Reality Bites, an introduction to the world of human anatomy.
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Posted 8/25/11 , edited 8/25/11

I tried to think of it as the usual recital that some of the professors must go through to show their skill in their field of expertise. As I made my way through the mass and managed to reach a cozy place from where I could listen and see the entire procedure in peace.

It was to my utter surprise, when a naked body of a man was laid flat on a steel table in front of everyone, the remains of a dead man.

The assistant student in white apron stared at it with curiosity. While the shiny metallic equipment in all shape and sized are all neatly lined up just beside the dead body lying in the steel table.

I was overwhelmed by a mixture of sadness and terror at the strangest sight, I’d ever witnessed. Oh yes, my whole being cried out in sympathy, towards the lifeless creature whose body is about to be sacrificed in pursuit of knowledge.

The visiting professor was a tall man in his fifties, with a slopping baldness shined down his forehead, a transparent spectacles bridge over his bony nose revealing his wrinkled squinty eyes, and his broad jaw was covered with graying beard. He reminded me of those character where “Jack the ripper” would easily fit in without a doubt.

Everyone around me looked so serious, they seemed unbothered; absorbed in their thirst for knowledge and driven by curiosity. I questioned myself in dismay, “Am I in the wrong place?”

All of the sudden the professor began: “Today I will introduce you to the world of anatomy, the old fashion way.” He put on his hand gloves and picked up a sharp dissecting blade and a pair of scissors from the steel tray next to him.

I quivered uncontrollably at the sight of this man as he helped himself with the lifeless body, while showing off—the skills he acquired throughout his professional life.

The entire procedure was no different than butchering with precision. My mind was utterly disturbed, as I grasped for breath quietly, with my parched throat begging for a drop of water.

The fact that the human body like anything else is a compounded thing was true. There was nothing human left after an hour or so. Its bare chest striped off its skin, the yellow fat removed and then the flesh incised precisely so that every tiny detail lying beneath it became apparent: nerves, lungs, liver, heart, brain, kidneys and the intestines all cut out to be exposed.

“He butchered him,” I thought. “No, not really… this is for a noble cause.” I said, while trying to convince myself quietly.

The thought of myself being laid on the similar steel dissecting table terrified me….

I wondered, how many crushes he would have had as a boy? I bet he would have had a love story to tell, a life of pain to share, and many reasons that came across his lifetime to rejoice.

Did it come across his mind that he is nothing, but a lump of flesh and few clusters of bones? “So did I”, I thought. My fear of fading into nothingness rushed down my spine…. “I don’t believe that I would make a good Doctor.” I honestly thought, so I left the class and never returned.


What about you? Yes, you!

"Did it come across your mind that you are nothing, but a lump of flesh and few clusters of bones?" If your answer is a resounding NO! Then, "What makes you think so?"

Posted 8/25/11 , edited 8/25/11

IzumiKoji wrote:

What about you? Yes, you!

"Did it come across your mind that you are nothing, but a lump of flesh and few clusters of bones?" If your answer is a resounding NO! Then, "What makes you think so?"
My very own brain matter called the connectume is being shaped by my very own neuron activities, while my consciousness is completely unaware of this very process of my subconscious adapting to its social and cultural environments.

And yet, I persist in this quixotic endeavor. And indeed, these days I harbor new hopes. Some day, a fleet of microscopes will capture every neuron and every synapse in a vast database of images. And some day, artificially intelligent supercomputers will analyze the images without human assistance to summarize them in a connectome. I do not know, but I hope that I will live to see that day. Because finding an entire human connectome is one of the greatest technological challenges of all time. It will take the work of generations to succeed. At the present time, my collaborators and I, what we're aiming for is much more modest -- just to find partial connectomes of tiny chunks of mouse and human brain. But even that will be enough for the first tests of this hypothesis that I am my connectome. For now, let me try to convince you of the plausibility of this hypothesis, that it's actually worth taking seriously.

