In an inexplicably naïve article Brendan Gauthier at Salon argued that Russia was the only country that seemed to want Donald Trump to be president. But rather than asking why this is so, or wondering what Russia might reasonably do to promote that outcome given that it is so, Gauthier simply repeated a conclusion from a NYT article that referred to unnamed FBI sources saying there was no Russian connection to Trump, at a time when the FBI is obviously seriously partisan. The Times did no more to offer reasoning for its conclusions than he did. Perhaps pride at being scooped by Slate and Mother Jones is the explanation for their openness to claims a careful reporter would want backed up.
What’s in it for Russia?
In fact Russia’s interest in Trump makes plenty of sense and does not involve Trump being a knowing conspirator serving Putin. It simply involves Trump being Trump- an exceptionally vain man who responds to flattery and with a fairly well established record of very poor business judgment. Further, what has already been uncovered makes perfect sense. Here’s why and how. However, it requires taking a Russian point of view.
Russia has a vested interest in weakening the US. more »
I was started along this line of thought while reading Kent Nerburn’s powerful, moving, painful and hauntingly beautiful The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. There are many levels to this book, perhaps more even than the author intended, for one that lies within the narrative throughout is the difficulty of people entering into and understanding other cultures from both sides. But for us Pagans it is particularly insightful in its depiction of the profound differences between a deeply Pagan view of life and the modern view. One of the most central of these distinctions is captured in the images of a line and a circle.
As we have all heard, the Abrahamic religious traditions introduced history as a fundamental part of their world view. Time had a beginning and an end. Particularly in the Christian view, existence is a story with drama and form that ends in a triumphant climax for the good guys and complete defeat for the bad guys. Our lives partake of this dynamic, with a choice to join the good guys or continue in alliance deliberate or otherwise with the bad guys. It is a profoundly isolating and individuating story, for we will attain salvation or damnation regardless of what happens to our loved ones. Each is ultimately for him or her self.
Pagan cosmologies are profoundly different and focus on the image of a circle or a cycle. Our Wheel of the Year image captures this image. We emphasize not what is most unique about an event but how it fits into a whole far greater than it is. The endless cycle of the seasons, the recurring phases of the moon, the rhythm of birth to death, the shift from night into day, and its return to night again, to be repeated as long as the earth shall last.
But it is hardly unique to us. Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux spiritual teacher, made the same point:
Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children. (chapter 17)
From this perspective we are who we are within a pattern that is universal and applies to all. We are still individuals, but we are individuals-in-relationship, each of us at any moment a node on the circle of our lives, but also a node within the circle of our community, within that of the year, and all the endless cycles that make up the great circle of existence. To view us as simply individuals is to view us as incomplete.
Dan, the Lakota elder who is the book’s major Indian protagonist, tells Nerburn
“If you see that everything has spirit and that everything is connected, you honor everything because you know that it has a part to play in creation.
“Now this is where the trail leads back to the children. The way we are living today is not good for them…
“Instead they [learn] to think of themselves as part of a straight line that runs from birth to death, and their task is to wait their turn until they reach the place in the line where they are strong and powerful. They are not taught that they have an important role to play just where they are, and it is they alone who can fulfill that role.
“Remember when I said that the children have pure hearts because they are closest to the Great Mystery? This is their gift, and that is their part – to remember the goodness of the Great Mystery and to reveal it to us. The rest of us get hard with life; the children remain soft with hope.
“Your way harms the child because it confuses being useful with being important. . . . But they are important . . . because of where they stand in the circle of life. Like the elders they are weak. But like the elders they ate closest to the Great Mystery. They allow us to see the meaning of creation . . . .
“If you see life as a straight line, where the young and old are weak and those in the middle are strong, and if you think that to be important is to be useful, you do not see the value in the young and the old. You see them as burdens, not as gifts, because life their hands to be of use to the community. . . .
“. . . we do not look at our children as full-growns waiting to be. We see them as special beings who bring us the freshness of wonder. They keep our hearts soft and our hands gentle. They keep us from only thinking about ourselves.”
Children have a particular connection with the old because, as Dan observes, “the elders are closest to them in the circle of life, not the farthest from them on the road from birth to death.” (302-4)
The profound spiritual sickness that infects our society comes in no small part from the linear blindness that afflicts modern America, where all who count are strong adults with not the slightest practical concern for the young, the old, or the network of relationships that maintain those strong adults.
I have been both fascinated and appalled at how quickly mostly the political right has abandoned reason and evidence in favor of assertion and arrogance in discussing issues. Here is what I think is going on. I published it in Patheos.
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The Trance of Belief: Part I.
Most of the otherwise reasonably competent people we know who are global warming deniers will say science is a great force for good, but in this case scientists are in thrall to those seeking to enlarge government’s power over us. Most deniers are sincere in saying this. They are blind to the irrationality they demonstrate. Let me demonstrate this with an analogy.
A friend tells you worrisome symptoms you are showing indicate you might have something serious. You visit a physician and he explains you are seriously sick and need an operation. Not wanting an operation, you seek a second opinion, and see another doctor. She also tells you to get an operation. Desperate and fearful, you visit 8 more physicians. Seven echo the first two’s recommendations. However the tenth tells you the science is still out on interpreting those symptoms, and you might have nothing to worry about.
Does a reasonable person give the 10th opinion more weight than the other 9? Especially if the symptoms continue to increase?
The deniers’ logic supports arguing the 9 physicians advising an operation have bad motives. They are doing it for the money. But their claims are stranger than this. Atmospheric scientists distort their scientific work for the money but oil and coal corporations with billions at stake fund deniers from concern for the public good.
The complete irrationality is obvious to any sane person not in a trance.
And that is a clue I think to what has happened.
Some stage magicians are well known for their ability to put people in trance, where they subsequently act in ways they normally wouldn’t and see things that are not there. They can even do this in front of large numbers of people. Not every one is equally susceptible, but as the video demonstrates, many who are not even the magician’s targets are impacted.
Hypnosis is resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted as true. The person’s attention is removed from normal awareness, and encouraged to passively accept what it is told as true. As such hypnosis shares much in common with socialization.
