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It is getting to be the end of October and there is no reason to wait any longer for our special annual Halloween series–a series of posts about a specific unsettling yet evocative topic (which hopefully speaks to broader themes of life). In years past, Ferrebeekeeper’s Halloween edition has featured topics such as the mother of monsters, flowers of the underworld, flaying, serpents, and (a particular favorite) the undead! Where do we go from those awesome, spooktacular topics?

As you can see by glancing at the category cloud to the left, Ferrebeekeeper’s biggest new category is cities (or maybe you can’t see it, if you are looking at a cellphone or a particular browser or something…sadly, Ferrebeekeeper understands WordPress less by the day, but that doesn’t change my urban fixation).

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Once, not long ago, cities were rare or non-existent(try to imagine that), yet, as humankind continues to relentlessly expand, all the world is becoming one continuous city.   To thoughtful people who worry about the future of the biosphere, this fact represents a horror of a whole different magnitude than imaginary monsters, spooky gardens, or even the all-too-real homicidal maniacs of yore.  The forests, the steppes, the coasts, the farmlands, even the uncompromising desert…they are all going.  What we are left with is a homogeneous sprawl of concrete and plastic habitats where people drive their deadly benzine buggies from one identical shop to the next (or simply sit all day in taupe offices staring at screens filled with hateful numbers and rules for rich people).  It is a truly chilling dystopia–and it is here already!

So, up until Halloween Ferrebeekeeper will feature lost and destroyed cities, necropolises, evil metropolises, and twisted urban horror, but for this introductory post, I will just present…[scary melodramatic music] an infographic map! [disembodied screaming].

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Here is the United States reassembled and blocked out by land use. Upon initial perusal, this graphic (from Bloomberg, 2018) seems pretty encouraging. Cows! Forests! Wilderness! National parks! Our great empty continent will be the land of the free forevermore!  Yet, as we concentrate more on what is really there, it is increasingly astonishing.  There is a lot of pink and red! If the United States were a garden and the map’s pink and red bits were statues, we would say it was a statue garden.  Admittedly, the non pink and red portions of the map convey their own shocking aspects as well.  How come a 30th of our nation is given over to economically unfeasible and environmentally unsound ethanol production? What the devil is a Weyerhaeuser? GOLF? Seriously? I have never met anyone under 50 (or anyone who was not a white dude) who ever even played it. Now I am not without sympathy for middle-aged white dudes. Yet apparently this dumb game takes up more space than say, Connecticut.

[Also, I apologize to our international readers: I would love to see the world this way, but it looks like the metrics might just not be there yet.  We will have to take the United States as an exemplar for the moment]

Anyway, this is a long introduction for 2018’s Halloween special: Cities of Horror and the Dead (which will get more spooky and less preachy as we go on).  This is also a good starting post for really thinking about how cities are inexorably growing and how we are engineering them to be asphault dead zones.  I live in a city (indeed, THE City), but I worry about what the planet will be like if Earth becomes more of an ecumenopolis. Cities can be more scary than any place I know of.  Yet if they come out weird and creepy it is because they were poorly put together.  The scariest horror movies I know are the ones where the protagonist chases the monster straight into the mirror.  What could be worse than finding out you are not the hero, but a villain? Cities are that mirror. Let’s see what we can see in their shining dark depths.

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Every night, in my dreams, I watch the world die.  After a long absence, I have returned to find that the life-giving systems which recycle waste back into useable nutrients have failed. My friends are dead, reduced to grotesque rotting skeletons and mouldering lumps, except for a few last survivors who are barely hanging on to an attenuated half-life of hunger and shallow comatose breaths.  I desperately rush to help: I turn on machines to clean away the toxic miasma.  I ply the dying victims with food and oxygen… but the microbial ecosystems upon which everything depend are mortally degraded.  My last friends are too far gone, and they expire painfully while I watch powerless.  What is left is dead world of complete desolation.  The precious seed of life has failed and I know that I am the author of this annihilation.