As you grow during childhood and age during adulthood, your personal identity changes slowly. Likewise, every connectome changes over time. What kinds of changes happen? Well, neurons, like trees, can grow new branches, and they can lose old ones. Synapses can be created, and they can be eliminated. And synapses can grow larger, and they can grow smaller. Second question: what causes these changes? Well, it's true. To some extent, they are programmed by your genes. But that's not the whole story, because there are signals, electrical signals, that travel along the branches of neurons and chemical signals that jump across from branch to branch. These signals are called neural activity. And there's a lot of evidence that neural activity is encoding our thoughts, feelings and perceptions, our mental experiences. And there's a lot of evidence that neural activity can cause your connections to change. And if you put those two facts together, it means that your experiences can change your connectome. And that's why every connectome is unique, even those of genetically identical twins. The connectome is where nature meets nurture. And it might true that just the mere act of thinking can change your connectome -- an idea that you may find empowering.

What's in this picture? A cool and refreshing stream of water, you say. What else is in this picture? Do not forget that groove in the Earth called the stream bed. Without it, the water would not know in which direction to flow. And with the stream, I would like to propose a metaphor for the relationship between neural activity and connectivity. Neural activity is constantly changing. It's like the water of the stream; it never sits still. The connections of the brain's neural network determines the pathways along which neural activity flows. And so the connectome is like bed of the stream. But the metaphor is richer than that. Because it's true that the stream bed guides the flow of the water, but over long timescales, the water also reshapes the bed of the stream. And as I told you just now, neural activity can change the connectome. And if you'll allow me to ascend to metaphorical heights, I will remind you that neural activity is the physical basis -- or so neuroscientists think -- of thoughts, feelings and perceptions. And so we might even speak of the stream of consciousness. Neural activity is its water, and the connectome is its bed.(citation)

However, my subconscious as a human being comes with its evolutionary cognitive limitations and biases. And since humans' neurophysiology is that of a kind of social animals who can learn through various forms of socialization, we're thus subjects of our predictable irrationalities. Due to our subconscious having false beliefs about ourselves, and the objective reality we ended up associating with.

So what I want to talk about today is belief. I want to believe, and you do too. And in fact, I think my thesis here is that belief is the natural state of things. It is the default option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural. Disbelief, skepticism, science, is not natural. It's more difficult. It's uncomfortable to not believe things. So like Fox Mulder on "X-Files," who wants to believe in UFOs? Well, we all do. And the reason for that is because we have a belief engine in our brains. Essentially, we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots: A is connected to B; B is connected to C. And sometimes A really is connected to B. And that's called association learning.

We find patterns, we make those connections, whether it's Pavlov's dog here associating the sound of the bell with the food, and then he salivates to the sound of the bell, or whether it's a Skinnerian rat, in which he's having an association between his behavior and a reward for it, and therefore he repeats the behavior. In fact, what Skinner discovered is that, if you put a pigeon in a box like this, and he has to press one of these two keys, and he tries to figure out what the pattern is, and you give him a little reward in the hopper box there. If you just randomly assign rewards such that there is no pattern, they will figure out any kind of pattern. And whatever they were doing just before they got the reward, they repeat that particular pattern. Sometimes it was even spinning around twice counterclockwise, once clockwise and peck the key twice. And that's called superstition. And that, I'm afraid, we will always have with us.

I call this process "patternicity," that is, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. When we do this process, we make two types of errors. A Type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it's not. Our second type of error is a false negative. A Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is. So let's do a thought experiment. You are a hominid three million years ago walking on the plains of Africa. Your name is Lucy, okay? And you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator, or is it just the wind? Your next decision could be the most important one of your life. Well, if you think the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out it's just the wind, you've made an error in cognition, made a Type I error, false positive. But no harm. You just move away. You're more cautious. You're more vigilant. On the other hand, if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind, and it turns out it's a dangerous predator, you're lunch. You've just won a Darwin award. You've been taken out of the gene pool.(citation)

And this unnecessary sentimentality towards a dead body is just one of those false beliefs/superstitions called a soul, an abstract ideal with no real physical proof of its existence. Not only that, it's a self-deception with a bias towards a false sense of human superiority and prosperity after death. Which itself became this stereotypical entitlement of human goodness, as both a security mirage and a hindsight bias called the "God Complex".

So if you look at security from economic terms, it's a trade-off. Every time you get some security, you're always trading off something. Whether this is a personal decision -- whether you're going to install a burglar alarm in your home -- or a national decision -- where you're going to invade some foreign country -- you're going to trade off something, either money or time, convenience, capabilities, maybe fundamental liberties. And the question to ask when you look at a security anything is not whether this makes us safer, but whether it's worth the trade-off. You've heard in the past several years, the world is safer because Saddam Hussein is not in power. That might be true, but it's not terribly relevant. The question is, was it worth it? And you can make your own decision, and then you'll decide whether the invasion was worth it. That's how you think about security -- in terms of the trade-off.

