The modern world is filled with things many of us regard as antiquated and old-fashioned. Modern people often say that ancient rituals are mere superstition, that science tells us what is real and what is not, and that we are now free from ideas including untestable ideas from religion that have slowed continual improvement in the lot of average humans.
That the modern outlook has all the hallmarks of a religion never occurs to a thoroughly modern person (whom I’ll refer to merely as a "modern"). A modern believes that the modern outlook is above and outside all superstition and groundless belief. In effect, the modern outlook is a myth that does not believe it is a myth.
In using the word "myth," I do not mean to label the modern outlook false. In this context myth is simply a narrative that outlines a worldview. It turns out that a myth of any vintage, ancient or modern, can be a powerful tool in motivating behavior, in explaining and manipulating the world, and in assigning meaning to human existence. And any myth of any vintage can turn out simply to be mistaken in some or all of its details.
The modern myth has some unique characteristics that make it particularly powerful and particularly dangerous at the same time. The modern myth tells us the following about the world and our place in it:
- Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
- Scale doesn’t matter.
- History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
- Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.
Let me take these claims one at a time.
First, let’s see whether, in fact, humans are in one category and nature in another.
A key element of the modern narrative separates humans from nature. We humans are different for many reasons. We have speech. We use tools. We use abstractions to order the world. We plan for the future.
These presumed advantages have allowed us to become the dominant species in the biosphere. One measure of that dominance is what is called global human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP). Net primary production refers to the "net amount of biomass produced each year by plants." Humans appropriate biomass directly through their use of plants for food and fiber. They appropriate it indirectly through the consumption of domestic livestock and wild animals (mostly fish) which must, of course, feed on plants or other animals that in turn feed on plants.
Estimates of HANPP vary widely depending on who is counting and how. The most recent estimates range from 14 percent to 55 percent. But no matter how one estimates HANPP, the portion of the Earth’s net primary production devoted to humans is truly remarkable for one species when we consider that there are an estimated 8.7 million species on Earth.
Still, just because one species is dominant does not mean that it is outside the natural world. And, in fact, the modern does not put the human body outside the natural world. The human body is the subject of rigorous scientific investigation through the discipline of biology and its many subdisciplines such as physiology, anatomy, and pharmacology to name just a few.
So, if our bodies are not in a category outside nature, then what part of humans separates them from nature? Well, our minds, of course. While no one can say precisely what it means to say humans have minds, we all know we have thoughts because we experience them. Extreme materialists will say that our thoughts are merely our perception of brain chemistry at work. Thoughts have no independent existence. If that’s true, then the distinction between humans and nature falls apart.
Now, nature is a loaded word with a long history. We speak of "human nature," but don’t mean necessarily our bodies so much as our social character. And, we usually mean it in a negative way.
Nature can be holy. It was and is to followers of nature religions. It can be something fallen and evil. It is in Christian tradition though that view has softened with the advent of the modern environmental movement. It has also changed as Christian teaching has evolved on human sexuality, long viewed as an evil part of human nature.
The adjective "natural" often signifies the property of not being man-made. It is getting harder to distinguish the two states as humans take over more and more of the biosphere. Humans raise livestock in specific ways and yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a category for "natural" products from livestock. The climate is changing almost certainly because of human activities. Is the climate no longer a natural phenomenon?
Bruno Latour, the French sociologist of science, suggests that humans and nonhuman entities are all part of a connected network which he loosely refers to as the collective. In any case, those things which we thought distinguished us from the other animals are gradually falling away.
It turns out animal calls now appear to have characteristics of what we regard as language. And, elephants communicate with sophisticated sign language. Dolphins apparently have a "sono-pictorial" language of communication. And, they appear capable of using nouns and verbs to form intelligible sentences.
We now know that many animals use tools. Primates use tools. But so do non-primates such as sea otters which use rocks to crack the shells of edible seafood.
