Why We Are Destroying the Planet and Each Other
Some think human society
seems to be steadily going insane. They note the ridiculous hatreds that keep
us nearly constantly at war with each other. They see we are fouling our global
nest, wiping out much of the planet's life and making life more and more
miserable for ourselves. I don't think we are going insane; I think we have
just not learned to look deeply enough into the causes of our current social
and environmental problems. I believe with a growing number of others that
these problems began several millennia ago when our ancestors took up farming
and broke the primal bonds with the living world and put human beings above all
Because of this, we have
no sense of kinship with other life on this planet, hence no good sense of
belonging here. Our tradition is one of arrogance toward the living world
around us; it is a thing beneath us — to be either used up or kept at bay. We
are, as intellectuals say, alienated from nature.
A World Alive and Ensouled
[Although] most religions
[today] describe a three-tiered hierarchy: God, people, and everything else ...
primal people lived not merely close to, but in and with nature. Food and
materials came not by working the soil, not by controlling the lives and growth
of plants and animals, but by incredibly detailed knowledge about them. They
lived with daily reminders of their connections with the living beings around
them and with constant awareness of how their taking from their world might
affect their lives in it. All of this evolved into a set of beliefs and
eventually into tribal religions, which have taken on many forms and
variations. What they all have in common, though, is a
deep emotional attachment to, and respect for, the living world that made
changing or controlling it unthinkable.
Alienated as we are from
the natural world, our modern minds are too maimed to fully grasp how
thoroughly this human mind was fed by its environment — particularly by the
moving, living beings in it. The emerging cultural human mind literally took
its shape and substance, its basic images and ideas, from the plants and
animals around it. It came to know which plants out of hundreds made the best
foods, medicines, and materials. It came to know the life cycles and day-to-day
habits of dozens of kinds of animals intimately enough to be able to predict
when and where a hunt might be most successful. It came to know how all of the
above might be affected by wind, rain, seasons, and the other elements and forces in nature. From such living, the people knew the
land, their foraging territory, probably better than any modern ecologist
could. They had, after all, generations of wisdom and experience in living in
it, and most of all, a feeling for it that no books nor
journals can ever convey.
Animals intrigued human
beings with their size, speed, strength, habits and other features. They were
believed to have powers humans did not. For primal humans — especially those
with the flowering mind, consciousness and culture of modern Homo sapiens about
45,000 years ago — the animals in their foraging lands were the most
impressive, the most fascinating living beings in the world. Measured in terms
of the amount of human wonder they caused, animals were the most wonderful
things out there in the world. The primal relationship with the powers of the
living world was more of a partnership in which human beings had interactions
and a strong sense of interdependence with them.
Other things in nature
impressed us, too, like dark forests, violent storms, rivers swollen by flood
waters. Yet animals impressed us in ways that the rest of nature could not. Why
animals? Why do animals figure so centrally to the process of mind formation?
Why isn't the child moved by stuffed plants and figures of trees and rocks?
Animals, like us, move freely; and they are more obviously like people than are
trees, rivers, and other things in nature.
Animals have eyes, ears,
hair, and other organs like us; and they sleep, eat, defecate, copulate, give
birth, play, fight, die and carry on many of the same activities of life that
we do. Somewhat similar to us yet somewhat different, animals forced
comparisons, categories, and conclusions. Animals made us think. Animals drove
and shaped human intelligence. They are fascinating to watch. Of all the things
in nature, then, animals stand out most in ways needed by the developing
brain/mind. Animals are active, noisy, colorful characters — all of which makes
them most informative. In contrast, the rest of nature is background —
relatively amorphous, still, inscrutable, and not much help to the budding
brain/mind, whether that of the species or the individual.
As movers of the mind,
thought, and feeling, animals are very strong stuff to human beings. No wonder
our ancestors believed they had souls and powers.
After centuries of
manipulative animal husbandry, however, men gained conscious control over
animals and their life processes. In reducing them to physical submission,
people reduced animals physically as well. Castrated, yoked, harnessed,
hobbled, penned, and shackled, domestic animals were thoroughly subdued. They
had none of that wild, mysterious power that their ancestors had when they were
stalked by hunter-foragers. Domestic animals were disempowered — made docile —
by confinement, selective breeding, and familiarity with humans. They gradually
came to be seen more with contempt than awe.
In reducing domestic
animals, farmers reduced animals in general, and with them they helped reduce
the animal/natural powers because crop-conscious farmers saw more and more
species as pests, more and more natural elements as threats. But it was animal
husbandry in particular that nudged people from seeing animals as powers to
seeing them as commodities and tools. It was husbandry that drastically upset
the ancient human-animal relationship, changing it from partnership to
master-and-slave, from being kin with animal-nature to being lord over
This reduction of animals
— the soul and the essence of the living world to the primal mind — reduced all
of nature, creating, in the agriculturalist's mind, a view of the world where
people were over and distinctly apart from nature. Animal reduction was key to
the radically different worldview that came with the transition from foraging
to farming, for more than any other agricultural development,
it broke up the old ideas of kinship and continuity with the living world.