When we are socialized into our culture we initially accept much as unquestioned and often we do so without even knowing we are. In a sense we are hypnotized to see the world a certain way. Unlike hypnotism, our early socialization does not have to override much, the message is usually less focused than the stage magician’s demonstrations, and importantly, societies contain enough contradictions that when we notice one we begin being able to make a space of freedom for ourselves.
The more the socialization consistently conforms to a specific message, the harder it is to free oneself from it. As a saying attributed to the Jesuits goes “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Particularly if the child accepts a worldview carrying powerful emotional energy, it is very difficult for that child to outgrow it later in life.
I want to suggest many global warming deniers are in a hypnotic trance. And that the issue goes well beyond denying the scientific consensus for no good reason.
Of tools and ideas
We usually think of our ideas as ways in which we try and understand our world. They are our tools.
But ideas are more than tools.
A tool can shape our perceptions, like the old adage when the only tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. But if a better hammer comes to our attention, or maybe a screw driver, we generally quickly exchange the first for the second if it will work better for us. We do not identify ourselves with our tools. With few exceptions they are simply our instruments, and that is why they are valuable to us. I have a hammer, but I am not a hammer. It makes no sense to say I am loyal to my hammer. But my meaning is clear when I say I am loyal to an idea or when I am a “conservative,” “liberal,” “Pagan,” or “Christian.” We identify with an idea, but not with our tools.
There is something subtle but important going on here.
Ideas are fueled by mental energy, and any Witch or other Pagan with much training in these matters knows mental energy plus intent is at the core of magick. Somehow focused mental energy interacts with more subtle realms to bring our normal experience into greater harmony with what our working sought to accomplish. Such workings take on added power when a coven or other small group adds several minds and more mental energy to the project.
If you have followed me this far the rest shakes out in a pretty straightforward fashion.
When we adopt an idea we can either regard it as the best approximation we have so far for understanding something, which keeps it our tool, or we put mental and emotional energy into it, particularly when we identify ourselves with it. The more emphatically we do this the more that idea has a “hold” on us and the more firmly we become attached to it. We enter into a trance.
Trance is a important term most of us don’t know much about. Trance is often defined as focus or immersion in a dissociated plane where at least some normal cognitive functions, such as reason or volition, are temporarily disabled. It is usually thought of as a negative state, which is not my meaning. For example, we are in a trance when we are so deeply immersed in doing art that the outside world disappears or becomes negligible. But whatever the trance, it separates us for a time from our immersion in normal consensus reality. In a hypnotic trance we are subject to the idea implanted in us by the hypnotist. As that Youtube video demonstrated, that idea shapes our perceptions to fit its message.
When we begun to identify with an idea we begin to perform a kind of magickal working, but unintentionally and on ourselves. We are subject to the idea rather than the idea being subject to us. We are its tool, it is not ours.
When we become the tool of an idea our capacities are devoted to defending the idea, and when the idea is seriously challenged, or even exposed to the possibility of a serious challenge, the mind turns off. Some excuse is always given. The subject is changed, the point raised is ignored, or the person making the challenging point is criticized rather than the point refuted. Whatever the excuse, it always means the idea will not be exposed to a serious challenge.
Ideologues, whatever their views, are people in a trance. This is why evidence and rational arguments make so little headway in discussions with them. I am not saying all ideologies are the same in content, only that they are the same in how they shape their adherents’ stand towards them. In all these cases the person has become the idea’s tool for manifesting rather than the idea becoming the person’s tool for understanding.
When we adopt an ideology and identify with it we voluntarily enter into a hypnotic trance where our mental energy goes to feed the idea rather than the idea serving us. The world looks different to us than it did before. Like a hypnotized person we do not see arguments against our position and interpret our experience to fit what our ideology says is the case. Facts appear unimportant or somehow distorted. If a moral failing is pointed out the answer is either to deny it or claim the other side does it too.
Consider Dennis Hastert, once a powerful Speaker of the House and third in line for the Presidency. Hastert is now known to have sexually abused some of his male students. When one later blackmailed him, Hastert violated banking laws when he paid him $900,000. Now that Hastert has pleaded guilty to all this, prominent right wing supporters are writing letters to the judge asking for leniency.
Reportedly none actually discuss what Hastert did both long ago and recently, but instead seek to change the subject. For example, Tom Delay, himself a former Speaker, wrote
I have observed him in many different and difficult situations, . . . He has never disappointed me in any way. He is a man of strong faith that guides him. He is a man of great integrity. He loves and respects his fellow man. I have never witnessed a time when he was unkind to anyone. He is always giving to others and helping anyone including me so many times.
DeLay closed saying “We all have our flaws, but Dennis Hastert has very few. He is a good man that loves the lord. He gets his integrity and values from Him. He doesn’t deserve what he is going through. I ask that you consider the man that is before you and give him leniency where you can,”
The judge was unmoved and gave Hastert 15 months, considerably above the six-months recommended by prosecutors. He said “Nothing is worse than using serial child molester and speaker of the house in the same sentence,”
One could argue DeLay’ss letter was just evidence of his cynicism and hypocrisy. I think it is more interesting than that.
I suspect DeLay did not really see Hastert’s crimes, either the early ones or the later ones. Their moral and legal significance did not penetrate his understanding. That he so often invoked religion and the Lord in his letter tells me this is the hypnotic prism through which DeLay views the world. Hastert is a fellow battler for the Lord. Given the contents of that prism, acting ruthlessly against God’s ‘enemies’ is as legitimate as not really seeing crimes by God’s allies.
Jeff Sharlet has written careful studies of “The Family” a powerful secretive theocratic organization in Washington with many Congressmen and Senators as members. It’s leader is Doug Coe. Sharlet describes how Coe’s son and heir apparent, David, explained what it meant to be a divinely chosen leader
[David Coe] asked a young man who’d put himself, body and soul, under The Family’s authority, “Let’s say I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think of you?” The man guessed that Coe would probably think he was a monster. “No,” answered Coe, “I wouldn’t.” Why? Because as a member of the Family, he’s among what Family leaders refer to as the “new chosen.” If you’re chosen, the normal rules don’t apply.
