“So he professes Stoicism. Indeed. You wouldn’t know it from his actions.”

The Stoic Emblem

What the Stoics Did For Us

Massimo Pigliucci

November 28, 2017

New Humanist

When my thinking and behavior fail me in my estimation and what I infer to be the estimation of others I care about, as well as those for whom I don’t give a fig, Stoicism has not failed me nor have I failed Stoicism.

The Stoic lifeway does not promise perfect thinking or consistent happiness for attempting the thoughts and acts it guides us toward. Nor does it offer eternal life or reincarnation as a ‘higher’ life form upon our death as rewards for our Earthly efforts, as some large and small religions do.

It is my self evaluator, my conscience, that has failed me due to my misapplication of it or its miscalibration of focus or tolerance. The miscalibration of one’s conscience is a problem both long-standing and something inherently human – a tendency to go out of calibration from time to time from any number of causes.

As for my estimation of my social standing, many say such should be of no concern to me, ever. So do the Stoics when they assert the only concern an individual should have is cultivating one’s personal virtue. In doing that, the Stoics say, the estimation of others will more often than not take care of itself.

If others misjudge us, it is not of our doing and something beyond our control, and therefore should not be of any concern to us. It certainly should not concern us in thought or action until their misjudgments result in actions of theirs that do fall unequivocally within our realm of control. And then it is only our thoughts and actions, not theirs, that we may choose to control.

Absolute triumph over one’s thinking, behavior, and one’s desire for happiness only occurs, we are often and correctly told, among saints and sages. 

But it is good for us to recall that saints are theological renderings of the surface impressions theologians form of those they tell us are saintly. The person behind and represented by those tellings is no different from each of us in terms of being imperfectly human in everything they are and attempt. Saintliness occurs among all humans as something lived, as a matter of degree not kind.

Sages also exist, more often than not in the judgements and renderings of our learned, more secular-inclined fellows. As with saints, a close look behind pronouncements of sagacity and the conferring of sagehood on a person reveal the same fallibilities of saints – wisdom, like saintliness, is in us all varying only in degree, not kind.

Even saints and sages sometimes in their earthly life stand naked, foul, failed, and ashamed.

Personal success or failure exists on a continuum. One’s ever-changing place on that range of accomplishment depends on the degree of one’s effort and persistence at living by the principles of Stoicism, the lifeway being considered here, and on matters beyond one’s control.

Achieving completely perfect thinking and happiness for the rest of one’s life without instances of failure, to some degree or other, cannot be achieved through Stoicism. But the Stoic way of organizing and directing one’s personal and social efforts comes closest to such an ideal and ​reduces the number and degree of personal and social results that are less than perfect.

The essay linked above by philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci describes what Stoicism offers.


“The Role of Museums in the 21st Century” – An Owl & Ibis Presentation by Ramona Leiter

~ The British Museum ~

On September 26, 2020, Ramona Leiter gave an outstanding multimedia presentation at Owl & Ibis – A Confluence of Minds titled “The Role of Museums in the 21st Century.” Mona expertly informed us and presented the various facets and difficulties attendant to museums, past, present, and future.

Here is Mona to discuss her presentation and provide links to key elements of her talk:

Hello everyone! Thank you very much to all that participated in the discussion last Saturday. I was thrilled to have a project to use my editing software, Movavi, on. Seeing things come together with the different transitions, effects etc… and how quickly I could edit it all into something that was how I envisioned it in my head was thrilling. This gives me the confidence to move on to more challenging things.

As I said in the presentation I am very passionate about museums and loved working on this presentation and talking about museums with other museum lovers. It was hard to research some of the darker side of museum history but I still love museums.

Attached you will find a word document and a pdf document that comprise my narration from the presentation. Below are the two videos I featured in the presentation for you to view if you missed them.

Vox video – The British Museum is full of stolen artifacts:

FBI makes “staggering” discovery of human bones while seizing trove of artifacts:

And here are some other important links.

How I learned to stop hating and love museums – TED X Talk:

For looking at the tech way forward with museums try this video – How the Rijksmuseum is reinventing the museum another Ted X talk:

Here is the video on the Stolen Goods tour at The British Museum:

Here is the full Getty blog entry with related resources on the New Face of Provenance Research in relation to Nazi-era looted art.

The New Face of Provenance Research

And here is the Wikipedia article on the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property


I again thank everyone for the kind words and participation. 



Museums Purpose

21st Century Challenge Museums


“I Can’t Breathe” – George Floyd


I Can’t Breathe

George Floyd’s final words

May 25, 2020

AVAAZ – The World in Action


“It’s my face man
I didn’t do nothing serious man
please I can’t breathe
please man
please somebody
please man
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
man can’t breathe, my face
just get up
I can’t breathe
please (inaudible)
I can’t breathe sh*t
I will
I can’t move
I can’t
my knee
my nuts
I’m through
I’m through
I’m claustrophobic
my stomach hurt
my neck hurts
everything hurts
some water or something
I can’t breathe officer
don’t kill me
they gon’ kill me man
come on man
I cannot breathe
I cannot breathe
they gon’ kill me
they gon kill me
I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe
please sir
please I can’t breathe.”


Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory Cover

A Review of The Overstory by Richard Powers

James E. Lassiter

The Overstory

Richard Powers

2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Buy and read this book. Within you will find yourself as you presently are. That is, your understanding of Life and humankind’s place within it. From reading it you might also find and become a better person.

Who are you now? Here are two reviews of The Overstory that reveal some of you, standing above and separate from nature:

The Atlantic called the novel “darkly optimistic” for taking the long view that humanity was doomed while trees are not.

The Guardian was mixed on the novel, claiming that Powers mostly succeeded in conjuring “narrative momentum out of thin air, again and again.” (Wikipedia)

Others of you stand here, within, a part of nature:

Library Journal* called the book “a deep meditation on the irreparable psychic damage that manifests in our unmitigated separation from nature.”

Ron Charles of The Washington Post offered up effusive praise, writing that this “ambitious novel soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction.” (Wikipedia)

Other Reviews (Amazon.com)

“Should be mandatory reading the world over.” – Emilia Clarke

“The best book I’ve read in 10 years. It’s a remarkable piece of literature, and the moment it speaks to is climate change. So, for me, it’s a lodestone. It’s a mind-opening fiction, and it connects us all in a very positive way to the things that we have to do if we want to regain our planet.” – Emma Thompson

“An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.”

