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A Breakthrough to Save Humanity

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In Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (1320) we encounter a forlorn Odysseus in the Inferno, suffering eternal torments for his deceitful stratagems in the Trojan war, and beyond. Dante adds a layer to the Classical myth in which an aged Odysseus returns to his native Ithaca, but finds:

not sweetness of a son, not reverence
for an ageing father, not the debt of love
I owed Penelope to make her happy
could quench deep in myself the burning wish
to know the world and have experience
of all man’s vices, of all human worth.

He persuades his crew to embark on a final voyage to a: ‘world they called unpeopled’. For five months they sail until: ‘there appeared a mountain shape, darkened / by distance, that arose to endless heights’; which is the mount of Purgatory. But: ‘celebrations soon turned into grief’, as a whirlwind wrecks the fleet, consigning Odysseus and his crew to a watery grave. The hero, who dared travel beyond the accepted limitations of his world is doomed to an excruciating Hell, even if there is a suspicion that Dante admires his chutzpah for seeking to experience “all human worth”.

Fear of the sea is an intuitive recognition of the dangers it poses, as Herman Melville in Moby Dick (1851) puts it: ‘For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not from that isle, thou canst never return!’

But Odysseus’s sorry fate also reflects a medieval mindset which looked askance at unfettered ambition. This devolved into superstitions that deterred voyages to unchartered territories. In his autobiography Yet Being Someone Other (1982) Laurens van der Post relates a story told to him by Carl Jung, ‘that if one wanted to fix a precise moment at which the Renaissance began, it would be the day when the Italian poet Petrarch decided to defy superstition and climbed a mountain in the Alps, just for the sake of reaching its summit.’ In that rebirth in Classical ideas that followed in Petrarch’s wake, Europeans opened their eyes to hidden possibilities, eventually leading to the discovery of new continents that relied on a spirit of innovation.

Poetry, in its widest sense, may be regarded as the handmaiden of the ingenuity required for invention. Thus Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, believed it was: ‘Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’. Reversing Stalin’s suggestion that poets were the engineers of the soul, Breton attributes great scientific breakthroughs to poetic imagination, arguing: ‘the conquests of science rest far more on a surrealistic than on a logical thinking.’

This reinforces Percy Shelley’s proposition that poets, including those acting as philosophers or scientists, are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, and indeed the spark for any human venture is imagination. Shelley in his ‘A Defence of Poetry’ distinguishes this from reason, which he describes as the ‘enumeration of qualities already known’; whereas ‘imagination is the perception of the values of those qualities, both separately and as a whole … Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.’

Too often governments, corporations and individuals inhibit that ignition. Across our society reason and logic are in constant motion, but imagination is hardly nurtured, and sometimes frowned on. We proceed from point A to B, failing to recognise the possibilities that lie in the remainder of the alphabet. Scientific innovation is founded on poetically imagining possibilities beyond contemporary restraints.

Greed and frightening religious extremism motivated global exploration in the sixteenth century, which rapidly encompassed the whole Earth. But the first voyagers also displayed more admirable qualities, including a willingness to set aside a fear of the unknown, the strange and exotic. Scientific breakthroughs diminished an intuitive and understandable fear of the ocean. As Melville put it: ‘however much … man may brag of his science and skill … yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him … nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.’

The challenge of crossing great stretches of water demanded breakthroughs in nautical engineering: thus a lighter, more mobile, craft, the caravel, was developed in Portugal under Henry the Navigator (d.1460) capable, unlike its predecessors, of sailing into a head wind. These innovations occurred because adventurous spirits imagined new pathways previously considered impassable. Inspiration became a necessity, and through perspiration, engendered invention. It is only by taking risks, and applying labour, that new possibilities are realised.

Despite the appalling carnage and destruction of natural environments wrought by European conquest there remains a heroism in this original repudiation of orthodoxy. In the Inferno Odysseus did founder, but we may laud his spirit and rejection of preconceived limitations that Dante considered hubris. Innovation demands an interrogation of ideas that have long held sway, a rejection of preconception and the embrace of the unknown, like a bird taking flight for the first time in its evolution. Oh how did that feel?

