Living in the confines of our human manipulated environments it is easy to forget that we live in a world where there are relatively untouched places still exhibiting grandeur and beauty almost beyond comprehension. From majestic cloud crowned mountain peaks to the infinite mystery of the ocean depths, at every level the natural landscapes of our world teem with the poetry of life in myriad forms. Over billions of years of evolutionary struggle, a grand ever-changing tapestry has stretched out over the earth with each species an interwoven, often fleeting, thread.
The greatest of our world's stories, the story of life, is not one of individuals but of an extended family. Each new creature emerges from an unbroken line of successful ancestors, subtle variations on ancient patterns shrouded in the mists of time. Dependent for survival not only on chance and their individual potential but also on the health of their community, the species around them and their ecosystem.
Enter the human, late into this epic voyage played out over billions of years.
Humanity is no different from any other species in having complete interdependence on the species around us for our evolution. We exist and thrive only through the grace that allows our fellow species which sustain us to do the same. An example is our lungs, adapted to utilise the oxygen produced by other living things. Our lungs would not have evolved as they are without plants changing the composition of the earth's atmosphere, then producing clean breathable air down the millennia. We inhale as others exhale, sharing breath, sharing life. In this and many other ways, the line is blurred between the living systems which support our existence and our existence itself. A sense, a stomach, a lung, they only make sense as part of or in response to an environment. We are because they are, shaped by what we all are, fellow strands in the web of life.
Despite the evidence pervading our physical existence of our interdependence, that everything essential for our lives other than sunlight is provided by the species around us, the illusion of separateness has a persistent hold on our intellectual existence. Our self-centred senses limit our ability to understand our part in a wider system. We have sought to tame, shape, and control the spaces in which we live, hiding the reality of the fragility and evanescence of our life in a cloak of our own hubris. The inability of so many to integrate the oneness of all species into their thinking and behaviour is a threat to the beauty and grandeur of life on earth.
We should be under no illusions about the condition of life on this planet in comparison to even recent history. Every major living system in the world is in decline as a result of the way we live. The species of the earth are undergoing extinctions at many times the historical rate. The rise of humankind is quickly becoming one of the great periodic calamities to befall life, a mass extinction event. We affect this world on an astonishing scale, diminishing this shared space for the other species of this world, affecting their freedom, joy, ability to thrive or even exist. The sum total of individual human actions is doing this, on a scale so catastrophic that we are substantially reducing the vibrancy of the processes which gave us life, evolution itself.
Our response to questioning our place in the world has been to construct mystical views of ourselves. Human exceptionalism is the ideological status quo, central to the teachings of our religious and secular beliefs. We believe in our own preeminence to a degree that words like arrogance and hubris struggle to fully capture. We believe that the earth, evolution, life itself would have little meaning or purpose beyond us, that everything is and should be completely subservient to human desire. Egocentric thinking lies, unquestioned, at the heart of our philosophies and actions. Perhaps the starkest evidence of this cosmic delusion is the name we have chosen for our own species - Homo Sapien, the wise ape.
It is without question that through a particular sort of intelligence humans have come to dominate the other species of this world. All animals descend from the same bloodline, naturally sharing many characteristics though of course in differing degrees. We shouldn't forget that in so many other ways other animals are superior to us. People find it difficult to imagine that any other animal could evolve in the future to have the distinctive capabilities which we have, despite the fact that we have common ancestors, despite the fact that we have evolved from simple forms of life. The possibility that humanity might be matched or superseded in evolutionary terms is interesting, not because this is imminently likely, but primarily because such a possibility is inconceivable to most people. It is a thought experiment that tells us something interesting about our way of perceiving ourselves: separate, alone, magical, vain, conveniently deluded.
It is predictable enough that an overly dominant species such as us, devoid of the wisdom to govern its own behaviour, will eventually bring the natural world to a state of decline. Evolution is a chaotic process, not the self-balancing system some profess it to be; humanity would never have been able to affect the world as it has if that were true. There is little limit to the expansion of a species other than the ability to survive and reproduce. With the adaptability our intelligence allows us, we are able to expand and modify our environments, extending natural limits we would have otherwise faced. We have caused the extinction of many species, at little gain to ourselves, but also at little immediate consequence as we are able to turn our gaze to the next unfortunate victim. Time and time again throughout our history we have exhausted the fertility of the soil in productive areas around the globe, and although this has led to great suffering, social upheaval and the passing of civilizations, as a species it has merely halted our progress momentarily. We leave behind a desert and then simply seek the next fertile patch to denude, forgetting the path we have travelled in the historical blindness of our individual lifetimes. Even now we understand this history and how deeply our interaction with the environment has shaped us, few pause to reflect on it.
