One of my readers asked me recently for a short list of the books from my Save the World Reading List that were most influential in forming my natural/environmental philosophy. Here’s what I answered:
Well, the missing and perhaps final slot on this list has now been filled, by London School of Economics Philosophy professor John Gray’s Straw Dogs.
The book is three years old, and perhaps because some readers thought it had something to do with the Peckinpah film of the same name, they gave it a pass. I knew I’d found something important even before I’d finished the Introduction of this astonishing tour de force.
The structure of the book — a rambling but disciplined narrative of a philosophical learning voyage, based substantially on a series of quotes from dozens of thinkers from many different disciplines, leading to a tentative conclusion — is very similar to my paper How to Save the World — though I wouldn’t presume that either the argument or breadth of research of my work compares to Gray’s. Philosophy is, after all, how he makes his living. But I find this structure, similar as it is to a story of personal discovery, a compelling one. Furthermore, Gray’s annotated bibliography is laid out in parallel to his story, so you can see his stepping stones in arriving at the bleak place where his intellectual voyage has taken him.
In a mere 200 pages, Gray lays out a courageous yet grim philosophy that is utterly unique, and in the process quickly deconstructs and discards all the major schools of philosophical, political, social, economic, religious, scientific and ecological thought, from pre-history to post-modernism. Even nihilism is debunked as naive romantic fantasy. His thesis is stark, simple and relentless: We humans have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value. We are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process.
This view recalls Ronald Wright’s wry summation of human destiny from A Short History of Progress:
It’s entirely up to us. If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.
Except that in Gray’s view it is not up to us at all. Our role was cast millennia ago, and we’re merely playing it out. Quoting EO Wilson “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”, Gray goes on: “The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialization, Western civilization, or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate.”
If he is correct, Gray would seem to be counseling and chronicling nothing less than the end of philosophy, the end of the need or purpose for studying and analyzing human thought and ideas. If what has driven all our behaviour for all of human history is subconscious, programmed, inevitable, what possible purpose is there for study of, value judgements about, proposed actions in respect of, or recriminations for, the marginal and insignificant part of humans called consciousness? It is like the royal court debating what words the king should use to order back an impending tidal wave.
In this review, I’m going to save the remarkable first chapter of Straw Dogs until last, and quote from it extensively. In that chapter, simply called The Human, Gray puts it all out there. The remaining four chapters present a more measured, but still breakneck, argument in support of his disdain for the still-accepted mythologies of, respectively, philosophy, morality, religion and technology. Where many find solace and hope in human capacity to reason, in human standards of ethics, in faith, and in the promise of science and ‘progress’, Gray finds merely illusion, distraction, deception, and folly.
In Chapter Two Gray recounts the entire history of ‘rational’ philosophy and our obsession with seeking Truth. “The truth will set you free” the Christian bible says. But Gray says the humanist search for Truth is wasted effort, that we would be better off looking for it in all the animals we are slowly crowding off the planet. In his philosophy Gray aligns himself most closely with Schopenhauer, Hume and the Taoists, and he wades scornfully through the philosophies of Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Pascal, the Greeks, the Buddhists, the Postmodernists, the ‘Cult of Personality’, ‘heightened consciousness’ movements, and the illusion of ‘free will’ (“as organisms we process 14 million bits of information per second; the bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits”). He calls the belief that we as individuals and as a species have control of ourselves and our world The Deception.
We labour under an error. We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.
In Chapter Three Gray moves on from rational philosophy to moral philosophy and our obsession with seeking Fairness and Justice. He discounts morality as sheer superstition and documents the long history of human genocide, cruelty and injustice. He shows that our concept of justice is as ephemeral as our sense of fashion. He condemns what morality is forcing us to try, impossibly, to do (“to live as if we were free”) and instead counsels the Taoist approach (“the good life is only the natural life lived skilfully; it has no particular purpose, and nothing to do with the will or trying to realize any ideal…The core of ethics is not choice or conscious awareness, but the knack of knowing what to do. It is a skill that comes with practice and an empty mind; it means living effortlessly, according to our natures.”) This strikes me as entirely consistent with reconnecting with our instincts, the knowledge that is encoded in our DNA.
