“The great disease of our time is meaninglessness,” says Alastair McIntosh in the introduction to his book, ‘Soil and Soul.’ He hooked me with that line. I feel the symptoms of that disease in my culture, in myself. It was my own search for the cure, in a long, winding sort of way, that led me to his book.
McIntosh, a Scottish professor of ecology in the grandest sense, offers a deeper diagnosis than most. And he offers, if not a cure, at least an ontological prescription, a worldview that, as we embrace it, might begin to flush out the virus.
“Dig where you stand,” he says to begin his diagnostic. McIntosh stands atop the fertile soil of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland and its long heritage of history and myth. He digs here, he says, not to celebrate his own heritage above others, but precisely to find those deep commonalities between his own slice of earth and others that share similar pains, and similar points of deep, if often latent, wisdom.
The pains of his heritage would certainly be recognized by millions, perhaps billions, as similar to their own. Scotland, like so many places in the world, was brutally colonized by the English. They overwhelmed Scottish military opposition (and terrorized civilians), dismantled and outlawed Scottish cultural education and expression, paved the way for Scottish lands to be owned by British aristocrats and plutocrats, and replaced the mutuality of village economics with the individualism of cash. During the 1800s and 1900s, half a million Scottish people were forced off their ancestral lands to make way for intensive sheep farming by wealthy British landowners in an injustice known as ‘the clearances’.
The result of this wholesale domination by the systems of wealth and power, says McIntosh, was that many Scottish people lost their most important connections: with their land and its myths and histories; with each other; and consequently with their deep, true selves.
Loss of soil, loss of community, and loss of soul, is McIntosh’s diagnosis, and reconnecting with them is his prescription. Vibrant, mythopoetic connections to one’s land and people, grounded in their true histories and circumstances, are at the heart of human well-being, of deep, existential rightness with the world, he argues. When these connections are fractured, people and the planet suffer.
With that simple formulation not only does McIntosh illuminate our world, but he lit a candle in some dark cavern of my own psyche, a place that had been pumping out emergency signals for some time, but that I had not yet discovered. It is, perhaps, the center of my own strain of the disease of meaninglessness.
The world that McIntosh illuminates is one in which consumerism has replaced connection. It’s a world in which we feel that we are more independent than ever, when really we have traded loving dependence on each other and a on generous planet for sterile dependence on electronics and machines and a global system in which the rich have de facto dominance over the less rich.
McIntosh says that this modern dysfunction is a dysfunction of love. Each of the things we have lost in McIntosh’s diagnosis is an instance of deep, natural love: love of the earth; love of each other; love of the deepest, truest parts of ourselves. And the only thing offered to replace such great loss is a global system that demands our complete submissive reliance, while causing us to degrade the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the only planet that we have to sustain life and joy. Any love of this system is a dysfunctional love.
McIntosh goes on to give examples from his life about how people and communities can renew their connections to soil and soul, and how with that new strength they can overcome the predatory elements of our global system. It is a hopeful prescription, and I will leave those stories for you to explore and enjoy on your own.
Here instead I will share some of my own story, and how McIntosh’s diagnosis seems uniquely applicable in my case, and so too his prescription uniquely hopeful.
Six years ago this month I moved from California to Uganda. An initial stay of three months turned into almost two years, and over the four years since I have split my time almost evenly between Uganda and America.
Such frequent movement between continents, seemingly between worlds, has kept me from putting down firm roots in either place. And though I am lucky to have tremendous friends on both sides, I seem always to be either gone or preparing to leave. Physical distance, over time, becomes emotional distance. You have heard of first world problems; I have two world problems.
When I arrived in northern Uganda in 2006, almost two million Ugandans were confined to terrible camps where suffering and death reached levels I had never imagined. It was enough to set me questioning the existence of a good God and to start punching angry, analytical holes in the faith of my youth.
Like the Highlanders and Islanders of Scotland, I suffered loss of connection to soil, to community, and to soul. And I feel it. I feel it as that epidemic of meaninglessness.
Like all of us, I crave meaning. So in its absence I scoured the universe for it. I searched in religion and science and humanitarianism. I looked in entropy and extropy, in reason and intelligence. I looked in the long, slow march of evolution and the supernova explosion of technology. I longed to align myself with the deep reasons of the universe.
But the universe, it seems, does not offer such meaning, does not know the meaning of meaning. The universe is not about meaning. We are. We, tiny temporal members of the vast universe need meaning, and perhaps we alone.
And through McIntosh’s ideas I found that we who need meaning also create it, and that love is its key ingredient. We imbue our lives and our world and our universe with meaning by loving things within them. And the things that many of us love together take on transcendent meaning: the earth, humanity, love itself. Soil, community, soul.
Meaning is not something outside of us waiting to be found, it is a product of our proper relationship to our existence, a loving connection to our place, our people, and the deepest truth in ourselves.
By repairing these fundamental connections, says McIntosh, these essential loves, we can begin to cure ourselves of the disease of meaningless, and we can start to heal the earth from the wounds we have inflicted on it in our fever. I am hopeful that he is right.