Northern Arizona University/Environmental Ethics/Journals/Spencer S's Journal
The state of nature doesn’t vanish entirely after submission to the Leviathan. In one sense, it vanishes as the dominant form of interaction within a group of humans, but in another sense, the state of nature remains contained as a secret wish in every individual, struggling to break free. In the state of nature, there is a constant tendency, or rather, an impulse towards action based solely on self-interest. Only as a necessary evil does the agreement of authority arise (to further self-interest in a more reasonable way), but why would the impulse towards self-interest disappear simply because the types of action it tends to produce are now out of the question? When an authority is designated with the ability to give us security in return for freedom, our self-interest tells us to complete the sacrifice, but at the same time our self-interest also tells us to take any subsequent chance possible that will let us get away with a breach of the Leviathan for a taste of the now archaic statue of nature. In other words, the sacrifice of freedom to authority that ‘necessarily’ comes with a true desire to secure increased self-interest does obviously increase our chances of survival in the long run, but the full satisfaction of exerting power over others never comes. This is why, no matter how much we may wish against it, crime will always exist. The Leviathan can never give us everything that the statue of nature offers. Most will feel complete with the new pleasure, convenience, and increased chances of survival they can obtain under the Leviathan (the ones who faired poorly in the statue of nature), but it remains that the urge for total freedom in the state of nature will always exist. The only question is to what degree does this urge override the safety of the Leviathan.
Beauty and ugliness may seem to be a duality, separately existing from one another, but ugliness is more accurately described as already being contained in all beauty; it is the shadow side of beauty that can be noticed by itself, but not completely separated from its larger whole. Every living thing has in it the history of production from a long line of violence (something most would call ugly). Violence in terms of the number of its ancestors that had to die to make its life even possible, and violence in terms of what its ancestors inflicted on others to survive. When we view something typically beautiful, like a tree, everything that is beautiful becomes amplified, but ugliness is still there (in the form of death, decay, disease, etc.). In just the same way, a negative event in life or an ugly occurrence can't help but be brought to the forefront, creating the impression that it is pure ugliness, but it doesn't mean that beauty still isn't there. This isn't to say that ugliness should be appreciated in the same way as beauty, but it's worth noting that any attitude which tries to ignore the immediately unpleasant aspects of life will be unpleasantly surprised eventually. We should at least confront life and nature in all of its aspects in such a way that allows us to cultivate a sense of respect and awe. This way, any ugly parts can be regarded as simply necessary evils to a more beautiful whole. This also isn't to say that once we get rid of notions of beauty and ugliness, everything becomes beautiful, but rather that typically ugly things can be appreciated in a different way. Death, for instance, is not something pleasant by anyone's standard, but it is something inevitable and necessary, something that drives nature at its very core. This is not beautiful in the same way a flower is beautiful, but beautiful in a more grandiose way, commanding of respect and wonder. We can reject death with fear and paranoia, putting it off with some kind of postmortem speculation, or we can accept it in all its unpleasantness and use it to drive our meaning during life.
Think of it this way: in seeing a group of plants or animals, we can set our minds on all the ones that will die, or all the ones that will live. The former seems tragic, but the latter seems inspiring. Picking a different option doesn't change what is actually happening, it just changes our perception of it. Not that beauty is something up to the whim of every person, the point here is that beauty and ugliness interact in a very close way. Nobody is claiming that a decaying corpse stirs the emotions like a vast expanse of forest, just that both exist in the beauty of nature.