Now there's often no right or wrong here. Some of us have a burglar alarm system at home, and some of us don't. And it'll depend on where we live, whether we live alone or have a family, how much cool stuff we have, how much we're willing to accept the risk of theft. In politics also, there are different opinions. A lot of times, these trade-offs are about more than just security, and I think that's really important. Now people have a natural intuition about these trade-offs. We make them every day -- last night in my hotel room, when I decided to double-lock the door, or you in your car when you drove here, when we go eat lunch and we decide the food's not poison and we'll eat it. We make these trade-offs again and again multiple times a day. We often won't even notice them. They're just part of being alive; we all do it.

Every species does it. Imagine a rabbit in a field, eating grass, and the rabbit's going to see a fox. That rabbit will make a security trade-off: "Should I stay, or should I flee?" And if you think about it, the rabbits that are good at making that trade-off will tend to live and reproduce, and the rabbits that are bad at it will get eaten or starve. So you'd think that us, as a successful species on the planet -- you, me, everybody -- would be really good at making these trade-offs. Yet it seems, again and again, that we're hopelessly bad at it. And I think that's a fundamentally interesting question.

I'll give you the short answer. The answer is, we respond to the feeling of security and not the reality. Now most of the time, that works. Most of the time, feeling and reality are the same. Certainly that's true for most of human prehistory. We've developed this ability because it makes evolutionary sense. One way to think of it is that we're highly optimized for risk decisions that are endemic to living in small family groups in the East African highlands in 100,000 B.C. -- 2010 New York, not so much.

Now there are several biases in risk perception. A lot of good experiments in this. And you can see certain biases that come up again and again. So I'll give you four. We tend to exaggerate spectacular and rare risks and downplay common risks -- so flying versus driving. The unknown is perceived to be riskier than the familiar. One example would be, people fear kidnapping by strangers, when the data supports kidnapping by relatives is much more common. This is for children. Third, personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks -- so Bin Laden is scarier because he has a name. And the fourth is people underestimate risks in situations they do control and overestimate them in situations they don't control. So once you take up skydiving or smoking, you downplay the risks. If a risk is thrust upon you -- terrorism was a good example -- you'll overplay it, because you don't feel like it's in your control.

There are a bunch of other of these biases, these cognitive biases, that affect our risk decisions. There's the availability heuristic, which basically means we estimate the probability of something by how easy it is to bring instances of it to mind. So you can imagine how that works. If you hear a lot about tiger attacks, there must be a lot of tigers around. You don't hear about lion attacks, there aren't a lot of lions around. This works until you invent newspapers. Because what newspapers do is they repeat again and again rare risks. I tell people, if it's in the news, don't worry about it. Because by definition, news is something that almost never happens. When something is so common, it's no longer news -- car crashes, domestic violence -- those are the risks you worry about.

We're also a species of storytellers. We respond to stories more than data. And there's some basic innumeracy going on. I mean, the joke "One, Two, Three, Many" is kind of right. We're really good at small numbers. One mango, two mangoes, three mangoes, 10,000 mangoes, 100,000 mangoes -- it's still more mangoes you can eat before they rot. So one half, one quarter, one fifth -- we're good at that. One in a million, one in a billion -- they're both almost never. So we have trouble with risks that aren't very common.

And what these cognitive biases do is they act as filters between us and reality. And the result is that feeling and reality get out of whack, they get different. Now you either have a feeling -- you feel more secure than you are. There's a false sense of security. Or the other way, and that's a false sense of insecurity. I write a lot about "security theater," which are products that make people feel secure, but don't actually do anything. There's no real word for stuff that makes us secure, but doesn't make us feel secure. Maybe it's what the CIA's supposed to do for us.

