There was once a beautiful time on Earth when all life flourished and peace was omnipresent. Humans, living in small bands, took only what they needed from the land and never more. They respected nature, understood its ways and even spoke with the natural world – in ways which have long since been forgotten. There is some reason to believe that humans and animals living at this time understood each other’s language and lived in ways that respected the other; they cared about each other. Humans sought the advice of the ancient wise creatures that lived nearby and the protection (not that they needed it) of the strong and brave creatures that watched over them from afar.
Spirits of the dead appeared amongst the living, offering advice and reassurance. Spirits from the forest also spoke to the humans, keeping them apprised of all that was afoot in the non-human realm. Humans rarely got sick, but where they did, special plants which had been used since time immemorial were confidently administered to cure them. For this reason no-one lived in fear of sickness – or indeed of death; they knew that when they passed on they would simply inhabit a new realm even more wonderful than their Earthly home. Life was perfect and this is how things have been for humans on Earth until very recently.
This is, of course, complete nonsense. But isn’t it a seductive story? In fact, isn’t it one that on some level we actually do believe to be true?
In fact, although some parts of my story may have been true for short periods of time (for example, perhaps as hunter-gatherers we did have a relatively low stress and comfortable life – we certainly had an intimate understanding of nature; necessary when you have no technology to rely on as backup), humans have also been caught in the dynamic quest for survival along with all of the other animals and forms of life.
And perhaps worse than thinking that our ancient ancestors did not actually have the protection of the strong brave creatures (who in fact wanted to eat them) is that we’ve blazed a trail of destruction wherever we’ve gone. Although some scholars contend that other factors contributed to the mass extinction of species and decimation of landscapes that almost always followed hot on the heels of human arrival, there’s no getting away from the fact that we are a species of serial killers. That’s not to say that we had any intension of wreaking havoc, or that we did so directly, but we did do it, time and again.
For example, some of the most wonderful species the world has ever known, and who were happily living amongst each other, were present in Australia, New Zealand, and North America until we showed up. The so called mega-fauna includes creatures that today would be thought of as biological fiction; huge sloths towering up to five metres tall and giant kangaroos. We didn’t even stop when we reached the boundaries of our own species. Countless indigenous populations have been decimated at the hands of other humans – the Australian aboriginals are a good and poignant example.
In the modern age we’ve developed sets of ethical and moral codes that alert us to the importance of respecting other forms of life – even if 200-300 species are slipping off the radar daily. Our environmental ethics seek to find a standpoint that shows greater egalitarianism between the human and non-human worlds. In pursuing such ethics, and in environmentalism generally, we seem to have a background notion of how things ought to be; or even how things once were – a paradise lost that with a strong enough set of ethical behaviours we’ll be able to, hopefully, rediscover before we destroy the planet and ourselves with it.
But what, or when, exactly is our reference point? 800 now-gone species ago, 10,000 years ago, or when the mega-sloth was still wandering beside us? Perhaps it just isn’t in our collective nature to live peacefully with other species. The human ability to coordinate large numbers of ourselves is something that makes us stand out from others, yet we seem unable or unwilling to coordinate ourselves in a way which shows respect for other forms of life. There are pockets of resistance ranging from environmental organizations to intentional communities but, by and large, the present narrative is still that of human domination and destruction.
Perhaps we believe in a long lost time like that in my made-up story because we want to know we once lived harmoniously with the other life around us and could therefore do it again. As well intentioned as that may be, perhaps the pursuit of such an outcome is simply running against our own nature? We have never had so much visibility on our impact on nature or so much opportunity to collectively come together to address the problems. Yet despite countless attempts, and indeed agreements, to change our ways across the spectrum of impacts things steadily get worse. It’s a difficult conundrum to get our heads around.
All life on Earth is caught up in a collective dance of existence. The dance is highly dynamic with new moves and sequences being added on a regular basis. But occasionally the beat changes completely and we find ourselves struggling to keep up. These are called ages of transition of which there have been many in human history – the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, major religions, the scientific revolution, and capitalism are some key examples. There is little doubt we are currently in such an age; on many fronts the world we recognized a generation ago is slipping away and being replaced. Although some deeply entrenched, unhelpful narratives persist, many contend that we are entering a new golden age of humankind where we unite with one another and with all life.
Perhaps one day we will create a paradise of abundant life here on Earth, but it won’t be a paradise that was lost because actually it never existed.
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