A human comedy

My last couple of posts have referred to the need for a positive narrative to not only give meaning and purpose to our lives, but to guide us through the climate and ecological emergencies that we face; a narrative that acknowledges the dire situation that we are in, but which offers hope and inspiration for our future. However, as someone has pointed out to me during the course of this last week, I haven’t really said what this narrative should be. So here it is in outline. It’s the story of how at a critical point in its evolution humanity woke-up and realised that we are a single human society living as an integrated and interdependent part of the Earth’s eco-system; that they key to survival and a positive future is the reversal of our separation from both the natural environment and ourselves.

In a sense this is no more that what Aldo Leopold wrote in The Land Ethic seventy years ago. A land ethic, he wrote, “changes to role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for its fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” In other words, it’s a complete reversal of the biblical notion of domination, of God’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish in the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This was a ‘command’ that itself came to dominate all other ancient understandings of our relationship with non-human life, a command that gave rise to the industrial revolution, a command that gave rise to the dominant human attitude to nature and the planet that Naomi Klein termed extractivism: “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking.”

In The Natural Contract, the French philosopher Michel Serres points out that human history, and particularly western history, has been dominated by our focus on some form of social contract, some form of understanding of how humans should organise their cities and states, what their relations with each other should be, who should have power and who should be subordinate. The consequence of this focus has been the ignoring of our relationship with the planet and all other the living systems that we share it with. Echoing Leopold he describes this dominant relationship as parasitic, and calls instead for it to become symbiotic. He calls for us to develop a natural contact to sit beside our social contract, one that recognises our interdependent relationship with planetary systems and non-human life. Such a contract would not only reverse our separation from nature, but would allow us to fully understand just how dependant our flourishing is on this relationship.

But this reversal of our separation needs to extend beyond that of our relationship with wider nature. It needs to include global humanity. In A Convenient Truth, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point to what I consider to be an inspiring phenomenon: “our species, which originally emerged from Africa and diversified as it spread across the world, is now coming together again. Through international travel, migration and intermarriage, we are seeing a process which amounts to nothing less that the reunification of the human race.” I fully accept that purely for administrative and organisational reasons we will need to organise ourselves into semi-independent states, but we need to move on from considering any of these states superior to and in competition with other states. We need to move on from any form of nationalism and all forms of separate racial identity. We can fully accept the various, and often shameful historical paths that have led us to our current situation, but our new human story will tell how we realised that our future flourishing required a shared narrative, a new global grand-narrative of co-operation, solidarity and empathy.

We are at that critical point in our evolution. At one level we can understand our ecological relationship with our planet and non-human life, and we can understand how we evolved out of Africa, continued evolving in relative isolation, and now, due to various technologies, are coming together again. But these understandings seem to lie outside of those narratives that effectively control our day-to-day lives, particularly the dominant neo-liberal narrative of competition, consumption and wealth creation. Our new narrative will tell how we woke from our dream of separation, and realised that to flourish into the future we needed to create both a natural contract, and a global social contract; that our future survival depended upon both our reunification with nature and our reunification with our wider human family. Future generations will tell the story of how this was the crucial scene in the drama of human life, and that thanks to the resolution of the conflict that came to a head in the early decades of the 21st Century, the drama became a comedy not a tragedy.

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