the Ecology of Truth, Trust, and Hope

Transcript of Keynote delivered 02.01.20, Night of Ideas, San Francisco, Calif. Obi Kaufmann


It may or it may not come as a surprise to you that tonight we are engaged in an ancient ritual, perhaps the oldest ritual our species knows — a ritual that seems to well up from the substrate matrix upon which our consciousness arises. The ritual is community building. Tonight, right now, right here, we are building community. We have together begun the telling of a story that binds us to this place and this time and that unites us in memory and vision. Tonight we are pulling a blanket around ourselves, tonight we are in a huddle and the opponent we face is despair. The tool we are armed with against this ever-encroaching enemy of powerlessness and paralyzed agency is hope itself. Hope in the human mind, is a function of time. If there is time, there is hope. And tonight we’ve got time.

If I were to name tonight’s address, I would call it the Ecology of Truth, Trust, and Hope. I have given my professional career as an artist and as a naturalist to the study of that thing I love most in this universe, the natural world of California. California is a very complex system. So complex in fact, that I use it as a metaphor for so many narratives — I use it to tell so many different stories about the nature of history, the nature of humanity, and the nature of ethics in the face of right now, a time of unparalleled transformation and disturbance.

We call it the Night of Ideas, but ideas don’t exist independently, springing forth from a vacuum. Ideas grow from the fertile ground of Story — Story with a capital S — which I think is different than storytelling. Story is the technology we use to perform the ancient ritual of community building. Story is the thing we have — and it is about 100,000 years old, being the marker of what anthropologists call the Cognitive Revolution — the dawn of fiction, the dawn of art. Story is the device that we use, the pervading narrative upon which, our social conquest of the earth complete. It is perhaps our most important evolutionarily endowed gift, rivaling the opposable thumb or even bipedalism — Story enabled us, the weakest and most physically helpless of all the great apes to do all the sublime, awesome work that we have done. Our species is unique in the history of the life on earth of being able to embody our animal natures outside of our physical selves and transfer that nature to other members of our communities in the form of Story.

If we are to survive the pending bottleneck represented by so many real threats to the status quo of the Biosphere, if we’re going to tell ourselves better Story, Story that connects us to the resilient, living systems and patterns within the Earth we’d better always start (and finish) with the basics. A couple years on from writing my first book and now in the weeds with the series that it has become, I believe now that I am writing these books to track three things – three ethical courses that are in short supply in the din of the very bad Story that this carbon economy tells itself about what is good and what is right.

These three, little items are none other than truth, trust, and hope. In the pre-carbon and what will be the post-carbon economies, those three things arise solely as a function of community. In the era of the internet and mass media, we are not fed any of those vital, ethical paradigms. They are each attained only by an endless and exhausting hunt. The assumption seems to be that they are innate to the human condition, and therefore don’t need to be popularly addressed, and I’m not convinced of that. We’ve abdicated too much of this responsibility to a virtual machine-world fundamentally unable to deliver these psycho-spiritual nutrients towards a sustainable healthy worldview.

I think we feel it every day — the scarcity of those three ideas in our culture: truth, trust, and hope. As we are barraged routinely with divisive rhetoric from corporate powers that would love to keep us isolated and scared, and there is a lot of money being made right now to keep us believing the story of division between us — members of our species and the between us and the natural world.  This rhetoric is exposed with quasi-legal arguments like “it is their fault…” or “if only they would be something different…” That is the contrivance of imposed tribalism, another mode of Story that we are particularly receptive to, but tribalism is not community. Tribalism is the basis for war, Community is the basis for truth, trust, and hope.

Human-community is a very specific thing, and it is a thing that we all long for on par with our animal needs of water, food, and shelter. We are so desperate for community that we are willing to acquiesce what we innately know about how community forms, functions, lives, dies and renews itself. In the technological flood of this late-stage capitalist society that has been so deftly sold to us, we associate community with consumerism and advertisement and let it bleed all together to form a super-entity, a hyper-object called the media. What a revelation it would be if we had wise leaders that were able and willing to address fundamental issues of connectivity and restoration not only in ecological terms — which is the course of my work — but between human circles. What if our leaders were able to rightly point out that it’s not fake news we’re listening to, it’s fake community!

The history of California in the last 170 years since that guy found that pretty rock in that river near what was to become Sacramento, has been economically perpetuated by the agendas keeping us at each other’s throats. We are all guilty of buying into it: dividing and judging based on the labels of Northern or Southern, Urban or Rural, Blue or Red. What if we could muster the compassionate wisdom to consider that there is no one at so-called fault. The right-hand sells to the left, and back again. From so many perspectives, it is clear that the fits and panicked lashings that fly out from those who would greedily hold onto the old stories are just that. The bad stories are bridges of rotten sugar in rain and melt as we awaken every day to new storms beating and threatening us with the wonderful new beginning we yearn for and deserve.

Truth, whether objective, political, or personal comes from Trust and together deliver hope. We give so much energy to believing that social media can be a surrogate for real community are we’re often not recognizing some basic societal truths about human psychological development — all truth seems to be dependent on confirmation bias, all Trust seems to be politically tribal in nature and all hope seems tempered by the constant drum of despair and panic.

