Recently, I had the good fortune to spend an evening with Satish Kumar, the Indian philosopher and environmental activist. Sat by the fire in the sitting room of Schumacher College, the centre for alternative learning he co-founded in Devon, he speaks of soil. Of loving soil. Of soil as the connector between all of us on Earth. This armchair is made of soil, he says, this book, that rug, you and I. If we seek to re-establish our link to the natural world, we must re-learn to love the soil.
Whilst thinking about the title of this inaugural edition: ‘origins’, I was drawn back to this conversation and Satish’s simple message. We in the modern era have somehow lost this knowledge, this kinship with soil and the earth. We cannot see how all on this planet share the same origins and indeed the same fate. In the dawn of our sixth extinction period, life that has taken 2 billion years to develop to its present form is being destroyed within only 200 years of industrialisation. And somehow, despite 40 or so years of ecological awareness and a growing consensus on the effects of climate change, we still fail to take large-scale direct action to combat this plundering of our Earth.
From where does this disconnection stem? Our treatment of the environment directly corresponds to our ethical worldview – how we understand humanity’s role within the natural world. If we wish to change our attitudes, we must look to how we view ourselves in relation to the Earth, how it came into being and our place within it.
We perceive and perpetuate a split between the human and natural worlds. Nature is valued only when economically viable, a backdrop upon which the human drama unfolds. We can see the pervasiveness of this attitude if we look to the meaning of the word ‘nature’. The Oxford English dictionary reads, ‘the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations’ [italics mine]. Here, at the most basic level, not only is humanity fundamentally separated from the rest of life on Earth, but is placed diametrically opposed to it, our actions only ever the antithesis of what is ‘natural’.
This human-centric attitude posits man as outside and external to the natural world. We assume the roles of guardians or destroyers, acting upon nature, not within it. Both of these attitudes, regardless of their intention, are equally arrogant and destructive in their assumption of man’s inherent superiority over other forms of life.
Our indifference to the current ecological crisis is not, then, random and insignificant. It is a direct manifestation of how we view ourselves in relation to other life on Earth.In short, we are indifferent because we do not view ourselves as truly part of the world we inhabit. Rather, we position humanity as some bizarre ‘other’, opposed to and separate from the physical, natural world that exists around us, but not within us.
The ecological and theological historian Thomas Berry said that we in the West do not simply have a disregard for nature, but have a ‘pathological rage’ towards it. A Christian himself, he argues that this is specific to the biblical-Christian matrix, in contrast to certain Eastern traditions that place a higher emphasis on man’s relativity to nature, thinking in less dualistic terms to the West.
In Christianity the soul transcends the physical world to reside outside, in heaven. Hence, the human experience is divided and elevated from life around us on Earth; the divine is no longer part of the physical world. Sacred groves became idolatrous as they suggested there was spirit in nature. We see ourselves as morally and intellectually superior, omnipotent guardians of the planet, with animals and plants existing for the sake of man. We are, after all, in God’s image. Berry, and famously Lynn White in his damning critique, ascribed Christianity as the sole perpetrator of this destructive anthropocentrism. However, I would argue that it be found even earlier, in the philosophical writings of Ancient Greece.
Aristotle, writing in the 5th Century BC, states that reason is what separates humanity from the rest of the world. Through virtue of our intellect, humanity can lead a contemplative life, that ‘knowing, by its very nature, concerns what is inherently best’. It is in this distinction that the core of all problematic attitudes towards the environment lies.‘Natural’ hierarchies shape Aristotle’s world with each lower organism existing for the sake of the higher. This belief in man’s separation and subsequent superiority was subsumed into early Christian thought, which in turn shaped Western ideology, illuminated in Descartes’ [Cartesianism] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartesianism in the twelfth century. Descartes’ declaration of ‘I think therefore I am’, is a direct descendant of Aristotelian virtues, and his subsequent mechanical analysis of all non-human life has been the dominant way of assessing the natural world in Western philosophy.
And so, in the midst of our turbulent ecological crisis, we must question this problematic cultural heritage and see the extent to which it is entrenched within our current worldview. Modern science follows in this vein with its focus upon knowing as the highest form of human attainment, most often gained at the expense of non-human entities.We have spent millennia following an ethical tradition that places man above all other life forms and states that they exist only to serve our desire for knowledge and resources. And time is running out. The state of the world will only worsen if we refuse to reject the maxim that nature exists for the sake of man.
Satish questions Descartes’ maxim, ‘I think therefore I am’. ‘So’, Satish states, ‘you can exist only in your mind? You can eat your brain? No, the earth is, therefore I am. You are, therefore I am’. It is only in relativity, in community with life that we exist.