|Second part of a three-part essay. Part One is here. Bibliography of all sources cited is here.
To appreciate the truth about nature you need to look at it from outside the frame, the filter through you’ve been taught to look at everything. In other words, you need to unlearn, or at least forget, what you’ve learned, been told, and come to understand about nature and about the entire world in which we live. We need to give you a kind of cultural amnesia for awhile. If you’re willing, let’s see if we can do that.
Most people have a picture of humans at the top of a long, complex evolutionary tree, an inevitability, a pinnacle, a culmination. In fact the late palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, in his book Full House, teaches us that homo sapiens is in evolutionary terms a small, recent and ordinary evolution, a small part of a small and undistinguished (if you study variations in our DNA) branch of the tree of life. He also teaches us that evolution is not about ‘up’ at all, but rather a constant series of experiments, variations, random walks from what has succeeded, as nature’s method of ensuring the resiliency of life on Earth by checking to see if this minor variation might be a bit hardier in this ecosystem, that minor variation in that ecosystem etc. Most of these variations fail, but quite a few succeed, so to the outside observer all life on Earth, and perhaps on every planet, appears to be a single living organism that takes root, flowers, grows to occupy as much space as the climate will permit, and then continues to change in a balance, an equilibrium, responding to climate change and introducing new random variations in an eternal quest to find forms that are best suited to survive in the little place in space where it happened to land. Gould’s lessons are:
Gould’s theories have earned him the enmity not only of creationists and the religious right (for obvious reasons) but also of other evolutionists who would like to believe evolution and the dominance of the human species is a progression with perhaps some deeper purpose, result or guiding hand. This view of all life on Earth as a single, self-regulating organism is called the Gaia Hypothesis, so named by James Lovelock. Unlike the previously prevailing view of most scientists, and historians, that life on Earth is a constant, violent, competitive struggle, this hypothesis sees life on Earth as a cooperative undertaking for mutual advantage. Earth as a single organism, Lovelock argues, is analogous to the human body — the constituent parts work together to make the whole successful, rather than constantly warring with each other for dominance and space.
In fact prehistoric man’s life was not, as we have been led to believe, “short, nasty and brutish”, but idyllic and leisurely, for three million years, argue revisionist economist-historians Peter Jay, in his book The Wealth of Man, and Marshall Sahlins, in his book Original Affluence. Jay’s timeline parallels that of Gould: When, 60 million years ago a meteorite plunged the planet into darkness and exterminated the dinosaurs, smaller species got the chance to evolve and thrive, spawning on Earth an enormous and interconnected diversity of life in dynamic equilibrium. That amazing, Utopian heterogeneity continued until about 30,000 years ago (an infinitesimally small flicker of time before now) when the population of homo sapiens suddenly exploded. Until that time, according to Jay, early humans probably lived an Eden-like existence, easily preying on large, slow and abundant fellow mammals in all corners of Earth, and ‘working’ only a few hours per week. As these species became extinct (aided perhaps by the Ice Ages and by the increasing sophistication of our hunting tools), we turned to new technologies, most notably agriculture and animal herding, to feed our exploding numbers, which rose from 6 million ten thousand years ago to 60 million three thousand years ago to 600 million five hundred years ago and to 6 billion today. Each ten-fold increase from our ‘natural’ six million population (which prevailed for the first 99% of human history on Earth) increased the effort each individual had to make to sustain his family, competition for land and resources, and in turn cycles of war, famine and epidemic disease. In the process, our resourcefulness led us to industrialize and urbanize to improve productivity, and, more recently, to so horribly foul our environment that its ability to support non-human life is quickly vanishing, due to stress from global warming, exhaustion of arable land, fisheries and forests, desertification, overpopulation, shrinking of the water table, and a host of other man-made threats. Jay is a pessimist about the competitiveness that our civilization has inspired, believing that we are unlikely to ever put the collective interest of all life on Earth ahead of our individual interests in the face of ever-exploding population and growing scarcity.
So we live now on a world where two systems coexist uncomfortably with each other: The 600 million year old natural system of biodiversity, experimental evolution, and continuous re-balancing, punctuated by Extinction Events, and the 30 thousand year old man-made system of continuous growth, expansion, internal competition, and innovative technologies. We’ll look at the man-made system later. For now, let’s go back and try to understand the natural system.
