I once heard a Buddhist teacher give a talk in which he stated that the word that gave the human race the most trouble was “more.” I see no reason to doubt him. There is much that is inherently uneasy within us, the vulnerability of being in a body, the anxiety of being uncertain about what the next moment, hour, day, week, month and year hold. Habit allays that unease but not wholly. We wish to make sure. We want to know. We want spiritual insulation. One way of doing that, however irrational (the irrational never having been an impediment to human action), rests in accumulating much more of anything than we need. Beginning with money but not ending there, we stockpile anything we can get our hands on: the more, the better. There is no end, no limit, no ceiling. There is only “more.”
Greed, which is to say unabated accumulation, would seem to be a basic proclivity and almost, when considered politically, a right. As creatures who are driven by appetite, we take a second helping at the dinner table. Why not take a third? Our stomach may complain so we may stop but in accumulating money and goods there is no stomach. For many in the United States when the word “socialism” comes up, one immediate fear is that there will be a cap on how much money a person can make. How dare any ruling body set a limit on personal gain? Each individual is an economy unto him or herself.
Unfortunately, personal gain is not just personal. Economy is collective by nature: the interchange of goods and services. Although matters can get fantastically complex and hence vulnerable at myriad points to disruption—downed power lines sparking forest fires or subverted computers shutting down hospitals—the notion of economy as some endlessly elastic device is childish. Everything human is finite. Everything on the earth is finite. There may be a lot of pebbles on a beach but they are countable. “More,” however, creates a sense of endlessness, of perpetual bounty without any consequences, a pie that can be divided forever. Any true economy speaks to balances not disproportions. If you base an economy on perpetually having more then you are harnessed to an impossibility.
Any economy exists within the context of the earth. It is, as the present day indicates, easy to act as if we did not live on the earth. Everything comes from elsewhere—food, manufactures, media. Cyberspace, a concept that was not there not that long ago, is not so much earthly as ghostly. Many occupations—finance, law, teaching, retailing—take place in rooms and stores. There is no earth there, just a view out of a window. Or there may not be a window. The building may be a warehouse or manufacturing facility. The earth has become increasingly far away for those who work indoors. We flick on the lights, boot up the computer, scan some screens, get the production line rolling. The unstated belief that fuels the inventions to which we have become habituated is stark: do we need the earth? Can’t we invent our way past every bound and consideration? We make so much.
One of the human dilemmas is that a life is short but the earth is old. Headstrong, we enter and act as though we have been on the stage longer than we have. The premise in modern times is that our machines will lead us forward—wherever that is. The earth is indifferent and bountiful, massive and delicate, full of particulars that can be apprehended through our senses and tools of investigation that yet remain recondite. We have studied much but such study becomes an end unto itself; gratitude for our being here is, typically, in short supply. The earth can be taken for granted—there yesterday and there tomorrow. That is fair enough but not fair at all. Our sense of our collective impact is becoming clearer but most modern people focus on the travails and pleasures of the individual not the collective. Emboldened by consumer choice, all the daily solicitations and decisions, however specious, each individual is a little king or queen intent on his or her acquisitive version of the good life.
We use the phrase “human race” but there is no such thing in any real sense. There are nations, ethnic groups, tribes, religious sects, political parties, companies and a seemingly endless number of other confederations but to speak of all the people on this planet as one common mass has not been practicable. Any “we” is very divisible. Accordingly, “the human race” is evoked in speeches or casual conversation as a suggestive fact—the sum of mortals proceeding from day to day—but not a governable entity nor for that matter an imaginable entity in the sense of everyone working toward the same end. The only end everyone is working toward would be money and what money buys—food and shelter, for starters, but then spiraling into the variegated empyrean of desire.
Moralists have stressed that needs are few and wants are many. The picture that needing paints is quite focused; the picture that wanting paints is very unfocused. Thoreau, to cite a well-known example, was able to meet his needs quite ably. He understood that all wanting did was give a person a headache. To pay daily attention to the earth was a more than full-time job—as Thoreau illustrated in the account known as Walden. As a white man, he concocted a version of what indigenous people always knew. People who put other matters before being on the earth—empire, religious domination, economic gain, technological advance—did not know or did not care to know. One of Walden’s teachings is that simple circumstance is a great teacher.
Civilization teaches that simple circumstance is, among other things, boring. Cities are not constructed around simple circumstance. Cities are about using the earth for social purposes. Social complexity is exciting; people can sample all manner of possibilities. Social complexity is also frustrating since individuals can feel overloaded. One of the outcomes of progress is stress. Taking care of oneself on the earth can be very demanding but those demands are different from the wilderness of modern communications where the individual is besieged by political and commercial “news.” The earth has no news—or its news is very ancient news: pay attention to what is going on where you are and act accordingly. If everyone takes care, matters on earth will tend to take care of themselves. The earth, in the form of earthquakes and volcanoes, will follow its own script. Large cities on geological fault lines are choosing to ignore that—one day following another until a different day occurs.
