Wisdom of the Breakdown

In Nature, everything is designed to ensure the survival of the Whole. Why, then, are we humans participating in our own slow murder, and the murder of all that we love? How did we humans step outside of Nature’s design? The only three reasons I know of for murder and suicide are illness, addiction and trauma. We’re suffering from all three. Most of us alive today are children of the atomic age and so cannot remember a time when the future mattered enough not to risk it. 

In2015, a friend said, “When things get really bad, we should go into the mountains and make art for five hundred years, like they did in ancient Japan.” I pictured monks in pristine forests building shrines and practicing calligraphy. I liked the ring of it then, and the idea has stayed with me. I told myself I would recognize when the moment came to activate such a plan – at the time it all still seemed at arm’s length. Now that the Great Barrier Reef is actively dying and extreme weather is commonplace; now that Trump and his cronies are bulldozing the EPA, banking regulations, health care, civil rights, the arts, the media, internet access and diplomacy, well, the emergency is undeniably underway. Our art making must begin in earnest, though I have not fled to the mountains, but to the sea. 

On the eve of last year’s election, I heard a talk by a Peruvian teacher who said, A cancer cell is a cell that has lost its connection and communication with the rest of the body. When we break reciprocity with the Earth, we become a cancer. I remind myself that the nature of every dilemma reveals its cure. Since my work in Liberia immediately after the civil war ended in 2004, my colleagues and I have referred to this as the Wisdom of the Breakdown: Just as in the wild antidote plants grow next to poisonous ones, the antidote to our murderous behavior lies at our feet. And, look: the root of the word, culture, derives from the Latin colere, which means to inhabit, to cultivate, to honor or worship. In Middle English, it meant place tilled. Culture and cultivation are rooted in the Earth. Life and soil are inseparable. Remembering where we came from will free us in unimaginable ways because, by so doing, we will be part of the Whole once again. 

Cultures that have ‘bought in’ to Western thinking have been taught to ignore any personal connection to the Earth on pain of ridicule or death. ‘Free trade’ means permission to sell the future for profit today. Intimacy, in addition to its romantic connotation, can be defined as seeing and knowing someone or something deeply. Why are we no longer intimate with the Earth? What’s wrong with sensually, or even sexually, loving the Earth? Why is that considered obscene and the Pacific Gyre is not? We are all, literally, being sickened by those who insist that we who love the Earth must constantly ‘prove’ that She is generous, wise and miraculous. But “proof” is everywhere. Miracles are the essence of Life. Without them we wouldn’t be here. We breathe in and breathe out, and live another day. We make love and a child forms. These are miracles! Instead, we have created a culture where it is dangerous to live from the truth of the Earth’s wise aliveness. What kind of madness is it to doubt that the Earth and her myriad life forms can, and do communicate with us when they are in constant communication with each other? Bacteria communicate continuously, inside and outside of our bodies. The mycelia that connect most plants share nutrients and warn each other of danger. 

In Nature, success doesn’t mean better than, more than, triumphant, or even thriving at the expense of others (human and non). True and sustainable success is whatever supports the uninterrupted thriving of an intact Whole. The contortions of industry and government to circumvent this fact regardless of cost boggle the mind. The false distinctions we’ve established that excise political, economic and environmental decisions from the larger context render most of those decisions obsolete and irrelevant before they are made - except for the fact that we have allowed them to be imposed on us and so we must live them. Even the holy grail of the ‘rule of law’ breaks down because the law doesn’t apply to everyone equally, and special interests pass laws that benefit only themselves at the expense of others and the Whole. 

Evolutionarily speaking, this means that the ultra-wealthy are actually, with few exceptions, dismally unsuccessful because they are utter failures at symbiosis, truly a burden on society and the natural world. Most of the very poor understand how and why to weave themselves into a vast and deeply personal web of relationships that go beyond survival to include shared meaning and vitality on a scale unknown to most of the world’s one percenters. This is not to romanticize suffering and poverty. This is to view it through a biomimetic lens. The dominance of wealth as a goal and as a socio-economic measure of success is a death knell for all of the natural systems the world depends on. Odd, then, that disproportionate wealth confers disproportionate power to continue the damage. In Nature, true power is held within the infinitesimal and the invisible (think microbes, and underground mycelia). Dominance behavior is neither a natural nor an effective way of being. In Nature, dominance, like fire, has a specific, focused – and limited, purpose. Apex predators such as lions and sharks are not ‘winners’ and their prey ‘losers’. Each is essential to the balanced functioning of the Whole. The notion of survival of the fittest is misleading because it has been de-contextualized and spun to mean that being at the top is the best place to be. This, too, is false. Being at the ‘top’, in the human context, means being without a functional niche - a very dangerous place, indeed. Predators only survive if there is prey. Total dominance leads to starvation. Imbalance causes extinction. Complexity (not complication) creates vitality. Fractals, webs and symbionts are Nature’s insurance policy. People like Trump, the Koch brothers, Mugabe, Putin, Carlos Slim and other bandits, are the suicide bombers of Life on Earth. No need to wait until the afterlife for their reward. They can grab pussies, silence opposition and bankrupt countries with equal impunity right now. But they cannot hide behind the curtain of power indefinitely because it is not made of whole cloth. It is just a fragment. And a fragment cannot survive much less thrive on its own. A healthy, resilient culture is one whose presence benefits at least as many elements as it depends on. A healthy system means, among other things, that aberrants cannot co-opt it. In Nature, unhealthy cells are induced by either mitochondria or bacteria to literally, sacrifice themselves. It’s interesting to speculate how this would play out biomimetically in humans. 

The quest for peace, for healing, for health and resilience, is a quest for recognizable, exquisitely beautiful, self-replicating patterns of reciprocity. Robust biomimetic social and economic models show us where there are tears in the tattered bio-fabric of Western culture – the information gaps, the silent zones, the extinctions, the disease patterns, the crime statistics and, yes, the global system of banking and commerce. We need to re-learn to see and engage with what feeds and sustains all Life rather than what we can extract for profit. 

Those who negotiate business deals, trade agreements and peace treaties, those who pass laws and create media, do not include, much less satisfy, the communities affected by their actions. The stakeholders at the wide base of the social pyramid and the even vaster base of the ecological pyramid, ie those most directly and deeply affected by the decisions made by the small subset of (mostly) white (mostly) males within the subset of a single species at the pyramid’s top are not asked for their input. The individuals, the communities (human and non) who are inevitably or intentionally excluded become invisible, voiceless. But without those ‘invisibles’, Life could not continue. And, those voiceless invisible ones must live the consequences of top-down decisions day by interminable day, seeing their killers on every street corner. Mahmoud Darwish said: You wonder: What kind of a linguistic or legal wunderkind could formulate a peace treaty and good neighborliness between a palace and a shack, between a guard and a prisoner?

 Imagine what might happen if developers consulted the ancestors of a plot of land; spoke with potential occupants of a building and potential neighbors; or considered the effect of the materials they use on sub-soil microbes. Imagine if peace treaties pondered seven generations hence, along with the unquiet dead, the widows and orphans, the traumatized veterans, and the displaced masses, including devastated forests and threatened species squeezed into fragments of degraded and diminished habitat. A whole new paradigm of negotiation must be re-invented, one that considers the Whole first and foremost, and includes All Beings across time.