Life is all about information. Whether you are a plant, a tree, a chimp or a human, all living things are continually influenced by information from the past. The more useful the information we can get, the better able we are to solve our problems in the present in order to survive. Through the process of natural selection, such information has come to reside not only in the DNA of lifeforms but in some species it has also evolved to be, maintained externally in the form of culture. As a group’s knowledge and understanding of the world are handed down from generation to generation, our interactions with the world scrape away our ignorance, bit by bit, so that eventually we are better able to solve our problems, or else we and our ideas die.
However, not all ignorance gets scraped away by the cold, harsh truth of nature but is instead protected in order to continue to confer considerable power onto an individual, ideology, institution or civilisation that is built around that vision, which they therefore insist must be maintained at all costs. Although we should never underestimate the stubbornness of ignorance, history has shown us that eventually there comes a time when such powers and such visions must adapt or die as the inaccuracies of their vision lose out either to competitors whose perspective is more accurate, reliable and more useful; or they lose out at their own hand as their analysis of reality is fundamentally flawed, unreliable and less useful to solving the problems that life can present – ours is but one of many civilisations since 8000 BC that have risen and fallen by first exploiting nature and then by suffering the weaknesses that over-exploitation brings and the ensuing reduction in resilience to what may once have been minor threats that ultimately lead to collapse.
The fraying Western worldview of industrial civilisation is made possible by the harnessing of cheap energy, which has allowed for a boom in human population growth and standards of living unlike anything that has come before it. The cultural information passed down that helps us to harness this power and the industries arranged around its exploitation has proven to be truly transformational, allowing us to overcome countless problems related to our survival. But now, when used, this same information has led to global energy insecurity, over-consumption, widespread destruction of non-human life, environmental degradation and climate change, all of which threaten to undermine the natural and social systems of the planet.
Furthermore, through a type of neo-colonialism, transnational corporations have ensnared the world in the Western rhetoric of economic growth, comparison and competition that fossil-fueled societies make possible and with it has come greater economic and social inequality and instability, as well as exploitation, giving rise to growing levels of conflict and ill-health both mentally and physically. Instead of solving many of our problems, the reproduction of Western culture is instead globalising them in the pursuit of continued profit.
It’s been said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism, so ubiquitous is the ideological project of neoliberalism in the modern world – like goldfish in a bowl that are totally ignorant of ‘water’, we often fail to notice how colonised our consciousness has become by capitalism and how our resulting ideology permeates our perception and participation of a vast amount of our lives. So much so, that we find ourselves using the same thinking that caused our problems to fix them. After the recession of 2007 and the growing litany of environmental harms our development has caused, including climate change, Western governments have doubled down on more neoliberalism, not less: greater austerity, greater inequality, less regulation, greater global CO2 emissions – all in the quest for continued economic growth. We find ourselves hitting the accelerator instead of the brake as we mercilessly try to do things better, when really we should open our eyes to the ‘water’ all around us and start to do better things.
Our problems are those of ideology, belief, perception, values and identity – in essence, we need a shift in our ideology, our culture and our identity if we are to overcome our current problems. This is a complex and overwhelming task without a singular and correct way of achieving it. But for what it is worth, I would argue that a good place to start that makes possible many different responses is to look to science and to learn what it can tell us about ourselves and our relationship to nature.
Over the last century, developments in our scientific understanding of human origins have shown us that we are not separate from nature and put here but that we are in fact fundamentally a part of it. Contrary to the claims of anthropocentrism (human-centredness) that have been maintained solely by cultural inertia, man is not separate from nature and put here but is in fact interdependent and interconnected with it as all things share one origin. Despite the fact that this information has not been culturally assimilated as yet, this understanding provides a shift in pre-analytic vision that engenders alternatives to our current, flawed cultural information. It allows us to see the water of Western ideology and encourages us to think anew from an ecocentric rather than anthropocentric point of view, which, as is discussed below, has the potential to reframe our identity, our values and therefore our culture so that we and future generations may be better placed to solve the problems essential to our survival.
The first discovery in question comes from the 1920s, when by observing that the galaxies are moving away from us in all directions and that the ones furthest away are moving fastest, Lemaitre and Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. The principle of this discovery also infers that if we were to rewind time so that the expansion becomes a contraction we can see that at one point in the very distant past everything in the universe was in one place, that it originated as a singularity, an almost infinitely dense and infinitely small point that expanded to form the universe as we know it today.
The other discovery of existential importance here is Darwin’s work, the facts of which have permeated our culture but its understanding in combination with Lemaitre’s and Hubble’s work, in the main, has not. In taking the theory of evolution to its natural conclusion it demonstrates that all life on Earth has descended from a single common ancestor, often called the Last Universal Ancestor (or LUA), a single-celled organism not too dissimilar from a bacterium today which is estimated to have lived some 3.7 billion years ago. From both discoveries we can see that every living thing shares a common origin as do all things in the universe and the story of how we came to be here takes on a whole new light.
Our story, as we know it so far, begins at a single point of near infinite density at the quantum level that saw an inflationary kick that released the energy of the Big Bang, which as it cooled, gave rise to hydrogen and helium atoms; as the gravitational fields of these atoms drew them together into clouds that amassed over millions of years, their growing friction and compaction saw the birth of the first stars that lit up the universe; inside these stars hydrogen atoms (1 proton) were fused to form helium (2 protons), helium atoms fused together to form heavier atoms and so on and so forth. Through a cosmic cycle of birth and explosive death, bigger stars were formed that could fuse even more protons into atoms up until iron which has 26; elements heavier than iron, such as gold with 79 protons, couldn’t be fused in the hearts of even the biggest stars, instead they needed a supernova, a stellar explosion so large it would have outshone a galaxy and emitted more energy in a few weeks than our sun will produce in its entire lifetime.
