As I mentioned in my last post, I had a bit of trouble understanding precisely why my co-contributor to A Sense of Place, Traci Laird, criticized the experience and interpretation of certain events within the natural world as involving the Divine or the Other. She is rightfully concerned about a certain tendency amongst humans to fail to recognise the agency of other beings in such events, but I took issue with her identification of this tendency with a clinical psychological diagnosis of a mental-disorder.
I take less issue with her argument regarding anthropocentric thinking, but I fear this, too, is inadequate to describe the problem she identifies, particularly since, while I fully believe the natural world is full of beings (material and non-material) with agency, and also I even go so far as to suspect than humans are not the only animals with profound consciousness, I do not think this is an adequate framework to understand the problem.
Generally, anthropocentric tendencies can be defined as worlding (whether conscious or not) humans into the earth as the primary agents of experience; that is, telling stories of events, or patterning beliefs around the primacy of humans while disregarding other aspects of the earth (that is, everything else in the earth except humans). One of the examples she brings up is the problems of Christian approaches to the natural world, taking parts of Genesis as proof that humans have “dominion” over all the animals in the world and therefore can do what they want.
Any Pagan will immediately see the damage such an approach to the natural world will cause, as do most others. The many animals which have gone extinct on account of the profit their physical parts, or the destruction of forests, would suggest that such thinking causes damage.
Justifications versus Drives
But one of the interesting things about justifications, particularly from scripture, is that they typically occur after the behavior to be justified. Slavery is an excellent example of this, particularly in Western societies. Hannah Arendt has shown very convincingly that justifications for slavery shifted repeatedly, relying first on some Bible passages, and then others, and then, eventually, upon Racism (which did not exist as we know it before the Enlightenment).
That is to say, slaving occurred, and then multiple systems of thought arose to justify the practice. Systems of thought which successfully justified the practice for large enough populations helped fuel increases in the practice, allowing the majority of people involved who perhaps may have otherwise had qualms about taking others and making them work for them, to continue doing so with less personal remorse and, more importantly, without social pressure to the contrary.
Another example will suffice. War in Iraq and Afganistan was not initiated by the soldiers who went; it was declared, and then those soldiers were mobilized to fight the war. I know it’s been awhile and not all of my readers are old enough to remember the build-up to those wars, so I’ll try my best to describe what it was like to listen to the justifications for these conflicts. Almost daily, on almost every news outlet, someone was talking about why it was a good thing to fight in those countries. These reasons were not the same, and often shifted incredibly. Those of you who are gay and are aware of Dan Savage, the founder of the It Gets Better campaign, may be surprised to hear that I dislike the man greatly, but not for his work to help gays; rather, he published an essay explaining why homosexuals should utterly support an invasion in those two countries because Muslims kill gay people. Other justifications came; Frank Miller (the writer of the comic 300), came out to say that we should send “those people” back to their caves because Muslim culture didn’t even have the science to come up with anything useful (Al Gebra, Al Gorythms, and Zero were not useful, it would seem). And no politicians seemed to be able to agree why America should go to war either (Weapons of Mass Destruction, Terrorism, Anti-Christian sentiment, Chauvinism, etc. etc.).
But what they all agreed upon was this: there should be war. That is, the decision to go to war had already been made; what mattered was what reasons we might come up with in order to justify this decision.
In the case with Humanity’s destruction of the natural world, the justifications matter less than the decision to do it. Attacking the ideology behind any particular decision is not always effective, as the justifications are not always the reason why those decisions are made.
The Web of Existence
That being said, we can still look at the justifications for particular decisions and actions and parse them out, but we cannot always assume that a justification is the actual driving factor for the decision. Psychology can certainly help in these instances, as can Sociology. Economics, which is a branch of Sociology, is a particularly powerful tool, since so much destruction is caused by individual economic decisions which appear, to the individual, as matters of survival (and oftentimes they are, as in the case of slash-and-burn farming in the Amazon or of poaching of protected animals in Africa).
The decision of a starvingly poor family to kill their last cow in order to eat is a desperate one. If that cow also happened to be the last of their kind and they kill it because they are starving, they have made a decision that affects the entire world but made a perfectly understandable decision based on their circumstances.
I’ve just proposed a horrifying example, but it should be considered deeply, because most of the language we have to describe why we would experience rage against such an act yet be likely to do the same thing fails us. But this is what we have the concept of interdependence for.
