The “E”s have it


We shoved harder. A car was stuck in the soft gravel of the ocean floor on its way to Ministers Island, and as I pushed to get it out I thought about the interconnectedness of everything—mostly cars to the environment and tourism. And the “E”s in the human project occurred to me all over again.

I’ve discussed these at some length with a friend of mine over the past couple of years. And what are these “E”s? Well, they form a basic formula: energy x environment x enterprise = the economy.

Here, energy refers to the natural resource kind, sunlight or stored sunlight in coal, oil, gas and natural gas and biofuels, as well as nuclear energy and “alternative” sources such as wind, wave and geothermal energy. Energy powers everything we do, including the power to think—especially since the massive switch to fossil fuels over the past 200 years. Energy is the reason we have a modern technological civilization.

The second “E”, the environment, is pretty much what we plunder day by day. It’s the entire ecosystem that we “harvest” from minerals to fish to chemicals. Scientists (and some wise old people who can remember the day) tell us that these environmental resources are rapidly depleting and the environment itself is critically degraded.

Enterprise, the third “E,” is human ingenuity, the innate gift given to us by our large brains, vertical stature and opposable thumbs. Several non-“E” things factor into enterprise, notably inspiration, innovation and the initiative to do something about the first two. We humans are a particularly utilitarian species, and as the dominant species on the planet, clearly pernicious as well. Perhaps the best summary for our enterprising nature is that we are intrinsically “opportunistic.”

Furthering and safeguarding the human enterprise notion are the other “E”s. These include: engineering, education and ethics.

Engineering, starting with tool making, is the foundational skillset of human resourcefulness. A flint arrowhead has much in common with the Taj Mahal in terms of engineering perfection. Engineering, in the broadest sense covers all aspects of human tool making, including language and communication technologies. Even the discovery of fire has engineering aspects. Education is simply the way we carry our engineering and other knowledge. And ethics is about protecting our engineering and education over multiple generations. Ethics is our system of trust, which has evolve into an elaborate governance and legal system.

Finally, we come to the thing that separates us from all other creatures as far as we know (though that may be too anthropocentric), which is enlightenment. True enlightenment is not covered by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Enlightenment is beyond survival, security, social acceptance, prestige and self-actualization. Enlightenment is, in fact, beyond the self.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell talked about these forces that bring people together, and also mentions Maslow’s pyramid, which he views as the structure of divergent forces—the self-serving forces that draw us apart from other people as we move up the personal development ladder.

The binding forces, Campbell says, are “terror” and “aspiration.” It’s easy to see how terror is a binding condition. When we—and others in our group—are gravely threatened and shocked into a state of terror, we reach out.

Aspiration is a different thing. Aspiration is based on a view to the future that extends well beyond our small lifetimes. Aspiration has, at its core, the element of hope. Somehow, we hope to be more than we are. Somehow, we hope to leave something of ourselves behind after we’re dead and gone. And somehow, we can even transcend that selfish desire. It’s enough to hope for a better world ahead.

Terror and aspiration are the cornerstones of enlightenment. And there are three streams of human activity that pursue enlightenment: philosophy, religion and art, each of which is in serious decline in our materialistic, post-industrial, consumer society.

As binding agents of human beings, terror and aspiration fuel artistic investigation. Artists, philosophers and spiritual thinkers grapple with the larger questions such as “why are we here?” “Why do we die?” “What happens after we die?” “What possible meaning do our lives have?” and so on.

But aspiration has other, more subtle features. There is something known as “mythic seizure” or “creative seizure” that possesses both individuals and whole societies. Scholars use the cathedral building craze of the 11th and 12th Centuries to illustrate this phenomenon. What great creative seizure possessed the people of Europe at that time and incited them to build those fantastic spires reaching toward the sun—when they barely had enough to eat on their tables? God only knows.

There’s another path that parallels the enlightenment path. On this path the “T”s have it. Invention starts with being transfixed by something. Somehow a transference takes place. Lightning strikes a tree and the idea of fire is “discovered” by or transferred to some naked ape.

Then, from that initial discover comes a translation. Knowledge gained by one ape is translated from crude to ever more elegant applications by other apes. Transformation comes next. For example, the transformative power of fire is the main process for all human industry, including how we power our cars. Reciprocal transactions are the basis of our trading and the financial system itself. Then there’s transcendence. Collectively we're beginning to realize that the consumption of 80 million barrels of oil a day is killing their planet. That realization is transcendent.

But like anything precious, enlightenment and transcendence always come with some kind of price.


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