Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World

Book Review: The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World – by David Abram (Vantage Books 1997)

This is a very important book which contemplates key differences between oral pre-literate cultures and literate cultures that came to use the alphabet. He shows how oral cultures exhibit a more participatory animistic awareness rooted and referenced in place and landscape and how literate cultures transferred that animism into the abstract letters and signs we use for written language. The book was for me a bit wordy and difficult to read at times but worthwhile as it is full of interesting insights. I do show some dissatisfaction with a few of his conclusions. However, some of the insights in this book are quite profound and he demonstrates thoroughly how our language and our conceptions and even time itself are rooted in nature and its spatial dimensions. Abram is a Ph.D. ecologist and philosopher who skillfully weaves these two strands of knowledge here.

His first assertion is that we have lost our contact and rapport with the landscape and the sensuous world that goes with it. We need to re-acquaint, he thinks. He delves into the 20th century tradition of phenomenology, which he calls the “study of direct experience.” He says that the study of perception reveals how much the earthscape is a part of our perception.

He first recounts a personal perceptive experience living in a hut amidst rice paddies on the island of Bali, where the blue sky of day and the night stars were both above and reflected in the water below. He experienced a sense of weightlessness with vertigo and giddiness and found a trance-like state. He was traveling in Asia as a sleight-of-hand magician on a grant to study the relationship of magic and folk medicine, having seen success in applying sleight-of-hand magic in psychotherapy to get hard to access patients to open up. He observes that magicians and shamans of every variety work with perception, as it has a malleable quality. His interest shifted to the relationship between magic/shamanism and the natural world, the subject of this book. Magicians and shamans often live on the outskirts of the community, are feared, and being feared helps them so that they are only sought out in times of need so as not to be overworked. They are intermediaries between the human world and the hidden animated world of nature. Metaphorically, he or she keeps these worlds in balance and by addressing imbalances, heals the people and community. These magical people deal with non-human forces of nature. They are messengers, intermediaries between the hidden worlds of nature and the outer world. Thus they have an ecological dimension. The anthropocentric assertion by the Church that only humans have intelligent souls while the rest of nature is inanimate or at least non-intelligent is disputed by indigenous wisdom traditions. In order to communicate with the non-human world the shaman must transcend human culture and perceptions.

Abram made note of his hostess in Bali offering palm fronds daily with piles of rice to the house spirits outside at the corner of the house. These were carried off by ants. He then had the realization that the ants could be the spirits and their placating is like an ecological offering to keep them from overtaking the house. Such an idea makes sense and I must admit I do similar things as well, though only occasionally. He sees the offering at the house corner as establishing a boundary and boundaries have long been important to shamans. He also notes his own quasi-mystical experience in a cave there of spiders spinning webs as spirits. He also experienced malaria. He also notes that hyper-sensory awareness and its development can improve one’s experience of nature. Local people and shamans told him of special magical places that he experienced as such. Many of us have done so as well. He notes that modern Western-style psycho-therapeutic or healing shamanism, though having noble aims, often misses the detail gathered by long exposure to natural environments. Thus all indigenous animism is essentially eco-shamanism. 
In his next travel adventure he notes the vertical orientation of the Himalayas. Distant horizons are a rarity and birds, he says, are the exalted spirits that shamans utilize. He mentions an experience there of a condor swooping down out of the sky towards him, apparently intrigued by the coin he was rolling in his hand that was reflecting the sun. It came close enough to wind him with its feathers.
He notes his newfound awareness of nature and animal communication after he returned from his travels. If one has the time to wander around for hours staring into nature such abilities can surely be developed. He says he lost his ability after returning to urban North America. He seems to implicate the necessity of communicating with humans that caused him to lose his nature awareness. I am not sure if I buy that. He compares the rich, though not always pleasant smells, and sounds of Nepal to those of North America – at least he experienced the former more intently. He seems to suggest that it was the culture that influenced such a deeper experience. He mentions the commodification of nature by the West as an influence of our tendency to experience nature less deeply. As a long-time rural resident of North America I don’t think that is the case, at least not for me.

The next subject is phenomenology. Beginning with Descartes and Galileo, the mechanistic view of nature began – seeing and studying observed phenomena as object and sifting out the subjective components of reality. Of course, emotions are indeed out of place in science although they can affect the way science goes. With the discovery of the quantum world we were introduced or re-introduced to the idea that what is real is different than what we normally see as real. He calls it the ambiguity of experience. It was this that propelled Edmund Husserl to found the philosophical discipline of phenomenology, a science of experience which is inclusive of the subjective aspects of experience. His initial assumption was to see subjective experience as confined to a mental, non-material realm. French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose ideas are articulated much here, noted that the quality of subjective experience could be developed by astute observation. Husserl answered criticisms that his ideas were solipsistic (confined to a singular consciousness) by noting that subjective experience of phenomena takes place in a field of appearances accompanied by one’s body and other bodies so that phenomena is imbued by multiple subjectivities that could be studied collectively – ie. we have many shared experiences. Thus, phenomena can be “intersubjective.” He pointed out that objective reality was inadequate to explain our experience and in fact was more of a construction than subjective reality. He also noted that modern man (in the early 1900’s) had become disconnected from the intersubjective world of life, the “life-world.” Much of Abrams book here comes to a similar conclusion.