This is all true. I have such dreams all the time and they torment me more than you can know.  My art and writing—my entire life quest flows from these nightly horrors.  Worst of all, these dreams are based on true experiences from my childhood which color every news article I read.  Every opinion I hear about humankind, the world, and the fate of all living things is overshadowed by these prophetic nightmares. However, before you call the men with big white nets, there is a critical twist which I must share with you. In these dreams, everyone is a fish and the world is an aquarium.

Here is what happened. When I was a child, I wanted to be an ichthyologist.  I took all of my allowance money and holiday presents and saved to build miniature worlds of wonder like the ones I saw in hobbyist magazines.  I read up on each fish species—what they ate and how they lived and what their natural habitat was like.  I learned about nematodes and frozen brine shrimp and undergravel filters to help nitrifying bacteria flourish.

Back then I had a tropical South America tank of beautiful fish from the Amazon—little tetras like colored gems, adorable armored catfish with big kindly cartoon eyes, angelfish with fins like a bride’s veil, a knife fish named Ripley who was like a black electrical ghost.  I had a tank of Tanganyika cichlids from East Africa (near humankind’s first home).  They lurked in volcanic rocks and I could see their huge mouths (for safely rearing their young) frowning from the crevices.  At the apex of my involvement with the hobby, I even had a marine tank filled with fluorescent damselfish, shrimp like rainbows, and a clever triggerfish which was busy excavating a private lair into a hunk of red tube coral.  It was magical! The miniature worlds I built were incredible.  I even had a classical tank of google-eyed goldfish with multicolored pebbles and a porcelain mermaid in the center.

But each of these little glass paradises failed and died.  Sometimes they were destroyed slowly by unknown bacterial mishaps which caused the ammonia or nitrogen cycle to shift off-kilter.  Sometimes a heater would go out or get flipped to maximum setting and thermal shock would kill my poor pets. The Tanganyika cichlids got stressed out over territory and ate each other whole with their big mouths (just like NY real-estate developers!).  Other times the apocalypse was swift: algal blooms or invasive fungi or diseases which I unknowingly brought from the pet store would ravage the tank.  Once, the glass of my Amazon-basin aquarium shattered while we were out shopping.  My family returned to find the ceilings dripping water.  The dying angelfish were lying gasping on the wet pebbles at the bottom of the empty tank. It was horrible. Even the goldfish ultimately died.  A weird dropsy caused their gleaming orange bodies to bulge out and pop apart.  I love animals and some of the fish had real personality and emotions (in addition to being beautiful) but, despite tremendous heartfelt effort, my stewardship killed them all.

And these experiences haunt me at night. My dreams used to involve a few aquariums which I would try to save…but as I have grown up, the dreams have grown up too.  Now sometimes the setting will be a sere coastline which seems uninhabited at first, until I realize the landscape itself is made of giant earth colored fish which are slowly dying.  Lately the dreams have moved into the forest where the trees are made of deadwood and the boulders are the hulks of once-living things.  As adulthood corrodes away my figurative dreams of success, strength, love, and meaning, my literal nighttime dreams grow bigger and worse.  In dreams, I have walked through cities of contagion, plague, and starvation.  At night I have sailed a junk across an ink black ocean with nothing in it but slips of charred paper and plastic bags floating like ghosts.

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This is why zoos and aquariums (the big public ones) fascinate me. Surely teams of professionals with hundred million dollar endowments can surely keep our animal friends alive!  Except…they can’t always.  Even with all of the best veterinarians, ecologists, and biologists, working night and day, things still go wrong in weird unexpected ways (by the way, this somewhat pitiless assessment doesn’t mean I stand against zoos: I see them as a combination of ambassador, laboratory, and Noah’s ark).  My first job was as an intern at a synthetic ecosystem designed by the world’s foremost designer of synthetic ecosystems…and it was a beautiful study in gradual failure and unexpected interactions.  Ecology is complicated and we don’t understand it very well

We are living through one of the great meltdowns which periodically occur throughout Life’s 4.5 billion year history [eds. note: if religious people can capitalize genitive pronouns for God, then Ferrebeekeeper can capitalize a word which we are using to betoken all of the living things from Earth throughout all of time].  It doesn’t take a geologist’s comprehension of the End-Permian mass extinction to imagine ourselves as a toxic black smear in a rock column of the future.  I know from reading eschatology that I am not the only person who is tormented by dreams of Armageddon.

