I am about to make you feel uncomfortable. Sorry, but there’s no way of avoiding it if I’m going to tell this story as it should be told.
You are a human being; a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens, although the second “sapiens” was only put there because we like to feel we are important. Remember that. There used to be other species within the genus “Homo” but they died out, or were possibly killed off, most recently a few thousand years ago when Homo neanderthalensis finally succumbed to the insurgent sapiens somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula.
On a smaller scale, you are a collection of major and minor organs, bony structures, muscles, ligaments, tubular networks, soft tissues and various other organic materials; all structured in such a way that you are capable of living in a vast range of habitats and climatic zones, under tremendous pressure from all sorts of predators and invaders, from large animals to minute single-celled organisms. Through an extraordinary evolutionary process, your constituent parts have developed to fill an optimally agile and self-regulating body such that they are able to function in tune with each other, symbiotically and independently as required, while you get on with the business of being a conscious and self-aware individual.
Each of these constituent parts are constructed from billions of cellular structures of various types which, if not part of your body, would be considered organisms in their own right: fragile, yes, but only because they have evolved to become at least partially dependent upon the whole of which they are a tiny part. Within each of your cells are components called mitochondria, which convert the raw materials of proteins – amino acids –into energy, which the cell uses to fulfil whatever function it is required to as part of the multi-cellular thing that is your body. This may involve fighting off viral invaders, absorbing nutrients from food, expelling waste from blood, moving in time with muscular activity or firing off a message to a neighbouring cell to recall an image of something that happened in your past.
Each of these mitochondria are specially adapted bacteria, that once independently existed, but at some point were “hijacked” by or may have taken up residence in, an animal cell that would, from then on, benefit from the energy produced by the mitochondria – the same cells that constitute an infinitesimally small part of a component of an individual human being, among something like 6.8 billion other human beings on Earth. 6.8 billion human beings that are utterly dependent upon the rest of the massive food web of which they (we) are just a tiny part.
You eat fish? The chances are that if you live in the Industrial West, your fish was a carnivore that ate other fish. If you live in China or Indonesia, it is more likely that your dinner was vegetarian, missing out a few links in the chain, and retaining a lot more of the food energy that came from the algae, or phytoplankton, that ultimately derived its energy from sun by virtue of the photosynthetic process that uses solar energy to split carbon molecules off from oxygen molecules, and create carbon structures that constitute the building blocks of life.
But, of course, it’s not only the animals or plants you eat (and that they may eat or utilise in the form of soil and “waste” products) that you are dependent upon, but the crucial role each of these organisms plays in the various natural processes that take place on Earth: regulation of the climatic-oceanic system; soil formation; water purification and enrichment; nutrient distribution…in the world we live in today we would not survive without all of these processes operating at a high level of efficiency. Interfere with these processes at a local level, and ecosystems can collapse; damage these processes at a global scale, and the entire biosphere is forced to readjust. With humans at the very top of the food chain, and so dependent upon everything else, we will be some of the first casualties of any global extinction.
Try and balance a pencil on its tip.
The Psychosis Of Civilization
This beautiful continuum, of which we are such a physically insignificant part, takes some imagining. The numbers are mind-numbing – individual nematodes alone stretch into the quintillions, and bacteria are many orders more numerous – as is the complexity of the ecological nets that link together different animals, plants, fungi and the countless other organisms that actually constitute the great majority of all life on Earth. We sit as a delicate flower waiting to be blown away in the next breeze of extinction; yet what do we see as the most important factor in our role as human beings?
As I have discussed on The Earth Blog previously, our values have become outrageously skewed in favour of whatever benefits the onward march of the global economy. We do not see the rise and fall of habitat viability on the television news, instead we see the rise and fall of the markets in the capital economy; we do not count specie extinctions in newspaper bar charts, but we urgently count companies going bust; we do not map the catastrophic breaks in the energy flows between different parts of an ecosystem, but we do acknowledge every time a budget airline discontinues a route, or whenever a main road has “severe” delays. As if it matters.
The psychosis of Industrial Civilization is endemic: every person that places his or her trust in the system of hierarchies, politics, markets and mass consumption, undergoes a fundamental readjustment in priorities. No longer does the fate of our species rest upon our increasingly precipitous position within the global ecology; we can all hold hands, actually or virtually, and celebrate the majesty of the global economic miracle, safe in the knowledge that it will take us forward into a glittering future of jobs, money and all the other civilised things we have been taught to desire.