“This book is beyond special.… It’s a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us, at a moment when that is desperately needed.” – Bill McKibben

“The best novels change the way you see. Richard Powers’s The Overstory does this. Haunting.” – Geraldine Brooks

“A towering achievement by a major writer.” – Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland

“Powers is the rare American novelist writing in the grand realist tradition, daring to cast himself, in the critic Peter Brooks’s term, as a ‘historian of contemporary society.’ He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma. At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’s ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked.” – Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic

“Monumental… The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of the story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.… A gigantic fable of genuine truths.” – Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review

“A big, ambitious epic.… Powers juggles the personal dramas of his far-flung cast with vigor and clarity. The human elements of the book―the arcs his characters follow over the decades from crusading passion to muddled regret and a sense of failure―are thoroughly compelling. So are the extra-human elements, thanks to the extraordinary imaginative flights of Powers’s prose, which persuades you on the very first page that you’re hearing the voices of trees as they chide our species.” – Michael Upchurch, The Boston Globe

The Overstory is a novel published in 2018. It is about the lives of nine Americans whose unique experiences with trees bring them together to try and stop the destruction of forests.


Nicholas Hoel – an artist of Norwegian and Irish descent who comes from a long line of farmers and whose great-great-great grandfather planted a chestnut tree that survived blight for decades and enthralled the Hoel family for generations.

Mimi Ma – the eldest daughter of Winston Ma, born Ma Sih Hsuin, who fled China and became an engineer in America. Mimi falls in love with the Mulberry bush he plants in their backyard and is deeply affected when her father eventually commits suicide.

Adam Appich – an inquisitive boy who is fascinated with insects and later becomes interested in human psychology and how humans can only understand things that are put into narratives. His father planted a tree before the birth of Adam and each of his four siblings; as a child, Adam conflated the characteristics of each tree with his siblings.

Ray Brinkman – a conventional property lawyer and Dorothy’s husband who later in life falls in love with nature.

Dorothy Cazaly – an unconventional stenographer who falls in love with nature late in life.

Douglas Pavlicek – an orphan who enlists in the Stanford prison experiment before enlisting in the Air Force. After being discharged he wanders across America, realizing as he does so that deforestation is ruining the country. He signs up to plant seedlings, only learning after the planting of his fifty thousandth seedling that this effort does nothing to help the trees and only contributes to their destruction at the hands of logging companies.

Neelay Mehta – the child of Indian immigrants, Neelay spends his life building computers and creating computer programs in Northern California. Despite being paralyzed when he falls out of a tree as a child, he goes on to become a computer programming marvel, eventually creating a series of video games called Mastery inspired by trees, deforestation, and colonization.

Patricia Westerford – a dendrologist with a hearing disability, Patricia spends most of her childhood and adulthood enthralled with trees. When she accidentally discovers that trees are capable of communicating with each other, her research is widely mocked leading her to contemplate suicide. She eventually finds work as a park ranger where, years later, she discovers that her work has been redeemed and expanded upon.

Olivia Vandergriff – a young woman in her early 20s who lives an impulsive and reckless life until dedicating her life to protesting deforestation. (Wikipedia)


Nicholas Hoel, Mimi Ma, Adam Appich, Ray Brinkman, Dorothy Cazaly, Douglas Pavlicek, Neelay Mehta, Patricia Westerford, and Olivia Vandergriff are people who had unique relationships with trees which occasionally led to tragedy or salvation.

In 1989, when Olivia Vandergriff is one semester away from finishing college, she gets high and is accidentally electrocuted, briefly dying. Upon being revived, she comes to believe that higher powers are trying to give her a message. After seeing a news story about a group of activists trying to protect the remaining 3% of giant redwood trees, she decides that her purpose is to join them. On her way there, she meets Nicholas Hoel, now 35 years old, and at a loss of what to do with his life as the life insurance money he lived on is gone. He has sold the Hoel farm, the Hoel tree is dying, and his art is a commercial failure. After talking to Olivia, he decides to join her in her mission.

At the same time, in Portland, OR, Mimi Ma, the daughter of a Chinese engineer who dies by suicide, is rising up the corporate ladder when she sees that a small group of trees by her building are scheduled to be destroyed by the city. She contemplates attending a town hall meeting to protest their removal but before she can, the city cuts down the trees in the night. Douglas Pavlicek, a veteran who has spent 5 years of his life replanting trees for major companies only to become disillusioned when he discovers that his work actually enables additional logging of old-growth stands, walks by the trees and sees them being cut down. He tries to prevent their destruction and is arrested. When he returns to the trees he is confronted by Mimi Ma, who quickly realizes he is not a city employee but an environmentalist. The two band together to start joining in protests against environmental destruction.

Nick and Olivia join a group of nonviolent radicals and give themselves “tree” names, Nick becoming Watchman and Olivia being Maidenhair. When they are asked to tree sit in a giant redwood called Mimas for two weeks, Olivia leaps at the chance. Their stay ends up lasting for more than a year, during which they watch as the forest around them is clear-cut. They are eventually joined by Adam Appich, who is doing a thesis on environmentalists. The night he is there Nick and Olivia are finally forced out of the tree and arrested so Mimas can be cut down. Nick and Olivia decide to do more work in Oregon.

Mimi Ma and Douglas continue going to protests where they are brutalized by the police and arrested. Mimi is eventually fired from her job and, like Douglas, becomes a full-time activist.

Changed by his time with Olivia and Nick, Adam goes to Oregon to rejoin them, and meets Mimi Ma, now going by the name Mulberry, and Douglas, going by Doug-fir, who are part of the same activist camp. He stays with them a month and they believe that they are finally achieving something until their camp is destroyed by the forest authorities and law enforcement. In the altercation Mimi and Douglas are both badly injured. In retaliation the group sets fire to logging equipment. Pleased by the results, they set two more fires intending the third to be their final act. During the final arson Olivia is injured and dies, and the four remaining activists burn her body and scatter. The fire is deemed the work of a crazed killer and the logging continues.

Mimi Ma sells a priceless heirloom her father passed down, which ensures that she can reinvent herself. Nick becomes a vagrant, Douglas a BLM ranger, and Adam returns to academia.

Douglas is still haunted by what happened and writes down everything in his journal using everyone’s forest names. Nevertheless, his journal is discovered and the FBI arrests him. In order to protect Mimi Ma he decides to give up one name and goes to New York City where he locates Adam and reminisces with him about the fire. Fingered by Douglas, Adam is arrested and sentenced to 140 years in prison, which strikes him as a small price to pay as it is barely any time in tree life.

Mimi Ma, who is now living and working as an unconventional unlicensed therapist of sorts, hears about the arrests and realizes that Douglas turned in Adam to protect her.

