The October 12 episode of What Could Possibly Go Right? was a dialogue between Vicki Robin and Kamea Chayne that touched on the fundamental questions What is life? and What do people want? A single answer to both of these is found in a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zonewhich was a translation of the French adaptation of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce directed by Robert Enrico.
The film begins with the lead character about to be hung on the bridge, then as the rope apparently breaks, he drops into the river and swims to freedom. Running through the woods he arrives at a house where he finds the woman he loves and is about to embrace her when his illusion suddenly ends with his actual execution. In the scene where he comes up in the water a deeply moving song begins with the lyrics “A livin’ man. A livin’ man. I wanna be a livin’ man.” The complete song is heard in the first one and a quarter minutes of this clip which one should watch and listen to before continuing to read my essay. Moving from the man the camera turns to the things he is seeing and hearing with heightened sensibility – sunlight through a tree canopy, a centipede traversing a leaf and a spider on a web. Exquisitely expressing the immediacy, vibrance and preciousness of life, the clip also conveys the truth that living involves active immersion in a living world. My seventh grade school mates and I watched The Twilight Zone episode, and the next day in art class one of them made a paper mâché figure of the livin’ man. I was so captivated by the doll that she gave it to me, and to this day it stands on my dresser – an icon of livin’. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” and this is why the clip is so powerful: it represents the fulfillment of people’s ultimate desire, which is to be livin’.
It is most significant that the film’s depiction of livin’ isn’t footage of the man, but of living things around him accompanied by the lyrics “In all the world. He moves around. He walks around…” Until recently our acquaintance with livin’ has been limited to incomprehensible personal experiences and artistic representations, but now, as all of life has become endangered, understanding of it is advancing. Naturalist Craig Holdrege derives from Aldo Leopold’s literary “Thinking Like a Mountain” a key concept. In Thinking Like a Planthe writes, “For Leopold the wolf is not a separate organism that outwardly interacts with other organisms and the landscape. The wolf is present (or is a presence) in the whole landscape.”
Leopold’s essay relates the overall vital impact of a population of wolves on a mountain, something we can readily grasp. Moreover, now living in the Anthropocene, we are painfully aware of the destructive, indeed self-destructive, presence of humans on the earth. But what would a positive human presence look like? As an illustration of such a mode of existence I offer an experience of my own in a neighborhood years ago. My husband and I owned a house whose back yard bordered a small creek, on the opposite bank of which was a high tree-covered bluff. The beautiful scenery provided by the hillside contributed greatly to my enjoyment and love of my home, but one day a developer arrived with a plan to build dozens of condominiums along the far bank. These would rise two stories above a ground-level garage, presenting a solid wall of construction looming over our home and the entire neighborhood.
I immediately felt a sense of personal violation, for my view of the bluff had become a cherished part of me. Determined to stop the development but knowing nothing of the usual tactics, I just walked up the hill and knocked on the door of the house at the top. The neighborhood consisted of around seventy homes bounded by a wide boulevard, the creek and state institution grounds which together set it off geographically. With a ready-made canvass turf I proceeded to visit every one of the houses, seeking to gather their residents behind me. As I told folks about the plan I made a point of mentioning that I had just talked to their neighbors next door, referring to them by name, and thereby connecting the households. Once I completed the circuit I re-walked it.
My property was truly ground zero for the impact of the development, since it was beside where the creek bed was narrowest and the bluff steepest, thus the most scenic section. Constantly reaching out and talking to people, especially those living closest, I made the street in front of my home the hub of the neighborhood, where we would meet and talk almost daily. This activity became a social life for us that created bonds extending to the place as we formed a living community consisting of the people and the place – its geology, infrastructure, homes, flora and fauna.
My experience exemplifies Holdrege’s conception of presence. For me, an individual person, the neighborhood was a place that I affected extensively by walking all around, talking and forming bonds with the residents. Acting as a part of the total community, especially as an organizer, I looked upon and treated the other people specifically as parts of it as well, keeping them engaged and maintaining the collective intention to preserve that body. Our overall consciousness was love – awareness of the conjoined lives of the people and the place. In this the nonhuman elements were active also, for in being there as objects of sight, physical bodies and organisms the bluff with its vegetation actively entered into the people’s lives, forming parts of them and the whole living community too. Although it was driven by the fear that the development would materialize, my activity was exhilarating, for I was truly livin’.
In this experience I found an ideal for human life that is now supported by leading alternatives addressing climate change and the larger environmental crisis. David Korten proposes a global order of sustainable small communities, while Richard Heinberg has just amplified the call for degrowth. Going beyond capitalism and socialism solidarity economics, which figures in the Green New Deal, adds a formula for social justice to the vision.
While Holdrege captures livin’ in his notion of presence, Leopold bids us specifically to think like a mountain. This means viewing things as so many living component presences that together compose larger living wholes. Thinking of particular mountains from which wolves had been eradicated he observed that they had been severely degraded. Their condition led him to conclude that once people think like a mountain they must proceed to act multi-dimensionally, taking parts and wholes into consideration to secure the lives of all. This is the perspective of the whole, which is also reflected in that of each part, thus as a person functions as a constituent presence they serve the whole.
