What I Live for

The life of a social critic has a significant cost: I have many acquaintances, but I’ve managed to offend most of my former friends. As an equal-opportunity offender, ever willing to speak truth to power, I’m largely an ascetic. To an increasing extent, I live as we all must die: alone.

One result of my abstemious existence, as we venture into the dark days ahead, is that I spend considerable time reflecting on my life goals and evaluating — constantly re-evaluating — what I live for. I have abandoned vigorous attempts to right the sinking ship of civilization, as well as half-hearted efforts to convince university administrators that my cause is just and therefore worthy. But my inability to adopt a completely hermetic life leaves me pathetically seeking solace from an indifferent universe, uninterested colleagues, and you, my online comrades.

Obviously, it didn’t start out this way.

As a carefree child in a tiny redneck logging town, smack in the heart of the Aryan nation of northern Idaho, I didn’t have a clue. According to the many email messages I’ve been receiving about my lack of belief in a single god, I still don’t. But that’s another issue. I spent the 1960s and 1970s in youthful ignorance, chasing athletic fame and the girls who came with it. In college, hormonal lust had me blowing off a decent education while I majored in basketball and women’s studies, even though Women’s Studies departments didn’t yet exist. I wasn’t particularly good at either subject, and immature adolescence eventually gave way to a responsible life in avid pursuit of the “American Dream” of financial security.

To paraphrase author and social critic Daniel Quinn, the problem was not that I thought too highly of myself, or that I thought too little of myself, but that I thought constantly of myself.
As I was working hundred-hour weeks in graduate school and beyond, I was socking away the money and serving the cultural machine of western Civil-Lie-Zation. I was simultaneously reading and failing to heed the words of Edward Abbey: All gold is fool’s gold.

Somehow, though, despite my best attempts to hide from reality, I discovered that relationships are far more important than accomplishments. Stunningly, that occurred even before I earned tenure. Not surprisingly, I learned it from my students.

I left the ivory tower to work for The Nature Conservancy, only to find more of the same. I came back and immediately taught Bill Calder’s Conservation Biology course in the wake of this friend’s death. It changed my life. It was the best course I’d ever taught because it was populated with students from more than 20 different majors, from creative writing to biology, none of whom was required to be there. During the autumn of 2001, we applied art and literature to the newly emerging enterprise of conservation biology in an attempt to bridge the two cultures of C.P. Snow (and Socrates before him, and E.O. Wilson after).

Needless to say, we failed.

Actually, we succeeded, in our own small way. Forty of us came together as a group, but society didn’t come along. We had our bubble, but reality kept sneaking in and thwarting our efforts. But I learned something important, albeit small and personal: I had to serve, in my own small way, as a teacher and social critic and companion and friend and mentor. I had to bridge the two cultures, as if that’s possible, and I had to show others how to do the same.

Along with this realization, I lost my anchor. Until I discovered myself, at the age of forty, I had believed science would save us. I had believed that rational thought was our savior. I had believed that, by abandoning fairy tales and magical thinking, we could find a secular way to enlightenment.

I failed to account for how badly scientists have lost their way. Science, as a process and a way of knowing, has unrivaled power. And you know what they say about power and corruption.
Science has not lost its way, but scientists have. They have been co-opted by objectivity, failing to recognize the impossibility of the task. They are unwilling to sacrifice their objectivity, which they do not and can not have, in exchange for doing the right thing. Like everybody else, they are unwilling to make sacrifices to serve the common good. Indeed, many of them believe they are serving the common good, although they most often are confusing the common good with common culture.

Science is no longer my anchor. But teaching is, at least for now. And trying to live, for now, as if my life matters, as if it has meaning beyond the meanings I assign it. But I’m a lot more cynical and a lot less enthusiastic than I used to be about my tiny role in this grand play.
I still struggle every day to find meaning in a universe without meaning. Who shall I serve? For now, I can serve students and society by teaching and acting as if a single life can make a difference in a world gone awry. For now, I can demonstrate the value and importance of relationships, relative to accomplishments. For now, I can be kind to individuals while forcing institutions to do right, even if it means being unkind to individuals who represent institutions. For now, I can serve people by criticizing society.

And I can find meaning everywhere, in small observations and small acts. I can find meaning, and mystery, in cliff swallows and butterflies, the kindness of strangers, and a child’s love.
But there’s no role for a social critic when civilization collapses. What then?
And there’s no role for a university professor when the university ceases to exist. What then?
It’s too late to meet the three goals I had for myself as a teenager: Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse. I’m too slow, too old, and too late, respectively.

What now?