Living in the forest, Nick creates a giant message from branches and dead logs that can be read from space. He is helped in this project by a Native American man who happens to be passing by, and later by some of the man’s family. The message, which reads “Still,” will be legible from space for 200 years before it is absorbed into the forest. (Wikipedia)



“When you spend all your hours with horses, your soul expands a bit until the ways of men reveal themselves to be no more than a costume party you’d be well advised not to take at face value. … The greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth. Single biggest influence on what a body will or won’t believe is what nearby bodies broadcast over the public band. Get three people in the room and they’ll decide that the law of gravity is evil and should be rescinded because one of their uncles got shit-faced and fell off the roof.” (Douglas)

106 ¶4ff

“We’re evolution’s third act.” … “Biology was phase one, unfolding over epochs. Then culture throttle up the rate of transformation to mere centuries. Now there’s another digital generation every twenty weeks, each subroutine speeding up the next.” 1. Biology, 2. Culture, 3. Digital. (Neelay)


“The [free internet commons] are becoming enclosed. The gift culture will be throttled in the cradle.” Me: by private companies – a capitalization of one-on-one freedom. (Neelay)


“Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red n tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green.” (Patricia)


“They [the trees] aren’t self-reliant. Everything out here is cutting deals with everything else.” (Patricia)

Me:     All persons featured in the book are in search of true meaning in and purpose for their lives. Not just any purpose or meaning but one that respects and promotes the sacredness, the specialness of Life.


“She marvels again at how the planet’s supreme intelligence could discover calculus and the universal laws of gravitation before anyone knew what a flower was for.” (Patricia)


“The smell of her red cedar pencil elates her. The slow push of graphite across paper reminds her of the steady evaporation that lifts hundreds of galls on water up hundreds of feet into a giant Douglas-fir trunk every day. The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ver get to the enlightenment of plants.” (Patricia)


“Hope and truth do nothing for humans, without use.”


“The psyche’s job is to keep us blissfully ignorant of who we are, what we think and how we’ll behave in any situation. We’re all operating in a dense fog of mutual reinforcement. Our thoughts are shaped primarily by legacy hardware that evolved to assume that everyone else must be right. But even when the fog is pointed out, we’re no better at navigating through it.” (Adam’s undergrad prof.)


“Legacy cognitive blindness will forever prevent people from acting in their own best interests.” (Adam)


“The judge asks, ‘Young, straight, faster-growing trees aren’t better than older, rotting trees?’”

“’Better for us. Not for the forest. In fact, young, managed, homogenous stands can’t really be called forests.’ The words are a dam-break as she speaks them. They leave her happy to be alive, alive to study life. She feels grateful for no reason at all, except in remembering all that she has been able to discover about other things. She can’t tell the judge, but she loves them, those intricate, reciprocal nations of tied-together life that she has listened to all life long. She loves her own species, too – sneaky and self-serving, trapped in blinkered bodies, blind to intelligence all around it – yet chosen by creation to know.” … “I sometimes wonder whether a tree’s real task on Earth isn’t to bulk itself up in preparation to lying dead on the forest floor for a long time.”

“The judge asks what living things might need a dead tree.

“’Name your family. Your order. Birds, mammals, other plants. Tens of thousands of invertebrates. Three-quarters of the region’s amphibians need them. Almost all the reptiles. Animals that keep down the pests that kill other trees. A dead tree is an infinite hotel.’”


“This cause they have given themselves to – this defense of the immobile and blameless, the fight for something better than endless suicide appetite – is all they have in common.” (Mimi thinking of Douglas)


“I want to start a seed bank. There are half as many trees as there were when we came down out of them.” … “One percent of the world forest, every decade. An area larger than Connecticut, every year.” … “A third to a half of existing species may go extinct by the time I’m gone.” … “Tens of thousands of trees we know nothing about. Species we’ve barely classified. Like burning down the library, art museum, pharmacy, and hall of records, all at once.” “I want to start an ark.” … “I don’t know [what I’ll do with the seeds]. But a seed can lie dormant for thousands of years.” (Patricia)


“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” (Adam)


“A little time must be bought from the approaching apocalypse. Nothing else matters more than that.” (author on Adam)


“What the hell am I doing? The clarity of recent weeks, the sudden waking from sleepwalk, his certainty that the world has been stolen and the atmosphere trashed from the shortest of short-term gains, the sense that he must do all he can to fight for the living world’s most wondrous creatures: all these abandon Adam, and he’s left in the insanity of denying the bedrock of human existence. Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.” (author on Adam’s thinking)


“Reason is what’s turning all the forests of the world into rectangles.” (author on Douglas’s thinking)


On “Failure” and “What the Fuck Went Wrong With Mankind” … “We’re cashing in on a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling. And what Douglas Pavlicek wants to know is why this so easy to see when you’re by yourself in a cabin on a hillside, and almost impossible to believe once you step out of the house and join several billion folks doubling down on the status quo.” (author in Douglas’s thinking)


“The reporters ask why her group, unlike every other NGO seed bank on the planet, isn’t focusing on plants that will be useful to people, com catastrophe. She wants to say: ‘Useful is the catastrophe.’ Instead, she says, ‘We’re baking trees whose use haven’t been discovered yet.” … “But their eyes glaze over when she tells them how all these threats [plant diseases in areas of forest decline] are made fatal by one single thing: the ongoing overhaul of the atmosphere by people burning once-green things.” (Patricia)


“Myth. Myth. A mispronunciation. A malaprop. Memories posted forward from people standing on the shores of the great human departure from everything else that lives. Sending off telegrams composed by skeptics of the planned escape, saying Remember this, thousands of years from now, when you can see nothing but yourself, everywhere you look.” (Patricia)


‘The first two great rolls of cosmic dice: the one that took inert matter over the crest of life, and the one that led from simple bacteria to compound cells a hundred times larger and more complex. Compared to those first two chasms, the gap between trees and people is nothing at all.” (life…eukaryotes)


“The world had six trillion trees, when people showed up. Half remain. Half again more will disappear, in a hundred years. … Reason is just another weapon of control. How the invention of the reasonable, the acceptable, the sane, even the human, is greener and more recent than humans suspect.” (author on Adam and Adam)


“Defiant hope.” (Adam’s scholarly interest)


“‘We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species. So we make sure nothing looks like us! Until a short while ago, we didn’t even let chimpanzees have consciousness, let alone dogs or dolphins. Only man, you see: only man could know enough to want things. But believe me: trees want something from us, just as we’ve always wanted things from them. This isn’t mystical. The ‘environment’ is alive – a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other. … Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.’

“‘Men and trees are closer cousins than you think. We’re two things hatched from the same seed, heading off in opposite directions, using each other in a shared place. That place needs all its parts. And our part…we have a role to play in the Earth organism.…’

“‘Trees are doing science. Running a billion field tests. They make their conjectures, and the living world tells them what works. Life is speculation, and speculation is life. What a marvelous world! It means to guess. It also means to mirror.’

“‘Trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics….’”

