an alternative thought experiment by Nikola Danaylov
“The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to Earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Chief Seattle
We are story-telling animals. And all of history is the human story, our story. So, if today we are at the precipice of the singularly most disruptive change in how we live, how we organize ourselves collectively, and how we relate to the rest of the world, then we were led to this point by the story we have told ourselves – about who we are, where we are going and what is our proper place in the universe.
This story takes many forms and shapes – religious, secular, scientific, economic, and artistic. But all tell of humanity’s “transcendence” of its animal beginnings, our growing mastery over “nature” [because it belongs to us, not the other way around] and a future of abundance [that is “better than we think”]. It is the teleological story of human centrality, of a species whose manifest destiny is to become God. Most of all, ours is a story of Civilization, Progress, and Humanism.
And what makes this story dangerous is that, for the most part, we have forgotten that it is a story. Because it has been told so many times by those, who see themselves as rationalists or scientists, objective and impartial, true and good.
Up until the 20th century, all human civilizations took nature for granted because it seemed so big and domineering that we never imagined we could damage, let alone threaten it. Today we are no longer so humble. Worse than that, even if progress in science and technology is a fact, progress in humanity is mostly a myth. Because intellectually, technologically, economically, and scientifically humanity has progressed immensely. But psychologically or spiritually we have not moved far. [As noted by Robinson Jeffers, human nature has no more changed in the last 10,000 years than the beaks of eagles.] And, unfortunately, while we have learned a lot about the birds, bees, fish, and oceans that doesn’t mean we’ll save, rather than destroy them. [Ourselves included.] Especially since our current story tells us that the universe is ours for the taking.
We jumped from the middle of the food chain, where we spent more than 2 million years, to the top only within the last 100,000 years. But because of our meteoric rise, we are ill-adapted to our current position of power and supremacy. And many of the calamities that followed – be it wars against other humans or the way we treat the environment, are due to that fact. Bears, wolves, lions, and sharks all evolved to be at the top of the food chain over many millions of years. And they are evolved to be in balance with each other and the world around them. We are not. This is why Yuval Noah Harari argued that “Armed sheep are far more dangerous than armed wolves because they are not used to be in a position of power.”
We also moved from a view where “mother nature” was the all-powerful giver and taker to a view where we could and should “master” or “conquer” her. So now we are the wise giver and taker of life. And it is right and proper it is so. Because we are Homo Sapiens – the “wise man.” [A Freudian Oedipus-complex at the scale of our civilization?!] And that is also a result of the myth that humanity isn’t a part of nature, but apart from it.
To summarize: Our current human story consists of 3 main parts:
1. The myth of progress.
2. The myth of the supremacy and centrality of humanity.
3. The myth of our separation from nature. [Are we a part of the world or apart from the world?]
The Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, Capitalism, Colonization and Imperialism, Climate Change and species extinction, soil erosion and ocean acidification, Transhumanism, and Artificial Intelligence [AI] are all consequences and/or examples of the impact of our story. A teleological story of manifest destiny, transcendence, conquering nature, and, ultimately, the universe. A story that has brought us to our present and will guide and inform our decisions in the future. A story that gives meaning and value not only to us but also to the universe and everything in it. A story that can tip the scales towards extinction or survival. The human story.