Then in Chapter Four Gray turns to all the forms of religious faith, from animism through to our modern faith in human ingenuity, science, technology, and even post-humanism, and their incessant obsession with Salvation..”It is rare that individuals value their freedom more than the comfort that comes with servility, and rarer still for whole peoples to do so”, he laments. Modern man no longer really needs salvation, and now looks to religions, old and new, as a distraction, an entertainment. Gray is especially hard on Christianity, which he says was novel in believing that there is only one ‘true’ God, and launching hundreds of wars and atrocities in defence of that misplaced faith. “Polytheism”, he says, “is too delicate a way of thinking for modern minds”. The main difference between humans and other animals is perhaps, he says, that they do not fear death because they are not burdened by time and do not, like humans, “cling abjectly to life”. He is particularly disdainful of modern religions that drive us to aspire to self-mastery and self-improvement (including many oriental religions, the teachings of Gurdjieff, Marx and the Bolsheviks, the Gnostics, the believers in higher consciousness from drugs, virtual reality, ‘lucid dreaming’ or post-humanism, and, presumably, the even more recent new age leaders like Wilber).
Finally in Chapter Five, Gray focuses on our most recent and now all-consuming faith in Progress. He reiterates recent revisions in our perception of ‘prehistoric man’ (expounded e.g. by Sahlins, by Quinn, and by Manning) — that prehistoric man’s life was in fact not ‘nasty, short and brutish’ but rather much healthier, freer and easier than ours. But he ridicules those who romanticize prehistoric man, claiming that man has been rapacious and wasteful since our first appearance on the planet, and never lived in peaceful harmony with the rest of life on Earth — and never will. Our evolution from hunter-gatherer to farmer to industrial worker to ‘knowledge worker’ was utterly involuntary, a forced evolution by factors over which we had and have no control. In our new economy, when we are no longer needed for brute labour or even warfare, we have invented new jobs amusing each other, entertaining and distracting ourselves from our own economic uselessness.
Our only real religion is a shallow faith in the future…[Meanwhile] the pressure to maintain social cohesion is relaxed. The wealthy can pass their lives without contact with the rest of society. So long as they do not post a threat to the rich, the poor can be left to their own devices. Social democracy has been replaced by an oligarchy of the rich as part of the price of peace.
Our modern Western obsession with violence and crime, well supported by the entertainment ‘industry’ and the media, stems from the need for constant distraction from our uselessness. And the consumer society demands “deviant and unexpected” novelties to keep us buying. All of the counterculture myths of the last two centuries have merely fed this boredom, this longing for action, an escape from emptiness, and these myths have merely fueled the economy and the houses of religion further, in self-perpetuation. Morality is once again the new novelty of this decade. Meanwhile the new wave of political movements like Al Qaeda operate exactly like the modern corporation they are modeled after — stateless, privatized, exploiting the weakness of individual states for their own advantage, their own ‘bottom line’. “[Although caused by competitive pressure], war is often embraced as a release. Like tyranny, it promises to cut the cord of circumstance that tethers average humanity to its chores. As with tyranny, the promise is fraudulent. If war is celebrated, it is because for much of humankind it stands for a dream of freedom…Among bored consumers in rich post-military societies, it has become another entertainment. Real war, like smoking, has become a habit of the poor.”
Truth, Morality, Salvation, Progress. If these are all illusions, deranged fantasies without substance or value, where then do we turn for answers? It is in the opening chapter, The Human, where Gray reassembles and digests the arguments of the subsequent four chapters and hones them razor sharp. I cannot pretend to be able to distill this already highly synthesized argument any further, so here are a bakers’ dozen powerful passages from this staggering 30-page essay-within-a-book:
Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before — a secular version of Christianity’s most dubious promise that salvation is open to all.
James Lovelock has written: Humans on the Earth behave in some ways like a pathological organism, or like the cells of a tumour or neoplasm. We have grown in numbers and disturbance to Gaia, to the point where our presence is perceptively disturbing…the human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady. Gaia is suffering from disseminated primatemaia, a plague of people.