This, more than any other factor, accelerated and
accentuated human alienation from nature. It originated in the East's first
agricultural center, it founds its legs there, and then it spread to the other
centers of civilization.
Husbandry was, I think,
the more influential side of farming that led, ultimately, to the agrarian
worldview that we still hold today. As that worldview began to emerge thousands
of years ago, wrote University
of California historian
Roderick Nash, "for the first time humans saw themselves as distinct from
the rest of nature."
Misothery, Misogyny and Racism: The
Reduction of Animals, Women and People of Color
Alienated from animals
and nature by misothery, our agri-culture
puts us superior to, and distinct from, the living world. In that position, we
can only despise and deny the animal and natural wherever we see it in
ourselves or in the rest of humanity. Our anxieties about our animal-like
characteristics cause us to project our fear and hatred onto not only other
animals but other people whose differences we think places them below us —
nearer to animals and nature than us.
On this ladder or
hierarchy of being, women of one's own group are one step down. People whom we
call "Others" are another step or two down, depending on their
usefulness and their distance from nature. Male Others
may outrank the women of one's group if they are "civilized" — that
is, if they have a similar agri-culture with dominionism, patriarchy, royalty, wealth, monumental art,
urban centers, and so on.
On the rungs below Others stand animals, first those useful to men, then,
father down, all the others. At the bottom of the ladder is raw, chaotic nature
itself, composed of invisible organisms and an unclassifiable mass of life that
feeds, grows, dies, and stinks in dark, mysterious places. This is muck and
swamp, and steamy jungle and all backwaters and wildernesses far from the
pruned orchards and weeded crop rows of agrarian civilization; this is nature
least useful, nature most mysterious, and therefore nature most hostile and sinister.
Then it draws on the
breeder's ideologies of bloodline and purity, as it did in Nazi Germany and the
segregated South; as it still does today among neo-Nazis and white
supremacists. The rhetoric of all these racists speaks of the breeder's
obsessions, and the extremity of their actions speaks of the depth of their
fear and hatred of "lower" nature. The Nazis ranted against Jews,
gypsies, Poles, and other "mongrel races" and then methodically tried
to exterminate them. Southern segregationists preached against "race
mixing" and used lynchings, mob violence, and
terrorist campaigns to keep people of color "in their place."
This is why, despite all
the efforts of science and civil rights campaigns, the racial hatred still
lies, like a great aquifer, just beneath the surface of consciousness in our
culture. On occasion, it wells upward and becomes a very conscious, very
human beings have been too successful at the expense of other species. For one
thing, our numbers have swollen quite recently. The global human population
first reached a billion about 150 years ago; it reached 2.5 billion only 40
years ago. Our numbers are expected to pass 6 billion in the year 2000. Even if
we started now to put the brakes on world birthrates, experts predict that the
human population will swell to 10 to 12 billion people before it levels off
around the year 2050.
The average human being
today uses dozens of times more energy and materials than ever before. We have
become very materialistic animals. We boast of our affluence barely realizing
that, ultimately, all of our wealth consists of stuff taken from the
voracity has set off a chain reaction of destruction in the world's food chains.
Since we began steadily intensifying human food production through agriculture
10,000 years ago, we have just as steadily wiped out species after species.
Biologists fear that human impact is setting off mass extinctions that could
wipe out a fourth of the world's remaining species in the next 50 years.
The scale of war and
massacre has increased with the scale of both technology and society. In sheer
numbers, the 20th century has been the bloodiest in history. In our century
alone, nearly 36 million have been killed in battle in the various wars. An
incredible 120 million more have been killed by the various genocidal programs
carried out by governments. Human devastation, this huge, this constant, must
have some basic causes, which the West avoids looking too deeply for.
The movers and shakers of
conservation and environmentalism, with rare exceptions, stop dead in their
tracks when they approach the Animal Question — the whole sticky mess of human
views toward, relations with, and uses of animals. This part of the Nature
Question is oddly off limits. Should one of them step on it accidentally, he or
she usually jumps back to safety in the remoteness of discussions about trees
or the abstractions of biodiversity and species.
The Animal Question is
regarded as illegitimate, silly, peripheral. Those who
address it are regarded as emotional, sentimental, neurotic, misguided, and
missing the bigger picture of human relations with the living world. One's
bigness and seriousness as a thinker on the Nature Question is measured, in
part, by how well one steers clear of the Animal Question.
On the contrary, the
Animal Question is the very heart of the Nature Question. Animals have always
been the soul, spirit, and embodiment of the living world. To exclude
discussion of relations with animals from the discussion of our relations with
nature is to exclude the most important part of the discussion. Emotionally,
culturally, psychically, symbolically — just about any way you want to measure
it — animals are the most vital beings among all the beings of the living
world. They are fundamental to our worldview; they are central to our sense of
existence in this world.
We are fooling ourselves
if we think we can deal with the big picture, the mangled mess of our relations
with nature, without a soul-searching examination of our dealings with animals.
