Thursday, July 8, 2010

Paradise Lost - Stupidity?

"Stupid is as stupid does"
~Forrest Gump's mother

"The stupidest man on Earth
is the man who thinks he's smarter
than everyone else"

I have been thinking a lot about stupidity. (I'm sorry, but I really like that sentence.)

Last week I was going to pick up the theme I have been wrestling with for some time: For millennia humankind lived a nearly Utopian life among food-bearing trees, both in creation myth and in reality. Biblical man was cast out of paradise by a fall from grace. Perhaps that is truly what happened. But my secular mind has been searching for a deeper answer to a question that is at once simple and endlessly complex: Why? Why did we did we stop living a life of leisure, happiness and peace harvesting & eating tree crops - which in many areas that meant primarily acorns - and switch to a life of toil and sweat producing and eating annual grain crops? (Incidentally, we made the same bone-headed decision on behalf of our livestock as well. Originally we both ate acorns. And when we started cultivating grains we actually first fed them to our livestock, keeping the acorns for ourselves. Only later did we decide to do battle with millions of square miles of the Earth’s surface to produce grains for us both.)

Various sources discuss overpopulation and competition for resources, overuse of the resource (the arboreal equivalent of the Pleistocene overkill theory), or, as William Bryant Logan convincingly argues in Oak: The Frame of Civilization, wanderlust and boredom.

Well, like I said I was getting ready last week to explore these theories when events conspired both to delay my writing but also to bring me face to face with an entirely new theory I hadn't considered: Stupidity. People can be remarkably, mind-blowingly stupid.

Let's first talk about the different kinds of stupidity, and then explore how these different flavors of stupidity might have caused us to leave our cushy happy life eating the fruits of the trees and spend our days instead in endless toil, at war with soil, and in love with oil (Nobel Prize for poetry here I come!). Much of what is viewed as "human nature" (oxymoron?) is meant to get us through the day and, more to the point, get us collectively and me individually regenerated in a new generation. Many of these same traits result in actions that are, over the passage of time, stupid, pointless and self-destructive.

1. Arrogance/hubris - Believing that you are smarter than everyone else, and smarter than nature.

2. Enviousness - Believing that the "other" is always "better" - it's better over there over that hill, the grass is always greener, etc.

3. Pride (variation on hubris) - Believing that others are lazy compared to you

4. Self-centered-ness - Believing that every idea you have is new and unique in the universe (instead of a repeat of ideas had millions of times before in minds brighter than yours)

5. Need for control - Believing that by controlling resources you can therefore control people, and their hopes, dreams and aspirations

OK, this is getting repetitive, but you get the point. Given all of these human failings, all of this collective stupidity, it was inevitable that we would leave our happy peaceful life among the trees and acorns to come down into the valley and pound on the soil. What is perhaps more remarkable is that there were any people who didn't give in to stupidity and who didn't leave the trees until forced to (the indigenous people of California, Oregon and parts of Washington for example). Would they have walked away from their life of happiness and plenty given enough time? I'd like to think not, but what I believe about human nature tells me they would have.

We are hard-wired to not just hang out, relax and let nature provide in the way it always has and always will. We need control. We need to feel like we are in control of our food supply. And a small number of us need to feel like we are in control of others. The easy abundance of an acorn-based society does not allow a small number of people to control resources in the way that a grain based culture does.

We need to do things differently than they were done before - or at least believe that we are doing things differently than before.

We seem to need to believe not only that we must do battle with the Earth for sustenance, but even more remarkably we seem to believe that we can win that battle. Duh.

I better stop now or this will never get posted. But we’ll keep exploring the question of Why? in future posts. It is no doubt a combination of things – overpopulation and overuse of resources in some areas, boredom and wanderlust in others, dispersal by war and force in others – but I now have no doubt that underpinning any and all of these is the simple, sadly inevitable and infinitely repeated – fact of human stupidity.

They say that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. We need to collectively and individually realize how stupid we have been in walking away from tree crops in favor of grains. Only then can we begin to change and regain the paradise that we lost.

And most of all: Never, ever let stupidity get in the way of the life you’re intended to live.
Apropos nothing.

* OK, that wasn't anonymous. I'm the one who said that.


  1. I found your blog last week and spent time reading through all of the back posts - I agree with much of what you've been saying! J. Russell Smith was definitely ahead of his time - only a few years regarding topsoil depletion (i.e. the Dust Bowl years). But WAY ahead of his time in arguing for tree-based agriculture!

    Because of his insight, I've been planting things on my patch of suburbia with things that produce fruit - cherries, pears, apples (I have to get something other than Golden Delicious!), hazelnuts and chestnuts. I'm lazier than you - I don't want to go through the leaching process needed for acorns...

    I don't know of you've heard of the folks at - but they're working on an agricultural system based on hazels, chestnuts and somewhat on hybrid hickories/pecans.


  2. Eric - Thanks so much for commenting and welcome to Oak Watch! I am very familiar with Badgersett - Phil Rutter is a hero of mine. He was an original founder of The American Chestnut Foundation. He's another guy who, along with J. Russell Smith, is far ahead of his time (or is so far behind his time that he's actually ahead, if that makes any sense at all).
    Don't worry about being "lazy" as regards acorn gathering, leaching, etc. It is a real pain and not a way put a significant amount of food on the table. I do envision a day when acorn products - oil, flour, starch - will be widely grown, harvested, processed and available, just as Phil and many others envision the same for hazelnuts and chestnuts.
    In other words, we're all a small part of making Smith's larger and bolder vision come true, each in our own little way.
    Welcome again! ~Chris Siems