True Believers

Reality surrounds us, but we each see only slices of it — and not always the same slices. “Eyewitness” experiments famously show that when ten people witness an event, they will give ten different (sometimes very different) accounts of it.

Have you ever taken a snapshot and then later found it was not at all how you remembered the scene? Then you know that we see only partially as we focus our attention on some things and ignore others. Furthermore, we distort even what we do see according to our own particular language, culture, background, and experiences.

Human senses only work within very circumscribed limits. I will never forget two pictures I saw in a magazine years ago — the first showed a flat lawn with a large leafy bush in the middle of it. The second was exactly the same area, but taken with an infrared camera — the way a snake would see it. Clearly visible behind the bush was the heat form of a man.

Bats can hear sounds too high for human ears, elephants can hear sounds too low. Bees can see polarized light. Dogs and pigs can smell much better than we can, and so on. Of course, we have instruments that can extend our senses greatly, telescopes, microscopes, infrared, X-rays, etc. but in daily life we don’t often think about the world in these ways. We experience a brick wall as solid, even though science tells us that it is made of mostly empty space filled with a pattern of electrons spinning energetically around the centers of their atoms like our planets circling our sun. Sitting still, we don’t perceive ourselves on a planet spinning on its axis while simultaneously orbiting the sun, swirling in a galaxy and rushing away from the original “big bang” point of origin of the universe. Nor do we remember all that most of the time.

We each use our normal sense perceptions and our minds to fashion the best picture of reality that we can — but it will always be only a limited picture, and will differ somewhat from person to person. This is inescapable and cannot be otherwise. We adopt our version of reality from our parents, friends, teachers, reading, etc. (as best we understand it) — and then work at adapting it to our own experiences.

But there are some of us who take one extra step — that one step too far. Having adopted and adapted a vision of “how things are” these unfortunate folks — forgetting or ignoring the always partial nature of human knowledge — decide that their version of reality is reality itself.

This is called mistaking the map for the territory.

That one step too far, taken in ignorance leads to a fall into the pit of spiritual pride, into a belief that “My way is the one true way!” This is fanaticism.

Devastating the Planet is Insane

So okay, here is a multiple choice question for you: Which of the following is most likely to survive lost and alone in the wilderness until rescued?

  1. experienced hunters
  2. former members of the military
  3. physically fit bikers
  4. skilled sailors
  5. small children

The correct answer, according to Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival is small children (under the age of seven). Why? “If it gets cold they crawl into a hollow tree to keep warm. If they’re tired they rest. If thirsty, they drink. They try to make themselves comfortable, and staying comfortable helps keep them alive.” In other words, they do what they need to do, rather than run themselves ragged doing what some mental map (which may or may not be accurate) tells them they should do.

Sustainability work, of course, is different because we must plan to save ourselves, rather than wait to be rescued. Nevertheless, sustainability, at its core, is all about survival. So I think there are some important lessons in this little story. One is to concentrate on those things we actually need to be comfortable. But another is to stop trying to fight the natural environment and learn once again to relax into it – to realize it is our home – in a realistic, not a romantic way.

Of course there are inconveniences, there are dangers, and even – gasp! – limits to work within. But imagine for a moment shrugging off the “shoulds” of our present industrial culture and relaxing into a home where you are as valued as every other member of the great web of life on Earth and can learn to be just as capable of adding to the abundance and diversity the planet offers to all. Imagine being a really productive member of the life of this beautiful “big blue marble” instead of – as humans are now – a scourge and destroyer.

As Thomas Berry says in The Great Work, “Healing the Earth is a prerequisite for healing the human. Adjustment of the human to the conditions and restraints of the natural world constitutes the primary medical prescription for human well-being. We depend upon the Earth for existence, functioning, and fulfillment.”

“For a species to remain viable it must establish a niche that is beneficial both for itself and for the larger community. To seek benefit for humans by devastating the planet is insane. A human economy can only exist as a subset of the Earth economy. An extractive economy is by its nature a terminal economy.”