It’s clear that livin’ isn’t a solo act, for it involves at least a community of people consciously acting to create and sustain for themselves a total living community. At this time we face a plethora of crises – climate change, loss of biodiversity, mass human migration, pandemic, inequality, injustice and subversion of democracy. The situation presents both extraordinary peril and opportunity for everyone to attain the greatest livin’ in history by coming together and acting multi-dimensionally as presences in their communities, nations and the world to achieve the ecological civilization. This especially means everyone asserting their presence in these bodies as fully engaged citizens.
Having begun this essay with reflections on a film I conclude it with comments on another one of the same vintage. Luis Buñuel’s 1962 The Exterminating Angel opens with a group of upper-class guests enjoying a house party. As the event winds down first one then others walk to the door but turn away, apparently unable to open it and walk out. They seem to be trapped in the house, and after days marked by a couple of deaths and general lapse into savagery one person walks to the door, opens it and leaves, moving the rest to follow. The message is that people are the hostages of their own mindsets from which, nevertheless, it is possible for them to escape. Though they have long freely allowed themselves to be confined within a self-destructive mode of existence, today they must make the choice between livin’ or dyin’. To pick the former people must first realize that they wanna be a livin’ man, woman or youth, then act as such.
In 1961 French director Robert Enrico made a film adaptation of the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce.1 It won honors at Cannes and the Academy Awards, and in 1964 it was aired in translation on The Twilight Zone.2 The film begins with the lead character about to be hung on the bridge, then as the rope apparently breaks, he drops into the river and swims to freedom. Running through the woods he arrives at a house where he finds the woman he loves and is about to embrace her when his illusion suddenly ends with his actual execution. In the scene in which he comes up in the water a deeply moving song begins with the lyrics “A livin’ man. A livin’ man. I wanna be a livin’ man.” The complete song is heard in the first one and a quarter minutes of this clip which one should watch and listen to before continuing to read my essay. Moving from the man, the camera turns to the things he is seeing and hearing with heightened sensibility – sunlight through a tree’s canopy, a centipede traversing a leaf and a spider on a web. Exquisitely expressing the immediacy, vibrance and preciousness of life, the film also conveys the truth that living involves active immersion in a living world. My seventh grade school mates and I watched the Twilight Zone episode, and the next day in art class one of them made a paper mâché figure of the livin’ man. I was so captivated by the doll that she gave it to me, and to this day it stands on my dresser – an icon of livin’. Compared with the livin’ represented in the film our lives hardly measure up. In this essay I describe the ways in which the present mode of human existence radically diminishes and threatens our lives then explain what we must do to become. livin’ people in a livin’ world.
We’re Presently Dyin’
Recently reading Jeremy Lent’s article “Nature Is Not a Machine – We Treat It So at Our Peril”3 brought to mind my early encounter with factory farming. When Animal Factories by Peter Singer and James Mason4 was published in 1980 it caused a stir in my workplace at the time which was a university poultry science research center. Although as a secretary I had minimal contact with the birds in the houses and laboratories I was well aware of the conditions and procedures conducted in them. A copy of the book was passed around, and I read it, receiving a unique impression. Because its description of factory farming was not news to me, I read the book not as an exposé of animal cruelty but rather as an allegory of human life expressing how people are confined and deprived of the ability to act in accordance with their nature. The pandemic has underscored this reality, as it has prevented many people from going to their places of confinement – workplaces, day cares and schools – while others have been unable to leave theirs – nursing homes and prisons. People too are treated in an instrumental manner.
Global neoliberal capitalism has turned the world into a virtually total machine, with all things serving as parts of that machine in opposition to their vital natures. Its anti-life character originated with the Cold War and was brought to light then by Herbert Marcuse in his book One Dimensional Man.5 The over-arching threat at that time was nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., a catastrophe that never occurred. Today’s challenges – climate change along with natural resource depletion – are not only more dire but also more certainly devastating, unless humanity acts fast to reverse their progress. Apart from the difference between the looming disasters then and now, Marcuse’s analysis is as true today as it was in 1964.
As the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. mounted rival stockpiles of nuclear weapons they also competed economically, aiming to display the most desirable model for human life. The U.S. was able to attain a high level of employment and public contentment with ever-growing consumer and defense sector activity, all in service to the Cold War effort. Marcuse characterized the race as an irrational frenzied pursuit ultimately for death. In our time relentless economic growth is justified as staying competitive in the global economy and maintaining domestic employment that provides a satisfactory standard of living. This time the ultimate end of the race is planetary death.
The One-Dimensional Human World
Like the earlier one, the present system is a virtually total whole that functions like a machine with inexorable momentum. Everything in the world is construed as a part of the machine, having a particular instrumental value and functioning in service to the whole. People are atomized as they are defined as units of human capital performing micro-specialized work which, they are told, constitutes their “self-actualization.” Increasingly, rather than being the masters of their technology, they are its attendants or slaves. As agents of neoliberal free choice people construct, then exercise their “individuality” to separate and distinguish themselves from others. Such “individualization” is in fact a flight from the standardization imposed by the God-almighty market and has the effect of building alienation within the society.