So back to economics. If economics, if the market, drives security, and if people make trade-offs based on the feeling of security, then the smart thing for companies to do for the economic incentives are to make people feel secure. And there are two ways to do this. One, you can make people actually secure and hope they notice. Or two, you can make people just feel secure and hope they don't notice. So what makes people notice? Well a couple of things: understanding of the security, of the risks, the threats, of the countermeasures, how they work. But if you know stuff, you're more likely to have your feelings match reality. Enough real world examples helps.(citation)

Now I'm not telling you this story because I think Archie Cochrane is a dude, although Archie Cochrane is a dude. I'm not even telling you the story because I think we should be running more carefully controlled randomized trials in all aspects of public policy, although I think that would also be completely awesome. I'm telling you this story because Archie Cochrane, all his life, fought against a terrible affliction. And he realized it was debilitating to individuals and it was corrosive to societies. And he had a name for it. He called it the God complex. Now I can describe the symptoms of the God complex very, very easily. So the symptoms of the complex are, no matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution.(citation)

And the dead doesn't talk, while in our modern society there are systemic/bureaucratic social discrimination and prejudices that's not simply wrong, but inhumane and therefore they're real crimes against humanity and demand restorative social justice. Not mere social conformity. But our cultural practice of God/superiority complex, made some of us in the position of political power to change all that too arrogant to admit their own long term addiction to risk for short term profit trade-offs.

So what are the seven social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil?
1)Mindlessly taking the first small step.
2)Dehumanization of others.
3)De-individuation of self.
4)Diffusion of personal responsibility.
5)Blind obedience of authority.
6)Uncritical conformity to group norms.
7)Passive tolerance to evil through inaction or indifference.

And it happens when you're in a new or unfamiliar situation. Your habitual response patterns don't work. Your personality and morality are disengaged. "Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil-doer; nothing more difficult than understanding him," Dostoevksy tells us. Understanding is not excusing. Psychology is not excuse-iology.

So social and psychological research reveals how ordinary good people can be transformed without the drugs. You don't need it. You just need the social-psychological processes. Real world parallels? Compare this with this. James Schlesinger --and I'm going to have to end with this -- says, "Psychologists have attempted to understand how and why individuals and groups who usually act humanely can sometimes act otherwise in certain circumstances." That's the Lucifer Effect. And he goes on to say, "The landmark Stanford study provides a cautionary tale for all military operations." If you give people power without oversight, it's a prescription for abuse. They knew that and let that happen.

So another report, an investigative report by General Fay, says the system is guilty, and in this report he says it was the environment that created Abu Ghraib by leadership failures that contributed to the occurrence of such abuse, and the fact that it remained undiscovered by higher authorities for a long period of time. Those abuses went on for three months. Who was watching the store? The answer is nobody, and I think, nobody on purpose. He gave the guards permission to do those things, and they knew nobody was ever going to come down to that dungeon.

So you need a paradigm shift in all of these areas. The shift is away from the medical model that focuses only on the individual. The shift is toward a public health model that recognizes situational and systemic vectors of disease. Bullying is a disease. Prejudice is a disease. Violence is a disease. And since the Inquisition, we've been dealing with problems at the individual level. And you know what? It doesn't work. Alexander Solzhenitsyn says the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. That means that line is not out there. That's a decision that you have to make. That's a personal thing.

So I want to end very quickly on a positive note: heroism as the antidote to evil. By promoting the heroic imagination, especially in our kids, in our educational system. We want kids to think, I'm the hero in waiting, waiting for the right situation to come along, and I will act heroically. My whole life is now going to focus away from evil that I've been in since I was a kid, to understanding heroes.

And now their idea of heroism is, it's ordinary people who do heroic deeds. It's the counterpoint to Hannah Arendt's Banality of Evil. Our traditional societal heroes are wrong, because they are the exceptions. They organize their whole life around this. That's why we know their names. And our kids' heroes are also role models for them, because they have supernatural talents. We want our kids to realize most heroes are everyday people, and the heroic act is unusual. This is Joe Darby. He was the one that stopped those abuses you saw, because when he saw those images, he turned them over to a senior investigating officer. He was a low-level private and that stopped it. Was he a hero? No. They had to put him in hiding, because people wanted to kill him, and then his mother and his wife. For three years they were in hiding.

This is the woman who stopped the Stanford Prison Study. When I said it got out of control, I was the prison superintendent. I didn't know it was out of control. I was totally indifferent. She came down, saw that madhouse and said, "You know what, it's terrible what you're doing to those boys. They're not prisoners, they're not guards, they're boys, and you are responsible." And I ended the study the next day. The good news is I married her the next year. I just came to my senses, obviously.

So situations have the power to do, through -- but the point is, this is the same situation that can inflame the hostile imagination in some of us, that makes us perpetrators of evil, can inspire the heroic imagination in others. It's the same situation. And you're on one side or the other. Most people are guilty of the evil of inaction, because your mother said, "Don't get involved, mind your own business." And you have to say, "Mama, humanity is my business."

