The Long Memory that is Lost to Us

And now for something completely different…

Here are two interesting thoughts I read today:

Rees quotes Antonio Damasio (here, p.6):

[For humanity to survive the sustainability crisis] we must rely on highly-evolved geneticallybased biological mechanisms, as well as on supra-instinctual survival strategies that have developed in society, are transmitted by culture, and require for their application consciousness,  reasoned deliberation and willpower.

Utah Phillips once said (as quoted here):

Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.


The “supra-instinctual survival strategies”  that Damasio and Rees are talking about are ways of overcoming our “instinctive tendencies to act on short-term individual (and tribal) self-interest, to discount the future, and to abide by unifying myths,” which got mankind to where it is now but which, now that we have overshot the carrying capacity of our planet,  have become “maladaptive” and “may be selected out by an ecosphere in convulsion.”

We have, in the past, developed and lived by those supra-instinctive strategies. There have been many occasions in the course of human history  had the individual and the collective wherewithal to respond to certain threats and overcome our short-term survival instincts. During WWII, we built victory gardens, rationed voluntarily, sheltered our neighbors. We knew how our food was grown, how to cook, how to entertain ourselves. We valued in(ter)dependence, autonomy, cooperation and ecological literacy.


All these principles are still there for the taking, in the  examples of our elders, recorded stories and history, and in the lessons of the social and the hard sciences (ecology being one of them). Deeper still, they saturate our language, our idioms. Most deeply, they are the heart of the moral principles that we still praise.

But hold it right there. Oftentimes now, it seems to me, we only really pay lip service to those moral principles. When it comes down to actually applying them in our everyday lives, well, only a saint or a fool would do that! (This is why going to the movies to watch The  Lorax was nothing but heartbreak for me.)

And when confronted with such a “fool,” the reaction is that he is just old-fashioned, not with the times, living in the past. Those who dare to promote austerity, simplicity, down-scaling, contraction, transition, whatever you want to name it, are accused of “you want us to go back to the past! ”

And what is the past to us? We are a forward-looking culture. And why is that? Because the future = growth, bigger, better. The past = diminishing, too cramped. Because that’s what we do: we grow! That’s why we’re no longer living in towns or neighborhoods, why we’re citizens of the world!

It seems to me that this belief is held desperately now. People take it as unstoppable, inevitable. Even those who deplore our way continue, because “the is nothing we can do about it” or “that’s what life is now.” Worse, they believe that growth is, if not too big to fail, then what is our destiny, our natural way. And who can fight one’s nature?

In other words, as a global culture we have fallen back into our primitive survival instincts the  maladaptive ones that will be/are being selected out… and told ourselves there is no other way.


We overcame these survival instincts in the past.  We saw another way. Why can’t we now?

According to Rees, to do so requires community (a better word than society, being  less abstract) in which our supra-instinctive strategies can reside, and culture, by which they are transmitted, and consciousness,  reasoned deliberation and willpower, by which they are implemented. All those have been high-jacked, bought, carelessly cast aside in the pursuit of money, comfort, luxury, mind numbing entertainment, growth. We are now so far in our addiction to these things that we can’t even accept that this is all our choice.

Rees left out one crucial, even more fundamental element: memory.  Enter the Phillips quote:

It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.

What’s lost, then, is our perspective. Of course we’re not going to look ahead to the future if we are no longer willing or able to look back.  Of course we can’t assess the goodness of growth and bigness if we’ve lost all sight of the small.  Our culture devours, always more for the sake of the present alone. Who rules is the infantile Me, Now, As much as I can, regardless of where it may take us, regardless of whether that’s where we want to go.

Until the present will simply, run out. 

Can we renew our belief in the past, and in the small? Can we regain our perspective? I am confident that we can, but I am also very afraid of time running out. I’m not hopeless. We have time. It is not too late.

But hurry up. Cancel the cable, stop buying junk from China, look into solar PV, join a Transition group. Think and dare.


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