“‘If we knew what green wanted, we wouldn’t have to choose between Earth’s interests and ours. They’d be the same!’”

“First there was everything. Soon there will be nothing.”


“Wilderness is gone. Forest has succumbed to chemically sustained silviculture. Four billion years of evolution, and that’s where the matter will end. Politically, practically, emotionally, intellectually: Humans are all that count, the final word. You cannot shut down human hunger. You cannot even slow it. Just holding steady costs more than the race can afford.

“The coming massacre was their authority – a cataclysm lare enough to pardon every fire the five of them set. The cataclysm will still come, he’s sure of it, long before his seventy plus seventy years are up. But not soon enough to exonerate him.” (Adam thinking in his prison cell)


“This is how it must go. There will be catastrophes. Disastrous setbacks and slaughters. But life is going someplace. It wants to know itself; it wants the power of choice. It wants solutions to problems that nothing alive yet knows how to solve, and it’s willing to use even death to find them. (Neelay thinking about a new computer ‘game’)


“Stand your ground. The castle doctrine. Self-help. If you could save yourself, your wife, your child, or even a stranger by burning something down, the law allows you. If some breaks into your home and starts destroying it, you may stop them however you need to. … Our home [Earth] has been broken into. Our lives are being endangered. The law allows for all necessary force against unlawful and imminent harm. (Ray, one-time property lawyer now paraplegic, thinking) Life will cook; the seas will rise. The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees. (author on Ray’s thoughts)  Me: This is why the band plays on, lawfully, righteously.


“The word tree and truth come from the same root.” (Nick)


“This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.” (Nick’s thoughts)


* – Finnell, Joshua. “The Overstory [review].” Library Journal 143, no. 2 (February 2018): 96.


Forget “Tribe” – Become a Citizen of the World

World Citizen

Photo: Raising Miro: On the Road of Life


“What is a Tribe?”

Ligaya Mishan

April 13, 2020

The New York Times T Magazine

Some things, the writer of this essay gets right, IMHO. Others, she does not.

Writer at large, Ligaya Mishan, declares she is going to rescue “tribe” from “decades of anthropological study that privileged Western civilization.” Okay. I guess. But that would be a tall order in a short New York Times T Magazine essay. Yes, the British Colonial Office hired anthropologists in the early-mid 20th Century to further colonialism, and help expand the privileges of Westerners beyond Europe.

I am not sure what decades of anthropological study the writer wants to rescue “tribe” from. Because later she rightly refers to American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins who objected to the term in the mid-20th century; and who was quickly joined by virtually all other American anthropologists, especially within US cultural anthropology. Within British social anthropology, on the other hand, is where the term “tribe” took root in academia and far beyond in the early-20th century. However, even among the Brits its professional usage declined significantly, especially so by the middle of that century. Regrettably, the British, via BBC, still to this day like to report on “tribal clashes” in Africa.

More importantly, there is much more to the anthropological use of “tribe” that Mishan does not address. At the end of this post, for example, there is a link to the use of “tribe” with reference to African ethnic groups, a very good article readers will find informative.

All that said, there are more important fish I want to fry here than the history of anthropology shortcomings in Mishan’s essay. The real problems with her essay begin when she tries to “square this [early human within-band bonding] with the ethos of individualism.”

First, Mishan ignores the early Christian innovative emphasis on the individual’s choice of accepting or not accepting God and His redemption. Prior to this there was not much choosing individuals could do. This was an important occurrence in the history of Western individualism. Okay, the Christian notion was not a total liberation of the individual. However, it helped lay a foundation for European individuals to dare to begin thinking independently and scientifically about the Earth and the cosmos, and later about society, philosophically and politically.

Mishan claims individualism originated in 12th Century Europe, but “was not fully embraced until the 17th Century, at the start of the Age of Enlightenment.” I think hers is a too narrow understanding of individualism. If you want to limit yourself to individuals being more important than their groups, okay, I guess. However, the individual-group dynamic balance is as old as humankind itself. We covered this at Own & Ibis a few times.

It is not a matter of there being no individualism before it began during the 12th Century in Europe. This is not a good way to think about individualism. Nevertheless, Mishan goes on and compounds the problem of her narrow view by claiming “the primacy of the individual is still resisted by many cultures, particularly much of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.” In a sense she is right, it is. But emphasizing overwhelming individualism is and has been resisted for a long time, and for good reasons.

Over-emphasized, unfettered individualism is not a good permanent human strategy for individuals or groups. It wasn’t 200,000 years ago and has not been since. It still isn’t. Much of the dysfunction we see in many Western societies, and those that have followed Western ways, is attributable to a culmination of a long-growing imbalance promoting and favoring individual freedom over group responsibility, especially beginning in the early 20th Century in the US.

When did this begin? If you want to find the source of individualism, look at the transition from nomadic hunting-gathering band life to settled agricultural urban life in Mesopotamia beginning between 10-15,000BP. That is when and where individualism’s ascendance first reared its head. The autocratic governance that ensued was a driving down of the rise of this me-first-over-my-anonymous-fellow-urbanites thinking. This is when we first began to systematically forsake our brothers, sisters, in-laws, fellow-workers, and friends. Individuals became even more “special” during the Enlightenment, and pathologically so beginning in the early 20th Century. See my blog essay, “Enlightenment Lost: A Faustian Exchange of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for Self Glorification and Material Convenience,” November 2018.

Mishan is right to note Heidegger’s notion that to be human is to be in the world, not standing proudly apart and above it. She is also right to note that when the context of living grows beyond human’s ability to deal with it on a face-to-face basis, as was begun in early Mesopotamian settlements, “we become unmoored,” she says.

Also, to her credit the writer is right to ask “is ‘tribe’ the best way to describe the loose alliances of today.” Regrettably, she concludes it is not the best term but it is all we can come up with to describe “groups that transcend the old ties of kinship and language.” “The English language fails us,” she says. But she declares that “no other word in English that carries the same promise of a family beyond family.”

I think many people like using the term “tribe” because it has a certain cachet, a hipness, a primalness or authenticity, that other words such as group, clique, and others are not regarded to have. I can hear the Iron John tom-toms and chanting now. I think the use of tribe is a Western-hatched fad that will soon fade. Fade, but not before it is folded into our false notions of an instinctual human nature embedded in our genes and neurons – a false ideological embedment that has already begun. Look for articles and essays to soon appear purporting to have found our “tribe gene” or “tribe neural pathways/clusters/networks.”

I credit Mishan for mentioning Durkheim’s notions of a “collective effervescence” and that humans are prone to “coming together, thinking together, feeling together, and acting together.” Yes, that has been going on since the Pleistocene. I am not sure it had an “effervescent” quality, but early humans certainly knew who was a member of their band and who was not. That sort of group composition awareness has been around as long as social mammals have.