Humanity has always had sociopaths, but when we see a great many people involved in an organization with such views sociopathy alone can not explain it. Trance can. And the term does not apply just to elites. It underlies tribalism, the collective trance people enter into when they feel their society or way of life is attacked.
Most Americans who endorse torture despite the proven fact it does not provide the information it is supposed to. They are blind to the evidence. In debates I have seen on line torture supporters either ignore the evidence or change the subject. They do not analyze it. Ever.
A weapon of control and domination
Our natural susceptibility to trance makes us vulnerable to manipulation. If we accept someone’s framing of an issue, and accept an identity they offer us, and those pushing this message have the resources to immerse us in the message, a bubble of reinforcement arises that continually strengthens the trance. Movements that subordinate truth and reason to the power of an idea continually seek to create walls of distrust between their members and alternative communities and views.
Global warming deniers exist within such a bubble. This is why they are in so many cases impervious to the evidence. Scientists are not mistaken, they are ill-intentioned. Since scientists are clearly not in control of the world, they must be servants of those who are. The spreading of fear or disdain of all outside the deniers’ bubble is essential to maintaining it, and those with plenty of money at stake are happy to fund what it takes.
Part II will discuss how we can better appreciate the strengths as well as the weaknesses of trance, and how not to become the tool of an idea.
Part II will discuss how we can better appreciate the strengths as well as the weaknesses of trance, and how not to become the tool of an idea.
Spontaneous orders are natural outgrowths of liberal principles and a better understanding of them sheds light on a fateful split between nineteenth-century American and European liberal traditions that remains very relevant today. This essay is my most complete discussion of liberalism, political theory, and spontaneous orders to date.
From The Independent Review, v. 16, no. 2, Fall, 2011, 173-197 Download
On January 23, 2016, I gave this paper as the keynote speaker at the Conference of Current Pagan Studies, in Claremont, California. It was well received and I want to make it available to anyone who is interested.
Social Justice from a Pagan perspective
What is Social Justice?
Writings on social justice comprise a small intellectual industry, and my paper does not pretend to cover even its leading edge. Instead I will give an abstract working definition I think most of you will find reasonable, setting the stage to explore how Pagan religions might add additional insight to this much discussed concept.
Briefly, justice is fairness and social justice is fairness towards all in society. Unfairness is being treated worse than another without an appropriate reason. This is unjust.
Fairness is not simply a subjective construct even if its outer limits are contestable. Fairness emerges from the reality of what it is to be a social being. Non-human social animals have been shown to have a strong sense of fairness, at least when it is they who are treated unfairly. (Bekoff, 2009, 127-8) We have no trouble understanding why they reacted as they did. If there is anything unique about the human sense of fairness, it is that it extends beyond where our self-interest and relationships connect, to embrace strangers we have never met, including future generations and those in the past, acknowledging and even trying to address previously unfair situations.
Social justice exists when equal people are treated equally and fairly. In the modern world fairness is linked to equality. All people are considered equal in legal status. On the other hand, as fair rules for games demonstrate, people can be treated fairly and some still do better than others. Among individuals or in society, justice need not include equal outcomes.
Assuming general agreement so far, can a contemporary Pagan perspective shed additional light on what constitutes a more just state of affairs and how to approach it more closely? I believe so. A Pagan perspective illuminates issues often lost within monotheist or secular ones, However any arguments we make must be in universal terms if we expect others to take them seriously. more »
A couple of days ago I received an email from a Pagan list connecting to a “New Paradigm” conference where prominent speakers would be libertarians mixing a dose of conspiracy theory, libertarian boilerplate, and New Age rhetoric into a supposed ‘New Paradigm” for a new world. I warned the list’s members not to be taken in and some were appreciative. But given they have re-emerged into my awareness, I think it is fitting that I repost a slightly edited version of a write up I put on a local list after I heard Foster and Kimberly Gamble at an increasingly surreal presentation they gave at the Institute for Noetic Sciences last year.
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An Evening with the Gambles
Foster and Kimberly Gamble are the producers of the well known New Age movie “Thrive.” On Thursday, March 6 they gave a presentation to a packed audience at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in the hills south of Petaluma. I decided to attend although I had long been a strong critic of the movie’s libertarian vision of what a thriving world would be like. Like so many ideologies, libertarianism promises infinitely more than it can deliver. I had been assured by the gathering’s organizer that I would have an opportunity to ask questions and enter into dialogue, and it seemed a worthwhile thing to do. I even took a copy of my new book Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine, to give to the Gambles. more »
With small changes this article appeared in The Interfaith Observer.
Can indigenous peoples not practice indigenous religions? What if a non-indigenous person claims to practice their religion? Can people normally not considered indigenous have an indigenous religion? Can people normally not considered indigenous have an indigenous religion? What if they claim they are reconstructing one that died out? What does “indigenous” actually mean and how doe sit relate to both people and religion? While I will offer some general suggestions of my own, the most important part of this essay explains why these apparently simple questions are so complicated.
Even in its initial sense of referring to a people, indigenous has been used in many different contexts with sometimes very different shades of meaning. The term “indigenous” contains all the complexities of cultures and peoples that have chosen a particular place to call home, and among them those that either conquered or were conquered by others, and of the conquerors, either colonialists or other peoples closer to home who themselves may themselves have then been conquered. Its many dimensions do not all map onto the same pattern, and are employed by people claiming indigenaity for different reasons. Indigenous spirituality partakes of all this complexity.
Take a simple but telling example, many Native Americans seeking to preserve their language and other traditions are Christians. They are indigenous people by most criteria, but not practicing what anyone would call an indigenous religion. On the other hand, the Native American Church uses indigenous practices in powerful ways, while incorporating Christian elements and spreading into regions where it had been entirely foreign. But many include the NAC among indigenous religions, and its core practices of great antiquity, as among the Huichol people. And then there are some EuroAmericans who also practice within the NAC. Are they practicing indigenous religion?
“Indigenous religion” refers to something most believe important, but where to draw its boundaries is not agreed upon. If we start with “indigenous people” several characteristics repeatedly appear, but sometimes not all are combined.
