The View from Outside the Box

I delivered this Keynote Address to the Association of Environmental and Outdoor Educators on Saturday, March 30th, 2019 at their annual, statewide conference at Westminster Woods in Occidental California. I’ve edited a few comments as they were delivered and then presented here, but for the most part, it is presented verbatim. – Obi Kaufmann

I poured my heart into this presentation and I was so very gartified to have my work received so warmly by such a large group of kind and intelligent people (teachers, all).

I came down from Sierraville yesterday, which is about 35 miles north of Lake Tahoe, where I am living these days to be with you all here today. I am working on a series of books regarding conservation ecology in California and the parade of deadline my publisher has me up against means, that for the most part, snow has been my experience of spring. Coming home to the East Bay yesterday, I was deeply startled to suddenly apprehend the vernal, viridian wave across the hills. So much so that I was moved to pull off the road and scribble these few lines down, that looking at them again this morning I found them to be an appropriate and personal introduction to both me and the themes of my address today, so please indulge me:

The greater trajectory of my study, the life long song of praise I sing, the deeper quest for the purest expression of gratitude that I can most easily give away, is now just beginning to reveal itself as a single question: what is the character of our natural world once we are through telling our fossil fueled fantasy of endless growth? Once we prove to ourselves, the elasticity of our own consciousness and transform the story at the heart of the next version of society we invent, what scars will we map across the body of our beloved place? What narrative will we employ to justify our historic arrogance that presumed nature to work in any other way but a cycle?


I want to begin today by addressing the theme of this weekend’s conference and explore what exactly is the box that we are thinking outside of. It is clear to me that together, the inclusive-We, the We that includes every thinking human, regardless of agency or ideology, stands at a precious moment in history defined by transformation. This transformation is manifesting as a change across the natural world and is mirroring or will mirror a paradigm change in the fundamental fabric of the human psyche. I see this transformation effecting the biosphere across temporal horizons at different scales of society.

In my address I will be using the word society a lot. I am using the word society to denote a whole nation of people governed by some kind of legislative core. As multifaceted, fitful and slippery as any given society is, whether at regional, state, national or multi-national scale, I use the word society as a dialectic in context to the other frames of reference used to lump together the human world. The society sits between the community, those gathered here today, and the world population, which is the whole-global, contemporary corpus of humanity.

To describe the temporal and ecological context of contemporary humanity and the crossroads we find ourselves at, let’s image a mountain peak. On that mountain peak stands a little girl, and let’s let her represent humanity, human consciousness and the human faculty to understand a greater context for itself. The mountain represents a couple of concepts: one, in the foreground, the slopes down from the summit, the capacity of human-civilization to transform its natural environment in the field of history – and two, the far horizon, the viewshed of the mountain represents the history of life on earth. Turn one way, call it east, and squinting, you can see the beginning of life, deep in the Proterozoic Period of Earth’s Precambrian Era, 3.5 billion years ago. Turn the other way, call it west, and look at the sunset of life on planet earth – that too is about the same distance away – 3 billion years or so, when the core of our happy sun begins to shrink and brighten on its journey to become a red giant (in about ten billion years, when its outer edge will extend past Mars) and will pass a threshold, after the oceans’ have evaporated to destroy even all the bacteria on our terrestrial globe.  We are in the middle of the story and there is absolutely we can do about that.

Let us now focus on the slopes of time and space closer to our stout-hearted little human on her summit. Turn to the east again, and look down the hill, 170 years into the past. It’s 1848 in California, and you can hardly believe the extent and capacity of life on display across this truly golden state. You can hardly believe it because you can hardly recognize it. The forests of widely spaced Ponderosa and Calocedrus trees you walk through as you descend down the west slope of the Sierra Nevada into the Sacramento Valley exist in a strict and normalized fire regime where a thousand annual fires, both anthropogenic and lightning-sourced average 300 acres with an intense burn zone of 10 acres. By way of comparison, the 2014 Rim Fire near Yosemite burned 257,000 acres with an intense burn zone of 34,000 acres. The Sacramento Valley itself at this time, is a biyearly display of birdlife, a megapolis of avian activity on the Pacific Flyway – their habitat, the Sacramento, a river unchained that routinely grew to be thirty miles wide was patrolled by a legion of 2,000 pound grizzly bears that hunted teaming populations of people-sized salmon. The Coastal ranges, packed green all summer long with bunchgrass butt up against the greatest belt of sempervirens old-growth the Quaternary Period has left, the Redwood coast.

Turn now to the other direction, to the west in our thought experiment and consider California, 170 years from now: the California we encounter then will be as unrecognizable to us now as the pre-goldrush California seems to this contemporary reality. Even in the wake of what is considered the best case scenario for climate change, a two degree Celsius change of global atmospheric temperature, California could be radically transformed despite any engineered intervention.