At the same time humankind is ballooning in number and appetite, we are also learning at an exponential rate.  My experiences with little terrariums and fishtanks does not need to foreshadow the fate of orcas, vinegar scorpions, honeybees, banana trees…and humans. We can use our hard-won knowledge to keep the world’s precious living things alive!  We can even carry the sacred seed of life into the heavens.  Space would be a better place for us anyway—a place where we can truly spread our wings and grow exponentially towards godhood.  It is what we have always wanted…and it is tantalizingly close.

One of my favorite poems has what might be my favorite quotation in English “Learn from your dreams what you lack.” I HAVE learned that…and now I am telling you too. We lack a comprehensive understanding of ecology and the life sciences.  We lack the political cohesion and organizational skills to make effective use of what we already know.  Those things are not outside of our grasp.   Most of the smartest and hardest-working people here spend their lives ripping people off with complicated financial products and elaborate tech products (which are really only online rolodexes or digital catalogs or what-have-you).  What a waste! The bankers could throw away their nasty spreadsheets, the doctors could stop filling out pointless insurance forms, the engineers could stop making wireless blenders and cryptocurrency. We could all start building space cities NOW..this very day (although the first generation of those cities are going to have some troubles with the synthetic oceans).  The possibilities are endless!  Our knowledge and imagination can take us to where we have always dreamed of being.  Our failure to be smart, brave, and creative will take us all to one of my dead festering nightmares.

Those fish should not have died in vain. We should not die in vain either. Let’s build a future worth having.

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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have delved into giant ancient trees, yet we left out one of the most astonishing and iconic trees of all–the African baobab (Adansonia digitate).  Full grown baobabs are among the most massive flowering plants in the world, and, like the yews, the sequoias, and the great oaks, they can live for an enormously long time—up to 2500 years according to carbon dating.   The African baobabs live on the dry, hot savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.  The trees grow up to 25 m (85 feet) in height, but it is their mass which makes them astonishing: trunks with a diameter of 14 m (46 feet) are not unknown.  Shaped like jugs or squat bottles, these trunks help the trees store precious water during droughts.  Below the ground, the trees are even more astonishing.  The roots grow wider and deeper than the branches which is why enormous baobabs can be found in seemingly parched scrublands.  Their roots seek out secret water basins and find hidden underground rivulets.

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Baobabs are also known as “dead rat trees” because of the appearance of their fruit. Admittedly this does not make the fruit sound super appealing, yet it is edible and nutritious and a market is springing up for baobab fruit smoothies.  In addition to providing fruit for humans, the leaves and bark of the tree is important to wildlife on the great savannas.

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Although the trees are practically synonymous with the landscape, humans know less about them than one might suspect.  Although the trees are fertilized by pollen born by fruit bats and bush babies, the full process of fertilization is not entirely understood.  Indeed, botanists are increasingly unsure whether   Adansonia digitate is actually just one species.  The other baobab trees are largely native to Madagascar (although there is one Australian species, and a species on the Arabian Peninsula) so it seems like the genus originated on the microcontinent and then spread to the great supercontinent.

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As you might imagine, the baobab features heavily in innumerable myths, folktales, and religions of Africa.  It is the magic fairy tree of that land.  My personal favorite story comes from the Zambezi basin, where tribes tell of how the proud baobabs grew so tall and beautiful that they began to rival the gods themselves.  In wrath the gods inverted the trees so that the fat roots now grow into the sky, but the trees were still splendid, till evil spirits put a curse on the strange white flowers.  Now anyone who picks these fantastic blossoms is subject to terrible bad luck…more specifically a lion will kill and eat that person!  That should keep the blossoms safe.

