by Ray Jason
An ordinary sunset was about to turn extraordinary. AVENTURA was resting between voyages - way down south in the Banana Latitudes. We were anchored in a cove so serene that the birds seemed to fly at half speed in order to preserve the tranquility.
A native cayuco slowly emerged from behind one of the islands that frame this tiny bay. A man and a woman were gently rowing their dugout canoe through the pale, peach-glazed water. When they swung their bow around and faced the west, I recognized the young couple. They had stopped by yesterday and traded a freshly-caught fish for some cooking oil.
They stowed their oars in the cayuco and drifted about 30 yards off my starboard side. She leaned her back against his chest and his chin cradled the top of her head. Although the twilight panorama that we were savoring was only mediocre, I suspect that their contentment was as transcendent as mine.
Suddenly, this exquisite peacefulness was destroyed by the roar of an outboard engine as a shiny American powerboat came blasting through our little sanctuary. Two overweight guys laughed drunkenly as they watched their wake nearly capsize the little native canoe. I looked over at my neighbors and shook my head in disgust. They responded with body language that said, “Sad, sad, sad.”
While their cayuco drifted to the south, with the lovers lazily fishing, I turned back to the west and caught a glimpse of the drunken gringos roaring out of sight. Because I am blessed (or cursed) with the philosopher’s need to contemplate such symbolic vignettes, I began a meditation that took me deep into the star-plush night.
Yesterday, when the couple rowed over to barter their fish, I complimented the young man on his well-crafted cayuco. With a mixture of modesty and pride he said that he had carved it himself, just as his father had taught him. And he mentioned that one of his earliest childhood memories was watching his grandfather teaching his dad his boat-shaping technique.
A single tree trunk, a few hand tools, and skill passed down the generations, was all that was necessary to create this handsome cayuco that could be used for transportation, fishing or twilight romance. How simple and exquisite; and how out of step with the misnamed “real world.” By contrast, the speedboat that had just annihilated the silent beauty of this little cove was a perfect symbol for our industrial-techno society.
As the Sun Sky surrendered to the Star Sky, I decided to carefully ponder the differences between these two vessels. An hour’s contemplation confirmed that they are an excellent metaphor for the chasm between the primitive-tribal worldview and modern-civilization. The contrasts are stark and sobering and they are a perfect illustration of the somewhat enigmatic title of this essay: “The Road to the Future Leads to the Past.”
Go to any shopping mall, anywhere on the planet, and show 50 people a photo of a cayuco and a picture of a high-speed powerboat. Then ask them this simple question: “Which of these boats will become extinct in the near future?” A huge majority will respond that the little Indio canoe will soon be gone. But I firmly believe the opposite, and hopefully I can also convince you. But before examining the future of these two types of water-craft, let’s consider how profoundly different they are in the present.
· Simplicity The cayuco has exactly one moving part – the paddle. On the other hand, the power boat has hundreds, if not thousands – all interwoven amongst mechanical, electrical, hydraulic and electronic systems.
· Health-promoting A lean, powerful human animal smoothly paddling a small boat is a universal and enduring image that can be traced back thousands and thousands of years. But an overweight, “look at me” speedboater is a phenomenon that has been around for less than a hundred years.
· Nature-friendly The self-propelled cayuco allows one to blend with nature and savor it. A motorboat with its screeching outboard engine assaults nature and scares away all of the nearby neighbors of the sea and the sky.
· Non-polluting The speedboat imposes its noise pollution on any creature in the vicinity. The exhaust from its engine spews poison into the air. And a more subtle form of pollution is the lack of bio-degradability of the fiberglass hull. The wooden cayuco will rot away fairly swiftly, but the power-boat will try to outlive the pyramids.
· Personal satisfaction Admittedly, the owner of a gaudy new power-boat will experience some ego-stroking as he pulls into his local marina. But compare that to the pride of an Indio, who has just finished carving a cayuco. Imagine the joy he feels as he admires her sturdy but elegant lines and his delight when his excited children climb in to go for their maiden voyage.
· Fossil-fuel freedom Astronomical gas prices or crippling supply interruptions are meaningless to the person in the dugout canoe. But these issues can convert that shiny pleasure boat into a money vacuum or a haunting, unused relic.
I was still contemplating fuel dependency, when I heard a shout of delight from the couple in the cayuco, who were now a hundred yards down the bay. They had caught a fish. Soon they built a fire on the beach and prepared their meal with cavemen simplicity, by cooking it on a stick bent over the flames. When it was ready they rotated it to let it cool. Then they enjoyed it by just pulling off delicious chunks of the fish with their fingers.
Watching this lovely couple enjoy their little feast in the same manner that their ancestors did 10,000 years ago, turned my ever-pensive mind to how much more complicated it would be for the chunky, drunken gringos to catch a fish and enjoy it for dinner. It would probably involve very expensive high-tech equipment and an underwater fish finder. As for the rustic campfire, it would be replaced by a propane barbeque grill. And this brought me back to that question that I posed earlier - “Which one of these boats is headed for extinction?” And this leads to the more significant interrogative, “Which one of these modes of living is headed for extinction?”
