Thursday, September 22, 2005


Self-determination is a good thing up to a point. Self-determination combined with self-limitation is a better thing than self-determination alone. We can want things we have no business having. How do we know, is the question. How do we know when we have no business having something we want? A sustainable economy, for instance, limits itself to what it can have without wrecking the world. How does it know? Who tells it, “Only so far and no farther!”? Who sets the limits? Who says so?
Asking those who are self-directed, self-determined, to be self-limiting, to be self-disciplined, is a stretch. You are talking to the upper echelon of wisdom, maturity, understanding, enlightenment, and grace here. Maybe 5% of a population sample. Maybe 3%. In other words, it isn’t going to work. Given the freedom to live toward aims that are important to us, we’re going to exploit every opportunity to achieve those aims, no matter what. That sounds cynical. What story does history tell?
When has any species ever lived with the freedom to exploit without being exploitive? Self-limitation has no evolutionary advantage. Coyotes who are into self-limitation destroy the environment by allowing the bunnies to over-produce and consume the food supply of every other living thing. Every living thing lives at the limit of it’s capacity to push its environment beyond maximum sustainability. When there is a good crop of acorns in the Smokies, there is an increase in the black bear population. Black bears and bunnies don’t have a clue about self-limitation. Neither does any other living thing.
Human beings enter the picture, and, with a certain level of consciousness, look around and say, “You know, self-limitation would be a good idea. Why don’t we slow things down a bit before we have to?” We get to that point in the evolutionary process by being greedy, gluttonous, domineering and exploitive and then think we can cut it off because we see how maybe the environment will support only so much in the way of greenhouse gasses, for example, and maybe we can want what we have no business having, so maybe we better settle for less than we can dream of having, which is more than we will have when it all goes blooey in our faces. But, just because we can think it doesn’t mean we can do it. It is an up-hill fight against the force of evolution.
The environment has always been the limit restricting the development of every living thing before us. We have always pushed against the limits of what we could get by with until we were forced to stop by circumstances beyond our control. Population expands to the limit of what any environment will support. We don’t know where to stop, when to stop, how to stop, so we have to be stopped by the collapse of the systems supporting us. Evolution doesn’t know STOP. It takes whatever it can get and wants as much as it can have. Self-limitation inhibits our chances of survival into the far distant future. Or did, for all those years before we reached the end of the planet’s capacity to support life. Now, the strategy that got us here is going to do us in if we don’t find a way to STOP.
So, you better do that Google search for “Hazel Henderson” (the quote marks will help), and read her stuff, and become as aware of the situation as you can possibly be, and pick a place to dig in, and get to work. Black bears and bunnies don’t know any better. We have no excuse.
We have to create working room. We can be so close to “the problem” that we are overwhelmed and undone. Hopelessness and despair characterize those who can see nothing but futility and uselessness wherever they look. When everything is “like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” we can only sit and wait for the end, or step back and realize “This is NOT the Titanic!”
On the other hand, when we are too far away from “the problem,” everything is fine as far as we can see, and there is no reason to be disturbed because it will all work out somehow. Excessive meditation is as bad, or as good, as cocaine and Budweiser for instilling a protective layer of denial and “inner peace,” and preventing us from doing what needs to be done to make things better than they are. Inaction is valuable only as a pause in the action. We have to wait, from time to time, to see what must be done, what can be done. We have to ‘take stock” and look for the places of leverage, and sense when to apply what type of force at what point to have the best possible impact. We don’t just “act.” But “right action” is essential. We are not here to “not act.” We are here to act in the right place, at the right time, in the right way to make things as good as they can be for the largest number of people, our enemies included. And, that requires the right working distance between ourselves and “the problem.” Not too close. Not too far away.
We have to see “the problem” without being immobilized by it. Which means that we have to get away from it from time to time. We have to think about something else. Thinking about something else is the key to sanity and right living. Any time anything dominates our thinking, we have to think about something else. We cannot be consumed by “the problem,” obsessed with “the problem,” compelled to ponder “the problem” all of the time. We have to get away from “the problem” in order to maintain the right amount of space around it and to have a chance with it. The biggest problem with every problem is establishing and maintaining optimal distance between ourselves and the problem. We do that by thinking about it enough, but not too much. When it starts making us crazy, we are too close, and have to think about something else. When we no longer care at all about it, we are too far away and have to get back into thinking about it.


Laurie said...

"We have always pushed against the limits of what we could get by with until we were forced to stop by circumstances beyond our control."

And sometimes that force is a heart attack, or panic attacks...
Part of the reason I am seeking limits in my life is that life is overwhelming without them. Once you extract yourself from the machine (like the Matrix!) you can see that maybe the things you thought were essential aren't really that important...

Ned said...

Your sentiments resonate with me, Jim. We need desperately to change and we need to change faster than is possible. I'm trying in my small ways. I consider it a quest for sanity. American males are inundated with broken, false images of masculinity which in truth encourage weakness and confrontation avoidance. In summary: real men eat acorns.