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But, of course, in the Anthropocene world, such made-up curses don’t keep the trees safe at all.  There is one true curse on the great baobabs.  Across Africa they are dying.  Trees which were saplings during the fall of the Roman Empire (the western half!) are swiftly succumbing to an unknown scourge.  To quote a tragic article in the Atlantic, “Of the 13 oldest known baobabs in the world, four have completely died in the last dozen years, and another five are on the way, having lost their oldest stems.” The full truth of what is felling the giants is subject to debate, but botanists and arborists agree that the rapid warming of the world is the most likely culprit.  Trees which lived for two millennia in arid wastelands in the heat of equatorial Africa are suddenly dying from high temperatures.  Some of these trees have been landmarks for countless generations of people.  It is as though a mountain died and withered up

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I am not sure how to properly quantify something so troubling, but the truly ancient past offers some upsetting clues about what might soon become of the Baobabs’ home (which is humankind’s first home too).  Set aside your tears for the great trees and join me, tomorrow.  We are going to take another trip back to the beginning of the Eocene, the “dawn age” which calls to me again and again. In that sweltering summer world of 56 million years ago, there are clues about what will be the fate of baobab trees and of their home ecosystem. The Eocene was a world without ice.  The arctic oceans were warm year-round. Rainforests filled with unknown marsupials covered Antarctica.  I hope you will boldly join me in going back to that bygone age, but I am worried you will not like what we find, and I am worried we are not going to like what we find in the future either.

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God DAMMIT, humankind, can you not even let me end on a chilling note without making it stupid?

There is some bittersweet news from China.  Well “news” is maybe a somewhat misleading word.  This is a small sad story within a sprawling epic story…within our story, in fact.

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In the geological age previous to this one, China was covered by a stupendous forest of bamboo and deciduous trees (it seems like a lot of our familiar tree families of North America might have originated there).  It was a tree world of pandas, elephants, tapirs, panthers, tigers, orangutans… and gibbons, the exquisite gracile “lesser” apes who are the true masters of swinging through forest canopies.

The vast rich forest was a perfect world for primates…and Africa’s angriest, sharpest lineage, the hominids, showed up 1.5 million to 2 million years ago.  These first hominids were Homo erectus, a comparatively benign lot, but not far behind them came other hominids with darker tastes, and then, approximately 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens showed up,”wise man,” a tragic fire-wielding invasive species with an insatiable appetite for…well for food, actually.  Homo Sapiens brought agriculture to East Asia or perhaps developed it there.  Indeed there are suggestions that Homo sapiens might have evolved in East Asia out of the maelstrom of clever upright apes that were ambling around the place, and, though I don’t find the argument nearly as persuasive as an African genesis, a wealth of peculiar fossil finds and ancient archaeological discoveries mean it cannot be dismissed outright, either.

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Eight thousand years ago farms began spilling across what is now China.  These early Chinese farmers discovered the perfect food for humans–a delicious superlative grain which is still the staple food for most of humanity. But this is not the story of rice (I need to write about that later, because I love rice, and it might be the most important plant in the world); it is the story of what rice-farming did. Cities and kingdoms sprang up, and in 259 BC, the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, truly unified China from the capital of Xi’an in the ancient land of Shaanxi.  Stories of Qin Shi Huang’s cunning and cruelty are as diverse as the stories of his unimaginable wealth and power, yet in the end all of his strength came from rice which sustained the teeming population of the Qin dynasty, and this rice came from the forest, which was cut down to provide agricultural lands and living space for what is still the world’s most populous region.