So the psychology of heroism is -- we're going to end in a moment -- how do we encourage children in new hero courses, that I'm working with Matt Langdon -he has a hero workshop -- to develop this heroic imagination, this self-labeling, "I am a hero in waiting," and teach them skills. To be a hero you have to learn to be a deviant, because you're always going against the conformity of the group. Heroes are ordinary people whose social actions are extraordinary. Who act.

The key to heroism is two things. A: You've got to act when other people are passive. B: You have to act socio-centrically, not egocentrically.

And so then I went back into the research and spent the next couple of years really trying to understand what they, the whole-hearted, what choices they were making, and what are we doing with vulnerability. Why do we struggle with it so much? Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability? No. So this is what I learned. We numb vulnerability -- when we're waiting for the call. It was funny, I sent something out on Twitter and on Facebook that says, "How would you define vulnerability? What makes you feel vulnerable?" And within an hour and a half, I had a 150 responses. Because I wanted to know what's out there. Having to ask my husband for help, because I'm sick, and we're newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid-off; laying-off people -- this is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.

And I think there's evidence -- and it's not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it's a huge cause -- we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is -- and I learned this from the research -- that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment, I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. I don't want to feel these. And I know that's knowing laughter. I hack into your lives for a living. God. You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn't just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that's uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up. That's it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There's no discourse anymore. There's no conversation. There's just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort. We perfect. If there's anyone who wants their life to look like this it would be me, but it doesn't work. Because what we do is we take fat from our butts and put it in our cheeks. Which just, I hope in a hundred years, people will look back and go, "Wow."

And we perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They're hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not so say, "Look at her, she's perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect -- make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade." That's not our job. Our job is to look and say, "You know what? You're imperfect, and you're wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging." That's our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we'll end the problems I think that we see today. We pretend that what we do doesn't have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. We do that corporate -- whether it's a bailout, an oil spill, a recall -- we pretend like what we're doing doesn't have a huge impact on other people. I would say to companies, this is not our first rodeo people. We just need you to be authentic and real and say, "We're sorry. We'll fix it."

But there's another way, and I leave you with this. This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee -- and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that's excruciatingly difficult -- to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we're wondering, "Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?" just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, "I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive." And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we're enough. Because when we work from a place I believe that says, "I'm enough," then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.(citation)

So once again, why do we take these crazy risks with the precious? A range of explanations may be popping into your mind by now, like greed. This is a popular explanation, and there's lots of truth to it. Because taking big risks, as we all know, pays a lot of money. Another explanation that you often hear for recklessness is hubris. And greed and hubris are intimately intertwined when it comes to recklessness. For instance, if you happen to be a 35 year-old banker taking home 100 times more than a brain surgeon, then you need a narrative, you need a story that makes that disparity okay. And you actually don't have a lot of options. You're either an incredibly good scammer, and you're getting away with it -- you gamed the system -- or you're some kind of boy genius, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Now both of these options -- the boy genius and the scammer -- are going to make you vastly overconfident and therefore more prone to taking even bigger risks in the future. By the way, Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, had a plaque on his desk inscribed with this inspirational slogan: "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" Now this is actually a popular plaque, and this is a crowd of overachievers, so I'm betting that some of you have this plaque. Don't feel ashamed. Putting fear of failure out of your mind can be a very good thing if you're training for a triathlon or preparing to give a TEDTalk, but personally, I think people with the power to detonate our economy and ravage our ecology would do better having a picture of Icarus hanging from the wall, because -- maybe not that one in particular -- but I want them thinking about the possibility of failure all of the time.

So we have greed, we've got overconfidence/hubris, but since we're here at TEDWomen, let's consider one other factor that could be contributing in some small way to societal recklessness. Now I'm not going to belabor this point, but studies do show that, as investors, women are much less prone to taking reckless risks than men, precisely because, as we've already heard, women tend not to suffer from overconfidence in the same way that men do. So it turns out that being paid less and praised less has its upsides -- for society at least. The flip side of this is that constantly being told that you are gifted, chosen and born to rule has distinct societal downsides. And this problem -- call it the perils of privilege -- brings us closer, I think, to the root of our collective recklessness. Because none of us -- at least in the global North -- neither men nor women, are fully exempt from this message.

