Monday, December 28, 2009

Don't Edit Your Inner Monkey

On the week-end, instead of making my rounds of the party circuit, I finished reading Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, by my new hero, John T. Cacioppo, and William Patrick. Just as interesting as I had anticipated. I will comment further on this in future posts.
This morning, found a somewhat related article in the Globe and Mail, "Forever in touch: a giant step back," by the well-known anthrolopogist Lionel Tiger (memorable if only for his carnivorous name). Dr. Tiger repeats a complaint that crops up now and then about our virtual society, and how much the young - who grew up with it, and often little but it - are missing from life. By relying on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail instead of letters, let alone the very basics of face-to-face encounters, people are short-changing their inner monkeys. All primates, Dr. Tiger points out, spend their waking hours touching and/or looking at each other. People who are cut off from others do very little, and sometimes go days without either eye-gazing (even briefly) or touching in a kind manner. (In desperate moments, bumping into someone in the crowded bus might count as "touching," but it shouldn't, should it?)
He is particularly concerned that all this electronic communication provides a filter - editing, he calls it - for self expression. Hard to edit yourself when you're face to face with a friend! But you can do that when e-mailing or writing about yourself in, er, a blog....
Communication about who you are and what matters to you - all the way down to the minutiae of your hobbies or daily routine - is becoming more imortant than connecting with one other person at a time in a meaningful manner, or the whole of humanity, through cultural links.
The proliferation of new and different and more media results in good part because from Montessori School on, folks are enjoined to be creative, express themselves, achieve their potential. But the clear message – requirement – of the new primate attention structure is that editing the self comes first. Only maybe then express it.
Is it possible that learning how to read a book skillfully and comprehend and appreciate the bravery of the world's pageant of artists, players, dancers, building-makers et al. will take precedence over confecting a new website for M&M collectors?

Reading this, I cannot help but hope this here blog is a wee bit less pretentious than all those vanity projects out there. Of course, most bloggers believe theirs are valuable, or they wouldn't start them. But many, many blogs go idle for months, according to Harper's magazine, suggesting that their true import eventually emerges to the very persons writing them!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

on 'The Road'

Saw the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road yesterday afternoon.
Although prepared by the reviews, and the reading of the book more than two years ago, I was still affected.
1. The devastated areas in the film, so I hear, were all actual scenes of devastation: no special effects. The highway that goes nowhere is in Pennsylvania, and I figure the swampy areas and overgrown roads and abandoned houses are in Louisiana. The worst such scene is probably in Oregon: burnt and clear-cut forest for as far as the eye can see.
2. The flashback scenes showing the world as we presently know it (minus the real places I list above) are heartwrenching. The director, James Hillcoat, lingers just long enough on the things that will be annihilated. The color alone is enough to make you weep.
3. The impossibility of relying on the natural world - which we evolved to do - hit me as an environmentalist. I discuss this (after reading the book) in my Globe & Mail review of post-apocalyptic fiction last year. (At present, unable to upload this review as image. Contact me if you want pdf version.)
Without technology, without nature, and barely with any sustenance, human life is pared down to the relationship between parent and child. Love is all that remains in a ruined world.
McCarthy deserves all the praise he has received and will continue to receive for this profoundly thought-provoking tale.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Climate Change Disconnect #3

The talks in Copenhagen are drawing to an uncomfortable close today.
The morning radio (Canada's wonderful CBC, in my case) was full of assessments and prognostications, few even remotely favorable.
I did hear what amounted to an addendum to Wed.'s post on the two Disconnects by way of an interview with Quebec journalist Cleo Paskal. Her new book, Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map, says it all. The coming disruptions will change the world as we know it.
Climate Change Disconnect #3: thinking that ecology is some sort of isolated subject, without a single tendril connecting it to any other human realm.
As long as we continue to think that nature is "out there" somewhere over the rainbow (and something tells me we won't be this stupid too much longer), then the repercussions to the way we do business, rear and teach our children, feed ourselves, fight disease, and just try to get along will be be enormous.
Ms. Paskal or someone else during this morning's discussion (hey, I hadn't had my tea yet) mentioned climate refugees. To take one recent and dramatic (but relatively small) example: Hurricane Katrina. The people displaced from that event alone experienced great hardship and caused social disruption that police and social services were ill-equipped to handle. It all cost $100 billion. One event. In one of the richest countries on Earth.
Nature (Hurricane) -> human displacement -> econo-politico-social chaos.
Connect the dots, world leaders. There's plenty outside the high palace walls that may eventually affect you!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Disconnects in Copenhagen Talks