• Indigenous people are born within a common culture with a strong identifying sense of kinship.
• Indigenous people voluntarily maintain a sense of their cultural distinctiveness, and seek to preserve it.
• Indigenous people have experienced subjugation.
• Indigenous people are a minority in their country.
• Indigenous people occupy ancestral lands.
• Indigenous people share a common ancestry with the place’s original inhabitants.
• Indigenous people share a common language not spoken much outside their community.
• Indigenous people self-identify as indigenous.
Importantly, people most of us would unhesitatingly call “indigenous” will not necessarily share all these traits.
Also importantly, the term has changed its meaning particularly during the twentieth century. Under European colonialism nonEuropean peoples in colonized areas were commonly referred to as indigenous. In post-colonial times the term was generally used to refer to nonEuropean peoples in areas dominated by people of European descent. Later it has expanded to include other marginalized cultural groups.
One thread uniting most indigenous peoples by these definitions is their historical and ancient connection with specific places. But the Roma are arguably an indigenous people by most other criteria, one without such a connection to the land.
At the same time many people commonly referred to as indigenous resist identification from the outside, arguing that their communities are who determines who is or is not a member.
The most obvious meaning of indigenous religion is applied to tribal peoples practicing different religions centered on specific places, at least some of which were held sacred, and are even said to be where a particular people arrived in this world. The paradigmatic example would be the traditional religions of Native Americans. These peoples are considered tribal, and at the time of European contact were often either horticultural or hunting and gathering, practicing religions in harmony with that way of life. Since before European contact none were influenced by Old World religions, it is easy to call their religions “indigenous.”
By extension the term indigenous has been extended to any tribal peoples whose practices are distinct from Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions. At this point the term begins to show its ambiguities. Hindu traditions are most definitely religions of place, with sacred rivers like the Ganges and sacred mountains like Mt. Kailash. And yet the dominant cultures of India are hardly tribal. Further, unlike what we usually think of as indigenous religion, Hindus have a sacred literature, arguably the world’s oldest and most voluminous.
And yet, the concept of a vast Hindu religion itself results from European colonialism, where an extraordinary variety of practices and beliefs were amalgamated under that label. But today many Hindus so identify themselves. Very much the same thing happened earlier with western Paganism. Celts, Norse, Hellenes, and others saw themselves as engaged in different practices, worshiped different deities, and only became “Pagan” through the imposition of that name by practitioners of Abrahamic religions.
To take another example illustrating complications in expanding the term, Bon is arguably the original religion of Tibetan culture. Buddhism arrived between the 5th and 8th centuries, and became first the state religion and then that of most Tibetans. However, a Naxi priest from a tribal region in Southwest China told me his religion, which to the untrained eye looks like Bon, is different because Bon has incorporated so many Buddhist elements. When he described many of their beliefs it sounded far more in harmony with many NeoPagan themes than with anything Buddhist, I felt very much at home in a ritual he gave, as he did when attending a shamanic healing ceremony I gave. And that ceremony drew on African, Brazilian Indian, and French Kardecist roots.
Tibetans are the indigenous people of Tibet now that it is incorporated into China. Bon would be most easily seen as the indigenous religion of Tibet were Tibet still independent. But if my Naxi informant is correct, Bon is already deeply transformed by Buddhism and most people consider Vajrayana Buddhism Tibet’s religion. At what point does an indigenous religion influenced by more powerful ones cease to be indigenous and become a variant of the dominant religion? This question obviously has relevance to evaluating the NAC in America.
And if we look more closely Native America, these people were far more diverse than simply hunter gatherers and horticultural peoples. Their practices also included agricultural peoples, city states and empires, among the Iroquois something close to a nation state, and in the case of the Maya, their religion included a sacred literature.
Are the African Diasporic religions indigenous? Their sense of place is usually more abstract because their Orixas are usually more universal, being honored in Cuba, Brazil, and West Africa, to name but three of many. They can and do flourish far from any countryside, in large cities. Further, they have often changed markedly from their African roots since being established by slaves. Finally, some Brazilian practitioners are returning to Africa to re-establish connections with practices and teachings long absent, creating a kind of reconstructionist approach within their traditions.
These considerations highlight another dimension of indigenaity. Indigenous cultures were usually conquered by other peoples, usually the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam, particularly after modern science and technology gave Christian nations unrivaled military superiority. Indigenous peoples almost invariably suffered from colonial oppression, including the suppression of many of their religions.
But even here ambiguities and exceptions exist. A long suppressed but still surviving tradition is different from one people are attempting to revive based on old texts. The reason is that these religions were primarily rooted in oral traditions. Those managing to have survived years or centuries of suppression are quite different in this regard from those that did not.
Further, not all indigenous traditions were colonized. Certainly Japanese Shinto was not, nor were Chinese traditions thousands of years old that while suppressed by Mao Tse-tung, have revived once the most oppressive aspect of Communist rule ended. Both are indigenous if the word has any meaning at all with respect to religious traditions. But in both the Chinese and Japanese cases the people are not indigenous by most criteria, they are the dominant culture, and in Shinto’s case a variant was long the state religion.
And then there is the modern NeoPagan renaissance which includes Wiccans, and other traditions which see themselves as reconstructing the pre-Christian conquest religions of Western, Central and Northern Europe. In these cases there is either no continuity of tradition, or for the Romuva perhaps, a very attenuated one. But their practitioners usually see themselves as part of a religious sensibility having much in common with more clearly indigenous traditions. Many practitioners of those traditions see this similarity themselves, sometimes describing them as non-indigenous people practicing an indigenous religion.
Are efforts to reconstruct Roman Paganism in America by non-Italians examples of indigenous religion? Roman Paganism was indigenous to Rome, and focused on sacred places there. It was carried across much of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East by conquering armies, not as something imposed on conquered people, but as an element of the conquering culture. Sometimes syncretism took place. Sometimes, as with Druids and Jews, not.