Comments 21

  • Dear Professor Guy,
    I often have similiar thoughts.Wasn’t Nietzsche desperate and isolated in his life? We need to try and maintain our sanity,which he was unable to do.Most humans are barbarians who have corrupted and debauched everything of value in life.Be glad you don’t watch TV.There are no humans left on the boob tube–nothing but ugly androids.I define an android as something that has been surgically altered to resemble a human.The ugly,repulsive android known as Cindy McCain has a face that looks like a grotesque Halloween mask.Movies not show almost all androids.Another good reason not to watch TV are the commercials which reflect the debased state of modern society,and are mostly about bodily functions i.e. fornication,defecation,urination and menstruation.
    I’ve offended people on this site trying to get my points accross.It goes with the territory.But I’m sorry I’ve done so and regret some of the things I’ve said here.I’m not an ascetic,and I regularly indulge the drop.Life is short and tenuous,and should be enjoyed when possible without guilt.You’ve spend a lot of time on this piece,and I’m just prattling on.It seems that almost everything is worse than it has ever been before.Society is retrograde–base,ugly,bad.I could go on and on with this undisciplined rant but I’ll spare you that.You’ve given us much to contemplate,which takes time,and we should all take the time.
    Thank you Professor Guy.

  • Dear Guy; I’ve frequented your blog since the article in the AZ Rep. Your writing and opinions are thought provoking, and maybe that’s what many of us need: someone/something to stimulate our ability for original thought and human decency toward each other and our environs.

  • Guy — Interesting stuff!
    When I was young I was very involved in church activities. But, in a way, basketball was my religion, too. I loved to shoot hoops all by myself if necessary, but to play on the playgrounds all the time against all comers, one-on-one, two-on-two, whatever. Putting a ball through the net with a swish was a spiritual quest for me and brought more real enlightenment for me than listening to a sermon at church. And blocking the other guys’s shot was ecstacy.
    I think science is a religion for many professional practicioners. And it is a religion with a bureaucracy seeking to perpetuate itself in too many cases. I had some very interesting private communications recently with a wildlife professor (now retired) who has campaigned for excellence in the practice of wildlife science and who has found resistance from other academics who find more comfort in the status quo with inferior methods who do not desire to advance their skillsets. I pointed out my observation that far too much peer-reviewed literature now is flawed and even completely unreliable, and he agreed with me to an extent that was almost scary.
    I guess the bottom line point for me is that humans are frail. We can intrinsically smart and dumb at the same time. We are clever and stupid. We are social animals, but much of our best accomplishments come from working alone.
    I find it amazing when I go to the local university library to check up on the literature to see how almost all the young students now are oriented towards group work. College kids just do not seem to study alone — they engage in team learning and they seek consensus rather than individual excellence.
    I don’t like what I see, but on the other hand, the “old school” methods have put us in an irreversible mess, so who am I really to complain.
    I will end with one thought — I wish I would have known you, Guy, when we were young and had energy to shoot hoops and chase skirts. I think we would have been good friends.
    And I will add one last thought about relationships. I think relationships can be beneficial without even being official. Burrowing owls have been studied recently by a grad student of Dr. Courtney Conway, who I think is at the University of Arizona and the question was investigated of why burrowing owls line their nest burrows with dung gathered from fields. Does it involved masking of odors from predators or manipulation of nest microclimate? The best answer for now seems to be that the owls gather dung as a form of tool use in which dung beetle eggs in the dung hatch out and provide a food supply for the owls. Thus the owls use the gathered dung as a tool for enhancing food supply. Thus there is an interesting relationship between the owls, the ungulates producing the dung, and the beetles that lay their eggs in the dung only to be eaten. We can be part of relationships without close personal personal knowledge (necessarily) of the others in the relatinoship. I think that Guy McPherson has benefited me through his writings even though we never met. I sense a benefit for me in this sort of relationship. Maybe one day we will meet in a pasture :)
    Ciao for now,
    Stan Moore

  • Stan was fortunate to have a hoop with a net to swish,the old hoop behind my house never had a net that I can recall.Talking about academic debasement reminds us that we are so fortunate to have you Professor Guy.So many PHD’s today are misfit parvenus who acquired their doctorate so that they can compel others to refer to themselves as “Doctor”.I would also like to meet you in that pasture Professor Guy.

