I’ve been reading David James Duncan’s The River Why. The movie does absolutely no justice to this book. I suppose big philosophy books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or Catch 22, will always struggle to get the questions and arguments across in a two hour movie.
There is a wonderful passage looking at how we look at the world and eat of it. The act of harvest is not itself a problem; Jesus fed people with loaves and fishes. It is when harvest loses reverence, gratitude and care. When the bounty becomes a ‘thing’.
Terry Pratchett once wrote that evil begins when you start treating people as things. We do that now by referring to people as ‘resources’, even worse by defining them as measures and dollars in some heartless and unwise spreadsheet.
But evil arguably starts before that. We start by looking at land and water and the seas and the soil as ‘thing’. We lose appreciation that these systems are linked to each other and to humanity by meanings, by functions that shift and can suddenly tip into a famine or disaster. More verbs that will change than measured nouns.
Lose that reference to wider meaning and we risk life itself. That reverence for life often manifests as spiritual belief, something those in the technocratic West will consider ‘superstition’, yet it works. James Scott found that hill tribes of South East Asia focus on a resilience strategy – have reverence, be grateful to the earth and the spirits, and from a practical sense improve resilience and cover the contingencies by focusing on diversity of food type and source, and by a strategy of minimising the minimum – reduce the possibility and the degree of that killer famine year. What have we done in the West in our Modern age? By focusing on maximising the maximum – often of a single and hugely problematic KPI measure of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – we have emphasised the possibility of the worst of bad results at the other extreme. Resilience to shocks is not a dominant feature of modern policy making, though the use the word more and more with absolutely no comprehension of what a shift in thinking resilience represents.
We lose reverence, connection and gratitude when we harvest with a ‘thing’ in mind, a ‘resource’. We don’t ask, as they do in Findhorn, and we don’t thank. Even when we refer to the ecosystem, we call them ‘ecosystem services’, when they are far better framed as ‘ecosystem gifts’. Either a world of measured ‘utility’ to us, or one defined by an ethical interdependent relationship where there are duties and virtues, and their opposite. A world that sees the world and people as moral patients instead of mere means to selfish ends is the perspective we need. Is this what defines an indigenous perspective – the way we see and feel when we are native to a place? The idea of a ‘service’ by a subordinate world to us is a framing we probably don’t consider, and yet the difference in meaning between service and ‘gift’ is profound. We take what is our entitlement, or we are gifted sustenance because we show the proper respectful relationship. We propagate the legacies for our great grandchildren, and harvest the reverence and care from our great grandparents.
Within the novel, a Native American points out the lessons of the past, and the fact that Spirit Father will have the last word. He tells a story of when his own people lost reverence for the world; a reverence that is lost now in our technocratic world ….. “Then it was the river of fire. Now it is the white man’s dam. These are the Spirit Father’s weapons. Always it is the same: it is the greedy, the cruel, the ungrateful that bring about suffering upon the people.”
This is our recipe for a short-term future; greed and a focus on self, cruelty to others and the planets, and the ingratitude of the tyrants who are all hubris and no reverence for something bigger than themselves.