Here's what I'm talking about. Whether we actively believe them or consciously reject them, our culture remains in the grips of certain archetypal stories about our supremacy over others and over nature. The narrative of the newly-discovered frontier and the conquering pioneer, the narrative of manifest destiny, the narrative of apocalypse and salvation. And just when you think these stories are fading into history, and that we've gotten over them, they pop up in the strangest places. For instance, I stumbled across this advertisement outside the women's washroom in the Kansas City airport. It's for Motorola's new Rugged cellphone, and yes, it really does say, "Slap mother nature in the face." And I'm not just showing it to pick on Motorola -- that's just a bonus. I'm showing it because -- they're not a sponsor, are they? -- because, in its own way, this is a crass version of our founding story. We slapped mother nature around and won. And we always win, because dominating nature is our destiny.

But this is not the only fairytale we tell ourselves about nature. There's another one, equally important, about how that very same mother nature is so nurturing and so resilient that we can never make a dent in her abundance. Let's hear from Tony Hayward again. "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of oil and dispersant that we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." In other words, the ocean is big; she can take it. It is this underlying assumption of limitlessness that makes it possible to take the reckless risks that we do. Because this is our real master-narrative: However much we mess up, there will always be more -- more water, more land, more untapped resources. A new bubble will replace the old one. A new technology will come along to fix the messes we made with the last one.

In a way, that is the story of the settling of the Americas, the supposedly inexhaustible frontier to which Europeans escaped. And it's also the story of modern capitalism. Because it was the wealth from this land that gave birth to our economic system, one that cannot survive without perpetual growth and an unending supply of new frontiers. Now the problem is that the story was always a lie. The Earth always did have limits, they were just beyond our sights. And now we are hitting those limits on multiple fronts. I believe that we know this, yet we find ourselves trapped in a kind of narrative loop. Not only do we continue to tell and retell the same tired stories, but we are now doing so with a frenzy and a fury that, frankly, verges on camp. How else to explain the cultural space occupied by Sarah Palin. Now on the one hand, exhorting us to "drill baby drill," because God put those resources into the ground in order for us to exploit them, and on the other, glorying in the wilderness of Alaska's untouched beauty on her hit reality TV show. The twin message is as comforting as it is mad. Ignore those creeping fears that we have finally hit the wall. There are still no limits. There will always be another frontier. So stop worrying and keep shopping.

Now, would that this were just about Sarah Palin and her reality TV show. In environmental circles, we often here that, rather than shifting to renewables, we are continuing with business as usual. This assessment, unfortunately, is far too optimistic. The truth is that we have already exhausted so much of the easily-accessible fossil fuels that we have already entered a far riskier business era, the era of extreme energy. So that means drilling for oil in the deepest water, including the icy Arctic seas where a clean up may simply be impossible. It means large-scale hydraulic fracking for gas and massive strip mining operations for coal, the likes of which we haven't yet seen. And most controversially, it means the tar sands.

I'm always surprised by how little people outside of Canada know about the Alberta tar sands, which this year are projected to become the number one source of imported oil to the United States. It's worth taking a moment to understand this practice, because I believe it speaks to recklessness and the path we're on like little else. So this is where the tar sands live, under one of the last magnificent Boreal forests. The oil is not liquid; you can't just drill a hole and pump it out. Tar sand's oil is solid, mixed in with the soil. So to get at it, you first have to get rid of the trees. Then you rip off the topsoil and get at that oily sand. The process requires a huge amount of water, which is then pumped into massive toxic tailing ponds. That's very bad news for local indigenous people living downstream who are reporting alarmingly high cancer rates.

Now looking at these images, it's difficult to grasp the scale of this operation, which can already be seen from space and could grow to an area the size of England. I find it helps actually to look at the dump trucks that move the earth, the largest ever built. That's a person down there by the wheel. My point is that this is not oil drilling, it's not even mining. It is terrestrial skinning. Vast, vivid landscapes are being gutted, left monochromatic gray. Now I should confess that as I'm concerned this would be an abomination if it emitted not one particle of carbon. But the truth is that on average turning that gunk into crude oil produces about three times more greenhouse gas pollution than it does to produce conventional oil in Canada.