Insofar as a person is totally defined as a neoliberal homo oeconomicus they are, according to Marcuse, a one-dimensional man or woman. As a consequence of being such a part of the machine and like a machine, their lives are greatly impoverished. “Minimal self” is the phrase Christopher Lasch6 coined to describe the withering consequence of persistent fear on people’s thoughts and actions. Because the system’s constraints are enforced, people fear stepping or falling outside of it, while their lives are extremely fragmented and compressed in myriad other ways. Zygmunt Bauman speaks of living in “pointillist time,”7 a series of disconnected moments of experience, while nothing is permanent in what for him is “liquid modernity”8 that renders relationships particularly short-term. Considering work, Richard Sennett traces how it has gone from life-long careers with the same company to gigs with a succession of employers and different kinds of work.9 Where all is ephemeral what is valued is stimulation, an experience Kierkegaard described as essentially momentary. In Either/Or10 he contrasted romantic love exemplified by Don Giovanni’s mille et trois seductions with conjugal love which occupies and develops over years. Because of the difference in the time of the two kinds of love the romantic variety especially lends itself to artistic representation, while the other absolutely defies it. The stress on self-promoting performance and novelty in one-dimensional life reinforces its liquid and pointillist characteristics.
People are shaped by their environments, so the one-dimensional world conditions them to be one-dimensional people. A huge factor in this is language, and Noam Chomsky persistently points out the media’s “manufacture of consent” with ubiquitous, subtle and insidious propaganda. Marcuse goes deeper, explaining how most common language is one-dimensional, reflecting one-dimensional patterns of thought that contrast with open, questioning and exploring dialectical thinking.11 The abbreviated forms are germane to modern science and advertising and revolve around absolute declarative constructions purporting to express matters of scientific law or facts. Another feature derived from science is the routine translation of “subjective” language into “objective” terms. We are all familiar with the principal techniques of propaganda and the disdain for “subjective” language, for they are reflected in our own behavior. Beyond these practices however, truncated one-dimensional language has other far-reaching and harmful consequences.
Our speech patterns are largely copied from media in which the sound byte rules. Absent from one-dimensional language are the elements of dialectical language that include relations, context and Marx’s favorite, negation. One significant relation is order of priority, for people commonly blast forth today’s headline as if yesterday never was and tomorrow will never be. An example is “Abortion rights are it!” in response to which I think “What about voting rights? What about climate?” In being one-dimensional oppositional language handicaps itself, for as Chomsky observed
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.12
Even more than by its content, one-dimensional discourse is restricted by its conventional style, structure and grammar.
Progressive activism illustrates one-dimensional thinking in being divided into so many narrowly focused campaigns and groups while the whole system is a sure recipe for disaster. There is the belief that doing a bit of good in one area reverberates for good throughout, and while this may be true, it doesn’t transform the system. Individual survival continues to depend on collective self-destruction which is more rapidly being realized with resource loss, mass migration, political destabilization, increased repression and inequality. Meanwhile, a new arms race is underway with China, from which, absurdly, we import most of our consumer products.
Transcending One-Dimensional Existence
Marcuse portrays the one-dimensional system as total, something that can’t be fixed but rather must be transcended. Historically the vehicle for cultural transcendence was art, which offered ideals and visions of paradise and utopia.13 Transcending art, he says, is specifically its high forms previously enjoyed only by the privileged classes. In our time such art has been quite vulgarized as, for example famous classical music is heard accompanying children’s cartoons. Becoming commonplace and integrated into mass consumer culture has destroyed the transcending quality of high art and with it, he writes, people’s sole avenue of escape.
Nevertheless at this time the threat of its end has succeeded in sacralizing nature, making it both an idol and an actual realm of transcendence. Marcuse failed to foresee this, as he maintained a strictly instrumental view of nature. To his credit though he advocated human population degrowth at a time when globally our species numbered less than half its count today!14Nature is now our inspiration and model, so having defined the problem as a more or less total one-dimensional system, I now turn to explain life, specifically livin’ which is the object of the livin’ man’s desire.
Livin’ Is Presence
Above I asserted that livin’ is a matter of being immersed in a living world, which means that an individual’s livin’ is continuous with their environment. While this notion is expressed in the view that all life is one or simply that all is one, these formulations fail to address the incredibly complex structure of life that is everywhere both one and many. This duality is clarified in Aldo Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain”15 and Craig Holdrege’s commentary on it in his Thinking Like a Plant.
Leopold laments how mountain ecosystems have been severely degraded by deer following the human destruction of their wolf populations. The howl of the wolf, he writes, fully penetrates the landscape, expressing that animal’s pervasive presence which conditions everything organic and inorganic that belongs to its habitat. Holdrege takes this observation literally, remarking, “For Leopold the wolf is not a separate organism that outwardly interacts with other organisms and the landscape. The wolf is present (or is a presence) in the whole landscape.”16 Although wolves especially attract our attention, what is true of them is also true of their prey the deer, other species, indeed everything that belongs to a mountain. Each thing may be regarded as forming a dimension or layer of life with greater or less extension over that mountain and all of which constitute its total life.
Applying this conception to humans means that we have a presence in the world as well for better or worse. Leopold’s and Holdrege’s reflections trade on the dual denotations of “wolf” as both the species and an individual. A single wolf, the last of its kind on a mountain, would have a different impact from a population of a size appropriate for the ecosystem. So in making the comparison with humans, it is evident that their significant presence in the world is that of the aggregate. Still, although individuals generally feel like tiny powerless specks in the total scheme of things, each of them has a considerable presence within a certain range.
