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Our “War on the Oil Spill”

I just spent a few minutes listening to Obama’s speech about the BP oil spill, and was struck by his use of war rhetoric.  He refers to “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens” then “We will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long it takes” and “I’d like to lay out for you what our battle plan is” and so on.

I find this deeply disturbing.  More so, in fact, than the oil spill itself.  And that leaves me sick and weak.  Language creates reality.  Ours is war: against terror, against obesity, against hunger, and now against an oil spill.

I recently finished reading the most amazing book titled ‘Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos’ by evolutionary biologist Elisabeth Sahtouris.  The book is now available under the title Earthdance, and can be found in its entirety – for free – online here. It’s just a little book, but it took me months to read it.  The concepts are deeply complex, and challenged my understanding of the world at a fundamental level.

I won’t try and explain it all here, especially since I’m still struggling to understand many of the implications it poses.  However, one theme really struck me deeply: her challenge to Darwinism.  Now don’t get me wrong, she’s not saying that evolution is wrong, neither is she arguing in favour of ‘intelligent design.’  After all, she’s an evolutionary biologist.  But she brings forth substantial evidence to suggest that evolution is not the result of chance.

Basically, as I understand it, Darwin’s theory is that nature is a cruel and dangerous place, where everything is in constant competition with everything else.  Only the fittest survive.  Mutations happen randomly, and those mutations that produce the “fittest” sample of the species survive to reproduce.  Thus that mutation gets selected for, and the species changes in that direction.  The conclusion from this is that evolution is random, mechanical, and the result of chance.

The mechanical understanding of our world, along with this notion of a hostile state of nature and complete randomness of outcomes has permeated the very foundation of our society.  Everything we consider is based on this premise.  We see the world as a dangerous place in which we must do constant battle. If we are not the fittest, we will die.  We might die anyway.  That everything is mechanical and random means that nothing really matters.  Ethics are for theorists, but not something to consider in real life decision making.

This thinking comes from the Enlightenment theorists of the 17th century.  Thomas Hobbes, one of the most prominent – asserted that the ‘state of nature’ is a state of war of all against all, where life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’  John Locke – widely considered the ‘father of Liberalism’ – had a slightly more cheerful view of the world, but not by much.  These theorists believed we had to come together as society to escape the state of nature, but that our own human nature was not much gentler.  This resulted in the need for laws and law enforcement.  To underscore just how influential these guys were on our present day existence, the US Declaration of Independence was heavily plagiaraized from Locke’s writing.

Getting back to Sahtouris, her book presents an understanding of the world that is quite different.  I may not have been ready to accept many of her arguments a few years ago, but they resonated very deeply with me now.  My study of homeopathy has dramatically changed my understanding of how health and disease works, and the very way our world (universe?) is put together.  I should add that I have a degree in physics and applied mathematics, and have studied physiology and neurology at the graduate level.  I know the arguments and the science.  I also know that there’s a lot that can’t be explained or understood by conventional means, and these new avenues I have been exploring make some things make a lot more sense.

I won’t try to explain it all here – I couldn’t if I wanted to as I’m not that clear on most of it myself.  But one thing is clear to me now: The world is not a hostile environment, and evolution and change does not happen by chance.  Sahtouris argues that evolutionary change is a response to environmental change; it is not an accident.  In the same way that our bodies will shift, and our cells will rearrange themselves and respond to various environmental changes, so will the species of the earth.  The earth, she argues, is alive – in the sense that it is a single organism that can self-regulate to stay in balance.  The species and even the inanimate form the organs and bones.  Everything works together in harmony, and with purpose.  This does not mean that our planet is conscious or sentient, but it is able to self-regulate like our bodies can.  For example, the temperature of our planet changes very little over time.  Climate change that we are all worried about is a shift of just 2-3 degrees.  This has happened in the past, in either direction, just like our own body temperature will go up and down a few degrees due to getting sick or otherwise being pushed out of balance.  But overall, our planet has remained pretty much the same temperature since life began.

I am digressing here.  My point is not to discuss whether the earth is a self-regulating organism, or whether it’s just a chunk of rock.  My point is that there are different ways of understanding life on this planet.  Yes, there is competition, and yes the strong appear to do a better job of surviving.  But there is also tremendous cooperation.  Every organism has its place, is part of a very complex balance.  Indeed, cooperation in that sense seems to vastly overshadow competition.  Why can’t we look to this as a metaphor for how to structure our societies?  Hobbes and Locke got it all wrong.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a seminar listening to a lecture by an International Relations theorist from Toronto.  He was presenting some argument or other about the war in Afghanistan, and was talking about all the bloodshed and bombing and so on.  It suddenly became very clear to me that we are creating this through our perception of reality.  We think the world is a violent place, and so we make it that way.  It’s not how things actually are, or certainly not how things need to be.  We have created a state of war of all against all.  We have.  Created it.  It doesn’t have to be.

Nature is not cruel – there is little suffering in nature.  When things go wrong, death comes swiftly.  In human reality, suffering is the norm.  War is the norm.  Bloodshed and suffering and death has become so deeply entrenched in our way of seeing the world that this is now the only way we know how to understand and make sense of the events we experience.  Obama’s speech tonight makes this abundantly clear.

I just finished reading George Orwell’s book 1984.  At the end is an Appendix explaining the principles of Newspeak, the language of the totalitarian regime of Big Brother, which has for its purpose “to make all other modes of thought impossible.”

Language creates reality, and we talk incessantly of war.  Maybe it’s time we found new words with which to discuss our future.


3 Responses

  1. Yes. Not much really to say here (I think I agree with everything you’ve just written), though I might add that by paying attention to the poetry of our language, or the structure of implications and assumptions set out by some of our most ordinary day-today idioms, we might see how “chosen” or at least arbitrary they are, and in many cases, how inappropriate, and in some, how damaging/damning.

  2. Another strong YES for your analysis. The role of language in our perception and conception of our sensory input has been undervalued. How we label the world determines how we interpret and respond to it.

  3. The study of language is indeed eye opening. This year, in the class I TA’d, we had a guest speaker come in and discuss violence in our society, which is predominantly against women. She had the students call out all the swear words they could come up with. When they ran out, she added quite a few more to the list she was compiling on the chalk board. Then she started circling all the ones that involved women. Turns out that almost every single swear word – weather it was aimed at a woman or a man – involved degrading women, or degrading men by calling them women. The exceptions were words that degraded homosexuals. There was only one that was gender neutral (out of 30+), and none that was describing men. The presenter argued that the first step towards eradicating gendered violence was to change our language choices and practices. Fascinating and very eye opening.

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