II

In his last book The Hidden Pleasures of Life (2015), Theodore Zeldin wonders what the great adventure of our time will be: if in the sixteenth century it was discovering new continents; and scientific enquiry in the seventeenth; or addressing political equality in the eighteenth. He suggests this zeitgeist remains elusive, but that giving a new meaning to work could be one such great adventure: ‘so that it is more than the exercise of a valued skill, more than the enjoyment of collaboration with others, more than a price that has to be paid in search of security and status, means using work to redefine freedom.’

Undoubtedly a revolution in working lives is vital as we find a new role for human ingenuity, with technology performing most basic and increasingly complex tasks. This idea should also appeal to anyone disheartened by the onward march of a corporate culture demanding ever-increasing consumption – the irrationality of boundless growth. The whole notion of work certainly requires re-imagining, and a new economy should harness creativity in different domains, but I propose that this aspiration is insufficiently ambitious for the ecological challenges we confront in the twenty-first century, in the shape of runaway Climate Change and a Sixth Extinction.

Indeed This [Climate Change] Changes Everything (2014) as the title of Naomi Klein’s recent book expresses. She rightly points the finger at unbridled capitalism, but even the vital objective of economic redistribution will not be enough. Socialism has tended to be articulated in the same materialistic terms, apportioning our needs within a hierarchy that continues to inflate. We must distinguish our necessities, and enter a harmonious relationship with Nature, which thus most far political ideologies and organised religions have failed to consider adequately. This demands a willingness to step into the unknown depths of our own imaginative capabilities, so as to develop the multifarious tools required for a New Age.

We are in Milton’s words: ‘By nature free, not overruled by fate’, but each individual vessel will still plunge into the deep unless we learn to tame our collective acquisitiveness. This requires an exponential expansion in human empathy, defined by Edith Stein as ‘the experience of foreign consciousness’. An Age of Empathy will elevate symbiosis and cooperation, as Gandhi puts it: ‘Man is not born to live in isolation but is essentially a social animal independent and interdependent. No one should ride on another’s back’.

The reality is that we confront death and destruction on an unimaginable scale if we continue to gorge on the world’s resources, and fail to acknowledge the limit of natural capital. Let us hope it does not take another Flood to wake us to the necessity of collective action. Alas a shock is what seems likely to shake us out of our stupor, and face up to reality. We must recognise what the future holds, and aggressively confront sinister and self-serving conspiracy theories, such as Climate Denial.

Science alone cannot paint the picture of how the world will appear in decades to come, if we continue on our present course. Art will play a vital role. Science fiction has long plotted dystopian scenarios, and this vision is slowly entering the mainstream. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) a father and son wander through an apocalyptic landscape in which the sun’s rays cannot pass through a dense layer of crowd. Cannibalism is rife. In the final paragraph there is a startling ode to a lost Nature:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not to be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Verily a Paradise Lost.

When we face up to harsh realities a change in outlook can occur. Laurens van der Post writes: ‘It was only when man looked death full in the face that the mortality which is imminent in the final regard releases him from all excess in his proportions, and in the surrender of egotistical presumption which follows as night in the day, unlocks him for the experience of compassion for all living things, ‘from ant to Emperor, whale to cat’, as the Buddhists of Tibet put it, which is the sign of his conscious return from exile to the all-belonging, which been his point of departure and is then his Home.’ Humans are capable of mind-boggling cruelty but within our spectrum we possess staggering compassion. These diverging characteristics may even co-exist in the same person.