There is dependence, the early stage of our mental understanding, where we completely rely upon on others for our needs to exist. We suckle at our mothers’ breasts as babies, and without her there we would die. Independence comes when we are able to procure our own sustenance, ever-increasing as we learn to do more things for ourselves and do not need to rely upon others.
However, we are never truly independent. When I go to the grocery store to buy food, I am dependent upon the people who grew the food, the people who sell the food, the people who transported it to the store, the bus driver who drove me there, the workers who built the roads that bus used and the decisions of others who thought buses should be available. When I cook that food, I am dependent also upon the electricians who installed the wiring for the stove built by factory workers, the people who create the electricity to go through those wires, the people who made the utensils and cooking implements, the peole who built the home I live in, the people who installed the plumbing for the water I draw, the people who supply the water, and the systems which maintain that such things should be had.
I am never independent, except because of the work done by others which allows me to choose what I shall have for dinner. Fortunately, though, they are also dependent upon me, because my labor helps sustain them (I mean my cooking job, though I’d like to think there are some factory workers reading my writing…hello!).
That state of shared dependence, in which we are able to be individually independent only on account of others, is interdependence. Likewise, their independence is dependent upon my decisions.
Failure to acknowledge this shared web of existence leads to all sorts of thinking which causes harm to others. It is perfectly fine for me to tell myself that I am completely independent of all other humans, but I am wrong, and would find this out immediately if I were to cross a street and get hit by a car.
The Nature of Humans
I’ve spoken of this on the realm of human interactions, but this is likewise true for the rest of Nature. I am dependent upon the growth of plants in order to eat, and dependent upon the sun to grow those plants. If one eats animals, one is dependent upon them as well. And likewise, plants and animals are also dependent upon my actions, whether they are negative or positive. If I dump poison in a stream, I kill fish. If a shepherd kills a wolf, the sheep he tends are saved from slaughter.
This last example, however, might lead someone who sees Nature as functioning independent of humans to suggest I’ve made a false analogy, because wolves “naturally” kill sheep and nature appears to set itself in equilibrium without human involvement. This thinking, however, puts humanity as much outside of nature as anthropocentricism does.
Humans are part of nature. We are made of the same material as other animals. We live and decompose, just like other beings. To imagine Nature without humans is quite like attempting to imagine Nature without ferns, or wolves, or trees.
We are destructive, yes. So is ivy, and Sandalwood, and wolves, and…you get the point. We are also creative and nurturing, capable of great restoration, like horsetails or mangroves. If we are part of Nature (and we are), then we are neither greater than it nor lesser than it. We are as dependent upon others as they are of us, be they people or animals.
Our interdependence with other humans can teach us greatly how to respect Nature from which we spring. Revisit with me that example I proffered about the starving family and the last cow. A wolf does not ask itself if any particular cow is that last, and is this is why it relies upon natural balances to correct its behavior. Eventually, over-consuming prey in an area will reduce the number of predators to the point that the prey can repopulate. The wolf does not need to moralize, nor does it chastise another wolf for eating the last of a certain kind of animal.
We humans do. And along with that moralizing is a recognition of the natural pressures upon a person who might eat the very last cow, and something radical that no other species in nature currently does, which is intervene. We humans, when we recognize our dependence on the actions of others for our own well-being, can make decisions to protect something we collectively rely upon, not just by putting that animal in a preserve, but changing the conditions of the poor so that starvation is not the only result of refraining from killing that animal. In fact, the survival of animals depends very much upon the betterment of the conditions of the humans who rely upon them. Human poverty, on massive scales, can be as destructive as human greed.
This, by the way, is why I’m not only a Pagan and a Druid, but also socialist and a polytheist. Socialism acknowledges that the material existences of people affects the material existences of others. And the existence of the gods and spirits is never just about helping my personal development or giving me meaning. They exist alongside us, often (but I don’t think always) springing from Nature just as we do. They are dependent upon us to world them into earth, just as we are dependent upon them to help us with this terrifyingly beautiful gift of consciousness we somehow possess. There is something a bit different about us humans. Trees do not look to other trees in order to understand the world, but we can look to other humans in order to understand our relationship to nature, and we can look to the gods as really amazing (and benevolent) guides to understanding our relationship both to nature and to other humans.