06/30/2010 04:22 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Evolving to Survive: What We Must Do

Ongoing revelations of the scope of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico remind me that our appetite for oil comes not from materialism, but consumerism. The two are not the same. Consumerism is simply about ingesting, processing, and excreting; materialism has two faces, one physical and the other spiritual. Physical materialism is tied ineluctably to poverty. With no material roof over our head and no material food to sustain us, we die. The evidence is in our biology and our history. Spiritual materialism, on the other hand, is a celebration of nature, man's place in it, and his ability to channel what he sees into objects of his own creation.

Arguably, this latter materialism reached its zenith in the European Renaissance in the west and the Chinese Tang Dynasty in the east. These were sophisticated times when people appreciated the beauty of a sunset or the moon reflected by a lake, but also the proportions and elegance of a painting, a bowl, a sword, a piece of silk, a church, a mural on the wall, a piece of furniture, the tiles on a roof, a sterling fork or spoon. Beautiful tapestries and books of poetry arose from those ages, as did Faberge eggs. Valuing beauty defined folks as connoisseurs, filled their hearts with a splash of divinity, and put them in touch with God and nature.

There are physical materialists among us in America. We call them the homeless and the desperately poor. There are fewer spiritual materialists here; save perhaps some highly educated aesthetes. There are, however, plenty of consumers. Consumption, a term once applied to a wasting disease, is about filling a yawning emotional hole. It is about a loss of connection with precisely the natural world that we are so relentlessly destroying; it is about a gnawing sense of purposelessness and aloneness that arises directly from our divorce from nature. For the word "nature", substitute God, Buddha, Allah, Christ, Tao, or a hundred other words I don't know, and you may better understand the root of the problem.

As individuals, we have lost our way and forgotten who and what we are. To make ourselves feel better, we consume as much as we can afford to, and do so as fast as we can. We rarely truly cherish material products; we merely use them to bandage a suppurating spiritual sore. What we do individuals we do as a society. Individually, we consume big-screen TVs, fast cars, refrigerators, cartons, plastic bags, boats, new jackets, earrings, panties, fancy wristwatches, and running shoes. When we tire of them or wear them out, we sell them or discard them. Socially, we ingest the planet by taking its raw offerings and ores and transmuting them into consumables, rarely bothering to renew them and paying no heed to the sometimes-dire consequences of discarding them.

If we continue to consume at this rate, resources will vanish and we will enter an apocalyptic scenario like the one I wrote about in my novel The Crocodile and the Crane, wherein Nature responds to our overpopulation and consumption with the plague to end all plagues. No number of new Congressional edicts or White House resolutions can prevent this mess. Only a massive shift in the way we live, reflective of an equally massive change in the way we see things, can spare our world.

The spiritual succor our aboriginal ancestors found in nature is once again required, but in a different form. Worshiping the beauty of mountains, forests, salamanders, eagles, bears, fish, turtles and trees has not proven to be enough for us. Life is the only exception of the tendency of the universe towards maximum entropy, and its marvelous self-organizing properties truly deserve our wonder. Why not put that wonder ahead of the need for speed and stuff? Why not worship the piece of nature inside each one of us. Rather than fearing the relinquishment of our way of life and stubbornly grasping the excesses around us, why not look forward to a way of being that puts quality above quantity and redefines quality of life as quality of experience?

Might this redirection come by dint of evolution? I hope so. Brains are as much flesh as gills and wings and opposable thumbs, and perhaps -- in precisely the kind of leap we see time and again in the fossil record -- the much-vaunted genetic plasticity of human beings will suddenly express itself in a new kind of brain. So equipped, perhaps we will see things differently. Thus transformed, we might well reconsider the way we treat each other, our fellow creatures, and our home.

It has become a material question, a matter of our survival.

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