How long we can continue on this path is difficult to foresee. What is clear is that we live on a planet which is essentially a closed system. Our ability to manipulate our environment will enable us to continue to abide on a degraded planet, though what quality of life we will have in this future is uncertain. We have already become used to a diminished natural world and cannot comprehend the more abundant vibrant earth that once was, so we expect will those in the future, they will know little more than the ruined world they inherit. In diminishing the richness and vibrancy of the world in which our consciousness exists, in turning it into an environment ever more human-centred, logical, ordered, we lose something of our own freedom, our wildness, our potential selves. For those with empathy, when the wild creature runs free, when they soar, something inside of us runs free and soars. We might never be able to measure what we have lost in our treatment of the natural world, but there is no doubt we are lesser spirits for it.
Of course, we can ponder the sustainability of our species as it stumbles like a self-oriented child through the natural world, we can ask the question of how long we can continue to cause a mass extinction in the world without great cost to ourselves, but surely a being of any philosophical or ethical depth must at some point ask itself, what right has a single species among so many to do this, to destroy the living systems of a shared world?
It is perhaps difficult in a species that often doesn’t respect the rights of its own members to talk about the rights of the other flora and fauna of our world. The truth which becomes evident when one looks at the many problems we cause is that they are all different reflections of a general conception and way of being in the world. A person who sees in other humans only paths to their own ends will generally see the same as they look out on the rest of nature. They feel the need to control their world; wildness makes them uncomfortable, they prefer obedient companion animals, conformist people, barren ordered human-dominated landscapes, philosophies that have an answer to all their questions, even if they are the wrong answers to the wrong questions. Alternatively, a person who believes in equality and the freedom for others to pursue their own paths will tend to extend that understanding out into all that they do. They will see beauty in diversity; in surrender to new thoughts and experiences, they embrace other beings as having their own purposes which they may not even understand but are no less for that, and in wildness they too see the danger but they also see limitless freedom. From this latter mindset, I believe the most creative and holistically productive world evolves. It is through a humble integrative worldview that human progress can best be made without afflicting others, that we can create a beauty in our lives that isn’t predicated on creating ugliness elsewhere. When we can look out at a universe unencumbered by the small prison of our own desires, only then can we start to comprehend the majestic beauty we dwell within and thus start making decisions that tend towards empowering to that beauty, rather than diminishing it.
Humanity has struggled to define what meaning is down through time as our consciousness has slowly awoken. We have struggled with our higher consciousness so fundamentally that we have been willing to accept fabricated, often ridiculous meanings in the place of none. We do not have to content ourselves with imaginings though, the foundation of rational meaning is the evolutionary world we experience, our place in it among other sentient beings and our journey together trying to make something beautiful and expansive of our lives. The increasing destructiveness of our way of living in the physical world is a clear counter-example to the meaning by which we should be living our lives. The decline of the natural world, the extinctions, the suffering we cause, is a mirror being held up to our conscience, and it is time we stopped looking away.
So where does change to a better world begin? That we are not uninvolved spectators idly standing by, while the effects of our consumption are actively contributing to a decline in the vibrancy of life. With the realisation that the rest of the natural world has its own existence without being considered a means to our ends. We need to find the character not to turn away from the uncomfortable truths about the negative effects of our lives, but instead to know them and change them, to understand our contribution to suffering and destruction, and continually be looking at ways to be a healing, life-promoting presence in the world. We need to play a part in moving our society's technology, politics and philosophies away from a world governed by individual self-interest to one of positive connections with all living things. We need to be our authentic selves, to stop conforming to a culture that we know is not whole or sane, and design our own unique path of conscience, compassion and truth, conscious of a greater world community extending out into time. We need to decide whether the part of the world which our actions can and inevitably do touch, will be a place tending towards injustice or fairness, delusion or truth, indifference or compassion, selfishness or love.
It is easier to believe we are powerless to change the world, because it asks nothing of us, it absolves us of responsibility, but it is not true. Our shared ideas, decisions and actions, conscious or otherwise, make the world and influence others. There is a grand story of human history we contribute to, moving all around us even as we help write it; we need to decide what part we each will play, in what place and with who we stand.
Whether you want to accept the responsibility or not, you are powerful and you matter.
We cannot go on as we are.