The unsustainable byproducts of ‘consciousness’

We have been using up the natural capital of the world and passing the debt on to our children. But we are no happier for all of our excesses. What we call wealth and progress is fundamentally at the expense of nature. We are now accelerating down a one-way road going the wrong way. To find out where we’re going, we need to look at where we came from.

Over the last million years Homo sapiens gradually developed the ability to conceptualize an experience. We can also say we developed the ability of voluntarily recalling an experience, or, an experience left a lasting impression in our minds. Animals have the memory of recognition, but not voluntary recall.

After 2 billion years of innocent evolution, this was a quantum shift that initiated what we call “consciousness.” My definition of consciousness is the ability to hold a symbolic representation of reality in our minds and deal with them mentally in various ways.

One way is through reason and logic. Emotions motivate thought. This new ability to create a virtual reality in our minds also created several accidental byproducts, which have led to our present unsustainable predicament, and now also to our need for a paradigm shift:

1. Voluntary recall immediately evoked the concept of linear time, past and future, which are ideas rather than real experiences.

2. Voluntary recall allows us to compare one experience with another. This is a huge jump.

3. Comparing gives us the ability to judge and mentally prefer one experience or object over another. No longer do we fully accept the living Now in innocence, the way all other 30 million species do.

4. These new value judgments also evoke desire. Desire, as Buddha noted, leads to discontent and suffering. Desire is a ruthless taskmaster that leads to all forms of distortion including excess. For the first time in evolution, a species gets choosy about what reality/experience to accept. We start arguing with reality. This juvenile phase of humanity is a formula for effort, unhappiness, neurosis and disaster.

Nature, on the other hand, is effortless, self-balancing, self-recycling, self-healing, self-selecting, diversifying, impartial, ruthless and also sustainable because it is innocent of mental preference.

Natural balance, for instance, depends on predators going after the weakest and sickest pray. Our mental preference tells us to hunt the biggest and strongest, thereby destroying the best genes of countless species, including our own.

Mental preference throws a monkey wrench in the whole natural order. We want something “better.” But our genetic home for the last 2 billion years of evolution has been nature. As we create one “improvement” after the other we are incrementally and progressively alienating ourselves from nature. We are destroying our genetic home to make our artificial homes.

This error of preference, multiplied in thousands of ways, is the beginning of unsustainability and the downfall of nature and humans. We have been “improving” on nature and are now faced with the disaster we have created. Buckminster Fuller stated: “For every problem humans solve, we create three new ones.” That can keep the mind busy for a long, long time… until we reach the limits of the planet. That time is now: paradigm shift.

In the next article we will talk about the devastating results of “consciousness” applied to the thinker, the “me,” the ego. Stay tuned.

• Arius Hopman lives in Hanapepe. This column, part of a series, was adapted from his manuscript “The Ego Empire Exposed.”


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