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We have excavated Qin Shi Huang’s tomb (universally known as the “Tomb of the Terracotta Soldiers”). The tomb compound was a whole necropolis city of wonders and archaeologists and scientists are still unraveling its wonders and unlocking its mysteries.  The compound included the tomb of Lady Xia, the grandmother of the first emperor of China, and, in addition to her corpse, her tomb included her pet, a gibbon. Gibbons were pets of the aristocracy in dynastic China (here is a particularly poignant and sad poem, which you should read after you read this post).  Recently a British primatologist was touring a museum of the finds from the first emperor’s tomb and the skeletal hand of Lady Xia’s pet caught his eye.  Subsequent research has revealed that the animal belonged to a gibbon species which no longer exists.  The first specimen known to science was found in the the tomb of the first Emperor’s grandmother.   The “new” gibbon is named  gibbon was named Junzi imperialis based on where and how it was found.

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There are no gibbons in the wild anywhere near Shaanxi today.  As civilization rose, the great forests fell and Junzi imperialis was surely a victim of habitat loss. The grain we must have to run our vast complicated societies cost it everything…and we didn’t even remember its loss.  In Chinese art, gibbons represent a pure and ideal existence…they are sort of emblematic of a Chinese version of Eden (that ancient allusion is one of the things that makes that poem so plaintive) yet I don’t think we realized just how appropriate is such symbolism.  Humankind has already driven a lot more primate species to extinction than we know about. It is worth remembering the cost of our previous success as we look at the future.   Our strength and knowledge grow greater, but our appetite grows too, and the world is not getting any bigger.  Think about Lady Xia’s gibbon the next time you have a bowl of nourishing rice.  People are reflected in their pets and the empty eye sockets of the little long-dead pet tells about our own greatness and our terrible failures.  What do you see in those dark windows? Is the future just more and more tyrannical emperors crushing peasants and cutting down forests to build luxurious tombs or can we learn something new about our own place in the world and maybe beyond it?

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For the first time in a long time, Ferrebeekeeper is presenting a theme week. This is mermaid week! We will explore the mythology and meaning of fish-people (a theme which occurs again and again throughout world culture). And there is a special treat waiting at the end of the week, when I reveal the project I have been working on for quite a while. I wonder if you can guess what creative project could I possibly be up to involving fish?

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We will get back to the exquisite long-haired beauties with perfect figures and beautiful green tails later this week, but let’s start out with the Ningyo, the poignant & disquieting Japanese “mermaid”.  The mythical Ningyo is indeed described as a sort of fish-person; but they were far more fish than person with a piscine body covered in jewel-bright scales.  They had a strange bestial human head, almost more like a monkey’s face and a quiet beautiful voice like a lilting songbird or a flute.

The Ningyo was reputedly quite delicious and anyone who ate one would experience tremendous longevity…but there was a price. Eating the creature would result in terrible storms and dire misfortune.  Additionally eating a magical sentient creature carried…spiritual risks which are hard to quantify but certainly sound detrimental to the immortal soul.

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One story about a Ningyo, starts with a humble fisherman from the Wakasa Province (the seafaring “land of seafood” for the Chūbu region of Honshū). He caught a fish with a human face, the likes of which he had never seen and he butchered and prepared the creature as a special banquet for his closest friends and neighbors.  Yet one of the guests peaked into the kitchen and saw the doleful eyes of the ningyo’s severed head and warned the other diners not to partake.  One woman hid her portion in her furoshiki, and forgot about it.  Later, her daughter was hungry and obtained the forgotten fish-morsel and gobbled it up.  The woman expected catastrophe, but nothing happened and the whole sorry incident was forgotten…

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Except…the little girl grew into womanhood and married and had a family.  The people around her lived their lives and, in the course of time, grew old and got sick and died, but she maintained her youth and kept on living and living and living. Everywhere she went the people she cared for grew old and died to the rhythm of human life, but she stood outside watching like a child watching mayflies.  She became a lonely religious recluse and eventually, after the better part of a millennium, she returned to the ruined, forgotten port of her childhood and took her own life, unable to bear existing in a world that she stood so far outside of.

