When the gates of the death camps were opened in Germany at the end of WWII, the world reeled in silent shock. As the images slowly penetrated the fog of disbelief, spreading across the various cultures of the globe’s many nations, people everywhere, young and old, rich and poor, were confronted with the horror of industrialized mass murder. I know of no other way to begin to address what happened than to say a change had come over the world-soul. The relationship between the consciousness of human beings and the material, molecular earth was changed, not just the relationship between human beings.
The nature of the assault was assisted at every turn by tools: physical, chemical and ideological. The interplay of Homo Habilis and the earth consists of the consciousness of the tool maker and the molecular structures of our materials. Traditionally the soul or psyche of a person was understood as that realm between the body and the spirit. In the same way, the human built environment is the space in-between spirit and matter, between the inspiring thought guiding the tool’s formation and use on the one hand, and the stone, feathers, minerals and whatnot our ingenuity places in our hands on the other. Through this relationship with the rest of the planet we define ourselves as a species, creating our own ecological niche, exploring our extended phenotype. Because this built environment is larger than any individual it is related to what has been called the world-soul.
There is a question always present in this world-soul. The actions, the actual deeds of living things, are its answer. This question and answer in the depths of the moment, as the inner secret of time’s expression of will, cannot be captured in words though words can point to it. Life is beautiful but it is also true that its gift is only held in mortal hands. All things are impermanent so there is a degree of in-escapable suffering in the path of every sentient being. How then will you, in the mysterious depths of your own subjectivity, respond to the depths of subjectivity you witness in others?
A thought experiment might best illustrate how the concept of the world-soul is a necessary one. Here is a what-if scenario. What if the depletion rates of fracking are bringing a quick demise to U.S. oil abundance sooner rather than later? Add that Saudi Arabia has fudged its reserve numbers a bit and the peak of Ghawar, the largest oil field on the planet, has come and gone. Russia would have its own vast reserves of oil, the US would not. In this thought experiment the decision is made that it would be necessary to procure the supply in the Middle East. How exactly the necessary military moves are executed are not relevant to the thought experiment. Suffice it to say we are imagining the U.S. takes the oil it absolutely needs to keeps its infrastructure functional and its consumer economy growing. In the thought experiment its commitment to economic growth, suburbia and consumerism remains strong right up to the bitter end of overwhelming ecological blowback and societal collapse. This is one way things might work out. The proposed budget cuts to education and health care recently in the news can provide further clarity to the mental image we are trying to outline. It is telling that they are coupled with increases in the military budget. If, in this what-if, the “we should have kept the oil” becomes the means of making America great again we would want to ask, whose America is this and whose definition of greatness? Might I suggest it is the one where those who believe ‘America’s business is business’ and ‘the American lifestyle (aka corporate consumerism) is non-negotiable’ have made any values other than those enshrined by neo-liberal hyper-capitalism verboten, wholly forbidden.
Is this what shows up as the culminating act of this 240 year old experiment in democracy when push comes to shove over earth’s shrinking resource pie? In this what-if, how many nuclear bombs were used, how many millions of people “removed” as collateral damage? How much more chaos added to that which has already been created in Iraq and Libya? Does the rest of the world succeed in stopping the takeover attempt? Does anyone think China and Russia would just sit back and watch? As WWIII rolls its darkness over humankind’s nobility we can also expect general ruthlessness at all levels of society to increase, exacerbated by population over-crowding and climate change churning out Katrina and Sandy like events all over the planet even as the bombs drop. That is the what-if scenario.
Now the question I want to ask is what would this event do to the world-soul? What might it come to think about itself? In other words I’m not asking what individual opinion might be here and there but what impact it might have on the general attitude of human beings towards what they are and the world they live in. Today our children are exposed to the images of the Holocaust around fifth grade. We can be sure it has a profound effect on how they come to view the previous generations and the world of adults. To what end such knowledge? Will it nudge us towards becoming more kind or more unkind? And when do the young of today encounter the science of ecology and the truth it speaks about the values and priorities of the previous generation?
While the deluded among us would try to convince the entire world that only deception, competition and survival of the strongest and cruelest is built into the foundations of the natural world – they lie. Yes, life eats life but it also contains cooperation, beauty, compassion, even Schopenhauer’s metaphysical giving of one’s own life for the sake of another. It is a false picture of the natural world that does not include these things too. Not all cultures choose competition as the basic social relationship and winner take all as the basic embodiment of fairness. Many have traditions that strive to build up and encourage one another and share whatever good fortune comes their way. They recognize there is no need to add to the suffering in human life but there is a great need to become more skillful as we confront one another. What this alternative approach towards social relations finds, surprisingly enough, is that learning to feast well is the art through which the noblest features of our potentials are encouraged. By celebrating the bounty of the earth together, instead of in isolated ownership, they find happiness along the way. Not the happiness of the thrill such as consumerism offers during the hit of a purchase but the happiness that grows around a central element of contentment and the satisfactions found in freely sharing or the satisfactions of ownership of that which is well crafted.
