Control Freaks: Humanity’s Bad Habit

June 19, 2017 | Posted in: Sociology

Iron and Steel--Pittsburgh, Joseph Pennell, published in the International Studio, 1897.

Iron and Steel–Pittsburgh, Joseph Pennell, published in the International Studio, 1897.

I’ve been ruminating on control: rolling the word around my mouth, giving it a good chew, seeing what spills out. It feels like a master word for our species, one that explains so much of our destructive habits, our worst impulses. In my own tiny world I flex my muscles in an attempt to keep things the way I like them: clean, quiet, and enjoyable. Neighbors start blasting their bass and I’m there pounding on their door. A work project on our building requires a potter potty be put near our porch, and I’m there demanding it be moved elsewhere (in my defense it wasn’t the best location). Not in my backyard I yell, fist shaking! But it’s a fine line between holding one’s own and being a micromanaging control freak.

I toe that line in my own life, but I think humanity as a whole might need an intervention. In our short time as a species we’ve been busily terraforming the planet to meet our ideals of comfort, safety, and entertainment. We stared into the heavens in awe and then managed to step foot on the moon. We split the heart of an atom and learned how easily we could destroy ourselves with the push of a button. We discovered liquified ancient life and used this to power our conquests. The earth has been our playground, our cabinet of wonders, our supply closet, our pantry, our trash heap.

For all the knowledge we’ve gained and marvels we’ve created, for all this meddling and attempts to control nature, we’ve created for ourselves a very serious ecological crisis: most ecosystems on earth are polluted, species are going extinct at a horrifying rate, and the very climate has been destabilized globally. The path we’re on has a gloomy future, and so I wonder: can we relate to the biosphere in new ways that aren’t seizing, grasping attempts at control? Can we unclench our fists and learn how to share and care for our planet in symbiosis, rather than seeking to dominate everything?

Illustration by E. Osswald printed in Jugend, a German illustrated weekly magazine for art and life, Volume 13.2, 1908.

Illustration by E. Osswald printed in Jugend, a German illustrated weekly magazine for art and life, Volume 13.2, 1908.

Loren Eiseley, in his book The Firmament of Time, writes an account that feels apropos:

“There is a story about one of our atomic physicists—a story for whose authenticity I cannot vouch, and therefore I will not mention his name. I hope, however, what all my heart that it is true. If it is not, then it ought to be, for it illustrates well what I mean by a growing self-awareness, a sense of responsibility about the universe.

    This man, one of the chief architects of the atomic bomb, so the story runs, was out wandering in the woods one day with a friend when he came upon a small tortoise. Overcome with pleasurable excitement, he took up the tortoise and started home, thinking to surprise his children with it. After a few steps he paused and surveyed the tortoise doubtfully.

    ‘What’s the matter?’ asked his friend.

    Without responding, the great scientist slowly retraced his steps as precisely as possible, and gently set the turtle down in the exact spot from which he had taken him up.

    Then he turned solemnly to his friend. ‘It just struck me,’ he said, ‘that perhaps, for one man, I have tampered enough with the universe.’ He turned, and left the turtle to wander on its way.

    The man who made that remark was one of the best of the modern men, and what he had devised had gone down into the whirlpool. ‘I have tampered enough,’ he said.” Eiseley

In the coming weeks, I’ll be delving further into this desire for control: humanity’s attempts to seize the reins as it were, and the way the world slips right through our fingers, gives way right under our feet, eludes us endlessly, and keeps us securely in the circle of life, despite all our attempts to gain immortality.

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.