But there is something about the modern use of “tribe” I don’t like. If it’s, say, white nationalism and the similarities between such like-minded groups in Georgia and Oregon one wants to focus on, then refer to your white nationalist brothers and sisters, or comrades. If I want to march with Extinction Rebellion or with women on the National Mall in Washington, I do not need to be referred to as a member of the ER or Woman tribe.

As a cosmopolitan in Diogenes‘s sense, I personally prefer to be thought of and described, first and foremost, as a “citizen of the world,” a human being. If you must, an ethnographer, an American-Ugandan, a person of English descent. But not a “tribe” member. We can do better by not following the “tribe” fad. Following it is not really helping us understand what we humans are and why we do the things we do.

Returning to the essay, Mishan then brings in Marshall McLuhan who, she says, “attributed the decay of tribal culture to the overriding of oral tradition by a codified, written language, a process accelerated by the 15th-century invention of the printing press.” Uh, no, not exactly.

There are things I like about McLuhan’s notion the “medium is the message,” but this idea of his Mishan presents isn’t another of them. No, the “decay of tribal culture” was not begun or caused by written language. It was begun by the overwhelming press and complexity of living in larger, settled groups, in Mesopotamia. Codified or written language, including law, was invented to account for surplus food, and for social control where face-to-face accountability had begun to prove less and less effective. Writing did not do in tribal culture, its use by autocrats and their functionaries and agents did. They used it to shift individual allegiance from between persons, to between persons and the state and metropolis.

Finally regarding the essay, Mishan says tribes are “instinctual, constantly shape-shifting, drafters of their own fates” (empahsis mine). “Instinctual?”  No. See above and everywhere else I have written about “human nature.”

I also don’t agree about tribes being “drafters of their own fates.” Consider Pam Dewey’s docucommentaries on religion and the co-evolution and rise of US conservatism, and the Frontline documentary, The Persuaders. Modern “tribes” are found, created, and fine-tuned by marketers and advertisers, and used by manufacturers, service providers, and politicians to direct our economic and voter behavior.

What to do with “tribe?” Ignore it, don’t use it. Use “group.” Hopefully it’s a fad that will go away sooner rather than later.

Here is a list of essays and commentaries presenting my views on self, tribe, and band. From From the Unknown into Uncertainty: Essays and Commentary on the Origin, Evolution and Future of Humankind by James E. Lassiter:

Essay 6, A New Map for Africa

Essay 7, Christian Exceptionalism

Essay 18, The Origin and Evolution of Language

Essay 41, The Origin and Evolution of Religion

Essay 63, Suffering and Injustice

Essay 91, After the Collapse of Modernity

Essay 95, Going Local, Again

Essay 97, You Choose, Section 1, “Primal Accommodation” and Section 2, “Settled Agricultural Autocracy”


Commentary 2, On ‘How Do We Explain the Evolution of Religion?’

Commentary 38, Yes, There is a Human Nature

Commentary 59, Game of Thrones

Finally, here is another take on “tribe,” this from the Africa region context:

“The Trouble with Tribe”

Chris Lowe

Spring 2001

Teaching Tolerance


New Book by James E. Lassiter – From the Unknown into Uncertainty

FUIU Front Book Cover Bordered

From the Unknown into Uncertainty: Essays and Commentary on the Origin, Evolution and Future of Humankind


James E. Lassiter


To purchase this book click the image or title above, or here.

From the Unknown into Uncertainty is a compilation of my essays and commentaries from 2010 to the present. Most of the material is from my blogs, Facebook (before I jumped ship), and published articles. I revised or rewrote all of the original writings. Much of the material in the essays and commentaries is new. Some essays contain extracts from written communications I have had with a few of you – presented in the book anonymously, of course. Revisions include eliminating run-on sentences and unnecessary jargon, adverbs, and adjectives, curses of my speaking and writing style.

This book is not the breezy, catchy read I somewhere in my mind wish it was. There are breezy, sometimes funny passages in it. But it is really a thinker’s book, of sorts. Something to study, criticize, and learn from. It provokes thought and persuades a reconsideration of a person’s ideas and values.

From the Introduction and Preface:

The origin, evolution, and future of our species is part of the process of change over time in the universe, one of billions of stories of matter and energy in motion – ever changing, ever responding, often unpredictable; sometimes successfully adaptive, sometimes not. Most important for humankind in this evolution of the universe’s matter and energy has been emergence and agency.

Evolutionary change defines and circumscribes certain contexts and options for all matter and life. The evolved contexts and options currently facing human beings arose from the origin and transformation of the universe, and the evolutionary history of Earth.

Ours is a story of where our ancestors came from, how they came into being, what has happened to them, and what their responses have been to the various contexts they were in and the occurrences they experienced. It is a story of the emergence of novel entities and processes including tool reliance and refinement, and human individual agency. Without these expressions of emergence and agency there would have been no humankind as we now know ourselves.

The human story is also a description of the implications of these contexts, options, and responses for our present and future survival or extinction. Without change, emergence, and agency there would be no possibility of humankind ever gaining control over the morality, direction, and fate of human civilization.

Our story is one of a deep and long connection with the universe, including Earth. Our understandings, interpretations, explanations, and depictions of that story have come and continue to come in many versions – mythic and secular, absolute and provisional, closed and open. Some versions of the story of humankind, more than others, are more consistent with and truthful to the contexts, options, and responses we arose from and those we now face; and more useful for surviving and flourishing in the contexts and options we will face in the future.

Through a series of essays and commentaries, this book presents a case for one version of humankind’s past, present and future – a truth that continues to evolve and increase in its explanatory power. A provisional truth that provides the foundation for what I and many others believe to have the greatest probability of finding a sustainable path toward a viable, prosperous and survivable future for ourselves and Earth. That truth is provided by science, humanism, and secularism.

~ ~ ~

As an independent scholar, rather than parroting the experts within and outside academia, though I read many of them deeply and respectfully, and rely on them, I don’t hesitate to occasionally disagree with them. I have tried my best to think as independently, critically, and objectively to the degree my learned biases and inherent subjectivity have allowed. The result of this approach is what’s in this book.


Human Nature – Red in Tooth and Claw?

Ostrich Eggshell Beads

Eggshell Beads Made by Hunter-Gatherers 33,000 Years Ago Used as a Social Network

Ashley Strickland


March 10, 2020

Above is a link to a good report on recent archaeological evidence about human prehistory. Below are excerpts of key conclusions from that report. These findings are the results of only one of many excavations over many years and at many places around the world.

“Modern hunter-gatherer societies, like those in southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, use ostrich eggshell beads to begin and maintain a relationship with other groups. The process is called hxaro, ‘kindling and cementing bonds within and between communities,’ according to a new study. The word hxaro has become synonymous with ‘beadwork’ and ‘gifts.’“So it stands to reason that the network exchanging them has a time-honored foundation.”