How we have become so determined to destroy the continuum of life in search of something so utterly trivial, has its roots in the history of civilization. Every civilization has had its own goals, but ultimately they have all come down to one thing: the insatiable desire to progress in whatever way is dictated by the elite members at the very top. Such “progress” takes many forms, but whether it be exploration, scientific discovery, technological prowess, imperial power or simply the idea of being “the best”, civilizations have to feel they are progressing in some way; and so its subjects – the citizens – become part of that collective desire. For what are we if we don’t keep progressing? Failures. From our fear of failure, others above us draw their strength – just at the moment we seem to be reaching the end, and as we stretch out our fingertips, another line is drawn even further away. So we note the new goals and conform to the wishes of the system; continuing to do as we are told.
Through this psychotic behaviour, civilizations thrive…until they fail.
What Is Really Important
When I wrote the chapter called “Why Does It Matter?” in my book, Time’s Up! I felt rather uneasy; as though I hadn’t managed to explain myself properly. The problem was that, beyond the physical argument for the continuation of our DNA that I offered, there was also a complex and deeply-philosophical explanation that I also had which didn’t translate well into words. It was like a version of the argument that Descartes gave for the existence of God; to paraphrase: “I have within me a perfect and unequivocal representation of God; how could that be so if there were no God.” It’s a terrible argument, but it demonstrates well how a very good idea – which Descartes no doubt thought was perfect at the time – completely fails to work when written down.
I’m going to have another go.
So, how do you feel about your place in the world? Do you feel small, insignificant, worthless, just a tiny part of something far greater than yourself? This natural feeling of inferiority when you realise you are just a tiny part of a greater whole is the reason why medieval religious leaders were so resolute about our exulted position in the Great Chain of Being, just below the angels, but above all other forms of life – so long as you accepted that monarchs, priests and landowners were considerably more perfect than the rest of us.
It’s the same in the industrial economy: there is this global system that has enormous, if transient, power over the whole of existence; that governs every aspect of the lives of the civilised, but you don’t have to feel small, so long as you are told how important it is to go to school, get a job, go to the shopping mall or buy something online, follow the latest fashions, and cast your vote. You are empowered by your participation in these activities. It’s just that some people are more empowered than others.
But why on Earth do you need to be told how important you are? It speaks volumes about our state of mind when in order to feel worthwhile we have to, for instance, achieve good grades at school. We are all human beings, for goodness sake! Even more than that, we are what we are: our consciousness is bound up in our physical being, and everything we know and feel – everything we will ever be – is determined by our personal interaction with what is around us. We are at the centre of our personal universe; not in any selfish way, but simply because we can never truly perceive anything outside of our point of view.
Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher, summed this up beautifully in his essay, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”:
After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat?
Substitute “human” for “bat” and it is obvious that human experience has to be a unique thing for humans and, by extension, for each individual human. That is why we are important; not because humans are essential to the global ecology or even because we are essential to the absurd construct we call Civilization, but because what matters, is what matters to us.
How could it be any other way?
Think about this for a short while and it becomes clear that the civilised world’s destruction of the natural environment cannot under any circumstances be acceptable, for it will endanger the one thing which matters above all else: ourselves.
You have to make a choice. Are you going to continue supporting and extending the global reign of Industrial Civilization; or are you going to once again learn to value yourself as the centre of your universe, and the thing that matters above all else?
To me that choice is remarkably easy, but you might take some persuading, not only because of the insidious hold that the civilised world has upon everything we do, but because you are possibly thinking that I have left something out – the other things that also matter dearly to you. Fear not; this is what I wrote in Time’s Up!
More than just our natural tendency to survive, though, is the manifestation of that survival instinct in the way we think. Consider the question: What would you risk your life to save? My initial instinct is to say ‘my family’, then ‘me’, then, with a little more thought, ‘the Earth in general’ and ‘my friends’. Remove the Earth from the equation and you have the kind of answer that most people give.
In fact, all three typical responses are directly related to the natural instinct for survival. We instinctively want to protect our families in order to secure the continuation of our DNA through blood relatives and the people they depend upon to survive. We want to protect ourselves in order to protect our own DNA, and the opportunity for that to be further replicated. We want to protect our friends because they too are human beings, but not only that, we have consciously chosen our closest friends because of what they have in common with us – they are almost like family.
I have said that I was not entirely happy with the strength of reasoning I gave in the book, but with the addition of the philosophical argument to the obvious need to replicate our DNA – the survival imperative – then we can all be justified in wanting not only to protect ourselves, but also our families and those other people we really care about and need: the community.
Community is the antithesis of civilization for civilization thrives on the division of humanity into tiny, atomised, competing parts; but community is the form in which humans have always survived best. The choice is simple now: Civilization or Community; Progress or Humanity; Death or Life.
Originally published at http://earth-blog.bravejournal.com/entry/36499