The world as we know it cannot go on. Some part of it might survive, almost intact, with determined human effort and a lot of luck. If any one of us were given the power to save half of the world, and let the other half go, what would make it to the top of our list of priorities, and what would not? I am proposing this situation as if it was purely hypothetical, but in fact it is not. It is the situation we face today, or the one we refuse to face.
Among those who can see the arc or our present trajectory and recognize that we are propelling ourselves toward utter disaster, or even oblivion, I note a near-consensus for what must top the list of valuables to be saved: foremost, we must save civilization. Not far behind civilization, and perhaps conflated with it, is the gut-felt notion that we must save our way of life. Not just electricity and indoor plumbing, but cities and symphony orchestras and global trade: the world as we know it today, but smarter, more efficient, better engineered. Most within this group get at least some of their information outside the mainstream corporate media. They have assimilated peak oil, climate chaos, resource depletion, environmental degradation, and they recognize the threat of planetary ecosystem breakdown. They know what overshoot means and recognize that the present human population is far beyond the carrying capacity of the planet—a condition that is necessarily temporary. And yet, well-informed as they are, almost all of these bright and educated people share the same blind spot, thanks to the thoroughness of their cultural conditioning.
A foundational assumption of Western civilization is that the Earth belongs to humans, and it has no purpose beyond serving us. Going far back into our cultural and intellectual history, it has been an unquestioned assumption that everything—the Universe itself– is really about us exceptional, very special, humans. This particular brand of narcissism is called anthropocentrism, and I call it a blind spot because it seems to prevent clear and rational thinking about our actual prospects for survival here. That is to say, it denies the true human situation on Earth and posits a Big Lie in its place. Trying to enact this lie dooms us to fall by our own hand because our pretense won’t allow us to acknowledge the principles of Ecology 101.
Intellectually, we may recognize that human life, and all life, depends upon global and local planetary systems functioning within a given optimal range. If these interconnected and interdependent global, regional, and local systems are stressed beyond their optimal range, radical changes can occur—possibly in a cascade of failures, and also, possibly, to a regime change so extreme (and irreversible) that extinction of species would be general. This scenario goes far beyond the futures entertained by those advocating for wind power and electric cars. With widespread ecosystem failure, survival itself is in question– never mind the amenities of advanced civilization. Yet, even knowing all this, in an abstract way, it is common among the cognoscenti to believe that we could go on living the way we do, if only there were fewer of us. Their ultimate goal is to preserve a way of life, not Life itself, and this is where their models and assumptions fail them.
Working toward a world with fewer people, with a reduced energy/carbon footprint, is a desirable goal, and a necessary eventuality. But as a response to the Earth crisis it is feebly insufficient, because (as usual) our focus is too self-centered, and thus misdirects our actions. It is still all about the human, and only about our fellow Earthlings, and the Earth itself, as they relate to our most obvious survival requirements. For instance, the Earth is losing unique species to extinction at the rate of about 200 species a day. A small number of people find this fact abhorrent, and an even smaller number are trying to reverse the trend. The loss of iconic mega fauna—like elephants, pandas, and tigers–is seen as unfortunate, and even gets a little mainstream press, now and then. Occasionally, someone will pay lip service to the concept of biodiversity, but none of us really understands the full implications of losing a single species; when we consider tens of thousands of life forms a year, we are in territory far beyond our comprehension.
Ecology is a very young science, and we know so very little about the various interactions among species, and how these interactions contribute to the web of life. And it is not only our knowledge of detail that is lacking: we are also astoundingly ignorant of how complex geological, chemical, and biological systems interact to make the larger Gaian system so nurturing to Life. Because there is no apparent profit in this kind of research, and no other obvious incentive, some of the most important questions relating to our survival never get asked. And so, the fabric of life unravels day by day, as species after species is extirpated. Though we don’t know exactly what this means, we should be aware that we, and the world, are losing vital components of a living planet; that everything counts for something, and there are no spare parts. As Aldo Leopold has said: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” A complex, integrated whole (or holarchy) is whole by virtue of all of its parts (or holons) being present and in functional order. Keep subtracting parts and order devolves into disorder.
Life emerged on this planet some four billion years ago, and has been evolving ever since. Out of that evolutionary process has come ever greater complexity and ever greater diversity. We Johnny-come-latelys are now in the business of reversing that trend, as we carelessly, and ceaselessly, unweave the Web of Life. Under the domination of industrial/ corporate man, the world grows ever more ugly and unlivable. The Alberta tar sands (visible from space), is our brand stamped upon the planet. What was once a living boreal forest ecosystem–with flora and fauna to match its trees and streams–has been transformed into a lifeless industrial muck wallow, massive in its gooey sameness. This is an extreme example of what civilized man will do to the Earth for a short-term energy fix, and of course for those addictive petrol profits. Extreme, but not uncharacteristic: We are blowing the tops off mountains to feed our addiction to dirty coal, and burying freshwater streams in the toxic slag of the overburden. We are poisoning freshwater aquifers with the dangerous chemicals of fracking, while introducing isolated pockets of natural toxins into people’s drinking water—and, while we are at it, releasing perilous amounts of the greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere. It seems a form of insanity, but it is insanity normalized within our culture and society, and regarded as somehow rational—or at least consistent with the principles we live by, and therefore inevitable.
