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Excerpt from Dreams

Electricity (p. 178)

From chapter "Local Mythologies"

Here is a secret that members of the cult of scientific, materialist, instrumentalist, mechanistic, managerial progress don’t want you to know, that those who believe science is the only path to knowledge don’t want you to know, that other monotheists don’t want you to know, that those who are killing the planet don’t want you to know, that those who commit genocide against indigenous people don’t want you to know, that witch-hunters didn’t want you to know, that God doesn’t want you to know: there are other ways to be. There are other ways to know the world and to know ourselves. There are other ways to be in relationship with each other and with the world, there are other ways to progress, there are other forms of technology (songs, poems, stories, dreams, ways to hear or see or know where the caribou are, ways to interact with swaying lights, ways to interact with other sides and those who live there), there are other ways to gain wisdom, there are other ways to live, ways to live in place. These ways are and must be, first and foremost, based upon accepting and respecting the land and others for who they are. They are based upon having the courtesy and intelligence and emotional security to acknowledge these others’ existences, intelligences, and wisdoms, and having the humility, maturity, and joy to realize these others may have something to teach you and everyone else (at their convenience, in their own time, by their particular methods).

This is the good news they don’t want you to know: there is another way to be, and it is a very good life, joyous and secure. And sustainable. And natural. And not so lonely. And not so existentially difficult. It is to be surrounded by meaning, surrounded by other intelligences, surrounded by life wanting to live.


We are embedded in the culture in which we are embedded. We know what we are taught to know, and we do not know what we are taught to not know (as well as what we are not taught). We consider as knowledge what we are taught to consider as knowledge, and we do not consider as knowledge what we are taught to not consider as knowledge.We value what we are taught to value, and we do not value what we are taught to not value. We preserve what we are taught to preserve, and we destroy what we are taught to destroy. We understand what we are taught to understand, and we do not understand what we are taught to not understand (or not taught). We enter into relationships in ways we are taught to enter into relationships, and we do not enter into relationships in ways we are taught to not enter into relationships (or that we are taught are not plausible relationships). We believe the world is the way we are taught to believe the world is, and we do not believe the world is any of the ways we have been taught to believe that the world is not. We have faith in those organizations, entities, processes, and relationships we have been taught to have faith in, and we do not have faith in those organizations, entities, processes, and relationships we have been taught to not have faith in. We take as common sense (sensus communis, the set of unstated assumptions, prejudices, and values we generally take for granted, having absorbed this set from the culture at large without critically considering it) that which we have been taught to believe is common sense, and we take as nonsensical that which we have been taught to believe is nonsensical.

It’s extraordinarily easy for us to point our fingers at fourteenth-century peasants and say they were ignoramuses because their houses weren’t wired for electricity. Likewise we can wear our smug little smiles when we talk about those ignorant Aztecs who believed that human sacrifices were necessary to make sure the universe didn’t collapse, and we can snicker at the silly Indians who sang to the corn or who believe that our dreams come from animals, and we can laugh out loud at those superstitious quacks who believe that the position of stars at the time of your birth affects your personality or fate, and at those pathetically delusional souls (oh yes, we don’t have souls, I forgot) who believe that stars speak, that rivers have volition, that trees have conversations, as do songbirds, coyotes, ducks, wind, and soil.

But don’t you see, it’s all magic, in one form or another. And the magic will have an internal consistency. If I flip a switch, the light goes on. Why? Because electricity flows into the light bulb, heats up a filament or gas or whatever, and this heat causes the filament or gas or whatever to glow. But what is electricity? Well, everyone but those silly fourteenth-century peasants knows it’s electrons flowing down wires. A veritable river of electrons. Isn’t it? But where is the source, the spring, the font from which all these bazillions of electrons flow, and why do they do it? Or wait, maybe that’s all wrong. Maybe electricity is, oh goodness, now I’m beginning to confuse myself. What is electricity? Now that I think of it, I don’t really know what it is. And I’m guessing you might not either. And the truth is that scientists and engineers don’t know either. Not even physicists. Hell, the truth is that no humans really know. We know what we’ve been taught. We (some of us) know the equations—V = IR and all that—but mainly what we know is that, as was true of computers, when we flip a switch, something happens. Why? Electricity, that’s why. But why? We know how to work with it, but we don’t know how it works or who it is or what it wants, and we certainly don’t know why. We don’t know how it lives. We are engineers and mathematicians, not people who understand. How it works, how it lives, who it is, what it wants, all remain mysteries, and articles, to use a phrase many members of the cult of progress despise, of faith.

Having thoroughly confused myself on this issue, I asked a physicist friend if the previous paragraph was defensible. She wrote back, “We say that electricity is the flow of electrons through a conductor, but we don’t really mean that. We don’t really know. No one has ever seen an electron. No one has ever seen any of the particles which (or who) make up the discipline of particle physics! We can see where they’ve been, in a particle accelerator, and the tracks of their energetic movements and collisions with other particles, but this whole notion of a particle responsible for the effect known as electricity is, very much, taken on faith.