Most people today, believe that the problems our planet faces are serious, but not overwhelming. They comfort themselves by thinking that we can muddle along until some miraculous solution appears. Having carefully researched the possibility of societal collapse for many years, I vehemently disagree.
My term for the possible disasters that confront us is the Big Bad “E”s. This stands for Economy, Energy and Ecology. I could discuss these three meta-systems individually for hours, but it is their interconnectedness in today’s society which I find most troubling. Let me focus on just one - contemporary food production, or what is normally called Big Ag. It will be obvious how intertwined and precarious every aspect of modern daily life is.
In the U.S. during the Great Depression, there were still many family farms scattered throughout the nation. So when the economic collapse hit, most of the farm children who had migrated to the big cities, could return home and at least have survival food. Nowadays about 98% of agriculture is conducted on massive corporate farms, so the family farm safety valve no longer exists.
And these monolithic agribusiness tracts are entirely fossil fuel dependent. You will not find many farmers tilling their fields behind mules or scattering manure on their soil. Every step of the modern agricultural assembly line relies on fossil fuel inputs whether it is fuel for the tractors, combines and trucks or natural gas derivatives for the fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.
Ecology also entwines itself negatively in Big Agriculture in both directions. As the climate crisis deepens there are more extreme weather events that destroy food production such as severe droughts or devastating flooding. And because factory farming is so artificial and inorganic, it contributes enormously to climate destabilization. The fuel inputs in modern, large scale agriculture are so vital that some people have observed that we actually “eat oil.” This may or not be an exaggeration, but I believe that the way I phrase it is completely accurate - “Without oil - we do not eat!”
But the young couple feasting in the firelight on their just-caught fish, are completely independent of modern food processing. Certainly, they sometimes go to town and buy a few staples and some treats, but if that was no longer available, they would still survive. But the hefty, drunken boaters are utterly dependent on their supermarket. This led me to assess the other basic elements of survival and how well-prepared the natives are.
However, before evaluating these differences, let me clarify my terminology. The couple that I describe in this story, are what I consider Fringe Indios. Their ancestors were here long before the arrival of the white people, and due to their self-reliant capabilities, they will remain after the whites are “gone.” I refer to them as “fringe” because unlike the 85 or so remaining indigenous tribes who live almost completely cut off from the modern world, these Indios exist on the fringe of it. Here’s why they are so much less vulnerable to a “real world” collapse:
· Water They have never been connected to any form of “the grid” whether it is electricity or piped-in water. They know which local streams are good for drinking and they know how to catch sky water.
· Food Besides fishing, they also are skilled at foraging the shoreline. In the surrounding jungle they know which fruits and plants are edible. They are also skilled at primitive, low-tech cultivation. Cooking is mostly done with pots and pans over open fires.
· Shelter The roofs of their homes are woven from palm trees. The only hand tools necessary for building the remainder of a house are a machete, hammer and saw. They sometimes use nails but they can also connect the timbers using twine at the joints.
· Health They haven’t completely lost the knowledge of which local plants are medicinal and their simple style of living insulates them from most of the “diseases of civilization.”
· Security The Indios have very little that a typical marauder would desire, which is their first line of defense. But should things become dangerous in spite of this, they can retreat to the deep jungle where most human predators would not follow.
The little campfire on the beach had now gone out, and I could hear the young couple splashing in the water. A few minutes later their play became quieter and more rhythmic. I sighed deeply, for it comforted me to realize that these lovely human animals were now pleasuring each other where the water meets the land…the same place from which our forebears had emerged so many millions of years ago.
Then my thoughts returned again to the drunken power-boaters who were probably sitting at a bar back in town laughing uproariously over how they had almost capsized “a couple of Indians” that afternoon. These so-called civilized beings are supposedly “my people.” Certainly I was raised in that milieu. But miraculously, down the decades I was able to separate myself from the conventional human voyage and to view it through a different lens – from the outsider, sea gypsy perspective.
But it has been profoundly disturbing to carefully observe our species. With our enormous brains which bless us with the power of self-awareness and of language and of the arts, we could have achieved so much, but instead, we have squandered these gifts so foolishly and destructively.
Rather than accepting and relishing our place in the natural order, we deceived ourselves into believing that we could rule over Nature and use it as we desired. Our hubris in this regard became so extreme that we embraced the fool’s quest for infinite growth on a finite planet.
We never achieved our higher order consciousness when it came to conflict resolution. So every century has been stained with needless blood and mutilation. We chose competition over co-operation, excess over moderation, and mindless worship of trinkets over authentic, interpersonal living.
And we let our big brain technologies seduce us. We unleashed gargantuan forces without wisely pondering the consequences. So now we are poised at the edge of the abyss. Our human intelligence and power has been so distorted and corrupted that we are on the verge of destroying our planetary support system. We are on the threshold of annihilating much of the life that exists on the one single planet amongst millions that can support life. How insane and tragic is that?
Just as my depressing ruminations began to overwhelm me, the young couple came rowing by. They nodded to me and smiled. Even though there was no moon, they glistened radiantly in the starlight. A reassuring peace came over me, for I knew that if the monstrous Leviathan of modern civilization did come tumbling down, these two lovers would survive. THEY are the road to the future that leads to the past. And perhaps on the second try, humanity will do better on that road…