We can normalize these extreme behaviors partly because we, as a society, are addicted to high-power fossil energy and the way it streamlines our lives and amplifies our personhood. But there is something deeper than this that goes far beyond our individual culpability, something so embedded in our culture as to be foundational to our identity as a people. Historically, the civilized people of the world have been transformers of Nature. Consider, for example, the transformation that has been visited upon the North American continent in the last five hundred years. Starting at the eastern shore, we worked our way westward, felling vast forests to make way for agriculture, industry, and towns. We were colonists, and colonization was what we did. We swept across the Great Plains, transforming vast natural grasslands with millennia-deep topsoil into scalped farmsteads, whose rich soil we readily depleted, then left to blow away as dust. To water our croplands, we dammed rivers, transforming their natural ecology into something less natural. And we were miners not only of topsoil and streams and trees, but miners of everything that could be turned to a profit. Land fever and gold fever drove us to grab everything we could, to rip riches from the Earth, turning the natural world inside out, poisoning it with cyanide and mercury, blowing away stream banks with pressurized water to get at little specks of shine, transforming mature landscapes into wastelands with careless disregard. There was nothing in our culture to tell us this was wrong. Instead, our culture authorized and validated all these transformations of the natural world. Striking it rich was, and still is, the American Dream; and there are no rules, no taboos, no prohibitions. Whatever you can get away with, for the sake of profit, is okay. This is the American Way. It’s who we are.
The transformation of Nature is not a genetically determined species-wide attribute, but is instead the particular project of the culture of civilization. At the heart of this project is the culturally sanctioned belief that the human being is separate from Nature. Without this underlying conceit it would be psychologically very difficult to go up against Mother Nature and presume to exert our will over hers. With this belief, and its corollary– that the human is the center of everything, with the world ours for the taking—there are no limits to what we might do. No rules, no restraints; no responsibilities, only rights—and, specifically, the right to take whatever we want, whenever we want, in whatever quantity we can get away with.
The people who lived here before the European invasion had a different worldview. They believed that the human was an integral part of Nature and that the Earth itself was sacred; that all the other creatures of the Earth were kin, and each relative was an individual worthy of respect. Gratitude for the bounty and beauty of the Earth, and for life itself, was an attitude to be cultivated in everyday life, and expressed through ritual and ceremony on special occasions. When you believe that the Earth and all Life are sacred you walk upon the land with circumspection and humility. You don’t take more than is offered, or more than you need, and you give back to the Earth in every way you can. In the words of the Potawatomi elder, Robin Kimmerer: “One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.” (Braiding Sweetgrass, p.190.)This worldview, and the code of ethics it engenders, was practiced by some five hundred Native tribes over a period of ten thousand years; the legacy it left on the land was continent-wide ecological wholeness. Could there be a lesson here for us?
I think there could.
What needs to be understood by those who would save the world is that only part of it can be saved. If we try to save the trappings of civilization, along with its underlying culture, we are bound to continue promoting the transformation of living systems into dead zones, of converting life into death. Why? Because the cultural meme of our putative separation from Nature runs so deep, and has so many corollary memes. Cherry picking the “best” aspects of civilization is more easily wished for than actually accomplished, because culture is a network of interconnected perceptions, beliefs, and values. Opt for a few of your favorite technologies and along come the assumptions that made those technologies possible. You can’t have one thing without getting a lot more besides. This is one reason why it is best not to try to save civilization at all. Another is that civilization is, and always has been, based upon the over-exploitation of resources. On a finite planet, over-exploitation has no long-term future. And let’s not forget, as we tend to, what these “resources” actually are: they are other species, and the habitats of other species; and everything we gouge out of the land we take from the flesh of Mother Earth. None of these “resources” are freely given, but are the products of Theft– Theft on a global scale.
Within the culture of civilization, we suffer from wrong relationship with nature, and it is this wrong relationship that has caused us to overpopulate, and to create a false human-dominated world—urban, ugly, and far removed from the world as Nature made it. We have fabricated this faux world by dismantling the real world that gives us, and everything else, its life. All of the hockey stick trajectories, all of the negative trends, are enabled and amplified by this wrong relationship to Nature: this absurd pretense that we humans are separate from, and above, Nature. As long as we cling to this falsehood, the world will continue to crash down around us. And this would be true even if there were only a billion of us, or a million. Yes, there are too many of us, but it is not merely a question of numbers. The ultimate cause behind almost everything that is wrong in the world today is our wrong relationship with Nature. Want to save the world? Fall in love with it first; embrace it as your larger Self, and give the lie to separation. If by some miracle we all came around to reality at once, and changed the story we live in, we—and future generations– might actually have a chance to go on living here.