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It is Time to Change the Environmental Story

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There will ultimately occur conflagration of the whole world … nothing will remain but fire, by which, as a living being, and a god, once again a new world may be created and the ordered universe restored as before.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Natura Deorum ‘On the Nature of Gods’ (45BCE)

I –Buddha in the Garden

On a recent trip to Belfast my attention was drawn to a small statue of the Buddha in the garden of a house I was staying. In a cityscape distinguished by myriad places of Christian worship – from ‘low’ church chapels with gaudy signs, to matronly Anglican churches, and looming Catholic cathedrals – I wondered whether greater devotion towards the ideals of the contented-looking representation before me would prove more conducive to reconciliation than pathways offered by Christian sects, alike in their devotion to a single biblical source.

Can the tenets of any religion be dismissed as projections of economic and other power relations? A materialist conception certainly explains a lot – the use of doctrine for political ends such as keeping women in servitude – but is at odds with curious dynamics internal to traditions. Adherents may be urged into irrational acts, from welcoming a stranger into their homes on appointed days, to growing beards to a certain length. These do not appear fitted to please any capitalist overseer.

Marx recognised the suffering which impels faith in the deliverance of a higher power. Nonetheless, he viewed belief in the supernatural as an opiate, and a superstition to be overcome on the road to a rational Communism. Missing from that materialist school of thought, however, is acknowledgement of the possibility of ‘magical thinking’ co-existing with scientific rationality, even in the same brain. As the Danish physicist Neils Bohr put it: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind, at the same time, and still retain the ability to function (Turok, 2012, p.77).’

There may of course be irreconcilable tensions between religion and science, as with the museum that Creationists have built to provide an account of the nearby Giants Causeway to fit with ‘Biblical history’. This may lead to a perception that battle has been joined between the values of the Enlightenment and barbaric fundamentalists. This could, however, lead to a denial of the creative fictions contained in religions.

Perhaps the main reason that religions endure in ‘advanced’ technological societies is because they offer a trove of stories the loss of which would diminish our humanity. The fables emanating from the sacred texts of Christianity are interpreted by each generation in novel ways. This can involve a setting aside of scientific evidence, as where Kerry TD Danny Healy Rae says God is responsible for the weather and thus Climate Change too, but not always. The account may involve a weighing of moral scales, where virtue is rewarded, and vice punished.

The will of God, or gods, may seem capricious – as where Abraham agrees to sacrifice his first born son – but might also yield powerful insights. Many atheists fixate on the interpretations of religious dogmatists, and do not allow for creative ambiguities, which a mind open to magical thinking, however fleetingly, accommodates.

It is, nonetheless, fair to say that the bible, the main corpus of the various Christian faiths, enjoins belief in one God ‘the Almighty’, which is shared with its monotheistic cousins Judaism and Islam. History suggests this story lends itself to appropriation by male autocrats justifying absolute power.

But are the mythologies of Ancient Greece and Rome which furnished their religions, or the animist faiths of tribal societies, any less prone to dominance by power-hungry males? Certainly the father of the Greek gods Zeus was a bit of a scoundrel. Are animists necessarily kinder to the earth than ‘people of the book’? This is unclear because animists religions have never exercised the kind of dominion over the Earth that the bookish people wield.

The peculiarity of Buddhism is that it is a both a religion which indulges in magical stories, and a philosophy, albeit one requiring a leap of faith into the idea of karma, which says the actions of an individual affects that person in this and subsequent lives. It is well-adapted as a method of self-improvement, impelling restraint, but the Buddha in his meditative posture seems a little removed from the cut and thrust of this world for my liking; that story by itself cannot sate my appetite for ‘true’ fictions.

Art is a repository of fictions, often requiring a suspension of belief, and a surrender to magical thinking. This is the wonder we feel when staring into ‘the heavens’ of a Renaissance basilica’s ceiling, or as we enter ‘the world’ of a novel. In many respects being an artist is akin to a religious vocation, an idea which co-habitats slightly uncomfortably with any economic assessment of utility.

The twentieth century has witnessed the implosion of many hallowed artistic forms leading to what Edward Clarke has described as post-modern decrepitude, but the fictions keep bubbling up through popular songs, cinema, and perhaps in the new wave of virtual reality via the digital medium.

II – ‘The only thing that can displace a story is a story’

Environmentalists are prone to despondency, as most of humanity blithely ignores scientific projections. Despite repeated warnings of the dire consequence of Climate Change, and the Sixth Extinction which has seen humanity wipe out sixty percent of the Earth’s wildlife since 1970, behavioural change is painfully slow.

Last year George Monbiot proposed a simultaneously simple but elusive solution: change the story, writing:

Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand.

Monbiot argues that a string of facts, however accurate, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story, and often simply provoke indignation if a prior narrative ‘truth’ has been established. ‘The only thing’, he says, ‘that can displace a story is a story’. He concludes that those ‘who tell the stories run the world’.