Delving deeper into the meaning of “presence,” we understand that in the case of the wolf, one need not be close to a deer and seen by it in order to have an effect, for the herbivore is always wary that a wolf might approach it, and its whole behavior reflects this ever-present threat. Leopold relates how the presence of wolves determines the size of the deer population and the kind of vegetation living on a mountain. Conversely, the wolves’ behavior, indeed their very presence, is conditioned by the presence of the deer population and ultimately that of each individual one, for the wolf population doesn’t feed off the deer population, but rather individual wolves kill and eat individual deer.
Similarly, a person’s presence is their behavior which conditions the objects they affect in their environment, for instance a person owning a home which is recognized as private property that others do not enter. That individual may have a yard with a lawn which they keep mowed, preventing weeds, trees and wildlife from coming to inhabit it. While the person’s presence conditions other people and things, their presence is similarly conditioned by a multitude of other objects as each thing forms a layer in a certain place, and altogether these constitute a spatially and temporally continuous functional whole. Like with an ecosystem, this model for humans is readily imagined in the case of a small self-sufficient community. Otherwise to the extent that a person’s presence is dispersed, its space is as well, possibly resembling an amoeba that is far more pseudopods than main body. In our time of work in places far away from home communities, not to mention vast electronic communication, the presence of individual humans is both spatially and temporally discontinuous, indeed scattered.
Regardless, wherever a person is they fill that place with their presence, and this is manifest in their experience. I see the things around me as a three-dimensional panorama of visual images surrounding the image of my body. My visual perception extends around my body and constitutes my presence as a seeing subject which intersects and conjoins with likewise extended present objects in their visible capacities to produce images of them in my extended consciousness. Being extensions of me, images belong to and are organic parts of me in a way that is analogous to that in which parts of my body belong to me and are mine. My consciousness of external objects is not limited to sense perceptions, for I also have intuitions of their natures, and these, like sense perceptions, are located where the objects in their intuitable capacities and I as an intuiting subject intersect. Like sense perceptions, my intuitions are extensions of and belong to me.
The space of my perceptions and intuitions is not the same as that of my body or external objects insofar as these exist independently in a solid form and arrayed in what we understand as objective space, as it is perspectival and private to me. It does however evidently exist within the objective space as subjects and objects intersect within it and there is an orderly correlation of spatial relations between the two. It is to be noted that “objective” space is a map or picture drawn from the evidence of human perception.
My account expands our understanding of presence, revealing how experience is a matter of objects entering the lives of subjects as subjects simultaneously enter the lives of objects. When the intersection of lives produces images and intuitions, these belong to the subject as extensions of it while also being extensions of the objects, for the subjects and objects are conjoined in the images or intuitions. The object’s particular function in such a relation makes it part of the subject’s life. Understanding a thing to be the unity of all its functions, its presence can be defined as its action of entering into the lives of other things and becoming or being parts of them. A wolf enters into the life of a deer through the sound of its howl which modifies the deer’s life with a sense of fear, movements to protect itself and the creation or reinforcement of memories. Meanwhile deer enter into the wolf’s life insofar as its movements are guided by the scents, sounds, images and memories produced by them.
My mention of memory raises the factor of lived time. In speaking of presence and experience I have emphasized space – the space they occupy and extend over. But the ultimate subject is an entity’s life which is spread about through its functions, making visual images and intuitions parts of a person’s life along with the actions of living in their house, working in their office and so forth. All interaction between things involves presence since each thing conditions the other as, for example, when I stand on the ground my feet press against it while it simultaneously presses against my feet. Because the lives of things continue over time, repeated and sustained interactions assume larger roles in those lives.
How I Began Livin’
This reality was forcefully impressed upon me in a NIMBY battle in which I was involved many years ago. My husband and I owned a house, behind which was a small creek on the opposite bank of which was a beautiful high tree-covered bluff that contributed greatly to my enjoyment and love of my home. One day a developer arrived with a plan to build dozens of condominiums on that bank. These would rise two stories above a ground-level garage, presenting a solid wall of construction mere feet from my property, looming over it and the entire neighborhood.
I immediately felt a sense of personal violation, for my view and intuition of the bluff, through which I had a vital connection with the site, had become cherished parts of me. While the initial response of the neighbors whose properties bordered the creek was that you can’t fight city hall, I was determined to stop the development. Knowing nothing of the usual tactics, I just walked up the hill and knocked on the door of the house on the top. The neighborhood consisted of around seventy homes bounded by a wide boulevard, the creek and state institution grounds which together set it off geographically. It was further an officially designated city neighborhood with a then-inactive neighborhood association. With a ready-made canvass turf I proceeded to visit every house in the neighborhood, seeking to gather their residents behind me to oppose the development. As I told folks about the plan I made a point of mentioning that I had just talked to the residents next door, referring to them by name and thereby connecting the households. Once I completed the circuit I then re-walked it. My property was truly ground zero for the impact of the development, since it was beside where the creek bed was narrowest and the bluff steepest, thus the most scenic section. In the course of the campaign we learned that what I call the bluff was not a natural formation at all but was rather a great pile of fill material that years earlier had been dumped over the ridge above it. As it created the bluff, the dumping also shifted the creek much closer to the homes on the opposite bank.
