Notes on Our Fourteenth Meeting — THE LIVING PLANET


The Possible Hypocrisy of Our Professed Love for Nature

I launched us off by talking about the constant tension I feel between my desire, on the one hand, to have the living world matter, really matter, for me — as a sensual experience and as a source of emotional and moral guidance — and then, on the other hand, my guilty sense that I will never stop exploiting its resources.

Don and Yann sat near me on the sofa, which is covered with the skins of multiple cows. A fire burned behind me, which happened to be fed by gas… but I confessed that I have no doubt that if it demanded logs I would happily throw another onto it when the flames grew small.

Sometimes my rapture about nature, and our insistence on our deep embeddedness in it, strikes me as… obviously hypocritical.

“Aren’t we like SS officers,” I asked, “sitting around our bunker in the death camp, talking sentimentally about how much we love the sacred singing of those inmates in House #13?” We love nature in a sentimental way, while all the time we ruthlessly exploit it.

Yann spoke up to say that this ignored the many gray areas. Yes, we exploit nature, and we always will. But as our awareness grows of our interconnectedness we can do just a little bit better to treat the living world with respect and care. The abuse of the orcas in Sea World is coming to an end in the U.S. because public awareness was raised. Many of us purchase cage-free chicken eggs, even at an increased price. We do not clear-cut forests in as many places now, but rather, like the author of The Hidden Life of Trees does in Germany, we devote ourselves to considering how best to maintain eco-systems (well, until Trump reverses all that).

“So I get it, you’re saying we are not so much SS officers,” I answered. “We’re more like… the low-level Polish guards standing in the snow. They do what they can to sneak a crust of bread into the hands of an emaciated inmate, making it just a little bit better, while still earning their pay.”

The hypocrisy still troubles me (all unfortunate Holocaust analogies aside). Which is it? Do we want to open ourselves to nature as equals, or do we want to persevere in our primate-based habit of dominance?

After all, I pointed out, we like dominance; we can’t deny it. We like scoring a winning goal in soccer. We like it sexually, sometimes (to varying degrees). We like the thrill of power when we accomplish something significant in a public arena. Would we really ever be willing to abdicate that aspect of ourselves in order to maintain a more harmonious and equitable relationship with the living world?

Death and Vegetables

Don talked of how he struggles with this question of power on a very personal level. Already a vegetarian for some 30 years, he even wonders about the ethics of eating vegetables! This started when he became aware that the needs and vitality of plants are not as different from our own as we like to think.

In response, I shared with him an excerpt from a book by Dorian Sagan, Death & Sex, (brought to my attention by Setenay) in which Sagan describes how our very mortality is bound up in our shared evolutionary history with plants. Sagan eloquently points to how we are all bound up in a cycle of birth and death, so even as Don eats a plant he can recognize that he too will be “eaten,” disposed of, turned back into humus someday. It goes back to the process of sexual reproduction, which require that the “older generation” becomes unnecessary once sperm meets egg (or archegonium, as the case may be) to create new life.

Sagan points to the earliest fossil record of sex:

“The oldest ejaculation in the fossil record occurs in the Devonian, 408 to 363 million years ago. The paleological preservation of the salacious scene is reminiscent of the erotic frescoes of erotic paintings preserved at the village of Mount Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius. Long before humanity, the earliest preserved ejaculation took place among a member of the Rhyniophyta, a phylum that contains the first land plants, which began to diversify some four hundred million years ago. The act was caught in flagrante delicto by chert, fine crystalline quartz with an uncanny ability to preserve fossils. Algaophyton major is one of the most common plants in the volcanically preserved Rhynie Chert, named for the nearby village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Early in the colonization of land by plants, and before the evolution of true leaves, the fast-setting minerals preserved a host of petrified plant, fungal, lichen, and animal specimens. (Animals evolved earlier but came to land after plants.)

“Since sex usually occurs in water, it doesn’t tend to preserve well. But in one four-hundred-million-year-old silica-rich deposit local changes in pH remobilized some of the silica, leaving behind thin films of the original organic material. In the specimen the chert beautifully preserved the plant’s delicate archegonium (from goni, Hindi for ‘sack,’ akin to yoni, Sanskrit for ‘vagina’) — the female sex organ. Another sample of rock, sliced thin and observed with a microscope, shows Aglaphyton’s antheridium, its male sex organ — filled with sperm cells ready to explode. Here, preserved by chance, with neither compromised actors nor moral qualm, is a geographic equivalent of the ‘money shot’ of pornographic films — an ejaculation event 140,000 times older than Homer’s Odyssey, 400 times older than the human species, and almost as old as the appearance of animals in the fossil record.”

