It is time to abandon the fantasy that we are above the past and alienated from the rest of life on earth. We truly are a successful species in our own right that lived in harmony with the earth and its other forms for millions of years — a species that has not changed intrinsically. The genome is our Pleistocene treasure that transcends short-term and short-sighted goals. Possibilities lie within us. Our culture must express what the past calls forth in us but leaves us the freedom to shape. — Paul Shepard
In the long run, everything is ecological.
As detailed in the massive May 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the planet is in some deep shit. Virtually every major natural life-support system is in rapid decline: crashing biodiversity (mass extinctions), deforestation, soil degradation, oceanic toxicity and acidification, collapsing fisheries, coral reef die offs, and of course, quickening global warming.
Deep down, we all know that humanity’s overall impact on the planet is unsustainable. There are just too many of us, and we’re engaged in too much of the wrong kinds of activity. Our current numbers might be manageabe if we had drastically different economic and technological practices. Or conversely, we might be able to live high on the industrial hog as a species, if there were about 50-75% less of us. But we can’t have both a giant population and a high-impact, high-waste lifestyle. Evidence of that is beyond dispute.
This general state of affairs should not be controversial, save for one inconvenient fact: people live inside, and are indeed composed largely of, their fictions. And while these fictions are the things that make us so powerful as a species, they do so by weaponizing an idea that has brought us to the brink of our own destruction: the notion that we are not a part of nature. The trashing of our planetary home continues because our current fictions have all emerged from a historical seedbed of denial, a refusal to acknowledge human beings’ naturalness, our animalness. So even though most people have this lurking dread that we are harming our ecosystems beyond repair, there is an even deeper murmuring from Mother Culture, whispering “it’s okay, this isn’t really your home anyway.”
But let’s back up a bit, a few million years, to consider that ‘harmony’ thing that is mentioned in the Paul Shepard quote above. Have we ever actually lived in a wonderful, sustainable symbiosis with nature, or is that just a bunch of debunked Romantic nonsense? Well, yes, and yes. It just depends on which kind of Sapiens you look at.
Yuval Harari writes that early humans (which included many different species), when they emerged about 2.5 million years ago, were ‘insignificant animals,’ and remained as such for a long, long time. Even with big brains, opposable thumbs, and upright postures, those early humans were just one type of creature among many. They were somewhat successful in slowly expanding their territory, but certainly nothing terribly disruptive to their surrounding natural landscapes.
But then, about 70,000 years ago, something dramatic happened, what many call the Cognitive Revolution. Scholars disagree about the timing and swiftness of this change, but there can be no doubt that human power suddenly becomes drastically enhanced, after millions of years of relative stasis. Harari makes a convincing case that the main driver of this Cognitive Revolution was the new ability of people to construct fictions. Fictions, myths, stories – these are what allow humans to “cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world.”
The spread of humanity around the globe quickly followed this eruption of fiction-making potency. But unfortunately, this spread is also a trail of natural destruction. Whatever primitive ‘harmony’ with nature that existed in earlier forms of Sapiens was clearly just a case of limited power. Myth-making peoples, now detached from earlier natural limits, proceeded to wipe out megafauna in every territorial expansion, a trend that is still accelerating.
Most of our major religions carry faint echoes of this detachment from our natural home. A continual theme in most faith traditions, Eastern and Western, is the notion of a great rupture or fall, a fundamental banishment from or forgetting of an earlier age of harmony and peace. And what is needed, of course, is a healing, a return to harmony that comes from following the precepts of that particular faith. The forms of the various traditions are different. Some teach obedience, others emphasize faith, or sacrifice, or meditation. But the shape and purpose are the same. Religions are all fictions for fixing a broken relationship with the divine, however defined.
The problem is that all of our fictions, religions included, flow from the original source spring of our expanded power as a species, from our ability to transcend the bonds of nature. Our fatal flaw comes from the exact same font as our greatest strength. The faculty for creating grand fictions (gods, states, races, empires) gives humans huge landscapes and vast timelines on which to stamp their dreams of triumph and dominion. But these mythical meta-projects cannot fundamentally heal the great rupture, because they are founded and energized by the very force that created the chasm in the first place.
While many religious fictions are caught in this dilemma of return vs. transcendence, our post-religious myths make it even clearer how rapidly we are still accelerating our self-banishment from the natural world. Fantasies of populating Mars, downloading our consciousness into the cloud, creating human-AI hybrids, or of entering the Singularity – these are all indications of how deep our separation-psychosis runs. The proliferation of dystopian versions of these dreams is evidence enough that we may yet still have enough humility and judgment to discern between the possible and the outlandish.
But there is one last fiction that can happen, that must happen – and it involves going back to the origins of the Cognitive Revolution itself, and starting a different story. It is the simplest of all myths, and yet the hardest to admit, resting as it does on the one fact that we have been running away from for the last 70,000 years: human beings are animals. We are natural beings, through and through, made from the same stuff as monkeys, dogs, worms, and viruses. We are not immortal, no matter how expansive and powerful we become as a species, or how lofty are our dreams. As such, the only way to fully realize human potential and human nature is to re-embed ourselves into our natural home. All other goals proceed from, and are dependent on, that basic re-entrenchment.
Healing the rupture between humans and nature is our last and greatest task, for the simple fact that if we don’t, there won’t be much of humanity left. The problem is that we don’t have a lot of time. Our dysfunctional fictions have a 70,000 year head start, which makes it very difficult to envision what an alternate structure might look like. How is it possible to give up our nature-transcending dreams when that very ability to imagine the beyond is what drives the greatness of civilization itself?
We’ll get to that next time, when we look at utopia and the farmer’s fiction.
Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. (2004, Island Press)
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens. (2014, Harper)