I strive for idleness. My best ideas come to me not from hard work but from being unfocused, just lolling around. My creative life, such as it is, coincides with what Mark Taylor tells us in Idleness Waiting Grace: ”Many of the most important thoughts are unintentional — they can be neither solicited nor cajoled but have a rhythm of their own, creeping up, arriving, and leaving when we least expect them.”1
Certain seemingly inconsequential events stick in our minds. For me, one such thing is a TV commercial, from fifty years ago, about margarine: In the ad, Mother Nature, dressed in a gown of white and adorned in a crown of flowers, becomes enraged when she discovers that what she is eating is not real butter but margarine. She bellows, “It’s not nice to fool mother nature,” and proceeds to rain down thunder and lightning upon the evil perpetrators.
That old TV ad came back to mind recently after reading a quote by climate scientist Wally Broecker in Atlantic Magazine: “The climate system is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks.” It made me wonder, why aren’t we paying attention to Wally’s warning, speaking in Mother Nature’s behalf.
We have no excuse: We all learned in 2006, if not before, that we were in deep trouble. That’s when Al Gore released, “Inconvenient Truth,” educating us about the dangers of global warming. The documentary was a huge hit, winning two Academy Awards and is still one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time.
Back then, the threat, for some, might have been passed off as conjecture. But now climate change is no longer theoretical but a storm raging all around us, from wildfires to hurricanes to pandemics, of which covid-19 may only be only the first of more deadly plagues to come.
Despite overwhelming evidence, now so clear to the naked eye, we have done little to change our ways. Part of the complacency is due to big businesses, like the fossil fuel industry, who have worked tirelessly to discredit the whole concept of climate warming because it adversely affects their bottom line. A good argument can be made, along these lines, that the root cause of this is capitalism itself.
However, I think a big part of our denial is hard-wired within us. We are not the higher-order rational beings, we think we are, but mere animals. And like all of our kind, we are driven foremost by our short-term emotions and appetites, not what is best for us in the long run.
To some extent, our short and long-term interests coincide. If we do not eat when we are hungry, we will soon die. If we all stop having sex, the human species will die. Craving material possessions, however, is a more complicated question. Perhaps, being well off provides some security, but our current shop-until-you-drop mentality is beyond the pale, driving global warming, polluting the planet, and depleting scarce resources. My theory is that this shopping obsession is a perversion of a primal instinct left over from our hunter-gatherer days when we had to forage every day to survive.
Whatever the reason, our brains are hard-wired to satisfy these short-term desires. We are like a cunning, old buck who usually makes good decisions but loses his head during rutting season: With his nose glued to the ground, following the scent of a doe in heat, the buck gets crushed by a bus crossing the road.
For us, the bus bearing down on us is climate change.
Many experts say the climate crisis will soon wipe us out. Eminent virologist Frank Fenner predicts human extinction will happen next century. A few say this century. And that’s not considering the deadly consequences of war and pestilence. However, most likely, a few of us will survive, living in small, isolated tribes.
Perhaps Mother Nature is orchestrating this scenario to protect her realm by transplanting our primal animal brain into a natural environment where it can thrive, rebooting us as nomadic hunter-gatherers. We will no longer have the means or the opportunity to cook the planet from our flagrant consumption or blow each other up with weapons of mass destruction.
A flock of new books suggests that the American way of life isn’t the pinnacle of existence. In his book Affluence without Abundance, James Suzman points out that contemporary indigenous people, like the Australian Bushmen, work only about 15 hours a week with an equal amount of time spent on domestic chores. The rest of the time, they can relax and focus on family, friends, and hobbies.
This atmosphere creates a very different sense of time, as ecologist David Abram tells us. For us, nature is merely a passive backdrop to our lives. But, for indigenous people, the present is all-encompassing: an alive, vibrating “field of intelligence in which our actions participate.” While we take yoga or mindfulness classes to live in the present briefly, indigenous people live that way all the time. That’s why some have called hunter-gatherers the happiest humans ever inhabit the earth.
What a fantastic feeling, being totally alive in the moment without any craving to do or to have! That’s what “idleness”, means to me, not the derogative, modern meaning suggesting sloth. This spaciousness allows us to travel to places we have never been, as expressed so elegantly by Taylor: “Idleness allows time for the mind to wander to places never before imagined and to return transformed.
Maybe, with that in mind, going back to our roots is not all bad.
Originally published at http://jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.