My purpose in this introductory essay is not to solve these questions. I want to raise them and so provide an over view as to why I think they are unable to be solved in any final ways. Humanity’s spiritual practices are a beautiful tapestry of individual experience, cultural variety, the character of the places where those cultures arose, and both peaceful and imposed historical interpenetration. Onto this extraordinary complexity people have tried to create political, theological, and historical understanding, including classifications and boundaries for something that does not easily fall into neatly defined categories.
I think indigenous religions can best be seen as a kind of rope comprised of many threads. At any point along the rope a thread may be missing or weak, but the rope will still be a rope. Certain threads seem to me particularly important.
One thread is that each religion is relatively powerless within the relevant context that has led to its being considered indigenous. In almost all these cases weaker groups seek to preserve their separateness from larger dominant culture’s religions.
Another is that from an indigenous religious perspective practitioners of one can feel more or less at home when visiting another, compared to their reaction when observing Abrahamic traditions. Consider my story concerning the Naxi priest The larger community itself recognizes a common indigenaity..
A third is a focus on practice, and particularly practice focused on immanent sacrality rather than on dogma or belief. Indigenous spirituality focuses on the sacred in this world, and so on the sacred as it manifests in place. Those most localized to specific places shape their understanding with regard to those places, and those which are less localized have perhaps a more abstract conception, but an abstraction which still finds recognition in specific local places. Unlike traditional Native Americans American NeoPagans do not have a tight linkage of our practices with specific places of sacredness and power. But at the level of a local practicing community we often do have places set aside for special concern and ritual. Here in Sonoma County there is a particular old growth redwood grove that fits this description. At a more inclusive but still local level many see Mt. Tamalpais as a place of a special power and presence. There are others.
Here we find both the connecting thread and why its details are so immensely varied, for places vary, cultures vary, historical experience varies, and so traditions that focus on sacred immanence of place will vary. It would be strange were it otherwise.
If examined individually indigenous religions are tiny, inconsequential mites compared to the many millions and even billions involved in the Abrahamic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. (Leaving Hinduism out of “indigenous” for the moment.) Even comparatively small Judaism dwarfs them.
And yet when combined together these unifying themes make indigenous religion not only humankind’s oldest spiritual tradition, it remains a large one; one accepting its particularistic cultural and regional manifestations and so not seeking converts or to spread their practice except as their devotees themselves move to new places.
Why do big organizations so often seem perverse, and why do people who are a part of them so often seem as if they have become different people? Why do these most impressive of our social creations seem to become Frankenstein monsters rather than tools for human betterment? My just published paper Not Just Construction: Exploring The Darker Side of Taxis describes how and why.
Without intending it we have created new life forms . . .
Capitalism undermines the natural systems that support human well-being for the same reason it undermines civil society: the values it elevates above all others are incompatible with human or natural flourishing. Capitalism fails to achieve the minimal ethical standards to maintain a decent society. Until recently this failure was masked (and for libertarians and market liberals remains masked) because capitalism arose in largely liberal societies where democracy and civil society ensured economic activity took place within a thick moral context not reducible to market values. However, like an invasive species, over time capitalist institutions grew and eventually overran much of the human sphere, increasingly subjecting it to the thin moral context of formally voluntary contractual exchange alone. Over time capitalism would overrun even these minimal values.
In Part I. I argued capitalism undermines both democracy and civil society, and in doing so ultimately also the market order that sustains it. In Part II. I explored how capitalism is antithetical to the well-being of laboring people and is compatible with slavery, genocide, and other kinds of human degradation so long as sufficient consumers exist somewhere else to buy what is thereby produced. I have shown how checks on capitalism’s treatment of humans as well as the details of property rights rely on extra-systemic values and institutions that subordinate the market and capitalism to thicker moral frameworks than can be derived from the principle of contractual exchange alone. And I have shown capitalism ultimately eliminates most labor because labor is ultimately a cost to be minimized. However, as labor is minimized capitalism undermines the conditions of its own existence which depends on consumer spending. Because in capitalism most consumer spending depends on employment, it is internally self-destructive.
I have made my case by developing unexplored implications in F. A. Hayek’s argument for why markets are by far the superior means of coordinating economic life. When we read him attentively the distinction between markets and capitalism becomes critically important, even though Hayek himself scarcely saw it. Now we need to expand our scope, to show why capitalism is also intrinsically destructive to the natural world that sustains us.
Ecosystems and economics
Markets create a kind of economic ecology within which people and enterprises pursue their goals very much as organisms do within a biological ecology. This comparison is common in economics, biology, and philosophy, and in keeping with Hayek’s focus on markets as spontaneous orders.
This similarity deepens when we realize, as did Hayek, that the market ecosystem is itself immersed within a more inclusive social ecosystem rather like a forest ecosystem is immersed within the larger natural one of the earth. The larger shapes the smaller, and is itself influenced in return. A forest ecosystem can be undermined by changes taking place within it and by external changes within the more enveloping ecosystem. Similarly, market ecosystems can be undermined not only by changes internal to them, like the growth of monopolies, they can also be undermined by changes within the larger social ecosystem upon which they depend, as when corporate interests change the rules of the game.
The nature of nature
By nature I mean the other-than-human world within which we live, from which we sprang, and on which we depend for our long term well being. Increasingly scientists are learning this dependency holds true for our psychological well-being as well as for maintaining physical health. We are more intimately connected to this planet than the abstractions of ‘economic man’ and ‘rational action’ can grasp.
Human beings both love nature and seek to control it. Within any society there are those who relate to the natural world as amorally as a sociopath relates to other beings and those who recognize it as beautiful and intrinsically valuable. Most of us see it as both a storehouse of resources and as valuable in its own right.
The US has long sought to preserve wild nature and ruthlessly exploited it for economic gain. Our idea of national parks has been copied more than any of our political institutions. At the same time this society has exterminated or nearly exterminated many species that once caused wonder and delight among the first European explorers. It currently threatens more. However, this tension between love and utility goes more deeply than just American culture. It goes to the center of who we are as human beings.
Before we can understand capitalism and nature we need to understand this tension. Only then can we fully appreciate the vastly greater problems raised by capitalism, and understand why capitalism is intrinsically incapable of interacting sustainably with the natural world.
