“There is a whole world waiting for us, ready to welcome us home,” says environmental philosopher Derrick Jensen. He explains our near-universal belief in the superiority of humans – and the possibility of looking at life anew
Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture. A central one for many is that humans are superior to and separate from every other living thing. Human supremacism is part of the foundation of much of this culture’s religion, science, economics, philosophy, art, epistemology, and more.
We’ve been taught, in ways large and small, religious and secular, that life is based on hierarchies and that those higher on these hierarchies dominate those lower, either by right or by might. We’ve been taught that there are myriad literal and metaphorical food chains where the one at the top is the king of the jungle.
Think about it: if you were in a public place and asked the people around you if they think humans are more intelligent than cows or willows or rivers or mushrooms or stones, what do you think people would answer?
If you said to them that trees told you they don’t want to be cut down and made into timber, what would happen to your credibility? Contrast that with the credibility given to those who state publicly that you can have infinite economic (or human population) growth on a finite planet.
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If you told them there was a choice between electricity from dams and the continued existence of salmon, lampreys and mussels, which would they choose? Why? What are they already choosing?
Human supremacism is killing the planet. How can members of a species that considers itself the smartest on the planet do something as stupid as destroy the planet we live on?
One of the most harmful notions of western civilisation – and one of the most foundational – is scala naturae in Latin, meaning ‘ladder of nature’. It is a hierarchy of perfection, with God at the top, then angels, kings, priests, men, women, mammals, birds, and so on, through to plants, rocks and sand. It underlies the modern belief that the world consists of resources for us to exploit.
The more I learn about the world, the more wonderful I think it is
Indigenous peoples across the earth do not believe in this hierarchy. Instead, they believe the world consists of other beings with whom we should enter into respectful relationship, not inferior others to be exploited. It is one reason these cultures have often been sustainable.
Twenty years ago I interviewed the great environmental philosopher Neil Evernden. He said he didn’t believe in drawing a line between meaningful humans and non-meaningful non-humans. I was confused and curious, and asked him where, then, would he draw the line between those who are meaningful and/or sentient, and those who are not? I’ll never forget the liberation – the homecoming – I felt when he asked, sincerely yet clearly rhetorically: “why do we need to draw that line at all?”
Humans are unique in their capacity to have language. It seems like everyone within the dominant cultural tradition says this. But prairie dogs have language and grammar. Chickens, elephants and whales have language. Cows and sheep and goats have dialects. Dolphins call each other by names they’ve made up. Orcas can learn to speak the language of bottlenose dolphins. And when bonobos have learned how to translate between humans and other bonobos and tell humans what the bonobos are saying, and vice-versa, who is the smart one? How many of us humans can speak bonobo?
One way plants communicate is by releasing pheromones that tell other plants to prepare. They also release pheromones calling predator insects. Plants can hear leaves being eaten by caterpillars and respond by changing the composition of their leaves to make them less palatable.
The more I learn about the world, the more wonderful I think it is and the more honoured I am to be here.
When bonobos have learned how to translate between humans and other bonobos, who is the smart one?
What I would like is for us to begin to remember what it is to be human; to begin to remember what it is to be a member of a larger biotic community. For all of us to fall back into the world into which we were born.
We begin by questioning the unquestioned beliefs that are the real authorities of this culture, and then we move out from there. Once you’ve begun those questions, they never stop. From that point on, what you do is up to you.
Based on an extract from The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen.
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