Caves Paintings and Caring

Chauvet bison

I just got back from seeing The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s documentary about the Chauvet caves, the site of the oldest known cave paintings, including the beautiful bison shown to the left. It is a rare trip into the past, the long, long ago past. The cave was discovered in 1994 by a small group of explorers who noticed a stream of cool gas emanating from a small fissure. After finding a way to access the cave, they entered to discover a trove of prehistoric art amidst a glittering background of crystalline deposits. The paintings have been dated, using radiocarbon techniques, to between 30-33,000 years BCE. All are of various animals, lions, rhinoceroses, mammoths, and more, except one that shows the lower half of a women. There is no sign that the cave was occupied as a dwelling-place for humans. The film is stunning and well worth seeing.

The relevance of these painting to my story of Being as caring (and thence to sustainability) is that they are evidence of care in the ontological sense. Whether these humans had oral language or not, they discovered artistic representation as a demonstration of care. Care, in this ontological sense, is the perception of distinct parts of the outside world coupled with some action directed to them. These extraordinarily creative people must have recognized the animal life in which they lived as meaningful in some way that merited creating language to communicate something about. The paintings are for them a form of communication to what ends we cannot tell. There is some evidence that the cave might have been a kind of shrine for worship. Maybe it was no more than a place where the clan gathered to recount their experiences, and, lacking a verbal language, had to resort to images. In any case, the creation of “linguistic” distinctions signifies meaning, as a recognition of distinct objects against a broad background of unnamed phenomena.

They are believed to have been hunters because spears have also been found in the area, adding a little more to the idea of caring, that is, intentional actions in some domain. Building on this possibility, I can think about the evolution of verbal speech as a consequence of the perception of more and more meaningful distinctions. The humans of the time “cared” about something in the world and needed language to coordinate action concerned with whatever it was. By simple logic, it’s possible to divide up the entire world (everything that they could and would perceive) into three non-overlapping domains: themselves as individuals, other humans like themselves, and everything else. Their biological needs must have made them aware of themselves and led to a set of habits devoted to nurturing their bodies and those they took care of. Notice how the word care shows up her; care in the sense of a set of actions directed to a specific set of interactions.

So let’s jump some tens of thousands of years to today. The world has gotten much more complicated as humans changed the prehistoric landscape with our artifacts, infrastructures, and institutions. Classifying the actions that emerged require more distinct domains than body and family. I have created a group of 11 such domains in an attempt to circumscribe all routine activities (see Chapter 12 of Sustainability by Design). This ordering is informed by taxonomies developed by Maslow, Max-Neef, Flores, and others. These 11 domains are illustrated in the accompanying figure below. So what? What is the difference, one should ask, between dividing up our life’s activities according to our cares or by some other schema based on our needs, fitting most current explanations for our actions?

The difference is critical for sustainability. Care as the driver of our actions puts the source squarely on each individual. Everyone is responsible for their actions, which might be described as the myriad choices we make during each daily cycle. They are authentic choices and actions, coming from our sense of care. We can assess the actions taken as being successful and complete or not. When we act out of need, except perhaps for the biological requirements of subsistence, cultural norms always are present. We may act authentically even in their presence, but, in line with ruling theories about consumption, most of our routine actions will be based on conformance with these norms. Action is inauthentic and fails to produce the sense of completion that allows an actor to move on. Needs are insatiable say the theorists; they can never be satisfied; and we blindly believe them. These two modes of action correspond to the two ontological categories of Being and Having. The connection to sustainability as flourishing is short and clear.

Flourishing is the realization of a sense of completeness independent of the immediate material context (in the extreme). One might say aloud, “My cares are being attended to.” Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually addressed. The world is always changing and those domains that are momentarily satisfied will require more attention. But the emptiness associated with feelings of insatiable needs is not present. We have heard many tales from life and literature of people expressing great satisfaction (well-being) while incarcerated or in some other poor straits. Perhaps this can partially explain why more material wealth is not correlated with subjective measures of well-being, after basic subsistence needs have been satisfied.

When the prevalent social norms tell people that they are needy, based on the dominant theories of human action and the consequent economic, consumption-driven institutions, they act accordingly, and the finite, living world becomes stressed. Perception of the state of the world and even of their own lack of well-being is overwhelmed by the din of the culture. No amount of efficiency and green goods will reverse this pattern until the impossibility of continuing to live the way we do cannot be ignored any longer. Our beliefs about what it is to be human have to shift from the story of need, having, and inauthenticity to one of care, being, and authenticity. We act out of those beliefs, mediated by the norms we have embodied over time. All of our major institutions should begin to reshape their missions, policies, and practices to align with care, not need. In the next few blogs, I will go through the set of needs in the figure above, explaining each so that designers within these institutions can begin the job of creating sustainability by design.

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