In the confrontation between a stream and a rock, the stream always wins . . . not through strength, but through persistence.—Anonymous
Because knowledge is always relative, all we can navigate is an ever-shifting version of the truth through the accrual of knowledge. Therefore, we must learn to accept our ignorance, trust our intuition, and doubt our knowledge.
The realities we accept as obvious, neutral, objective, and simply the way the world works are actually structures of power, which we create as we think and live. They are created by our rendition of history and by our understanding of our society, our world, and ourselves within it. Moreover, our intellectual fabrications are always partial with respect to the whole.
Over the years I labored as a research scientist, I came to appreciate how much—and yet how very, very little—we humans understand about the three spheres of which we are an incontrovertible part: the atmosphere (air), the litho-hydrosphere (the rock that constitutes the restless continents and the water that surrounds them), and the biosphere (all life sandwiched in the middle). There is so much for us to learn about ourselves as individuals, as a species, and about the Earth we influence in our living, that I firmly believe the complexities of life and its living are permanently beyond our comprehension. The salient point, therefore, is not our knowledge but rather our ignorance, which is all that can be proven. The validity of our knowledge rests, albeit tenuously, before the jury of tomorrow, the day after that, and the day after that, ad infinitum. After all, it’s wisdom that’s sacred—not knowledge.
This is not to say that knowledge is unimportant. To the contrary, it is critical because a society held in ignorance is powerless to govern itself, as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently stated: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” Ignorance, in this sense, is a lack of understanding the relationships necessary for a people to govern themselves in a dignified, sustainable manner, something Carl Rowan, author and journalist, understood well. “The library,” he said, “is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in human history.”
Granted, an informed populace is a knowledgeable one, but what is it we humans study in order to become “knowledgeable”? Although the answer seems obvious, few people appear to grasp its simplicity. We study Nature and Nature’s biophysical principles. If this is not clear, think about it this way: we study the only thing we can study—ourselves in relation to life—through a variety of scientific endeavors. This kind of self-study includes the reciprocity of our relationship with our environment and one another as we are more roughly jostled together in an increasingly cluttered dimension of space and with the illusion of accelerating time.
In other words, if a nation does not have a populace well educated in the art of civil living (one that is willing to work together, exercise personal responsibility, and accept accountability for both the short- and long-term consequences of their decisions and actions), military power can easily replace civil liberty. Hermann Goering put it bluntly at the Nuremberg trials:
Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.1
All you need do to validate this point for yourself is look around the world today and take inventory of the suffering of those who daily struggle to survive under military-style, dictatorial governments and “would-be” governments. But it’s not just religious fanatics or military dictators who use fear to control citizens; it’s also monetary interests that foster fear of weakening markets due to higher prices and loss of jobs as a means of avoiding expensive, mandatory emission controls that would begin to clean the air, water, and soil. Author and publisher Satish Kumar states the problem nicely:
Livelihood is about quality of life; living standard is about quantity of material possessions.
Education aimed solely at raising living standards relates to concepts of employment, jobs and careers based on individualism and personal success. Education for livelihood is just the opposite. It is about relationships, mutuality, reciprocity, community, coherence, wholeness, and ecology.
Most schools and universities are dominated by materialist and consumerist goals. They have taken on the mission of literacy instead of meaning, information instead of transformation, and training instead of learning. Modern-day educators have become servants of the economy and they are oblivious to the catastrophic consequences for the people and the planet.
“Education as usual” is no longer an option.2
In the end, however, it is through language that we accrue knowledge, a subject on which professor and author David Orr has some thoughts: “Unable to defend the integrity of words, we cannot defend the Earth or anything else. . . . The integrity of our common language, however, depends a great deal on the cultivation of discerning intelligence in the public, and that requires better education than we now have.”3 To this, Robert Lackey, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, adds: “The meaning of words matters greatly and arguments over their precise meaning are often surrogates for debates over values.”4
1. Quoted in Gustave Mark Gilbert. Nuremberg Diary. Da Capo Press,New York, NY. 1995. Pages 278–279.
2. Satish Kumar. Education for Sustainability. Resurgence 226 (September/October 2004):3.
3. David W. Orr. Walking North on a Southbound Train. Conservation Biology 17 (2003):348–351.
4. Robert T. Lackey. Axioms of Ecological Policy. Fisheries 31 (2006):286–290.
Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.
This essay is exerpted from my 2009 book, “Earth in Our Care: Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability,” Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 304 pp. If you want more information about this book or want to purchase it, visit “BOOKS” on my website.