Portions of this post are derived from earlier writings of mine.
"If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star."
-- William Stafford
What sense can we make from clouds of birds falling from the sky and masses of fish washing up on the shores?
The world is indeed alive and speaking to us always, but the messages we read in All Things get filtered through the lens of a lifetime of stories of who we are and what our relationship is to the world. In interpreting those messages its essential to unpack our cultural baggage.
Living in a culture that views time in a linear way, as something with a beginning and an end, its easy to find apocalyptic meaning in these horrific events, to read them as a sign that the Earth is dying or that the Earth is getting ready to wipe out humanity in retribution for collective sins.
There is in these readings an awakening of the dormant sense of the Earth as alive. But there is simultaneously a repetition of the lie that we are separate from the Earth, separate from the wild, separate from the divine. And its that lie that enables us to continue ignoring the consequences of our actions and to continue a way of life that is based on the delusional, insane, and abusive premise that unlimited growth is possible, desirable, and morally justifiable.
In Greek, the word apocalypse means a revelation, a lifting of the veil.
What then is revealed by these apocalyptic horrors?
The cognitive dissonance of these seemingly unexplainable deaths is shaking many people into the recognition that other species feel and suffer in a way that the images of oil soaked pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico failed to. And with it comes the sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with a way of life that is based on the assumption that the world is an inert storehouse of resources put here for our consumption. And an awakening to the consequences of that way of life.
But, still, for many, the idea persists that this is the only way humans have lived and the only way humans can live, that our species is somehow an evolutionary mistake, and that a wrathful Gaia or a wrathful God needs to wipe us from the Earth and start anew.
But global warming, nuclear waste, the mass extinction of plant and animal species, slavery, genocide, deforestation, and warfare are are not the inevitable consequences of our human existence.
They are the consequences of civilization.
To be civilized originally meant to be "of the cities." Civilization is a way of life based around permanent human settlement and the attempt to physically and psychologically separate daily life from the ecosystems in which we are embedded and from forces outside human control.
Nomadic peoples were and are able to hunt, gather, and practice limited small scale agriculture without creating disruptions to their ecosystems substantially larger than those created by other species or other natural forces. To be sure, overhunting and over gathering occurred, but their were natural limits -- people would be forced to change their behavior or lose their food sources. Like our bodies, ecosystems are resilient, they are able to deal with a certain level of disruption.
But permanent human settlement involves the large scale disruption of ecosystems on a continuing basis. The landscape is altered to allow for large scale agriculture. And unlike other landscape alterations (such as the burning of underbrush in the forests of eastern North America by the indigenous peoples here) large scale agriculture linked to human settlement involves the continuing depletion of the soil and overtaxing of natural systems over a long period of time without any respite for regeneration.
In order to sustain itself, a culture of permanent settlement needs to expand its control over a larger and larger land base. This requires the regimentation of labor, which breeds hierarchy and control. Getting cooperation with this kind of system requires organized violence. And it also depends on theologies that declare that people were intended to live this way, allowing the members of a culture to pass off responsibility for the consequences of their actions to distant gods (whether they call them "God" or "the market" or "progress.")
People are no longer making choices based on their own needs and feelings and experiences at this point. They are making choices for the sake of continuing their civilization. Not even for the sake of benefiting each other -- but for the sake of continuing the systems they have established.
Technologies are developed to more efficiently alter the land and to more efficiently coerce human cooperation.
Eventually, the expansion of the civilization brings it into conflict with other cultures. Once those cultures are physically subjugated, they are inculcated with the theology of civilization. They then become hosts and vectors for its propagation. Civilization is inherently expansionist and evangelical.
We are brought up to believe that this is the way things have always been, but this is not true. That's just another version of the myth of original sin, designed to absolve us from both individual and collective responsibility for our participation in this way of life.
The reality is that every one of us is the descendant cultures that lived and evolved in conversation with the other beings who made up the living systems in which they were enmeshed. Some of those cultures developed permanent settlements and large scale agriculture and became colonizers. Some other cultures were so completely subjugated by their colonizers that they became colonizers themselves, exporting terror.
But still others resisted more strongly and continue to resist today even under varying degrees of occupation. We can't just adopt their cultures -- that's the colonizer's way of taking what we want from other people and calling it ours. But we can engage and learn from them in a respectful way, and support their struggles.
Even within the colonizer cultures, there are memories and remnants of older ways of being and knowing that have been passed down either secretly or hidden in plain sight.
And even without access to these traditions, each of us have the capacity to question what we've been taught and to reengage ourselves with the living systems around us and allow them to begin revealing to us other ways we can live. Developing new cultures is a harder process than sustaining or recovering a culture, but it can be done, every culture begins somewhere.
Can we move beyond civilization?
I don't know for certain.
But to dismiss it as impossible just because it is the only way of life most of us have experienced seems to me to be a denigration of the amazing intelligence and creativity we humans are gifted with -- an intelligence that is unique not in its magnitude but in its particular form.
Let me be clear -- I am not advocating a return to the Paleolithic. Not every fruit of civilization is inherently poison. I'm speaking instead of changing the organizing principles on which we base our society.
It begins with rejecting the idea that the way we live now is the way things have to be.
And with engaging the living world directly, with an understanding that we are of the Earth as much as a Maple or a Grizzly Bear is, and that the memory of our true nature exists within us, mirrored by the wildness around us.
When the human part of us engages the wild part of us, we remember our sacredness and divinity and our indestructible connection to All Things.
From this place we can take responsibility for the worlds we shape.
And free from our slavery to the idea of continuing civilization, we can dream something else into being.
And the message I read in the masses of dead fish and falling birds is that it is long past time for us to start making conscious choices about the way we live.