“I am certain there can be no comprehension of the present without the past, just as I am certain the past is not past. And there can be no comprehension of the present without all the tribes, human, animal, floral, and stones, river and dry wash, at the table taking part in the talk.” –The Wisdom of Rats, Charles Bowden
Let’s talk about the Amazon rain forest, Sigmund Freud, and the expanding human horde’s neurotic quest for bling. Of course, as my (few) loyal readers are all too aware, all bets are off that what follows will make a lick of sense. But, somebody’s gotta do it.
Thanks to Survival International’s dazzling website, Peru’s “uncontacted tribes” are now cyber-connected to the rest of their fellow hominids. And the news coming from the dense forests of the Amazon isn’t good. Especially if you’re a member of one of those so-called uncontacted tribes. The Cacataibo, Isconahua, Mashco-Piro, and others, are facing cultural extinction thanks to our species’ lust for the grease that powers the so-called developed world. Of course, I speak of oil. Just wait until the tribes get a load of fracking!*
Of course, oil isn’t the only commodity being sucked out of South America’s rain forests. The world’s rising middle class is hungry for wood, soy beans, raw materials (iron), and, naturally – eco tourism. If it isn’t slash & burn, it’s doze and plow. Not an easy life for indigenous folks who’ve spent the last few thousand years living in harmony with the forest.
Against ridiculous odds, some of these indigenous peoples are standing tall against the human juggernaut’s thirst for sticky black gold, logs, and land. Dressed only in shorts and Elmo t-shirts, these brave warriors appear willing to die rather than passively watch the obliteration of their primordial homeland. But it’s difficult to protest the wholesale destruction of the rain forest with blow guns. Unless, of course, you hit what you’re aiming at.
It’s a similar story all across our fecund planet. Extraction of what lubes the engines of progress is driving the ship towards the proverbial iceberg lurking just beneath the glossy surface. We hominids behave like hungry ghosts, gobbling endless amounts of oil, coal, gas, fish, timber, minerals – the list is long and ever changing – to quench our fickle taste for the Good Life. So much for that quaint idea about the camel and the eye of the needle.
Now, let’s examine the American Dream. What was once a simple ideology of security and well-being is now a free-for-all jamboree, where consuming more than your mediated, overstimulated, self-infatuated, cyber-crazed neighbors is both the method and the madness. Toss in our species’ strange proclivity for voyeurism, whereby we ingest hours of televised junk food in hopes of seeing somebody dumber than ourselves act like a drunk orangutan, and you have a perfect recipe for what Herr Freud called “reality anxiety.”
I think it’s safe to say that nobody ever cured their anxiety by shopping. Quite the opposite. But don’t tell this to the pundits on Wall Street, whose very existence depends on riding the Great Myth of Perpetual Growth until the beast collapses under its own blubber. With a GDP primarily based on consumerism, the idea of a voluntary reduction in bling is beyond frightening; it’s economic suicide. And thus, we sit astride the horns of the metaphorical dilemma.
Denial is an interesting phenomenon. Used primarily to shield the ego from things we subconsciously believe are too weird to deal with, denial works to protect us from ourselves. Rather than face our genetic wrinkles, we turn to comfort food, hardware, Honey Boo Boo, and countless other forms of meaningless pabulum. And for reasons only understood by a few shadowy beings on the Astral Plane, the more we spend, the better we feel. At least until we need another fix. It’s the old pyramid scheme where everybody loses, sooner or later.
A tad anxious over a pesky little existential problem? You need a new Samsung flat screen TV for the 3rd bedroom! Unhinged about your barely concealed skepticism over your religion’s soteriological claims? No sweat – the new Prius you’ve been ogling is a sure-fire guilt remover! How about that coupon for a free tummy tuck with every face lift at Dr. Dinero’s House of Skin? Where’s my Android?
Alas, Homo erectus asphaltus is a natural born sucker for snake oil, shell games, and other assorted magic tricks designed to milk us out of our sanity. If shopping till you drop (also known as “purchase or perish”) was the answer to what ails us, we’d all be happy little monkeys in designer jeans, swinging through the Amazon.com jungle with the greatest of ease. But, as we all know, at least on some intuitive level, that simply ain’t the case.
