The Rack and the Wreck

“My only earthly wish is to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds. Nature will be bound into service, hounded in her wanderings, and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.”
Popularly attributed to Francis Bacon


All this month courageous people are putting their bodies on the line to bear witness to the madness of continued social domination by the fossil fuel industries. It is hard to even imagine a world ordered around an alternative to the recycling of petroleum-dollars; most any change at all would also involve changes to the international reserve currency it creates and the geopolitics it dictates.

We burn oil in our factories, on our farms, and in our houses; we burn it as we move down roads, fly across the sky and cross the oceans; it lubricates our machines and is a vital ingredient in the production of plastic and many of the other materials we take for granted today ranging from pharmaceuticals to clothing. The bottom line is that modern cities and global trade cannot be run without it. The more you are able to bring an engineer’s appreciation to the vast human accomplishments that have been enabled due to the unique physical and chemical characteristics of fossil fuels, characteristics shared by no other known substance in the universe, the more thoroughly you will understand how very radical it is to propose we leave the remaining coal and oil in the ground and not burn it to buy ourselves another few years of business as usual.

Those brave people participating in civil disobedience have no clearer vision detailing how we are going to extract ourselves from this mess than do you or I. What then motivates them to take this old David and Goliath stone of popular protest against the earth’s largest corporations?

I am sure there are as many nuanced reasons for placing one’s own person and security at risk in these protests as there are people willing to do so. However, it is also safe to say something is uniting this movement all across the world. That something is the realization that business as usual simply cannot continue. Economics and ecology are on a collision course. Faith in the legitimacy of our institutions may not survive the train wreck.

I wish I could know how many of those willing to take the radical step across the line from law abiding citizen to civil protestor also share this radical analysis. What they are asking for actually entails no less than a complete reorientation of mankind’s activities from a focus on growing material industrial production to… something else.

It has been over forty years now since the LtG study clearly stated the world probleque. As the decades passed more and more evidence was gathered, bolstering the case for an ecological day of reckoning but the response has been characterized more by talk than by meaningful actions taken to stop the industrial Juggernaut. Talk, talk, talk; how much more time do we have for talk and studies? The point is to stop.

Here’s the good news. You and I don’t need to wait for society to catch up to our ideals, nor must we wait for an awakening to our real peril to be shared by our neighbors and friends before we take action in our own lives. Our times desperately need lifestyles that witness to the viability of alternatives to consumerism and corporate oligarchy. Today you can choose to take seriously the teachings about right livelihood and seek out ways your life can stand for the healing of the earth.  Your life can stand as a witness to the power of love and kindness against the dog-eat-dog competition of cancerous capitalism. Maybe you can’t change your outer circumstances just now but you can check out with your intention and start planning for tomorrow. Your life can stand for the creativity and productivity of individuals and families over and against the image of man as mouth. That is the hero of consumerism; man-the-mouth, only able to consume what is created and produced by others. Your hands and feet also have eyes, use them and just see what they teach you. Plant a garden, study biology and ecology, learn to mix your mind with earth’s sacred places in your meditation, join protests, write books, make art – DO something.

Then you will discover what power is.

It is not found in some home in the sky woven from abstractions and anthropomorphic projections. It is found right here in the buzzing, bumping, bubbling world of molecules where every action has a reaction and every reaction is a cause of the next action. For better and for worse, we are all engaged inescapably in karma mechanics this side of the abyss.

All of us born in the overdeveloped world have a misleading sense of entitlement. One of the hardest ideas for the ego to grasp is that the universe seems wholly indifferent to your personal hopes and dreams, fears and sufferings. We come to consciousness surrounded by nurturance and caring; necessities in species with long childhoods such as ourselves. It takes a maturing of that consciousness to recognize its impersonal roots. This is made all that much harder in cultures as transfixed with human stories and raised as isolated from the nonhuman environment as we are.

Western cultures include in their history of ideas this notion that we need to be at war with nature. The image of placing nature on the torture’s rack came to mind for Francis Bacon for a couple of reasons we can immediately understand. One was no loftier than simple revenge: ‘nature has condemned us to suffer death, disease and embarrassing sexual indignities but by god we can make her suffer too!’ (Those who see in this cognitive swamp the driving forces behind the war of the sexes and male chauvinism are not mistaken. Nor are those who see here the source of the demon flowers of our nuclear weapons.)

