Warning: contains reference to a distressing incident of animal cruelty. Ed
Some notes towards understanding why we find ourselves so alienated from nature.
Isolated events can sometimes coalesce together to make a coherent pattern. On a scorching day at the end of August I was driving past some pasture-fed cattle in a parched brown field: already eating their winter supply of hay. This sight was accompanied by an item on the car radio, appealing for aid for the people of Pakistan, where over a thousand people died and 30 million were made destitute, firstly by drought and record high temperatures, then by the monsoon floods that overwhelmed their country. All this has happened with little over one degree of global heating.
Later, a clip was played from the last but one Tory party leadership campaign, where Liz Truss declared that we are experiencing an energy supply problem which can be fixed by drilling for more oil, and fracking for natural gas. Yet there is ample evidence that fossil-fuelled climate change has already brought the people of Pakistan to this point of unimaginable suffering. Is it so hard to join the dots? Surely this is the time when politicians should be announcing an urgent programme of energy efficiency and investment in renewable resources – showing leadership instead of pouring petrol on the fire.
So what are the deeper causes of such disconnect from the reality of the natural world on which we all depend?
The 17,000-year-old cave paintings at Lascaux in France are a vivid testimony to the way our pre-historic ancestors saw themselves as truly immersed in nature. Yet something happened to cause a rift between early humans and the natural world about them: it may well be that we realised we were capable of reflection, and curiously set apart from the animals in the forest.
Numerous creation myths talk of a time when men and women walked in harmony with nature, and that we were expelled from this blissful state. The Christian myth, told in the book of Genesis, tells how Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation and were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Later in the story we learn that their son Cain kills his brother Abel. What’s not so well remembered is that “Abel was a shepherd and Cain a tiller of the soil.” Here again is a further rift from immersion in nature – the story illustrates the imperceptibly slow shift from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to the emergence of farming in the prehistoric past. It is with the invention of the plough and the fence that humankind begins to establish true dominion over nature, as promised to Adam in the book of Genesis.
In Western culture the emerging scientific movement slowly gave way to new methods of mapping the world. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) proposed a rudimentary scientific approach, using images of pain and torture, saying that nature must be hounded in her wanderings or must be put on the rack and have her secrets extracted from her by force.
Later the idea of dualism, as proposed by the philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), basically meant the separation of mind and body, and the severance of humans from the natural world. He argued that plants and animals have no agency; they are mere automatons like ticking clocks. In one barbaric experiment on his wife’s dog, he nailed its limbs to a board and began to dissect it alive. He told his onlookers to ignore the writhing and screams of the hapless animal – it was just the appearance of pain, the mere reflex of inert matter. Can anything be more dehumanising than dualism?
These are just some of the unseen forces which may help to explain our disconnect from the existential crisis now facing humanity. We have never had to save a planet before; this is uncharted territory. However, we know what the problems are and how to fix them. All that’s needed is the political will and determination.