I admit I have not been doggedly following the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, choosing instead to dip in now and then, hoping to pore over the conclusions on the 19th, or so, after it all ends.
What seems to be grabbing headlines this week is the nightmare in logistics - too many concerned lining up for too few conference-center seats - and the resulting riots and arrests. (I imagine only NGOs, comprised of brave and arrestable young folk, are those being dragged into paddy wagons by the Danish police, not governmental delegates.)
I was dismayed this morning to see that the head of the Conference, Danish Environment Minister, Connie Hedegaard, resigned her post (why?), and was replaced by Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen. I know little about him except his rightwing views. That doesn't bode well in these talks, where rightwing, bottom-line policies seem to hold sway.
Climate Change Disconnect # 1: when trying to draft an international CO2-reduction agreement, the emphasis remains stubbornly fixed on economics over ecology.
Whether the whiners are climate change activists or deniers, their main contention sounds like a warped mantra: how much is this going to COST?
Too many politicians are in thrall to Big Business and dare not make a false move lest they upset the people pulling the strings. Even Obama has been talking out of both sides of his mouth: delivering soothing lines about our grandchildren's future with one breath, and uttering noncommittal sound bites with another.
Not too surprisingly, ecology gets forgotten - the oh-so-fragile web of life affected by rising temperatures and other physical phenomena. In some cases it's culpable ignorance or outright defiance. In others, it's a plain lack of scientific literacy (something Obama, to his credit, has addressed - if only in a R&D context.)
The NY Times Dot Earth blogger, Andrew Revkin, today points out
Climate Change Disconnect #2: the absence of any mention of overpopulation.
It's easy to blame cars and other CO2 emitters with the blanket of heat-trapping gas around the globe. But how do you suppose it got quite so out of hand? There are no evil elves belching smog from the center of the Earth. The number of human beings on the planet correlates with the the number of cars, factories, intensive farming operations, and coal-fired power plants. The best way to minimize the growth of problem areas is to minimize the need for them in the first place - by limiting population growth.
The first Disconnect hits us in the wallet. The second Disconnect hits us where we live. Two enormous taboos clutter the road to a sustainable future.

Friday, December 11, 2009

We Live How We Eat

Cleaning up some older newspapers this morning, I came upon the back-page essay of the October 18 New York Times Book Review. It's called "Families, Class and Culture," and was written by author Arlie Hochschild.
Hochschild points out that Americans "step into and out of relationships faster than couples in Europe, Japan and Australia." So-called family values still may make a majority of the population opt for the public commitment of marriage, but a significant (and growing) number of these people also divorce, sooner or later. They may not be commitment shy (a common complaint), but they are emotionally restless. (The trend is not so much monogamy as serial monogamy - as they go on to marry/cohabit again, sometimes many times.) In the other parts of the industrialized world (presumably chosen as comparisons for their comparable degrees of modern benefits and afflictions, which may affect family values), couples stick together longer.
Interesting, of course. But what struck me was the parallel she drew between this in-and-out mentality and fast food. Easy, cheap, and quick belly filling not only resembles easy, cheap, and quick pairing, it actually may influence the phenomenon. It forms a not-so invisible cultural influence that shapes our mental processes. Those include how we feel about other people.
In a book I have been writing for some time, I argue that food choice has shaped the human brain, particularly where our relationships (and, by extension, the family unit) are concerned. Does the way we eat dictate how we live, how we love?
I agree with Hoschild's suggestion that "slow food" - a backlash to fast food - could be the new model for our relationships. Perhaps we would take our time and think twice before forming a household with someone if relationships weren't so "cheap."
I wouldn't want divorce to return to being the difficult and shameful event it was when I was young - being trapped in a truly bad marriage is a nightmare - but the pendulum may have swung to the other extreme. When the door to the room is half-open all the time, are you as careful with whom you choose to share that room?
We have harmed the planet with our cavalier attitude towards the living beings we raise and catch for food. Hundreds of millions of people take for granted the fact that millions of creatures live and die horribly for us. Life is cheap - maybe it always has been, on some social or cognitive level. But that doesn't mean that some reflection on this general disregard would be futile.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Body Electric

Today, a significant departure from recent themes, but still in keeping with the general one of connection.
I was reading a newspaper this morning - well, I glanced at the columns devoted to the climate change summit in Copenhagen going on this week. To be honest, I really wanted to read, to be informed (a weakness as a well as a strength), but it all seemed to blur.
So my eye strayed to an ad on the same page. It was about gift giving - this being the year's annual (global) summit on materialism, of course - specifically, the ever-popular electronic gift, the "gadget." (The very word suggests nonsense, frivolity, the unneeded.) So seductive, ubiquitous and gradually encroaching has been the gadget plague that we have barely realized it. Jokes aside about "crackberries" and the teenager who cannot leave her cellphone down for more than a minute without reaching for it like some kind of lifeline: toys (entertainment) and tools (useful, even essential items) are now indistinct in our collective consciousness.
Furthermore, these things don't run on air and a prayer. Does anyone stop to think of how many units of energy each toy-tool requires per day, week, year? And how millions of other little vampires like it are plugged into wall outlets around the world every day, sucking the electricity that's created by tumbling water, steam, burning coal, or nuclear reactions?
Cars, planes, crops, and the poor cows we enslave for their meat, milk, and hides are blamed for the ever-thickening blanket of CO2 surrounding the planet (and rightly so). But don't forget the little things. They sure do add up to pack a punch!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Evolution of Appetites

