Monkeying Around

I’ve been in the San Francisco Bay area now for nearly two months, and the time has gone by like a blink. Between spending time cycling, hiking, and snuggling on the couch with my lovely and super fun girlfriend Rachel, babysitting my nephews, spending time with my brother Dave and his wife Stefanie, investigating Master’s programs in counseling-psychology, and searching with great intensity for a job, time seems to have taken giant strides, and weeks go by like they are only days.

The job hunt can be depressing. I’ve worked hard, but until a few days ago, had only had very limited responses. Until a few days back. This coming week, I’ve several interviews lined up, which has me very excited at the moment.

This afternoon, I am in San Francisco, downtown at a coffee shop. I am living in “South Bay,” which is a bit of a trip from downtown San Fran, and this only my second trip into the city.

I haven’t had the time and ambition to blog recently, but inspiration struck in the form of a very long article that I just finished from my favorite magazine: Orion.

I’m thankful that you cannot spend significant time in my mind, observing my thoughts. Frankly, it’s been nice to have my brain as a strictly private place to think! However, if you were to spend a bit of time in my cranium, you’d notice that I spend a lot of time thinking about why we human beings seem to have such a limited capacity to plan for the long term benefit of our species and of the planet.

These are the kinds of questions that I ponder: Why do we as an American society not care about climate change? Why do so few people research the negative long-term impact that industrialization is having on our air, soil, and water? How is it that we in the States have a movement calling itself “conservative” yet are interested in conserving nothing and consuming everything, without restriction or accountability? Why are people so hostile to global warming? Why do so few people realize that oil is getting more difficult to find, extract, and refine? Why are so many good midwestern folk unaware that the aquifers are getting lower and lower and that they can’t last forever? Why are so many good Christian people I know seemingly unconcerned about the sustainability of our lifestyles?

My answers over the years have invariably involved some sort of judgmentalism and a moral condemnation: People are consumeristic, greedy, intentionally ignorant, or lazy?

Recently, however, I’ve begun to consider the problems from an evolutionary perspective: maybe in many ways, we are just a bunch of monkeys competing with each other to make sure we have everything we want.

Because I come from a fundamentalist Christian background, it has been easy for me to relate to the zeal of radical environmentalism. It is natural for me to frame these issues in moral and spiritual terms: the battle of right versus wrong, good versus evil. I am also predisposed to being a sucker for dramatic apocalyptic sermons: repent or thou shalt be doomed. For a former religious fundamentalist, it is only a small step for me to identify with radical “the end is near” environmental groups. For one thing, the end very well may be near, scientifically speaking. The data suggests that the earth will only continue to get hotter as we continue to burn fossil fuels with no restrictions; but more than the scientific evidence is the tone of the discussion. I identify with the “turn or burn” language of apocalypse……But I’ve begun to wonder if maybe it is a little easier on the blood pressure to just think of us as a bunch of monkeys competing for resources, more primate than we care to admit.

In a long article in my favorite magazine, Orion (“State of the Species”), Charles C. Mann walks us through the evolutionary process. “Our [humans] ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing. Or was greatest blessing.” From an evolutionary perspective, we are “hard-wired to focus on the immediate and local over the long-term.”

We have thrived as a species because we have consumed so much. Consumerism may be destroying the planet at this point, but after thousands of years, it’s hard to stop. We are destroying our world; can we stop before it is too late? It’s possible, says Mann, but it would be unheard of: “Hara hachi bu is shorthand for an ancient injunction to stop eating before feeling full…Evolutionarily speaking, a species-wide adoption of hara hachi bu would be unprecedented.”

Still. We’ve made progress as a species: the work to abolish slavery, the advance in women’s rights as well as gay rights, and (as some have argued) a decline in violence over the last 70 years.

“As a relatively young species, we have an adolescent propensity to make a mess: we pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink, and appear stalled in an age of carbon dumping and nuclear experimentation that is putting countless species at risk including our own. But we are making undeniable progress nonetheless. No European in 1800 could have imagined that in 2000 Europe would have no legal slavery, women would be able to vote, and gay people would be able to marry.”
So, maybe there is room for a moral crusader, after all. The abolitionists were originally a small group of radicals who eventually brought down the slave trade, an industry whose economics amounted to billions in profits. Sometimes it seems unrealistic to believe that we can change the course of society when oil companies have such massive resources. But it’s been done before. Still, I know that being a moral crusader is not my calling….
I’ve also been reading a book called Buddha’s Brain. The brain, as it turns out, can be changed by the mind, and visa-versa. Through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can rewire the way we think and the way we behave. Studying these brain wave activities is where science, psychology, and spirituality meet. We really can change. We really can become more clear minded, less selfish. It is possible to become more sympathetic, to consider the long term survival and flourishing of other human beings and to care about the natural world as more than something that merely provides enough calories in our own bellies. For me, this isn’t just something scientific or psychological, not merely a religious principle of self-control and personal responsibility, it is personal, because I’ve experienced it. This is no claim to being enlightened or perfected. By no means. But I can see how dedicating myself to improving my mental condition pays off…..given enough time, of course. Self-improvement is a series of many many small, baby steps…..
Will we survive as a species? Will we consume and consume and consume until it is too late? Until it is game over for the planet? Will we as a species come to our senses in time to invest in changes of infrastructure that are sustainable and reliant on renewable energy sources? Time will tell. I’m an optimist. Studies show that optimists accomplish their goals more often, so if for no other reason, it’s pragmatic to be optimistic! I like to think that the bunch of us monkeys can soon learn to sit down and come up with solutions that live up to the inspirational ideals written down in our very best poetry, our classic canons, and our biblical texts.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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