“The two things that give scientists much courage of their convictions are, as far as I can see: (1) the mathematical equations which, frankly, describe the behavior of any mass in a given field, so far, anyway (I’m talking of the Boltzmann equations here, and the terms ‘field’ and ‘mass’ are again question-begging terms, as we’ve set up their meanings to coincide with what we want them to describe); and (2) the fact that when we shoot particles into each other at high energies we see tracks left behind in the stratum, which we’ve decided to call ‘lepton interaction’ and ‘electron neutrino formation,’ as if that actually gives us any more information.

“I think what I’m getting at here is the same thing you are—that science is self-referencing. But yes, the main points I would make are that we’ve never actually seen an electron particle, which is supposed to be responsible for this ‘flow’ of ‘current’ (nice appropriation of terminology, huh?) and moreover, the description of an electron at a sub-particle, or quark, level is even more indeterminate. Quarks are really, really, theoretical.

“And right in line with this, have you read about the arguments going on in quantum mechanics just now about whether or not particles have free will? It’s quite a controversy. For example, check out this headline from Science News: ‘Do subatomic particles have free will? If we have free will, so do subatomic particles, mathematicians claim to prove.’”

She continued, “Scientists don’t want to accept the mantle, but I really do think they’re as dogmatic as any other religion. The fact that the stuff science describes can be seen to ‘work’ is a major foundation stone of the theology. But do they really, truly, understand ‘how’? I would say not.”

She concluded, “It’s a good thing you used electricity in your example, and not gravity, because we have even less of an idea what’s going on there. Hypothetical gravitons to the contrary, nobody really has a clue what mediates it. One theory of gravity is that it is leaking from some force in some other dimension. And that theory has even been put forward by staid scientists, not by people wearing funny hats and swearing that Harry Potter belongs in the nonfiction section of bookstores.”

This all reminded me of a quote from Neil Evernden’s extraordinary book The Natural Alien: Humankind and Environment: “All of us, by virtue of our membership in a science-dominated culture, have adopted the abstraction of Galileo as our definition of nature. And in denying our immediate experience in deference to that abstraction we have gone some way towards cutting the earthly vocal chords ourselves.This is not an esoteric phenomenon confined to the laboratory. How many of us have, as the psychiatrist J. H. van den Berg suggests, replied to our children’s questions about the nature of the world and of life in terms that only make sense in a Galilean context? When the child asks: ‘why have the leaves turned red?’ or ‘why does it snow?’ we launch into explanations which have no obvious connection with the question. Leaves are red because it is cold, we say. What has cold to do with colour? How is the child to know that we are talking of abstract connections between atmospheric conditions and leaf chemistry? And why should he care? The child has asked ‘why,’ not ‘how,’ and certainly not ‘how much.’ And why should he care that the molecular structure of water is believed to be such that at low temperatures it forms rigid binds which make it appear as ice or snow? None of these abstractions says anything about what the child experiences: the redness of leaves and the cool, tickling envelopment by snow. The living response would be quite different. ‘“Why are the leaves red, Dad?” “Because it is so beautiful, child. Don’t you see how beautiful it is, all these autumn colors?” There is no truer answer. That is how the leaves are red. An answer which does not invoke questions, which does not lead the child into an endless series of questions, to which each answer is a threshold. The child will hear later on that a chemical reaction occurs in those leaves. It is bad enough, then; let us not make the world uninhabitable for the child too soon.’”

From the perspective of someone who has grown up with a scientific understanding of electricity, electricity does not seem so much like magic. It’s just part of life. We can work with it. We can develop theories surrounding it. We can devise complex and simple equations. And while we do not and cannot fundamentally understand its sources or reasons, we can and most often do simply accept it, and our explanations probably make some sense to us, because if they didn’t we’d most likely attempt to come up with other explanations. Likewise, from the perspective of someone who grew up with an Aztec understanding of the role of human sacrifice in propitiating deities, the relationship between cutting out someone’s still-beating heart and holding it up to the sky, and the universe not collapsing, would not seem so much like magic. It would just be part of life. It would make as much sense to them as electricity does to us. They could work with it. They could develop theories surrounding it. And while they did not and could not fundamentally understand its sources or reasons, they could and most often did simply accept it, and their explanations probably made some sense to them, because if they didn’t then more than likely they would’ve attempted to come up with other explanations.

Before you laugh too hard at the absurdity of that belief, take a look in the mirror and consider this culture’s enacted beliefs that money is more important than a living planet; that money has value; that the functioning of an economic system is more important than a living planet; that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet; that technology will solve problems caused by technology; that we are separate from the earth; that this way of life is better than others that were sustainable; and so on. Who’s laughing—or rather, crying—now?