I’ve begun reading Lewellyn’s Spiritual Ecology, a collection of essays by those representing the unheard voices that suffer from human exploitation of nature. The authors’ shared diagnosis is that we are rushing towards the limits of the Earth’s restorative capacities, with the prescription that we must regain the spiritual bond with nature that we once had as tribal peoples.
I have provided some reaction to this perspective in my review of The Lost Language of Plants. I believe that the history of tribal peoples is far more complex than the celebrants recall. This myopia tends to cause them to forget that Western civilizations, propagators of the twin “evils” of scientific reductionism and monotheism, also arose from tribal cultures. Whatever defects they possess arose from seeds sown in humanity’s past – which is also part of nature.
To my understanding, the important factors are testosterone and feedback. Testosterone is the hormone that stimulates aggression. It is most powerful in males, but also influences females. Aggression facilitates change, and when that change is rewarded with success, our bodies are designed to amplify the biochemical signals that generate the success. What this means is that aggressive people tend to produce more and more testosterone until something checks their behavior.
As I see it, this primitive biological drive is the root cause of the ecological crisis we face. Once we learned to fashion tools, humanity freed itself from Darwinian evolution. There was nothing to check our behavior except perhaps the Earth itself. Aggressive people then turned every tool at our disposal to gather power to themselves. That included not only machinery and oil, but also rationalization of aggression through selective and context-free application of the wisdom passed on through our intellectual and spiritual authorities. Jesus did say, for example, “No man can serve two masters. You cannot love both God and money.” And long before Marx, Adam Smith advocated for governments to secure workers’ rights against the destructive efficiencies of capitalism.
What was perhaps different in tribal cultures is that the feedback provided by nature was immediate. Do not work at harvest, and there is no food in January. In almost every society in which those constraints were removed aggression rose. This was true in African cultures, as well as in the Aztec and Mayan cultures of Central America.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Catholic Philosopher, published a synthesis of Christian and evolutionary ideas in 1955 titled The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard observed that whenever a species arises with a new competitive advantage, it spreads as far as possible across the globe. In recent times, this is true not only of man – European songbirds brought with the settlers have largely displaced their smaller Native American cousins. But once the spread is complete, the parent species refines its occupation of the inherited territory through a process called inflorescence. This was visible to Darwin in the variety of the Galapagos finches, each of which had evolved from a common parent. Some had beaks adapted to crack nuts, others to fishing insects out of holes.
Teilhard observed that man was the first species to dominate the globe in its entirety. He predicted that in our inflorescence we would create a noosphere – an emanation of our thought that would allow us to manage not only the local environment entrusted to native tribes, but the planet as a whole.
It is in this process that I find hope – a hope echoed by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization. There is no going back. Rather than rejecting the insights of our dominant culture, we must amplify them. The subculture of testosterone will immolate itself on the altar of its own greed. The quiet, calm, thoughtful successors will marshal understanding to the service of sustainability, and bring healing and peace to the Earth.