Detailed preservation of sperm ejection from sporangia in the Rhynie Chert fossil

Sagan continues:

“The sexual reproductive cycles that got swinging not even a billion years ago, brought with them a frightening complementary motion, the switching from side to side of the Grim Reaper’s scythe. With meiosis came mortality because going back to sperm and eggs eventually meant discarding those trillions of somatic cells that, although having brilliantly served their purpose, were not directly represented in evolution. And with reproductive sex came programmed cell and differentiated body death, because evolutionarily our bodies are husks, biodegradable reserves of valuable bioelements that belong to the ecosystem and must be returned, like overdue books, after performing their natural duty of keeping going the larger energetic process. Personally, as intelligent animals, we identify as individual bodies. Although easier said than done, the mystics advocate a larger view in which we identify with the cycles of natural energy-transforming forms, as well as release from such cycles, which they call nirvana. Creeping behind the bright prospect of Mesozoic ginkgo-sniffing reptiles, primeval ejaculators, and the first fragrant flowers was that dark figure, the inevitability of their demise. A melancholy note was struck in the cosmic love machine [underlining added].”

Setenay read aloud Sagan’s conclusion that our involvement in this cycle of sex and death has a consoling spiritual aspect:

A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.

Or as David Abrams puts it, in his Becoming Animal:

“As an omnivore, an eater of the flesh of plants and sundry animals, willing to taste almost anything… I find myself entwined in a great gift of economy, wherein each life partakes of other lives and gives of itself in return… If we ingest the land’s nourishment not only through our eyes and ears but also through our hungry mouths — chomping leaves, seeds, and muscles with our teeth, moistening them with our saliva, and swallowing them down into our depths, incorporating the world’s flesh into our own — it can only be so because we too are edible. Because we, too, are food.”

Does that make you feel any better, Don? The knowledge, as you chomp down on a piece of broccoli, that you will die too?

What It Takes Truly to Appreciate Nature

In talking about his own relationship with the living world, Ken mentioned Martin Buber’s writing on the value of moving from an “I-It” relationship with nature to an “I-Thou” relationship.

He had previously sent to me by email this excerpt from Buber, which I will include in full now:

2 thoughts on “Notes on Our Fourteenth Meeting — THE LIVING PLANET

  1. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for these helpful notes. I would like to fine tune a couple of thing you attribute to me:
    – Breakthrough? Indeed I don’t have an urge for breakthrough insight. Or rather, I would love one big breakthrough, but I don’t think there is one, and I think that most folks who claim to have found one are misled, if not impostors. I find enough pleasure and awe when observing the beauty and wonder of our little planet and its various life forms in this vast dark and cold universe. I feel that rather than “a” breakthrough our progress is more likely to be linked to incremental improvements, driven a mixture of constant spiritual, emotional and scientific efforts.
    – Bringing the “solution” down to earth. The idea of a matrix to evaluate everything mis-characterizes what I was trying to explain. What I was trying to express is that what drives my choices, at least some of them, is my desire to have the miracle and beauty of life and earth continue. The only science that systematically evaluates our impacts on the world is indeed relatively new (life cycle assessment). It looks at all our actions, production processes (e.g. to get to your sofa and the wood one uses in a fireplace), and looks at impacts in terms of human health, ecosystem services, resources and climate change. My point is not, by any stretch, that we can value everything and that valuing Mozart is part of it. LCA does not explain everything. Given the focus of the Old New Way, my point is to draw your attention to the fact that there actually is a scientific process, peer reviewed, that constantly evolves and helps us think of our impacts, improve our tradeoffs. Rather than base our decisions on the hope of a sudden breakthrough, it helps us improve our daily interactions with the living world. As our scientific understanding evolves, for example reminding us that we are animals, that animals have very similar feelings to us, that human self awareness may be over-rated etc., we start putting different values on the various endpoints of LCA (e.g. valuing the well being of animals, which is not valued today). LCA is a young, very imperfect, science; a science I consider a useful basis for discussion.
    – Utilitarianism. This is the philosophy I resonate the most with, the one I find the most helpful to navigate life. Critics often misunderstand it as being unprincipled; the point is rather that every principle is looked at through a utilitarian lens. Bringing the last two points together, the ethics of utilitarianism evolve as, e.g., our understanding, be it scientific or spiritual, of other living beings evolve. So, efforts like yours and the Old New Way are wonderful at helping us expand our boundaries of what is to be valued.
    Hope that this clarifies what I meant. Thanks again for this great summary,


  2. Tom:

    Great notes. Your ability to pull everything together (with enough details) and draw the different points everyone makes (albeit with your own bias at times) to paint one coherent picture is really wonderful. I always enjoy reading them to come to an articulate review (a closure even if temporarily) on the subject discussed.