He extensively covers Merleau-Ponty’s “Participatory Nature of Perception.” Abram says that Merleau-Ponty radicalized Husserl’s ideas and enhanced them utilizing a phenomenological language style in order to draw one into the realm of the sensuous. He noted that mindfulness and the body are closely related. He said the experiencing self cannot be separated from the body. He called it the “body-subject.” I think what Merleau-Ponty was saying is that much of consciousness is sensory consciousness and senses are provided by the body. Of course, they are interpreted by our mental faculties. Abram considers how humans are different from animals and other non-humans and concludes that the divisions provided by Western rationalism are inadequate. 

Perception is how we orient towards the world around us, says Abram. We can only perceive a part of an object at any one time. Perception, he intimates, is the interplay, or sympathetic relation between this subject-body and an object so that the sensory world becomes animated and things perceived can be considered “entities.” Thus, I think he is saying, that perception is as a participation with an animated sensory world. I am not sure I follow him here or if I agree. While I can understand how an animistic worldview is developed from sensually experiencing the universe, it still seems that assumptions about what is non-evident must be made and those assumptions are bound to differ between individuals. While animistic cultural mythologies can unite such subjective experiences into coherent world-views that does not make them universal. While I do think that there is an intuitive component to animism that does not vindicate specific versions of animism. Many people seem to insist that spirits, gods, and the like are definitely externally existent entities but it seems more likely to me that they are highly subjective, internal, symbolic, and mentally imbued. The ideas of “thought-forms” and “egregore” come to mind. Their existence is dependent on the mind of the perceiver. I refute their external independent existence as does science, although I do concede that thought-forms may produce effects which may well be unexplainable. Related ideas like panpsychism consider that there is some degree of mind in all matter so that the universe is imbued with consciousness. That may well be but it is the specifics that I have a problem with – the notion that one’s dream, vision, or hallucination definitely involved a real entity with the exact attributes and qualities that the experiencer experienced. I would rather see it as something that arose from one’s mind. What I am saying is that I think is OK to say that perception is animistic but not that it adheres to a particular mythological worldview. Abram does not say that it does but that is what I see as a potential problem with this idea – it can be abused by religionists and hard-core polytheists.
He goes on to describe synaesthesia, a fusion of the senses, like the hallucinogenic ideas of hearing color or seeing sounds, etc. Peoples that utilize hallucinogenic substances as part of their traditions may be more in tune with such experiences in everyday life particularly in their experience of nature. I experienced many hallucinogenic “trips” with varying substances beginning in my early teens and that did seem to open me up to a more open-ended world-view. It shows one I think that our experience of the sensory world is not fixed but may become dynamic and “animated.” Abram then goes on to suggest that our technologies and “gadgets” take us away from deeper experience of the natural world, kind of a tired argument by now. While I think there is some truth to this I think the effect is more minor than usually depicted. He goes on to depict the division between the natural and the artificial: nature-made vs. man-made, and again I think that depiction is overblown. We are part of nature as is what we make though we may experience it somewhat differently and come to depend on the artificial too much. He says the artificiality takes us away from being embedded in the natural landscape as we have been throughout our evolutionary time. Yes this is true but that does not make it bad even though we may change because of it. He mentions Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the reciprocity of the sensuous: that we experience the world but the world also experiences itself through us, an idea that seems also like panpsychism to me. Attention to the perceptual dimension, he says, could inform a new environmental ethics where nature is more respected. I say maybe but I can sense the potential for abuse there too as in any development being considered the defilement of the sacred landscape. For me it would depend how radically such an idea was approached. Treading lightly may be more pragmatic than not treading at all.

Abram considers the term “flesh” to signify the nexus of the animate and the inanimate. Language too may be flesh, he considers, as it is only a way of approximating experience and describing it rather inadequately. Speech is bodily. It has a sensuous component. We learn it by learning how to position our mouth to form the words and tones. Language is thought to have been derived from gestures through grunts and imitating natural sounds. It is thus connected to nature. It is also a representative agreed-upon code. Abram suggests that the use of language has been considered historically to be how humans are seen to be different than the rest of the animate world. He thinks this idea was used as a justification of our domination of nature, particularly during the mechanistic scientific revolution. I am not so sure. He thinks our language does not set us apart from nature but embeds us into it. Perhaps it does both. We can tune into nature and understand the meanings around us. It’s quite easy for me to hear the raccoons fighting under the house as I often have to tell them to knock it off. Silence, the spaces between words, is also part of language and enhances understanding, he notes. Gestural language may be implied in the silence – I think he is saying – he is hard to understand at times, for me anyway. He calls language a web of language or an ecology of language. Indigenous cultures tend to see language in cahoots with the animate landscape, he says. Talking animals, plants, rocks, etc. occur in many myths and stories. Understanding the secret language of nature is a magical ability in many tales.

He summarizes Merleau-Ponty’s ideas: 1) perception is interactive and participatory; 2) what is perceived is considered animate; 3) there is linguistic reciprocity with animate nature; and 4) the human body and the non-human animate landscape as well as the human community inform language. There are language habits among communities that predispose us toward certain interpretations of phenomena, say some linguists. He asks why we no longer experience the world and language as animate. His answer is the next section: Animism and the Alphabet.