A core distinction
In one sense we are a part of nature. We evolved from our not-human ancestors in a chain of descent ultimately going back over a billion years. We express this heritage in our metabolism, our senses, and our physical and psychological needs. But in another sense as a species we differ radically from the rest of nature.
Human beings are not faster or stronger than many other animals. Even so we wield vastly disproportionate power over other life forms on which we depend. We usually attribute this to our intelligence, which is flattering but a bit misleading. We are cleverer, but in a way not usually appreciated.
Human intelligence comes with little in the way of basic instincts to orient us in the world. If necessary, a newborn fawn can soon run. Absent that necessity it knows to lie quietly to avoid predators. A human baby will take a year to walk, two to run. As for being quiet . . . . If individual intelligence were all we had as an advantage, we might well be extinct.
Our real advantage lies outside our bodies, in society. F. A. Hayek emphasized we are essentially cultural beings, writing “Mind is as much a product of the social environment in which it has grown up and which it has not made as something that has in turn acted upon and altered these institutions.” (1973, 17) Our minds consist of far more than what our individual intelligence can observe, discover, or create.
The secret of imitation
Experiments comparing the ability of children and young chimpanzees to learn by copying what they see another do led to unexpected results. Like human children, young chimpanzees will copy others. But later, if they grasp certain steps in a copied sequence are unnecessary, they will skip them. Children do not. Even when they are told about extraneous steps rather than having to figure it out for themselves, children still perform all of the steps in the sequence they learned, necessary and unnecessary ones alike. They apparently prefer rote repetition, perhaps as a kind of game, whereas the chimp focuses pragmatically on “getting the treat.” As I read this research I remembered how children like being read to before bed, and woe to the nighttime reader who changes a line in a favorite story, for the child has memorized it.
Superficially it appears young chimps are more rational than children. They are in the narrow economic sense. But this conclusion misses something important about human rationality. In a study comparing the role of copying and imitation in children and chimpanzees, the authors observed that chimpanzees learning from copying.
quickly become habitual, restricting what alternative methods can be switched to, even where the benefits appear manifest. Children, by contrast, demonstrated cumulative cultural learning. . . . Chimpanzees [who learned one technique] failed to upgrade to an improved technique for gaining food discovered by a few members of the group; moreover, practitioners of this technique later prevented from using it failed to copy the simpler method of others, which remained productive. . . . What appears to be revealed [in chimps] is a social learning propensity that is initially capable of the sophisticated levels of copying [but] any one context quickly becomes ‘canalized’ or crystallized, producing a routine resistant to cumulative or other change.
What most distinguishes the rationality of chimps from that of humans is the different role culture plays in our respective species. The core of our cleverness turns out not to be our individual psychology or fitness alone, but rather our ability cumulatively to increase the knowledge made available culturally. This appears related to our being more socially embedded in our learning than are chimpanzees.
Perhaps a conservatism similar to chimps once characterized our thinking about the nature of what we took for granted. However, as people develop greater repertoires of cultural practices conflicts between them would eventually arise, requiring us to resolve the problem. Developing language skills and reasoning capacity to do so would provide enormous advantages to groups acquiring them. Hayek argued the human mind arose out of these efforts. He emphasized mind is a product of cultural evolution, based more on imitation than on insight or reason. (1988, 21)
Discovering how useful but sometimes contradictory habits fit together also encourages us to focus on the larger context beyond what we have memorized. Ultimately these efforts lead to questioning the meaning lying behind matters of practicality, such as the relation of life to death, of self-interest to that of others, or of want to plenty. Some animals are aware of these issues, but only in very concrete contexts. (Bekoff, 2009) So far as we know, no chimp ever wonders about them.
Many other species also have cultures, but their cultures apparently do not build on themselves. They can incorporate a discovery but they do not, or barely, accumulate knowledge so that initial discovery is gradually built upon. For example, over time chimpanzees do not seem to improve their styles of cracking nuts, a many step process different from eliminating unneeded steps.
Culture over genes
Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel observed of us “unlike all other animals, we have two distinct and fully fledged systems of inheritance: one genetic and one cultural.” (2015, 44) Our cultures are repositories for knowledge existing independently of any individual but accessible to all. They furnish us with our languages, religions, sciences, technologies, music and art, and how we initially conceive our relations with other people and with the other than human world. Of course we can modify any of them, but we always do within an existing cultural context taking most of the rest for granted.
Cultural inheritance is largely independent of genetic inheritance and operates far more rapidly. It is more Lamarckian than Darwinian because acquired habits can be passed on to the next generation. It goes beyond Lamarck because we can learn from anyone, and not just benefit from our parents’ experiences. Therefore culture can ‘mutate’ rapidly. People born in 1900 into a world where horses and buggies were common could watch the first man step onto the moon on television in 1969. A cell phone today has more computing power than the computers on board Apollo 11 during our first lunar landing. People born during that time now take for granted a worldwide connectivity via personal computers, the internet, and smart phones. If these transformations had to happen through genetic evolution, the earth would not last long enough to bring them about. With cultural evolution they occurred within a single lifetime.
The same genes have mostly shaped humanity as a whole biologically for many generations. Despite this lack of genetic diversity we have achieved remarkable diversity between and rapid change within cultures. Further, the children of immigrants from one culture easily grow up as members of their parents’ adopted one. Culture freed us from the domination of genes.
But there is a catch to all this. Culture and the power it makes possible also disconnects us from the natural world that sustains us.
The great division
Non-human creatures participate in a dynamic pattern of relationships ultimately benefiting most species living within ecosystems through a process of mutual adaptation. This happens not through deliberate actions on their part, but genetically through intricate relationships developed between predators and prey and adaptation to non-biological changes within their environment. By freeing us to some significant extent from immediate dependency on our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the world, culture created the possibility of our unintentionally degrading our environment through the greater power it made possible for us, power insulated from negative feedback in the short run. The immediate wielder of power benefited, with the price deferred for years.
Societies that long persisted and thrived generally discovered ways for limiting this power. In part this was through passing on knowledge as to the best way to farm or otherwise take resources from the natural world. Traditional farming is famously conservative, which helps protect long term processes from short term desires. However these practices usually had an even deeper ethical foundation, situating its economic activities within larger ethical and customary contexts.
