[Lightly edited from 2009 blog]
Why is it that certain cultures of people treat the natural world so poorly? Is it their technology? Their huge population? Their belief system? The answer, to me, is the third of these, the first two being secondary factors facilitating ecological damage through a wider and more intense influence on the land. The main cause of ecological harm is a worldview (see also the earlier entry, Cultural Disease).
Author Daniel Quinn has explored this idea at great length. In his pamphlet “The New Renaissance” he says the most dangerous thing in existence is the idea that “Humans belong to an order of being that is separate from the rest of the living community.” Our thoughts determine our actions, and if we think we are divided from the rest of the natural world we will act that way. The dangerous idea becomes that we are better than the rest of existence. This is then reflected in actions that harm other life, as we errantly believe that life to be below us, expendable. We flood valleys, over-hunt animals, spew toxins, and clear-cut hillsides.
The mentality that we are superior to other life likely arose, Quinn says, after full-scale agriculture was developed by some groups and the resulting power and population increase went to their heads. This worldview was new in that it is unlikely any previous culture thought that way. But if anyone had, due to this mindset’s unsustainability they would have driven themselves either extinct or back to a healthy outlook, the same choice we as a near-global society face today.
If we were to see ourselves as an equal and integrated part of nature we would have to then change our environmentally harmful actions to abide by that view. We would once again maintain the integrity of ecosystems in the same way we maintain the integrity of our family’s health. An increase in our respect for other life and a corresponding decrease in our hubris would cause a sea-change in our actions. It would probably do wonders, as well, for the meaninglessness, vacuity, and human separation that plague many in the developed world (see the webpage http://www.ReadIshmael.com).
There are still people in the world who see themselves as connected to the rest of the natural world, and dependent on its gifts. These people are considered to be on the margins today, which makes sense because those with the opposite worldview are the ones most likely to become ruthlessly rich and powerful. An example of a society that generally still has a cooperative – not conflictual – view toward nature is American Indians. They watched Euro-American settlers overrun both them and the land, and many are still holding out 400 years later. An example is writer Ward Churchill, who says, “The dominant culture – the colonized mind – is at war with nature, and so by definition is at war with all peoples of nature.” This reminds me of an incensed child running from reality, criticizing and conquering all around him, until he tires and wises up and comes back into the fold. The temporary rampage of an eight-year-old is being played out on a longer time frame and more systematically by millions of intelligent adults. We cannot simply wait it out this time – the threat is too great. It is time to collectively smarten up. Churchill says the first step toward this is to recognize our alienation from nature and admit the pathology of it. Then we can move toward changing our mindset for the better.
So the challenge, then, says Quinn, is to change minds – it is the most important work there is. He is right to say “it’s the challenge that the human future depends on,” and thankfully also right that, “changing people’s minds is something each one of us can do.”