Humans are only one organism on the planet, yet we hold ourselves up to be the best, the most special. Our outsized sense of self-importance is matched by our very real ability to wipe out virtually all life as we know it—and at our current pace, we seem determined to do so, marching like lemmings right over the edge.
In this essay from Culture Change, Keith Farnish, author of Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis, asks us to take a step back and ask ourselves what really matters in the grand scheme of things. What’s it all about? Money? What’s worth dying for? Are we really better than all other life? If so, can we exist without it?
How important do you think humans are?
For millennia we have been taught that human beings have a vital almost divine role in the Great Chain of Being, and to look around the cities where most of us now live you could indeed be forgiven for thinking that we are ecologically dominant, if not vital to the functioning of life on Earth: I think it’s about time this was put into some kind of perspective.
Modern human beings, or homo sapiens sapiens, are but one species within the large order of animals known as mammalia. Enveloping the mammals is the far larger phylum known as chordata, or animals with stiff spinal rods; but even the chordata, which also includes all the fish, reptiles and birds pales into insignificance compared to the rest of the Animal Kingdom, which is largely ruled by the exoskeletal insects and the writhing omnipresent worms. A great Kingdom of animals, which just happen to occupy a tiny niche in the tree of life, alongside the plants and the fungi, not to mention the slime molds – our surprisingly close relatives.
But, of course, most of life on Earth consists of bacteria and, if you consider them to be living, viruses. Countless trillions of single-celled organisms in every spoonful of soil. It seems to make the 6.8 billion human beings little more than a smudge in the global Petri dish; it just happens that in our civilized manifestation that relatively small number have become capable of a huge amount of damage. Insignificant, but so very dangerous.
The Psychosis Of Civilization
Civilized humans are global predators occupying not only the top of the food chain, but at the very pinnacle of the global energy pyramid. We have become a ferocious but delicate flower waiting to be blown away in the next breeze of extinction; yet what do we see as the most important factor in our role as human beings?
Our values have become outrageously skewed in favor of whatever most benefits the onward march of the global economy. We do not see the rise and fall of habitat viability on the television news, instead we see the rise and fall of the markets in the capital economy; we do not count species extinctions in newspaper bar charts, but we urgently count companies going bust; we do not map the catastrophic breaks in the energy flows between different parts of an ecosystem, but we do acknowledge every time a budget airline discontinues a route, or whenever a main road has “severe” delays. As if it matters.
The psychosis of Industrial Civilization is endemic: every person that places his or her trust in the system of hierarchies, politics, markets and mass consumption undergoes a fundamental readjustment in priorities. No longer does the fate of our species rest upon our increasingly precipitous position within the global ecology; we can all hold hands, actually or virtually, and celebrate the majesty of the global economic miracle, safe in the knowledge that it will take us forward into a glittering future of jobs, money and all the other civilized things we have been taught to desire.