The idea of the Ningyo asks uncomfortable question about our relationship with the natural world. Do we consume other beings for our own selfish amelioration or must we do so to survive? The fairytale above also asks painful questions about some of our most treasured fantasies.  Would extraordinarily long life be a blessing or would it be a curse?  Best of all (but hardest of all) it asks us to look again…at our relationship with the natural world and at our timeframe bias which prohibits us from seeing some of the things that are really happening (since our perspective is too brief).

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Actually I feel like fish already actually have bestial human faces and are precious in mysterious ways.  Yet we eat them anyway…in ever greater abundance… to the extent that almost all the fish are becoming scarce. Humankind is destroying the ocean, the cradle of life and all-sustaining backstop to every ecosystem. We are doing this, like the fisherman in the tale through a terrifying mixture of ignorance, hunger, and the attempt to impress other people. The Japanese (who have astonishing technological savvy, profound generosity, and enormous erudition) eat whales and dolphins with a special spiteful relish.  Is this then our fate, to gobble up our miraculous fellow beings and then live on and on in a world stripped of vitality and meaning?  Every thoughtful person I meet, worries that it is so.

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Then too there is the other half to the Ningyo myth (unadressed in the myth I told above… that abusing them would lead to storms, inundation, and catastrophe.  It is not hard to see parallels in contemporary society.  It isn’t only eschatologists, astrophysicists, and ecologists who note the changing temperatures and cannot find analogies in the strange and diverse climate history of our world. Humans live longer and longer (outside of America, I mean) yet the storms grow worse and worse.  Have we already eaten the Ningyo?

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There is a fundamental problem with economics.  Well, actually I am sure there are many, many problems with this pseudo-scientific discipline of resource management (which is fetishistically concerned with money instead of value).  However, this particular problem lies at the crux of the discipline’s inability to predict human behavior or bring about valuable outcomes.   We will briefly explore why we should care about economics at the end of the post, but let’s get right to the thesis and baldly state the problem which economics does not appropriately address: humans are more concerned with status than with substance at least when they are not under mortal duress (and if they are in fear of their lives, their behavior will be irrational anyway).

The usual metaphor for rational economic thought involves pie (probably because the round pastry is irresistible and because it resembles pie charts, which economists love).  According to conventional economic theory: if you get an allotted slice of pie, what matters is how big your slice is, not who gets the rest of the pie.  If an economically rational being is faced with a scenario where he gets pie for some reason, he will happily take his pie and worry about how to make the pie bigger (even if a grotesque bully hogs the majority of the pie and then doesn’t even eat it).   From this reductionist fable we can then move on to other scenarios like increasing the participant’s slice relative to other participants (zero-sum pie?), contractual niceties of pie eating, seasonally adjusted pie indexes, or twisted game theory dilemmas…or whatever.

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Yet any parent can tell you that if one sibling gets one small slice of the pie and the other sibling eats the rest, it is going to be a problem.  Children understand that pie allotment is a proxy for social worth (which is worth more than the pie).  Economists get twisted up in unnecessarily complicated numeric models (or in facile metaphors of resource allocation) and tend to overlook the real thing people are after.

Kids innately understand that money is a red herring for status, and status is true currency.  A Hollywood A-lister can wander into a bar and never pay for anything and leave in a limousine with the best-looking person present.  Their status stands above money. Likewise, the pope or some slimy cult leader or the “communist” prime minister of a failed state does not really need to truck in naked dollars and cents.

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I was arguing about the affairs of the world with one of my college friends (he has an honors degree in economics from the University of Chicago and was managing George Soros’ fortune at the time).  He was worried that populism would vitiate the rewards of globalism.  “People will vote to get a bigger slice of a smaller pie rather than a smaller slice of a bigger pie (even if the latter is a much larger relative slice)!” he exclaimed angrily.