Imagine that you, and a small group of other people, were to wake up tomorrow with absolutely no memories of your past or even of the language you spoke, in the middle of a forest in a tropical wilderness. Even if none of you had ever spent a moment away from the shelter of civilization in your life, you would not awake and be filled with dread and fear. You think you might because in the ‘real’ world you have been conditioned to fear nature, to see it as savage, violent, a struggle to survive. You have been taught, brainwashed, to distrust and ignore your instincts. But now you would awaken with no such prejudgements. You would become, in many ways, as children, and your whole group would awake full of wonder, and greet each other awkwardly, and then, probably, until hunger and thirst and sexual desire started to command your attention, you would probably play with your new ‘friends’, exploring and discovering, as children do, and as the newborn of all species in nature do. Imagine, too, that there is an unseen force that, for a while, protects you — pulls you away before you can touch plants that are poisonous, guides you to safe, comfortable places to sleep, eat, drink and play, and repels predators, until you have learned from this force — let’s say you call it ma — how to survive without its intervention, at which point ma leaves you to your own devices. Your group becomes, in fact, a hunter-gatherer tribe, completely unaware of any of the precepts of civilization — language, science, reason, morality. Your initial state is one of astonishing joy, wonder, health, well-being, self-sufficiency, peace, security, community, learning, alertness, awareness, cooperation, imagination, love and respect for nature, and, to the extent needed, creativity — all the elements of natural systems shown in the diagram above. You will instinctively hunt together and gather and share food, and you will recognize in each other specialized talents for doing one thing or another, and learn from your expert peers. There will be a ‘pecking order’ of sorts, based on consensus of, and respect for, those whose talents are most valuable — keen senses, physical strength, creativity — but the tribe will be egalitarian. There will be no hoarding or inequitable distribution of food or other resources. Since there is no scarcity, sharing will be according to need. Sex will be consensual and non-exclusive. Some members of the tribe will be eaten by predators, and others will contract diseases and go off by themselves to die, but these deaths will not cause the members of the tribe to become fearful, paranoid, selfish, greedy or violent. They will simply be accepted as the way life is. Your tribe of amnesiacs will know of no other way to respond. You will respect and flee from predators, and be alert for them and protect your young from them, but you will not fear them.
That is how nature works. Each creature strives to live and to bring more of their kind into the world not because they fear death, but because life is wonderful. When you see tiny birds scrounging at your bird-feeder or shivering in a tree in winter, don’t feel sorry for them. They are not helpless and struggling and cowed. They shiver because instinctively they know it keeps their body temperature up. They have amazing (at least to us, who lack them) instinctive survival talents — they need a lot of food in winter to keep warm, and they find it easily, enjoyably, and if they can’t, they simply hibernate, and if they even suspect they won’t be able to, they’ll migrate. They can fly, and I envy them, I wish I were one of them. Although lots of birds are eaten by predators, few freeze or starve to death — famine is a modern human invention, due to our huge numbers and loss of natural adaptability. If you see a dead bird, it almost certainly succumbed to one of three human-caused injuries: Collision with a window, or an automobile, or a domestic cat that no longer needed or wanted to eat what it killed.
The people in your amnesiac tribe, and all the creatures in the wild, know what David Abram calls the Spell of the Sensuous. Many animals have senses that are much more acute than ours, and we have lost much of our sensory acuity and openness, largely because we live most of our lives in cities and indoors, areas of great sensory homogeneity, poverty and concealment. We no longer have either rich sensory environments to experience, or practice exercising our senses, opportunities to open ourselves up to the richness of sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings in nature, so that even in those rare times when we are in natural environments we are unaware, insensitive, closed, disinterested in their magic, their meaning, their knowledge.
Our ignorance of nature, combined with our collective arrogance (because of our unquestioned evolutionary success), leads us to believe that we are the only sentient, emotional, intelligent creatures on the planet, and to tell ourselves that all other life couldn’t possibly have done so well for so many millions of years because they’re smart, sensitive and creative, so it must be because they’re automatons just doing what they’ve been ‘programmed’ to do. But just as economists and historians are tearing apart our myths about prehistoric man, scientists are systematically deconstructing the anthropocentric myths of our emotional and intellectual uniqueness and superiority. Although our incompetence at deciphering animal language and communications has so far made it conveniently impossible to prove conclusively, there is very compelling evidence that many animals exhibit extraordinary intelligence, great awareness of their own existence, and profound emotion.