Although most models predict California will not experience a dramatically decline in precipitation over the next one hundred-plus years, we are entering a century that will have us considering a new kind of drought: snow drought. In the California epoch of snow drought, the precipitation we do get could be mostly in the form of rain and it could fall in huge amounts, sometimes called rain-bombs by climate scientists, over shorter intervals. If this happens, it will change the traditions of California agriculture, development and urbanization as radically, suddenly and as spectacularly as these industries came into being and continue to presently expand .

Snow drought could change the soil-climate, the nature of aridity within the living, top-layers of California’s earthen landscape and the ecosystems will flee north and upslope to seek both cooler temperatures and respite from the cycles of wildland and suburban interface-inferno that will happen with increasing intensity, at any given month of the year. We could see our colder, subalpine forests fade to extirpation as they are invaded by the conifers running up the mountains. We could witness our chaparral and our desert habitats increasing fragmented by willful invasive grasses that seek to break the natural systems of succession and engage in whole-hearted, ecological conversion. Now, while this picture is bleak, I’ve got another one on deck, stay with me – we are not fated to realize that particular feedback cascade.

The larger point that I am making is that because of events that have already begun their course, because of pieces already in play, California will have undergone two major, ecological transformations within three centuries following European settlement. Three hundred years is the blink of an eye in most, geophysical scales of measure. This period of time, probably to be remembered as the lifespan of the carbon-economy, the fossil-fuel economy in California, represents a bottleneck. Not just a bottleneck for our own species to survive its relative adolescence, but a bottleneck for all of our endemic biodiversity.  The key, I believe to understanding the larger context by which we survive and thrive, along with our more-than-human community, following the bottleneck, is by understanding what can be called, in our conceptual model, the middle ground.

Let’s return to the conceptual peak and revisit our tiny human as she looks to the middle ground. The middle ground in this model is a time-horizon of between ten and fifteen thousand years. Turning again to the easterly-past, this is a period of time when there was a clear uptick in traceable evidence of the ancient people of California. Around the globe humans ventured in this broad and vague, aeon-wide swath of human history. Everywhere that humans went, humans became very good at destroying large animals. These animals – herbivorous megafauna, were keystone species in their own local systems and their decline precipitated a positive feedback cascade that launched the now-famously called Sixth Extinction. California is a text book example of how this unfolded and continues to unfold.

It is probable that humans arrived thousands of years prior to the discovery of the Calico Man culture, or the Channel Island cultures of between 12 and 14 thousand years ago. This horizon line is significant because it empirically represents not only a timeframe for humanity in this place, but across the Holocene, we have local evidence of an anthropogenically-caused decline of biodiversity, human-adaptation to it and the natural world’s recovery from it. When I say recovery, I mean the filling of niches within ecographies (spatial ecologies) around the state with invasive species that over time, established their own rules of equilibrium in the adaptive cycle within a relatively short amount of time. For example, how bison, elk and moose from Beringia filled the niches left by dwindling populations of camel, horse and mammoth. And humans, spending thousands of years learning pyro-technologies of prescription burning for food production, established ancient cultures with stable populations in every corner of the state.  I am not saying that the decline of megafauna populations around the world was necessarily analogous to the rate at which we are losing our biodiversity today. And, I’m not saying that we should or can turn back the clock, although it might be turned back for us – what I am saying is that the time-horizon is significant when we turn our attention to the west from our summit view.

Ten thousand years from now is an exciting prospect. If you listen to too much main-stream and social media, you may be worried about the human race making it until next Tuesday. I’d like to trust you with greater thought. I’d like to ask for your trust to begin the conversation where we are imagining humanity, thriving in a beautifully fecund California ten thousand years from now.

In order to begin that conversation, we had better turn our attention back to the girl standing on the mountain top. The question we ask ourselves there then is, is there a box on her head? Can she see anything out of the box at all or does truth exist only in her mind? This is the box we need to think outside of. This is the box we are discussing this weekend.

If it is the case that she has a box on her head, than the most important question becomes how do we get her to take off the box? We can’t take off the box for her – that’s inside the box thinking. There is no external source that will present to us, a vision for us to follow – the path is internal, and the path will shift our paradigm. To remove the box, we have to not only understand what inside the box thinking is, but how inside the box thinking doesn’t work.

Inside the box thinking says that society, with simply enough information and with enough exposure to the facts will understand and adopt climate change for the threat to civilization that it is and will respond to the threat in kind. Outside the box thinking understands that the human mind, having developed in the African savanna over the past five million years, did not evolve to evaluate and properly assess the hyperobject that climate change is, for the threat that it poses.

