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This is the first and last word in the novel, Island, by Aldous Huxley in which he describes a utopian society based on principles of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. The people who live on the island “are taught to understand and appreciate life by being constantly aware of who [they] are in relation to all experiences. Over a thousand birds inhabit the island mimicking the word, ‘Attention’, reminding people to pay attention to everything they do.”
What is the point of this introduction?
If we stand any chance of resolving the ecological problems I have been describing in this blog for the past seven months, we must pay attention to what we are doing NOW – as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a species. We cannot correct past mistakes and we cannot foretell the future. All we can do is critically examine what we are doing now (in full knowledge that human demands are currently exceeding natural supply) and ask how we might change our behavior so we can live within the ecological constraints of planet Earth.
“Stepping outside of the box” is a necessary condition to paying attention to what we are doing. What is this “box” made of from which we view the world around us? Its walls are made of ‘habit’ and ‘custom,’ and so sometimes we do not see with our eyes; more often than not we see what we anticipate we will see (based on past experience) rather than what is actually there.
Jared Diamond provides a chilling example of what I’m talking about in his article, “Easter Island’s End.” From paleontological evidence, Diamond learned that “in just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism.”
The reason? The Islanders developed a compelling desire to erect ever-larger and more numerous stone statues all over the island, some of them taller than 30 feet and weighing over 80 tons. When they began this practice, there was a large forest from which the people felled trees to transport and raise their huge monuments, as well as build houses and boats. After a few centuries, the formerly abundant palm trees became extinct and set in motion a more general ecological decline, which in turn virtually decimated the human population.
Says Diamond: “As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, ‘Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?'”
We also must “look around” and realize what we are doing rather than carrying on with “business as usual.” “We have always done it this way” is not a rationale for continuing to do the same thing. Situations and the conditions under which we live are in constant, sometimes radical change as I have demonstrated with the exponential increases in human population, affluence, and technology we have experienced in the last two hundred years.
Warns Diamond: “Easter Island is Earth writ small.”
Evidence for this statement is not hard to find, especially in the temperate rainforest of British Columbia where clear cutting of entire stands of timber has been common practice for decades. As early as 1984, a CBC special broadcast reported, “A stark reality stares us squarely in the face: the health of forestry – Canada’s biggest industry – is threatened. Canada hasn’t replaced what it has taken from the forests, and has an abysmal record of natural forest regeneration.” And as I said in my post on 19 November/10, other environmental consequences follow from this practice: “loss of biodiversity, extinction of species, less sequestering of carbon emissions, and a greater chance of both fire and flood.”
In my next posts I want to pay particular attention to what we are doing NOW on all levels of social existence (individual, community, nation, and species) so that together we may devise more harmonious patterns of living – for us and for our grandchildren’s children – and thereby avoid Easter Island’s fate.
Alan Hedley is a retired University of Victoria Sociology Professor. He’s currently searching for ways to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable human existence on planet Earth – and blogging about his journey.