Interdependence, Nature, and the Gods

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.

14 thoughts on “Interdependence, Nature, and the Gods

  1. Is it odd that the notion of the family eating the last cow ever didn’t even make me bat an eye? It, to me, wasn’t a matter of the last cow, it was a matter of familial survival and thus my reasoning automatically justified it. It never occurred to me that the act might make others angry.

  2. Thank you for this.

    I really appreciate that you recognize and point out that the polar opposite of anthropocentrism is also problematic in that eliminating us from the equation eliminates us as a fellow animal period. That is a huge concept that needs to get more press. Separation of ourselves from nature, denying we are an animal and part of this world, is the root of a lot of ills in how we live on this planet. Indeed, separating ourselves from one another, as you point out, is a root of social, economic, and political ills.

    1. I hope to write about it more, certainly, as I’ve so far barely touched the intersection of my political/philosophical understanding of the world and my polytheistic/druidic/pagan understanding. Suffice it to say, I see great intersections and no conflicts between these ideas. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I think the source of this is evolution – we (and all other species) are here because our ancestors made sure they survived, no matter what. That strong sense of self-interest has been passed down to us. The question now is whether that self-interest should be moderated.

    I think you’ve just given me the topic for my next blog post.

    1. Hey, John! I look forward to your post, particularly as I’ve some interesting ideas about “self-interest” and evolution. In a nutshell, I’m uncomfortable with the description of natural selection and evolution deriving from competition and self-interest, as I suspect this is an externally-imposed reading of Nature by people who start out believing that we are necessarily selfish. This has a lot to do with Calvinism, actually, and that the ideologies which existed during the time informed the interpretation of the observations.

      1. It’s up now. I don’t think natural selection and evolution derive from competition and self-interest – I think it’s the other way around. Our question now is whether we will short-cut evolution, or if we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing and wait for natural selection to do its work.

  4. 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.

    Theological considerations aside, I’m not certain this is the case, and if it is, it’s likely to be more a a difference in degree rather than kind. There are tantalizing hints that trees and their symbiotic partners at a minimum pass signals to each other through networks larger than individual trees. And it seems that every year reveals a finding of culture (broadly defined) in a new taxonomic group.

    On the subject of evolution and self-interest, if there’s any lesson to be had from examining biological diversity it’s that there’s no single success strategy. Ecological relationships range from the violently parasitic and predatory to obligate mutualism. Before you can even address that, you need to address the basic principle of quantitative genetics that phenotypes are the product of both genetics and environment. Until you can figure out how much of human selfishness is genetic and how much is a consequence of culture and context, you can’t really speculate about “evolutionary” models of human selfishness. I have my doubts whether we can do that given the globalization of human culture, systematic biases in cross-cultural studies, and the ongoing genocide of other hominids. If (more likely when) Gorilla and Pan vanish from the Earth, we will have lost key mirrors for understanding what being Homo means.

    1. It may certainly be by “degree” and not “kind;” either way, the bit difference in us is important. Not that it “makes us important,” mind you, but that even as we can look to other creatures to note our similarities, we also find therein our differences.

      We’re awfully bad at many things that trees and wolves can do pretty damn well. The ability to intervene (for good or ill) with conscious choice and forethought is rare in Nature and I think it stems from our consciousness. Again, I definitely won’t assert we’re unique in consciousness, either, but it’s hard enough to even understand our own, let alone those of non-humans.

      Regarding the question posed by quantitative genetics (which, thanks for bringing that up), I’m particularly fascinated by unexamined bias and the consequences of unacknowledged postulates. Have you read many histories of science? What fascinates me particularly is how quickly findings change according to the worldview of the dominant society in which the scientists live, and how science functions as a cultural process (and driver) despite often asserting itself (and being expected to be by non-scientists) as outside cultural restrictions. Oftentimes we see this relationship as going only one direction (the influence of science on culture), and I think it’s not only because many scientific communities assert such things, but more so that those on the outside likewise elevate science to a sterile throne of all-seeing.

      Also, I let my Harper’s subscription lapse a few years ago, so I don’t know if they still do this, but at the end of each issue there was a compilation of recent scientific findings collected in the form of a narrative. It was delightful, and illustrates a similar point to the Harper’s Index, that mere “fact” is never mere fact.

      Oh. I miss Harper’s now.

      Good hearing from ye’, by the way. : )

      1. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of work out there regarding the social construction and framing of both hypotheses and theories. (One of these days I should probably read Gould’s Mismeasure.) Evolution seems to bear the worst of it, since I don’t commonly hear arguments that wave-particle duality warrants ambiguous language, or that gravity warrants banning basketball in favor of football/soccer.

  5. I enjoyed this entry quite a lot. I’m not sure that I agree entirely, especially with recent findings concerning the interactions of various plants on a chemical level, as well as interacting with insects, animals, and bacteria is mind blowing. I sometimes think that we humans are the ones out of the loop. But I spend more time in nature and with animals than with other people, so I’m sure I see things in a certain way. Still, we are all interconnected on this beautiful and bountiful planet that allows us to live on it. The interconnectivity (is that a word? Lol) of all life on this planet is just astounding. I marvel at how large the effects of very small changes can be.

    I have a lot of thoughts on the animal human. We are dangerous in that we think we know so much, yet we understand so little. Most of us don’t even understand ourselves outside of our own cultures and countries. I dare say anyone who uses the Internet has an understanding of “time” as far as the most basic usage of minutes and hours goes. Even those of us who don’t wear watches or look at clocks often. And yet there are indigenous people with absolutely no concept of such “time”. Their view of the world is different. Their brains quite literally see the world differently than ours do. What does that mean? Thank you for giving me much to think on, both in avenues mentioned and those that break off in other directions.

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