The practical advantages of written, particularly alphabetic, language began the decline of oral cultures and, he says, the coincident decline of the veneration and awe of nature. Honed senses for reading the signs of nature to hunt, track animals, forage for food, etc. were transferred into reading the alphabetic signs. He explores signs in nature – markings that look like writing – and the beginnings of human writing – pictographs, ideograms, hieroglyphics, etc. Sensory perception, he says, was shifted from the natural landscape to pictographs – in order to remember and tell stories. But the scribes that knew the picture languages were often elite. When phonetic writing emerged, when letters and signs began to represent sounds, it was adopted by more and more people due to its practicality and ability to be universally understood by those who spoke different languages and dialects. Around 1500 B.C. Semitic tribes came up with the alphabet, the aleph-beth. This further distanced the written word from nature as letters came to reference sounds rather than the stuff of nature, even if the letter names originally did refer to things: ox, camel, door, house, etc. When the alphabet travelled to Greece, those references were less useful as the environment and climate were different. The references were clouded further into abstraction. He notes Socrates’ assertion that the trees have nothing to teach as a founding moment of the abstraction where the written (and spoken) word replaced nature as the medium for learning in contrast to Homer’s hymns where nature was still teacher. Before writing, the hymns were remembered through meter, through rhythm, and as “rhapsodies” – which he equates to “rapping.” There were other mnemonic devices of the bards too: alliteration, kennings, puns, repeated phrases, etc. Recordings of Slavic oral tales in the Balkans in the 1930’s revealed strong similarities in style to the Homeric hymns. The power of the bard was lessened and the power of the scribe grew. Socrates was mostly non-literate but his student Plato was a strong writer and his Ideas may well have emerged with that writing – qualitative “terms” as “ideas” came about, he says. I doubt that though writing may have enhanced the effect. The Egyptians had “ideals” thousands of years before the Greeks. It is true I think that Plato did go deeper into the abstract seeing a new “world” where unchanging ideas dwelled – and this world was separate from the world of external nature. Nature and story, once used to preserve knowledge (about plants, animals) could now be transferred to writing. Writing could separate knowledge from the animism of nature and explore it in new ways. Alphabet made it anthropocentric and we lost the nature-centric. 

Phonetic reading utilizes seeing but also hearing (inner hearing of the sounds of the words). These are the two senses most developed in humans. Thus the synaesthesia of reading is similar to that of exploring nature – sight and hearing are coupled. Though the coupling is of a different degree the magical effect is similar – we are encountering an “other,” and external power. However, in nature such encounters are much more likely to be accompanied by emotions, adrenalin, deeper listening, deeper looking, and so are far more intense. Writing became the new animism, he says, as we focus intently on the words and derive emotion from the meaning of what we read. The words on a page talk to us like nature does, or once did. Indigenous cultures encountering writing for the first time see it as magic. The Hebrew scribes kept the sacredness of writing intact to some extent and reinforced it through the doctrines like the Kabbalah.

Oral language developed mostly from the sounds of nature: birds, thunder, animals, wind, rain, waterfalls, waves, fire, etc. Indigenous people are more attuned to nature for that is their matrix of meaning, the source of learning and understanding. Several indigenous cultures assert that animals and humans once spoke the same language. Such universal understanding usually harkens back to the mystical “distant time” or “dreamtime”, or “creation time” or “mythic time” as others have called it. Utilizing bird and animal calls in language was one way that language could be shared by tribes with different languages and dialects. Distant Time stories abound among Native Americans as do Dreamtime stories among Australian tribal natives. Such stories are universally rooted in place, in the local landscape. They tell the origins of hills, rocks, ponds, rivers, etc. These are often associated with tribal ancestors. Through such associations they teach tribal lore and ethical behavior. He gives examples from the Koyukon of Alaska, the Apache, and the Australians. The practice is well-developed among the Australians with the walking trails themselves known as “dream tracks,” so that a detailed “song line” accompanies travel from place to place. Apparently, the melodies are the same among the different tribes, even though their languages are different – so that the melodies are recognizable. Such songs are inherited at birth simply by where one lives. Thus travel itself can be a ritual endeavor of song learning, remembrance, and utterance to keep the connection and bring harmony. The land is sung and place is entwined with memory. The songs also have a practical aspect of remembrance of routes. Writing and reading, Abram notes, is participatory as we need honed senses to engage in it, but it is not rooted in the landscape at all and the quality of the sensory engagement is much different.

Next he examines space and time and this part is fascinating. The circular time common in indigenous and ancient cultures was eclipsed by the idea of history and history was certainly aided most by writing. Mircea Eliade noted the Hebrews as the first main discoverers and advocates of historical time as one-time events became non-circular, non-repeatable. This was prompted by alphabetic language, he thinks. Abram says that circular, or cyclical time cannot be separated from space – a circle encloses a spatial field as our own spatial field is enclosed by the “horizon.” The contour of the horizon, the extent of our visual field, is dependent on the local geography and topography.

