Things Fall Apart: Why We Think Everything’s Getting Worse

Most Americans, year after year, continue to think that the country is on the wrong track. The older you are (i.e, the more experienced you are, and the more of history you’ve seen), the more likely you are to think everything is falling apart. And it’s not just in America: worldwide, people tend to think things are getting worse. And it’s undeniable that the world is facing horrible problems: climate change, pollution, terrorism, income inequality, racism, sexism, etc., etc., etc.

Maybe you’ve noticed the same thing in your own life. I don’t mean to be depressing here… but how many times have you failed to change a habit, or break an addiction? How many of your jobs have fallen through? How many times have you had to move away from your home? How many pets have you lost? How many of your friendships and relationships have failed, or faded away in distance or time? How many people you’ve loved are gone forever?

Almost all of us have tragic answers to those questions. The things we love in our lives always end; the patterns we love endlessly unravel.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.
Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

In nature, things unravel, too. But there, something else is always raveling up to take its place. Trees die, but their tall standing snags — monuments to themselves — are colonized by armies of insects, fungi, and other critters, which in turn become feasts for woodpeckers and other animals. And when the snags finally fall, they become nurse logs for the next generation of trees, nourishing a richer, more diverse forest.

A tree’s death is a catastrophe, but it’s also what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe: a sort of deus ex machina, except that instead of a god swooping in from on high at the last minute to save everything, it’s a sudden unexpected change in fortune that’s consistent with the established framework of the milieu. It’s a miraculous redemption that arises inevitably from the world itself.

Oftentimes, a eucatastrophe is the result of the efforts of many, many individuals (humans, bugs, plants… doesn’t matter), each working for their own benefit or the benefit of their local community. Individually, each effort is barely noticeable, but when they’re added up, profound changes take place. Since these small efforts are self-directed, it can be extremely difficult to see what the final aggregate result will be, and whether it will, in the end, be good or bad.

Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. – Elrond, in the Fellowship of the Ring

So perhaps things look like they’re unraveling simply because we don’t have the complete picture. We as a species are young, and our vision is limited. We sometimes glimpse things that might happen, but for the most part, we only see the present and the past. It’s no wonder that most of what we see seems to be dying or dead.

The core of the problem, really, is that we can so rarely see patterns before they emerge. And so the world seems to be falling into disorder, and our lives seem to be full of endings, with precious few new beginnings.

It is an illusion, though. A new order is rising up, but we can’t see it. This is why eucatastrophes are surprising.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.
Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Oftentimes we can see the re-raveling only in hindsight. Human history is littered with dire disasters and intractable problems: the ‘population bomb’, the end of oil, war, the nuclear holocaust, monarchy, illiteracy, slavery… But it’s an undeniable fact that most of these problems have gotten better over the last few hundred years. Not solved — not by a long shot; even one person enslaved is a terrible tragedy. But better. Most problems, like human rights violations and non-renewable energy, have been improved through long years of thankless toil. Many others, like slavery in the US, cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Some, like the falling rates of crime and warfare worldwide, have just been slowly eroding away, though no one really knows why. And a few, like the hegemonic Soviet Union, have ended in a completely unexpected eucatastrophe.

This happens in one’s own life as well. I’ve left behind friends in six different cities, lost three jobs, lost a marriage… Many of these changes left me wondering whether everything I’d worked and struggled for was gone forever. But of course, I made friends in the seventh city, scored that fourth job, and found a true soul partner. After 40+ years of life I’m finally starting to glimpse the larger tapestry sometimes. There are still problems and tragedies I struggle with, but someday — sooner, perhaps, than I can see — they will pass, too.

Seeing the Raveling

How can we get better at seeing patterns before they’re fully formed?

First, practice. Look for the raveling. Too often we focus only on what is going wrong, or what we fear will go wrong. This is instinctive. As embodied beings, it’s natural to be wary, to watch for danger. But take time to look for what is going right, or what might go right, and focus on that as well. The old saying is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst; and both parts of that are important.