For if we try to steer around the Animal Question, then
of course we leave it in place, forever to trouble our relations with nature.
When we come to the
laboratory and the slaughterhouse, the calls for a "radical" or
"fundamental" overhaul of relations with the living world suddenly go
silent. Indeed, no reasonable person challenges these bastions of dominionism. Those who do so are pegged as the
"lunatic fringe," which is a handy way of disposing of them and their
troublesome ideas. The overwhelming perception is that these uses of animals
are well justified in that they confer great benefits to the human species.
That perception is, of course, both the source and the lasting strength of dominionism.
If we want a truly
"fundamental" overhaul of our dominionist
worldview, then we are going to have to deal with the most difficult issues,
which are meat-eating and animal experimentation. Many, of course, will refuse
to step onto these sacred grounds. They will simply fall back on familiar dominionist axioms and stand their ground. To be
charitable, we must excuse them, for many, if not most, people are simply not
inclined toward soul-searching and changing their habits. Age, subculture, and
other circumstances tend to instill a certain
inflexibility in many people, and it is probably best not to bother them. But
for others who genuinely want to help reconstruct our worldview, our sense of
ourselves, and our human spirit, nothing can be off limits for reexamination
Men today needn't feel
responsible for the mistakes of both men and women who lived 5,000 years ago.
Men do have a huge responsibility, however, to participate in the processes of
restoring female principles, status, and power to society and of building an
egalitarian sexual ethic. These are difficult tasks, of course, and no group
that has long enjoyed supremacy and privilege of any kind has ever relinquished
These and other chores
offer plenty of opportunities for men to find and build in their humanity, as
opposed to carrying on boyish displays of macho manhood. In the past, men
showed bravery in the hunt or in battle; they showed "strength" in
taking pain and dishing it out without feeling.
Instead of macho
displays, the modern man can show genuine human bravery and strength. He can be
brave enough to tackle the thorny strands of tradition that warp human society
and threaten the living world.
Men can have the strength
to accept an equal role in the house, at work, in bed, and in society as a
Men, the predominant
makers and users of pornography, can have the bravery and strength to dismantle
this industry that degrades women, the human body, sexuality, and nature.
Men, whose traditional
masculine culture values stoicism, detachment, and control of others, can use
their strength to uproot those values and to build a culture that values
empathy, altruism, and kinship with all Others — regardless of sex,
"race," size, or species.
We are coming full circle
around to the kind of awareness held by primal human society. We see the
awesome web of life in the world; we see the human place among it all. We see
the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth that keep all of nature alive and
evolving. We see the living world as a First Being made up of many lesser
beings, of which we are one. We see the miracle of living existence animated
and given character by animals. We feel for animals whom
we see as kindred beings; they give us a sense of belonging here, of membership
in the Great Family of life in this world. Our ancestors gained this worldview
through real experience, we are gaining it,
ironically, through science.
This emerging global view
conflicts with many of the main beliefs of the West's agrarian religion, which
sees this world as a temporary testing ground for humankind, as a lowly way
station full of soulless beings whose despicable existence offers temptations
to sin and evil. It will be interesting to see if religion's various branches
can accommodate the emerging understanding of humans as beings kindred with
others in the living world. If they cannot, they will become increasingly
irrelevant. If they are unable to join the rest of us in coming to terms with
nature and finding kinship among the life around us, they will cease to provide
spiritual guidance and comfort and they will fall away as religions have done
Western religion needs to
come to terms with its ancestor religions — the "idolators,"
"pagans," goddess — worshippers, and the other belief systems that
the monotheists so ruthlessly tried to stamp out. Many traces of these are
alive and well today in the developing world despite centuries of mostly
Christian and Islamic missionary campaigns. Judaism, to its credit, never
sought to impose its theology and its God on other
peoples and cultures. If Christianity and Islam can get beyond their current
phase of strict fundamentalism and their obsessions with the "revealed
word of God" on the printed page, they could bring massive mending to the
spiritually torn fabric of humanity. When they recognize that human
spirituality began with awe of life on earth and that humanity has always found
comfort in a sense of kinship with the living world, perhaps they will see the
need for, and the wisdom in, coming full circle to the primal worldview.
My own view is that the
primal worldview, updated by a scientific understanding of the living world,
offers the best hope for a human spirituality. Life on earth is the miracle, the
sacred. The dynamic living world is the creator, the First Being, the
sustainer, and the final resting place for all living beings — humans included.
We humans evolved with other living beings; their lives informed our lives.
They provided models for our existence; they shaped our minds and culture. With
dominionism out of the way, we could enjoy a deep
sense of kinship with the other animals, which would give us a deep sense of
belonging to our living world.
Then, once again, we
could feel for this world. We could feel included in the awesome family of
living beings. We could feel our continuum with the living world. We could,
once again, feel a genuine sense of the sacred in the world.
Mason is the author of the book An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of
Nature and Each Other
, from which this
essay has been edited.