“Thus cyclical time, the experiential time of an oral culture, has the same shape as perceivable space. And the two circles are, in truth, one.”

Such is the medicine wheel concept of Native America and he points out that it is not separate from the cyclical nature of the calendars and the solar, lunar, and stellar cycles.

He notes the Hebrew historical time as being a result of writing – of the founding idea of the commandments being brought down by Moses as phonetic writing on stone tablets. With writing events became fixed in time. He notes that “the written text became a kind of portable homeland for the Hebrew people.” This is true especially since at the time they had lost their homeland and were wandering/migrating. Exile is indeed a deeply present theme among Hebrew peoples. The Greeks seemed to develop ideas of absolute time and space. He mentions Euclid (300 B.C.) and his geometry as an example. He also notes that Euclid’s idea that two parallel lines would never cross would not be true if their parallel-ness were measured in reference to the spherical earth as they would cross near the poles. Newton, he says, sealed the idea of absolute space and absolute time that were separate. However, Einstein, challenged that, at least conceptually, with his curved space, relativity, and space-time continuum ideas. Phenomenologists Husserl and his student Martin Heidegger as well as Merleau-Ponty studied time as a perceptual phenomenon and suggested that time perception could not really be separated from space perception. Both space and time as ideas can be paradoxical the more we delve into their meanings. In fact ideas like ‘before the beginning,’ ‘after the end,’ the size of the universe, and the smallest possible division of matter are by nature paradoxical. The subjectivity of time is hard to ignore as the present becomes “presence.”  Abram notes:

“.… we notice an obvious correspondence between the conceptual structure of time, as described by Hiedegger, and the perceptual structure of the enveloping landscape. The horizon itself! Hiedegger uses the term “horizon” as a structural metaphor, a way of expressing the ecstatic nature of time. Just as the power of time seems to ensure that the perceivable present is always open, always already unfolding beyond itself, so the distant horizon seems to hold open the perceivable landscape, binding it always to that which lies beyond it.”

Thus there is that within the visible horizon and that hidden beyond it. The horizon itself is the border between known and unknown, between present and past, and between present and future. Past and future are implied. The past is informed by memory and the future by analyzing the past to predict the future. As both past and future share the same hiddenness beyond the horizon they tend to seem alike in that irretrievable hiddenness. He wonders whether the future is beyond the horizon he is facing and the past beyond the horizon behind him – but merely turning around does not swap the past and the future. Hiedegger noted that the future withholds its presence while the past refuses its presence. The horizon is the boundary and yet it is an open boundary – the sun, moon, stars, and anyone who goes may cross it. It is hidden further at night. Past and future are absent as beyond-the-horizon is absent. Absent means not “here” so linguistically we see as in many instances time is described by the metaphor of space. He equates the hidden aspect of beyond-the-horizon with inside of my body and under the ground. The ground and one’s body are also boundaries, horizons. Abram sees a reciprocity:

“The beyond-the horizon, by withholding its presence, holds open the perceived landscape, while the under-the ground, by refusing its presence, supports the perceived landscape.”

It is an interesting parallel to Hiedegger’s idea of how past and future relate to the present. I think one might also say the past is within and the future is beyond. We hold the past within as memories but the future at least seems “out there.” Abram says the same but uses the term ‘behind’ instead of ‘beyond.’ He notes that it is the earth itself that grants us past and future by its ground and horizon, the inside and the other side. Thus it is the earth which defines time for us through its space. Thus the earth is the ground and horizon of our knowing. Linear time and featureless space as separate absolutes can turn off this way of knowing from us as we communicate through written language, he suggests. He notes the idea of emergence from the ground as origin myths of southwestern North American tribes. An analogy of that is our own origins from the darkness of womb of our mother, from inside her body. We all emerge from the past through the ground, the womb of the mother. At death we may go to the sky, the beyond-the-horizon, through the smoke of our cremation but we also go back into the ground either our body or our ashes (in one way or another) unless we get shot into space or something. We go to the future and back to the past – I wonder if one can equate that to different soul components going to upper worlds, lower worlds, and returning to this one – all simultaneously in shamanist and many indigenous cultures. Rituals in wombs, inside mounds, caves or other cracks in the earth are common and are often associated with death and rebirth. The clouds carrying life-giving rain come and go from the horizon. The sun rises and falls from the two horizons – it enters and exits the underworld there – so in that aspect beyond-the-horizon and under-the-ground are the same place. The past and the future are the same “place.” Abram calls it a “strange ambiguity.” The Milky Way itself, the path of souls to the beyond after death (the upper world?) leads to beyond-the-horizon. If we see the path of the sun, moon, and stars as traveling under the earth and returning (as many cultures did/do) then the idea of circular time seems more intuitive and less “primitive.” He notes that there is concealment within the present itself, perhaps in terms of the insides of things, and wonders about it. He falls into the pit of paradox, says “fuck it,” and enjoys the present moment. The concept of omniscience, all-knowing and perhaps all-seeing, is an idea which presumes knowing the secrets of the paradoxes of time and space as well as the idea of knowing beyond the limits of concepts themselves – non-conceptual knowing. We seem to intuit that the path to such knowledge is not through words and ideas but somehow might be possible through deepening our ability to be aware in the present.