Constantly reaching out and talking to people, especially those living closest, I made the street in front of my property the hub of the neighborhood where we would meet and talk almost daily. This activity became a social life for us that created bonds extending to the place as we formed a community consisting of the people and the place – its geology, infrastructure, homes, flora and fauna. So unified, this total community became an object of intuition for me, with its elements that included the bluff and me being intuited as parts of the whole and indivisibly united within that whole. I ceased to regard the view and intuition of the bluff as mine and now claimed them, in fact the bluff itself, as ours, organic parts of our total indivisible living community.
My experience vividly illustrates Holdrege’s conception of presence. For me, an individual person, the neighborhood was a place that I affected extensively by walking all around, talking, organizing and forming bonds with the neighbors. Further, like the wolves, the people acted to protect its natural features. Overall consciousness of the unified activity was love, awareness of the conjoined lives of the people and the place. In this the nonhuman elements were active as well, for in being there, in being objects of sight and intuition and as physical bodies and organisms the bluff and its vegetation actively entered into the people’s lives, forming parts of them and the whole living community too.
Acting as a part of the total community, especially as an organizer, I looked upon and treated the other people specifically as parts of it as well, keeping them engaged and maintaining the collective intention to preserve that body. This was no small feat, as the matter dragged on for several months while babies were born, personal conflicts and threats of defection arose. At its peak the unity was a beautiful thing, something which I have subsequently observed coming into being in other groups that unfortunately have tended to dissolve or devolve into cliques.
What I have described was a powerful experience, the like of which is related by other people in particularly intense activist efforts. Sartre and de Beauvoir found existential freedom in their engagement with La Resistánce, and at the time I shared their sense of deliverance, feeling rather like Dante that I had emerged from the dark wood of society’s false construction of reality. What I had achieved was living consciousness which is opposed to the life-denying one-dimensional outlook that dominates our culture.
The Place and Time of Livin’
My mind was permanently changed by the endeavor, and I have ever since regarded my visual images and intuitions as extensions of me literally existing in the space around my body, being parts of my life, belonging to me and through which I am conjoined with their objects. Acknowledging that the latter possess a measure of separate existence and autonomy I further view them, like myself, as parts of the community, nature and the world. This viewpoint drives my continual activism for the environment, democracy and many other campaign objectives, and it is the basis of my fundamental belief that other people’s inactivity or limited engagement is largely due to their lack of living connection with their community. I frequently repeat Grace Lee Boggs’ words “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”17 Our current culture pulverizes humanity, in fact the world, into innumerable separate fragments. Under neoliberalism people regard themselves as agents of free choice in all matters, so, in pointillist time, they are continually deciding anew what they will do, for example, watch television or attend a rally to save democracy.
In Thinking Like a Plant Holdrege describes the expansive multi-dimensional unity of plants with the things around them – the soil, water and multitude of other organisms. Unlike plants, animals are mobile, but they have and are bound to habitats. For some animals these are vast or far-flung, but they are nevertheless communities, for species that migrate across land or through the air or water must still eat, drink and breathe along the way. Their migration moreover carries them between their primary seasonal territories or waters in which they have a presence even in their absence, for the effects of their activity remain when they leave.
Plants and animals superbly demonstrate that the life of an individual involves vital connections with its place and everything in it. Each one is an extended presence or layer of the indivisible whole living place and as such parts they serve their own interests, those of each other and that of the whole. Obviously this involves trade-offs, as animals and pathogens consume and prey upon plants and other animals, but this is all for the purpose of perpetuating themselves, others and the whole.
This aspect of life is negated in current one-dimensional human life for two very disturbing reasons: First, the principle of neoliberalism isn’t just every man for himself, but universal competition, truly the war of all against all. Second, as the condition Marcuse diagnosed persists, the whole system’s destiny is massive destruction and death. While it is headed for doom, the people within it are not only radically diminished, each one’s activity contributes to the final demise.
Having explored the continuous, multi-dimensional spatial aspect of life, I now turn to explain its temporal nature. I have mentioned Bauman’s conceptions of “pointillist time” and the “liquid” character of our lives. Another term that has come into currency is “nowism” which refers to an attitude by which the world is viewed as being created anew at every moment, dismissing the past and the future. These positions don’t merely conflict with the truth of biological time, they negate that time, which is not an external structure in which things exist but is rather the very propagation of life. We commonly think of time in a way that is analogous to the way in which we conceive of space – as a bare surface or empty container. But that is an abstraction, because there is no such space, rather only place which is occupied by innumerable presences forming a single total indivisible living presence. In the same abstract manner we speak of time as a quantity, a period, even “space” of time. Aristotle defined time as the measure of motion: an hour, for example is the period in which the little hand moves from one numeral to the next on the face of a clock. But such uniform motion is also alien to the functioning of organisms, whose time is their creative continuance in which they persist in ever-newly modified forms, temporally and spatially indivisible. Exhibiting duration their entire histories are continually carried into each successive present moment of their lives.