III

I propose that the great adventure of this epoch should be to change the way we relate to Nature that is all life on Earth, including ourselves. The challenge, as I see it, is to ground ourselves within that diverse ecology rather than position ourselves above other beings, as the Western philosophic tradition has generally assumed. Thus Plato formatively established a hierarchy of beings in his Timaeus (c.360 BCE), proceeding from men at the top down through women to the ‘lower’ animals. Somewhat comically he compares other species unfavourably to human beings:

The race of birds was produced by a process of transformation, whereby feathers grew instead of hair, from harmless empty-headed men, who were interested in the heavens but were silly enough to think that the most certain astronomical demonstrations proceed through observation. Wild land animals have come from men who made no use of philosophy and never in any way considered the nature of the heavens because they had ceased to use the circles in the head and followed the leadership of the parts in the soul in the breast.

But the lasting impression Plato made on Western ideas about man’s place in Nature is no laughing matter.

Widening the circle of empathy brings us into communion with all living beings, but we must eat and extract energy for survival. Yet even plant life deserves respect.

In Peter Wohlebein’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2016) we find that Trees are more complex, and intelligent, than might be expected. They communicate with one another using an array of languages including scent from blossoms, and electrical signals that travel at a third of an inch per minute. This allows trees to warn their friends if they are under attack. Chemical signals are also made through fungal networks around root tips, a so-called ‘wood wide web’.

The ability of plants to learn from external stimuli has been exhibited in Dr Monica Gagliano’s experiments on the sensitivity of the mimosa plant. Gagliano released individual drops of water on the plant’s foliage at regular intervals. At first the anxious plants instantly closed their leaves, mistaking the single droplets for the onset of heavy rainfall. After a number of doses the plants learned these were harmless and kept their leaves open. Remarkably, these small plants could remember and apply their lesson weeks later.

Nonetheless the sentience of other animals distinguishes them from plant life: this is a capacity to feel pain, generally via a central nervous system, like ourselves.

Factory farming might one day viewed as one of the worst crimes in human history. The food writer Michael Pollan referred to one Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) as: ‘a place I won’t soon forget: a deep circle of porcine hell’ and acknowledges that the pork sandwich he eats is ‘underwritten by the most brutal kind of agriculture.’ He says any consumer bears a responsibility: ‘however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity’.

The devastating effect of incarcerating and slaughtering so many domesticated animals also has a devastating effect on surviving free animals, who make way for a vast expansion of agriculture, much of this to grow feedstuffs for CAFOs. Astonishingly, today humans, our livestock (and pets) account for ninety-eight percent of the Earth’s total land vertebrate biomass, leaving only two percent for the wild portion.

IV

The philosophy of Veganism should not be read back through human history to condemn ancestors who often killed animals for survival, but times have changed. In all Western societies, at least, there are nutritious and tasty alternatives to animal products, which display the great qualities of human inventiveness in the gastronomic sphere. We are not obligate carnivores, like cats, and the global food chain allows us to overcome the need to subsist on animal flesh or secretions, even at northern latitudes.

In his biographic account of hunting whales on board a Norwegian vessel in the 1920s Laurens van der Post, provides an extraordinary statement on the shift in consciousness that an altered relationship with the natural world demands:

I could not deny the excitement and acceleration into a consummation of archaic joy which the process of stalking and hunting, even at sea, had invoked in me, although I was at present now only as an observer. On the other hand, hard on these emotions came an equal and opposite revulsion which nearly overwhelmed me when the hunt, as now, was successful and one was faced with the acceptance of the fact that one had aided and abetted in an act of murder of such a unique manifestation of creation. The only dispensation of the paradox ever granted to me in the past, unaware as I had been of the immensity of it until revealed to me in this moment at sea, was that in hunting out of necessity, all revulsions were redeemed by the satisfaction one felt in bringing food home to the hungry. That such satisfaction was not an illusion, nor a form of special pleading in the court of natural conscience, was proved to me by the profound feeling of gratitude one invariably felt for the animal that had died in order for others to live … [but] what could this possibly have to do with the necessities which were essential for the redemption of the act of killing … in this increasingly technological moment of my youth, when control of life was passing more and more from nature to man, and when there were already available all sorts of artificial substitutes for the essential oils which animals like the whale had once been the only source of supply, what, I asked myself bitterly, could justify such killing except the greed of man for money … Worse still, I was certain that our imperviousness to the consternation caused by such killing in the heart of the nature could be the beginning of an enmity between man and the life which had brought him forth that could imperil his future on earth itself.

