thought for Earth Day

Every living thing on Earth plays a part in the biosphere.

The biosphere is not merely the stage on which we all perform; it is the whole performance.

A fascinating kind of anteater called the pangolin is the only mammal on Earth that has scales. Its scales are its only defense against predators. Unfortunately this defense is useless against the dominant predator on Earth, humankind. (Or as e.e. cummings called it, ‘this busy monster, manunkind.’)

In a human-dominated world, the pangolin’s scales are even worse than useless for its survival, because they have a high “market value,” meaning that too many humans “make a living” supplying that market.

Humans have scales too, but only artificial ones, often used for weighing things that have “market value” – such as pangolin scales. In the gigantically top-heavy artificial monster called “the economy” by its human constructors, pangolin scales far outweigh the lives of pangolins, just as “market value” outweighs the value of life itself, including human life.

Pam Jackson has caught the whole strange scenario in a small painting:

Scales

This has a special meaning on Earth Day 2020, as it’s been suggested that the pangolin might have been a carrier of the virus that jumped to humans to cause the COVID-19 pandemic. The pangolin – poached, trafficked and endangered – is as innocent as the virus itself. If anyone is to blame for the pandemic, it is the humans who “make a living” from an extractive “economy” which is destructive, on an overwhelming scale, to other players in the biosphere. The pandemic is just one symptom of the busy monster in self-destruct mode.

Earth Day should redirect our attention to the natural economy, the economy of the biosphere. As if our lives depended on it – for in truth they do, just like the lives of pangolins, ants and viruses.

The real economy

Food, shelter, clothing, fuels, minerals, forests, fisheries, land, buildings, art, music and information are real wealth. Money by itself is not. Money is circulated among people who use it to buy real wealth.

— Odum and Odum (2001, 91)

Unfortunately, almost everything we hear about “the economy” through the media reflects an obsession with “growth,” as defined by increasing circulation of money. Meanwhile the planet continues to grow more impoverished.

What does nature mean?

Peirce gave several accounts of the ‘triad of interpretants’ and did not always use the same terminology for them. One of the simplest appears in a 1909 letter to Lady Welby, where he compares the Immediate, Dynamical and Final interpretants with three corresponding concepts in her ‘Significs.’ The main difference arises from the fact that Welby is mainly concerned with the meanings expressed in language, while Peirce is more broadly concerned with signs in general, including ‘natural signs’ which are not intended to mean anything.

My Interpretant with its three kinds is supposed by me to be something essentially attaching to anything that acts as a Sign. Now natural Signs and symptoms have no utterer; and consequently have no Meaning, if Meaning be defined as the intention of the utterer. I do not allow myself to speak of the “purposes of the Almighty,” since whatever He might desire is done. Intention seems to me, though I may be mistaken, an interval of time between the desire and the laying of the train by which the desire is to be brought about. But it seems to me that Desire can only belong to a finite creature.
Your ideas of Sense, Meaning, and Signification seem to me to have been obtained through a prodigious sensitiveness of Perception that I cannot rival, while my three grades of Interpretant were worked out by reasoning from the definition of a Sign what sort of thing ought to be noticeable and then searching for its appearance. My Immediate Interpretant is implied in the fact that each Sign must have its own peculiar Interpretability before it gets any Interpreter. My Dynamical Interpretant is that which is experienced in each act of Interpretation and is different in each from that of any other; and the Final lnterpretant is the one Interpretative result to which every Interpreter is destined to come if the Sign is sufficiently considered. The Immediate Interpretant is an abstraction consisting in a Possibility. The Dynamical Interpretant is a single actual event. The Final Interpretant is that toward which the actual tends.

SS 111 (1909 March 14)

This clarifies the difference between the “purposes of the Almighty” and ‘that toward which the actual tends’: the tendencies of nature are real but not intentional. Creation is not meant to mean anything.

Waving

We are waves whose stillness is non-being.
We are alive because of this, that we have no rest.

— Abu-Talib Kalim (Shah 1968, 253)

Consciousness is a dis-ease of the mind. It rides upon the unconscious like foam upon the waves, like words upon meaning.

Spreading out

Evolution is an irreversible process, a process of increasing diversification and distribution. Only in this sense does evolution exhibit a consistent direction. Like entropy, it is a process of spreading out to whatever possibilities are unfilled and within reach of a little more variation.

— Deacon 1997, 29

The consciousness con

The conscious aspect of any thought is always embedded in a much larger and dominant unconscious aspect, upon which it depends for its existence and its meaning. Conscious aspects of thought are simple, relative to the complexity and intricacy of unconscious aspects.

Turner (1991, 39)

Most of us are in the habit of thinking that consciousness and psychic life are the same thing and otherwise greatly to overrate the functions of consciousness.

The misrule of too many rules

Donna Williams (1992), in her remarkable account of her own autistic life, highlights her inability to generalize, to recognize types of situation so that learned responses to one situation can be transferred to another. Being highly intelligent, she could quickly learn the rules of conduct in a given milieu, especially when they were explained to her, but she couldn’t relate them to a different milieu:

My behavior puzzled others, but theirs puzzled me, too. It was not so much that I had no regard for their rules as that I couldn’t keep up with the many rules for each specific situation. I could put things into categories, but this type of generalizing was very hard to grasp.

Categorizing things was not a problem for her – autistics can deal very well, and often become obsessed, with inanimate objects, which they can count on not to startle them – but categorizing rules is far more difficult for hypersensitive people who are chronically overstimulated. Temple Grandin (1996) gives a similar impression of what it’s like to be autistic.

But something like this experience happens to anyone whose guidance system loses its integrity and becomes merely complicated, an ever-growing pile of miscellaneous precepts. “Learning the rules” then amounts to an accumulation of particular laws rather than a continuing modulation of the inner logos which makes sense of the world. The result of this information overload is an ever-spreading sense of anxiety. In the religious context, Isaiah 28:11-13 (RSV) describes it this way:

Nay, but by men of strange lips
and with an alien tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
to whom he has said,
This is rest;
give rest to the weary;
and this is repose’;
yet they would not hear.
Therefore the word of the Lord will be to them
precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, and there a little;
that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.