[Lightly edited from 2009 blog]
The undermining of life on the planet through the dual means of ecological and nuclear destruction is a recent problem. Anatomically modern humans have been around for 130,000 to 200,000 years, yet did not threaten the living Earth until historical times. In fact, had agriculture never developed in select centers in the past 10,000 to 12,000 years and then spread by force and choice, the threat would still remain nil, because until then human changes to the land were minimal, population numbers were reasonable, and it was unlikely that societies felt themselves superior to all other life. Because certain cultures to this day live outside the gambit of agriculture and the mentality that usually accompanies it, and because humans existed sustainably on Earth for eons before agriculture’s development, it is clear that humanity is not to blame, then, but only specific cultures of people (see the writings of Daniel Quinn, such as Ishmael, for a deeper analysis).
There is a certain cultural mentality that allows things like plastic factories and nuclear submarines to exist. To some cultures they would be impermissible. But an attitude centered on near-term personal gain makes them useful and even desirable. And because the way we think determines the way we act, we find ourselves in a self-made predicament today.
What is the belief that is leading this nefarious charge, then? Author Daniel Quinn contends it’s the idea that we humans are separate from and better than the rest of creation, and that the world is meant for us to do with as we please. This belief has been championed by the West and carried as a component of Christianity or otherwise to all corners of the globe, and is becoming more and more entrenched every decade. Propped up by the astounding technology that we have created using our big brains, this cultural hubris spreads, and with it actions that have detrimental long-term effects (and some short-term, as well). Now that environmental damage is clear, that same tool – technology – is touted by some as the answer, an easy panacea because it does not require the altering of corrosive beliefs but merely more scientific research. Technology, though, will not save us – we alone can save ourselves, and therefore all the innocent creatures and organisms that are unfortunately within our global reach.
Conquer the natural world or live with it, in it? Be a part of nature or apart from it? The mentality of separation from and superiority over the rest of the natural world needs to be replaced with one that works better. In the same way that nature is both idyllic and peaceful and “red in tooth and claw,” we need to recognize that the human is both just one more animal in the forest of life and the most intelligent and influential being ever known. We are not God-appointed King over all – some indigenous peoples, where they still exist in the world today, know this practical and healthy fact, and we need to re-learn it from them. The “developed” or “civilized” outlook that has created the dual threat has to change to one of eco-sanity, for the benefit of all.
As mentioned in the entry First Things First, one part of this changed attitude is the recognition of value that the natural world has in and of itself. The mentality that sees a forest as nothing more than potential lumber and a school of fish as a big paycheck is not appropriate. We must increasingly realize that the natural world has inherent value regardless of what we can do with it. Such a belief breeds respect for what surrounds us and leads to responsible actions as a result. To look at it from the purely practical side, though, the natural world gives us all of our food, water, air, clothing, housing, etc., and to undermine it would be not just immoral but suicidal – see The Human Survival Project entry for more.
The front line of the fight for respectful and sustainable actions in the world is located between the ears and behind the sternum. Without a change in our attitude, our harmful actions will continue, and conditions for life will get worse, not better. ‘The big guns,’ then, should be focused on this change in cultural mentality, and less on smaller actions like recycling or alternative energy. As Daniel Quinn has so correctly said, needed change will come voluntarily via new mindsets, not from programs forced on unwilling people. Ecological and nuclear consciousness & sanity will breed solutions faster than regulations or technology ever could.