Monday, June 29, 2015

What is sanity?

The other day as part of my work I was asked by a patron if I would tell a girl in the library to "move on".  It seems that this woman likes to sit and watch movies in the library and burps and farts a lot. As a result, the air around her smells bad.  I've seen this woman and I suspect she has "issues".  I suggested that the other folks might show some compassion for her diminished social capacities and just move to another computer.

The patron, who is also a friend, was amazed that that the library allows non-students with "issues" to use the library.  I pointed out that the Chief Librarian had been asked this question and he replied that the institution is a tax-payer funded building, and that it would be wrong to deny access to the public as long as users don't cause too many problems for others. I went on to explain the broad range of non-student members of the public who use the library computer pools---including poverty-stricken lecturers who cannot afford a computer or internet access at home, the mentally ill, researchers for private companies, and so on. None of this changed the opinion of my friend, who felt that the best course of action would be to simply deny access to anyone who wasn't an intellectual and member of the university community.

The funny thing about this is that under such regime he might find himself hassled.  He is a Math professor in his native Iran, but he has a daughter in Canada, so he spends a lot of time here so he can be with her.  And even though I think he is relatively well off for an Iranian (he owns a jeep and his family seems to have some property), he lives an immensely frugal life here.  (I would imagine that his Iranian salary wouldn't convert well to dollars.) He rides a bicycle everywhere, wears thrift store clothing, never eats out, etc.  He does have an alumni card, which gives him borrowing privileges, but he certainly looks like one of the homeless people he wants removed from the building.

When we were talking, our conversation moved on to the new university president.  He related a rumor that the new fellow has a very swelled head and that he had caused the university to spend a huge amount of money on trivial stuff like importing fancy paint from overseas to redecorate the president's house (which he decided not to use), and insisting on purchasing a very expensive new car for his use.  (I don't know if any of this is true, but if it is, it wouldn't surprised me.)  I mentioned that many people in high office exhibit very bizarre, childish behavior.  A past university president, for example, was notorious for his explosive, vile temper.

This conversation got me thinking.

Is there such a thing as "sanity"?  The courts and our mental health professionals attempt to define this thing, but as I grow older and gain more insight into the human condition the less I think that there is such a thing at all. I consider myself a very rational person, but then again I have had to go to treatment for a long period of time to deal with a pretty significant "anxiety disorder" (PTSD.) Looking around me, I see that almost all the people I know have a weird collection of strange ideas that don't define them as "ill" in either legal or medical casebooks, but lead them to make profoundly stupid life choices.  And, in my case, I would consider any grown man who acts like these two University Presidents have been described is in some significant sense "unbalanced".


When I was younger I used to have a very hard time with literature because it seemed to consist of not much more than a collection of characters who were doomed to sit in the corner of a room and routinely smash themselves over the head with two-by-fours.  "For heavens sake, why would MacBeth want to kill the king and usurp his throne?  He already was a high Lord."  "For Pete's sake, can't Heathcliff and Catherine stop being so crazily emotional?  Can't they see how damaging this is for both of their lives?" Of course, this is the reaction of a teen who had the misfortune to not know a lot about how people actually operate because he had to spend all his time working on a farm, and who's family life was dominated by a few individuals who were hyper-emotional to the point of being violent.

As I approach old age I have finally had enough life experience to understand that whether we like it or not, we are emotional creatures that are driven by things like lust, greed, fear, and so on.


The other day I loaned a bicycle trailer to a friend.  She used it to go to an event where she was volunteering to be at a table and answer questions about a community group.  She had jammed a chair into it and the legs had punched two holes into the sides of the trailer.  She was all panicked because she couldn't get the chair out.  I wasn't happy about the damage, but I didn't lose my temper and I got the chair out for her.  She hadn't needed to bring the chair anyway, as one was provided with the table set-up.  As I think most people would have assumed.

I was annoyed for a while, but it occurred to me that this woman was anxious and at the last minute panicked thinking that she would be stuck standing for hours and hours because there was no chair. She didn't trust the organizers to think about a chair.  And that lack of trust and panic was the result of a childhood where her two parents were a fundamentalist Christian drug addict and a blithering alcoholic. Like me, she has been conditioned at an early age to not trust people in authority and to assume that things can degenerate into total chaos at a moment's notice---leaving us holding the bag. As a result, she has to fight a constant battle to keep her anxiety at bay, which she tends to mask over with a surface "no sweat" attitude, but sometimes the pressure builds up and she explodes into sheer terror.

My problem is that this insight occurred to me after the fact instead of at the time.  So fat lot of good the insight did because I didn't respond the right way at the right time.  At least I didn't lose my temper and I repeatedly told her it wasn't a big deal and to not worry about it.


The thing to remember is that our behavior is not individual, instead it is culturally mediated. We act in certain ways, to a very large extent, because our culture teaches us to react in those way.  We also get social cues that push us to act in specific ways.  If it is totally left up to me, I don't remember to think of the big picture.  But if I am grounded in an etiquette that says losing your temper is absolutely forbidden, I might be able to remember to not get angry and reinforce the anxiety that drove my neighbor's behavior in the first place.

