Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Age of Water

For tens of thousands of years, fire has defined our civilization. It is fire that has allowed us to smelt metals, to purify chemicals, to power cars, trains and airplanes, to pave over the earth and travel to the moon. Without fire there would be no silicon chips, no pharmaceutical drugs, no plastic toys, no guns or bombs, no televisions or computers. Ours is an Age of Fire, an age which is rapidly drawing to a close.

The Age of Fire is an age of separation, during which humans have sought to dominate and control nature. From the very beginning, the circle of the campfire divided the world into two parts: the safe, domestic part, and the wild. Here was the hearth, the center of the circle of domesticity. Here was warmth, keeping the cold world at a distance. Here was safety, keeping predators at bay. Here was light, defining a human realm but making the night beyond all the deeper, all the more alien. Outside the circle of firelight was the other, the wild, the unknown.

The Age of Fire is also an age of domination. The original technologies of fire mostly employed wood, thereby removing it from the normal biological cycle and preempting the natural flow of matter and energy. No longer did it nourish generations of insects, fungi, and soil. Today we burn oil, not wood, but the mentality of burning is the same: the arrogation of stored energy to human purposes of control, accompanied by the degradation of other phases of the cycle in an unsustainable pretense of eternal linear growth.

The unsustainability of our present system derives from its linearity, its assumption of an infinite reservoir of inputs and limitless capacity for waste. Fire is a fitting metaphor for such a system, for it involves a one-way conversion of matter from one form to another, liberating energy-heat and light-in the process. Just as our economy is burning through all forms of stored cultural and natural wealth to liberate energy in the form of money, so also does our industry burn up stored fossil fuels to liberate the energy that powers our technology. Both generate heat for a while, but also increasing amounts of cold, dead, toxic ash and pollution, whether the ash-heap of wasted human lives or the strip-mine pits and toxic waste dumps of industry.

The end of the Age of Fire promises a reversal of the course of separation and domination that fire has fueled. Immersed as we are in the ideology of separation, it is hard to conceive of a mode of technology that does not involve the objectification, domination, and control of nature. Yet such technologies exist, even if we hardly recognize them as such. They are based not on fire but on earth, water, light, sound, and the human body. Rooted in an ancient past, they nonetheless carry the promise of a "new age." Who knows what unconscious wisdom has named it the "Age of Aquarius"?

Water carries metaphorical connotations very different from those of fire. Water denies linearity: cycling endlessly, it is also the agent of nature's cycles, nourishing both growth and decay. Similarly it resists separation: named the "universal solvent," it tends away from purity to partake of its environment. Water is also the nemesis of control. Seeking out the tiniest crack, nothing can hold it in. As waves in the ocean, it destroys any bulwark. Whereas fire burns clean and purifies what it touches, water makes a mess. Hence the key to preserving anything - houses, books, food, clothes, metal - is to keep it dry.

Water, with its cycles and flows, its unruliness and its ubiquity on earth, could be called the essence of nature. Our dependence on water, the fact that we are made mostly of water, denies the primary conceit of civilization; that we are separate from nature or even nature's master. No more nature's master are we, than we are the master of water!

Yet for centuries we have tried to persuade ourselves otherwise. In science our pretense of mastery manifests most fundamentally in the supposition that water is a structureless jumble of identical molecules, a generic medium, any two drops the same. That any two samples of H2O, or graphite, or ethanol, or any other pure chemical are identical is a dogma with enormous ramifications. It implies that the complexity and uniqueness of objects of our senses is an illusion, that they are mere permutations of the same standard building blocks. Such a view naturally corresponds to the objectification of the world, which makes of it a collection of things, masses.

The opposite view sees every piece of the universe as unique. No two drops of water, no two rocks, no two electrons are identical, but each has a unique individuality. This is essentially the view of animism, which assigned to each animate and inanimate object a spirit. To a Stone Age person, the idea that water from any source had a unique character or spirit would have seemed obvious. Modern chemistry denies it and says any apparent differences are merely due to impurities -- the underlying water is the same. Animism say no-to have a spirit is to be unique, irreducibly and intrinsically unique. To have a spirit is to be special.

One consequence is that we cannot escape the effects of our thoughts, words, and actions. Released into the universe, they leave their imprint there, in effect reconfiguring the reality in which we live. In an Age of Water we will understand this principle. In contrast, today's ideology of the technological fix assumes that we can forever avoid the effects of our depredations, like an addict making the pain go away with another drink. But eventually, when the fixes stop working and the costs become unbearable, we will understand that, like water, all things eventually cycle back to their source.

An Age of Water will imitate the water cycle in its economics as well. Fire is the epitome of consumption, as indeed we have experienced in our millennia-long incineration of social and natural capital. Today, though, we are already seeing the precursors to the cyclical economy of the Age of Water. Waste recycling is only a start, as is zero-waste manufacturing, full-cost accounting (eliminating externalities), and non-interest currency systems. Eventually, all will coalesce into what Paul Hawken calls an "industrial ecology", mimicking the ecology of nature in which "waste is food."

Perhaps the most profound transformation of the Age of Water will be in our spirituality; how we relate ourselves to the universe. Above, when speaking of animism, it was said that each water droplet or other object "has a unique spirit," but that is not quite correct. The conception of spirit as something to be "had," and therefore extrinsic to matter, is a metaphor of separation and of fire. What animism actually implies is that each thing is a unique spirit, that matter itself is spiritual, sacred, and special. Spirit can no more be abstracted out from matter than structure can be removed from the water that carries it. The Age of Water, then, is an age in which we treat the earth and everything in it as sacred.

At the same time, water teaches us that the unique spirit of any bit of matter is not discrete and separate from the rest of reality. Like all things including ourselves, water takes on the spiritual qualities of everything that surrounds it; thanks to its ubiquity and receptivity, it is also the medium of this communion of all with all. Unique we are, each one of us, yet no more separate than two drops of water in the ocean.