As moneyed interests capture all available levers of power in our troubled democracy and economic productivity drops, his words seem prescient.   I assumed then that he was talking about silly plebs, but I now wonder whether he was really talking about rapacious financiers. I guess it doesn’t matter: both these factions are now backing the current leadership’s agenda of corporate amalgamation, tax-giveaways to the super rich, isolationism, and protectionism—things which ultimately decrease the pie, but make it seem larger for the moment.

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Oligarchs and reactionaries both would prefer a smaller pie—so long as they have a bigger slice for themselves.  The pie doesn’t matter—it is not a metaphor for goods and services, like economists think, instead it is a metaphor for pecking order.  If someone tells you that you are ranked 300th among the 300 people who matter to you, what does it matter what is happening in China or whether tariffs will undo national prosperity? The fundamental metaphor is not apt, and thus economists are misunderstanding why people make the choices they do. Our fundamental problems: stagnant productivity, inequality, and political deadlock come from the fact that power brokers are busy making castes and setting them in stone…not baking pies.

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Human societies have always been hierarchical and probably always will be, so why should we care if the economists get this metaphor wrong? It matters because the pie actually should matter! The fact that everyone is jockeying for status by betting on short-term stock gains (or even scammier things) is impairing our ability to do important things. We are baking the wrong sort of pies   Our system is not producing medicines it is churning out drugs.  We are not researching, we are marketing.  The “makers” are busy making monopolies and cartels rather than space robots and immortality serums.  We really would be better with a small delicious pie made of summer fruit and real butter than with the monstrosity made of saccharine, corn starch, and cellulose.  This monstrous confection is the result of the fact that our system is some weird & debased celebrity contest (our leader is a conman and a reality tv star!). Economists need to wake up to the fact that we aren’t even baking pies…we are all in a bad reality tv show or a nightmarishly catty high-school clique.

Hans_Memling_PassioneThis amazing painting is by Hans Memling a Netherlandish master of German birth who worked in Bruges during the late 15th century.  Memling painted the work around 1470 AD for a Florentine banker based in Bruges (that’s the banker’s donor portrait down there in the lower left corner).  The painting is most important for illustrating that extremely rich financiers can commision whatever sort of work they like from gifted middle aged painters in their hometown, be it medieval Bruges or, say, contemporary Brooklyn, however, the painting is also astonishingly a still painting with modality: like a sort of 15th century movie.  Instead of telling one scene from the passion of Christ, the painting tells many stories from the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same larger scene.  By moving around the painting and “reading” it, the whole story becomes evident (I especially like how ancient Jerusalem looks like a slightly exoticized version of Bruges).  Since WordPress hates art, you can only blow it up to a certain size here, but it is well worth going to Wikipedia and looking at a larger version where you can pore over the exquisite details of Memling’s craft (and contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and his execution).   For such an intricate work, the original is rather small–less than a meter wide.  Memling excelled at painting complex pictures of entire cities like this, yet despite the ornament and pageantry, the real focus never leaves Jesus as he is hailed and then denounced by the mob, judged by politicians, tortured and executed, and finally risen as a deity.  Despite its intricacy and scope this is a rather human and intimate work.  Memling seems to have known the fickle back-and-forth of society, so one can find all sorts of reticent retainers, devout followers, haughty lords, and confounded strangers in this work.  It is a reminder that the the antagonist, and the supporting characters, and even the setting of the passion are humankind–the story is meant to represent all of us.  Even Jesus, the son of man, is human until the last instance when he is revealed with his halo and scarlet robes of godhood.

