The Greatest Loss
July 26, 2005
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
With the loss of wild and natural spaces what exactly is it that we are losing? What is the greatest loss?
There is no shortage of news detailing the loss and destruction of our natural world. Clear cutting this, ozone depletion that, global warming here and there. No doubt it is happening right before our eyes and no doubt Homo sapiens (“wise humans”) are in large part, if not totally, responsible. There is also no doubt that we could do a better job of reversing these trends if we were so inclined. But that is not what is occupying my mind at this moment.
What is bothering me most is that there is something else we are losing- not just the potential medicines in the rainforests, or our protective ozone, not the climate we have grown pretty attached to in the last few thousand years, not the fisheries we are over exploiting and not even the biodiversity and habitats we are wiping off the face of the Earth before we can catalogue and describe them, much less understand their ecology or role in nature.
There is something perhaps more profound and yet altogether more subtle disappearing, quietly slipping away mostly unnoticed from the world we inhabit. That something is solitude. Or rather, a natural place in which to find solitude and escape from the all pervasive human commotion.
With the encroachment of humanity on almost every corner of the globe it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a place where there are not other people around. It used to be that I could traipse a few hundred yards into my own backyard and almost escape the noises of civilization and the screaming sounds of progress and economic growth.
Maybe a few cars would roll by during a full day on the dirt road where I lived in rural Georgia, USA, now and again breaking the silence. But they would soon drive on and silence would loudly stake its claim once they passed. Not true anymore. That road is now paved and a huge mall has been built with the accompanying mammoth parking lot full of folks too large and too lazy to park more than 100 yards from the door.
Instead they drive around and honk incessantly until somebody pulls out and lets them in. In fact, that mall is the biggest mall in the Southeastern United States I am told, or some such claim anyway.
And it’s not just there, but everywhere I turn. Everywhere I used to hunt grey squirrel and white tail deer or fish for trout, bream and catfish is now a development of some sort, a strip mall or a subdivision full of cookie cutter houses. Those unfettered places are disappearing rapidly, nearly gone. Nowadays I have to travel farther (in my oil consuming transport) to escape the buzzes and whirls of my fellow human beings.
Well, so what?
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of the great prophets and gurus throughout human history have had some sort of epiphany during an episode of solitude in a forest or desert. They essentially went out and sat for a while- quietly alone. They communed in silence. They just sat in silence. Then they brought back messages and insights so far reaching that we are still living by them today, thousands of years later.
It seems to me that silence and solitude are the key ingredients to reaching a higher self- a self more in tune with the surrounding universe- a life enlightened to the infinite. I’m no prophet but I too certainly get a hankering for that sort of thing once in a great while.
These days I live in Malaysia, a country on the fast track to development and first world status. As the construction hits full speed ahead, Malaysia’s wild places are disappearing faster than free ice cream at Wal-Mart on a balmy Sunday afternoon. And there isn’t much end in sight. Kuala Lumpur’s skyline is dotted with cranes.
Along with those implements of mass construction come the requisite sounds of a country undergoing birth pangs. The jack hammers, drills, tractors, earth movers and Bangladeshi workers start their squealing and squawking in the early morning and wail on into the evening hours.
More often than not they drown out the songs of cicadas, tree frogs and jungle crickets I am sometimes privy to hear in my back yard, an increasingly rare undeveloped Malaysian rain forest. The human made noises invade the recesses of my mind and attack my psyche. There is no escaping the deluge of the ensuing unnatural soundscape’s assault on my senses.
Even when I retreat to the backwoods of a national park in ‘remote’ backwoods of Malaysia I still hear the whiz of jets flying overhead burdened with Asians making a pilgrimage to or from Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta or some other desperately busy overpopulated location.
If I don’t hear that then I see a row of pink plastic garbage bags and wooden disposable chopsticks. The human footprint is everywhere. That’s business I reckon. Or at least business in a large scale consumer oriented infinite growth economic model.
It’s undeniable; the intrusive stamp of humanity reaches far and wide. As the developments increase and the population grows, solitude seems to spring just out of sight like a white tail buck with his white flag raised high as a warning signal to anyone o that cares to take notice of the statement ‘danger lurks here, it is time to retreat to safety’. The only thing is, there ain’t nowhere to retreat to anymore.
I, for one, am taking notice and I’ve caught a glimpse of what is to come. If these trends continue and the population keeps increasing I know what will happen. I’ve seen it. The future I have witnessed is in present day Java. I lived on Java for nearly a year often wondering how a place could be so crowded.
Java is one of 15,000+ islands (give or take) in the Indonesian archipelago and has the distinction of being the most densely populated island on the planet. With over 800 people per square kilometer Java has roughly 25 times more people per square kilometer than the United States. Not only that, but almost every square inch of the island has been developed.
On Java people live on the side of the road, people scrunch into villages; folks jam in to the public angkots and people crowd into the dimly lit streets at night. People are everywhere on Java! Don’t get me wrong. The folks there are as friendly as can be and most of the time I am able to ignore the wall-to-wall human mob. If I had to choose between living in the densely crowded Javan society and the urban nightmare known as Los Angeles I’d chose Java in a New York minute. But even though the Indonesians are friendly as can be, once in a while I want to escape, except there is nowhere to escape to.
Everywhere I wish to go is inhabited. The few places that aren’t over crowded are too far away for a quick getaway and require a major expedition. So much for meditating, communing with nature, ‘finding myself’ or connecting with my spirit. Those notions flutter out the window on clumsy wings fooled by the street lamps of development they erroneously perceive as the moon that is supposed to guide them. Finally worn out by all the hullabaloo those dreams desiccate and fall back to earth in their ephemeral existence.
Eventually, I retreated back to a less crowded Kuala Lumpur from Java only to discover that even though there were less people, there was more construction so that more people could live here if they wanted to. Once again, that’s business as usual I reckon.
The population has doubled in my lifetime from about 3 billion souls in the 1970’s when I was a kid playing on the dirt roads in rural Georgia to over 7 billion folks our green globe is sporting around the solar system today. I’ve noticed it and felt the effects already. I remember a time a few decades ago when the streets weren’t so crowded and the malls weren’t so proliferate. The population explosion is real and measured in real time. I don’t think I’m alone in being alarmed at this.
I believe that humans need solitude and quiet as much as food, shelter and even oxygen.
In the latter part of the 20th century we began sprinting up the slippery slope of the population J-curve. As that reality sets in and we chop down the remaining 1% of virgin forest on our blue sphere while filling the air with the clamor and chatter of progress, we run the risk of letting those places that offer soul nourishing solitude vanish.
Solitude and silence are quietly slipping away unnoticed, our only consolation being that we are left alone in the world with our own chatter and background noise as our sole companion. With all of this we know that unless we do something fast and wake up to the call of silence silently screaming for our attention the retreat behind constructed walls will continue.
No longer will we be able to withdraw to a quiet wild place devoid of human influence. Our ability and quite possibly our desire for introspection and self-discovery in a feral landscape filled full with quietness will be gone. And that, to me, is the greatest loss of all.