Also, study history. Look at how eucatastrophes happened. Most people were surprised when the Soviet Union collapsed, when monarchies ended, and so on — but the writing was on the wall for decades. What writing is on the wall now?

Trust your gut. Your conscious mind has access to only a small part of your complete consciousness. Your subconscious is always looking for patterns, and usually sees the big changes coming. Meditation, and talking to guides, can help.

And finally, have some faith. One of the things I struggle with personally, as a Druid, is what Alison calls the ‘Problem of Justice’. Just as Christians wonder why God permits evil in the world, we who follow a nature-based spirituality wonder what is natural and what is unnatural, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good. When you see an oil spill or a huge parking lot and you feel a visceral revulsion or sorrow, your body is telling you that it is unnatural, wrong, evil — especially when compared with a forest or pristine river. But obviously humans are part of the natural world, and what we do is natural; so in a sense, an oil spill or parking lot is natural too. So why are we always tearing things down, causing mass extinctions, and fouling the waters? How can these things be “natural”, how can they be “good”?

And it’s not just humanity. When beavers flood a forest, felling and drowning dozens of trees, or when wolves disembowel an encroaching coyote and defecate around its body as a warning to the others, we have the same problem:

Many earth-centered spiritualities look to the relationships, patterns and laws of nature for insight into the ways we might live a just and ethical life — yet, within nature are myriad examples of suffering, destruction, violence, injustice, even cruelty and maliciousness… How should we respond to them? — Alison Leigh Lilly

The resolution of these paradoxes (both the Druid paradox and the Christian one) may, in part, lie in our limited human understanding. Maybe we just can’t yet see how the evils of the world will be woven into the larger pattern of beauty. In nature, always, there is a subtle, organic order at work. Problems turn out to be blessings; tragedies plant the seeds of triumphs. Even in truly awful situations — such as a forest fire — there is a hidden raveling. Underbrush is cleared out, soil is renewed, seeds are germinated, diversity is increased, and diseases are cleared away. Forests periodically burn as naturally as the cycle of the seasons. Maybe what we see today as injustice is part of a great invisible cycle.

It can be hard to have faith, to believe in rebirth, when all you can see is death. But something wonderful is being born, right now. Study, sit in silence, and wait, and you will see it.

Hummingbird on a snowy branch

Big Data Will Blind You

Not all of us are scientists, but all of us today are consumers of science. And I mean science, not technology. When we want to lose weight, or make more money, or find that perfect someone, we don’t go to gurus, and we don’t go with our guts. We look at the latest studies.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailIt’s been said that Generation X has a deep need for data. Certainly a lot of people my age long ago lost our last vestiges of idealism, and are most interested in knowing, as pragmatically as possible, exactly what works and what doesn’t. We no longer believe in Dr. Spock’s intuitions or Oprah’s platitudes. We want to see what science says. We’re only interested in practical, proven methods. We haven’t given up trying to explain the world, but we’ve stopped trying to make beautiful, abstract theories workable. In the same vein, companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are proud to call themselves ‘data-driven’: they make no claim to being led by ‘visionaries’, but act based on rigorous analysis of consumer activity. (Of course, there are a minority of companies, such as Apple, which do claim to be led by visionaries, but these are the exception, and their stock prices are more volatile.)

Part of this zeitgeist is the modern tech industry excitement about the possibilities of ‘Big Data’, a rapidly-emerging state in which we’ll have so much data on so many people and so many financial transactions that we’ll cross some kind of singularity into perfect knowledge, a threshold beyond which we’ll find new markets, new products, and vast new vistas of profit.

Maybe so. But there’s a big pitfall that comes with Big Data. If you’re given a big pile of facts, you start to imagine that you know more than you did before; that you can just crunch some equations and run some statistics, and the numbers will tell you what to do. You’re tempted to believe that you don’t need to get the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things, as long as you have enough ‘what’.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But knowledge without understanding is even more dangerous. Here’s some examples of why. Read more

The Toxic Society

I stumbled on an old, ignored piece of news the other day, which struck me powerfully. Apparently crime rates in the United States continue to plummet, despite the ongoing recession. While I had assumed that the drop in crime rate was related to our insanely high rate of incarceration, apparently that doesn’t really explain it. First off, most of the rise in prison population comes from non-violent offenders, and violent crime has dropped even faster than non-violent crime. Second, there are lots of other places around the world where crime has been dropping, and the incarceration rates there haven’t changed. Sociologists are either at a loss, or they have conflicting ideas, or they say it’s a combination of factors.