A society programmed to be ceaselessly dis-content, who is facing the end of the supply of the single energy resource it requires to function, armed with a super-power arsenal. . . Well, it’s not hard to see how that restlessness could lead to all sorts of misadventures. It does us no good to indulge in fantasies of magic coming to save us from ourselves. We should refuse the secular seductions of the great leader promising to purify us from our evil and the religious seductions of a magical Rapture coming out of our missile silos. Reason insists we consider that there will be a day after, one our children will live in. Even WWIII, God forbid we go there, would eventually come to an end like all the wars before it. Even a catastrophic breakdown in global oil supply and its petrodollar world would be followed by some sort of tomorrow.
If anything like this what-if comes to pass, what will that do to the world-soul?
When things are their darkest, light is born; when things are their brightest, darkness is born. Perhaps we are about to learn a lesson about the true value of compassion in the school of hard knocks? Perhaps on the other side of the existing un-sustainability we will find a more realistic appraisal of ourselves and our position in the grand scheme of things. Or perhaps not.
Contemplating ecology’s deep time and deep space lets us position humankind’s 5,000 years or so of written history squarely within our 200,000 year old physiological frames, placing recorded history in its larger context. If we have another 5,000 years or more of cultural evolution it seems to me the odds are good we will come to relationships with each other and with the earth that are a bit wiser than where we are today. Why? A belief in progress smuggled into some kind of evolutionary inevitability? No, it is because try as we might we cannot escape the truth about compassion’s role in human life. It is inside us. While it is true that we can become monsters and run away from any sense of dignity or worth being inherent in nature (fallen, fallen fallen!), it does not change the facts. Wherever we go, there we are.
The ultimate teaching the image of the world-soul is trying to convey is that each of us contributes to this process by which molecular planet and sentient consciousness together shape history. It is what the Alchemists called our Great Work – the contribution that you and you alone can make to the world-soul. It is what Christianity has been teaching about a final day of Judgement when all will be revealed, all the interdependent exchange of virtue and vice among the family of man. This is what we are in our snowflake-like individuality: buds on the vine of Christ or carriers of the DNA as you will, for in this science and religion agree. None alive is more valuable than another before the inner altar of the human psyche. This is what the uninitiated alpha males deny, this equality. In this they are mistaken and so the seeds of tragedy are sewn. They have yet to learn to love the poor.
Through the meandering branches of the biosphere’s ways and byways the tinkering that is forever ratcheting emergent phenomenon applies to cultural evolution as much as it does to the more familiar microbiological kind. The amino acids of cultural evolution are the ideas and images which accompany us along the way. Shifts in insight and understanding are happening all the time. Some of these shifts are small, everyday alterations of a society’s mores. The large ones, however, call into question what had previously been unquestionable. To speak plainly, when the mistake made in history is large enough, such as the firestorms, death camps, and nuclear weapons of WWII, the collective psyche recognizes the excess and seeks a middle way less infected by such extremes. (The model supposes that the species stays sane by the same cybernetic means the individual does.) These war events represent part of the cognitive side of the rupture in humanity’s relationship with the earth which we recognize as the root cause of the ecological crisis. Mindful ecology recognizes interdependence makes it highly unlikely that while we remain at war with one another we will not also remain at war with the other living things on the earth.
Today the choice facing the world is whether or not WWII will prove to have been a foreshadowing. Will we learn from it or fall again into the same traps but this time for real, this time with population culls and naked resource grabs under banners of Holy Wars so nightmarishly horrendous as to bring about centuries of illiteracy and rule by the strong, a reset into a new Dark Age where might makes right and intelligence is suspect. Compassion, you see, is not the effervescent nice-to-have we have been taught it is by those in the corporate boardrooms whose dog-eat-dog philosophy is currently calling all the shots.
I’ve called this sketch of a possible future scenario a thought experiment, a what-if. It is not at all clear to me this is what is going to happen or if it did that the citizens of the United States would accept it once it became clear their democracy had fallen at the hands of oligarchy, following the path well-trod by the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome that was such a concern of the nation’s founding fathers. There are generations of values other than consumerism running in the blood of many families living here and undoubtedly a sincere concern about the future fate of the Republic fires much of the populous uproar of late. Perhaps such sentiments have only been temporarily high-jacked by the billionaire’s agenda. My family and friends, we want to remind our leaders on this week we celebrate the homeland that our soldier’s lives are precious. Full stop. Spend them with care.
Each of us contributes directly to the mind’s relationships with, and experiences of, the world-soul. You cannot escape being aware of the larger issues in the world, nor would you want to if you could, not really. This is what we are; buds on the vine, participants in the stream, carriers of the seed of life from one generation to another. Recognizing this we recognize both the equality and the nobility inherent within everyone. The nobility of sentient beings is inherent in the facts of the molecular world – which is as much psyche as quantum.
This nobility, the value and worth of the individual, is not something a state or a religion can grant to those it chooses and deny to the rest. Your subjectivity matters. It matters a great deal. It is only from within that the images and ideas come which guide us through our history’s wisdom and folly. May you have good dreams, dreams that are of benefit to all sentient beings. May your waking consciousness guide you to a meaningful life. Remembering gratitude, may you find contentment and bring an end to the war of all against all.