Air is also hidden from us yet is there all about us. It can only be seen, heard, felt, and smelled through its effects. It is invisible by its very nature and yet it is all around us and within us. We don’t and can’t see air (unless it is imbued with solid matter such as is smoke). And yet this unseen, unsee-able air is what imbues things with life. We need to breathe air to live but a more subtle “air” as “spirit” is implied by many cultures as the very principle of life. He explores wind myths. Wind moves, travels, carries prayers (often in the form of smoke), and arises from different directions. He focuses much on Navajo and Dine’ wind myths which are detailed. They say that when a newborn child is born he/she begins to breathe so that the surrounding wind enters them at birth. Before that the winds of father and mother combine to sustain them in the womb. This seems intuitively true on a scientific level as well. They say it is only by means of wind, or breathe that we can talk – true again. The four winds are also called the four words. Thus it is said that Wind holds the power of language. We are immersed in the atmosphere, enveloped by air, by wind. The Navajo identify awareness itself with air. Many cultures do as well but perhaps more indirectly. The Greek word “psyche” usually translated as ‘soul’ is also sometimes translated as “breath” or “gust of wind” and the Greek word “pneuma” – air, wind, breath – is also considered the vital principle which we tend to call “spirit.” “Anima” is a similar word and is that which distinguishes us as the living from the non-living. The Hebrew word “ruach” means both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit.’ When God created the first man Adam he blew breath into his nostrils to animate him. Another word, “neshamah” is used to signify the personal breath, the wind within. Hebrew religious renunciation of animistic belief can be seen, he says, as a result of the rising power of written language. Animism came to be associated with idolatry. Yet the Hebrews kept much of animistic belief. One way they kept it was in the animism of the alphabet. Vowels were not written. Vowels are the open-mouth expressions of air and movement. Vowels were inferred and spoken. They are sounded breath. Writing out vowels might be seen as making visible representations of the invisible (air, breath) which would be considered idolatry, since air-breath-spirit (ruach) was divine. The lack of vowels also made it necessary for writers to be hyper-conscious when writing so that implied meanings could be conveyed. Thus it was more “participatory” than say later Greek writing which utilized vowels. When read, Hebrew texts were “imbued” by the reader’s breath, the vowels had to be carefully chosen by the reader. The so-called Oral Torah was said to be imbued with the breath of the speakers (the Hebrew bard-priests as it were). The notion of a requirement of imbuement by breath gives it a sense of a living tradition that requires input from the now and thus gives it an animistic quality, he seems to say. The Kabbalah can be seen as a revival of Jewish mysticism and animism as each letter is said to be alive and derives from the idea that God spoke the universe into existence. (ie. Let there be light and there was light). Kabbalists and magicians (medieval and modern) work with the presumed magic power of the Hebrew letters. The numbers assigned to the letters lead to the study of the hidden meanings of words and ideas through “gematria.” Indeed the whole range of Hebrew letters, Qabalistic spheres, paths, worlds, and the aspects of Self, have been formulated into a detailed system of correspondences which includes the Tarot (Taro-Tora-Rota-Orat as picture-law-wheel-speech). Magic words are spoken with one’s Magical Voice in order to imbue phenomena with the power of one’s Will. YHVH, Yahweh is mostly a vowel-word it seems. So the Hebrews, the first People of the Book, seemed to maintain a reverence for the Air and an animistic way of relating to their alphabet of consonants by imbuing them with the sacred through providing the vowels. 

The Greeks added vowels as letters. They did not acknowledge the pictographs of the Hebrew letters they adopted. They made the invisible air visible by making vowels letters thus taking away the sacredness of the air, he says. I am not sure if that would be accurate to say and he even gives a quote by Milesian philosopher Anaximenes in the 6th century B.C. about air, the psyche, holing the universe together and imbuing it with life. He thinks it happened a few hundred years later with Plato. The later Christians adopted the Greek view of the power of air/psyche as abstract and internal rather than the Hebrew view as imbuing life, he thinks. Later, he notes, the spread of Christianity to pagan Europe was dependent on the spread of the alphabet. The new faith depended on the technology of letters. Abram thinks that whatever language we speak guides our perception of nature with its ideas and thus unites common speakers of a language to a certain way of experiencing nature. The shamans and magicians of each culture dwell on the boundaries of their language and the interpretation of nature that it informs. The written characters have become progressively removed from their origins relating to “things” experienced like the pictographs. Phonetic writing then the addition of vowels sealed the boundary/membrane, making it less porous. Subjectivity became progressively separated from objectivity as this “linguistic-perceptual” boundary solidified.

In summary he notes:

“Language was disclosed as a profoundly bodily phenomenon, sustained by the gestures and sounds of the animate landscape. The rational intellect so prized in the West was shown to rely upon the external, visible letters of the alphabet. The presumably interior, mental awareness of the “past” and the “future” was shown to be dependent upon our sensory experience of that which is hidden beneath the ground and concealed beyond the horizon. Finally, the experience of awareness itself was related to mysteries of the breath and the air, to the tangible but invisible atmosphere in which we find ourselves immersed.”