The next time you look at the gold in your jewellery, you can remind yourself that you are wearing part of the debris of a supernova that exploded somewhere in the depths of space. You can also remind yourself that as such stellar fusions and explosions produced all the elements in the universe, including the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, calcium, phosphorus and many other atoms that make up you, that you yourself are made from such Big Bang debris — albeit filtered through the countless iterations of cosmic evolution that saw the emergence of our galaxy, solar system and planet, from which emerged the LUA and all the species that came and went, to the ones that remained including us, Homo sapiens. This almost magical sounding story of what happens when you leave hydrogen alone, governed only by the laws of nature for 13.8 billion years, is also much like its contents in that the story itself is constantly evolving as we learn more about it. It is not a static meta-narrative but a developing, dynamic story that changes the more questions we ask of it and the more we discover about the universe over time.
The fundamental conclusion of this story is that we are part of an on-going cosmic evolutionary process. Every atom in our bodies was forged in the death throes of stars across the universe; we share DNA with all life on Earth be it trees in a rainforest or fungi in the Cornish soil, the woman across the road or a dog you passed in the park. Despite the cultural inertia of anthropocentrism, science tells us that we are not separate, we are one. When we re-position our perspective in light of this recently deciphered origin narrative it sheds new light on what it means to be human. It’s no longer all about us but about something much larger of which we are a part. Without the knowledge and understanding of this story, anthropocentrism creates a false duality that separates and alienates us from our home and fundamentally from ourselves.
The Copernican-style revolution of our identity that emerges from the scientific origin narrative re-situates not only our idea of where we are but of how we came to be here. It challenges us to think about what it is to be human in that it shows us that we are as much a part of the universe as the Milky Way, that we are in fact a way for the universe to know itself. The hegemonic notion of anthropocentrism in the West misses this completely and is therefore not adequately aligned with our understanding of reality and of the evolutionary process to help us solve our problems. The continuation of our current Western ideology may therefore see us deviating from the arc of evolution to reside alongside the countless other empires that failed to see the water and that subsequently disappeared as a result.
Explorations of non-anthropocentric human identities based on critical reflection of the world around us are therefore essential, and would hopefully reclaim the argument for a shift in self-realisation away from the more flimsy ‘scientism’ of New Age proponents. Findings from such explorations should also seek to influence our culture not by moral or ethical insistence alone but by facts, knowledge and understanding, by reason, reflection and insight and most of all through stories that share our understandings and feelings of what it is to be human in the 21st century. And of course, it should also be noted that the scientific origin narrative and the ecocentric perspective that it encourages is an ideology too, one that needs and should welcome continual readjustment in light of new information. In this sense, the group maintenance of an ecocentric perspective is not about its continuation but its constant questioning and improvement.
However, it is important to note that such a shift in perspective as outlined above does not ensure some kind of deliverance, far from it – there is no such panacea. The notion that such a shift can help us avoid our crises simply by sharing a new story of our origins is misgiven, but that it might help us deal with them and recover from them is more plausible. Our crises aren’t going away just yet and certainly not in response to a story in the short-term. However, the point of this origin narrative is to reframe our identity and thereby reframe our culture and values — our pre-analytic vision — in order to better solve our problems. This process, I would imagine, would take a considerably long time and is in little danger of being of concern to our mainstream, industrial society anytime soon. Nevertheless, such a reframing might help those in the margins to keep going and to share a vision and set of values that bring us together at a crucial and fundamental level.
We are living in a particularly transitionary phase of human history, a time of great uncertainty as one thing ends and another is yet to become. Due to this difficult perspective and point in time it is easy to see why so many want the security of continuing business as usual even if it means denial but we need to step back a little and see our current predicament from a larger historical viewpoint, perhaps even a cosmological one that goes beyond our individual lives.
Our role in all of this is therefore an even more challenging one that asks us to further displace our egos by working for an end that we may very well never see in our lifetimes. Rather than jumping ahead to a post-apocalyptic utopia, primitivism or technological salvation, we must instead sow the seeds for a world we ourselves may not live to see come to full fruition and do so amidst a backdrop of great upheaval and conflict. We’re planting trees in the margins that will grow whilst much around them will die. Ours is a long journey that requires great patience and great vision to cut a path for our children that we ourselves may not get to walk in full. This isn’t to martyr ourselves or to suffer but to liberate ourselves from the shared cultural delusions of Western civilisation and take on new responsibilities, to wake up to the water all around us and to enjoy a different way of seeing the world and ourselves that is fundamentally joyful and emancipatory.
Though there might not be an end in sight, or a clear and discernible goal, we can still have a direction of travel because to help us on this journey we can at all times be guided by two well established pieces of advice that from an ecocentric perspective take on greater significance: ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’. To take our first steps then, let us take a look at ourselves, our planet and the life upon it as well as the cosmos itself in light of all we have discovered and ask: what is it to be human and how should we live as a result?
Rob Plastow lives by the sea in Cornwall with his wife and their growing hoard of animals including two unruly horses, some chickens and a puppy. Central to his writing is a critical, ecocentric perspective that has been developed from a deep love of art and science through years of working in music, education and muddy fields. When he has a spare moment outside of work and looking after the animals he indulges in his favourite past-times of reading, staring at the stars or the ocean (sometimes both) and writing short stories. To read more of his work go to woodfordroberts.com
Image courtesy of Earth Observatory