I have many concerns about the future for my only grandson. He and his generation will have to navigate their way forward at a time of crisis. Daily news brings ever more worrying stories about how global warming is changing the world in ways we are struggling to comprehend. This article explores the notion that we need a new narrative going forward. Such a story will need to trigger new ways of looking at ourselves and the world. It will have to be big enough and convincing enough to change minds in a short space of time.
The big story I want to tell you begins with three questions about our society. Exploring them will require us to challenge deeply held and powerful ideas and beliefs. Inevitably, no matter how much we may resist it, the evidence they help us uncover will force us to find new ways of living or accept that we failed. If we mindlessly reject the paradigm shift the evidence supports, it could spell the end of western civilisation. However, if we respond to the evidence, and change our minds, it might help us create a more viable future.
So to the questions themselves –
Who are we?
How have we come to be where we are today?
Should we now tell a different story to help shape a better future?
First – WHO ARE WE?
Briefly, in answer to the first question, WE ARE THE TAKERS.
This was a proposition first put forward by author Daniel Quinn, in his philosophical novel, ‘Ishmael – An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit’, written in 1992.
Throughout recorded history, all cultures and societies have preserved and told stories about who they are. The story western cultures have told for thousands of years has encouraged the belief that we have the power of dominion over all other cultures and over the earth itself. We have behaved as if we alone have an inalienable right to control the destiny of our planet, in short, to do as we please. The story enacted by western culture encouraged in us a powerful conviction that the world belongs to man. If you own something, it’s inevitable you will believe you can make use of it as you choose. However, if it is not yours to own, then to destroy or dispose of it recklessly is potentially a crime. Historically, The Takers have taken unilateral control and felt justified in behaving thus. Now that we understand the consequences of past actions we have a chance to change the story going forward.
Moving on – HOW HAVE WE COME TO BE AS WE ARE TODAY?
Helpfully, Quinn also proposes an answer to this second question. In his novel, he reveals an alternative narrative to the one we are familiar with about the management of our world. It challenges the unquestioning supremacy that western societies have exercised over earth’s destiny for thousands of years. Quinn recognises that many of the huge challenges of our time have arisen because of these cultural ideas that have prevailed unchallenged for so long.
The book tells of an encounter between a man and a silver-back gorilla named Ishmael. An add in a local newspaper appealing for a willing student to help save the world brings the two together. The book records the struggles of the secondary hero, who steps forward to take on the task, to grasp the central idea of the novel. To achieve this, Ishmael challenges his student over his understanding of the history of our species. He proposes a very different perspective to the one he would have believed without questioning all his life, encouraging him to reflect on our development over the millennia according to this new narrative.
The central element of this new perspective hangs on two considerations. What justification is there to believe that the earth belongs to man? Even if we are able to accept this premise, is it possible to believe that all people benefit equally from this ownership?
Quinn suggests that two conflicting cultures have existed, side-by-side over time. First, our own, The Takers as he refers to us, the agriculturalists that emerged out of The Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago, and secondly, The Leavers, those hunter gatherers represented still by the scattered indigenous peoples of the world.
Quinn’s argument is that western civilisation has paid little heed to the meaning of its story and never questioned its modus operandi in enacting it. In believing we have the authority to take what we want for our own use and ignore the needs others and the environment, we have created the world we inhabit today. In behaving thus, he maintains we have destroyed the balance of nature, exploited other species, often to the point of extinction, and caused damage to the planet that we can now measure. He believes that to continue thus may place our own future in jeopardy. Yet, still we go on exploiting the earth for profit.
The cultural history of human society described thus, indeed truly identifies us as THE TAKERS.
Believing ourselves to represent the pinnacle of evolution we have acted out of self-interest at the expense of other species and the quality of the natural environment. It is, as if by believing this narrative we are actually enacting some fundamental truth. We never question our actions. Believing ourselves to be stewards of this earth, we have never doubted our right to act thus.
In 1989, Bill McKibben, the renowned America environmentalist wrote the following
“We are at the end of nature…” “By this I do not mean the end of the world. Though they may change dramatically, the rain will still fall, and the sun shine. When I say ‘nature’, I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it. But the death of these ideas begins with the definite changes in the reality around us – changes that scientists can measure and enumerate. More and more frequently, these changes will clash with our perceptions, until, finally our mistaken sense of nature as eternal and separate will be washed away and we will see all too clearly what we have done.”
Bill McKibben wrote these words in 1989 in ‘The End of Nature’. His chilling message, making the case that the world could not go on absorbing CO2 and other greenhouse gases without warming the planet and changing the atmosphere, fell upon deaf ears.
Three decades later we are faced with the reality he forecast. He maintained at the time that, “ there is no magic solution – the sacrifices demanded may be on a scale we can’t imagine and won’t like.”
Events have proved him right on all three counts. There is no magic solution. The scale and range of the sacrifices, then, as now, are huge, and certainly, people won’t like what it means for them. If McKibben was right, how can we possibly resolve our present situation unless we are prepared to re-examine “our ideas about the world and our place in it”?
I feel it is certain, we have no choice other than to take the campaign to address the degradation of our planet to those in power: to those who can change policies that determine how we balance our needs for energy against the damage being done to ecosystems and even to our own health and wellbeing. But it cannot end there.
Quinn and McKibben, explored the relationship between humankind and creation. The former through a work of fiction and the latter by way of a detailed analysis of climate and associated historical data – the stuff of science. Both men looked to explore man’s relationship with planet earth over the millennia. Both concluded that the impact of WHITE MALES on the destiny of our civilisation has been highly influential and deeply damaging in equal measure.
So, finally – SHOULD WE NOW TELL A DIFFERENT STORY TO HELP SHAPE A BETTER FUTURE?
This final question brings us to today. It addresses the issue of if and how we will tackle the challenges of climate change and justice.
If we accept that we have indeed lived according to this narrative, we know where we must start. We have to change the story we tell ourselves in the developed world. We are in desperate need of a clear, collective understanding of who we are and how we came to be where we are today. Divorced from a thorough re-evaluation of our cultural identity, we have no way of grasping what steps we MUST now take in responding to our present dilemma.
I paraphrase the remarks of Ishmael, the great ape whose survival may reflect our own survival,
We can no longer live like The Takers who brought creation to this crisis. We have to learn to adapt like The Leavers who still know, in every fibre of their being, that Man belongs to the Earth, not the Earth to Man.
This is the new story we must tell ourselves and teach to our children. Time for doing this is disappearing fast. We need something very different from those who would lead us at this time.
Ethically responsible persons with vision and commitment to help build a viable future for my grandson and his peers. Serving leaders need not apply.