Language, he says, is a gift of the land, that it evolved in the context of an animistic worldview where nature was sentient. It was communication not only between humans but also between humans and non-humans. Finally he does admit that phonetic writing was likely not the only culprit in our progressive disconnecting from the animate landscape. The development of agriculture, numbers, and other new ways of controlling nature also helped. One of his goals for the book is to help us explore non-literate thought and ways of being and viewing the world. We are no longer localized people as we travel the world and explore it with our technologies through our “alphabetized intellect.” Of course, that new intellect gained us many advantages that makes us safe, healthy, civil, and successful today but in the process we lost another type of awareness that is perhaps well worth revisiting, especially in light of our degradation of the landscape these days through over-development. He notes the process called “reinhabitation,” becoming re-established with local-level relationships. He sees it as writing language back into the land.    

Reckless: The Political Assault on the American Environment

Book Review: Reckless: The Political Assault on the American Environment – by Bob Deans (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2012)

This was a pretty good book by a journalist and spokesperson with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). They are an environmental group that is considerably left of center but not overly radical. The book focuses on the political right’s attempts to prevent and roll back environmental regulations in recent years. Throughout the book he emphasizes the origins and tradition of the conservation movement among republicans from Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt through Nixon’s creating of the EPA. Until recently, the environmental movement has been a bipartisan one. This book is a call to restore that bipartisan spirit of cooperation.

Deans points out that:

“During 2011 the U.S. House of Representatives voted nearly two hundred separate times to block, delay, or weaken the commonsense safeguards we all depend on to protect our waters, wildlife, lands, and air.”

The main argument the House invoked was jobs. Deans points out that past environmental regulations have not overly affected jobs and considers that the real reason was to protect corporate interests, particularly those of their political campaign donors. He also points out that it was a lack of oversight in the financial sector that triggered the 2008 financial collapse that caused the Great Recession – the biggest job killer of our time. Throughout the book he gives polling data about environmental concerns as well as House vote tallies and political campaign donor information. Polls show pretty clearly that no one wants our environmental regulations taken away. There are also plenty of quotes from moderate republicans, many who promoted environmental regulations in the past. Unfortunately, environmental concerns since the 2010 elections of a republican majority in the House have divided the lawmakers like no other issues. It has been dubbed the most anti-environmental House in history. Of course, in the three to four years since this book was written there has been progress through President Obama’s executive actions such as the Clean Power Plan, a few other EPA rules, and some non-binding climate agreements. The last two republican administration’s EPA administrators have called the current House record appalling and disappointing. They commonly quote that ‘conservation is conservative,’ although that seems to be changing in recent times.

The influence of the rising Tea Party and their allegiance and backing from corporate donors of the polluting industries and the far right media machines is a big factor in the split in the Republican Party that still persists, although there is some evidence that tea party influence may be beginning to wane. If environmental protection was a bipartisan concern in the past, it is not so much now. The creation of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act were all passed during Nixon’s presidency. Although each was criticized as potentially detrimental to the economy the years following had very good economic growth. The American Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that environmental regulations of all kinds have resulted in less than 1% in job losses while adding significant protections. Corporations rarely do not oppose regulations and their protests should be considered mainly on the basis of practicality so that duplicative and unnecessary regulations are not enacted. The EPA is required by law to do extensive cost-benefit analysis for each regulation enacted. Often the corporate interests see greater costs. Corporate input is important but there are other factors to consider like innovation and changing (usually towards lower) materials and service costs. Amendments to strengthen the clean Air Act were signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. In 2010 the EPA estimated the benefits (including health benefits and reduction in lost work days) of those amendments at $1.3 trillion dollars while the cost of implementation was $53 billion the first year (undoubtedly the most expensive year). However, attempts to implement pre-authorized tweaks to improve air quality have all been strongly opposed by the House and after twenty-five years now have yet to be enacted due to resistance from power plant utilities. 

One of the strangest House votes was the one in 2011 where they ”rejected, 240-184, an amendment simply stating that Congress accepts the EPA’s findings that climate change is real, puts public health at risk, and is caused largely by human activities.” Only on Republican agreed. He points out that there is no scientific controversy about climate change (although there is some disagreement about the degree of human influence) but that the controversy is simply a political one. Several House Republicans have been and are still calling for shutting down the EPA or at least de-funding it to varying extents by voting to cut their budget. This is ridiculous. Regulations have basically become a scapegoat for many economic problems without much merit as even many corporations have expressed solidarity with many regulations. Typically industrial advocate organizations and “smokestack” industry lobbyists are the main detractors toward regulations and they are the ones who donate to campaigns. In several tirades against the EPA it is pointed out that they are unelected government officials since they are part of the executive branch of a Democratic administration. He points out that in 2011 after the EPA blocked the largest permit ever filed for mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia due to the company presenting no viable alternative for burying streams with blasted excess, the House voted to revoke EPA block. The House acted in this matter much faster than they would act in to enhance mine safety after the 2010 Upper Branch mine explosion that killed 29 people.