Dietary change is relevant to the wider transformation of the human person. The legendary gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin perhaps overstated this when he wrote: ‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are’, nonetheless the constituents of a person’s diet has a profound on his state of mind. This is ingrained in almost every spiritual tradition, even Christianity. Thus Western monasticism going back to the Early Church Fathers and the Rule of St. Benedict considered consumption of animal products inconsistent with a life of meditation and prayer.

We are a product of the air we breathe, the fluids we drink and the bacteria we encounter which interact with our genetic programming to make us who we are. Nonetheless the sheer range of food at our disposal makes it perhaps the leading variable in that process of growth and atrophy that characterizes all life as we know it.

The unrealised possibilities of different crop varieties suggests we are only skimming the surface of agricultural possibilities, which could have dramatic implications for the kinds of environments that we create. Humanity today utilises a mere six hundred out of the hundreds of thousands of edible plants. What we require are farmers, chefs and gastronomes, who are not bound by convention and imagine new possibilities, inspiring a Fourth Agricultural Revolution that will place far less pressure on the Earth’s finite capacities.

Theodore Zeldin is right when he wrote that: ‘The invention of a new dish is an act of freedom, small but not insignificant’. We can all play our part in this great adventure. Like it or not what we eat is a defining feature of who we are, not just in terms of class, race or nation, but also in terms of our relationship to the Earth. The Third Industrial Revolution proposed by Jeremy Rifkin, and others, will prove as exploitative as the others unless we radically change our outlooks, ceasing to be, in Carl Jung’s words, ‘the Technological Savage‘.

V

The altered relationship with Nature would be a revolution like no other in human history, and it is absolutely essential that it happens in this the Anthropocene, the era of human geological time, where the accumulated bones of domesticated birds is one of the signs of our overweening presence, along with nuclear residues, and potentially irreversible Climate Change. Aside from any ethical stance, ecological limits are in sight: we cannot possibly go on killing over fifty billion domesticated animals each year for food.

Krishnamurti said: ‘We haven’t time to fool around anymore – the house is on fire’. The world’s population now stands at over seven billion. At the beginning of the last century we were a mere 1.5 billion, with a far shorter life span than today, and leading lives far less demanding on the planet’s resources. Since then we have applied science to the manufacture of all manner of conveniences that have generated an obesity pandemic all over the world and giant plastic graveyards at sea. We have waged a relentless war on the natural world that sees no sign of abating. Since the 1970s when I was born 50% of all mammal species have gone extinct, mainly through a loss of habitat that is intimately connected to the food we eat.

Scientists may devote their poetic capacities to humane and less carbon-intensive food alternatives, which are all already emerging.

We can develop renewable sources of energy and expend less, but our morality should not be reduced to an exercise in carbon accounting. In my view, the single most transformative, and simple, change a person can make in their lives is to embrace a Vegan diet. This entails a cooperative rather than competitive approach to Nature.

Consumption of meat is predicted to increase by over 50% by 2050 which is beyond unsustainable – it is horrific – especially when one considers that ‘efficiency’ demands that most of these animals will be kept in unspeakable conditions. The whole edifice of animal agriculture must crumble, and with that an expansion in human consciousness may occur.

Five hundred years after Dante’s Comedia in 1833, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote the poem ‘Ulysses’ in which he develops the epic tale of Odysseus further. Again we find a frustrated Odysseus in Ithaca before a final voyage bemoaning:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!’
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

But Tennyson celebrates this ambition ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’, and so should we. As a species we must enter unknown imaginative territories and realise our boundless possibilities. This is a somewhat ominous, but ultimately heroic quest, which will cross new moral frontiers.

Frank Armstrong is the content editor of Cassandra Voices.

Featured Images: Daniele Idini

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