We are living through the dawn of a new phase in human history. We are about to make our relationship with the Earth the most important aspect of our lives. This is the inevitable outcome of our behaviour. We know about our impacts on the climate and on biodiversity, the degradation of soils, the loss of ancient forests, or the myriad other effects of human beings on the living systems of the Earth. And there can be no doubt that these disruptions to the Earth have reached a scale where wholesale transformation of human culture is inevitable. We may take the hard route, refusing to bend, ignoring the science, causing terrible and lasting change to the atmosphere and rendering enormous numbers of creatures extinct. Or we could go an easier way, acknowledging our situation, learning to feel our relationship with the Earth and finding better ways to live. The result, whatever the path taken, will be the same. We are about to enter an Earth-centred phase of human existence.
There are many ways that history can be told, but this transformation to an Earth-centred culture must rank amongst the most important shifts to have ever taken place. It may be that history will plot three phases of human history. First of all, there was a traditional phase. Human beings learnt to form societies in the same way that other creatures do, by building on what works. As a young swan learns the paths of migration from its parents, so human beings developed cultures based on learnt behaviour. They remembered their past, honoured their ancestors and worked by precedent. Every decision was referred to the past. Had this been taught in their tradition? Was it the teaching of some wise and honoured ancestor? Then, and only then, could it be justified.
Human beings were also social creatures. Their brains had evolved with a commitment to working together to achieve their goals in life and their brains had become unusually imaginative. These large-brained creatures were able to imagine what others were thinking and act in response. And they also began to imagine the ‘other’ as a the form of religious awareness. Religions formed of enormous variety, but with some common social outcomes. The religion created a sphere of shared imagination for the peoples of the traditional world and this shared imagination gave them a sense of belonging and cohesion, allowing them to work together and form societies consisting of thousands of people.
Yet the traditional world had its challenges. Its never-ending reference to precedent meant that change was very hard to achieve. Leaders had to prove that every innovation was actually to be found somewhere in the tradition. Its emphasis on learned behaviour also meant that these societies could develop all sorts of strange and abusive practices, if they were perceived to ‘work’ in some way.
It was not surprising that the traditional world eventually gave rise to the modern phase of human existence. The discovery of scientific method gave a whole new confidence and creativity to our relationship with the material world. This confidence spilled over into our thinking about human society. We were ready to turn over the tables and discard our traditions. Our philosophers attempted to design human society from scratch. We recognised core values like liberty, democracy and human rights, while an industrial revolution massively improved the material situation for many.
Yet all was not well with modernity either. Human society was altogether more fragile. It proved hard to create the sort of solidarity that had been provided by religion. The emphasis on individual rights all too easily led to an individualistic society, where common projects were hard to justify. Such tensions were resolved typically by the market, which became the organising principle of the modern world. The market created the conditions for human beings to perceive themselves as consumers and for the manipulation of people by advertising to become a primary activity. Most importantly, market mechanisms had no direct way of measuring their impact on the Earth, with the result that abuses of the great systems that support all life on Earth were set in train. As both human population and expectations increased, so the impacts on the Earth became more and more profound. Something had to change and we are on the cusp of that something. No one knows quite what the future will look like, but one thing is clear. Human societies of the future will be Earth-centred. This will be the third phase of human existence.
Some outlines of this new era are already apparent. There is certain to be a new humbling of the human spirit. Modernity has been brash and bold, but also careless and destructive. We have also been unquestioningly human-centred. Human-centredness is so deep within us that we find it difficult to even recognise it. It is, for example, buried deep in the religions, both Greek and Christian, out of which Western society arose, and it is expressed in the fact that these religions conceived the divine as human. Similarly, when the first astronomers recognised that the Earth went round the Sun, the response was, ‘It cannot be so. Human beings must be at the centre of the universe.’ Similarly, when the matter of evolution was first raised, its real offence was to recognise our connection with other creatures. Even today, we have such an exalted view of ourselves that we no longer feel our connection with the Earth and the living systems on which we depend. This must change. This is far deeper than the call to reduce our use of fossil fuels, important as that is. It is about our whole perception of our place in the world. We need to develop an Earth-centred culture in which we acknowledge the Earth to be a higher power and we learn to imagine our relationship with it in such a way as to transform our lives.
Every human culture can be understood as an interplay between our state of mind and our way of being. The transition from the traditional world to a modern one was extraordinarily difficult. Even today, we witness an ongoing struggle in Afghanistan between the traditional and modern world, where old states of mind and ways of being cling on hard, even when they are terribly abusive. The transition to an Earth-centred culture will be accompanied by a further deep change in our state of mind as we come to imagine our relationship with the Earth. It will involve the creation of a new type of imagination for human beings, unique in the sense that it will be informed by science, while also being deeply social. Such shared imagination will join all peoples and nations into one, creating a bond between us all, a shared identity and sense of belonging. It will also reach beyond the human sphere, helping us to feel our relationship with all that lives on Earth and creating deep respect for the great Earth systems that maintain life, like the soils, the forests, the atmosphere and flows of fresh water.
This renewed imagination of our relationship with the Earth will be maintained by practical actions in societies around the world. Earth-centred festivals will be inaugurated that unite people of very nation. Every solstice and equinox there will be celebrations across the globe focused on the Earth. Every neighbourhood will set apart places out of the deepest respect for nature which will become a focus for practical concern and the nurture of wildlife. There will be new experiments in wilding on the smallest and greatest scales. Wildlife corridors will be more important than roads. These festivals and the setting apart of special places for wildlife will combine to create a social impact giving human beings a sense of solidarity with the natural world and with each other, offering the potential to transcend conventional political constraints and achieve common goals in relation to the Earth.
This is the third of three short essays by Chris Sunderland designed to introduce his new book
Imagination is the key – to unlock the environmental crisis
which is available here
Teaser photo credit: Canoe in Kerala, India, 2008. By Hans A. Rosbach – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4660089