He notes the need to improve air quality in cities to reduce respiratory ailments like asthma that is on the long-term EPA agenda as it reviews and makes new recommendation for pollutant limits through time. These reductions in limits are always opposed by industry lobbyists and advocacy groups and their congressional supporters. It should perhaps be noted that not all companies in the smokestack industries automatically oppose regulations. Some support them. They also reason that the public and ratepayers can pick-up some of the costs through higher prices. In terms of jobs some regulations support an increase of jobs in the pollution mitigation technologies sector – an important sector which continues to grow especially as we tend to export those technologies and our expertise to places like China who desperately need them due to their poor air quality. The U.S. leads the world in many categories of environmental technology.

Pollution, fertilizer runoff, and manure runoff have been severely damaging the Chesapeake Bay estuary and other areas such as the nexus of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. Fishing has been severely affected around the Chesapeake Bay. Red algae blooms (red tides) killed massive amounts of fish by de-oxygenating the waters. In late 2010 rules drafted by the EPA based on the Clean Water Act to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment. The final rule in December 2010 called for 20-25% reduction of these by 2025. It was a reasonable and doable reduction with 90% of the commentary in favor. The next month two agricultural trade groups filed suit. By mid-February the House voted (very slightly maybe a percent less along party lines than usual) to block enforcement funding for the rule.

The first two years of the Obama administration saw the same amount of regulations enacted as the first two years of the George W. Bush administration so there was no increase. Data shows that is demand that has decreased hiring and not regulations. Regulations are likely just a scapegoat for pro-business Republicans. Jobs were a key focus at this time, however, because of the major economic downturn a few years previous. Now, a few years after this book was published, unemployment is way down and the economy has been in a slow but steady recovery mode.    

Next he gives some examples of major preventable job killing catastrophes that were exacerbated by lax regulation: the economic downturn prompted by predatory lending and financial market manipulation; the safety lapses that lead to the 2010 BP blowout; and unnecessary increases in food-borne illnesses like salmonella and norovirus.

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor adept at environmental law, risk analysis, and cost-benefit analysis was appointed head of the White House Office of Management and Budget Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a newly created office. He perturbed environmentalists by convincing Obama to delay implementation of a new EPA rule reducing Ground Level Ozone pollution. Adjustments to other rules were made after listening to industry concerns. Even though environmentalists were not happy the process of compromise and flexibility has been functional in that regard and costs of implementing rules have been decreased significantly. I think Deans wanted to pint out there that the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to consider the practicality and costs of regulations even trimming their extent when necessary.

Deans points out that as many corporations posted record profits but no increases in jobs that certainly suggests that corporate shareholders eclipse employees in importance. This should be no surprise as the stated goal of business is to increase value for shareholders and there is stiff competition in that regard. Thus the so-called “corporate greed” that has increased income inequality is mainly just an increasing efficiency and success at pursuing the goal of profits – the sole bottom line of most companies. The solution is perhaps the adoption of new business models, ideally across the board that incorporate additional goals in line with social, environmental, and income equality values. This is not an easy sell. The Republican approach has long been to decrease taxes and regulations on businesses to increase jobs which are a result of increased profits. However, if the data show that increased profits are not correlated to increased jobs then it doesn’t work that way even if it may have in the past. Increased pay at the top could certainly be capped with the excess used to hire more workers on the bottom end for many businesses. This is one example of a potential feature of a new business model. Typically, companies cite uncertain demand growth as a reason for lack of hiring in a time of increased profits. There is no correlation between de-regulation and increased demand growth so the argument that regulations kill jobs is really a poor one, although they may reduce jobs by reducing profits so that companies may layoff and fire employees to keep from showing lower profits. Thus, the real problem may be the emphasis companies place on short-term growth and short-term profits that is often what affects their stock prices. There is perhaps no easy answer to this predicament. It’s kind of like a positive feedback that leads to greater income inequality. The ideas in this paragraph are my own and are speculative.

Deans also points out that pollution cleanup is often shifted to the public (think Superfund sites) and this is also likely to be the case with carbon emissions leading to climate disruptions. He quotes Nixon in saying that the cost of producing goods should also include the costs of waste disposal of byproducts and pollution mitigation. The costs of pollution should be internal to the companies that pollute rather than become external to them. One might call this publically subsidizing polluting industries which technically is not a free market but more like corporate welfare. This seems like common sense but it does imply making a choice as to what amount of emissions define pollution so perhaps it is the choice of quantitative limits that are being disputed.

Deans notes that Obama came to an agreement with car and truck manufacturers in 2011 to increase avg. mpg to 54.5 by 2025 – a pretty noble, with the usual objections of House Republicans. This should reduce demand for gasoline in the long-term and thus prices, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

Deans notes the domestic oil and gas boom, at its height during publication of this book. This has drastically reduced our dependence on foreign oil and can keep fuel prices low if as now it is kept robustly supplied globally – though now it considerably oversupplied resulting in too low of prices which favor the lowest cost producers such as Saudi Arabia in terms of market share. Deans also gives the typical anti-industry stance regarding the dangers of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale, an unconventional hydrocarbon. In actuality the environmental dangers of unconventional oil and gas are only slightly more dangerous than conventional oil and gas and have been overblown by activism, media portrayals, and a few high profile accidents that are now far less likely to be repeated. Even so, more regulations have been enacted, particularly at the state level, which is how most oil and gas activity is regulated. Some new federal regulations have been enacted as well with a few more on the horizon.