“‘Humans are just outlandishly social animals, and that goes back to [sharing this] information that would have been useful for living in a hunter-gatherer society 30,000 years ago and earlier,’ said Stewart. ‘Was Ostrich eggshell beads and the jewelry made from them basically acted like Stone Age versions of Facebook or Twitter ‘likes,’ simultaneously affirming connections to exchange partners while alerting others to the status of those relationships.’”

“Stewart also believes the beads were exchanged during a time of climate shifts, between 25,000 and 59,000 years ago. This way, they could turn to each other when the weather worsened, sharing and pooling resources. Not only were the beads shared and exchanged over large distances, but also long periods of time. It hints at why modern humans survived.”

“‘These exchange networks could be used for information on resources, the condition of landscapes, of animals, plant foods, other people and perhaps marriage partners.’”

Archaeological artifact extrapolation and inference, and ethnographic present analogy are not direct evidence of prehistoric behavior. However, they do provide insight into how human groups related to each other before the beginning of sedentary agriculture and urbanism.

We in the West like to think of human nature as “red in tooth and claw,”* as the 19th Century Social Darwinistic saying goes. That is, this thinking goes, we were brutes until we settled down and became civilized. Before that, many of us like to think, we were dirty, tribalistic, cutthroat competitors.

Something I natter on often is my firm belief that our true human nature is cultural not biological – one of learned beliefs and behaviors supporting cooperation, and conflict avoidance and amelioration. This is who we are at bottom and were for the vast majority of the 200,000 years of human existence. We changed relatively recently, beginning between 10-15,000 years ago.

We turned away from a face-to-face cooperative way of relating to each other when we started growing food, amassing surpluses, living in increasingly dense settlements, and succumbing to authoritarian rulers and high gods.

No, I’m neither suffering from noble savage delusion nor claiming that hunter-gatherer life was peace, love and brother-sisterhood all the time.

Our prehistoric preference for cooperation over conflict was sometimes challenged by selfish, violent deviations from the norm, within and between groups. But these deviations were the exception, not the rule. Had they been the norm, our true nature, we would have become extinct long before now.

The origin of notions of our red in tooth and claw nature is not to be found in human prehistory or in our neurons and genes. It’s to be found in our history in the emergent exalted beliefs, values and visions of our greatness, and how much greater we could become through violence.

Look for it in the history of our becoming civilized in the Middle East and after that modern in Europe. Red in tooth in claw has since spread to the rest of the world. The present global surge of uber-nationalism, populism, and autocracy is its current expression. Its origin is not in our prehistory, bodies or the faux prehistoric ‘moral foundations’ of our imaginings.

My latest book coming out in a couple of weeks covers  what went wrong, what it has led to, and what we are going to be forced to do after Social Darwinistic capitalism fails, from a number of angles.

Sooner or later it will be time to go local and cooperative, again. This will be difficult and ugly. Salvaging or turning our modernity Titanic, laden with both the good and insane ideological baggage and energy of our greatness, for the survival of great numbers of humankind, may or may not be possible.

We variously dig or lean in to do what we can, and wait.


* “Red in tooth and claw” comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850. The quotation comes in Canto 56 (it is a very long poem) and refers to man:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

‘Tooth and claw’ was already in use as a phrase denoting wild nature by Tennyson’s day; for example, this piece from The Hagerstown Mail, March 1837:

“Hereupon, the beasts, enraged at the humbug, fell upon him tooth and claw.”

A.H.H. was Tennyson’s friend Arthur Henry Hallam and the poet used the elegy to pose questions about the apparent conflict between love as the basis of the Christian religion and the callousness of nature. If nature is purposeless and heartless, how can we believe in creation’s final law? But, as a Christian, how could he not?

The wide-ranging poem didn’t attempt to provide an answer, but did become part of the debate over the major scientific and theological concern of Victorian thinkers – Charles Darwin’s theories on natural selection, as expressed in The Origin of Species, 1859. On into the 20th century, the enthusiastic Darwinist Richard Dawkins used ‘red in tooth and claw’ in The Selfish Gene, to summarize the behaviour of all living things which arise out of the survival of the fittest doctrine. – Phrase Finder, www.phrases.org.uk


Amazon Elder’s Plea for Survival

Climate Denial Crock of the Week

Raoni Metuktire, Chief of the indigenous Brazilian Kayapó people, in the Guardian:

For many years we, the indigenous leaders and peoples of the Amazon, have been warning you, our brothers who have brought so much damage to our forests. What you are doing will change the whole world and will destroy our home – and it will destroy your home too.

We have set aside our divided history to come together. Only a generation ago, many of our tribes were fighting each other, but now we are together, fighting together against our common enemy. And that common enemy is you, the non-indigenous peoples who have invaded our lands and are now burning even those small parts of the forests where we live that you have left for us. President Bolsonaro of Brazil is encouraging the farm owners near our lands to clear the forest – and he is…

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An American-African at the Crossroad of Despair and Hope

Crossroad Forest.jpg


Here’s an essay that also urges having hope and taking action in the face of imminent catastrophe:

On the Cusp of the Coming ‘Perfect Storm’


Dennis Oliver

June 27, 2019


I live through the filters of three worldviews – that of a US white male, atheist, liberal progressive; that of an adopted Ugandan for the past 36 years; and that of an anthropologist.

I have lived and worked in rural and urban Africa off and on, for extended periods, from 1980 to the present. I have led major grassroots international development assistance programs in Swaziland, Tanzania, and Ghana. I have led refugee resettlement programs in Kenya, and from there visited and worked for extended periods in cities and deep rural areas of over twenty African countries. I have seen hope and despair firsthand in the eyes of Africa’s rural impoverished; seen hope realized and lost in African cities and suburbs; listened to African refugee stories of torturous persecution; and led young Americans in their succeeding and failing efforts to restore hope in the education and rural development sectors of Africa. A summary of my work is here.

In retirement since 2007, I read voraciously, have written an ethnography on the Bamasaaba of Uganda, and write frequently on my blogs. Of all my fellow retired, freethinking professional friends here in north central Georgia, USA I have for a long time been known as the one with the most optimism and hope for Humankind’s survival and flourishing.

Not any more. My hope has gone into a marked decline since the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in November 2016. And my descent has become more acute and my feelings hardened toward most of my fellow humans.

In fact, I’m at a point where I live in a state somewhere between despondency and despair each day that Trump and his regime take action to dismantle our institutions, undermine our laws, restrict our rights, and sow and grow racial, religious and class division in the US population. Plainly speaking, my level of hope is somewhere between an incapacity for the exercise of hope (despondency) and the utter abandonment of hope (despair).