Yes, a large, silly ego---
In the same way, if big bosses are taught that being greedy for perks is embarrassingly gauche, more of them wouldn't be so self-righteous about demanding them. Unfortunately, our society says instead that we are a "meritocracy" where people get ahead by "working hard".  This means that these perks are described as being "earned" instead of being privileges bestowed by chance.  Hence the large, silly egos we often see in the rich and powerful.

The library patron that spoke to me was upset because a young woman was burping and farting next to him.  Me, I try not to get upset, but I observe that almost everyone I know seems to be ethically challenged in that they are oblivious to the damage that they do to present and future human beings when they drive around in their cars and fly around the world in jet airplanes. He could simply have gotten up and moved to another computer (the pool is large and mostly empty most of the time.)  But people who are seeing their crops dry-up in a drought or their homes submerged from rising sea levels cannot so easily avoid the consequences of climate change created by the use of a jet or a car.

Isn't this worse than a young woman's farts?

It is a common place for people to say things like "What fools these mortals be", and question the idea that there is such a thing as "sanity". But if we repeat this without really thinking about it deeply "in our bones", we miss the point. The point isn't to say "how true" when we read or hear this point made, but instead to think deeply about the implications for both our own personal life and that of the society that surrounds us.

What does it mean to absolutely question the sanity of everything that surrounds us? It means to me that I have to enter into a form of radical doubt about all the assumptions I bring to look at any given issue.  It also means that I try to remember to hold onto some type of humility when I interact with others.  I have to remember that my own particular way of looking at the world has shaped my perception of whether or not what a particular person is saying or doing makes any sense. But this doesn't let me off the hook, I have to participate in the world and make decisions just like everyone else. But the difference is that I have adopted the viewpoint of a participant, not judge.  This means that my particular "take on reality" is one of many, not a privileged, impartial one. Again, this doesn't mean that I have given up on making distinctions, just that I believe that my particular point of view is open to discussion and must be defensible using the canons of logic.  And, indeed, so must everyone else's "take on reality".    

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Is Permaculture Daoist?

I've been visiting my dear and beloved wife in Saint Louis Missouri this month.  One of the many things that bind us together is our interest in permaculture. To that end, we spend a good part of yesterday cutting off bits of a dead apricot tree in the back yard and piling it up in the garden to create a hugelkultur bed.
Hugelkultur in a Nutshell

The theory behind hugelkultur is that it uses dead wood as a mechanism for creating a structure to build plant communities around.  From the picture, it is obvious that part of this is a physical structure in that builds mounds that people can plant vegetables and fruit on top of.  Less obvious is the way rotting wood provides nutrients for the soil.  Rotten wood also retains water, which allows plants to thrive even through dry periods, even though the system drains during wet ones because of its shape. Hugelkultur even helps with climate change because a portion of the carbon in the wood remains in the soil after the wood is completely rotted away, which not only increases soil fertility, but it also drains carbon out of the ecosystem.

Hugelkultur is one specific type of permaculture amongst several other systems that have been developed during both ancient times and the 1960s.  Another example of permaculture is a food forest, some of which have existed for a very long time.  Take a look at this YouTube video about one in Morocco that purportedly has existed for 2,000 years.  

The thing about permaculture is that it involves seeing a garden as a whole system embedded in the entire natural world instead of as an isolated patch of dirt with discrete plants growing under human supervision and control. This systems analysis is integral to the whole project and cannot be over-emphasized. 

Donella Meadows
At the same time that I've been visiting my Saint Louis home, I've hired a friend to keep an eye on my Guelph property and care for my pussy cat.  Before left, she asked me to get her a book from the library (I get special loan privileges) so she could read up about systems theory. There is a book that she wanted from a woman by the name of Donella H. Meadows titled Thinking in Systems: A Primer.  Ms. Meadows had a pretty interesting resume in that she was the lead author for the very important Limits to Growth report that first raised concerns about the carrying capacity of the earth and what limits it gives to exponential growth in modern industrial, capitalist societies. 

Anyway, as it is being explained to me, Meadows describes systems as "games", and suggests that it is far, far more important to change the rules of a game instead of changing the players.  So in the case of agriculture, it is more important to develop new agricultural systems (such as things like food forests or hugelkulture) than it is to try and educate or regulate the behaviour of individual farmers who are operating within the current paradigm of industrial farming. 

Masanobu Fukuoka
Readers of this blog sometimes accuse me of not really being a "Daoist" but rather a "Green philosopher". I don't agree. Instead, I would argue that what I am trying to do is understand the "marrow" of Daoism instead of the superficial. I would argue that the systems approach that animates things like permaculture is the way of looking at the world as a "Dao" of "Daos".  The way of  living a good life, the way of creating a fruitful garden, are all parts of the Great Way.  I think that the people who accuse me of not really being a Daoist are missing out on the core of the thing and focusing on the superficial.

I will suggest some evidence in support of this point of view.  One of the schools of permaculture is called "Natural Farming".   It was founded by a Japanese fellow by the name of Masanobu Fukuoka and is based on a combination of both a spiritual revelation and also a lifetime of practical research. So, if you will, it is a combination of both "merging with the Dao" and also "kungfu".  He was very explicit about using traditional Daoist/Zen language to describe his personal experiences of developing his permaculture system.  In support of this argument, I would suggest that people look at this YouTube video. It is somewhat long, but I think that most readers would find it worth it.  Pay special attention to the language that he uses to describe his personal journey. I would argue that it could have easily been lifted from an ancient Daoist text.