Humans are a rum old species. In the last few hundred years we seem to have entirely removed ourselves from the natural world in the name of progress – this progress, being, of course, entirely defined in human terms.
Anything seen only through our eyes is debatable at best. How can we know true nature when we can only experience things through our limited senses? But humans, being humans, convince ourselves that we know best, and carry on marching. Marching, not forward, as we think we are, but off down some side road somewhere, towards some ominous mountains and maybe a lava pit or two.
The past few years, I’ve felt myself drawn by the natural world. Wanting to find my place in the web of it all, discovering symbiosis, regeneration, forms of communication that are far, far removed from our human interactions. But I’m still an outside observer, no matter how close I try to get. I can talk to trees all I want, dig my fingers into the soil, walk paths barefoot. I can tell myself I’m in tune with those plants, those rocks, that sea shore; but in truth I still view ‘the natural world’ as exactly that. Something separate from me, something removed, that I’m trying desperately to reconnect with.
I grew up not really thinking about the web of life, as a general rule. Too preoccupied with all the trials and tribulations of things that are generally illusory – weight, style, money, popularity. As I’m settling into my mid-thirties, I’m starting to think about life as a whole a lot more frequently, and in a different way. Looking into the whole ‘reconnection’ movement, it throws up some stark realisations. I’ve viewed myself in that human light for my whole life. I’ll never truly understand that natural world, however much I learn to read its signs. Most of it is stripped and changed beyond recognition – native species replaced by monocultures, woods and forests flattened for housing developments. I was sad to realise that I’ve set myself on that human pedestal, above all other life. As much as I’ve convinced myself that I believe in the equality of all life, I’ve detached myself. I don’t feel part of this web that produced us all. I feel the distinction between owner and pet. Between domestic and wild. Between us and them.
It’s there in my language – the ‘natural world’ – as if it’s something distant from me. As if I live in some ‘unnatural world’ seperate and distinct. Maybe I do. And maybe this thinking is what is stopping us from taking action as a species, to halt this careering trajectory towards ecological disaster. We don’t think we’re part of this planet. The planet belongs to us. Our actions are the problem and the solution. We’re humans. We control all.
Admitting that we’ve set the wheels in motion for the 6th mass extinction is admitting we have poisoned our sisters and brothers, our kin, our selves. The same molecular building blocks arranged in slightly different ways. Admitting that we as a species are in danger from global warming is admitting that we humans are no different from the animals and plants that populate our planet alongside us. We’re not the almighty human race. We’re just another species in need of a solution. For all our ego, we’re falling too.
Being a social species means hierarchy. And it seems that the current hierarchy in Western culture is stratified by who has the ‘most stuff’. The most money, the most status, the most power. Capitalism is the machine that drives us all to try and work our way up that hierarchy, with everything geared towards the pursuit of more -whether, for our lowly selves, that is money, clothing, cars, friends, enlightenment, whatever. Whatever we’re doing, we want to do it more. And better than everybody else.
Power, in the context of our society, is also a funny old thing. Human rules, heaping notional meaning on specific actions. Unfortunately, in our society, a few humans in the upper levels of hierarchy give those rules meaning for the rest of us. Generally, the rules are in place to eventually lead to more power and more control for those already above us in the terms of power and control. And that power and control is again entirely in human terms, ignoring the equality of all species. (A few interesting exceptions exist, such as the granting of ‘sentient being’ status for the Whanganui, Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Gizmodo spoke out about this, saying this eroded the rights of humans, and diminished what it means to be human. Is this seeing humanity as ‘better’ than other forms of life?) Our rules are for us, and for every other living thing. But, because it’s ‘our planet’, no other living thing gets a look in.
Competition aside, there is a dangerous precedent being set. We’re constantly being warned about the tipping point, beyond which the temperature on earth will continue to rise at a dangerous rate, leading to the demise of many species, even our own. The pessimist in me wonders whether it matters, sometimes. The planet has warmed and cooled, evolved life and destroyed life, for millennia. Why shouldn’t humans just be another unmemorable blip in this story that’s bigger than all of us?
I’d like to think we make it, though. We shouldn’t have the right to cause other species to go extinct – and no one has the right to set our species on an avoidable path to destruction, either. So I hope there will be another tipping point. A movement of people who won’t stand by and let this happen. Even though we have separated ourselves from this ‘natural world’, we can use our uniquely human traits to stand up for it. What will it take? A mass action, a mass changing of values. Those illusory meanings we place upon those actions need to change. The race for more needs to stop. And humans must live as part of the landscape, not live upon the landscape.
Swallowing the human ego and realising that we’re just another form of evolution – no better, just different – will be a momentous journey. But think where it could take us. We’re striving for reconnection – and that might just be the thing that saves us.