Leaving Rio de Janeiro, site of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, we mulled the meaning of what we had witnessed, but could hardly put it any better than Charles Eisenstein in his excellent summary, Why Rio+20 Failed:
You know folks, I’m a bit worried about my 16-year-old son, Jimi. When he was 13, he grew three inches. When he was 14, he grew five inches. When he was 15 his growth slowed to three inches, and no matter how much I feed him, now he isn’t growing at all past his current six-one. Could someone please tell me how to achieve sustainable growth for my son, so that he can keep getting bigger forever?
Our consciousness has shifted from the early-20th century ideal of conquering nature. However, our institutions, whether money or politics, are not yet in accordance with our changed consciousness. They trap us into behavior that no one really chooses and render us helpless to avert our collision course with catastrophe. That is why it is so important to question the blind ideological assumptions — particularly that of sustainable growth — that underlie those institutions.
If there was hope from the conference, it was perhaps best expressed by Uruguay’s President José Pepe Mujia at the Plenary session. Mujia grasped the global problem and put his finger on what really holds us back.
All afternoon we have been talking about sustainable development and we’ve been talking about bringing huge amounts of people out of poverty. So what are we thinking about in all of this? The patterns of production and consumption that we aspire to at the moment are those of the rich societies. Now, what would happen to this planet, I ask myself, if the Hindus were to have the same numbers of cars per family as the Germans do? How much oxygen would be left to breathe? The world has today the material elements that it needs for people to live in adequate comfort. Does it have the resources to be able to spend as much as the rich societies spend and use or not? We need to have a discussion about this.
Our civilization has to do with competition and the market. Natural resources are an expressive process, but the market has produced mercantile societies that demand that growth be explosive. And it’s led to our globalized view of the world, and a globalized market. But are we governing globalization or is it governing us? Can we speak of solidarity and say that we are all pulling in the same direction when we have economies that are based on unfair and unsustainable competition?
… The process we have before us is so huge that it encloses colossal. This great process is not political. Man does not govern this. Man does not govern the forces that man has released. It is the other way around. Those forces are governing man and life because we didn’t come to this planet to develop ourselves in a material way. We came to find happiness, because life is transitory, it is very short. And life is what is fundamental. But if life is going to run away from me, if all I’m doing is working to buy things to consume more, if the society of consumption is the energy driving everything, where does this go? If consumption is stopped or reduced then the economy slows down, and if the economy slows down then there’s stagnation. But consumption is the very thing that is consuming the planet. And people want to sell more and more. So we enter the vicious circle of the throwaway society….
We need to fight for another kind of culture. … Seneca said that a poor person is not someone who doesn’t have very much but the person who continues to need more and more and to desire more and more. So it’s a cultural issue.
So I salute the efforts that have been made here and the agreements that have been concluded. … [but,] the water crisis and the degradation of the environment — these aren’t causes. The cause is our model of civilization that we ourselves have set up. What we have to revise is our own way of living. My country has 3 million inhabitants, a little more, 3.2 million. But we have some of the best cattle herds in the world and the best sheep herds in the world. My country exports meat and milk products. Almost 80% of the land of Uruguay is suitable for farming. My brother workers were formerly working 8 hours but now they work only 6 hours. But they have to have two jobs so they end up working more because they have to pay for the all of the things that they’ve bought, the cars and other things. It’s like rheumatism that is eating away at the body and taking away life. Is this the destiny of human life?
Development cannot fly in the face of happiness. It should promote human happiness, love, human relations, relationships between parents and children and friends. Life is the most important. When we fight for the environment, the first element of our environment is human. Our human environment is human happiness.
This sounds remarkably similar to our central thesis in the book that launched my blog, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide. Economists like Herman Daly and Robert Costanza have been harping on this notion for decades. Nate Hagens recently waxed eloquent on the theme while in Vienna for the ASPO meeting:
Our society — Europe and US and increasingly China and elsewhere — is habituated to high stimulation and high consumption. The key point I’ve learned from studying neuroscience and evolutionary biology is that it’s the ‘wanting’ that drives our behavior, not the ‘having’. And in our fast paced, gadget saturated world, our neural high water marks keep getting reset higher and higher. Every day we wake up expecting/needing a certain amount of dopamine/neural stimulation — and our culture has set us up to get these brain chemicals by consuming and competing for status using resource intensive ways. On a world with finite resources this is a problem as everyday people who already have everything they need, strive to get ‘more’. This ‘more’ ends up being taken from other people, other species, and other generations. We have to find ways to get our evolutionary derived brain ‘cocktails’ in more benign ways.
Leaving Rio in pursuit of novel brain cocktails, we were borne aloft by the great steel condor who took a northwesterly course that allowed us to gaze down upon Lake Titicaca and the Nazca Lines before descending into the upper Amazon and alighting at Iquitos, a sprawling shantytown of Honda moto-rickshaws and crumbling buildings. The contrast could hardly be starker — between the shiny high-rise hotels, haute cuisine restaurants, and high-end hookers parading their wares off the Copacabana to the mud, stink, and sweat of an overgrown logging town struggling to cope with constant in-migration of rural indigenous peoples losing their ways as the jungle gets divided up and sold off in commodities of land, oil, timber, ore, fish and produce.
From Iquitos we moto’d the muddy track of Calle las Flores to Santa Clara and passed up the snaking bends of the Rio Nanay by wooden dory to a nondescript river bank that marked the start of a trail to the village of Tres Unidos. If you omit the lost luggage in Lima or having to drink airplane water from plastic bottles, this was our first real ordeal of the journey, a sweltering hour mud-slog along a river trail that had itself been river a few weeks before (with the Andes glaciers melting, the Nanay reaches higher in the rainy season than it has in the memory of village elders), to finally emerge, as if entering Rivendell, in a cluster of trails between grass-roofed buildings known as the Temple of the Way of Light (3.44.309 S, 73.21.458 W).