I am not making the case that humans are exactly like other animals in every respect, only that our oft-cited defining differences aren’t differences after all. We share so many abilities and characteristics with other animals that it is difficult to conclude that we belong in a separate category. As such, we have no vantage point outside of the natural world from which we can hope to observe it objectively and know it completely. We are stuck inside that world and faced with the limitations of a participant/observer.
So, if we humans don’t belong in a separate category, then we may very well be subject to many of the same constraints as animals. We humans are adapted to our environment in ways that have allowed us to become the dominate species; but the fossil record suggests that our dominance is likely to be a temporary phenomenon.
Whatever we call the category that includes humans and everything else, in an age of ecological understanding we would be foolish to pretend that we are separate from what we call the natural world and not subject to its laws.
Second, while our success as a species is undeniable, we conclude from this success a notion that may turn out to be fatal to us or at least to modern technical civilization.
The faulty conclusion we draw is that scale doesn’t matter. Many modern readers have been dazzled by the analysis of writers such as Charles Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, who argue that the presumption of a pristine landscape described by Europeans landing for the first time in the Americas is overdrawn. By that time indigenous peoples had altered the landscape in thoroughgoing and profound ways. From this Mann and others conclude that humans can continue this alteration without fear of taxing the physical environment in ways that might lead to civilizational collapse.
What Mann and others seem not to grasp is the problem of scale. Native populations in the Americas might well have been higher than previously estimated (about 25 million instead of 1 million) and their alteration of the landscape might have been greater than previously believed. But that does not mean that the more than 7 billion people now on Earth with their highly intensive extractive ways can continue live as we do indefinitely without risking systemic collapse. As a group we humans today put pressures on the environment that are orders of magnitude greater than those of the much smaller and less resource-intensive world population of the pre-Columbian era.
The scale of human exploitation of the biosphere already has altered the climate in ways which are believed to be potentially catastrophic to human civilization. In addition, fisheries are being depleted. Soil is being eroded as never before. Forests are being felled at unprecedented rates. And, all this is being done without a comprehensive understanding of the systemic effects on the environment and by extension on the viability of human civilization as it is currently constituted.
The old saw that "we will figure something out" is merely a statement of faith. And, any statement of absolute certainty about the future is religious by its very nature since in the realm of practical and scientific knowledge we cannot be absolutely certain of anything about the future.
Which brings us to supposition three of the modern: History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past. Here I am less concerned with recorded history than I am with archeology. Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, shows us that highly advanced societies of the past make mistakes that lead to collapse.
His thesis is that while the proximate cause of some collapses has to do with climate change and/or resource depletion, the ultimate cause is the inability of complex societies to respond effectively to such challenges. Complexity, which initially is highly adaptive and successful, ultimately becomes a cause of collapse as societal systems become so complex that they are no longer capable of processing the information they receive from the environment effectively in order to take the necessary actions to avoid collapse.
The modern doesn’t know this history or dismisses it as irrelevant since "we know better now." He or she asserts this even as complexity is piled upon complexity without solving our most urgent and perilous problem, climate change.
In the realm of political affairs, we had a passing fancy that history was ending when Francis Fukuyama told us in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, that liberal democracy would be the final form of governance for all humankind. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism made some people believe that the end of ideology had arrived, that politics was no longer politics, but now a kind of science with one method, the liberal democratic method as currently defined.
And this brings us to the fourth claim of the modern that science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world. Of course, science is no such thing. It is a loose set of disciplines employing widely varying techniques for various ends. It is true that the so-called scientific method has proven to be a powerful tool for harnessing the forces of nature for our purposes.
But the range of what we call science shows it to be a highly differentiated set of disciplines–sciences rather than science–with inconsistent and in some cases irreconcilable theories and practices. Field biology is science, but is it the same kind of science as the study of quantum mechanics? And quantum mechanics, a subdiscipline of physics dealing with the very small, continues to be at odds with general relativity, another subdiscipline of physics that describes gravity and thus the world of the very large. As it turns out, no one has been able to find a theory that would unify the two. They seem to work in very different ways.