However the next century tumbles together or falls apart, the deep future of California’s ecology will resemble the deep past. If we could observe the forests as a system of relationships, themselves made visible, or tangible or even merely apprehendable, we would see the forces that sustain them and what sounds like riddles now, would be laid bare as truths: 1. (Earth) The largest living entities in the forest, the mycorrhiza, are also the smallest, being microscopic in architecture —the service they provide is rivaled only by the sun. 2. (Fire) Trees, the woody body of the forest, are so intrinsically linked to the process of burning that they can be thought of as an expression of fire itself —trees are fire, waiting to burn. 3. (Air) No single organism, with the exception of blue-green algae at the dawn of the Great Oxidation event, 2.4 billion years ago, has manipulated the chemistry of the atmosphere as humanity —every ecosystem is now subject to our legacy for the foreseeable future. 4. (Water) A biotic strategy towards perpetual, ecological sustainability is conceivable with the state-wide, habitat restoration of  two types of animal, the salmon, and the beaver —let the circulatory systems of our watercourses teem with nutrients and witness the resurgence of biodiversity. Recognizing the grand machine, the simple wheel, the riddle solved is the trailhead, but it is not the journey itself and it is ultimately not enough. All ecological truths exist within an onion of layered complexities and paradoxes, and their applications are bereft in sacrifice and compromise. Time and space themselves, in terms of processes that were set in motion long ago, become to these ends, both our ally and our enemy.

Picture this, It is two hundred years from now, or maybe it is two hundred years ago. I am in the water, in a river, there are mountains on both sides. It is the Sacramento River. I can’t see how wide it is, but somehow I know that it is flooded and wild, thirty-five miles wide. It must be spring, it is always spring, or fall, maybe both. The sky is not shadowed by clouds but by birds on the flyway, their non-descript forms touching the edge of the troposphere. The river is writhing blanket of glinting nickels, a million people-sized chinook headed in the same direction I am going. I walk up a side canyon headed east towards the melting snow and the muddy ground is tilled with the raking prints of hundreds of grizzlies.

From that earth, activated as it is by our returned friend Ursus arctos californicus, California’s lost bear, a blinding spray of orange and purple in the full sun and blue dots in the shade under the budding oaks erupts in botanical delight, a cape for a thousand species of pollinators — One for each flower.

Up the staircase of beaver terraces – two or three per kilometer —Engineered ponds of exquisite efficiency and lavish abundance, the gathering place of the forest where even the trees come to work in a unionized factory whose only product is biodiversity, where the dance of cooperation and competition is a niche market so detailed, so complex and so ancient that its structure has no obligation for my apprehension. Finally, the dream ends in the cold, clear and clean, perfectly graveled headwaters, where the old fish have come to claim their prize, their immortality. Their immortality, offered in reciprocation for their mighty gift, the hundreds of thousands of metric tons of phosphorus and nitrogen offered to the arboreal, carbon sink.

How terrifying and exciting must it have been in the first revolution-of-mind, the cognitive revolution, one hundred thousand years ago when the very idea of fiction itself, perhaps a precursor to art, leaped from the warmth of shared fire into our common mind. From there we eventually reinvented our relationship to the world through agriculture and then did it again through industry. Now, at the pending phase threshold to what can certainly be a post-industrial age of abundance, we consider not extraction but replenishment as a guiding ethos. Resources, accessible to the clever and the compassionate, like knowledge itself, embedded in the self-perpetuating and non-linear patterns of nature may just be scattered like a field of stars across this terrestrial paradise.

Emergence from complexity (feather to wing to flight, or seed to tree to forest, or gene to phenotype to consciousness) may be the defining concept that will frame a coming ecological revolution — a bold and probably necessary trajectory for our species. How resilient systems, whether they are social, economic, political, physical, ecological, or biological arise from diversity, connection, interdependence, and adaptation (the four pillars of complexity theory) is an inroad to understanding how we survive what may be a future, evolutionary bottleneck.

I didn’t expect to find that this subject matter that I present —nature, is as much about the miracle of humanity as it is about anything else. It may be an unpopular position, in fact, it kind of surprised the hell out of me that I’ve found this to be true. I spent large swaths of my youth resentful of fouler men and spent seasons in the dark throes of misanthropy. I spent most of my life believing that humanity was outside of nature like we are something imposed onto it —like we, and everything we’ve ever thought and done, or even could think or do, is not fundamentally of the same origin as everything else on this earth. I’ve been on tour for a couple of years, dipping into and working with communities here and there from San Diego to Crescent City and back again. I find the same thing, again and again, on whatever scale we consider: an electric network of engaged citizens, inquisitive and open, ready and willing. I see solutions being presented and I see compromises emerging. It is always a fight, It is always a war —issues of sustainability, ecology, industrialization, and the rest are all unprecedented and seemingly too large to easily comprehend at all… and yet, and yet! The solutions, the map to the way out of every labyrinth is right here, in your hands. It is not somebody’s fault we are in this or that mess —there is only one unfolding dream and it can be frightening, change always is.

Tonight we’ve got buckets of these precious resources… Truth, trust and hope because tonight we have community. I would encourage us tonight to consider inclusive compassion in your deliberations as we are not here to argue, and we are not here to convince each other of one thing or the other – that is not how community works. The only thing that can change anyone’s mind, in fact, the only thing that ever has, is the proper delivery of better Story. Through better Story rooted in truth and received in trust, hope is transmitted. As I began talking about our clear opponent tonight, despair and isolation, I prescribe then, a vision of unity, based on a clear understanding of what that opponent is made up of. The only opponent, the only enemy is us and our unwillingness to together write better Story.

Obi Kaufmann at Night of Ideas by Litquake, San Francisco Public Library, February 02, 2020


Categories: ESSAYS