Jeff Masson’s work on the emotional life of animals, most notably a book called When Elephants Weep, supports this theory. As an environmentalist, and a caretaker and observer of cats and dogs throughout my life, I had always believed that other animals were almost as sentient as humans, and that our bigger brains had led us to be different in degree from other animals, but not unique or fundamentally different. Until I read Masson I was a bit embarrassed about, and unsure of, this belief, since it seemed romantic and impossible to substantiate. Masson’s extremely scientific, thorough and well-substantiated work not only dispelled my embarrassment, it hardened my position against those who, as apologists for animal testing and pathetically weak animal-cruelty laws, label animal rights as being anthropomorphic and hence absurd. They do so in total, convenient and deliberate denial of overwhelming scientific evidence that animals are sentient, intelligent and capable of deep emotion, long-lasting memory and astute reasoning.
I have since read other works that ascribe similar intelligence and emotional sensitivity to primates learning sign language, wolves, whales and dolphins, ravens and other corvid birds (Bernd Heinrich’s book Mind of the Raven is especially persuasive and hugely entertaining). At this point I do not know to what to ascribe continuing human ignorance and inaction to improve the lot of our fellow animal creatures on this planet. When I hear arguments that “we need to solve the problems of humans first” or that “you can’t equate the life of an animal with a human life” I am incredulous — such thinking is beyond ignorance and to me represents a deep-seated fear and hatred of all things natural (which to me, since we are part of ‘all things natural’ is a form of self-loathing). Or it represents a blind acceptance of religious dogma. Whichever it is, I can’t fathom such a position. I know that, like all species, we are slow to change our thinking and beliefs, but I can only hope that, with people like Masson and Heinrich systematically debunking the myths about our fellow creatures in solid scientific ways, we will at least move to reduce animal cruelty and begin to try to understand what other animals have to teach us, and to say to us.
In fact given some new evidence that emotion is principally a response to sensory stimulus, and knowledge that some animals have greater sensitivity to many sensory stimuli than humans, it’s quite possible that many animals lead much richer emotional lives than we do, that they are more ‘sensitive’ in every sense of the word than we are, that they ‘feel’ more, and more deeply, than we could ever hope to. Why then don’t they articulate this, so that we understand? Perhaps they do — maybe we are just so numb to all language other than our limited and clumsy human ones that we don’t ‘hear’ them. Or perhaps it’s just that they don’t have to — maybe we developed ‘sophisticated’ abstract language not because we were uniquely able to, but because it was necessary to convey precise instructions about man-made processes (like harvesting crops) in our strange new unnatural hierarchical culture, whereas other animals always survived just fine without such artificial constructs. How sophisticated a language do you need to say “danger”, “food”, “yes”, “no”, and “I love you”, and ultimately what else is really important to say? I’m being facetious of course — humans now need our language and our technology to live comfortable lives. But most other animals know a better way to live, and don’t need sophisticated language or technology to do so.
Another truth about nature is the importance of community and of place. Civilization has supplanted our sense of community — the essential unit of social life for all other creatures and cultures on Earth — with constructs that allow greater command and control over all civilized humans and all human endeavour: The family, the corporation, the religious order and the state. The family is a small, nuclear social unit that is undemocratic (the power is unequally distributed) and helpless (it can’t survive without interacting with larger social groups). The corporation, the religious order and the state are large, hierarchical social units that are undemocratic (the power is unequally distributed) and omnipotent. By giving the adult (usually the father) the power in the family unit, corporations, religious orders and states are able to lower social resistance to keeping the real power for themselves, which is essential to maintaining order in a world of six billion people who intuitively want to self-govern. The community competes for allegiance and authority with the family on one side, and with the corporation, the religious order, and the state on the other, so it has been systematically attacked and subverted from both sides. When we say we live in a ‘community’ today, it doesn’t mean a group of people with whom we have special kinship (unless we are exceptionally lucky), it means the homogeneous yet unintegrated collection of nuclear family homes that is part of a larger, powerful state. This community has no real power, no real authority, and no real organization, and commands no allegiance from those who live in it, who cannot even really be called ‘members’. We are, however, members of a family, and members as well of a state (citizens), religious order and corporation (employees). The place in which we live usually bears no signs of its natural heritage (trees are cut down and non-native trees and flowers planted in their place, and all houses look much like houses everywhere else in the civilized world, and block the view of everything except the neighbouring houses). And many of us live transient lives — we move often to other, identical-looking places far away, and during the day we commute from our ‘homes’ on identical-looking highways to identical-looking office buildings and plants. So we have no sense of community, no sense of place, and no loyalty to either.