    Yann: thanks for your clarifying comment and outlining the nuances you were trying to relay. I have to say my perception of utilitarianism (based on very little information I must confess) is primarily not positive. I’d like to learn more. Maybe a topic for a future meeting?

    I agree with Yann on the breakthrough issue. I think that’s not the right way to conceptualize it. I’m not even sure that is possible. It seems to me life doesn’t consist of grand breakthroughs, sudden revelations, grand gestures. It is all the small acts, feelings, improvements etc. There is a lovely video of philosopher Zygmunt Bauman ( where he recounts a story of Goethe. They asked Goethe if he had a happy life. And he said “yes, I had a very, very happy life but I can’t remember one happy week” saying that happiness is in overcoming unhappiness, troubles. Anyway, tangentially related but an uplifting video to watch.

    I don’t relate to the way you present your love of the living world and your need for survival as a dichotomy at best, hypocrisy at worst. I am not bothered by this duality (which is ultimately about survival and the cycle of reproduction/death as you also point out in the essay). But this is not a surprise as I am at peace with, have mostly lived in, and -in fact subconsciously as I think it enriches my experience- seek to live in dualities whereas you have more of a drive to sift issues to their dichotomic representation perhaps? You have a very strong, guiding moral compass. My life experiences have made my morality perhaps more of a range and not an unwavering directional point. I’m not less moral though:)

    It seems to me Tom that you (and maybe Yann as well) have an issue of over-reliance on your intellect for clarity sometimes. Especially for issues that relate to complex, entropic world of emotions. Obviously it’s still very valuable of an effort and I enjoy doing it but I also leave space for the potential of truths (and future understanding) that are perhaps outside of self-protective rationalizations. You both think comprehensively about issues from lots of different sides and come to conclusions. Yann is satisfied when he does that. But you have a drive to take it one step further to arrive to an all-encompassing truth, one big frame to frame and complete the picture. You are not satisfied with the process itself or the intermediate findings and revelations. Your drive to intellectually grasp connection may be a way of avoiding connection or may even be impeding it.

    I came across a book by Martha Nussbaum where she examined knowledge of love analyzing Proust’s “love” for Albertine. She quotes Proust (after Albertine’s death when he was still trying to figure out whether he loved her): “I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallized salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain.” So Nussbaum suggests that over-reliance on the intellect and cost-benefit analysis produces kind of myopia about love and that to remove such powerful obstacles to truth suffering is required. She says that suffering is the subtlest, most powerful, most appropriate for grasping the truth. Maybe similar to suffering and pain dislodging findings of rationalization about whether or not one is in love, we need to think about a surrogate emotional or physical response to understand whether we’re connected to the living world or not.

    I’m directly applying something I recently read to different elements of our discussion so these are not-yet-well-though-out statements but here’s another one. I was thinking of the life-cycle assessment discussion. Although I do believe there is a value in representing human or natural processes in economic terms (primarily to make practical decisions), reducing very complex processes to modelable elements by making very simplistic assumptions I also agree with Nussbaum that “the intellect’s account of psychology lacks all sense of proportion and depth”. Intellect is primarily capable of cost/benefit analysis and such analysis not only misses differences of depth but also may impede their recognition. Cost-benefit analysis is a way of comforting ourselves, pretending we’re in control because we assume (at the most basic level) that all losses can be made up by sufficient quantities of something else (I had a most recent experience with this when a timber harvester in Pescadero argued that they have done a great job of planting trees as they removed older ones and basically that these second-growth forests function the same as the old-growth ones (because # of trees are even more now and the forest has the same extent).

    Voila. Long, convoluted email people. Sorry. The interesting thing is that we all have such deep connections to and appreciation for our partners, kids, families, friends, and nature but we’re always striving for more. And I think the ONW gives us a great opportunity a complex and safe place with caring people to do that. I’m grateful.


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