Deans discusses the clean energy revolution which continues to gain steam but which is also dependent on direct government subsidization. Democrats basically support continued robust clean energy subsidization as do a fair amount of Republicans although quite a few Republicans do not. Solar photovoltaic technology was developed in America in the 1950’s and some Democrats have pointed out that we need to continue robust direct subsidization in order to compete with China, Germany, and other leading clean energy countries. Republicans latched on to the Solyndra bankruptcy in 2011 that was a result of a drop in solar panel prices in 2010 and 2011. Companies in Europe and Asia also suffered. While it is true that some subsidization money was wasted it did not become a trend and revenues, profitability, and growth of solar energy companies has rebounded and is fair to good at the moment. Deans points out that polls show a pretty large majority of people favor environmental protection and clean energy development. He also notes that at the time the Congressional approval rate was at a dismal 10%. He quotes Bush pollster Bob Teeter as saying that concern for the environment has become a core American value. Even polls among Republicans have expressed support for the EPA and environmental protection.

Early in his presidency in 1989 George H.W. Bush stated that, “I want to broaden the consensus for a clean environment.” He also stated, “I reject the notion that sound ecology and a strong economy are mutually exclusive.” Although the elder didn’t have the greatest environmental record he was able to overcome political divisions in order to pass amendments that strengthened the Clean Air Act in 1990. He also noted that, “.… polluters must pay.” The amendments dramatically reduced the pollution (sulfur dioxide) that causes acid rain and called for new standards to reduce smog, ground level ozone, mercury, and other toxic emissions. The House voted to block implementation of such provisions in 2011. Ronald Reagan often stated that conservatives conserve and expressed a desire to preserve land and a clean environment for future generations. His conservative philosophy was influenced by conservative philosopher and historian Russell Kirk who emphasized values of conservation and environmental stewardship. He warned against the overreach of unregulated industrial development by “special interests” as a possible source of environmental damage. He argued for a flexible conservatism different than the inflexible one we seem to see today. Some have called it “uniformly ideological.” While that may work well for assuring votes it leaves little imagination. Deans notes and quotes several moderate Republicans who have become disgruntled with recent trends in the party away from conservation, environmental concern, and accountability. Today’s so-called “dysfunctional politics” is likely one reason for the strong disapproval rating of Congress. He notes the pledge to not raise taxes initiated by Grover Norquist, an advocate of tax reform and smaller government. All but 6 Republicans in the House have signed on and 2 Democrats (at the time). Such ideological pledges can certainly be counterproductive to a politics of compromise which is kind of a necessity of our two-party system. One commentator has likened the loss of moderate Republicans to a loss of species diversity, typically a major minus for an ecosystem.

Corporate Clout and Tea Party Rage is the title of the next chapter. The tea party rose up in 2009 aided by ultra-conservative news media and wealthy corporate donors. Low taxes, limited government, and free market fundamentalism are emphasized. It seemed at first a grassroots populist movement but the influence of the media and wealthy corporate donors is considerable. They tend to be anti-government and pro-corporate fiscally but quite traditionalist socially. Their voice in government has been considerable with many tea party conservatives elected to the House and Senate. The House Tea Party Caucus (a very wealthy group of legislators) is now a major force to be reckoned with. They seem to be particularly against raising taxes in general but also against raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. They are to the right of most Republicans on most issues. They tend to be considerably against renewable energy development and for continued fossil energy development and they seem to despise regulations of any form. Big Oil, Big Coal, and the ultra-wealthy Koch brothers are among their biggest supporters. Oil, gas, and coal interests were 77% toward Republican campaigns in the 2012 elections. The Kochs founded Americans for Prosperity, a powerful super-PAC. Their focus has called for Congress to block the anti-growth agenda of the EPA and other regulatory agencies and ideas. Critics have complained that their influence is out of proportion and points out problems with money-based influenced drowning out people-based influence unfairly. Tea party Republicans are influencing moderate Republicans who are in fear of losing their seats in Congress. Deans notes that due to how Congressional districts are mapped out Republican or Democrat, the real races are in the primaries where moderates face ideologues.

In the epilogue Deans gives an account of president Obama going to the EPA in early 2012 to effectively raise their spirits in light of political assaults on their work. He reiterated the elder Bush’s comment that a clean environment and robust economic growth are not contradictory. Teddy Roosevelt favored laws to prevent corporate influence on the political process. He said they often lead to corruption. The 2010 5-4 Supreme Court decision in favor of super-PAC Citizens United blocked the latest attempt at campaign finance reform. Corporate influence in politics tends to drown out the influence of citizens and leads more cemented ant-corporate stances in the radical left. I think the divisiveness of politics in the U.S. is the real tragedy, where extremist positions on both sides get the most airplay and end up with the most influence. Thus, it is the middle that is being drowned out. Both Republican moderates and Democrat moderates are being drowned out I think by ideologues who support fixed agendas and show no intentions of compromise. It makes for a hostile body. That is not a good way to govern. Hopefully things will even out and we will see more pragmatism on both sides and less fundamentalism. Deans wrote a book here worth considering.