Currently it is fair to say that the neo-liberal ‘story’ is ascendant. The American Dream, that anyone can be successful as long as the pesky state does not impose red tape and steal their hard-earned lucre, still animates many. The corollary is a fatalistic narrative which sees no other outcome than a steady slide into an ecological abyss.

To alter these stories we could understand better their primary means of conveyance: natural languages, which, unlike mathematics, have evolved in humans through use and repetition, without conscious planning or premeditation.

The fate of human languages has mirrored the fate of animals in Nature. The seminal technology of writing – a secondary modelling system based on a prior system of spoken language – standardised dialects previously subject to inter-flow and cross-fertilization. This brought a hitherto unexperienced permanence, superseding oral recitation in poetry, which changed subtly with each telling. We can only now look back on that oral universe preceding writing through the prism of our own literary universe.

According to Walter Ong: ‘Writing or script differs as such from speech in that it does not inevitably well up out of the unconscious.’ He asserts nonetheless that writing ‘heightens consciousness’ by creating distance, or objectivity. He adds: ‘though inspiration continues to derive from unconscious sources, the writer can subject the unconscious inspiration to far greater conscious control than the oral narrator.’

This profoundly altered ways of thinking: interiorizing consciousness; allowing unprecedented analysis in philosophy; and providing a recording apparatus crucial to scientific enquiry. According to Ong: ‘examination of phenomena or of stated truths is impossible without writing and reading. (Ong, 1982, pp.77-94)’ This tool has allowed man to assert control over Nature. Technologies accumulate as knowledge is passed down through generations, and interrogated in texts.

Later, print technology reduced the number of dominant languages, enforced by military and economic might. Less than one hundred human societies developed vernacular literatures. Thousands of languages perished, their marvels scattered like desert sands beneath towering pyramids.

Now with the arrival of the Internet barely a dozen languages exert an irresistible pull on those still standing. It is not inconceivable that the various translation tools we have at our disposal will reduce human communication to a single language, English most likely.

II – Agricultural and Technological Revolutions

Similarly, with the domestication of animals (cattle, pigs and sheep especially) and plants (principally wheat, rice and corn) over the course of the First Agricultural Revolution (from c. 10,000 BCE) homo sapiens – already in possession of fire and domesticated dogs – became dominant in most fertile regions of the world. It was then that exploitation of the biosphere commenced in earnest, although early humans had previously wiped out megafauna, once they migrated out of Africa.

It is no coincidence that writing was invented in the Middle East, where agricultural surpluses first freed a small intellectual strata from the demands of labouring to produce food. Henceforth agriculture and writing would form a mutually-enforcing alliance.

The development in Europe of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg circa, 1450 – as well as improvements in the quality and supply of paper – helped bring the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. The improved legibility of texts permitted rapid, silent reading. This created further scope for interiorization of consciousness, a defining feature of the Western mind.

There followed a Second Agricultural Revolution – involving improvement in crop and animal breeding, enclosure of estates and the adoption of new machinery – that swept through north-west Europe in the eighteenth century, placing further pressure on wildlife habitats. Thus, the last Irish wolf was hunted to extinction in 1783, by which time most of the island’s native forests had been stripped away to make way for agriculture, especially cattle.

The rapid dissemination of ideas brought by the Gutenberg Press was also instrumental in the colonisation of the globe by Europeans from the fifteenth century onwards. This presented new lands and pre-agricultural peoples to exploit, as well as a fruitful exchange between the primary food crops and domesticated animals of the Americas (including corn, potato and turkey) and Eurasia (especially wheat, rice, cows, pigs and sheep).

Apart from genocide, plague and irredeemable cultural loss, this brought annihilation to wildlife, particularly in the Americas where megafauna such as the buffalo were wiped out in the nineteenth century, to make way for cattle.

The mid-twentieth century witnessed the Third Agricultural Revolution, or Green Revolution, including widespread adoption of newly-invented artificial fertilizer, derived from natural gas using the Haber-Bosch process, mechanisation, and the development of high-performing cultivars. This raised crop yields prodigiously allowing human population to increase from one and a half billion in 1900 to over seven billion today.

Now in this the Anthropocene many free animals survive only through piecemeal human protection. Our dominance extends to every continent, while thousands of species die out each year. Ecocide continues apace in the Amazon rainforest, and elsewhere.

The Internet – our latest communication breakthrough – places further pressure on minority languages. Will it accelerate the Sixth Extinction and devastating Climate Change? Or could it shatter a long-standing perception of a divide between the rights of homo sapiens and all other species? Can we move from human rights towards a more expansive idea of rights for all of Nature? To do so we must change the story.