A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth. If wild habitat is given over to human cultivation and habitation, if rainforests can be turned into green deserts, if genetic engineering enables ever-higher yields to be extorted from the thinning soils — then humans will have created for themselves a new geological era, the Eremozoic, the Era of Solitude, in which little remains on the Earth but themselves and the prosthetic environment that keeps them ‘alive’.
[Quoting Reg Morrison, The Spirit in the Gene] If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion.
Climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden…[or] new patterns of disease could trim the human population…War could have a major impact…weapons of mass destruction — notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons, more fearsome than before…It is not the number of states that makes this technology ungovernable. It is technology itself. The ability to design new viruses for use in genocidal weapons does not require enormous resources of money, plant or equipment…In part, governments have created this situation. By ceding so much control over new technology to the marketplace, they have colluded in their own powerlessness.
If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.
For much of their history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. Feeble as it is today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the natural environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth.
The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.
Science has been used to support the conceit that humans are unlike all other animals in their ability to understand the world. In fact, its supreme value may be in showing that the world humans are programmed to perceive is a chimera.
In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage. Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error.
Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.
[As Gould showed] Once life has emerged, it evolves by the natural selection of random mutations. The human species is no different from any other in being just one throw in the cosmic lottery… Man must accept that his/her existence is entirely accidental. [Quoting Jacques Monod] He must realize that he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering and his crimes.
[Referring to the ancient Chinese ritual of creating, worshipping and then discarding straw dogs] If humans disturb the balance of Earth they will be trampled on and tossed aside. Critics of Gaia theory say they reject it because it is ‘unscientific’. The truth is that they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.
Gray saves his criticism of environmentalists until later, but finds them (us) just as foolish and unrealistic as the supporters of religions and philosophical dogma:
We can dream of a world in which a greatly reduced human population lives in a partially restored paradise; in which farming has been abandoned and green deserts given back to the earth; where the remaining humans are settled in cities, emulating the noble idleness of hunter-gatherers, their needs met by new technologies that leave little mark on the Earth; where life is given over to curiosity, pleasure and play. There is nothing technically impossible about such a world…A High-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like this ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo rapiens.
I accept, with great reluctance but some relief, the logic of this argument. But I cannot help wondering if Gray threw this passage, buried near the end of the book, down as a kind of dare, a gauntlet, a challenge. Prove me wrong, he seems to be saying. Please. No matter how much I accept his argument, I can still do no less than try to prove him wrong. That is what I, perhaps, have been programmed to do, but it changes nothing. I will try, John, to show you that, at least in this, you are mistaken.
Political action has come to be a surrogate for salvation; but no political project can deliver humanity from its natural condition. However radical, political programmes are expedients — modest devices for coping with recurring evils. Hegel writes that humanity will be content only when it lives in a world of its own making. In contrast, Straw Dogs argues for a shift from human solipsism [belief in our aloneness and our disconnection from everything else]. Humans cannot save the world, but this is no reason for despair. It does not need saving. Happily, humans will never live in a world of their own making.
Wade through the twelve readings in my critical list in the green box at the start of this review, and you will find many diagnoses of human nature and the human condition, and prescriptions for turning our nature and our talents to create a Future State better than the desperate and desolate one in which we live today. All of these prescriptions call for some kind of collective awareness, collective understanding, and hence collective action. Gray would have us believe that belief in the possibility of such collective phenomena is absurd, unwarranted, unsubstantiable, even insane. So what do we do? Gray says to do nothing more than becoming more our animal selves — reconnecting with the rest of life on Earth and with our primeval senses and instincts, getting outside our heads, coping with contingencies, relearning to play, living in the moment, turning back to real, mortal things, and simply seeing what is.
What we need to answer now is whether this philosophy-ending neo-determinism just gives us a convenient excuse to stop trying to ‘save the world’, or whether Gray is right and we are wasting our time and our lives trying, perhaps even making the situation worse. It is hard to come to grips with, and accept, the conclusion that our species’ time on this planet is coming quickly and inexorably to a most unpleasant end, that we ‘alone’ of the billions who have walked this planet might actually witness, and are witnessing already the early signs of the next great and inevitable extinction of life on our planet. As Gray says:
Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.
But I confess, I have this strong urge to stop writing now, and to spend the rest of the day playing with Chelsea the dog. And then to go for a walk in the woods, and wonder.