There are thus two aspects of biological time – an organism’s progressive development and the retention of its past, which is continually absorbed into every new present configuration. These phenomena are what we commonly understand as maturation and aging which are particularly evident in higher life forms including humans. As we grow into adulthood then age, we continually build a living legacy, for our bodies are ongoing records of everything they have ever done or has had done to them. What I do at this moment is conditioned, for example, by my act of eating breakfast this morning, for that literally fuels it, as each meal fuels each day’s action day after day after… Our environment is also such a record of our activity, a living legacy as well because as we make our marks on the world our lives are extended into and continued in it. This is most evident with one’s offspring, for whose well-being one naturally has as much or more concern as for one’s own. Life is fully ongoing, so even if a particular individual has no direct descendants, by nature their activity serves the continued life of the environment that sustains them.
These facts of life are reflected in people’s normal conscious desire to create and have legacies. For Sennett satisfaction as an employee involves building a legacy through long service and promotion in a single workplace. He points also to the durable products created with pride by individual craftsmen which contrast with rapidly disposable stuff mass-produced by impersonal teams and operations that are highly automated or geographically dispersed.18 Although the premier legacies would seem to be achievements that make history, nature speaks resoundingly in people’s common satisfaction and sense of fulfillment with children, grandchildren and other living things that they have brought into existence or preserved. These values tend to become especially conscious when their objects are threatened with destruction or actually perish, as evidenced by the profound grief of parents when a child dies, the poignance of The Cherry Orchard as well as the passion with which campaigns to protect natural places and things are carried on.
Satisfaction, indeed joy, is felt by gardeners when their plants come into flower or fruition, and the degree of this pleasure is proportional to the length of time it took them to bring about the result. A mature perennial garden produces greater delight in its creator than one planted just this season with annuals. The length of duration makes a difference in a way that is comparable to the aging of wine which produces progressively complex, full-bodied and deeply pleasurable taste sensations. Time isn’t the only factor in the enjoyment of a legacy, as the scale and intricacy of one’s effort figure in it as well.
To the extent that one interacts with other things their life is conjoined with them, expanding and deepening one’s presence in the present and into the future, enriching their legacy. One’s own performance and pleasure are compounded when the activity is shared with other people, as in gardening together individuals not only work with the plants to bring them into fruition for themselves, but also establish and maintain friendly relations with each other. In this way each person’s legacy consists of both the garden and the society of the gardeners, which combined form a single and comprehensive whole life. I underscore life because the purpose of the whole endeavor is to sustain the lives of each plant, each individual person, the garden as a whole and the community of gardeners, all of which constitute the single whole life.
Restoring the Livin’ World
This is the model of life, but of course, actual lives are not so contrived or limited in reach. Regardless, it is diametrically opposed to the order in which we are presently living wherein the action of the whole and of every part is directed at destruction. Shifting to a life-affirming system requires that people, in the words of Bernie Sanders, “come together” and work in cooperation to create a world in which each part supports the life of every other part and that of the whole. Doing this is now urgent just to preserve life from the ravages of climate change and mass extinction. Indeed these crises have awakened us to the reality that livin’ today is global cooperative human action to serve and regenerate life on earth. Being the greatest crisis in the history of humanity, it is at the same time the greatest opportunity for each person to live to the maximum degree by dedicating themselves to the effort. This moment also brings about true understanding insofar as people come to know their own lives as shared with the people and things around them, all serving each other and life as a whole.
This last is a general idea that is presently widely shared, however it not sufficient for achieving the change that is necessary, which is to put an end to the whole one-dimensional mode of existence. Such total transformation has innumerable parts, one of which is an entirely different world view. Einstein said, “If we want to change the world we have to change our thinking… We must learn to see the world anew.” In this essay and in others published on my website I present a new life-affirming account of the world and the role of humans in it. Such thinking is essential, and it includes a new political economy, various proposals for which are now appearing at an accelerating pace.
I leave the detail of these schemes to the experts and limit myself to assessing their consistency with my philosophy. The core idea that best fits it is presented in David Korten’s Agenda for a New Economy: from Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth which calls for a global order of “coherent, self-reliant local economies that function as subsystems of their local ecosystems.”19 Recently Richard Heinberg20 has amplified Korten’s argument for degrowth, while programs for sustainability are multiplying under such labels as “regenerative culture” and “circular economy.” Meanwhile a whole new model has emerged which is set forth in Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor’s Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter.21 Moving beyond capitalism and socialism, these authors advocate a system that promotes co-ops and includes a “social wage,” housing, healthcare and employment as rights in addition to recognizing resources as commons. Their basic principle is that because everyone contributes to the economy and society they should receive the support of them in order to live with dignity. Knocking down economic self-interest and welfare programs, they present a plan founded on the values of human solidarity, mutuality and universal justice, applauding the Green New Deal as a vehicle for combatting climate change and inequality.
Dr. Pastor was a panelist in a recent webinar hosted by the Institute for New Economic Thinking22 in which it was brought out that to adequately respond to the climate crisis we need a functioning government that reflects the identities and interests of the people, yet achieving such a democracy requires people’s confidence that can only be won by the government actually making people’s lives better. This is a chicken-and-egg problem that I believe Benner and Pastor resolve by offering a vision in which both objectives are fulfilled.