But a little-known economist, Rick Nevin, has a theory: a drop in lead poisoning. He applied a statistical model which tracked violent crime rates and lead poisoning in nine different countries over the course of the 20th century. Lead is a neurotoxin that reduces the ability of people to control their impulses.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…

Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.

“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”…

Nevin’s work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.

“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.

If this is true, it raises a lot of questions. Most obviously: what’s the best way to lower the crime rate? Maybe we should reduce funding for police forces, incarceration, etc., and concentrate everything we have on anti-lead environmental legislation. After all, it was just a few years ago that lead was found in toys imported from China; and lead has leeched into the earth and groundwater from underground gas canisters all over the country. And not just lead — it is an especially widespread neurotoxin, but it’s not the only one. What other poisons are we eating, drinking, and breathing?

Another question is: should we, as a society, regulate lead? The obvious answer is yes, but how, exactly? Should it be regulated on a state-by-state basis, or by the EPA? Or should there be international standards set by the UN? Or should there be a set of class-action lawsuits brought by states and individuals against lead-producing industries? Remember, the issue here is not so much whether such laws would be moral or just, but what would be the quickest, most effective way to eliminate lead poisoning. Outright bans are simple in theory, but they quickly get complex in practice, and they don’t always work.

But for me the most interesting question is: what does this say about the philosophical foundations of a free society? Because, since the time of Locke, it’s been assumed that individuals are independent agents with free will. Tyrants, dictators, and even philosopher-kings are morally wrong, because every human has the inalienable right to liberty. While we may be persuaded or dissuaded or coerced, ultimately all our decisions are our own responsibility; and thus we can vote as we wish, establish laws as we wish, speak as we wish, and so on. And if we break the laws of our society, whether because we feel they are wrong (civil disobedience) or for any other reason, we alone hold the responsibility for that decision and we alone must pay the consequences.

But all of this is clearly false. A child born into a lead-infused home, exposed to neurotoxins from birth, has been poisoned, and cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. In effect, their crimes are the result not of poor character, but of environmentally-induced mild insanity; and the solution is not incarceration, deterrence, or punishment, but treatment (if possible). Left untreated, should such a person be allowed to own or operate a gun? Should they be in any position of responsibility such as military or political service? Should they be allowed to vote? In other words, if they are not fully sane, can they really fulfill the social contract that a free society requires?

It would seem not. But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us are, in fact, suffering from environmentally-induced mild insanity? I myself grew up in the late 70’s, before most of the laws against lead in gasoline and paint went into effect. I have never committed a crime, but nor have I ever wanted to — I have different issues with impulse control. Of course, most people do. But maybe most people have been poisioned, to various degrees. Do we even know what a normal person would be like, anymore?

Maybe we really have all gone slightly crazy. How would we know?…

Gaus: Freedom, Morality, and the State

Ok, here’s another book I desperately want to have (and while I’m wishing, it sure would be great to have the time to read it as well): The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus. It’s about large-scale human societies — how they arose, how they work (to the extent that they do), and how they ought to work.

Now, everybody and her brother has their own ideas about what’s wrong with the government, and what should be done to fix it. For a while, it was thought that that emperors and kings were either gods, or representatives of God on Earth. This idea became less popular as it became more and more clear that emperors and kings were, by and large, greedy psychopathic killers. Then it was thought that government was a sort of “social contract” that existed because, in the deeps of time, Man was in a State of Nature and everyone was a greedy psychopathic killer, and eventually it was decided that someone should be made a policeman and thereby keep the peace. This idea fell out of favor as anthropologists discovered that non-state societies (such as indigenous tribes) were, by and large, peaceful, content, and sane; and as archaeologists found that the first city-states actually arose because some minority group (such as a priesthood) gained monopolistic control of some essential resource (such as an irrigation system) and starting lording it over everyone else. And once you have a state in one place, then the neighboring villages and tribes start gathering into states of their own, if only for mutual defense. So it would seem that a government is an evil that’s only necessary if there are other governments around.

