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Weekend Edition: We Were All Environmentalists Once
Our estrangement from nature might just be both older and less permanent that we think
The histories of American spirituality and environmentalism are inextricably tied. Locating the roots of our estrangement from the natural world and our complicity in the ecological degradation of modern lifeb is a complicated untangling. The rise of the modern environmental movement in the 1960’s with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Paul R. Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, and Lynn White, Jr’s essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” was built on the philosophical and theological foundations of the conservation movement of the 19th Century, the wilderness and naturalist movements of the 18th, and the Calvinist-influenced Puritan foundations of the first Christian European settlers. This lineage begins with Christian theology and ethics defining the relationships between God-Man-Nature that became the foundation for American expansionism, heroic frontier myth, and eventually, coupled with the rising individualism of post-Enlightenment democratists, the industrial resource-centric worldview that has dominated modern cultures’ relationships between humans and the natural world. The consequences of that amalgamated worldview have been profound – not just for nature and the earth, but for humanity as well. Humans, estranged from our relationship to the natural world, have been wrestling with a sense of loneliness, rootlessness, and alienation for generations. And while White attempts to lay the foundation of this dis-ease squarely and solely with the Genesis creation myth, if we look further back at the founding myths that gave rise to that Biblical one, we might find an original cause — and possible solution.
Looking at early, self-consciously environmental thinking and digging into the roots of ecological degradation in Christian theology, Lynn White and Wendell Berry debated the nature of Christian Man’s dominance. White declared that the hierarchy presented in Genesis was the foundation of modern exploitation, propping a heavy allegation of responsibility and culpability on a weak foundation focused on a single verse of Bible cosmology. Berry strove to rebut this narrow view and recast dominion in the language of stewardship, introducing a responsibility into the hierarchy, but not dismantling it.
Regardless of the shakiness of the initial declaration or the attempt to reclaim and redeem his Christianity’s role in modern society’s imbalanced relationship with the natural world, White and Berry were also writing on the foundations of two centuries of American spirituality connected to an ever-expanding appetite for resources. If we look back from that debate, back through the masculine nature journeys of Johnathan Muir to the noble wildernesses of Emerson and Thoreau, American nature mythology builds on this Genesis tradition with uniquely American stories. Combined with Westward expansion, the rugged, white, masculine individualism of manifest destiny of the 19th Century, all the way back past the “depravity of the unconverted man” of Jonathan Edwards — all of these components that White and Berry leave out of their discussion, represent the rest of the foundation they suppose is codified solely in the Genesis story.
Looking beyond the Genesis creation story itself as the fundamental basis for modern hierarchical relationship between Man and Nature, to the moment of divergence strongly at odds with indigenous cultures' understandings of humans as part of natural systems meant to live “in right relation” to the other nations of which we are one, utterly the same and utterly essential in the universe — the question is not whether that was a component or the component of our damaged relationship to our own identity and to the natural world but from where did that idea emerge?
When the first five books of the Hebrew bible (the Torah or Pentateuch) that would become the beginning of the Old Testament were being authored, when that story was being put to paper, what cultures, myths, and circumstances did those authors inhabit? What worldviews did they inherit from their Babylonian, Akkadian, Sumerian, and earlier post-Neolithic revolution Mesopotamian cultural ancestors? And what changed in the 6th Century BCE when the various versions of those texts, written and edited, redacted and reassembled over the course of almost five centuries beginning in the 10th Century BCE lead to their final codification?
Arta-Hasis, Eridu Genesis, Enuma Elish, then eventually Gilgamesh all had the same basic structure as the Mesopotamian cosmological mythologies that came before the written tablets we rely on. We see humans toiling for immorality, struggling with overpopulation, suffering famine, wiped out by flood to start again only to repeat the same mistakes. All of these creation myths that preceded Genesis in these territories and communities included some version of humans being created to work, to till, that tilling was punishment or slavery or somehow different from an idyllic state of nature for healthy beings, and a flood myth meant to wipe clean the earth from the scourge of overpopulation and reset the relationship to nature. All of them. For hundreds of generations humans in these lands lived with this story in their bones. But why? What was the mistake they were looking to explain, to justify, to atone for? For what were humans punished? What was wrong with their relationship to the land that lead to the suffering, the need for a clean slate? Why are humans to blame? What choices did people make and why were the consequences so dire?