  • Here is a new poem I just wrote, called “Perils and Heralds”. I dedicate it to that Guy I heard about on the radio :)
    Perils and Heralds
    By Stan Moore
    Danger ahead!
    Is what the sign said
    The radio Guy said even worse
    If you eat this _ food
    It will sour your mood
    And you’ll probably end up dead
    Today warnings abound
    They shriek out all around
    They say our future is dire
    And we tune them on out
    We make mute their great shout
    And we do what our programming requires
    We settled the West
    We climbed Everest
    We did what we wanted to do
    We peril/danger ignored
    And we lived by the sword
    And our genes on this course continue
    But what’s funny in this
    Is how we warnings resist
    And the prophets are always thus scorned
    We ignore their advice
    Seeking wealth power and vice
    And then say “Why wasn’t I warned”?

  • In this decadent era,intellectual precision counts for nothing.Called our illustrious local rag known as The Arizona Republic to tell them about an egregious error on their front page,where they told us there is a 15-hour time difference between Phoenix and Beijing.Of course the maximum time difference between any two places on earth can never exceed 12-hours,and the actual time difference between the two cities is 9-hours(earlier).The reductio ad absurdum example is that we don’t say Los Angeles is 23-hours later than Phoenix.Yikes!

  • Dear Professor:
    This “What I Live For” blog is very sad. It seems as if you are on the verge of saying goodbye.
    I think you have answered your own questions. When the civilation collapses and the University ceases to exist, you will be the one helping people. I see you at the mud hut still instructing and assisting your neighbors.
    You will continue to find meaning in things, maybe even more so than now. One thing you don’t mention often is love. That will never end as long as there are humans on the earth.
    Whether you know it or not, you have made a huge impression on many, many people. I am one of them and I want to thank you sincerely.

  • Clean science is keen conscience.
    I appreciate your message as well as your mess. You are a steward of truth.

  • Also Leopold once said:
    “To receive an ecological education is to live alone in a world full of wounds.”

  • Where do we go from here? What do you do after you’ve stripped away the rose-colored glasses?
    You have answered your own question by saying: “And I can find meaning everywhere, in small observations and small acts. I can find meaning, and mystery, in cliff swallows and butterflies, the kindness of strangers, and a child’s love.”
    I disagree that there will not be a need for a social critic when civilization collapses. There will always be the need for realists, scientists, curious minds, broad thinkers, reality-checkers–whatever you want to call social critics. Only a small percentage of humans have this trait, and they are essential to us all.
    You have a better idea than most of us do about what is going to happen. You are also getting yourself prepared, as much as possible, for an uncertain future. You have also REALLY tried to change that future and you have fought the good fight.
    So, in my mind, you have done the work and spread the message and modeled how to be proactive, thoughtful and live a life worth living.
    Keep enjoying the beauty all around, because that is the only reason, in the end, that we live.

  • I would note that while criticism is necessary (hell, I devote a blog of my own to it), disagreement need not be disagreeable.
    Some of my best friends and most valued colleagues are people with whom I strongly disagree. Frankly I wouldn’t trust anyone who agreed with me on everything. Sometimes even the bastards turn out to be right on occasion.
    Sometimes I change a few minds. Sometimes I teach someone something, though I often don’t know about it until much later, if ever. Sometimes I learn something–though I often don’t know about it until much later, either.
    A side note: I’m not sure any of us today have all that many close friends. But it only takes six to carry one’s casket, and even enemies might volunteer for that.
    Peace Pilgrim said that if you think you’re doing something wrong, stop doing it. I’d add that if doing something right brings no joy to you or those you love most–especially if the universe is otherwise without meaning–then you should stop doing that, too, and move on to more joyful pursuits.
    One of the failings of science, in my view, is the degree to which consistency is a virtue. Fortunately, despite our best efforts, most of us outlive our teenage goals. And remember, Edward Abbey, our mutual hero, drove a drop-top Cadillac.
    Of course, as you’ve noted, we don’t truly live in a universe without meaning, even if we enjoy the blessing of not knowing that meaning. Cliff swallows and butterflies likely will outlive us, as will kindness and meanness, good and evil.
    My best advice: When you don’t know what the hell to do, try to do something good. That might be long-term, but might not–one of the best things about my own youth is that the resulting recovery taught me the value of “one day at a time.”
    The role of the critic will remain, as civilization–whatever that comes to mean–rebuilds. But so will the role of the builder. You can be either. Or both. As you have. Keep up the good work.

  • I like J. McPherson’s points and also like a quote from the late martial arts master Morihei Ueshiba (founder of Aikido):
    From The Art of Peace:
    One does not need buildings, money, power, or status to practice the Art of Peace. Heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train.
    Try Googling Morihei Ueshiba — he was a truly incredible person and his little book The Art of Peace has provoked a lot of beneficial reflections in my own private contemplations. The emphasis on perpetual progress (training) in doing good is a key concept.