In the natural world, community and place are paramount. The community is democratic, self-managing and self-selecting: Even if you are born into it, either you have to pass a rite of passage to stay (with the approval of other community members) or you are expected to leave and find another community (or form your own). You belong to a community — a much stronger bond than mere membership. The community (like the amnesiac tribe described earlier) teaches you what you need to live, defines you and gives you purpose. It anchors and connects you. And though we are all part of a web, a mosaic, and we all travel, ultimately we have our own place, our ‘home’. If you’re not totally connected with everything and every creature that is part of your place, then it isn’t your place. If you don’t have a place, then you don’t yet really exist. It is your community, your ecosystem, all of it, that is your place — not the isolated, nuclear-family, locked house on ‘private’ property. A house is not a home. And even though most humans live largely inside their own minds, a mind is not a home either, it is not a real place.
Very few of us in the civilized world really belong to a community, or have found our true place, a natural home. In nature, by contrast, every creature either belongs to a community and to a place, or is in a lifelong quest for them. It is instinctive to belong to a community and to a place because in Darwinian terms that is what works best. Even we humans, newcomers to the Earth, have three million years of programming in our DNA driving us to seek community and find our place. And because it works so well it is not surprising that most creatures, human and otherwise, who have found where they belong and found their place are quite passionate about it — they will defend it from all outsiders of their species, even to the death if necessary (which it rarely is, because except for civilized man, most creatures profoundly respect the communities and places of others, and unless welcomed in will go back or move on). And they will share their space with communities of all other species that also call that place home, because they instinctively understand the reverence of place and community, appreciate the value of diversity, and that all life on Earth is sacred. The love that you have for your place and your community, and the other and diverse lives with which you share it, is what gives your life meaning. There is no ‘Tragedy of the Commons‘ in nature, because of the profound understanding that every place is somebody’s home, a part of somebody’s community, and must be respected. Land is not merely property to be owned or fenced off by one individual of one species. It is sacred, holy, part of life itself. It ‘belongs’ to no one. We belong to the land, to the web of life of which it, and we, are all a part.
Now I know how David Abram must have felt writing The Spell of the Sensuous. It’s all too hard, maybe impossible, to explain the truth about nature in words and charts and pretty pictures. It’s like trying to describe life outside to someone who has lived their whole life in a prison. A prison with no bars or locks but which, astonishingly, no one walks away from. I can’t tell you, but nature can show you her truth. But you need to let her. If you live most of your life indoors, in a car, in a city, inside your own mind, it will be hard, like learning a new language when you’re old. To understand you will have to:
You don’t have to do all these things. If you do a few, even a couple, the others will probably happen naturally. I don’t expect many people to understand or buy any of this. The idea that six billion of us are needlessly and voluntarily living profoundly destructive, counter-intuitive, unhappy, unhealthy, unnatural, hard, self-limiting, self-sacrificing, deprived lives, and that all we need to do is learn the lessons of nature, change our minds, walk away from civilization and create an stunningly better, joyful life, and save the world in the process, is just too radical, too insane an idea for most people to accept. Who are we to throw away 30 millennia of civilization and try to build something new based on a three million year old idea? There must be a good reason why the world is the way it is. We’re humans, we’re the Crown of Creation, if there was a better way to live we’d have found it. We can’t change it anyway, we don’t have the power, it’s not our place. And we’re too busy just doing our jobs, just trying to get by. Don’t bother us. It’s too hard. You’re asking too much of us. Go bug someone else.
OK. So don’t listen to me. Listen to the quiet, nagging voice inside you. The voice that resonates with your three million year old DNA, that’s telling you that something is very wrong, that life should be better, happier, less of a struggle than this.The truth about nature is that she is inside us, all around us, just waiting for us to ask her what to do. And waiting to welcome us all home.
Part Three, the final part of this series next week, will describe how we, civilized man, lost our way, and forgot who we are, establish the sense of urgency for change, explain why continuing to do what we are doing now, no matter how valiantly, will only get us where we are currently headed, and prescribe not solutions but a process for those who are ready, caring and courageous to design and create a better, natural world.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
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Dying of Despair
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Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
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A Future Without Us
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Complexity and Collapse
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If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
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A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
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The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
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The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
Ask Yourself This
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May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
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Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
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The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
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Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
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Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
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Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
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Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
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Distracted (Short Story)
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