Taking care does not mean controlling or wanting more. Taking care stems from the impulse to do a task properly, which stems from the impulse to nurture. Any parent or guardian knows this. So does anyone who takes care of an animal or a plant. Nurture concerns compassion and the awareness that whatever one is nurturing is something separate from oneself but related to oneself. The near relations are dear but the seemingly further relations—nurturing the myriad features of the earth—are dear too.
Nurture is not about more of anything but enough of whatever sustains. Too much stifles and confuses. Nurture is aligned with the instinctive, harmonic feelings that go with living on the planet, participating in the rhythms of the seasons, day and night, earth and sky, tides, buds swelling and leaves falling, the immemorial cycles. All the creatures constitute a family in that regard. To distance ourselves from the other creatures is a grave error because we lose sight of this commonality. Human beings are not the exclusive sum of anything. The old lore is correct: the planet is shared. Every extinction of plants and creatures lessens the strength of the bonds.
If people act as though they don’t need the earth, if, in their rooms, cars, skyscrapers, buses and trains they act as though the earth’s sustaining compass, beginning with air, water and fertile soil, is automatic, then the balance that the earth represents may become—as the present day indicates—an imbalance. Although “more” is inherently an imbalance, an essentially wanton assertion, economies in the industrial world depend on more. To say to any factory owner—”Enough of that”—or to a government—”Enough weapons”—or to a bank or brokerage—”Enough profit”—may seem impossible if not ridiculous. Enterprise is tethered to what would seem to be endless production.
Many people have imagined scenarios based on sustainability and continue to. Thus far, however, no compelling feelings have presented themselves to help make these imaginings real and bring people together on a positive footing. As feelings, they are still nascent and at the mercy of a thousand distractions and technological importunings. Understandably, much of the present earth-feeling is oppositional—trying to avert environmental catastrophe. To dwell in the precincts of spirit may seem idle when life remains, in the literal sense, business as usual, the bludgeon of expediency. Aside from the remaining indigenous peoples (earth-dwellers who face their own dilemmas), everyone is born into business, the apotheosis of making more. I recognize that our human energy is what it is—we crave purpose and need reasons to believe above and beyond our being fed, clothed and sheltered. As impulsive creatures we typically fear stasis as a form of death-in-life. Meditating—to choose an aspect of stillness—may seem to be doing nothing. One hallmark of recognizing how alive we are is by expending energy. How much and from whence the energy comes are the great questions.
The motive, whether thoughtless or calculated, that speaks most persuasively to the expenditure of energy is greed, the impetus which believes there are no limits and should be no limits to what a person can have. Since death undoes possession, life being, in essence, a loan, a state where no one really “has” anything, one appeal of greed is the seeming subversion of mortality. How could Midas have died? He had so much. The prodigal impulse which prides itself on the warmth of selfishness, the longing for more of whatever there can be more of, the totemic comfort of acquisition, the relentless effect of interest as it makes more money, the fact of there being always a further number beyond the one at hand, all these feed into the dynamo.
Individualism, the notion of the individual as a law unto him or herself, is bound to exalt greed. There is no societal or environmental or spiritual limit to individualism because the individual is entitled to whatever the individual can get his or her hands on. There is only the taking and then, sometimes, the giving back via philanthropy (often pennies following corrupt dollars). As fawning articles about billionaires attest, such grasping is praised as both an achievement and a ministration: you, too, little man or little woman, could make this vast amount of money. The manipulative cunning that characterizes the making of fortunes is rarely discussed. Whether a relatively few having so much skews the whole economic picture so that people who do the actual day-to-day work of holding a society together—teachers, truckers, nurses—can make a living wage is an idle question. Anyone in the United States who stands in the path of extreme accumulation and its skewed consequences is standing in the path of a God-given right.
Since the earth has no recognized representatives, the earth has no say in this devotion to accumulation. There is a United Nations but not a United Earth. Under communism, the governments had a say in this but the collective dimension had nothing to do with the harmony of the earth and everything to do with imposed political dogma—one more ideological nightmare. Individualism can be of value in that each person’s relationship to the earth matters because each person can help tend to the earth. Each square inch of the planet wants to be looked after (though not necessarily inhabited or used). Such tending is an antidote to “more;” such tending forms the ongoing chain of hands that links one generation with another. Such tending means the life of the earth comes first for everyone. Based on the ground it stands on, each society must find its path to practicing that tending.
What that path augurs is worship, the feeling for the earth as the source of everything that sustains life, the generative, receptive female divine. In the deistic religions, earth takes second place beside God just as women take second place to men. Sensitive souls have seen the hand of God in the earth’s doings and praised that doing accordingly but the stature of the creator precedes the creation. Unfortunately, second place is exactly how the human race in the West has tended to treat the earth, as an also-ran, as something to be used and discarded, a “loser” to quote a word that the bullying apostle of more, Donald Trump, is fond of. The earth’s eschatological purpose is revealed as a stage set of sorts, the place where a person can experience salvation—the promise of another and presumably better life. Though the earth supports life, the garden that was the earth was, according to the story, a long time ago, as if the earth’s bounty were too much and people needed to contrive an exile from the earth’s mortal goodness. In that sense, the Western deistic religions have yet to feel at home on this planet.
