Monday, December 8, 2008

All Our Relations

The twenty first century reincarnation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has officially arrived. In the face of its social, political and economic challenges, we strive to be “brave,” but at times fall victim to collective hysteria and a lack of understanding. And while the world seems to be on the brink of significant change, the present condition in which we find ourselves turns out to be anything but “new.”

Our brave new dilemma has been enabled by close global linkages among peoples and environments, exceeding by many degrees what had already been a “small world.” Having personally been around since the close of the last planetary-wide, destructive interaction - the Second World War - I’ve seen the effects of the misuse of global interconnectivity. And I’ve witnessed the herculean efforts at restoring reasonability in life after its global trauma (which, for my parents’ generation, had followed the Great Depression – a main source of fuel for the fires of the war).

While there has been a long stretch of prosperity since then, it has been built on limited resources and borrowed time. Global debts of environmental degradation and population growth are now coming due with dark vigor. History is beginning to repeat itself, as it always does, as we find ourselves again on a self-destructive trajectory that is as old as civilization itself.

Ease of travel and wonders of communication may well define this [post]modern period, but their seeds were sown by European merchants, adventurers and missionaries during the Age of Exploration. Their era developed the tools and zeal for carrying out the first global imposition of cultural thought and behavior, based on a Euro-colonial model. Yet despite this mindset’s great material wealth and technical prowess, it could not fully manage to exploit the world in its first go-round.

It was left to others, most recently the United States of America, to continue the European colonial adventure into the present day. But today the old hegemonic model has ceased to be effective and a new strategy has been put in place to attain its goals. The urges of nation-states and empire builders required a retooling of their world picture and modes of action in order to more effectively consume the planet and its life forms.

Globalization of national economies and the exploitation of natural environments and peoples have become our main means of interacting on a world scale. But in ignoring factors from the last global financial meltdown during the 1930’s, we have found ourselves once more on a long drunken binge toward an epic socioeconomic hangover.

Seeds of Change

Even as we consume the world, we find ourselves in withdrawal from the false prosperity of national and global excesses. Fortunately, it is also a time when antidotes to our debauchery are resurfacing among the current generation of young (and once young) adults.

In response to the materialism and shallow values rampant after World War II, my baby boomer generation had focused on a “One World” collective consciousness. We committed ourselves to aiding the downtrodden at home and the “starving children in Asia.” We were passionately green; we grew up in awe of the values of Smokey the Bear after all. And we celebrated the peacemaking vision of the United Nations by vowing to act responsibly in the world while getting to know and respect the many ways and ideals of the “Family of Man.”

I fondly recall my early encounters with progressivism. I was sixteen years old and deeply into the global folk music revival and counterculture of the time when I sought out the inspiration of humanitarian thinkers, artists and activists. It was 1961 and only a few years beyond the nightmares of the Korean and Second World Wars. People were widely concerned over the uncontrolled urges of humanity and became proactive towards world peace, human understanding and personal growth. These imprints on my psyche have only grown deeper over the years, having been enhanced by subsequent studies among Tibetans, Native Americans and other peoples of balance.

This spiritual/humanitarian/indigenous amalgam has unveiled some potentially useful antidotes to the human condition. In it lies the inkling of a path out of our present dilemma, just the civilizational pattern of living simultaneously spins out of control in its crazy dance of globalization.

Is Civilization Civilized?

Universally, the human pattern of civilization has meant the exploitation and control of environmental and human resources. Ironically, it has succeeded beyond its wildest expectations in converting much of the world’s peoples to the utopian dream of material growth and infinite consumption. But in its successful search and consumption of natural commodities and human energy has come its failure. Despite the many profits wrenched from the earth and living things, contentment and well being are increasingly receding from our lives.

I began to comprehend the delusion of prosperity when I was studying economic anthropology in graduate school. I had the fortune (although I’m not sure whether it was good or bad) to take a course with one of the “big men” in the field. Through him I learned that there were two fundamental schools of economic theory in anthropology.

The prevailing economic model was that of the formalist school. It holds the same perspective behind today’s globalized, nation-state practices of trade and finance. Its “macro-economic” model interprets commerce as a dualistic endeavor, where the more clever and resourceful (and devious) the party in a transaction, the more likely are they to profit in the deal at the expense of their competitors. Transactions between parties, even in pre-industrial and indigenous societies, are assumed by this mindset to operate according to the same “maximization of profit” motive as do corporate businesses and nation-states.

I never understood how my professor could possibly conclude that a New Guinean native, a Burmese hill tribe person or a Native American farmer would ever operate under such a worldview. My several years of indigenous cultural experience before commencing graduate school screamed the opposite to be true.

However the professor did pay lip service to the other point of view. But to him, its more universal, “substantivist” perspective was a less valid method of economic analysis, despite its obvious resonance with indigenous ways of exchange. I suspect that he was bothered by the fact that it could not be easily quantified nor neatly explained by graphs and models. Perhaps, in the end, he could not break free from his own culture-bound notions to see the world through the eyes and lives of others.

Substantivists recognize that all kinds of non-measurable motives and variables necessarily impinge on peoples’ economic decisions. Matters of kinship and social responsibility must figure into the equation. For example, the giving of mandatory gifts from island to island in the Trobriands yields no direct return on one’s “investment” - except the likelihood of gifts of solidarity received down the line in a vast traditional ring of exchange. Likewise, there is the mass giveaway of incredibly valuable objects in elaborate potlatch ceremonies held by the socially elite in Pacific Northwest Indian communities of America and Canada. Ironically, this turns out to be a real example of our otherwise deluded notion of “trickle down” economics, because it actually does strengthen the commonweal.