Millennia before these Mesopotamian cultures, the neolithic package – the set of advances, technologies, and cultural adaptations the arose in the era of rapid warming after the Younger Dryas around 12,000 years ago – created an unintentional and seemingly unstoppable population growth that forced peoples into lands and habits that put them at odds with nature and out of sync with their own traditions. Each of these cultures over the course of a few hundred generations built entire mythologies around this mistake and its consequences, increasingly demonizing the suffering and toil of the way they now worked the land, the force and violence now required to eke out their survival, the disconnection and alienation they now felt, and altered the very nature of how they understood humanity. The creation myth is the justification for all hierarchy of man over nature, of the right to dominion and exploitation that was required for humans to survive at their scale and habits in lands not capable of sustaining them without that manipulation. The myth of a dominant humanity emerged because it had to be for these communities to survive. People had to adopt attitudes and habits that allowed them to bend inhospitable lands to their will, to respond to new found experiences of scarcity and crowding in violent competition, to put all of their needs before those of plants and animals not essential to their survival regardless of the impact on the broader natural systems they unknowingly undermined – all to bend nature to their will to survive on lands not capable of supporting them, that were never meant to or their communities were going to die. This degradation demanded not just justification and moral approval, but spiritual and cosmological inevitability and righteousness. These mythologies were survival strategies of communities facing the existential threat of their own actions. But those kinds of survival instincts being needed and necessary then does not mean that we have to continue to build upon them now as we face our own modern version of ultimately the same existential crisis.
The incorporation of the Judeo-Christian version of these mythical cosmological justifications happened with the completion of the Pentateuch in the 6th Century BCE. The invasion of the Achaemenid Empire (also known as the First Persian Empire) of Mesopotamia in 539 BCE corresponded with this moment of cohering the five centuries of cultural and textual juggling into what we now refer to as the Torah likely driven (or inspired) to conclusion by demand from the Persians to allow the Semitic tribes to self-govern if they could agree to and conform to a uniform system of laws. After 5,000 years, these stories must have felt deeply like facts, like the profound, unquestionable foundational keystones of human society. With this in their bones and minds as fundamental truths, as mythological givens that shaped the very understanding of human nature and likely in collision with the Zoroastrian monotheism of their invaders, these authors created a new codification of an old hierarchy between man and nature, a reconciling of thousands of years of Mesopotamian Semitic mythology that ratified the dominion and chosen narratives that have become the foundation of so much damage.
So Christianity was not the cause, but simply the newest expression, a continuation of a long inheritance that American spirituality like most modern western cultures was built upon. It was a rearticulation of a much earlier survival strategy, but one so far back that we incorrectly assumed it was always so. In our haste to justify, we washed away what came before. We still call those stories prehistory or myth or label them uncivilized. In place of the new story of human nature, of humans always in an existential struggle with nature, at war with each other, always in conflict, always overpopulated, always dependent on brute force and subjugation of other beings for survival. Those consequences are not the products of human nature, but the results of long-forgotten choices by ancient ancestors whose stories preceded written history and that we’ve lost contact with.
Ever since that first departure, that first moment of threat, that first pang of the anxiety of enoughness that came from that first accidental surplus, our societies have been desperate for someone to cure them of their dis-ease. Hence the flood, the washing away. People even then already knew civilization as it was quickly labeled wasn’t working, that they had lost something that they hoped the Gods could give back to them but without changing their behavior. Our estrangement, not our nature or existence is what needed cleansing, but we could not see the cause of what we could feel. It was codified because it had to be. We built on top of it because it was the only foundation we knew.
Perhaps we don’t need this survival strategy anymore. Perhaps the battle for immortality in these stories might have been closer to a hope for the perpetual. Perhaps our limited interpretation from our modern minds working within the limited boundaries of the perspective of a single lifetime did not recognize the true nature of humanity. With a different understanding of right relation and of relation to ancestors, immortality might could always have meant not one generation living forever, but generations after generations living in perpetual equilibrium – not a triumph over nature, not just the responsible stewardship of a benevolent dominion, but an essential, generative kinship of a perpetual thriving balance. A kinship where not-environmentalist would be an irrational non sequitur. Perhaps this multi-millennia-old mythology has endangered enough of us and enough of nature that we can finally set it down, forgive ourselves, and reach for something different. The earth is waiting, ever-forgiving.
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