Science by its very nature is open-ended. It draws conclusions from observations and from experiment. But it does not claim that any theories developed by scientists are the end of all theories. Quite the contrary, science in practice is about continual testing of hypotheses and theories. And, it is about altering our theories to match new observations.
As the tools of scientists reach farther into space, deeper into the oceans, and more minutely into the life of the cell and into the very basis of human life, the soil, scientists are realizing how little they know about the universe around us. The fact that we are finding so much more to study tells us that we only know the tiniest fraction of all there is.
The extent to which we have altered the biosphere without realizing it by using the technology that has flowed from our scientific understanding tells us how little we understand the complex systems around us.
The modern cannot find humility in the face of our ignorance and therefore cannot understand that in large part the scale of our human enterprises explains our current predicament.
The modern always has a "solution" to every big problem. It can be technological or it can be merely an appeal to faith in what he or she calls "progress." Somehow, modern humans are Houdinis who can collectively extract themselves from every fix before time runs out. Even if we have no answers to our major problems today, those answers will show up soon. Just wait!
This begs the question: If humans are so clever and if they’ve known about our major environmental problems for decades, then why do the indices by which we measure these problems keep getting worse? Why haven’t humans solved these problems already with their cleverness?
Of course, there were those who four and even five decades ago called for rapid deployment of renewable energy, control of and even decline in human population, a move toward more sustainable agricultural and forestry methods, and an end to our consumerist culture. But their voices were drowned out by the moderns and their allies who could not accept the idea that there might be limits on what humans could take from the biosphere and dump into it.
And, to say that human welfare has improved over this period only speaks to our ability to extract ever more resources from the biosphere for our own use (HANPP mentioned above) and dump whatever we choose back into it. The question is not our ability to do this, but the sustainability of exponential growth in this extraction and dumping and the stability of the biosphere which supports us under the pressure of these trends.
It is a mere mathematical fact that exponential growth in the use of resources cannot go on indefinitely on a finite planet. But this mathematical truism is one that a well-propagandized modern either knows nothing about or responds to with that ever present article of faith: "We’ll figure something out."
And, now at last we arrive at why you cannot argue with a modern. It is because you are not ultimately arguing about data, facts or observations, but about faith. The modern has a religion-like faith that all human endeavors from here on out will not fail to avert the downfall of civilization and the extinction of humankind. It is my experience that it is very, very difficult to argue anyone out of their religion,* and that’s what such a belief amounts to.
To ask someone to reject their own religion is asking them to leave behind beliefs that anchor their lives in the world, that are the very framework for their daily conduct. To abandon one’s religion means abandoning an entire way of living and painstakingly building up a new way.
My point is that moderns cannot be convinced of the narrowness of their vision and the folly of their uncritical optimism even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Rather than arguing with those with whom argument is futile, it is better to remember what every political candidate knows about voters: There are those who will always vote for you and those who will never vote for you, and those who are persuadable.
It is for the persuadable that we need to learn the weaknesses of the modern outlook. The persuadable are open to understanding the world in new ways because something in their experience has shown them that mere belief is not enough to assure that things will turn out all right. It takes action.
And, it is personal action, especially action designed to change the current dangerous trajectory of humankind, which the modern seeks to avert. Far from being a change agent, the modern is now the most reactionary of all thinkers, believing that stability and progress are compatible and inevitable and that therefore individual action seeking to alter our current trajectory is not merely misguided but dangerously misguided. With the rise of environmentalism the modern now parades as a clever contrarian while actually being the quintessential representative of the status quo.
The modern’s outlook is actually quite restful. It demands nothing of us except acquiescence to the current power structure and its prescribed trajectory for the human endeavor. The modern’s message soothes our worries and calms our fears about our future and that of our descendants…until the day comes when it doesn’t.
* I am not anti-religion. As it turns out, religion plays an important part in my life and can be a force for social, political and environmental action for many. But I do not believe that religion alone can lead to sound public policy. In the case of the modern whose religious beliefs are hidden from him or her, such beliefs can lead to disastrous policy.
Image: Child’s drawing of a scientist (2008). From GeneralDowd. Via Wikimedia Commons.