In my view solidarity economics is the best plan to come along, especially to guide immediate action against climate change, while long-term it should be the organizing principle for the decentralized future mode of existence advocated by Korten. In their book Benner and Pastor are silent on the matter of finance, which for Korten is the fundamental problem, as our method of creating money as debt produces a growth imperative. This can be changed with public banking in accordance with modern monetary theory, a logical complement to solidarity economics.
We should also pass over Benner and Pastor’s dismissal of degrowth, which, I believe has already begun thanks to the pandemic. Insofar as the best way to bring about human population reduction is to empower women their model assists degrowth. As the pandemic has catalyzed the trend of population degrowth it has empowered workers, portending the gains to be had by continuing it through humane policies rather than by the hand of the Grim Reaper. Extreme population density has been a factor in COVID mortality, driving many people to temporarily or permanently move out of cities. Indeed, Marcuse’s principal argument for reducing human numbers was to provide more space for each person, what we now call “social distance.” If managed equitably, degrowth amid the inevitable resource reduction coming from climate change would mean less competition between people and therefore a larger share for each person.
The Green New Deal avoids the notion of degrowth, which stands outside the Overton window for American politicians including even Sanders. Fortunately at this time Europe is doing better, with Amsterdam having officially adopted doughnut conomics and regenerative technologies rapidly advancing on that continent. Still, plenty of economists and engineers both here and abroad are presently conceiving alternative structures to address the total global crisis.
As a philosopher and organizer my focus is on changing people’s outlook on the world and behavior toward it, especially with an eye toward resolving the chicken-and-egg problem identified above. For my purpose one-dimensional thinking is a huge obstacle. For the one-dimensional world is basically a machine consisting of so many parts linked together that constitute its total operation, and as with any machine, breakdown is always considered to be a problem with a particular part or parts, never due to the whole thing being a failure or totally misconceived. But this is precisely what is the matter with the world, especially the U.S., where the system is designed to build and maintain the dominance of the rich and powerful on the backs of the rest of us and through the destruction of nature.
People see countless things that are wrong and mostly go after them one-by-one in single-issue campaigns or identity groups. They seem to believe that all these projects together move the world toward ideals of sustainability and justice, but the goals are not consistent nor is the effort continuous. What we see is much swarming of people from one highly-publicized mobilization to another, leading some leaders to link their project to the hot topic of the day as was seen with other concerns being attached to the Black Lives Matter movement. Presently there is no unifying total counter-narrative to the status quo.
Activists reading this will inevitably respond by saying that they have only so much time and energy and therefore must limit themselves to working on only one or a few projects. This attitude is perfectly valid, and I admit to concentrating my effort on particular campaigns that are the most urgent or fundamental. But I want to say here that people’s time deficit is chiefly due to the nature of the system in which work, commuting, continuing education and just recovering from the grind needlessly consume nearly all of people’s waking hours. In regard to volunteer work, there are way too few of us doing it, so with decent manpower there would be less burden on each one. Finally, organizations and campaigns need to have broader scope with work on different parts of the agenda divided among the members. Too often in organizations everybody joins in the same function or series of activities one after the other. There are countless progressive organizations doing electoral work, but why has the national campaign to pass legislation protecting and expanding voting rights, end gerrymandering and dark money in politics had such difficulty engaging folks? As a volunteer organizer in it I have found that the reasons are those I identify in this essay.
Moving on, as it is evident that the problem is total, the solution must be as well. Central to any campaign is its message, for which there is a standard formula: define the problem; identify the villain; define the solution; identify the hero, which is always the people. As for the definition of the problem, I have referenced the work of Heinberg, an energy issue expert, and Korten, an economist. They stress the severity and totality of the environmental crisis that is now inseparable from the current and widely-acknowledged crises of democracy and social justice. While the goals and strategies of the two thinkers are technically compatible, their timelines differ. Heinberg is in a rush, issuing a call for movement organizing, echoing Bill McKibben’s recent New Yorker article23 and Benner’s and Pastor’s book.
As an activist and organizer I know that along with defining the problem and the solution it is necessary to change people’s thinking. Years ago I was at a festival collecting signatures on postcards to a U.S. senator and approached people asking, “Are you for good jobs, wages and healthcare?” If they hesitated I would add, “Or are you for bad jobs, wages and healthcare?” Today my question would be, “Are you for livin’ or are you for dyin’?” In this work I have defined “livin’” in the hope that it will lead people to abandon one-dimensional thinking and behavior in favor of living consciousness and action. Everything must change, and all of our moves must be understood as parts of the total transformation, having their particular places in it and related to the rest. There can be no isolated issues, and relations must be recognized, especially order of priority.
A person is an extended presence as I have described, with their body being the center of their action which is in some degree autonomous and free. They have the ability to think differently, step outside the one-dimensional machine and engage in livin’, which is actually a natural imperative. The reality of this responsibility is captured in Leopold’s observation of the call of the grebe which, it seemed to him, sustained the courage of all the marshland creatures by reminding them “…if all are to survive, each must ceaselessly feed and fight, breed and die.”24
Despite the fractured condition of human life and the world, there is an immediately available means for people, particularly Americans, to assert their presence, and this is by fully exercising their rights as citizens. Many times I have come forward as a voice in the wilderness, attracted support and achieved some policy objective. Right now everything is at stake – not only climate and life on earth, but our very ability to act on these matters as democracy is also in grave peril. My model of life includes participatory democracy in local communities and robust citizen participation in higher levels of representative democracy which must further extend to global governance. One of the points made in the INET conference was that the Green New Deal transforms not only power for lighting and transporting things, but also human and citizen power. The chicken and egg challenge is met by redefining all the problems as one, and the solution as one as well – system change that restores we the people as the sovereign and delivers justice for all, humans and nonhumans alike. Progress toward this goal is made with the same old formula – educate, agitate, organize.