There we joined the company of a skilled permaculture team from Terra Phoenix Design, Dave Boehnlien, Doug Bullock and Paul Kearsley, who had been on the ground for many months and had produced a preliminary master plan for a model in Amazonian permacultural sustainability. The plan encompassed the various elements of the owners’ vision — the Temple, a healing center employing traditional Shipibo medicines and rituals, including ayahuasca; the Chaikuni Permaculture Institute; and a budding residential community, nee ecovillage. The entire site is nested within a local community of mestizo people, Tres Unidos, who are neighbors, employees and partners in business with the Temple community.
Living in the so-called First World, many of us would find the spare accommodations of these jungle lodges difficult, but we are used to this sort of thing, and our hearts went out to the stout porteros who daily trek in and out with heavy loads of rice, beans, water, toiletries, and all of the construction material — wooden planks, bricks, mortar, cement — from which the temple continues to grow.
The Temple ceremonies themselves follow a pattern established by the Shipibo healers, wherein at an appointed hour up to 21 “patients” arrive to one of the large malokas — thatch-roofed round auditoriums enclosed with mosquito netting — in which are arrayed an equal number of freshly sheeted mattresses, arranged in a circle. Beside each bed is an ashtray and a vomit bucket, and just outside one door is a bathroom in case the purge comes at the bottom end of the intestinal tract. Medicine is carefully administered in participant-specific doses, lights are doused, and the evening begins. After about 45 minutes, when everyone is experiencing the rush of DMT into the bloodstream, the healers begin to chant their ikaros. Each, and there may be as many as 7 “unis” (those with knowledge), will move around the circle from bed to bed, singing to each patient while they diagnose their needs and call forth spirits to aid in fashioning remedies.
Subjectively, the process for the patient invariably begins with an ordeal. The drink itself is somewhat unpleasant tasting. Within the first hour it produces physical reactions such as agitation, alternating hot and cold sweats, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. There may be quite wild and vivid hallucinations. It can be acutely uncomfortable and unsettling, even for experienced voyagers, but one passes through these stages and gains insights, heals from within, and usually emerges with a deep appreciation for what has happened.
We have a friend who is a veteran of the Sun Dance ceremony in the Lakota tradition of the plains Sioux. Although he is Mohawk, he married into a Lakota teospaye and adopted his wife’s traditions. The Sun Dance is a very grueling ritual and he is not a young man any more. His hair is gray like ours. He has much scar tissue on his chest where, after days of dancing, the eagle claws suspending him on leather thongs from a pole — the tree of life — tore loose and ripped through his skin. We can only imagine what it must have been like with the foreknowledge of that ripping open of his chest in a prior year to sit and have his chest pierced again, deeply, and the thongs lovingly attached once more.
There are rituals in both the Catholic and Islamic traditions involving atonement by self-flagellation. On the Day of Ashura some Shi’a whip themselves with metal chains and spikes in the Zanjeer Zani ritual of mourning for Hussein. In the Hindu pilgrimage of Sabari Malai, a journey of 40 miles over blazing hot ground must be made barefoot and the majority of those walking get blisters and cuts on their feet and knee and ankle sprains. The same for many of the Guadalupeños who walk, run or crawl long distances across Mexico each December to show their devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
In an interesting essay on the SubBondage Net, author Chris M. links these sado-erotic rituals to our human psycho-physiology. “Over the eons,” he writes, “our nervous systems evolved, at least in part, to rescue us from bad situations. Upon injury, the nervous system jabs the brain with a message guaranteed to grab attention. Pain. It jolts the human beast into immediate action — a roaring scream, sudden spasmodic motion, fight or flight — all good things if, lets say, a saber tooth tiger takes an experimental bite of your posterior. Here’s why it matters to us: To keep pain from crushing your ability to react, the brain floods the body with pain fighting natural opiates, hormones, enzymes, and adrenaline. And as any well-seasoned bottom knows, this response produces all sorts of fun. Feelings of excitement, arousal, clarity, even out of body or dream states. In short, the body’s natural response to injury can be harnessed to create intense and mysterious sensations. When framed and emphasized by rites and rituals these natural responses would naturally be ascribed to supernatural powers.”
Brown rice diets, giving up pleasures for Lent, asceticism, hermitage, celibacy, hair shirts, fasting, and vows of silence and/or poverty have much in common with marathons, extreme sports, martial arts, the Whirling Dervishes, the Aboriginal walkabout, hard labor, boot camp, fraternal pledge hazing and body building. The common theme is ordeal. You can sometimes reach a mountain summit by auto-road, chair-lift, gondola or cog railway, but even with the great views of distant peaks and valleys, it is not the same experience and exhilaration, or the sense of self-reward that follows a long, exhausting hike or rope-work over difficult terrain.
So each time we resolve to “never again” punish ourselves with such sacrifice, pain, fatigue and sweat, we wipe all that resolution away in the instant that we reach our goal, when we have our moment of light and love and ecstatic remembrance that this is what life is all about. This is what we are here for. As José Pepe Mujia reminded us, whatever we do should promote human happiness, love, human relations, relationships between parents and children and friends.
Perhaps the pain and disappointment of Rio+20 and all the other conferences that promised so much and delivered so little are mere ordeal, the prelude to the ultimate awakening. We can only hope so, because from within the moment of the ordeal, all we ever have to go on is faith and perseverance.