Earthling (we/us)

My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.           

Joe versus the Volcano

When I was a kid, I used to play a mind game. I would try to imagine that there was only nothing: the negation of existence. After trying to feel into this for a while, it would push me into a state of experiencing “the uncanny.” Existence would suddenly become viscerally strange, and for some reason I relished that feeling.

Existence may be strange from the perspective of nothing, but from the perspective of everyday life, we take existence for granted. While taking existence for granted may be necessary for sanity and for getting stuff done in the world, we go a step further: Not only do we take for granted that there is something rather than nothing, we take for granted the extraordinary nature of the something that there is. This additional and uncalled for “taking for granted” takes us away from awe.

We look past what there is. Past the air we breathe, dependent entirely upon the biosphere’s generation and cycling of gases. Past the delicious smell of the ocean, evanescing with the phytoplankton that make it. Past every tree that is unique and like no other. Past the living waters of streams and rivers that we can no longer drink from or swim in safely. Past the light-footedness of the fox, the weirdness of the toad, the exquisiteness of the seahorse, the terrible beauty of the shark, the iridescence of the hummingbird, the wonder of the seashell, the devotion of the dog, the lope of the lone wolf, the tug of the moon, the good feeling of earth under bare feet.  

This “looking past” is not a human-nature thing, even if human beings are prone to self-absorption and absentmindedness. Children do not look past—on the contrary, the world mesmerizes them. They are allured by fantastic things such as caterpillars, and amazed to learn that caterpillars become butterflies after tarrying inside cocoons for a while. No, we are anthropocentrically trained to look past: not only past the fact that there is something rather than nothing, but past the resplendence of the something that there is. As if it were somehow owed to humans to find themselves inhabiting a verdant planet, with uncounted millions of species, variegated seasons, animated soil, cornucopias of vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and wholesome water. A place where as trees grow older, they grow bigger and bigger nourishing the whole forest. A place where as fish grow older, they grow bigger and bigger, laying extravagant numbers of eggs, and thus feeding the ocean and beyond, and replenishing their species.

There’s a Buddhist tale about an impoverished man who unknowingly slept with a treasure trove of gold under his pillow. Yet he slept the restless sleep of insecurity and neediness. He had no recognition or awareness of the fabulous wealth he was already blessed with.

To look past Earth’s inborn wealth, as anthropocentrism conditions people to do, trains people to look past reality. When one looks past reality, one becomes unmoored and needs something to grab and hold onto. Identity provides a readymade simulacrum of reality for people to grab and hold onto. (Many are simply brainwashed into one.) The most coveted identities—offering irresistible mirages of the real—are sociocultural, or identities shared by groups of people. Indeed, sociocultural identity is enticing to the quintessentially social nature of the human; and it is the boiler-plate “existential product” that anthropocentrism has on offer. Ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation are the ever-shifting historical constructs that appear to give ground and refuge. They are nothing but shells to hide the inconsolable emptiness of having taken Earth for granted, while donning the farcical regalia of lording it over all things nonhuman. 

Offering shelter inside a sociocultural grouping is not where identity stops—identity is especially constituted through what is other. So the fact that you identify (for example) as white contrasts to being black, liberal contrasts to being conservative, American contrasts to being (for instance) Chinese, Jewish contrasts to being Muslim, Tutsi contrasts to being Hutu, and so forth. Yet sociocultural identity does not stop at simple duality either. It gives duality an ominous spin: it is not enough to know who one is contrastively to someone else—one has to be better. A superlative (“better”) identity provisions one with a sense of standing solidly on the best of all possible grounds.

In reality, however, ground is precisely what reigning anthropocentric cultures train people to look past. Ground is under our feet, before our eyes, and enveloping us snugly inside and out. The human is shaped by the planet’s gravity and protected by its magnetic field, inhales and exhales with plants, possesses sensory equipment finely crafted by Earth, and finds itself among a myriad relatives in one evolutionary story. The human: Composed and run largely by microbiota and suspended as an organism within a gracious, and ever precarious, biospheric reality.

But people are conditioned to look past all this, and instructed instead to cling to the idea that they are Brazilian, Mormon, Brahmin, Catholic, Caucasian, Queer, Taliban, Communist, Woke—any of the mushrooming, sparring identities variously founded on narratives of power, narratives of pain, narratives of righteousness, narratives of being God’s elect, or narratives of biological supremacy. Whether it is privilege, victimhood, or providence that defines the identity, the game is the same: a game of “us versus them,” of being better, of human solipsism. As the planet’s diversity, abundance, and complexity of life rapidly recede, so are identity politics raging shriller and louder. People are scrambling to find ground exactly where there is none—in agonistic identity politics that are only quickening the collapse of the ground that actually supports us.

Earth keepers call out to one and all to opt out of the sociocultural identity game, to choose freedom from anthropocentric herd costumes that furnish simulacra of reality for a sleepwalking, and now moribund, existence. Dropping identity, we find ourselves back with the cattails and the frogs hopping in their midst. Plop! Plop! Back to the wind’s music in the reeds. Back to the sound of birdsong and the smell of rain. Back to the blessed company of the two-footed, four-footed, no-footed, winged, finned, and flippered. Back to the gift of Earth’s weather. Back to wild nature kindling imagination and feeding our senses. Back in awe. Back to the urgent work of preserving the planet’s cosmic wealth. Back on Earth, the ground that has created our real identity: Earthling who is All, with no need to contrast itself to a rival and lesser other.

Earthling (we/us).

Read ‘Earthling (we/us)’, by Eileen Crist, on the #EarthTongues blog

[Photo by Luísa Mota: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.]