"God" in the deistic sense is really just a poetic way of describing nature; in a single word it summarizes all the infinite qualities and unfathomable depths we experience in the natural world. Why not just simply use the word "nature" instead? I never use the word "God" this way, but I can see why someone would. "Nature", for the average person, or in its everyday use, tends to conjure up an image of something typically pretty, like a forest, something that is obviously aesthetically pleasing, but is not asserted to be more than something nice to look at. We use the word "nature" even for something silly and artificially natural, like a park. On the other hand, the word "God" brings much more into play. It conveys a sense of power, transcendence, awe, and beauty in its perfection. When a person says they are on a quest for God, it is automatically a quest of epic proportions, compared to a quest for "nature" or connectedness to nature, which seems trivial. Of course, most people are talking about God in a theistic way, because it makes them feel important. Atheists rarely prefer to take someone's speaking of God with a grain of salt on the off-chance that they are really just talking about nature, choosing to use a word that has more "inspiring" connotations. Speaking about nature as God also gives it a human quality. It implies that everything was made with the clear intention to benefit humanity, or at the very least not be antagonistic to it. In this way, we can find meaning easily. Finding meaning in pure "nature" is entirely more complex. First of all, we have to create it, it can't just be given by some sort of religious text. Second, it opens up the possibility that nature may even be hostile to us, and we may not be sacred...
The cold outside is something that needs submission in order for us to gain any insight from it. Fighting against the natural conditions and grumbling about how uncomfortable they are only serve to make them more of a problem; if we have to be stuck in the cold, we might as well make the best of it. Normally, we spend so much time complaining that aspects of real life which could have something to teach us pass by (namely, the aspects we are complaining about). Giving in to the cold creates an exhilarating feeling, which may not be one entirely pleasant, but one completely life-affirming. It pushes life at us unfiltered by discomfort or hesitation; we are forced to confront life in all its intensity. This experience is something of the sublime, something or sheer power. Recognizing our powerlessness against the cold (outside of technology), we are humbled and allow life to flow through us.
Indoors versus outdoors is no question, even in circumstances such as the cold. The cold is like a jolt that tears through the stagnation that comes from attempting to make life all pleasant all the time. It's a refreshing, awakening feeling, granted the conditions aren't miserable, but mild to moderate cold should be taken stoically and with excitement. How could this experience be anything but enlightening? It is a test of our limits and a demonstration of these limits within the framework of nature's grand system.
Why do Thoreau and Emerson dislike philanthropy so much? How could someone criticize selflessness of all things? Is it not a godly virtue? But, could it not be selfishness in disguise, a cheap substitute for a stable self?
They see through the facade of "altruism" that modern man wears to cover up his true motives in charity. Emerson himself speaks of donations to the poor thought of as a "penance" that modern man pays as an "apology" for living. This kind of attitude is everywhere: donate a dollar here and there to avoid confrontation with those who would denounce you as selfish, donate fifty dollars once in a while to enjoy the privilege of announcing yourself as a good person, clearly in higher moral standing than those you address. There is no real caring involved, just a taxation to avoid being labeled by the people who get their self-esteem from touting moral superiority for all to recognize and affirm. It is blasphemous to even suggest self-improvement as a high goal, even if it is done as a precursor to some kind of work involving the improvement of others. Who has done better moral work, those who continuously siphon their money to the coffers of another or those who teach others a valuable skill that they can use on their own without dependence? One does not have to avoid philanthropy altogether, one should simply re-examine the intentions behind it. Is it used as a surrogate, a means to enhance self-image, an ego booster, a self-esteem generator? When these things cannot be created independently of verification from others, it is time to stabilize oneself as an individual. Only then can charitable work be rewarding.
Emerson's quest for new values isn't as complicated as it first seems. As a starting point, we have all kinds of sources from history detailing what works and what doesn't work in the way of approaches to life (so many years of history has got to be almost entirely exhaustive), and even if we're working to transcend these years of previous experimentation and start from scratch, certain values will be quickly rewarded by life while others become problematic. We can ensure the accuracy of this project as long as we are continually open. To avoid being duped by a false value for years to come, we need to view life as a continual experiment, where continual examination plays the main part. We must notice how each value begins to shape life. If it is of any productive value, we will be able to feel it moving in a positive direction. Of course, we always have truisms and cliches that will just refuse to be bypassed; these can be the framework in which we experiment with new values. Emerson himself speaks in 'History' of the personal value that all history has: we see in the history we read our own lives, the connection is so obvious that we cannot avoid it. Ancient Greek philosophy has dealt with issues that people still fall prey to today; love of money and social status over truth and wisdom. There is no utopia which we are progressing towards...