For example, Northern Pacific coast Indian tribes had the technological means and short term economic motives for eliminating salmon from much of their environment. Dried salmon was an important trade good. Yet despite their having been fished for thousands of years, when Europeans encountered them the salmon runs were enormous. The various tribes accomplished this through subordinating their economic interests to ethical and religious ones. One example was the First Salmon ceremony, which subordinated fishing to larger ethical contexts, even to the salmon themselves. https://www.nwcouncil.org/history/FirstSalmonCeremony In addition, major weir and dam constructions with the power to devastate salmon runs were subordinated to a larger ethical context. (Pierce, 1991)
Possibly the most advanced accomplishment of California Indian cultures was the fish dam on the Klamath at Kepel. Several hundred people were involved in the annual construction of this dam. Every aspect of its construction and use was highly ritualized: it consisted of exactly ten panels, was built in ten days, and was fished for only ten days. This community project ensured that subsistence needs of all river tribes would be met, and salmon runs perpetuated.
Those cultures that did not succeed in subordinating economic to ecological values found themselves in slowly degrading environments requiring them to adapt to progressively less favorable circumstances. When the Iliad was written, Greeks ate beef. By Plato’s time they ate fish. Plato shed light on why.
In his Critias Plato wrote “the land [of Greece] was the best in the world,” but “in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body,” whereas “all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.” He added “In the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain . . . although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees.” In words all too familiar to us today he observed “There were many other high trees [and] abundance of food for cattle. Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea, but, having an abundant supply in all places.” He concluded “Such was the natural state of the country, which was cultivated, as we may well believe,” by “lovers of honour, and of a noble nature, and had a soil the best in the world, and abundance of water, and in the heaven above an excellently attempered climate.”
Environmental degradation was not just a Greek problem. For one example among many, in Mesopotamia early farmers raised wheat on irrigated soil. Over time the soil became increasingly salty, making it unfit for wheat. The more salt resistant barley replaced wheat, but ultimately farming collapsed as even barley could not grow on the ruined land. Environmental degradation contributed to the collapse of the Sumerian civilization and its replacement by Babylon to the north.
Even in societies that had developed the customs needed to preserve sustainability greed or short sightedness could undermine hard won cultural wisdom. Desire for new goods made available through trade with Europeans undermined Northeastern Indians’ long stable patterns of sustainable hunting for skins, ultimately destroying animal populations. Greed over ran ethical standards that had evolved over thousands of years. (Martin, 49)
An economy that consumes its capital will decline and ultimately fail. For the same reasons an ecology that consumes its natural capital will also ultimately decline and fail, but this failure normally takes longer to manifest. Our short term interests combined with this lag lead us to consume natural capital more easily than we consume economic capital. When unfettered by ethics our power makes this easy.
This problem is not uniquely human. Any successful new species devoid of checks by predators or disease will also transform its environment. But because of our immensely greater culturally rooted power, this issue pertains to us more than to any other species that has ever lived on this planet.
Some, particularly cornucopians such as Julian Simon, respond that if the original resource runs out humans can substitute one resource for another. Simon was correct but blind to context. Today in oceanic fisheries, as one species of fish is depleted another is pursued until it also becomes rare, and another takes its place. But when used without restraint this capacity to adapt, so useful in the short run, exterminates or virtually exterminates species after species and ecosystem after ecosystem.
Setting aside the powerful ethical issue of needless extinctions, the core problem cornucopians and their allies ignore is that most species and all ecosystems play a multiplicity of roles whereas economically commodities play only one. Salmon are not commodities but are treated as such while their other impacts are considered “externalities.”
When salmon runs are exterminated through over fishing, disease from salmon farms, and dams, their role as a conveyer belt returning nutrients from the ocean to the land comes to an end. As it does, the forests and wildlife within salmon ecosystems are gradually deprived of nutrients from the sea and grow more slowly and less abundantly, hurting the lumber industry as well as the ecological ‘services’ forests provide. These disturbing results have shown up in mere decades, and we plan on being on this planet for a long time to come.
However property rights are defined they cannot address such problems unless ethical questions are confronted first because how they are answered shapes what possibilities exist for making money. When only commercial value matters EXXON’s record of ignoring its own scientists while dishonestly funding global warming deniers simply good management.
The centrality of ethics
How might we establish an economy that consumes neither its human nor its natural capital? Only by subordinating economic activity to ethical standards that cannot themselves be reduced to economic ways of thinking.
Capitalism is not sustainable in the long run because it treats everything as resources for obtaining money, but money alone cannot maintain either a complex society or an ecosystem. In the second essay I demonstrated capitalism is compatible with slavery so long as there are enough non-slave consumers to buy its products. Slavery was abolished not due to economic reasoning but to moral and ethical reasoning. Quakers counted far more than economists in bringing it to an end.
The same point is equally true regarding natural values. To work well contractual property rights require clear boundaries between one piece of property and another. Within human societies up to a point this can be achieved, though even here economists admit “externalities” arise where boundaries break down. The natural world replicates this issue much more strongly, for the web of life is incredibly complex, boundaries are open, and relations are often symbiotic as well as competitive.
“Property” exists within two realms and capitalism considers only one. What we call “private property” is really a bundle of rights, and we can exchange some, none, or all of them. For example, a landlord exchanges the right to live in his property for rent, but in other respects the property remains his. The larger the ‘bundle’ of rights, the greater the variety of potentially beneficial exchanges that can be made by owners. The opportunities for this to happen are increased when boundaries for rights are firmly established and defined so it is easy to reach agreements about what is mutually beneficial. On the one hand, as economists emphasize, property, or property rights, can be exchanged and in a free society people generally exchange what they value less for what they value more.
But what we call “property” also plays a role in natural systems where boundaries are porous or nonexistent. I have mentioned how salmon runs make for larger richer forests Short of owning the oceans in which they swim, the rivers and streams in which they spawn, and the forests around them, there is no way for economic reasoning to “internalize the externalities” involved with treating salmon simply as a resopurce. The market relies on firm boundaries and ecosystems rely on many such boundaries being porous or non existent.