Inside the box thinking says that faith in technology and the free market system will invent some deus ex machina, some device, or system of devices that will quote-unquote “clean up our mess” and present some band-aid solution for our bevy of ecological problems. Outside the box thinking understands that unless we change the story, the story of our own anthrocentric value above all others with whom we share this world, a worldview I would argue as being Abrahamic in cultural-origin – a worldview that fundamentally challenges the basic notion of humanity existing in tandem with a larger, living network of natural systems –  the technology won’t save us for any meaningful amount of time from these imminently collapsing, unraveling feedback cascades that we find everywhere.

Inside the box thinking wishes to dismiss me as a neo-liberal, tribal-thinker who works merely for protections of the natural world, such as personhood status for watersheds, above the concerns for the human economy upon which thousands of Californian families depend. Outside the box thinking has me standing with the children of the Sunrise Movement imagining a prosperous, post-carbon economy where we avoid the coming, Malthusian catastrophe by shedding our political subscriptions, even for a proverbial moment, to remake our collective power.

To put it simply, inside the box thinking says that there are two types of people in this world – outside the box thinking knows better.

Inside the box thinking has you all boiled down to an industrial role that reflects deeper economic patterns. As teachers and educators, you are not unlike line-workers who have the repetitive and remedial job of assembling citizens from behind the factory door from where they will emerge, largely identical. Outside the box thinking has you as the greatest and most potent army the democratic world has got, mobilized and deployed at the front lines of the war on ignorance. I don’t mean to fall back on military jargon, which is often solely about anesthetizing more-nuanced and sensitive truths, but the struggle to get that box of that little girl’s head is a long and potentially brutal campaign that requires strategy, discipline and valor.

I would like to pause here and discuss why I chose to engender the tiny human to represent humanity at the top of the conceptual mountain. I don’t mean at all to imply that the box is on her head because I call her a girl – in fact it is quite the opposite: it may be that only she has the power to remove the box – he cannot do it.  The future is not only female, so is the present. And she is also, most-certainly not white, probably transcends polarized, sexual-identity and doesn’t come from wealth. What I mean when I rather flippantly invoke the T-Shirt axiom that the future is female, with my unavoidably male voice is a deeper trend in the emergent, ecological paradigm. I don’t mean to invoke images of mythological Amazonia, ruled by shield maidens with long hair, as cool as that would be. I mean that a serious investigation of contemporary global demographics coupled with the progressive course of psychological dynamics through human and civil rights paints a picture of what has been called ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism is a word that will turn off half the audience who believe it to be a political idea, and thus one with a high-degree of elective agency – agency that is rooted in male-psychology, not female.

Ecofeminism is often mentioned in the same breath as patriarchy – as its diametrically opposed force. It isn’t. But because of this pairing – whatever it is, or it isn’t, is now tied to words like environmentalism, like sustainable, like even progress, that imply a political dogma under the banner of liberalism (little l) and are dismissed by the coded, dog-whistle heard by over half of the American populace.

If I were a braver poet, if I were less a cis-gendered, white guy, I would have another term – actually, I think the Sunrise Movement, works pretty well – so we will let it stand. Let’s let this stand too: In Paul Hawken’s extensive 2016 book with the grand title DRAWDOWN, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, he estimates that by 1) enabling share-ownership of small businesses around the world commiserate with the total rate of female labor within those business, namely equally pay for equal work, and 2) supplying the paltry, five billion dollar global shortfall for women’s reproductive health and family planning, and 3) if all nations adopted a plan of 100 percent enrollment of girls in primary and secondary schools, the net, cascading effect would be a reduction of 124 gigatons of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the year 2050 – in itself, potentially enough to keep the world from warming to dread catastrophe. And if that what it means to be an ecofeminist, let’s start the line to sign up as one right here and now.

I grew up the son of two scientists. My father was an astrophysicist and my mother was a clinical psychologist. I remember once, I must have been about seven years old and I was sitting in the back seat of the car and I can’t remember exactly the context of the question, but I remember baiting them with the question “where is truth in the universe?” They both responded with out hesitation and simultaneously. My father said physics, my mother said psychology. My folks and I still have a laugh to this day about that moment.

Now, so many years on, I have finally found a third answer. One that I think works better for me to understand the human mind and its relationship to the great world. If the adult me were in that car and was going to blurt out his answer just as my parents did, I would say story.

A story is a work of narrative, a fiction that reveals meaning or a cognitive device that assigns value. Evolutionary anthropologists describe a cognitive revolution that seems to have occurred in our species about seventy to one hundred thousand years ago. This revolution coincided with the first, discernable evidence of art making. Evolutionary biologists have posited that the ability to tell a story, to put together the most advanced, interpersonal communication technology the world has ever known was far in a way more important to our evolutionary success than bipedalism or our opposable thumb. Through the technology of story telling we are able to abstractly remove and maximize selected pieces of our animal instinct, selective pieces of our inherited birthright and store them outside of our bodies, in a conceptual locker for transferability between members of our species. Because of this, it didn’t matter that we were weak apes with limited physicality – we were destined to do what we did and are doing, and we were destined to do it fast.