I’m prodded all the time by my beloved freethinker friends, here and elsewhere, to retain hope. They repeatedly try to convince me that the capitalist-ecological course we are on can be corrected and reformed through social mobilization and technology.

But I’ve seen a fair bit of the course of Western civilization’s modernity and its spread to Africa and elsewhere beyond the West. Unquestionably, there has been great improvement in material living and the reduction of hunger, locally and globally. But the cost has been high in terms of the Earth’s life-sustainability and our local and international relations. I’ve written about these up and down sides here:

Knowledge is Power?


Suffering and Injustice Revisited


Economics – The Queen of the Social Sciences is Dead! Long Live the Queen!?


Enlightenment Lost


The Dark Mountain Project


How much more must I read, observe, think, feel, and work to spread hope yet not conclude that hope in the Western, and rapidly becoming global, capitalist-earth-exploitative system’s destruction is so far downstream that catastrophes and collapse are inevitable?

What exactly does it mean to have hope in what is an objective and near certain to be hopeless situation?

I asked a very dear and close friend living in Cape Town, South Africa this question in the following essay, “There’s a Problem.” He replied in so many words that there is always wiggle room right up to the end. He made me think of how baseball player sage Yogi Berra put it regarding a nine-inning game, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

This is true. And the Stoic dichotomy of control and Viktor Frankl’s thoughts on hope and meaning have helped.

My friend in South Africa suggested a 2011 university commencement address given by physicist and ecologist Amory Lovins at the University of California at Berkeley. And that has also helped.

So, at the crossroad of despair and hope I have taken the road to hope despite the arguments and evidence supporting its futility. I’ve done so because for some intuitive reason it seems better to approach the abyss of human destruction having done one’s best to avert it than to have made no effort at all.

Why? Because of the slight chance that things might just work out and Humankind will survive and flourish despite itself. Stranger, more unlikely things have happened in the evolution of the universe and during the course of life on Earth. Why should we exclude Humankind from its chance to eke by and not lend a hand in helping to create favorable conditions for such, one personal thought and act at a time?

So, today is a new day and way forward for me. What follows is my initial note to my friend followed by Lovins’s commencement address.

I hope you find something useful and hope-inspiring in both.

~ ~ ~

There’s a Problem

July 17, 2019

Ecological collapse is all but certain. Westerners think impoverished areas such as rural areas and urban slums in Africa are likely to survive the coming catastrophes for their occupants are hardened.


But if my long and deep experience of village life in rural eastern Uganda and elsewhere on the continent is a microcosm, and what I hear about the similar direction of rural life elsewhere on the continent is true, Humankind’s local-based reset, rural and urban, is not going to be idyllic to put it mildly.

It won’t simply be a going back to precolonial African village communalism and a subsistence economy. For there is a troublesome, ill-fated mixture of the traditional and modern in the minds of most Africans. A toxic brew of modernism, individualism, materialism, and Abrahamic theism.

There is no going back to traditional African ways for they are all amalgamated with and dis-eased by modernity. Many of the best educated, rural and urban, believe in, fear, and engage in witchcraft. Born-again Christians, many having university degrees, idly, smilingly sleep-walk through each day certain Jesus will provide them their all including their personal financial prosperity. They too fear and some participate in witchcraft.

Mainstream believers faithfully attend church and mosque, and pray. Traditionalists in society, peasants and profs, believers and atheists, bemoan the decline of traditional culture in the maw of modernity.

Population density, abetted by successive land subdivision inheritance into ever smaller and smaller plots, poverty, greed, alcoholism, and material and financial envy make extended family unity and all forms of local cooperation almost impossible.

Mob justice in Africa, as horrid as it is to observe as I’ve done on several occasions, is becoming less of a deterrent to many would be robbers and other increasingly violent criminals.

There’s no fix. There’s no purging of the modernity dis-ease, no redirecting this Titanic. There can be no soft landing.

We old ones, Africans and adopted Africans like me, can only wait, and enjoy what’s at hand and our loved ones close to our hearts, then die.

I have no advice for the younger ones who will be forced to live through it. Those that survive the collapse and reset will certainly have a very different notion of what it means to be human than the one we live by today.

Love, hope, social cooperation will survive, but they will be more hardened and guarded than ever before. I can only offer future generations an apology for not doing more to leave the world better, and my best wishes for their survival and flourishing. – JL

~ ~ ~

Amory Lovins Speaks at 2011 Commencement

University of California, Berkeley

May 18, 2011

‘I’m not an optimist, and I’m not a pessimist. Both are different forms of fatalism, in which you treat the future as fate not choice and you don’t take responsibility for creating the future you want. So I prefer to live in the spirit of applied hope.’

– Amory Lovins

Applied Hope

The early bioneer Bill McLarney was stirring a vat of algae in his Costa Rica research center when a brassy North American lady strode in. What, she demanded, was he doing stirring a vat of green goo when what the world really needs is love? “There’s theoretical love,” Bill replied, “and then there’s applied love”–and kept on stirring.

Many of us here stir and strive in the spirit of applied hope. We work to make the world better, not from some airy theoretical hope, but in the pragmatic and grounded conviction that starting with hope and acting out of hope can cultivate a different kind of world worth being hopeful about, reinforcing itself in a virtuous spiral. Applied hope is not about some vague, far-off future but is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices.

Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.

Fear of specific and avoidable dangers has evolutionary value. Nobody has ancestors who weren’t mindful of saber-toothed tigers. But pervasive dread, lately promoted by some who want to keep us pickled in fear, is numbing and demotivating. When I give a talk, sometimes a questioner details the many bad things happening in the world, all the suffering in the universe, and asks how dare I propose solutions: isn’t resistance futile? The only response I’ve found is to ask, as gently as I can, “I can see why you feel that way. Does it make you more effective?”

In a recent college class, one young woman bemoaned so many global problems that she said she’d lost all hope and couldn’t imagine bringing a child into such a world. But discussion quickly revealed to us both that she hadn’t lost hope at all; she knew exactly where she’d left it.

The most solid foundation for feeling better about the future is to improve it–tangibly, durably, reproducibly, and scalably. So now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism. Or as my mentor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It’s time to shift our language and action, as my wife Judy says, from “Somebody should” to “I will,” to do real work on real projects, and to go to scale. As that early activist St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

In a world short of both hope and time, we need to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” Hope becomes possible, practical–even profitable–when advanced resource efficiency turns scarcity into plenitude.

David Whyte’s poem “Loaves and Fishes” captures that goal thus:

This is not the age of information.

This is not the age of information.

Forget the news, and the radio, and the blurred screen.

This is the time of loaves and fishes.

