Broken mirror

To insist that though nature be meaningless, humans are yet the bearers of meaning, is an infinitely wearying position. Reality encounters us as a meaningful cosmos.

Erazim Kohak

Everything the human is, the human has received from nature beginning with the biological ingredients forming our bodies. But also the human inclination to art, which finds solace and significance in the contemplation of beauty. The human inclination to knowledge is a gift of rich natural environs, which inspired curiosity and a yearning to understand the nature of existence. The human inclination to technology evolved in response to nature’s riddles, while over the ages nature fine-tuned the coordination of human hand, eye, and brain. As for the debt of human language to nature, we can concede that the natural world is the elusive “deep grammar” of all languages. For language tracks the manifold patterns of the world in all their variety, intricacy, action, and evocativeness. Striving to reveal, the word has succeeded in singing up the world as poetry, worship, science, communication and more. In brief, our “species being” is a creation, among countless others, of planet Earth. We came into being out of her and we developed entwined with her constitution and all her wealth. It is therefore existentially puzzling how we managed to get ourselves in the present day predicament.  

I am going to follow the thought that the root of how we got here is human supremacy. What human supremacy did was to refuse, to deny, the entwined pattern of the human with the Earth. Human supremacy, especially after it matured into a worldview in antiquity, declared that the human is not patterned on nature but is a form of life that has ascended out of the realm of animal nature into an unparalleled kind of being. (Later the same idea was recast in theological terms.) When the “seeing eye” of the human opened, the world could become imbued with meaning. Prior to the human meaning-maker, the world may have been chock-full of animate and inanimate sounds, but, in the deepest sense, it was mute. Thus, the supremacist mindset dictated that the human is the creator of meaning: humans project meaning onto nature whereas meaning is lacking in nature itself.

Inherent meaning was sucked out of the nonhuman world; simultaneously, the human was ripped from its entwinement with meaning-full nature. The world became an empty vessel, something toward which honor was not due. That’s why the word “empty” is a favorite conquistador and human-supremacist word. For when the conquistadors arrived at the shores of vibrant life-filled worlds, there was nothing there that they could see, nothing inherently meaningful. The world was empty of meaning—but it was full of resources. The natural world could be shattered, its contents emptied, because it was devoid of meaningful standing and experience. While the supremacist human adamantly believed that the world lacked inherent meaning, this human was utterly blind to the fact of having made himself unable to receive it. The supremacist human—the non-indigenous conquering human—thus proceeded to shatter the nonhuman world, including any humans classifiable as animals.

The shattering continues to this day. The leaders in most social arenas (politics, business, media, religion, etc.) are card-carrying members of the supremacy club. They regard Homo sapiens as a distinguished singularity of consciousness and a technological wizard; having ascended out of the evolutionary fray into an unprecedented species umwelt, humans are believed to possess the technological savvy to squirm out of all tight spots, manage a planet, and reach for the stars. Because people who think like this rule through institutions made by people who also thought the same way, we have vivisection, factory farms, wet farms, fur farms, forests divested of animal life, dead zones, glyphosate in the rain, depredated oceans, and an extinction crisis below the bar of CNN’s newsworthy standard. Because of human supremacy’s reign, humans have taken over entire biomes without blinking an eye. It appears as an incontestable right that humans can do whatever they please with Earth’s waters. It is regarded as a human prerogative that humanity shall leave no stone unturned and no place unmapped, and that humans rightfully wield absolute power of life and death over all nonhumans. The ultimate cognitive dissonance of our time is that a meme as ugly as human supremacy continues to pose successfully as ascension.

We find ourselves in terrains and circumstances carved by a meme that possessed humans, after ripping them from their patterned entanglement with nature. The meme of “the human” as self-made, superior, and special gathered strength from the cleaving of humans from their vital and spiritual bonds with the Earth. Leaving the human, alas, alone in the universe. More than self-fulfilling prophecy, the human-supremacy meme is an enormous lie, for everything that the human is—including everything humans value and are grateful for—has been artfully provided and patterned into us by nature. Since mainstream action is basically informed by a false meme, human beings are bound for unpleasant surprises. Sowing death, destruction, suffering, and extinction, humanity can expect much of the same, for humans are vitally and spiritually bonded with Earth—the meme of human supremacy notwithstanding.