These traditions certainly do not fit the ethos of modern capitalism. But to the substantivist they make complete sense, because social responsibilities must always coexist with fiscal benefits in real life economic activities.

The essence of this non-capitalist approach is a natural kind of reciprocity. The idea of maximizing one’s path to profit – to unbridled economic growth - is alien to most world cultures. While it may seem natural to the movers and shakers in nation-states and multinational corporations, I doubt whether anyone ever gains real contentment from playing the maximizing economic game.

The ecological economist, Herman E. Daly tacitly agrees with the indigenous model:

As long as our economic system is based
on chasing economic growth above all else,

we are heading for environmental, and economic, disaster.
To avoid this fate,

we must switch our focus from quantitative growth
to qualitative development,

and set strict limits on the rate at which
we consume the Earth's resources.

In such a "steady-state" economy,
the value of goods produced can still increase…

but the physical scale of our economy
must be kept at a level the planet is able to sustain.

Antidotes to Gluttony

The modern ideal of sustainability distinguishes world maintainers from world eaters, much as the substantivists stand in relation to the formalists in economic thought. Substantivist societies are by definition sustainers of their ecosystems and fellow peoples. One excellent example of this are the Navajo Indians, with whom I have lived for almost twelve years. They know themselves to be in responsible reciprocity and kinship with the myriad life forms of earth and sky. This understanding is much more akin to the substantivist view of economics than to unfettered profiteering on the substance and life force of humanity and world - the typical formalist viewpoint.

The two traditions that I know best, the Navajo and Tibetan, spell out the nature of responsible exchange and life sustenance quite clearly. Navajos call it k’e and the Tibetans, ley or karma.

Both terms relate to a perennial axiom in living: that we all – humans, animals, even spectral mind-body energies permeating the environment – are dynamically interconnected and inter-influencing of one another. The well known Lakota Indian benediction to the living web of relationship, mitakuye oyasin, “all my relations,” honors this fact.

K’e is a fundamental tenet of Navajo philosophy. It loosely translates as “responsible relationship.” K’e is often used to describe familial relations. But family is a much wider concept for the Navajo than it is for us. K’e describes relationship within the extended family, the greater clan, and with all other diné – “people” - including the two and four-legged earth-surface-walking people, the flying people, the swimming people, the slithering people, and the holy people (the gods). It is a web of relationship based on mutual respect and succor. And this relational web is a living, sacred thing. Chief Seattle voiced this ideal in his famous oration:

Man did not weave the web of life.
He is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web
he does to himself.

K’e is substantivist reciprocity in action, be it of a passive kind, such as through respect, or an active mode of mutual aid. For the Navajo it is an article of faith and a marker of proper harmony-in-living.

For Tibetans, ley-karma is organically connected with the goal of “right living.” One of the precepts of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, right living means conducting a fulfilling life by putting enlightened deeds (along with thoughts and words) into the world. To this end, the Dalai Lama has often observed that:

We must strive to achieve selfless compassion with others;
for we all have been each other’s mother in previous lifetimes.

This statement is based on the Buddhist understanding that our phenomenal world is composed of six major realms of life forms, each on their learning paths toward enlightenment. Indeed, we all, through the process of successive rebirths, have experienced each of these states on our multiple journeys from lifetime to lifetime. In fact, we all are related through the process of multiple reincarnations. Which is to say, we inevitably have manifested in previous lifetimes as each other’s mothers. So, just as we always wish the best for our own mother, we must cherish each other in this lifetime.

For Buddhists, a major factor determining the character of each lifetime is the impetus to one’s rebirth made by imprints left through one’s conduct in the previous life. Ley (or, karma, in Sanskrit) is the “law of cause and effect,” the Tibetan corollary to the Navajo k’e. It teaches that we all interact and influence one another along the strands of the Jeweled Net of Indra - the Asian version of the Web of Life. As our ideas, words and deeds bear karmic fruit, the fruit is only as sweet or sour as we have made it for ourselves and others. And by way of purified thoughts and good intent, we can potentially create a portfolio of the sweetest karmic fruit in each lifetime.

Holders of such worldviews look with sadness upon the needless ignorance and unhealthful ways of modern civilization. For theirs espouse cooperation, interconnection and compassion. Still, neither tradition is a “softy;” each meets antipathy and ignorance with incisive knowledge and powerful procedures. The spiritual warrior tradition of bravery in service of harmony is strong and necessary in Navajo and Tibetan life. And it provides a powerful lesson to nation-state hegemonists who would use warriorship solely in service of greed and anger.

“Civilization” – a concept snatched for its own by our modern way of life – is deeply in need of such natural wisdom and unconditional compassion working in tandem with expression and action. For they lead to the inescapable realization that we are all “our relations,” and are as responsible to one another as we are to ourselves.

As we seek to make our lives in this wonderful world, we necessarily engage in economic (and a host of other) relations. But we mustn’t forget that the way we deal with others will be the way others (and our mother planet) deal with us.

That which seems to be wealth may in verity be
only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin.
-John Ruskin-


Gambolin' Man said...

Pedro Oro - excellent essay! This should be - could be - will be? - published in a national magazine for all of the BIG P's to read: Presidents, Prime Ministers, Parliamentarians, Priests, Professors, and Plenipotentiaries. One of your best!

Stephen C. Jett said...

A very thoughtful and literate essay. If only the world would get on board!
I have heard that the speech attributed to Chief Seattle was actually written mater by an Anglo, so you may wish to check on that.

Peter Gold said...

Thanks, Steve; I had heard that as well. But I also am under the impression that the Anglo interpreter had put Chief Seattle's intended sentiments into literary English. Certainly the sentiment rings true....