People are hungry, and one good word is bread for a thousand. So with the world so finely balanced between fear and hope, with the outcome in suspense and a whiff of imminent shift in the air, let us choose to add the small stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of applied hope. As Zen master Gatta put it, “Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”

This mission is challenging. It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood, and soul as light as a butterfly. According to the Internet, one Michael C. Muhammad said: “Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it isn’t the end yet. Don’t let it bother you–relax and keep on going.”

So in this tranquil but unwavering spirit of applied hope, let me tell you a story.

In the early 1950s, the Dayak people in Borneo had malaria. The World Health Organization had a solution: spray DDT. They did; mosquitoes died; malaria declined; so far, so good. But there were side-effects. House roofs started falling down on people’s heads, because the DDT also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government gave people sheet-metal roofs, but the noise of the tropical rain on the tin roofs kept people awake. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT built up in the food chain and killed the cats. Without the cats, the rats flourished and multiplied. Soon the World Health Organization was threatened with potential outbreaks of typhus and plague, which it would itself have created, and had to call in RAF Singapore to conduct Operation Cat Drop–parachuting a great many live cats into Borneo.

This story–our guiding parable at Rocky Mountain Institute–shows that if you don’t understand how things are connected, often the cause of problems is solutions. Most of today’s problems are like that. But we can harness hidden connections so the cause of solutions is solutions: we solve, or better still avoid, not just one problem but many, without making new ones, before someone has to go parachuting more cats. So join me in envisioning where these linked, multiplying solutions can lead if you apply and extend what you’ve learned and take responsibility for creating the world you want. Details of this business-led future will be described this autumn in a book my team and I are now finishing, called Reinventing Fire.

Imagine a world, a few short generations hence, where spacious, peppy, ultrasafe, 125- to 260-mpg cars whisper through revitalized cities and towns, convivial suburbs, and fertile, prosperous countryside, burning no oil and emitting pure drinking water–or nothing; where sprawl is no longer mandated or subsidized, so stronger families eat better food on front porches and kids free of obesity, diabetes, and asthma play in thriving neighborhoods; where new buildings and plugged-in parked cars produce enough surplus energy to power the now-efficient old buildings; and where buildings make people healthier, happier, and more productive, creating delight when entered, serenity when occupied, and regret when departed.

Imagine a world where oil and coal and nuclear energy have all been phased out, all vanquished by the competitors whose lower costs and risks have already enabled them to capture most of the world’s market for new electrical services–energy efficiency, distributed renewables, combined-heat-and-power–and optionally by small amounts of advanced biofuels that use no cropland and move carbon from air to tilth; where resilient, right-sized energy systems make major failures impossible, not inevitable; where the collapse of oil’s demand and price has defunded enemies, undermined dictatorship and corruption, and doused the Mideast tinderbox; where our advanced economy is no longer fueled at all by the rotted remains of primeval swamp goo and dinosaur droppings; where energy policy is no longer a gloomy multiple-choice test–do you prefer to die from (a) climate change, (b) oil wars, or (c) nuclear holocaust? We choose (d) none of the above.

Imagine, therefore, a world where carbon emissions have long been steadily declining–at a handsome profit, because saving fuel costs less than buying fuel; where global climate has stabilized and repair has begun; and where this planetary near-death experience has finally made antisocial and unacceptable the arrogance that let cleverness imperil the whole human prospect by outrunning wisdom.

Imagine a world where the successful industries, rather than wasting 99.98% of their materials, follow Ray C. Anderson’s lead: they take nothing, waste nothing, and do no harm; where the cost of waste is driving unnatural capitalism extinct; where service providers and their customers prosper by doing more and better with less for longer, so products become ever more efficient to make and to use; where integrative engineering and biomimicry create abundance by design; and where elegant frugality turns scarcities and conflicts about energy, water, land, and minerals into enough, for all, for ever.

Imagine a world where the war against the Earth is over; where we’ve stopped treating soil like dirt; where forests are expanding, farms emulate natural ecosystems, rivers run clean, oceans are starting to recover, fish and wildlife are returning, and a stabilizing, radically resource-efficient human population needs ever less of the world’s land and metabolism, leaving more for all the relatives who give us life.

Imagine a world where we don’t just know more–we also know better; where overspecialization and reductionism have gone from thrillingly fashionable to unaffordably foolish; where Darwin finally beat Descartes; where vision across boundaries triumphs, simply because it works better and costs less.

Imagine a world secure, free from fear of privation or attack: where conflict prevention is as normal as fire prevention; where conflicts not avoided are peacefully resolved through strengthened international laws, norms, and institutions; where threatened aggression is reliably deterred or defeated by nonprovocative defense that makes others feel and be more secure, not less; where all people can be nourished, healthy, and educated; and where all know Dr. King’s truth that “Peace is not the absence of war; it is the presence of justice.”

Imagine a world where reason, diversity, tolerance, and democracy are once more ascendant; where economic and religious fundamentalism are obsolete; where tyranny is odious, rare, failing, and dwindling; and where global consciousness has transcended fear to live and strive in hope.

This is the astonishing world we are all gradually creating together. It’s being built before our eyes by many of you and a myriad other world-weavers. Brains, as Gifford and Libba Pinchot note, are evenly distributed, one per person. Thus most of the world’s brains are in the South, half are in the heads of women, and most are in the heads of poor people. As an emerging global nervous system and millions of new civil-society organizations start to knit together that collective intelligence–the most powerful thing we know in the Universe–innovation and collaboration are starting to overcome stagnation and squabbles. The search for intelligent life on Earth continues, but as we all strive to become much higher primates, some promising specimens are turning up just in time: each of you here today.

In their many ways, they’re mobilizing society’s most potent forces–businesses in mindful markets and citizens in vibrant civil society–to do what is necessary at this pivotal moment, the most important moment since we walked out of Africa: the moment when humanity has exactly enough time, starting now.

Each of you can choose to be one of those unusual people who–with humor and courage, chutzpah and humility, eager enthusiasm and relentless patience who are composing their lives and combining their efforts to make it so.

Here we are. And now imagine the power of all of us together to make it so.

– Amory Lovins


Straight Shootin’ Info: The History of US Gun Rights/Gun Control by Pam Dewey

Gun and Constitution

Straight Shootin’ Info: The History of US Gun Rights/Gun Control


Pam Dewey

This three-part series by author, blogger and master videographer Pam Dewey explores the historical tension between gun rights and gun control in the United States. I highly recommend it. JEL

Part 1 – Setting the Stage: Pre-History of the 2nd Amendment & Early History of the NRA


Part 2 – “Collision Course: 2nd Amendment, the First 2 Centuries & The NRA, the Second Century”


Part 3: “A Nation Divided: Examining the Modern Battle Lines & Looking for Common Ground”