Before the age of Homo erectus asphaltus, we two-legged critters managed to survive the unfathomable hardships of the Ice Age with flying colors. And without Patagonia fleece underwear! Our ancient predecessors didn’t need TV, cell phones, SUVs, AR-15s, aircraft carriers, or nuclear power to find meaning beneath the vast twinkling dome of the night sky. Social media was what transpired around the campfire, amongst the wafting pheromones of freshly roasted haunch of elk. The last thing on those dude’s minds was Wellbutrin.
Just in case this hasn’t been said before (it has), there is an obvious correlation between our species’ mad drive to posses stuff and the recent surge in prescriptions for anti-depressants. What in hell are we so depressed about? Don’t blame it on the vicissitudes of the stock market – people ingest just as many serotonin re-uptake inhibitors when the bulls roam Wall Street as when the bears begin to prowl. The answer is depressing in itself: We’re making ourselves miserable by basing our happiness on an insatiable drive to consume. The word that comes to mind is vapid.
Stuff for the sake of stuff is both meaningless and demoralizing. And requires exponential economic expansion. An organic economy, on the other hand, is based on reciprocity, fair trade, and swift justice. As proof that our atavistic forebears knew what was good for them, glance at our species’ long waltz through prehistory, where small tribes of hunter-gatherers managed to carry on an organic economy for hundreds of millennia (before some nit wit discovered Wheaties). The existential reward was the earth under their feet, protein on the hoof, an egalitarian social organization, zero need for bureaucrats, and a heroic song beneath the summer’s golden moon.
But thanks to the widespread adaptation of agriculture, we set ourselves on a course that could only lead in the direction of endless consumption. As our numbers increased, so did our “need” for additional arable lands to fuel our growth. Egalitarian social structure gave way to a hierarchical grid of kings, priests, warriors, and a legion of dirt farmers to support the guys at the top. Wars over turf and genes became our modus operandi, always with an eye towards an expansion of calories, fuel, and bling.
Perhaps our current plight was set in stone [no pun] as the last Pleistocene hunter lay down his bow and took up the plow. From there it was only a few short millennia before our species’ became what we are today: Homo erectus asphaltus.
Contemplative hominids have to wonder where a game based on endless growth is likely to end up. Not that glaring examples don’t abound, the ancient Mayan civilization being a good place to start. But let’s be honest: There’s absolutely nothing sustainable about 7 billion monkeys fixated on acquiring every last trinket capable of being made in China.
You can spin it anyway you want, but the fact remains: We live on a planet with a limited natural capacity to provide for us. Overpopulation is bad enough, but our voracious appetite for bling should be a special category of its own, featured in the next iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (OCD-XP?) For obvious reasons, it’s extremely doubtful that America’s founders envisioned mountains of credit card debt as the Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness.
These days, it’s difficult to make sense of our species’ obsessions. Trading our inherent connection to the Cosmos for a few minutes of Grand Theft Auto V isn’t exactly a shining example of progress. The sounds of hip hop, NASCAR engines, and talk radio may be the latest fad in our long slog down Evolution Alley, but those prefab noises are simply symptoms of some aberrant primate gene running amok through the canyons of our collective neurosis. Manufactured happiness is about as useful as the Hula Hoop. Yet we blaze forth like so many lemmings in a headlong rush towards the allegorical cliff…. stay tuned!
Perhaps the gods laugh at our little attempts to prove to ourselves that Homo erectus asphaltus is the penultimate example of genetic mutation. It’s just as likely those same gods weep at seeing the path of jetsam scattered behind us like the bleached bones of illegally poached elephants. But gods notwithstanding, no amount of technological wizardry is going to put Humpy Dumpty back together again when our fumbling lunge into the future collides headlong with biological reality. What good is the Discovery Channel when there’s nothing left to discover? Pass the remote control.
Can we turn the Titanic around before the bell tolls? Do we have the will to reflect, regroup, and reinvent ourselves before our planet becomes little more than a 3-D cyber-zoo? Or are we too stoned on our own hubris to call a time out for a word with the coach? It’s probably safe to say that the forth quarter of the game is well underway. Tick tock …
Let’s wrap this up with a bit of fun from old Cactus Ed Abbey: “If we don’t solve our troubles by reason and goodwill and generosity and mutual aid and sharing, then I think our troubles, national and international, will be solved in the usual way. By catastrophe. By war, famine, plague…what was the fourth horseman? Death.”
For more on Charles Bowden, sage of the shifting sands: http://harpers.org/archive/
*For more on Peru’s uncontacted tribes: http://www.