One form of self-congratulatory philanthropy that is very prominent today is trendy environmentalism: buy these "green" products, and you're automatically an eco-savior, or at least now have the privilege of acting like one. The strange point that gets lost in all this hip rhetoric is the fact that our trendy sort of environmentalism is just narcissistic consumption with novelty green tacked on. It's a false dilemma. Which should you buy, the "regular" version of the product or the "green" version of the product? How about reject both? This option seems to be conveniently ignored. What is really being said when we're told that switching light bulbs and turning off the faucet will thwart global warming? Not that this literal statement is endorsed, but the general line of thought is. Somehow we're supposed to reconcile unrestrained population growth, unrestrained technological advancement, and unrestrained consumption with a healthy planet. Have we not learned what thinking exclusively in the short-term brings us? Now we're just cloaking it with some kind of pseudo long-term thinking, where the short-term impulse to consume is hidden under a new, more safe justification: well at least now we're endlessly consuming with the earth (read: our reputations and status) in mind. Just buy the "eco-friendly" version and all is well. Isn't getting rid of all our plastic crap more of an "eco-friendly" choice? Environmentalism has become a great-sounding slogan to throw on a t-shirt, and all our politicians now must be up to date with "cutting X by Y by the year Z". The real assumption behind this is that as long as something sounds nice, for all intents and purposes, it is. Common sense says that an exponentially increasing population cannot last forever. Eventually, Nature is going to destructively react to an extent that cannot be avoided by human beings. The entire earth has a carrying capacity too, and humans are straining it. When it finally tops out, we'll have plenty of diseases, natural disasters, and infertility to look forward to.
I connect more deeply with animals than with people in nearly all circumstances. What do they offer that humans do not? For starters, they are non-judgmental and they can't hide their true motives. There is nothing deceptive about an animal. Animals simply are; I can just sit down and watch a crow walk around, and something about it feels better than the typical conversation between human beings, where one party does all the talking and there is some kind of unspoken questioning: what does this person really want from me? This is, of course, excluding stronger relationships. Animals are above the level of petty manipulation. A second interesting characteristic is their lack of speech. All too often, words are used as some kind of distraction; most of us feel uncomfortable in silence. Even when wild animals ignore me, in the silence I feel more connection than in a noisy, crowded room. Of course, animals will show no mercy if it is their prerogative to kill you, but it beats hanging out with a bunch of phonies who want to kill you, but won't admit it. If an animal is showing no rage, it can safely be assumed that you are at best, a minor annoyance. Humans go around messing up perfectly stable ecosystems when the animals show no sign of threat. If this kind of behavior causes personal injury, rest assured you probably deserved it. It would be a better idea to take what wisdom we can from animals and learn from their way of life before we are killed off ourselves by idiocy. Animals may be living more dangerous lives while we sit in the glow of a convenient television, but at least they still have excitement. Now any person has the freedom to be as mundane as he wishes, getting rid of that pesky feeling of true living, awash in passivity and overstimulation. It is high time to take some much needed advice from animals. They've been slowly and efficiently moving along, hindered only by moronic humans who have better things to worry about, like contests to see who can get the closest to alcohol poisoning, important discussions of cartoons and politics, and spending half their life striving to make enough money so they can procure the ability to sit around for the other half.
Parks are a pale shadow of nature; wilderness without the wild. I often wonder why so many gravitate towards them. Is it an attempt to connect with nature? Is it about convenience? Is it about safety? None of these can be used coherently as an excuse when our ecosystems are being laid waste to at an exponential rate, yet we still have lands that one can readily traverse to discover a mystical communion with the natural world. There is nothing natural about a big lawn with a sidewalk stuck in the middle, beside a few trees here and there for good taste. The heavy dose of convenience and safety comes at the expense of danger and reality, all the way establishing an entirely boring atmosphere. Of course, fresh air in a park is better than the stale air brought by too much time indoors, but even more fulfilling is the breath of the forest. When we breathe in the breath of the forest, so much more than a pleasant satisfaction is accomplished. The entire living realm can be taken in during a breath. Couple this with the awe-inspiring sight of the seemingly infinite forest, and a profound appreciation cannot be avoided. Could something like this ever happen in a park. At best, we could gain a sense of inner peace and relaxation, but this is minuscule compared to the staggering power of real nature, the kind of experience that is necessary to spur oneself toward a love of nature, one not superficial, but deep and timeless. Until we actually go out into the natural world and breathe it in, we won't know what is at stake.
