May 26, 2010

How do I make sense of the world? Probably from a mixture of my upbringing, the time I was growing up, and my own personality, I stayed very naive far too long.
I believed that all policemen wanted to help people and were my friend. Except for one very nasty teacher in the second grade, most of my teachers were nice people who lived up to my third grade teacher’s name, Miss Darling. And officials and politicians wanted to make the world better.
The 1960s was a heady, idealistic time. I heeded the words of the organization Zero Population Growth, and the warnings of the book, “The Population Bomb,” and adopted an unwanted child instead of creating yet another American consumer of valuable and limited resources. I did volunteer work or worked for very little money, incorporating into my personal finances the non-profit mentality of the places and causes I worked for. I wrote passionate letters to prevent a pipeline being built in Alaska, the killing of whales, and against hunting. In fact, I worried a lot about the environment.
When I saw fly-encrusted unrefrigerated meat being sold on the streets of China in the early 1990s, I just knew that that couldn’t happen in America where the government protected us from unhealthy meat. When I saw pharmacies in China where remedies for every malady were concocted with secret recipes no one else knew, I knew that that couldn’t happen in America because we were protected by government agencies that tested every drug for years. When I saw rampant corruption in the Third World for myself, I was confident that American politicians behaved better.
I knew that bad things happened. Hadn’t I been born at the time when World War II was raging, my father was a soldier, and Jews were being annihilated? As a young child, I heard about bomb shelters, Cold War, and nuclear bombs that could destroy the world. In fact, when the lights went out all across the East Coast one evening when I was coming home from my first job after college, I was sure we were being attacked by either aliens or Russians.
Nature made more sense to me than human beings. So, when I first heard the words uttered casually by a Stanford University professor during conversation at a faculty dinner, his simple sentence caught my attention. In fact, his sentence is the one that has replayed in my mind more often than any other sentence. I can’t say I really understood it when I first heard it, but I intuitively felt it was correct.
When I eventually learned that the American governmental agencies I so trusted had been poisoning me with chemicals, preservatives, bad food, unhealthy food, dangerous food, as well as being cruel to the animals awaiting slaughter, the professor’s wise pronouncement explained why. When the ridiculously expensive medications that had been so well tested turned out to be lethal, I thought of the professor’s words. When I nervously watched my little cache of retirement money disappear in 2008 as though with a magician’s wand, I could understand why the banks betrayed us and our politicians printed more money to give to them.
And these days, watching the struggling sea creatures in the Gulf slogging through oily guk, stately pelicans enveloped in black death, and babbling BP executives in fancy suits, I think once again of the professor’s wisdom that explains such man-made catastrophes.
The words of Robert B. Betts in his very readable book, “Along the Ramparts of the Tetons,” made excellent sense to me. He suggests writing a list of the achievements of humans. He then points out, “You will also probably find that just the list of achievements you have jotted down is so seemingly impressive it reinforces the natural inclination of our species to regard itself as something special indeed, central and vital to the order of things. But as busy as we have been and as much as we may think we have left a mark, this globe has spun around very nicely without us for five billion years — a disquieting reminder that humans are not one of creation’s irreplaceable components.”
He might well agree with the professor, whose name and face I can’t remember, but whose logic has given me comfort for more than half my lifetime. What did he so easily utter? Simply put, “The big brain experiment is a bust.”

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