Trees and Humans
5 May 2009
Events Towards New Patterns.
Humans have evolved to sense complex patterns present in the universe, and then respond to these patterns with highly creative processes. These in turn become part of the larger system of patterns present on the Earth. Of course this trait is not restricted to humanity. Other organisms also have this capacity. Plants, for example, have responded to the consistent pattern of the sun hitting the earth, and have created the process of photosynthesis to store energy from the sun in the form of sugars. Amimals have developed the process of digestion based on the consistent pattern of trees creating sugars. As we know, this is the foundation of our ecosystem that has allowed for human existence.
Humans are, arguably the most sophisticated and impact-full response to these patterns that exist on earth. Not only can we create a process based on a consistent universal pattern, but we have also developed the ability to reflect on this pattern, and make ‘sense’ of our common experience. We develop mind frames, made up of our own values and belief systems. These are derived from our personalized experience of the patterns present in our reality. These mind frames not only affect how we perceive the world, but also how we behave with the world. Our behavior inevitably contributes to the patterns that exist in the larger ecological spectrum apparent on earth. For the majority of human evolution thus far, we have been able to remain relatively ignorant of how our behavior affects the broader global patterns that keep our planet in a homeostatic equilibrium suitable for humans and other life forms to survive. As our impact increases, however, through ever advancing technology, we are being forced to become increasingly aware of how our behavior influences our environment.
One theory is that this destructive pattern is rooted in the ability of humans to think purposefully; recognizing that certain behaviors will ensure you get certain things (Batson 2000). “I don’t know why a forest exists, or what role it plays in how the world functions, but I know that if I cut it down and turn it into square pieces of lumber people will buy it and I can have a good life.” Our advanced ability to think with purpose is not in itself destructive, but when spiced with the age-old intent: ‘get as much as you can, because that is the most effective survival strategy’, a major problem arises. Today’s dominant western culture operates largely on this unexamined intent, which was largely viewed as effective until people started to recognize its impact on the earth’s natural systems, and the importance of maintaining these systems in order to ensure our survival. The human thought process that governs our actions is primarily focused on local and immediate gains, and not on how our actions impinge on the broader system. Our growing awareness of how we influence the broader system can be described as Wisdom.
This paper will look at two examples of organizations that are attempting to communicate the importance of shifting people’s behavior to curb the affects of this destructive thought process, and reconnect them to the natural world. It will also outline how a group of students from The Evergreen State Collage, currently enrolled in the Program: Trees and Humans, are participating in these initiatives.
The first is a grass roots movement, called The Procession of the Species, in Olympia, conceived by Eli Sterling, director of the non-profit: Earthbound Productions. The second is an internationally oriented initiative called: The Awakening the Dreamer Symposium, created by the Pachamama Alliance, another NGO based in California. Both of these initiatives are attempting to communicate intents and behavioral patterns that will lead humans to impact their environment in a more constructive and balanced manner.
The Procession of the Species (POS) web site states that it began in 1995 “to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day and to support Congressional renewal of the Endangered Species Act.” ( How did the possession begin? 2009) The underpinnings of POS, however, are far more complex. Eli Sterling has a much more involved explanation for its purpose. He proposes that capitalistic American society is rooted in a consumption pattern that he calls Discern, Consume, and Discard. America has an abundance of material choices, this gives people the ability to choose what they want (Discern), then use it (Consume), before they throw it out (Discard). This pattern does not encourage responsibility for one’s environment. The act of discarding something indicates a release of responsibility for that object, and when you are not directly involved in the creation of what you are consuming, it is easy to feel okay about throwing it out. The new model, which Eli is trying to communicate through the procession, is a pattern of: Imagination, Creation, and Sharing. The underlying premise of this pattern is that humans are far more willing to protect that which they create, and that sharing is the highest form of protection.
POS provides an opportunity to join a group of people who are celebrating the diversity of our planet, and promoting environmental awareness through creating artistic representations of other animals that inhabit our planet. The idea is to involve people in a creative process that develops the pattern of create, share, distribute. Humans are naturally inclined to follow this pattern.
Throughout our evolution we have created things to share with others. Capitalism itself relies on this impulse, rewarding people for innovation and creativity. However this is often done at the expense of others. The people who have been very successful at imagining, creating, and sharing; are often only willing to ‘share’ in the form of a sale or a trade: giving only with the direct agreement of return. The assumption: ‘get as much as you can, because that is the most effective survival strategy,’ does not operate under the premise that sharing is the highest form of protection, but rather that gaining as much control as possible, and sabotaging anybody who may get in the way of that is the best form of protection. This is destructive, because if someone believes that their safety, and chosen mode of survival revolves around the above premise, they will work to encourage people to be dependent on what they create so that they may maintain control.
To maintain control over others, it is important to discourage people from taking responsibility, and from being invested in the outcome of their relationships. In the American justice system, for example, if you have a dispute with another party or individual, you hand your responsibility for the outcome to the court that looks at the arguments of both sides and determines a solution for the parties in dispute. If you feel you are in a place of responsibility for creating a particular outcome, you are invested in what that outcome will be. It is your creation, and reflects who you are, so you will put your energy into having control over what outcome is created.