So maybe, just maybe, we could be happier and better off if we learn to use our mature judgment and extensive learning to find our way home, while holding tight to our “inner child’s” love of comfort, and forget spending all this effort on trying to outdo each other and dominate nature.

A Culture Dedicated to Life

Do we humans want to survive a long time on Earth (i.e. to live sustainably)? If the answer is yes, do we have the knowledge to be able to do it? What does sustainable life on Earth look like? What are its characteristics, its “rules of the game”?

There are examples to be seen. We find it “living in a dynamic equilibrium (or balance) where a diversity of plants and animals live cooperatively together in a particular climate,” for example tundra, taiga, desert, scrub forest (or chaparral), grasslands (or prairie), temperate deciduous forests, temperate or tropical rain forests, and coral reefs.

According to Janine Benyus in Biomimicry, species in a mature (or climax) ecosystem “live in elaborate synergy with the species around them and put their energy into optimizing their relationships. They:

  • Use waste as a resource
  • Diversify and cooperate to fully use the habitat
  • Gather and use energy efficiently
  • Optimize rather than maximize
  • Use materials sparingly
  • Don’t foul their own nests
  • Don’t draw down resources
  • Remain in balance with the bioshpere
  • Run on information
  • Shop locally”

These principles resonate with David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles. (See earliest posts on the blog, or check them out at: or

Balance, diversity, sustainability, survival — what exactly do we mean? What must we do to create these conditions? And what would be the result?

I think William Koetke said it best in The Final Empire: “Creating a new Garden of Eden is our only hope. . . . We must create a positive, cooperative culture dedicated to life restoration and then accomplish that in perpetuity, or we as a species cannot be on Earth.”

Notice he said a culture, not a system of technologies (although technologies will be necessary, of course). Not only is it up to us, only we can do it — because a mature ecosystem is not run from above, but rather from “numerous, even redundant, messages coming from the grassroots, dispersed throughout the community structure and fed back through complex communications channels”. (Biomimicry)

So there it is: the great work of our times. Take up your own piece and carry it onward as you go. And remember to celebrate whenever you can.

Their Brains Were Small and They Died

Remember geological ages? Maybe you have enjoyed interesting dioramas of life in the different ages at a museum. Scientists have differentiated many of them, but let’s start just eight back – with the Triassic – an age of dinosaurs and the very first mammals. Then came:

  • Jurassic: dinosaurs were IT and the earth was covered with giant ferns and other enormous plants, and atmospheric carbon dioxide was 1200 – 1500ppmv
  • Cretaceous: last of the dinosaurs, first of the flowering plants, and recognizable birds
  • Paleogene: a tropical age, but gradually cooling to an ice age, grasses, the first large mammals, and the highest concentration of CO2 ever 3800ppmv, falling to 650ppmv
  • Miocene: Ice ages, first modern mammals and birds, first apes, and carbon dioxide down to about 100ppmv
  • Pliocene: still Ice Age, appearance of Homo habilis
  • Pleistocene: Ice ages, stone age humans, CO2 at 100 to 300ppmv
  • Holocene: (the last 10,000 years) the ice recedes, human prehistory and history, carbon dioxide up to 385ppmv

Now obviously these ages shade from one to the next and there are no sharp dividing lines between them. But in general, what distinguishes one from the next is a particular climate, home to a particular set of plants and animals – plants and animals that do not thrive (or perhaps even survive) in different ages.

A natural ecology is too complex for us to understand, or even map completely. But it is perfectly clear that the climate, plants and animals interact in innumerable ways to produce a particular ecology. Make too many changes, and the whole system will shift to a new environment (geological age) which will be home to different life forms.

So what does it take to produce a new geological age? “According to members of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London:

  • Change the atmosphere’s composition, thus modifying plants
  • Change the distribution and diversity of species, thereby changing the future fossil record, and
  • Acidify the oceans, which will modify mineral deposits on the ocean floor.

Sound familiar?”

Yes, we seem to be bent on bringing about changes that will lead to a new geological age. Will we be able to thrive in it, or even survive?

Nobody knows.

As folk singer Faith Petric says, it may well be said of us as it was of the dinosaurs, “their brains were small, and they died”.