Time is of the essence, not only in regard to climate but also democracy. Dividing the single whole issue into isolated pieces is a mistake. Recently 650 abortion rights events were held across the country that were attended by tens of thousands of people, while a few weeks earlier a mere 47 Finish the Job rallies for the Freedom to Vote Act attracted far fewer. The same people who were invited to rally for voting rights turned out en masse for abortion rights. Their engagement was commendable, but it’s a fact that abortion rights depend on voting rights, and those folks weren’t making the vital connection. So much activism is one-dimensional in this way, and I fear that too many progressives are like the benevolent Eloi in The Time Machine who were preyed upon by the underground-dwelling Morlocks. The latters’ present counterparts are at this moment preparing for an historic conquest.
My emphasis on broad perspective isn’t a merely rhetorical matter, as the fate of my neighborhood paradise reveals. The developer had applied for a conditional use permit, so the city officials finally required him to slightly reduce the number of units, dealing a financial blow to the project and leaving it in limbo. As time passed my husband got a job in another state, so with much regret I sold our house and moved away. Eighteen months later an extreme rainstorm caused the creek to flood the neighborhood, killing two people, demolishing or heavily damaging several of the houses. Remarkably, the city accepted responsibility for allowing extensive development up the watershed without providing for flood control, so it bought the properties adjacent to the creek and turned the land into a park. Having withstood the flood my former house was moved to another town. When in the course of our campaign the risk of flooding was raised we were informed that the solution was to channelize the creek – another aesthetic disaster! These two threats became tied to the development but apart from it set aside as remote possibilities.
As I write there is a city near me in which the citizens are doing many good things to advance local sustainability, yet it lies between two heavily-traveled highways along which warehouse development is rapidly destroying farmland. The topography and diesel truck traffic volume has caused the region’s air quality to become some of the worst in the country. This situation is one of I’m sure very many cases that demonstrate that community-focused action, though critical, is insufficient to resolve our total problem.
I have elaborated Leopold’s and Holdrege’s notions of presence, but the former had a bigger concept in mind when he wrote “Thinking Like a Mountain.” As the mountain is the indivisible unity of all its component presences, it is this total living being that Leopold bids us to think like – multi-dimensionally from the perspective of every presence that is a part and of the whole as well. For the mountain is also a presence within its larger environment, as we see that a drought can create the condition for a wildfire that consumes every living thing on it.
Thinking multi-dimensionally like a mountain, we must also act multi-dimensionally like one. This is livin’ – at once affirming our own life and that of the world. As I have said, technologies and models currently exist and are rapidly expanding that would permit humans to establish an ecological civilization. A major part of the transformation must be people fully engaging as citizens in local participatory democracy and representative democracy at the state, national and global levels to assert their presence as their constitutional right and by this means equitably secure it. Supreme livin’ is precisely people working together privately and as citizens to reverse the ongoing global dyin’ and to advance the goal of sustainable livin’ for all. With this monumental opportunity, indeed necessity, we are truly living in the greatest moment of human history which further offers the most noble legacy.
Right now the forces of light need the kind of full-spectrum movement that is currently being carried on by the forces of darkness, the latest moves of which include propagandizing and taking over school districts. Our message must be spread at the most local level with candidates being recruited and elected there and higher up who are committed to the agenda. As we are presently seeing, like many times before, party affiliation is no predictor of an official’s actions on specific issues, especially insofar as they rely on the power elite for their campaign funding.
The life-centered, life-based system change that I am advocating offers security and fulfillment in life. While at this time people are justifiably skeptical of dependence on government bureaucrats and wild swings of the political pendulum, personal human support remains scarce. It did increase some during the pandemic lockdown, but community social bonds, which reached a nadir before then, still need vast improvement. Our current crisis is an historic occasion to restore and expand them to the environment, make real the promise of democracy and attain livin’ for all.
Having begun this essay with reflections on a film I will conclude it with comments on another that won an award at Cannes the same year. Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel25 opens with a group of upper-class guests enjoying a house party. As the event winds down first one then others walk to the door but turn away, apparently unable to open it and walk out. They seem to be trapped in the house, and after days marked by a couple of deaths and general lapse into savagery one person walks to the door, opens it and leaves, moving the rest to follow. The message is that people are the hostages of their own mindsets from which, nevertheless, it is possible for them to escape. Though people have long freely allowed themselves to be confined within a one-dimensional mode of existence, today they must make the choice between livin’ or dyin’. To pick the former they must first wanna be a livin’ man, woman or youth, then act as such.
1. La Rivière du Hibou, directed by Robert Enrico (1961).
2. The Twilight Zone. Season 5, Episode 22, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Directed by Robert Enrico. Aired on February 28, 1964.