This is why in an ecology we can never do just one thing, and there is no way to internalize the costs of what we do until we have internalized the ecology as a whole. Because this is impossible and because the advantages in the short run of ignoring ecological relationships the better to make economic gains are so great, in the absence of ethical values overriding economic values, the long run destruction of natural systems is guaranteed.
Because it subordinates all values to economic return, capitalism makes this problem incapable of resolution. Capitalism is not the cause of our problems creating a sustainable society, but its domination makes accomplishing this task impossible.
The technological fix
Technological discoveries have accomplished magnificent things. They will play a central role if society is to become sustainable. But they are not simple outgrowths of market processes. Technology and creativity work most in service to sustainability when they are encouraged and empowered by extra-economic values such as clean air for all, clean water for all, or good health for all.
For example, technology can potentially solve the crisis in global warming. Nearly everything needed to do so already exists and ironically the market is the best way to achieve it, with proper definitions of property rights. But capitalism subordinates the market to acquiring capital. Far greater subsidies are going to the most destructive technologies and large companies often battle against policies encouraging wiser energy production, because the largest of them have enormous amounts invested in fossil fuel energy. EXXON is by far the worst example, but hardly alone.
Redefinitions of property rights to require CO2 producing energy to pay for some nontrivial approximation of its genuine costs must come from outside the economy, as have all other effective environmental regulations. Such regulations have always been opposed by industries benefiting from the status quo no matter who is ultimately injured. Such opposition is completely in character. We witnessed the same pattern of dishonesty in service to profit regarding tobacco.
For another example, in the 80s corporations and the advocates of capitalism they financed argued strenuously against the ‘cautionary principle,” a moral argument that new substances introduced into the environment should be evaluated for harm before being used. They argued this was unnecessary.
Honeybees are globally responsible for pollinating at least 90% of the world’s commercial crops, are in serious biological trouble with widespread colony collapses and a recent study indicates a new neonicotinoid pesticide is a significant factor in this crisis. The report’s authors concluded: “As long as acute toxins remain the basis of agricultural pest control practices, society will be forced to weigh the benefits of pesticides against their collateral damage. Nowhere is this tension more evident than in the system with the world’s most widely used insecticide, the world’s most widely used managed pollinator and Europe’s most widely grown mass flowering crop.”.
Technology needs a moral framework to be able to be wisely used because ultimately technology is about power. It cannot provide that moral framework on its own.
Civil society plus democracy provides a means by which non-economic reasoning and values can improve the context within which economic activity takes place. When combined with democracy, civil society is at least potentially able to harmonize the modern human world with natural values, though it does not guarantee it. It gave us our national parks and national forests, our wild and scenic rivers, the Endangered Species Act, and laws dramatically improving our air and water. It has saved the Atlantic cod from extinction, enabled waterfowl to recover from the over hunting driving them to extinction, and enabled buffalo to be seen by millions. Otherwise they would also almost certainly be extinct, as happens any other animal whose existence got in the way of making money and are not protected by extra-capitalist measures. (Or people, remember the Dutch East India Company described in Part II.)
By freeing economic activity from any but considerations of short term utility and profit, capitalism is parasitic on both civil society and the natural world. Values essential to the maintenance of civil society, the market, and nature cannot be fully monetized and to the limited degree they can, they will be manipulated by capitalist enterprises to subordinate them to capitalist values. The rules governing the market will increasingly be changed to benefit corporate power, as with the provisions on intellectual property in the TPP. The greatest long term environmental threat of our time, global warming, is deliberately confused and hidden by massive disinformation campaigns by the energy industry. Entire cities and perhaps millions of people will be sacrificed to protect corporate profit.
In the absence of a strong push-back, these practices will not stop until everything is monetized or social and ecological systems collapse. As bad as the former would be, the likelihood of the latter happening first is far greater. The rapid decline of America’s middle class and increase in global warming and ocean acidification is evidence this is so.
Back to the market
As Hayek pointed out perhaps more insightfully than anyone before him there is no alternative to market processes for sustaining a complex society such as ours. Central planning cannot do it. Nor can endless meetings. A freely functioning price system is essential to signal information about how to use resources most effectively to accomplish the largest number of independently chosen plans, and so able to integrate knowledge available to no single source, or even to those possessing it absent the context that brings it to their attention.
And yet capitalism can so dominate the market that it becomes socially and now environmentally destructive. As with labor the solution is subordinating the market more thoroughly to the thick value context of civil society. Not only should corporations not be allowed to own land or engage in activities that require their maintaining ecological health to exist long term, alternative institutions need to be able to replace them.
Happily such institutions have long existed. Individually or family owned farms and ranches are capable of such operation. Land trusts have grown rapidly throughout the country, providing ways traditional agriculture and ranching can survive in the face of rapidly increasing land values by removing them from subordination to the price system. National forests can be immunized from the power of capitalist wealth unattached to place by becoming forest trusts. Communities under intense pressure to develop their lands in ways that ultimately price out their original inhabitants can adopt a variant of this model.
Tax policies can shift from taxing what is desired, such as labor, to what we wish to have less of, such as carbon dioxide. A carbon tax gradually increasing until there is no more addition of human created CO2 in the atmosphere is economically identical in its impact to a natural resource becoming scarce and as it rises in price more efficient uses are developed as well as increasing reliance on substitutes. Environmentally our ability to adapt by finding substitutes becomes a strength and not a weakness.
The income from such a tax could be offset by reducing Social Security taxes proportionately, making labor cheaper without reducing wages even as it makes CO2 production more expensive. Peter Barnes’ Capitalism 3.0 gives another good approach relying on the market. That the energy industry calls such proposals “socialist” is one more example of capitalism’s intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
Earlier societies’ mixed record of successes and failures means that even with ideal institutions we are not guaranteed success. The creativity and vitality of those acting within civil society is still needed. But when capitalism is eliminated from interacting with natural processes the task at least becomes doable. Domination by capitalism is incompatible with a decent life on earth for human beings and viable alternatives are all around us, if we but open our eyes to see them.