How else to describe this, but as a form of mass insanity? Just when we know we need to be learning to live on the surface of our planet, off the power of sun, wind and waves, we are frantically digging to get at the dirtiest, highest-emitting stuff imaginable. This is where our story of endless growth has taken us, to this blackhole at the center of my country -- a place of such planetary pain that, like the BP gusher, one can only stand to look at it for so long. As Jared Diamond and others have shown us, this is how civilizations commit suicide, by slamming their foot on the accelerator at the exact moment when they should be putting on the brakes. The problem is that our master-narrative has an answer for that too. At the very last minute, we are going to get saved just like in every Hollywood movie, just like in the Rapture. But of course our secular religion is technology.

Now you may have noticed more and more headlines like these. The idea behind this form of geoengineering as it's called is that, as the planet heats up, we may be able to shoot sulfates and aluminum particles into the stratosphere to reflect some of the sun's rays back to space, thereby cooling the planet. The wackiest plan -- and I'm not making this up -- would put what is essentially a garden hose 18 and a half miles high into the sky, suspended by balloons, to spew sulfur dioxide. So, solving the problem of pollution with more pollution. Think of it as the ultimate junk shot. The serious scientists involved in this research all stress that these techniques are entirely untested. They don't know if they'll work, and they have no idea what kind of terrifying side-effects they could unleash. Nevertheless, the mere mention of geoengineering is being greeted in some circles -- particularly media circles -- with a relief tinged with euphoria. An escape hatch has been reached. A new frontier has been found. Most importantly, we don't have to change our lifestyles after all.

You see for some people, their savior is a guy in a flowing robe. For other people, it's a guy with a garden hose. We badly need some new stories. We need stories that have different kinds of heroes willing to take different kinds of risks -- risks that confront recklessness head on, that put the precautionary principle into practice, even if that means through direct action -- like hundreds of young people will to get arrested blocking dirty power plants or fighting mountaintop removal coal mining. We need stories that replace that linear narrative of endless growth with circular narratives that remind us that what goes around comes around, that this is our only home; there is no escape hatch. Call it karma, call it physics, action and reaction, call it precaution: the principle that reminds us that life is too precious to be risked for any profit.(citation)

When they finish, they sit in a circle and ask me to come to join them. They want to teach me about my destiny. I thought every seven year-old went through this. "Baby girl, someday the world will be in trouble. People will forget their wisdom. It will take elders' voices from the far corners of the world to call the world into balance. You will go far away. It will sometimes be a lonely road. We will not be there. But you will look into the eyes of seeming strangers, and you will recognize your ohana, your family. And it will take all of you. It will take all of you." These words, I hold onto all my life. Because the idea of doing it alone terrifies me.

The year is 2007. I'm on a remote island in Micronesia. Satawal is one half-mile long by one mile wide. It's the home of my mentor. His name is Pius Piailug. Mau is a palu, a navigator priest. He's also considered the greatest wave finder in the world. There are fewer than a handful of palu left on this island. Their tradition is so extraordinary that these mariners sailed three million square miles across the Pacific without the use of instruments. They could synthesize patterns in nature using the rising and setting of stars, the sequence and direction of waves, the flight patterns of certain birds. Even the slightest hint of color on the underbelly of a cloud would inform them and help them navigate with the keenest accuracy.

When Western scientists would join Mau on the canoe and watch him go into the hull, it appeared that an old man was going to rest. In fact, the hull of the canoe is the womb of the vessel. It is the most accurate place to feel the rhythm and sequence and direction of waves. Mau was, in fact, gathering explicit data using his entire body. It's what he had been trained to do since he was five years old. Now science may dismiss this methodology, but Polynesian navigators use it today because it provides them an accurate determination of the angle and direction of their vessel.

The palu also had an uncanny ability to forecast weather conditions days in advance. Sometimes I'd be with Mau on a cloud-covered night and we'd sit at the easternmost coast of the island, and he would look out. And then he would say, "Okay, we go." He saw that first glint of light -- he knew what the weather was going to be three days from now.

Their achievements, intellectually and scientifically, are extraordinary, and they are so relevant for these times that we are in when we are riding out storms. We are in such a critical moment of our collective history. They have been compared to astronauts -- these elder navigators who sail vast open oceans in double-hulled canoes thousands of miles from a small island. Their canoes, our rockets, their sea, our space. The wisdom of these elders is not a mere collection of stories about old people in some remote spot. This is part of our collective narrative. It's humanity's DNA. We cannot afford to lose it.