Many anticipate that human misery will come from climate change (as is already happening). Clearly, much misery will come from climate upheaval as well as from other ecological disasters, sidelined or unforeseeable. But the greatest anguish due the human will be psychic. For in a not-too-distant-future—should things continue as they are going—the realization that humanity turned out to be perpetrator of the planet’s Sixth Mass Extinction will not sit well with the human spirit.

We need to reach with our imagination into the increasingly possible future where mass extinction is fait accompli, and feel into the permanent loss of nonhuman company, presence, beauty, knowledge, complexity, and sources of healing and wonder. We are, moreover, bequeathing to posterity a burden for which there is no analogue—the self-knowledge that humans did this to the planet that made us. Psychic suffering is more difficult to heal than physical hardship; and it can precipitate nihilism and moral deterioration. Humanity is failing to understand the dangers ahead. Many people apparently believe that moving to Mars, geoengineering the climate, proliferating vertical farms, filling the world with solar panels and wind turbines, and similar interventions will suffice to address problems. Whether or not such solutionist enterprises will succeed on their own terms is beside the point. More than human survival is at stake. On a shattered planet, there will be psychic suffering in the experience of a bottomless loss that no technological fix can alleviate.

The real way forward, away from suffering and toward hope, lies in denouncing the root cause of our predicament, the human-supremacy story, the destructive platitude of human specialness. If we focus our attention on the Earth in all her majestic diversity and irreducible mystery, we will see the human predicament with far greater clarity. What we must do will become obvious: we need to downscale human presence and activities across the Earth and simultaneously release into freedom the majority of Earth’s geographies and all her beings. Scaling down the human juggernaut and scaling up nature protection may sound like an impossible thing. It starts with a choice: We can choose to acknowledge the plain fact that nature resounds with inherent meaning. From that inherent meaning, not only did we receive all that we are, we received the torch of meaning as such, and perhaps the ultimate meaning of our own existence. In denying our “specialness,” we deny ourselves nothing. On the contrary, we gain the world through expressing our unique gifts in loving conversation with nature and not by means of its destruction. This swerve away from human supremacy is the only guarantor of human survival and maybe even of something bigger—of human salvation.      

There’s a hitch in the choice of superseding human supremacy, and that hitch keeps mainstream humanity (liberal, conservative, and otherwise) from contemplating the choice: it is not only the domination of nature that must be relinquished, it is also the dominance of humanity across the planet. Of course, domination and dominance are of a piece. Domination, however, is a stance that is negatively inflected; many people will admit (at least in principle) that the domination of nature is ethically problematic. The meaning of human dominance, on the other hand, is more akin to the prevalence of our species; dominance carries a clear connotation of scale, but it is implicitly construable as ethically neutral. Thus, the domination of nature is proving increasingly challengeable in the broad culture and courts of law, and reformable along such lines as sustainable use and humane treatment. But dominance—in the sense of human prevalence—is a much harder nut to crack. To challenge human dominance is to challenge human scale. To challenge human dominance is to expose the uncomfortable truth that it is not ethically neutral.

Herein lies the rub. For humans have arguably conflated human dominance with human greatness. Our rise on the world scene appears as the mark of distinction, and human planetary takeover has a “forever feel.” To invoke a thought experiment that illustrates the point differently, were beings of an alien civilization to eyeball Earth from a telescope or spaceship, they would instantly know whose planet it is. Dominance over the Earth makes humans de facto proprietors: Earth is our planet. For humans to willingly share equal prominence with tens of millions of whales and thundering bison, for humans to surrender unbounded large-scale swaths of land and ocean into self-governance—such proposals are still unpalatable to the mainstream. They tend to get the silent treatment. Indeed, the unassailability of human dominance is where the political Right and the political Left see eye to eye: that planetary status appears to them as derivative and illustrative of human greatness.  

Yet truly relinquishing the domination of the natural world entails relinquishing human dominance within it. For that dominance—whole planet and out-of-bounds—is nothing but the historical outcome of domination. The connection between the domination of nature and human dominance within it was recognized early on, in the Hellenistic era, which called the human-dominated world the oecumene, meaning “the inhabited world.” (Obviously, the oecumene had been previously “uninhabited.”) Now the oecumene has become global, having spiraled out of the human-supremacist appropriation and annexation of empty space, until all space is accounted for and earmarked as human property. The domination of nature precipitated dominance, just as much as it fashioned the type of human who takes dominance over the face of the Earth indisputably for granted. In the meantime and for the time being, the human has lost sight of real greatness.       

Read ‘Broken mirror’, by Eileen Crist, on the #EarthTongues blog