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“And a Man sat alone, drenched deep in sadness. And all the animals drew near to him and said, “We do not like to see you so sad. Ask us for whatever you wish and you shall have it.” The Man said, “I want to have good sight.” The vulture replied, “You shall have mine.” The Man said, “I want to be strong.” The jaguar said, “You shall be strong like me.” Then the Man said, “I long to know the secrets of the earth.” The serpent replied, “I will show them to you.” And so it went with all the animals. And when the Man had all the gifts that they could give, he left. Then the owl said to the other animals, “Now the Man knows much, he’ll be able to do many things. Suddenly I am afraid.” The deer said, “The Man has all that he needs. Now his sadness will stop.” But the owl replied, “No. I saw a hole in the Man, deep like a hunger he will never fill. It is what makes him sad and what makes him want. He will go on taking and taking, until one day the World will say, ‘I am no more and I have nothing left to give”

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Last week’s essay about fear has made me think about the opposite of fear: desire.  I don’t mean romantic desire (although maybe that too), but instead what we really want…not just over the course of an afternoon or in junior high school, but for all of our lives. It is a big question!  And it becomes bigger when we start talking about what people want collectively at a city or national level (or at a level beyond that). What do we want for ourselves within a decade? What about a lifetime?  Or many lifetimes? But, whereas fear is very miserable, at least we tend to have a strong sense of what we are afraid of, and why.  Desires (beyond immediate obvious sorts like mates, status objects, good outcomes for our loved ones) are abstruse and inchoate.   We seem to know exactly what we are running from, the question of what we are running towards is much more elusive.

Humankind is a hive organism… a super colony like mole rats or termites, but we exist at a planetary scale, so it maybe behooves us to honestly talk about the things we all want and the directions these aspirations are leading us in.

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This week, in order to more fully explore these issues, I have chosen three animal fables concerning what humankind wants and the lengths to which we will go to obtain our desires.  They seem like simple stories, however, the more you think about them, the less facile they become.

I say these are animal stories because, in each case, the guide/interface to humans reaching what they want is an animal.  The animals in these stories represent the “natural” world with its power, glory, and strength.  The tales seem to set humankind apart from that world and from other creatures–as a different sort of being even from magical talking animals–yet I am not sure we are so different (neither from real animals nor from the ones in the stories).  Religious people see humans not as animals at all, but more like a sort of lesser “junior” deity.  I think we are an extreme manifestation of the animal kingdom and there are no gods–divinity is only an abstruse concept we have created to give shape to our fears and desires. Yet maybe that is not so different from what the religious people think (the idea of divinity makes a big appearance in these three fables as well).  I love animals and I mostly like being one (although greedy angry primates aren’t my favorite creatures).  I have my own strong ideas concerning where humankind needs to go and it seems like we are going the wrong way.

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Enough blather: I am losing the thread!  I will present each of these tales without commentary.  We can talk about what they mean after they are done, however, as you read them, please keep thinking about what you want the most both for now, and for the far future when you are long gone.

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Has anyone noticed the rash of giant snake attacks in Indonesia?  These alarming stories of giant snakes  follow a very ancient (and horrifying) narrative pattern: a lone villager or traveler chances across an enormous predatory reptile from 20 to 30 feet in length.  Mayhem ensues.  Usually the human survives and fights off the monster with a machete (or with aid from a torch wielding mob), but sometimes the human vanishes…only to be found being slowly digested inside a reticulated python.

Taken from an individual human perspective, it is hard not to think of the pythons as the insatiable villains of such stories, but the real narrative is more complicated.    Palm oil is made from fruit of the palm oil plant, a tropical generalist. Not only is this oil a lucrative (and delicious) additive to desserts and other processed foodstuffs, it is also extensively used in cosmetics, shampoo, and soaps.  Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world, but palm oil growers are destroying these forests at an unprecedented rate. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are vanishing even more quickly than the rainforests in Brazil or the Congo.  These forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, enormous monocultures where most traditional rainforest animals cannot live, however rats can and do live there on the oily palm fruit.  The pythons are hunting rats in these plantations because their forests were destroyed.

 

Humankind the great hive organism is swallowing these forests whole (in the form of delicious candy and aromatic toiletries).  The animals which live there are likewise being eradicated. Indeed the most recent giant python to attack a villager who molested it was literally cut into pieces, fried, and devoured by hungry villagers.  It makes one wonder if the Saint George and the Dragon pictures were not so much about humankind surmounting evil as about the tragedy of deforestation in medieval England.

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