The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan
(I'm pleased to include this essay in my much-neglected Living Religion series, last entry having been made nearly 5 years ago.)
How (and why) I judge myself is an excellent and precious marker on how (and why) I judge all of you people.
I feel guilty because I don't have a job right now. I'm a "looter" - not on society in general because I live in Arizona and it will be a cold day in, well, Arizona before this state gives up any benefits to the likes of me. I'm a looter of my family, at the moment.
Intellectually, I know this is a wrong feeling. I know this because whenever I imbibe huge amounts of psychedelics and cocoon into my isolation tank and wake up naked and smeared with blood next to the steaming carcass of a zoo animal...
Wait... I know this because whenever I imbibe huge amounts of psychedelics and cocoon into my isolation tank and regress my being to the primeval spark of life I come to the opposite conclusion that William Hurt's Eddie Jessup did. While Altered States decided that cinematic drama required a sort of horror in this revelation, I instead see the sweet mystery that life is, that I am.
That all of you are.
So I know that my guilt is a manufacture. A manufacture of circumstances, the circumstances and the guilt of a system, of how I, we, see the world.
I know that I see the world incorrectly. There is a fundamental flaw in my thinking, and that flaw necessarily colors and distorts any subsequent notions that I develop.
This is the kind of thing that gets me excited. I love discovering that I am wrong about something.
Many years ago I coined a word, benefficient,, and was quite pleased with myself (since re-coined, but I'm certain the bastard must have heard me holding forth 30 years ago. Looter.) What I meant by the word was a sort of synthesis of what is "good" and what is "efficient," rolled up into one. I internalized this with the sense that this synthesis is a "higher" good than simple "good."
You would think that would be enough of a red flag for me to examine my world view with some serious scrutiny.
Well, no - it took a nudge from Andrew Kimbrell, in his lecture to the E.F. Shumaker Society - Cold Evil: Technology and Modern Ethics - to shake me up enough to reconsider.
I am loathe to summarize that brilliant piece of work, but one must rise to the occasion. Beginning with "The Pilot's Dilemma" - the ability for an otherwise empathetic human being to kill unseen people with nary a twitch of guilt - he explores how our presumptions about what is right and good under the technocratic religion of "progress" ultimately alienates us from each other, from ourselves, from life itself.
To understand how his thinking reaches this judgment... wait for it... go read the whole thing. (Or listen to it - the verbal presentation is also available there.) What I'll do here is jump to the thought process it evoked in me. A thought process that was spiced with my personal feelings of guilt.
How did we get to a place where we judge ourselves according to our "usefulness?" As Kimbrell points out about "progress" - that it is an incomplete idea if one is not considering it in the context of "towards what?" - one asks the same about "usefulness": useful for what?
My primeval being in the isolation tank has no problem with this. Are you kidding? I'm fucking alive! Game over! "Usefulness" is a silly idea under the light of the miracle of life.
We self-aware primates with the incessant buzzing of the bees in our bonnets are not happy with this. We reflexively create philosophies and world-views, little snow-globes of the world in our brains, and then of course we are compelled to inflict these constructs on ourselves and each other.
I mean, that's what I do here myself on this blog.
So - what snow-globe is this that brings me this guilt? The pretty obvious answer is that thought has created a movement. "Usefulness" is a condition where we are compelled to go from one state to another. The fact that the nodes of both of these "states" are both "life" is not relevant - it's the movement that counts. If you're not moving, you're doing something wrong.
If you're not useful, you damn well better at least feel guilty about it. The thing is, if I feel guilty about it, then that means that I judge all of you lazy looters out there and, frankly, that is not to my taste.
I'm a hunter/gatherer (at least philosophically), and I believe in leisure as a fundamental virtue. Clearly, this is an abstraction after all, since I genuinely feel the guilt - which is a really a reverse-projection of the judgment that I feel that others "rightfully" feel towards me. That's what a conscience is - a reverse-projection of perceived judgment from others, and what a righteous comeuppance that is.