Photo © Alison Lilly 2012

And yet the modern large-scale state has some definite advantages. Of course, it defends its citizens against other states. But beyond that, it provides a free-trade zone, and an area of consistent laws about education, taxation, health care, and so on, which serves to both enrich its citizens and provide for jurisprudence and the rule of law. So how did the (relatively) moral, just modern nation-state arise out of the barbarity of its ancestry? And is it possible to make it even better?

This is what Gaus’s book is about. He has apparently drawn together many of the most recent strands of philosophy, game theory, and social science into a coherent whole — a theory of how a society can be free, moral, and just — and he’s gotten some rave reviews. I’m an optimistic fellow (or at least, I’d like to be) and it would be great to think that something that started out as common banditry and blackmail would inexorably develop, over time, organically, into something wonderful, even beautiful. We don’t often think of human nature working like that, but human nature is just nature. And changing excrement into flowers is the way nature works, isn’t it?

The Cat Cure: Animal Husbandry and Human Civilization

I do love my cat. Gods, do I love my cat. Cu Gwyn is his name, meaning “White Dog” in Welsh; we chose it for him because he’s a black cat, and that’s the kind of sense of humor we have.

Cu wanders the house at random, mostly sleeping or looking out the window or playing with his toys. Sometimes he comes over to us for pets. Sometimes he stalks us and attacks us. And sometimes he does things we just don’t understand. For example, he watches the birds intently, and makes odd little chirping noises, as if he were trying to sing with them. He brings his stuffed tiger to us, mewing plaintively for no reason we can see.

Cu Gwyn, Best Cat Ever

We feed him in the morning, and he thanks us by purring and rubbing his head against our hands. We pick him up and cuddle him until he gets fed up and wiggles free. We play with him, throwing his ball so that he can chase it up and down the stairs. He sleeps in our bed sometimes. He follows us from room to room — not to get attention, or to watch us, but simply to be near us. He also likes his stuffed tiger toy, although it’s a little confusing whether, in Cu’s universe, Tiger is a sibling, a friend, or maybe… something more. (But Cu doesn’t get too “involved” with Tiger, because Cu has been to the vet.)

Read more

Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Temperance

Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

Read more

The Tie that Binds: a Meditation on Love and War

Why are people violent?

Years ago, during a visualization meditation on physical violence (I wanted to try and get at the root of it, to understand where it came from), I found myself on a path edged with tall, tangled bushes. Their branches were bowed with huge blossoms and masses of matted leaves. The air was hot and heavy with humidity, and the sun was high and blistering. Up ahead, around a corner, I could hear voices shouting in anger.

People say that humans are violent because it’s just in our nature to be so, but for me that isn’t a satisfying answer (and there is recent evidence against it). Even if it’s true, it doesn’t explain why it’s in our nature; and it offers no solutions for preventing or mitigating violence.

Something that also puzzled me was the high incidence of violence in European culture. Europeans and European-derived cultures have become much more peaceful in the last couple of hundred years, but for a long time we were among the most violent on earth. The histories of China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas are not bloodless by a long shot, but compared to the history of Europe, they’re like pacifistic fairy-tales. Of course there were wars in these areas, but they tended to be either brief periods of intense violence followed by long years of peace, or else millennia of small-scale, ritualistic tribal struggles. But from the end of Pax Romana to the World Wars, Europe has almost always been at war. You can get a visual, visceral view of this at this site, which maps all the wars and battles of human history on a single Google map.

It’s particularly odd because the religion of Europe during those two thousand years was Christianity, which preaches peace and love quite insistently. What’s going on here?

Read more