Emerson's concept of the lenses brings up an interesting point in relation to one of Leopold's ideas. Essentially, when Emerson claims that we can never resolve the imperfections in our lenses, he is claiming that our experience of reality is subjective, while at the same time it remains that objective reality does exist. This is similar to Leopold's claim that we should respect the innerworkings of nature to such a degree as to admit our own deficiency in ever coming to fully understand them. Of course there are real connections and laws operating, but we can only experience these in varying ways. To experience them unfiltered and directly would suggest that the conqueror role is justified, so perhaps this subjective experience of objective reality is necessary to remind us of the fact that our understanding is limited, and even the most advanced theories and experiences cannot completely predict seemingly random surprises. When we can fully admit that a direct experience of reality is impossible and simultaneously admit that this does not mean that reality is up to us, we can begin to approach Leopold's recommendation fully. This admission ought to capture an experience of the sublime, setting us up to realize just how vast the sea of ignorance really is.
The cause of environmental collapse can be narrowed down to an obsession with short-term thinking. As Kaczynski argues, in the course of technological progress, each tiny step can be easily justified by taking it out of context; every aspect can be seen as beneficial, necessary, or harmless, at the very least. When we think "it's just one more tiny step", but then say this every single time as we take hundreds and hundreds of "tiny" steps, each one harmless by itself, but together monumentally harmful, we have sealed our doom. Each passing day seems completely safe because the change is so extremely gradual that it cannot be seen unless our thinking is adjusted toward the long-term. Sure, eating a few donuts "today" is essentially harmless, but when each day becomes "well, it's just today", a monster has been created. This is analogous to our problems with the environment. Of course, on a day-to-day basis, they are not at all obvious. Everything is still running smoothly, and if it becomes slightly more degraded tomorrow, nobody will notice. Thinking in the long-term shuns this fate of a cliched 'frog in the slowly boiling water' and gets us ready for real progress.
This lesson can be applied everywhere. The typical modern approach is to think of every day as "just today" (except in the case of mindless career ladder-climbing), effectively making any choice seem like a great one, or at least minimally harmful. When the long-term effects of cumulative short-term choices begin to pile up and the consequences are obvious, only then will be spurred into change if we can avoid the temptation of changing "tomorrow", which is never here, always in the future.
The snow that came this morning is a great testament to the power of nature. We couldn't help but shut down so many of our typical activities; anything less would have been dangerous, at least, any activity that couldn't be accomplished on foot. It's paradoxical, in a way. A big snowstorm comes and it encourages everyone to stay indoors. If this was combined with a power outage, the options would have been limited even more. Everyone would be forced to reorganize their day, prioritizing often-ignored activities like reading and socializing.
Walking outside in a forest full of snow gives off a completely serene feel at points in the day, like nobody else in the world exists. The landscape seems to stretch on forever and the horizon meets the sky. Wind covers up the usual sounds, or the sounds level out to a pure silence, real, true silence. The snow blankets every tree, making the forest look more like a vast plane with differing shapes, but not in a way that is monotonous. It's more like the size and power of everything is amplified. Go to far and the landmarks will disappear, white as far as the eye can see, no sense of direction. It's cold and death will slowly begin to creep up as soon as it can. This kind of feeling is completely exhilarating, even if the circumstances are only slightly life-threatening. The forest always carries an aura of death, underlying all the plants and geography. It's everywhere, but seems to be nowhere at the same time. It could come up and kill, but there is no way to predict when and where.