REDEFINING ‘POSITIVE’: COLLAPSE FROM BEYOND THE HUMAN-CENTRIC PERSPECTIVE
By Carolyn Baker
This article is an excerpt from Carolyn’s forthcoming book The Spirituality Of Collapse: Restoring Life On A Dying Planet.
If we do not soon remember ourselves to our sensuous surroundings, if we do not reclaim our solidarity with the other sensibilities that inhabit and constitute those surroundings, then the cost of our human communality may be our common extinction.
David Abrams, The Spell Of The Sensuous: Perception and Language In A More-Than Human World
I occasionally receive hate email but more frequently receive ones like this: “I’ve just unsubscribed to your email list. Your website is filled with negative stories and articles, and I need to keep a positive attitude and do what I can to make my world better.”
How does one describe the tone of such a statement? Angry? Not really. Disappointed? Perhaps. Scared? Probably. But I think that righteous is the word I would use to describe this reader’s perspective. By righteous, I mean a false sense of doing or feeling “the right thing”, but the problem with a righteous attitude is that it often leads to detachment from reality-not unlike Barbara Bush’s comment that she doesn’t want to trouble her “beautiful mind” with statistics about troop or civilian casualties in Iraq. It’s all so American/Judeo-Christian-and, of course, Dale Carnegie: keeping a positive attitude so that we never feel badly about what’s actually happening.
How unfortunate that someone like me would ask readers to feel the depths of their grief, fear, anger, or despair about the death of the planet and its inhabitants and talk and work with other humans to prepare for collapse! A righteous attitude bypasses those emotions and makes the state of our planet someone else’s problem, not my problem. It communicates that one is above emotions and really doesn’t want to soil his sanitized psyche with them.
The addiction to a “positive attitude” in the face of the end of the world as we have known it is beyond irrational-even beyond insane. It’s an obsession that could only be cherished by humans; it is, indeed human-centric, as if human beings are the only species that matter and as if the most crucial issue is that those humans are able to feel good about themselves as the world burns.
Usually, having a “positive” attitude about collapse implies wanting it not to happen, believing that it may not happen, and doing everything in one’s power to convince oneself that it won’t happen. This is a uniquely human attitude. If we could interview a polar bear who had just drowned trying to find food because the ice shelves that he usually rested on which allowed him to regain his strength during the hunt were no longer there, I suspect he’d reveal a very different attitude.
Now of course, we have the delusional human element who argue that humans are not killing the planet-as if the hairy-eared dwarf lemur, the pygmy elephant, or the ruby topaz hummingbird were responsible. Who else has skyrocketed ocean acidity to exponential levels, who else is inundating the atmosphere with carcinogens, turning topsoil into sand containing as many nutrients as a kitchen sponge, and is rapidly eliminating clean, drinkable water from the face of the earth?
Derrick Jensen in Endgame, Volume I, states that “The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of any economic system.” (127) He continues:
Any economic system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and really stupid.(128)
Explaining human disconnection from the rest of earth’s inhabitants, Jensen describes the various layers of resistance among humans to their innate animal essence. One of the deeper layers is our “fear and loathing of the body”, our instinctual wildness and therefore, our vulnerability to death which causes us to distance ourselves from the reality that we indeed are animals. In fact, this is one of civilization’s fundamental tasks. Have not all modern societies disowned and genocided the indigenous? And for what purpose? Not only for the purpose of stealing their land, eradicating their culture, and eliminating so-called barriers to “progress”, but because native peoples (you know, “savages”) as a result of their intimate connection with nature, are such glaring reminders of humankind’s animal-ness. They are embarrassingly “un-civilized.” Thus, modernity must “civilize” the savage in order to excise the animal, inculcating in her a human-centric world view.
The consequence has been not only the incessant destruction of earth and its plethora of life forms, but the murder of the human soul itself. Benjamin Franklin said it best after returning from living with the Iroquois: “No European who has tasted Savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.”
Any person who wants to “maintain a positive attitude” in this culture-the culture of civilization that is killing the planet-killing people and things that we all love-that person is not only irrational and deeply afflicted with denial, but he is exactly like a member of an abusive family system in which physical and sexual assault are occurring in the home on a daily basis, but that family member insists on “thinking good thoughts” and resents anyone and everyone who says what is so about the abusive system.
So let’s admit two things: 1) Humans are fundamentally animals. Yes, we are more than animals, but civilization with its contempt for the feral has inculcated us to own the “more than” and disown everything else. 2) The culture of civilization is inherently abusive, and it is abusive precisely because it has disowned the animal within the human. Indeed animals kill other animals for survival, but they do not conquer, rape, pillage, plunder, enslave, pollute, slash, burn, and poison their habitat-unlike those “more-than-animal” beings who seem incapable of not doing all of the above. Conversely, the “more-than-human” creatures respect their surroundings because they instinctively sense that their survival depends on doing so.
We insist that we are more intelligent than the more-than-human world, but a growing body of evidence undermines that assumption. Just this week, a Japanese study revealed that when young chimps were pitted against human adults in two short-term memory tests, overall, the chimps won. Researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University said that the study challenges the belief that “humans are superior to chimpanzees in all cognitive functions.”