I mention in Wed.'s post that the human race has been lonely (i.e., so many of us feel isolated so often, and so deeply) for too few centuries to allow evolution to help us adjust/adapt. So we must either suffer or use cultural compensations. (The latter may work well, such as when we pursue spiritual exercises, or fail miserably, such as when we turn to addictions to shopping, drinking, and technology to "fill the hole that cannot be filled.")
Why is evolution so darn slow?
Genetic mutations are typically accidental and infrequent, for one thing. And any that just happen to be good require the organism to gain a reproductive advantage by having them. So if you are the first person born with the ability to go on long treks alone without going mad and hallucinating companions (humans or gods), then that's great for you if you have to risk your life on such treks, then you survive to marry a hot chick and have lots of healthy babies. (Evolutionary biologists do lots of sexy thought experiments like this.)
Since young people die of all sorts of things before they mature, there is no way of knowing how many fabulous mutations have arisen over the millennia, only to die with them. (And many adults with good traits have failed to have children, as well - same difference.)
Physically crucial traits, such as the ability to feel pain or hunger, are very strongly selected for: people who cannot feel their bodies' needs to avoid injury or seek food die pretty young. But psychological problems can be overridden. (Which may partially explain why genes for depression have not been weeded out over time.)
Pangs of loneliness have been as useful to us (as social animals) as hunger pangs. But the fast-paced modern world has, perversely, made food more available to appease hunger, and made companionship less available. We have adapted neither to seeing too much yummy, affordable food everywhere, nor to seeing too few friendly faces around us. The results are epidemics of obesity and loneliness.
While many of us nostalgically recall earlier times (say, 100 years ago), where everyone knew everyone else in town, and people had lifelong relationships, I doubt anyone would want to have the food scarcities and food poisoning of the same era. Modernity has given with one hand (greater physical sustenance) while taken away with the other (fewer strong communities and interpersonal relationships).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Patterns - Real and Imagined

When seemingly related but random events start to overlap in time, it's easy to believe "something's going on here - maybe it's worth looking into." The human mind has a built-in pattern-detecting mechanism, for the want of a technical term, and it gets us into probably as much trouble as it keeps us out of.
I doubt my recent foray into "superstition" is anything but completely harmless - except for the fact that it is evidence that I do not think rationally all the time (when it's necessary to think rationally, I hasten to add). I'm referring to multiple appearances of John Cacioppo and his work on loneliness. First the webcast, then the coverage this week by the Globe and Mail, and today - even a bit weirder - a small review of his book Loneliness in the April 2008 SEED magazine I just happened to flip through!
What are the odds? we ask, wanting to see a pattern, a semblance of order in this most disordered world. But it is nothing more than coincidence, a cluster of events that resemble each other. We need connection so much, we see it almost everywhere. It's like seeing bunny shapes in the clouds, instead of just puffs of white.
It is, as I say, harmless to attribute causation in my case - thinking that all these mentions of Cacioppo and his work are "trying to tell me something" - but the "de-randoming" of random events will frequently defy reason, and often have nothing to do with intuition, either. It is false causality - potentially dangerous when applied to morality. Witches were burned at the stake for less than a couple of reported cause-and-effect "facts."
The worst that will probably happen to me is that I will buy his book, read it instead of something else in my to-read pile, and end up writing an essay on the same subject. Okay, maybe not so harmless! Time and energy are precious!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Loneliness Contagious?

In a previous post, "Perceived Isolation," I mentioned a lucky find while trawling the web (actually, trawling usually uses a web or net!). It was a webcast of a fascinating lecture by social neuropsychologist John Cacioppo.
In the December 1 edition of the Globe and Mail, this article appeared on the very same work, with focus on one eye-catching aspect: the way people can "catch" loneliness from each other. I cannot do it justice here, so please give it a read. Suffice to say, it rang true to me as someone who has been on both ends of such psycho-social infection over the years. Not pleasant in either case!
Evolution finely honed our facial muscles, the facial recognition parts of our brain, our intuition, and our ability to learn very complex language (e.g., poetry) that variously befriends, delights, enlightens, and consoles. But the amount of time that loneliness has plagued our species has been insufficient for evolution to help us adjust. No wonder it causes so much psychic pain (and its physical manifestations).
If biology is too slow, culture will have to compensate!!