“What are people for?” The last words of the man who reports to the Ethical Suicide Society in Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian story, Welcome to the Monkey House.
At this moment in the history of The West — which threatens to overtake and homogenize all cultures and become the history of The World — at this moment, we are caught between two visions.
Vision one. Man has arisen from nature, but our destiny is to transcend nature, to bioengineer support systems for ourselves and to bioengineer our bodies and brains into something trans-human. We are learning to dominate the planet, then, perhaps, expand through space. We will grow all the food we need, create the products we need to live and to thrive; we will be leaving biology behind. The challenge is to do this sustainably with solar energy, before fossil fuels run out or the planet cooks itself from carbon emissions — that is the short-term crisis man face on the way to our long-term destiny.
Vision two. Gaia is a beautiful and dynamic organism. Life has thrived and diversified for four billion years, and humans have come along, slashing and burning, turning the planet into a monoculture of humans, supported by the few species that we grow for food. Hence we are in the midst of the Sixth Extinction. The human project is evil, alien to the very Mother who gave us birth. It cannot succeed, because we are thinking only of how to extract more resources faster, how to convert more and more of the earth for human use, most of which is fatuous. No one is even thinking about the Earth as a living ecosystem, or how to sustain a living planet in the long run. Inevitably, we will run out of resources to convert, the human cancer will kill its host, then die out. But the bacteria and the cockroaches and the weeds will survive us. Nature is more robust than human life, and in a brief 10 or 20 million years, Gaia will rise again, more beautiful and diverse than ever, built on the ashes of human civilization.
Either way, you and I feel like voices in the wilderness, crying “stop!” against the relentless, mad growth of capitalism, heading toward the death spiral of humanity. We feel a desperate urgency, or (more realistically) we feel that it is already too late to deflect the momentum of the human steamroller, paving paradise to put up a parking lot.
In his new book, Climate, Charles Eisenstein articulates both these visions with clarity, with empathy, and with an extraordinary breadth of knowledge. The book is peppered with details gleaned from his broad readings, individual stories that help us to feel the unfolding tragedy less abstractly, more personally as members of the sisterhood of life. The farming village in Bangladesh that took World Bank loans in order to “modernize”, and found that the only way they could pay interest on that loan was for the town’s young people to sell one kidney to Western medical pirates. Fish biomass has decreased by more than half in the last 60 years alone, and the mass of plastic in the world’s oceans now exceeds the mass of fish.
From the spectre of earth’s death-spiral, Eisenstein brings forth in the last chapters a glimpse of a new vision, in which humans are not simply stepping back to allow nature to thrive as before. We have many examples in which top predators greatly enrich the ecosystems that support them. We are on this earth for a reason, and that is to make the good earth ever so much richer and more beautiful.
It is a vision that is supported by its own necessity more than by data, but Eisenstein does offer us some data. Organic farms, believe it or not, actually produce substantially more produce than monoculture, factory farms with their fertilizers and pesticides. They require more labor, but it’s not the kind of numbing labor of the exploited migrant worker, rather the kind of diverse activity that makes us feel fulfilled, purposeful, and connected to the land. The Native American population, Eisenstein tells us, had not learned to live lightly on the land, but had a wise and complex relationship with nature that enhanced the beauty, the diversity, and the productivity of the land.
Restoration of thriving ecologies is not technically difficult; all the barriers are posed by human institutions. Forests turned to deserts have been turned back to forests in a few decades. Wetlands have been restored. There is a science of reconciliation ecology, largely untapped to date. We know how to do it, and we can learn to do better yet.
This is Eisenstein’s vision for our future. All our technological wizardly will be re-purposed to sustain life for an ever more beautiful future, rather than to mine Nature for an ever more desperate present. We are behaving at present like a cancer, but that is not our historic role, and it is not our future.
Consider the parable of the mitochondria. A billion years ago, life on earth was limited to single-celled prokaryotes. One day, a parasite named mitochondria learned how to harness chemical energy, and put its new skill to work where it could do the most good. Mitochondria invaded archaea as a parasite, converting all the host’s sugars to energy to make more mitochondria. Mitochondria plundered, killed, and moved on to the next host. While archaea were plentiful, this was a winning strategy, but eventually mitochondria became victim of its own success. Archaea were dying out, and there were no hosts left to exploit. Mitochondria changed course, began to live lightly on its host, allowing the host to live. Better still, mitochondria learned to support its host, to share its abundant energy for use of the host. The parasite became a symbiont. The partnership, archaea with mitochondria, became a formidable competitor spawning a new world of diverse life. Today, every human cell, every plant and animal and fungus on planet Earth is powered by abundant mitochondria living within each cell. Gaia’s rich diversity of metazoa, all descended from that first partnership between archaea and mitochondria.
Our vast brainpower and global capacity for cooperation is destined to be deployed in service of Nature. In building an inspiring habitat for ourselves, we will restore the natural world to a state more wondrous, more diverse and more magnificent even than the original.
Of course, say I, once I have read it, it is obvious. If there is salvation for us, it must come in this direction. It is right for us to assume this posture because only from this posture is there a way forward toward a future worth inhabiting.