Moreover, a British study at the University of St. Andrews confirmed that elephants keep track of up to 30 absent relatives by sniffing out their scent and building up a mental map of where they are, research suggests. Herd members use their good memory and keen sense of smell to stay in touch as they travel in large groups, according to a study of wild elephants in Kenya. Dr. Richard Byrne of St Andrews noted that elephants have two advantages over humans - their excellent sense of smell and, if their popular reputation is anything to go by, a good memory.
One may argue that neither a chimp nor an elephant could design a computer, but I ask: What is more consequential, the ability to design a computer or the ability to protect, sustain, and nurture the planet on which one resides? Of what value is the computer if none of us is here to use it?
Civilization, which has never ceased soiling its nest since its inception, has also never understood its proper place on the earth: that of a guest, a neighbor, a fellow-member of the community of life. As a result, everything civilization has devised and which is “unsustainable, immoral, and stupid”, as Jensen names it, is now in the process of collapsing. I ask for an honest answer here: How can anyone tell me with a straight face (or a righteous attitude) that that reality is “negative”? Would the seagull on a Southern California beach with her feet entangled and bleeding in plastic netting left behind by “more-than-animal” life forms tell me that the collapse of what created her plight is “negative”? Would thousands of dead spruce trees in Colorado ravaged by beetles as a direct result of climate change tell me that collapse is a bad idea? Would the plankton and bleached coral at the bottom of the sea which are fading and dying with breathtaking rapidity as a result of global warming, tell me to keep a positive attitude and do everything in my power to stop the collapse of civilization? I think not.
Fundamentally, what all forms of positive thinking about collapse come down to is our own fear of death. Thanks to civilization’s Judeo-Christian tradition and its other handmaiden, corporate capitalism, humans have become estranged from the reality that death is a part of life. Human hubris gone berserk as a result of a tumescent ego, uncontained by natural intimacy with the more-than-human world, believes humanity to be omnipotent and entitled to invincibility. Therefore, from the human-centric perspective “collapse should be stopped” or “maybe it won’t happen” or “somehow humans will come to their senses”. Meanwhile, the drowning polar bears inwardly wail for the death of humanity as the skeletons of formerly chlorophyll-resplendent Colorado spruce shiver and sob in the icy December wind. Our moral, spiritual, and human obligation is to flush our positive attitude down the nearest toilet and start feeling their pain! Until we do, we remain human-centric and incapable of seizing the multitudinous opportunities that collapse offers for rebirth and transformation of this planet and its human and more-than-human inhabitants.
News flash: We are all going to die! Or as Derrick Jensen writes in Endgame:
The truth is that I’m going to die someday, whether or not I stock up on pills. That’s life. And if I die in the population reduction that takes place as a corrective to our having overshot carrying capacity, well, that’s life, too. Finally, if my death comes as part of something that serves the larger community, that helps stabilize and enrich the landbase of which I’m part, so much the better. (123)
Now, I hasten to add that I am not suggesting we select our most intense emotion about collapse, move in, redecorate, and take up residence there. Feel one’s feelings? Yes, and at the same time revel in those aspects of one’s life where one feels nourished, loved, supported, comforted, and in those people and activities that give one joy and meaning.
Had civilization not spent the last five thousand years attempting to murder the indigenous self inherent in all humans, we would not have to be told, as native peoples and the more-than- human world does not, that most of the time, life on this planet is challenging, painful, scary, sad, and sometimes enraging. What our indigenous ancestors had and still have to sustain them through the dark times was ritual and community. Our work is to embrace and refine both instead of intractably clinging to a “positive attitude” in the face of out-of-control, incalculable abuse and devastation.
In his article “The Planned Collapse Of America”, Peter Chamberlin asserts that a small group of ruling elite has been engineering the economic and social collapse of the United States for some time. While I agree and also fear the economic meltdown and social and political repression to which Chamberlin alludes, his perspective is once again, human-centric and Amero-centric. Reality check: Collapse is indeed happening, but it is occurring globally and threatening to annihilate all nations and all species. That collapse was not “planned” by ruling elites, and it is one in which all humans have participated. It now has a life of its own and is most likely, out of our control. Attempting to abort it or blame other humans is a waste of time and energy.
The question for humans is not: What do we do about collapse? but rather, What do we do with it? It holds inestimable opportunities for rebirth and intimacy with other humans and the more-than-human world, but only if we open to it. Opening to it means opening to our own mortality, which as Derrick Jensen insists, may be part of something that serves the larger community. Perhaps one opportunity collapse is putting in our faces is that of moving beyond our human-centric perspective-our hubris and addiction to invincibility, begging us to humble ourselves and crawl behind the eyes of the more-than-humans as Joanna Macy poignantly writes:
We hear you, fellow-creatures. We know we are wrecking the world and we are afraid. What we have unleashed has such momentum now; we don’t know how to turn it around. Don’t leave us alone; we need your help. You need us too for your own survival. Are there powers there you can share with us?
Indeed there are powers they can share with us, but not until we can let go of our current definition of “positive” and, feeling their pain, finally comprehend that the collapse of civilization may be the best thing that could happen to all of us.
Visit Carolyn Baker’s site at http://carolynbaker.net/site/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/