The other reason the torturer’s rack came to mind as an image of the scientific method is a bit more elaborate. In a properly designed experiment ‘nature’ is placed in an artificial environment in which we can exercise control over the variables affecting the circumstance being studied. Experimentation, while holding everything else the same, then ‘stretches’ one variable ‘unnaturally’ to research what affect it has. Just as the rack used a wheel, a type of lever, to multiply the effect of the force applied, so a well designed scientific experiment can uncover the workings of nature far out of proportion to the minute details it is able to manipulate.

Consider for example the DNA research of Francis and Crick. X-ray analysis of the molecular structure of our germ cells is a rather esoteric detail that matters most to biological specialists. Yet the cumulative effect of this line of research has remade the very image and understanding of what it means to be a human being, a member of what we can now refer to scientifically, not religiously, as the family of man.

We may have arrived at this knowledge by way of racks instead of revelation but it is not without its own type of blessing. The science parts ways with religion in one crucial aspect; these heretics over in the other valley, with their different gods and languages, skin colors and foods are just as much your brothers and sisters as any other member of Homo sapiens who has ever lived. The science defuses the priestcraft-politician deception that the declared enemy du jour is less than human. The infidels are not in fact sub-human vermin, or to put it in modern parlance; the lives cut to pieces by our cluster bombs are no less precious to those in poor countries than they are to those of us finding ourselves in rich countries.

When all we had as a species to guide us were the stories we made up, it was possible to hold the brotherhood of man as the highest value even while dehumanizing the enemy, without suffering the cognitive dissonance that arises from trying to believe two contradictory assertions at the same time. Now days, while our societies still go through the motions of demonizing our enemies, it no longer carries the kind of absolute justification that was so easily at hand in previous centuries. We cannot undo what we know.

Those bodies being thrown on the gears of the industrial machine protesting its ecological havoc are engaged with an enemy we all recognize is no other than ourselves. It is our lifestyle choices that have perpetrated this madness these forty plus years, even as enormously powerful social institutions have pursued their vested interests by shutting down the viable alternatives.

There is one more allusion the torturer’s rack brings to mind, one I don’t subscribe to but recognize its popular appeal and one Francis Bacon most likely believed. The use of torture is normally justified by the pious (religious or political) as a means to force human beings to tell the truth. I personally believe any information obtained this way is highly suspect and that the real role of torture is to terrorize populations at home but we are looking at the rack as a metaphor of the scientific method, not the actual efficacy of torture. Assuming then that Mr. Bacon believed truth could be found by such means, what are we looking at?

The rack is a mechanical instrument applied to an organic subject. Using the rack involves action; moving the levers and wheels, tightening the straps and all the rest. The subject is ‘nature’ and only through engaging in these ‘unnatural’ activities could the truth be found.

What previous images of the search for truth did this image of nature on the rack displace? In the Hellenistic history of the West the pursuit of truth was what a gathering of philosophers in an Academy could find by reasoning among themselves in careful dialog. There was no need to engage in experiments since the senses could be so easily mislead. Reason alone could detect the eternal truths. This image slowly gave way as the centuries rolled into the Middle Ages to the truth being found by Popes and Bishops and the cloistered at prayer. Revelation would provide that final leap to ultimate meaning reason alone could not accomplish. Again there was no need to engage in experiments to understand what is really going on since that would be confusing the source of meaning with creation instead of the creator. Already knowing everything important about life, the universe and everything due to revelation, there was little need to engage oneself with the lowly labor of the mechanical artificers.

That God died and left the human being.

We should have seen it coming; it was the implied message of Christianity’s dying man-God. Can you see how the rack was a child of the cross?

Left to our own devices we became painfully aware of the frail nature of our mental tools and recognized a frightening propensity for self-deception. It is as if in our endarkenment we resolved to set aside our childhood toys and learn what we could about this world and this life. We became interested in knowing not just what we think is going on, wrapping our hard earned wisdom in yet another imaginative story of our own invention, but turned towards knowing what we can about what is – whether or not it conforms to our preconceptions.

We dared to place ourselves on the rack and ask what we really are. What we found looking through one end of our scientific instrument was evolution playing out within infinite space. What we found looking through the other end: the Epicurean atoms and void, the Eastern appearance-emptiness; we discovered the molecular world, inseparable from ourselves.

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