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The Nature of Things

The Road to Resilience

Last column, I wrote about tribalism being a force that encouraged suspicion and hatred between different racial and ethnic groups.  A friend pointed out that our indigenous people, who call themselves tribes, are now doing a tremendous service for us in standing up to the oil interests at Standing Rock.  I knew immediately that I would need to clarify that my discussion of the concept of “tribalism” was not intended in any way to cast aspersions on those peoples who use that term to describe their polities.  In thinking further about it, I realized that tribes, nations, communities, and families, had a much more primal role to play in our world.  In keeping with the bipolar nature of our reality, tribes are not exclusively good or bad.  They are both.  

I’d like to posit the argument that tribes, or any organizational unit, represent a set of dynamic relationships that fundamentally create the world that we know.   An atom or a living cell has attractive forces that hold them together.  At the same time, there are repulsive forces that keep them separate from the matter around them.  In addition, there are higher order attractive forces that hold those entities in a cooperative relationship with similar entities thereby creating higher order entities, i.e., atoms become molecules, molecules become cells, cells become organisms, organisms become communities, communities become nations, and nations become a united world.  It is the repulsive force in between that insures that each individual entity maintains its unique character.  Without the contrary repulsive force, there would be no individual entities, and, therefore, there would basically be nothing distinguishable at all!  I think my friend, Rod Smith, has a term for that set of relationships, but my glimpses into his world are fleeting even though meaningful.   

In retrospect, my discussion about tribalism in the last column had to do with problems that arise when these three forces are out of balance.  If the repulsive force is too strong, then a group tends to see all outsiders as threats.  If the repulsive force is too weak, then the tribe will simply disappear into the melting pot.  

The Standing Rock Sioux have been facing unremitting pressure for 500 years to disappear into that melting pot, to forget their language, philosophy, and customs, to assimilate into the dominant culture.  Fortunately for us, their resistance to that pressure allowed them to preserve their view of the sacredness of nature, which we so desperately need today.  

Through a perhaps misguided interpretation of our Judeo-Christian tradition, Euro-Americans (most of us) of the dominant culture have decided that people (men) are the masters of the world, which is here to serve us.  The arrogance of this point of view has given us the notion that we can do as we please and that nature will ultimately bend to our will.  
If there is any doubt as to who has the more successful model of how to live on this planet, remember that the first peoples were here in the Americas for at least 13,000 years.  When the Europeans showed up, they encountered a world that appeared to be pristine:  undefiled by man.  The fact that they never encountered more than a couple million people in the vast expanse of North America gave credence to that notion.  Most recent evidence suggests that there were at least 60 million people here before European diseases decimated them.  The point is that the equivalent of the population in all the Americas by 1900 existed here before 1492, yet it is apparent that the first peoples’ impact on the environment over 13,000 years was so benign it appeared to be nonexistent.  Although they are suspected in the demise of much of the early megafauna (mastodons, giant sloths, etc.), that argument is itself suspect as it would be unlikely in that case that millions of bison could somehow have survived the next 10,000 years, not to mention the abundant smaller fauna.  We know that they greatly modified their environment to suit their needs as well as their prey, but they did it in a way similar to permaculture, working with nature rather than trying to dominate it.  Europeans of the Judeo-Christian tradition have come close to trashing this continent, and soon the world, in about 300 years.  

Diversity is good because it preserves the greatest number of ways that nature has devised to adapt and coexist successfully.  Tribalism preserves that diversity, but can also be the basis for arrogance and aggression toward outsiders.  The balance between opposites (attraction /repulsion, dark/light, male/female, hot/cold, capitalism/socialism, etc.) is all-important.

In the world of opposites, the world of form where we find ourselves right now, the dark defines the light.  The darkness of this time of the year and that of these times in human affairs call out to us, joyously, to create light, to act.