Stories exist on many conceptual levels. There are stories that exist between individuals, like the one I am telling today, there are stories that occur in popular culture that can reap havoc on collective thought – think marketing, branding, brand-stories, and even advertising. and there are stories that work like rivers through the course of history, guiding our decisions and creating our biases and our normalities. These are the stories that we tell ourselves and these stories, our personal myths, dictate how we live our lives and why. It is by way of a story somewhere deep in me that has it as a normal bias that I should get in a car every morning, drive for hours only then to sit in front of a computer screen for eight hours, get back into the car, do it again, five days a week for 40 years. That sounds like a pretty bad story, one that considers nothing but the story I tell myself to be a productive and prosperous member of society.

I would argue that our story, the story that is human society is ready for a new iteration. The through-line of history, the over-arching story of world civilization is ready for an upgrade and it will either be imposed on us from without or it may emerge spontaneously from within.

The same story that evolved through the second and third human revolutions: the agricultural revolution, about 6,000 years ago, and the industrial revolution, which conceivably began one sunny, Sunday afternoon in June of 1775, when James Watt turned on his steam engine and brought into creation the first carbon emission. I like this date because the forces of human history, the force of story, conspires with other elements of culture. Like this date 1775, the same year that the American Revolution began, beginning the first, large-scale experiment with representative democracy in the modern age. Other great synergies of story-telling that represent leaping shifts in the axis of our worldview occur in the 16th century with the Renaissance and the Copernican revolution of a heliocentric solar system; Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859) coincides with the beginning of the end of institutional slavery in the United States; the invention of modern art, Pablo Picasso beginning his work on cubism with Georges Braque in 1905 coinciding the same year with Einstein’s discovery of the theory of general relativity. Through all of these examples, there is a scientific discovery corresponding, organically and with minimal obvious connection, that ties to a new story within the humanities. The arts.

If I have a single mentor, a single individual – someone who even amounts to some kind of guru in my own, private constellation, it would probably be our nation’s greatest, living naturalist Edward O. Wilson. In his book The Meaning of Human Existence, he speculates in his usual, casual yet insightful manner that “when aliens come to visit us, they won’t be coming for our science. They have that figured out. They will be coming to discover the humanities. The thing that makes us special.” Being a preeminent biologist, he goes on to explain why we haven’t ever been visited by aliens and why a galactic conquest has never even begun, due to the nature of the micro-biome within individuals collapsing under alien, geophysical forces, but that is another story.

Back to the box, or rather what the box signifies. For me, the box was always and continues to be, quite literally, a piece of paper. Throughout high school, I spent my afternoons after school tromping around Mount Diablo. I was and am so in love with that mountain. Playing with tarantulas, mapping the sage mazes, tracking coyote, drawing wildflowers. Mount Diablo was the cosmos.

And then I would go home and my father, the mathematician would sit me down for a few hours of calculus homework. Stack of paper – can of sharp number twos; still kind of the way I work today. My worldview, my story was molded in such a way that the discipline I was always studying was not the discipline itself, but a mode of investigation, based on observation, hypothesis, experiment, conclusion and consensus. This loose appropriation of the scientific method leads naturally to the 21st century theory of applied education that involves instilling, as values of academic discipline: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. These are the values that are proof against the wave of automation technologies; these are the inroads by which the girl on the mountain is trusted to remove the box from her head; these are elements by which new stories are found and told.

To conclude, I am going to address you all collectively as educators – a word that in my mind, carries with it the not only the obvious role as teacher and mentor, but also activist, and even more subtly yet with all the profound weight and burden of being the stalwart defenders against the collapse of civilization, you are the storytellers.

Whatever modicum of success I have realized through the publishing of the California Field Atlas and all the books to come, it is all reflected right back to my open, ready and turned on community that is ready for this nature-first narrative. My books come from me – I’m figuring this stuff out for me, because that is the posture I am comfortable taking and giving away in this bound thing that approximates cogent apprehendability. My conclusions have lead me to help with the uncovering of new stories, tracked through emerging techniques of multidisciplinary conservation ecology. These stories reveal that all natural systems are living systems and deserve an emancipated rebirth from the old modes of utility, of extraction without reciprocation. Thinking outside the box towards a new inclusive ecological paradigm is the beacon of hope we, as storytellers, offer and I believe it may be the only story that is at all worth telling.

Thank you.