In POS, people who participate are responsible for the costumes they create; they also see themselves as an important contribution to a larger creation, which requires that lots of people be invested in creating a costume they feel responsible for. The Nurse Log Tricycle project, created by myself and three other Evergreen students (Tim Huntington, Adam Hale, and Harrison O’Connor), was one example of an art piece that participated in the POS. It was by all means an activity that required responsible and creative participation. What we created was only limited by our ability to acquire the resources we needed to create our vision, and the three rules of the procession: no written words, no live animals, and no motorized vehicles. The environment of the procession fosters ownership because you create the entertainment, rather than just consuming it. The quality of the event relied, in part, on our participation, and our success in manifesting our vision to educate the community about nurse logs. The better our float, the better we felt about sharing it; the more we shared it, the better we felt. Additionally, the more people that created cool art, the better the entertainment was for us, and the more enthusiastic we became about participating in the procession. Other people’s success contributed to our success, and the overall success of the event. In scientific terms you could refer to it as a symbiotic relationship. It could also be called a collaborative relationship.
Whether the procession is ultimately an effective way to shift our paradigm away from the assumption: ‘get as much as you can, because that is the most effective survival strategy,’ or whether it is effectively moving people toward living in the model of ‘imagine, create, share’, is hard to say. Many community groups choose not to participate in the procession because it will not accommodate purposive intentions that are more specific than simply expressing the creative spirit of the earth, and making paper-maché animals, or nurse logs. Numerous environmental groups, for example, would like to promote their organizations through the procession but they are not allowed to display written words. Whether this makes the procession more or less effective in its purpose is open to debate. The other contention worth noting is whether the amount of positive impact created by encouraging people to imagine, create, and share outweighs the amount of consumption created both by the materials put into the procession, and by the increase in consumption generated by people who come to attend the event. In other words: are the pluses worth the minuses? Measuring the consumption generated during the event is plausible, however measuring the broader effect to this even has towards culture, and behavior in POS participants would be much more difficult. One possible messurment strategy would be to measure the values held by POS participants (through surveys) over the course of a few years, and see if they change. One could also attempt to critique Olympian culture, and then compare it with similar cities that do not participate in the procession. The key question would be: Are the values, and perspectives of Olympians changing at a different rate in comparison to other US cities?
Awakening the Dreamer (ATD) has a similar intent as POS. The organization emerged after a group of North Americans visited an indigenous group known as the Anchuar, who live in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The elders of the tribe told their northern visitors that they needed to ““change the dream of the North, since it is our dream—our desires and appetites—that is driving the destruction of the rain forests around the world.” (Pachamama Alliance) From there the Pachamama Alliance was founded in the mid 90’s with the intent of changing the vision of the modern world and re-assessing the values that are leading us to such destructive ends. Awakening the Dreamer, as stated at the beginning of this paper, is one of the initiatives being carried out by the Pachamama Allience. Its main purpose is to give people a new viewpoint on how to look at the broader picture of our current state of affairs with a sense of grounded optimism. The symposium looks into three central questions: Where are we? How did we get here? What’s possible for the future? And were do we go from here? The symposium also recognizes that to make effective change we need to begin to examine our cultures largely unexamined assumptions. One basic unexamined assumption the symposium looks into is: ‘more is better.’ This is in many ways a simplified version of ‘get as much as you can, because that is the most effective survival strategy’ assumption that this paper is proposing to be a major root of our social and environmental problems.
Unlike the POS strategy, which is to focus on a particular community for a prolonged period of time, the ATD symposium is attempting to reach as many people as possible, in as many communities as possible, as quickly as possible. Although the largest concentration of symposiums is in North America, people in India, Australia, and Europe also have access to symposiums.
Their expansion strategy is to host regular facilitator trainings, that teach ordinary people how to hold a symposium, as well as providing them with professional multimedia tools, a support network (via the internet) and an array of current scientific knowledge regarding the state of our world. After this short training, these individuals are then empowered to go forward and hold symposiums on their clock, giving them the freedom to tailor the event to meet the needs of their audiences. ATD focuses more on spreading awareness and generating dialogue around how we behave. POS, on the other hand, creates an annual event that attempts to shift the behavior of people through activity as opposed to information, so that they are opened up to new ways of acting in society.
Both of these movements could be said to fall under the umbrella of a larger meta-movement that is working towards social and ecological justice. Paul Hawken is well known for defining this movement in his book, Blessed Unrest, and estimates that there are between one to two million humanitarian organizations that are focused on ecological sustainability and social justice (Hawken 2007). It is not a movement that is defined by a specific ideology, nor does it have a leader. It is comprised of people who recognize that the way humanity is behaving is threatening our survival, and that we need to change. The size and diversity of this movement is so immense that it is often underestimated. Media does not cover it, and most of its members are largely unaware of the fact that they are part of any kind of large movement; nevertheless, the largest proportion of people ever recorded in history are simultaneously working towards the common goal of ecological and social justice, attempting to change how humans interact with the world, by changing how they see the world. Parading down the streets of Olympia with a group of people, enmeshed in animal suits, sprouting from logs, and hiding under piles of cedar branches, the message becomes clear. Humans are a part of the earth, a member of the animal kingdom –albeit a strange one. Sitting in an ATD Symposium witnessing both the catastrophes and the miracles of our time, the message is also clear: our behavior needs to change. We need to reclaim our place on earth not as a degenerative force, but as a regenerative force.
Batson, Gregory (2000). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
Hawken, Paul (2007). Blessed Unrest. Penguin Group: New York, New York.
How did the Procession Begin. Retrieved May 8, 2009, from Procession of the Species Celebration Web site: http://www.procession.org/HowBegun.php
Pachamama Alliance, (2009). Our Story. Retrieved May 6, 2009, from The Awakening the Dreamer Initiative Web site: http://awakeningthedreamer.org/content/view/85/134/
Personal Communication, Eli Sterling. 2009.