  • Stan, I like the way you view this! I too believe in constantly bettering myself. I enjoy every new school I have to attend, (Be it martial, collegiate, etc) and though in many instances I find that I am more advanced than the skills being taught, I still try to glean as much useful info as I can from the instructor. Anything I find useless or actually dangerous I simply discard.
    I took a firearm class at a school with the initials G.S. in Utah which is widely regarded as one of the best in the US. I found the instructors there to be knowledgable, intelligent, and completely unable to perform the very subject matter they were instructing to us. I was shocked and dismayed! I learned as much of what I could from them in the short time I was there, perfected the skills being taught, and promptly discarded most of the lesson. In doing so though, I retained a couple fantastic weapon retention techniques. Would I return to this school? Probably not. Most of the instructors were unskilled or outright dangerous, but one, who I still look to for guidance or the odd question.
    Life is learning, and everywhere there is a lesson to be learned from. It’s up to you to better yourself from finding that little piece so you can better yourself.

  • Hmm… my last sentence sounded right in my head but reads funny. Perhaps I should have added more emphasis to “Can” in my last sentence…

  • Right on Turboguy,Beethoven was contemptious of his teachers because he felt he knew more than they did,and he was correct.In the disciplines I’m interested in:astronomy,chess,politics,architecture, and DX’ing,I’ve consistently found the teachers and writers on these subjects to be often incompetent,incoherent,and wrong-headed.We need to glean what facts we can,reorganize them into a useful matrix,synthesize down to useful main points,to finally get to something meaningful.For the most part teachers and writers seem incapable of doing this and waste much of our time as we try to plow thru the mess the’ve made of the facts.

  • Dear Dr. McPherson — Thank you for obliging my passing local commentary with your usual touch of thoughtfulness; I have appreciated our paths crossing even on this most electronic plane.
    Last night I went to sleep with the usual whispers of gratefulness, skipping universal placement of a question to honor one particularly stirred concern. Well, the night was short, 3 hours I figure, yet it was filled with worldly processing as fast as a brush fire across home, home on the range.
    I figure I’ll share the resulting idea before signing off for the local good of the cause.
    Could it be worth your time to turn your reaching-out effort on its stubborn head, and go all-mighty global?
    Could combio.org recognize these unprecedented Post-Historic PreOccupied Times and welcome a topical working group like there has never been?
    There are other frisky Scientists like you around the world that have heard the cry of the Wild; the Planet’s and their own.
    Use the talent at your feet and incorporate the e-energy of your blogging supporters (Frank M., CRO, Confirmed Research Assistant) and that of your forming student body to create (it’s okay for anyone to laugh, but I certainly am not)…the Global Alliance of Implicated Conservation Biologists for Imperative Scientific Involvement.
    Extend professional academic invitations (I shall perish a decent lass!) across the Planetary Plains, and reach out and touch someone. You will find them. Lock arms, and initiate your discussions within that spirited supportive milieu.
    That’s it.
    Best to you on campus and at the mud hut, Good Dr. Guy.
    Got me a loco local milieu to fire up.
    Marguerite Daisy
    Tucson, AZ

  • Live goes on, my brother… great post!

  • I sometimes feel isolated like you do while remaining more optimistic about the survival of “cilization”–though admittedly, I am certainly more helpless than you are. I’m a 26 yo student living in Quebec City with no useful knowledge or skills to survive peak oil. I was blissfully ignorant until I chanced upon this information about 4 months ago and I’m only beginning to understand the imminent threat of collapse and the coming transition. To my knowledge, no one in my neck of the woods knows about this! The language barrier has proved to be a formidable obstacle to the dissemination of this vital information–the paucity of French data on the subject is surprising.
    Anyway, I’m looking for people who are willing to teach me how to survive the coming chaos. Know any good resource websites? How did you create your community? What are the major obstacles to creating such a community and moving to self-sufficiency?
    I much appreciate your blog; keep it up and don’t despair (too much)! Isn’t hope a defining human characteristic? The future humanity will greatly benefit from people of your quality.
    Thought I’d leave you with a pithy quote your blog conjured…
    Friendless: Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense – Ambrose Bierce

  • this life is just small pause between eternity

  • Jean,
    I’m also a student, 22 years old, and my friend, all that I can say is this world is getting more and more chaotic by the day! I live in South Africa, and racial disputes and culture confrontations is become more agressive each day. As a white South Africa I fear for the live of me and my family in the coming 10 years.
    My advice for you: Keep fit, be as fit as you can be, and eat the right foods every day. Keeping yourself healthy is a key to survival. When chaos breaks out the over weight and lazy people will be in BIG trouble. How can you run away is you can’t even walk? So spend first attention to your own body!