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here on Earth

July 4, 2011

I keep reading books about systems dynamics, complexity, and Earth/Gaia, unconsciously hoping that I will find a book that I could have written. Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet by Tim Flannery was not that book (although I enjoyed a lot of it). I kept waiting for him to talk about the planet or any of its nonhuman denizens without referencing what human beings need and want from them. But his focus remained on human beings, and their needs and wants as if they are the only ones that matter. Really, his book should have been called A Natural History of Human Beings Subduing the Planet. I guess that wouldn’t have won him a lot of praise or blurbs from environmentalists though.

Since human brains more easily take up ideas when they’re presented in a narrative, maybe the book I write needs to be fiction. Something like Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, except I’m not convinced my protagonist would be human.


I’ve been thinking a lot about something supposedly said by Niels Bohr or some other quantum physicist (or maybe a network scientist) — something like, “there are no discrete entities, there are only relationships.” If that’s true, the world is a very different place than we commonly think of it. But in a good way. Because relationships by their very nature require negotiation, compromise, and (at least minimal levels of) respect. Although that may be a modern view. Flannery talks about warfare and conflict in clan-based societies [i.e., hunter-gatherers]:

“I recently visited the Danish National Museum, where dozens of skeletons of Neolithic people are on display. Almost all, it seemed, whether male or female, adult or child, had suffered a blow to the head, and some had been scalped. The tools used for the banging and scalping were everywhere. Indeed, weapons were invariably the most ornate and lovingly crafted pieces of kit produced by ancient cultures. The American evolutionary biologist Samuel Bowles has systematized this impressionistic answer by amassing evidence for physical violence from ancient graves (of both farmers and hunter-gatherers) as well as from surviving hunter-gather groups. Of the skeletons excavated from graves, up to 46% showed signs of a violent death…. Hunter-gatherer societies lack police and jails, and in some there are few goods that can be appropriated by way of a fine. As a result there are no means to punish transgressors except for banishment (which weakens the clan as a whole) or corporal punishment.” (pp. 129-130)

Flannery says agriculture and the resultant civilization have tamed us somewhat, so that within our own groups we tend to be peaceful; when we meet outsiders is when we are likely to go to war.

Shared culture gives us laws, punishments, but also protocols for dealing with conflict constructively.

Pluralism is the human cultural equivalent to an ecosystem’s biodiversity: it confers resilience, adaptability, and variations, all of which make a system more likely to survive and thrive within its environment during periods of great change. Which we are certainly in right now.

Somehow we need to figure out how to bring more voices to the table — not just more human beings, but nonhuman beings, and perhaps Earth herself. If we have relationships based on respect, trust, and learning from others, we could join the “tribe” of the rest of the world. But we absolutely need to stop thinking humans are in charge, and that we have a right to be in charge, because that’s brought us to the brink of cataclysm.

If there is no “I”, only a complex web of relationships (like an ecosystem or habitat), how can we creatively reimagine the advantages of human culture so they can accommodate the needs of nonhumans? Many of us already have significant relationships with nonhumans, like pets, although that’s not a power dynamic we need to emulate.

Maybe that’s the book (of fiction?) I need to write: the perspective of some nonhuman actor who wants to cultivate a relationship with humans, but doesn’t trust us. Could we figure out together how humans could grow out of the human-centered narcissistic toddler-like stage we’re in, and progress to moral maturity, where we realize how interconnected and interdependent we all are, and how marvelous that is?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephanie permalink
    July 11, 2011 13:49

    Hello! You might like to look at the work of Tim Ingold, a social anthropologist. You could try his recent book of essays, “Being Alive”. He did most of his anthropological fieldwork with hunter-gatherers, and communicates their unique and complex world-views with great understanding and respect. And, speaking as an archaeologist: evolutionary biology is rubbish. They invent explanations for modern behaviours by referring to a prehistory they know nothing about. Those numbers for violent death in the Neolithic are false, I don’t know where this Bowles person got his ‘data’ from. (my PhD is in the Neolithic period).

    • July 11, 2011 13:58

      I have not heard of Tim Ingold, but I will see what I can find of his work.

      Before reading Here on Earth, I’d never heard of Tim Flannery or Samuel Bowles. And I don’t know anymore about Mr. Bowles than what was talked about in the book.

      That said, I’m not particularly interested in hunter-gatherers as a group. I’m a “city girl” and the main god I follow is a deity of cities. Cities require agriculture, and permanent settlements.

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