But why is the usefulness of me even a thought? On what lattice of perception does this concept hang itself?
The solution I found, over many years, to this enigma of modern evil lay in gaining a better understanding of the milieu in which I and most other modern humans live. It is commonly accepted that humanity lived the vast majority of its history (though it is called the “prehistoric” era) in direct relation to the natural world. Approximately seven thousand years ago humans were able to partially separate from our natural milieu. Primarily with the advent of agriculture and other basic technologies we were better able to control and manipulate nature as we organized larger and more complex societies. Much of our written history, laws, and ethics comes from this “social” era in our collective history. Most historians still place us in an “advanced” stage of this social milieu.We have adopted technology, and its enabler "progress," as an a priori religion. All modern activity is seen through the prism of efficient technology in the service of this "progress" that we have not bothered to question in the context of "towards what?"
French sociologist Jacques Ellul was among the first to realize that over the past century a large segment of humanity has unknowingly entered a third sphere of existence, which he called the technological milieu. It is not nature or even society that now dominates our lives; rather, it is technology. When we define the technological milieu (which I term the “technosphere”), we refer not only to the massive and interconnected systems of machines and techniques we use but also to the technocratic organizations, including corporations and government bureaucracies, that are required in order to utilize and operate this massive and increasingly global technological infrastructure.
Personally, I take this back to the birth of agriculture - which is really the science of more efficiently extracting food resources. This simple imperative has exhausted resources, exploded populations, caused wars. I've said it many times here on this blog - we have to learn to live off of what the sun gives us every day. This is not just a modern problem - we've been stealing excess solar power since we rubbed the first two dead sticks together. Bad enough on its face - that's carbon that was going to be interred rather than released into the atmosphere, so even that should be done after serious contemplations of scalability - but it inevitably led to decimating entire forests to power factory engines.
We just don't know when to quit. Why? Progress. We have to move from one state to another. Why? Progress. Why "progress?" Because, well, it's progress.
Feeling the madness yet?
There's another aspect of technology and progress, discussed in the lecture, that I wanted to touch upon before exiting this overly-long post. That is the anti-life aspect of technology.
One is inclined to draw a line between technology and living systems, as if they are distinct things that can be managed if kept properly divided - that is what all of the dystopian tales of the "Borg" or "The Matrix" are cautions about. It is now clear to me that there is no division, and one necessarily taints the other.
Only one or the other can win. And if it is technology, then we are all dead.
Why can I state something like that, so definitively, with no qualifications?
The great philosopher Owen Barfield in his seminal work Saving the Appearances warned that “those who mistake efficiency for meaning inevitably end by loving compulsion.”Life came forth unfettered.
It is a conservative cant that the world is "made" - that is why we invented God. Those who "love compulsion" must have a God. The liberal view (ironically, in the context of this essay, "progressives") leaves room for the idea of the spontaneous and unfettered appearance of life in the universe. (The rules of regressive analysis puts the onus of proof on the God-inventors, IMO, but that's a whole other argument we're not getting into here.)
And so it is that life came forth unfettered, and shackling our behaviors and aims with our compulsions toward efficiency and progress in the ritualistic worship of technology hinders new life.
There are many who see the process of natural selection ("evolution") as triumph of biological efficiency. I do not.
There is a sublime book by Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, that looks at the reciprocity between humans and four specific plants - the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. One thing I pulled from that book is how much love (the botany of desire) is the engine of evolution. Sheer, simple, mysterious love that one living being feels for another. It draws life together in upon itself, enriches it, diversifies it, creates new mysteries at every generation.
Technology, compulsion, "progress" - these are life annulling impulses. They seek to organize, and make efficient, motion and results. Technology separates life from itself, distances us from each other, from the world.
We have made a religion of anti-life. This is our problem.
So, due to the blinking red Self-Bullshitting Meter, I today reverse my pride over thinking up "benefficiency" and instead, with a healthy dose of shame, repudiate the whole idea.
I'm hungry. There must be some ripening fruit around here somewhere... ah, yes, thank you Gaia...