As the failed contrivance of new rites during the French Revolution illustrated, worship stems not from an abstract set of principles, however well-meaning, but from joy and praise. Poetry—to cite one adjunct of worship—has known this forever since poetry is rooted in praise of being. Poetry, however, has little place in industrial societies devoted to productions that dwarf mere being. Machines matter more than butterflies because being does not make anything happen. Yet when we write the evocative phrase “human being,” we are noting that existence is definitive and sufficient. Anyone who has been through an illness can corroborate that. Health is not about more of anything but rather the purposeful dynamic of being, of breathing in and breathing out, the balancing.
The failure of industrial economies lies in the shortchanging of the basic joy of being on earth. The reputed standard of living means little without joy in the daily spectacle the earth presents—the weather, the creatures, the land. So many lives are little more than harried. When there is time out, entertainment substitutes for joy, just as distraction substitutes for engagement. Joy is rooted and airy at the same time, the earth’s province. Joy recognizes the calm miracle of anything being here in the first place and exults in that. Joy is inherently musical. Joy can be both innocent and sexual. When there is sufficiency, joy does not need anything more. The angers that society breeds, the hatreds and fears, stem from the lack of simple joy. People want more of whatever or they want other people to not live and possibly take what they have. If you say to someone who is angry, that he or she, in many cases, already has a great deal to be thankful for, do not expect a kind reply. Gratitude, which goes along with joy, will seem simple-minded, a “loser” mentality. If you say that wanting is a treadmill and a weight, that we need a modest sufficiency, that richness really is inner, you may receive a sad shake of the head or merely a smirk. The good life is about ever getting more, which, as it turns out, is an exercise in vigilant management and a way to foment exasperation—but not a way to live. Yale University and many other knowledge factories will be glad to grant you a degree in management.
Greed clamors for more but greed becomes a job, a daily routine, a purpose unto itself. Strangely, greed believes it is essential to our getting along on earth, as if there would be no earth without the stock exchanges and the great moneyed engine of accrual. We can parse the events and debate the causes but the notations of history seem quaint when one considers that recent centuries have been little more than the organized looting of the earth. The great question of how to live on the earth has been replaced by the taking that is assumed to be something like forever, or at least until the taker kicks the bucket and leaves the debts, the nuclear waste, the collapsing mine shafts, the expanding deserts, the choked air and acid oceans to someone else. Each machine-driven day, everything seems to be working: how could it not be working? Look at the shelves of the stores and warehouses. Look at the amounts of money.
Politics, as we know it, is the management of “more.” In the United States, both parties are devoted to corporatism and are alienated from the earth. As long as the economy—based to an unholy degree on weaponry production—is okay, everything else is okay. If the economy seemingly takes a hit for the sake of the earth, then the earth has to suffer. No one has the right to lessen the stream of money into certified pockets. No one has the right to protest that the engine of material progress is mindless. There is the belief that somehow we can maintain a way of life that aggressively uses the earth’s resources but preserves the earth at the same time, that we can unremittingly take but somehow contrive to even out our taking. When one considers the fate of the planet as a human habitation, politics, with its focus on personalities, partisanship, patriotism, money and so-called “issues” is a sad joke, an infantile game in which mostly men strut and pose as if they were doing something of lasting value. At best politics promotes some tattered notion of civility, at worst it speaks for the naked directives of power. Either way, the earth as an entity that needs to enter into every calculation is brushed aside. What earth? The earth is owned. That settles the issue. All politics supports property: the liberal faction tries for some oversight; the so-called conservative faction (which is not interested in conservation) regards oversight as an infringement and almost a libel.
Though they entered the political world, people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi recognized the jejune nature of that world. They spoke for spirit. Since spirit isn’t news and spirit doesn’t own anything, it can be discounted and relegated to the proprieties of organized religion. Unfortunately, the question that spirit raises —what are we doing here on earth? —doesn’t go away. For the question is not just a metaphysical one but a practical one—the “earth” component. How we live matters and how we live as a whole, as the human race, matters vastly. How could it be otherwise? Yet politics, for all the shouting, rests on complacency, the belief that expediency is ever justified. The debates are about the preferred forms of expediency. Since nations spend a certain amount of their energy menacing other nations, or groups within nations spend their energy menacing other groups, the focus on expediency is understandable. Politics is combustible. Violence, be it physical or rhetorical, compels.
It may well be that the perspective required to live sustainably on the earth, to understand what the human race represents as a whole, to simplify in the name of the earth, is more than humankind en masse can do. I suspect that as the environmental grief increases, the earth will be offering some very serious lessons. I suspect the nations will try to ignore those lessons, to prevaricate, to put a good face on their commitments. To say the human race has gone down a bad path, to say that the inventions, to say nothing of resources, have their limits, to say that “more” is not a help to any of us but a hindrance to our being here seems much more than any group can admit. We would never agree until it was too late. Babel was not a metaphor. All those voices were shouting “more.”