IV – The Greek Legacy

The first comprehensive writing system, cuneiform, was developed in Sumeria, just over five thousand years ago, diffusing slowly around the globe.

Later the Ancient Greek alphabet accurately fixed the sound of language for the first time by introducing vowels as letters. This according to Ong ‘analyzed sound more abstractly into purely spatial components (Ong, 1982, p.90)’, making it easier for anyone to attain literacy. It allowed fuller description than unvocalised Semitic scripts, or pictographic alphabets such as Chinese, whose vast number of characters lends itself to educational elitism.

The breakthrough in script seems to explains the extraordinary eruption of Ancient Greek culture which laid the foundations of Western music, mathematics, philosophy and literature. Regrettably however, through Plato especially, the notion of human superiority over all other animals was implanted, a philosophical assumption that furnished the Abrahamic faiths with reasoned justification for the mythology of man being made in the image of God.

This idea of a divine right over Nature became axiomatic, even surviving the profound questioning of religious assumptions in the Enlightenment. This is the story we must change.

V – Virtual Reality

The Internet brings unmatched access to knowledge: a universal human library. A young child can easily access information about the plight of other animals, and develop an understanding of the looming threat of Climate Change. But the technology also has an as yet unchecked capacity to distract and isolate, especially through the smart phone device. How are we are we then to reach a point where we accept the true fiction that any one individual’s life can make a difference?

The physicist Neil Turok describes the digital format as, ‘the crudest, bluntest, most brutal form of information that we know.’ In this form, he says, everything is reduced to ‘finite strings of 0s and 1s’, with analogue information ‘infinitely richer. (Turok, 2012, p.230)’ The Internet effectively conveys attenuated images and sounds, but other sensations, and connections, are unavailable, even those conveyed in seemingly obsolete books. This suggests it could breed isolation, perhaps compounding an apathy towards ecological collapse.

Yet through the Internet we demystify specialisations in various domains; text shifts into pictographic emoticons; hyperlinks move us beyond the linear progress of the book form; video is cinema-for-all – while photographs implant images telling a thousand tales; the division between virtual and real collapses, especially in gaming technology. There is also another avenue for the spoken word, via traditional ‘radio’ stations, and the podcast is a powerful new medium, offering an opening for the revival of oral poetry perhaps.

Down through the ages poetry has been in metaphorical play with Nature, while novels generally move into the interior world of the narrator. In the latter, phenomena such as storms or floods tend not to intrude – they serve no moral purpose – whereas the ancient poet is in dialogue with a cosmos of which he is at the centre. Poets used mythologies to bind peoples into a singular tribal identity.

For the ancients, whose laws and customs were conveyed through poetry, disastrous weather was seen as punishment by the gods, perhaps for failure to perform the requisite sacrifices. In contrast, the rational person-of-the-book, explains bad weather in terms of air currents moving around the globe, and reasons there is nothing one person can possibly do to alter these conditions. Novels according to Amitav Gosh:

conjure up worlds that became real precisely because of their finitude and distinctiveness. Within the mansion of serious fiction, no one will speak of how the continents were created, nor will they refer to the passage of a thousand year: connections and events on this scale appear not just unlikely but also absurd within the delineated horizon of a novel (Gosh, 2016, p.61).

The earlier poetic view, however obscurantist, actually offers a greater likelihood of someone taking responsibility for their actions, as the person-of-the-book may more easily dwell in his interior world. How then can we reconcile scientific reason with a belief that individual actions feed into a collective responsibility?

Can Homo Digitalas move beyond her solitary life into a universal scheme of responsibility? If we believe ourselves to be part of a greater whole the possibility for collective action may yet arise. The Internet may broaden the fiction of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’, enlivening what is a scientific myth of Gaia: an imagined community of Nature, including ourselves.

The novel, written from the perspective of the solitary individual at a fixed moment could pass into obscurity. The Internet can engender new artistic forms closer to the spoken tradition of poetry, with a common vision in aeons and origins. An older relationship with the word might be restored, with mythology and scientific rationality co-habiting to create a new story.

Already, however, we see social and political cleavages opening up, linked to the arrival of the new medium. Just as the rupture of Gutenberg’s Press awoke sectarian identities, leading to the Wars of Religion of the seventeenth century, similarly the fingerprints of a technological shift seem evident in contemporary clashes.

To realise fresh narratives out of the Internet we need to adapt our behaviour, tempering our dependence on the smartphone device. An interface less conducive to isolation is surely necessary.

In the meantime Nature groans under the weight of human exploitation, and we demand a Fourth Agricultural Revolution bringing humans and other animals into an elusive symbiosis. Few languages may survive the Internet, but that technology may help engender a unifying mythology, maintaining our precious Nature. Without this we seem doomed.

References

Amitav Gosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016.
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Metheun, London, 1982.
Neil Turok, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos, Faber, London, 2012.

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