The year is 2010. Just as the women in Hawaii that raised me predicted, the world is in trouble. We live in a society bloated with data, yet starved for wisdom. We're connected 24/7, yet anxiety, fear, depression and loneliness is at an all-time high. We must course correct. An African shaman said, "Your society worships the jester while the king stands in plain clothes." The link between the past and the future is fragile. This I know intimately, because even as I travel throughout the world to listen to these stories and record them, I struggle. I am haunted by the fact that I no longer remember the names of the winds and the rains.

Mau passed away five months ago, but his legacy and lessons live on. And I am reminded that throughout the world there are cultures with vast sums of knowledge in them, as potent as the Micronesian navigators, that are going dismissed, that this is a testament to brilliant, brilliant technology and science and wisdom that is vanishing rapidly. Because when an elder dies a library is burned. And throughout the world, libraries are ablaze.

I am grateful for the fact that I had a mentor like Mau who taught me how to navigate. And I realize through a lesson that he shared that we continue to find out way. And this is what he said: "The island is the canoe; the canoe, the island." And what he meant was, if you are voyaging and far from home, your very survival depends on everyone aboard. You cannot make the voyage alone, you were never meant to. This whole notion of every man for himself is completely unsustainable. It always was.

So in closing I would offer you this: The planet is our canoe, and we are the voyagers. True navigation begins in the human heart. It's the most important map of all. Together, may we journey well.

So I want to just spend a couple of minutes on system dynamics. It's a bit complex, and I apologize for that. What I'll try and do, is I'll try and paraphrase it is sort of human terms. So it looks a little bit like this. Firms produce goods for households -- that's us -- and provide us with incomes, and that's even better, because we can spend those incomes on more goods and services. That's called the circular flow of the economy. It looks harmless enough. I just want to highlight one key feature of this system, which is the role of investment. Now investment constitutes only about a fifth of the national income in most modern economies, but it plays an absolutely vital role. And what it does essentially is to stimulate further consumption growth. It does this in a couple of ways -- chasing productivity, which drives down prices and encourages us to buy more stuff. But I want to concentrate on the role of investment in seeking out novelty, the production and consumption of novelty. Joseph Schumpeter called this "the process of creative destruction." It's a process of the production and reproduction of novelty, continually chasing expanding consumer markets, consumer goods, new consumer goods.

And this, this is where it gets interesting, because it turns out that human beings have something of an appetite for novelty. We love new stuff -- new material stuff for sure -- but also new ideas, new adventures, new experiences. But the materiality matters too. Because, in every society that anthropologists have looked at, material stuff operates as a kind of language, a language of goods, a symbolic language that we use to tell each other stories -- stories, for example, about how important we are. Status-driven, conspicuous consumption thrives from the language of novelty. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system that is locking economic structure with social logic -- the economic institutions, and who we are as people, locked together to drive an engine of growth. And this engine is not just economic value; it is pulling material resources relentlessly through the system, driven by our own insatiable appetites, driven in fact by a sense of anxiety. Adam Smith, 200 years ago, spoke about our desire for a life without shame. A life without shame: in his day, what that meant was linen shirts, and today, well, you still need the shirt, but you need the hybrid car, the HDTV, two holidays a year in the sun, the netbook and iPad, the list goes on -- an almost inexhaustible supply of goods, driven by this anxiety. And even if we don't want them, we need to buy them, because, if we don't buy them, the system crashes. And to stop it crashing over the last two to three decades, we've expanded the money supply, expanded credit and debt, so that people can keep buying stuff. And of course, that expansion was deeply implicated in the crisis.

But this -- I just want to show you some data here. This is what it looks like, essentially, this credit and debt system, just for the U.K. This was the last 15 years before the crash. And you can see there, consumer debt rose dramatically. It was above the GDP for three years in a row just before the crisis. And in the mean time, personal savings absolutely plummeted. The savings ratio, net savings, were below zero in the middle of 2008, just before the crash. This is people expanding debt, drawing down their savings, just to stay in the game. This is a strange, rather perverse, story, just to put it in very simple terms. It's a story about us, people, being persuaded to spend money we don't have on things we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about.(citation)

In conclusion, I'm struggling to stay connected to a modern society of shallowness. One that's dying in its cultural hindsight of arrogance, vanity, and uncritical consumerism. Not merely "a lump of flesh and few clusters of bones".
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