Sandy is coming, but when and how strong? She is the biggest, in terms of the affected area, of any hurricane in historical records. I am sitting in front of my computer wondering when the screen will go black and I get disconnected from one of my several worlds. Some people around Cape Cod have already lost power and have been told it may be three days before the lights go back on. New York City is literally shutting down. All of a sudden, the power of nature shows up against the everyday consciousness that we are her masters. And our impotence to respond also shows up when the tools we have become habituated to rely on fail, and many find themselves surprisingly helpless. Of course, the opposite is also true, and some find inner resources that enable them to cope.
Humans have had to cope with natural phenomena as long as we have been human. Being human rather than some other living species is, to a large extent, defined by our ability to cope, using our unique and special cognitive capabilities, something that most, if not all, other species do not possess. William James, whom I am reading for a course on pragmatism I am giving, thought that our extraordinary ability to think was the result of our species’ evolutionary history of coping. He argued that thinking for us is a mechanism for creating experiences that are good for us, good in the sense of survival. Where has that idea gone today?
Our primary models for human cognition are based on some variant of a computer, although that is changing. We are creatures that think in order to solve problems along the way to maximize pleasure. In today’s consumerist culture, much of that thinking goes into the processes of consumption and determining what is the next market transaction we will engage in. Pleasure has become almost purely hedonistic, found in the senses, rather than in the “soul,” or some other metaphysical manifestation of who we are. My whole approach to sustainability is grounded on flourishing, revealed to us when we reach a moment, hopefully an extended, sustainable moment, when we become conscious that the caring that makes us human has been exercised in every important domain of life.
Another pragmatist in my current reading list is John Dewey. Dewey was concerned with the ethics of democracy early in his career. He wrote that democracy was the best framework for individual self-realization. He spoke about several normative qualities that were to be realized: wholeness, harmony, plentitude, richness and organic growth. Further he argued that individual humans were inseparable from the world they inhabit and so who we are is shaped by where and how we live. It is easy then to jump to a model for the kind of world we actually inhabit that is built on the same norms, but in a collective sense. He argued for a democracy in which individual’s capabilities were brought out through participation in a community that included everyone’s engagement and enabled the full expression of “personality.” one of the terms Dewey used for the full development of an individual. It’s pretty close to what I call flourishing.
I see these same themes in Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s notion of capabilities, a verbal variation of caring. For one to be able to take care in a real world, he or she must possess the appropriate functional capabilities, some are available internally, but in a modern technological, industrial political economy, many must come through consumption of objects found in the marketplace. But let me get back to the thread, flimsy as it is, I was creating in this post. In our culture here is the US, capabilities are most generally thought to be some object or tool that permits me, as an individual, to go about my work, earn money, and buy more tools. My life is mediated primarily through the application of my tools and those used by institutions. When one’s own tools fail, as they always will do from time to time, the first impulse is to find another tool, the next move is to try to think one’s way out of the situation, and, finally, if this fails, is to throw up one’s hands and move on. Moving on without having been satisfied leaves a residual sense of dissatisfaction, frustration, anger, or some other negative memory. Anxiety may also show up as a worry that next time, whenever that comes, the capabilities for coping will be lacking.
Storms, like Sandy, accentuate anxiety for everyone as we become acutely aware that we lack the tools to cope. They also produce lots of anger directed against the institutions we take for granted as taking care of us, showing little consciousness of their limits in such extreme situations. We are, more or less, subject to nature’s cruelty and mercy. Either of those is only an assessment we make of the effects of nature’s power. Nature is neither of these; she is nothing more than phenomena separate from human origins we observe, meaningless until we come up with some assessment. Any meaning comes from us.
I believe that one of the reasons we become anxious and start to give meaning to nature is that we lack or have only an underdeveloped capability in the caring domain of the spiritual. This domain arose out of our consciousness of events like hurricanes and, because they affected us in spite of the tools we might have used to protect ourselves, we grew to respect them (we acknowledged their power). In the earliest of days, our species created rituals out of that respect. By and large, such respect for nature has disappeared because we believe that technology can deflect anything that nature throws at us. Our capability, thus, to become wholly human beings in Dewey’s words, my words, or many others’s is greatly diminished.
I hear no one saying besides, for sure, beware of the storm’s power, but stop for a moment and give it the respect it deserves. Acknowledge it and tell it that you care about it, not care in a selfish way, but care as respect and an understanding that it is something very special. The storm is simply a part of the world we inhabit, a world we try to control and cannot as this event shouts to us, and on which we absolutely depend. Nature is simply a set of happenings and objects not of human origin that we attempt to manage towards our ends through technology. We try to hide our role in what events happen, denying we have any in changing the global climate, changes that may bring us much more inhibiting situations than Sandy. We can no longer even say that nature has no human origins. Worse, we speak of intervening at the global scale to control nature’s patterns. Only a short time ago, a single individual took it upon himself to dump a lot of iron filings into the seas to test an idea with very uncertain consequences. We have no laws to prevent this kind of individual action, but should get them very quickly. Trespass has been a common misdemeanor for a long time; this act is trespassing on nature (a part of all of us), in a grand scale, and is certainly much more serious than someone invading my castle.
Sandy has given us a rare opportunity to see nature in all her power and to take a moment to show her respect. If we do that now, we may be able to rebuild our spiritual capability just a little, but even that is very important. Taking care of the spiritual piece of our individual humanity is, perhaps, the only domain of care that cannot, absolutely cannot, be handled by any kind of tools. The rituals that have arisen since hurricanes and earthquakes upset ancient cultures grew out of respect and awe, but like all tools, have a tendency to stand between our humanity and the real world out there and inhibit us from expressing our most fundamental humanness. Without this capability, we cannot grow to become the flourishing, whole human beings we aspire to be.