of a cohesive social group.  This ratio limits how much complexity a social system can handle.  [I added the “redification”!]

As one with 3 wonderful children and 5 fantastic grandchildren, my fervent hope is that someone will “wake up” to the virtues of creating, and working for the proliferation of, ecovillages, and begin—yesterday!—to do so!!

I would like to believe that if the “density” of ecovillages increased in our society (and other societies), feelings of wonder, awe, respect, etc., would again become common!

I wonder, though, if they will!!

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.