Each of the following beliefs are merely possibilities. Which one improves our lives?
The earth is here for us to use, we are separate from “nature”. Some life and some people are more evolved than others. Anything beneath us/me isn’t important.
We are made up of the earth, every single cell. We are all part of creation. We are kind to the rest of creation, as we are kind to ourselves. All life is equally sacred and deserves respect, no matter age or evolution.
Although in recent decades it has come into question, the view that we humans are separate and better than the earth continues to shape our cultural understandings and behavior. Culturally, we have come to believe that it is our sacred duty to use whatever resources we can get at any cost environmentally and emotionally. We see the consequences of this belief regularly, as it has led to the complete disregard for health and environmental costs of our actions and also promotes the rampant use of resources with no thought for the future generations. (Even mainstream environmental movements, apart from environmental justice work, have continued to view humans as separate from “nature” and to focus restoration efforts on setting aside tracts of land to protect them from what is assumed to be the inherently damaging impact of humanity.)
Another corollary of this belief, and almost equally detrimental, is that we are “stewards” of the earth and it is our job to take care of it. Although this view encourages more concern for the ongoing viability of our way of life, it still distances us from the earth and separates humans as different and somehow more powerful or more special than the rest of the community of life. This distance creates room for disrespect and ownership. As “stewards” of the earth, we imagine we have singular power and influence over everything, when really we are just as subject to the cycles of the sun, the moon, and water as every other creature. We take the lives of others to sustain our own life, just like every other creature. Our population grows and dwindles in response to increased or decreased food availability, just like every other creature.
The cultural belief in the distinct superiority of our species runs deep through our most cherished beliefs, including our ideas about the nature of our existence, science and reason, and spiritual enlightenment and the afterlife. Philosopher Rene Descartes’ maxim “I think; therefore I am” and the common saying “mind over matter” illustrate one of our most fundamental cherished beliefs: that the mind rules the flesh. This hierarchy portrays all things earthly, fleshy, and dark as despicable, lowly, evil, or at least in need of being tamed or controlled. All things intellectual, spiritually evolved, and light are righteous, powerful, appropriate, and good. The human mind and soul are superior to and hold dominion over the flesh and the body. Internally, this view encourages people to strive for control of their emotions and fleshy desires in the effort to become more enlightened souls. Discipline is of course an important tool, and one that every human must develop. When applied in this way, however, it generates stressful imbalances and guilt in our lives because it encourages us to view our physical needs as obstacles to enlightenment rather than the natural sensations of living as a creature on earth. When we view our experience this way, we find ourselves waging war internally, as we battle our “primitive” urges in the attempt to completely control and often reject them. When we “give in” to our animal desires, we feel we have failed in our quest for enlightenment and we chide ourselves for our weakness. Yet the more we repress our desires, the more energy we expend worrying about it and fighting ourselves internally.
This culture teaches us that our mental capacity, our mind, distinguishes us from other creatures, and that spiritual evolution can be measured by the ability to exercise the mind to control the body and emotions. The common notion of soul is also bound up with this idea. There is nothing inherently wrong or imbalanced about the idea that we each have an incorporeal essence which continues on after we die. This is a cultural response to our natural love of life and desire for immortality. It makes sense that humans grasp for some way to carry on after we die, and the idea of soul allows some part of us to live on after our bodies die and decay. The danger in our particular cultural variation on soul is the way it embeds a hierarchical separation between humans and the rest of life. In our culture, soul-inhabited beings – humans – are “more evolved” than the rest of life which is presumed to be less important. Therefore, it matters little to take the life of a carrot because it has no soul; to take the life of a cow is somewhat controversial; and allowing the life of a human to end must be avoided at all costs. This idea is a central aspect of the imbalance of our civilization: the proliferation of human life is the most important thing, regardless of its impact on the rest of the community of life. Thus, we do whatever it takes to “save a life”, as long as that life is human. Methods of curbing human reproduction or slowing the accelerated production of human food are highly controversial because they challenge the fundamental belief that human life is more important than other life. Culturally, we use the idea of soul to explain why human life must be preserved at all costs. It is wrong in our culture to deny a human soul the right to live in a body, even if there are far too many humans on the planet and their quality of life is suffering.
These two hierarchies — mind over matter, and enlightened souls over lesser beings — stem from the notion that humans are separate from the earth and superior to other life forms. They distance us from the rest of the community of life, and pit us against our own basic nature. It is important for us to want our species to thrive, of course. We run into trouble, however, when our idea of thriving has more to do with enabling more and more humans to toil their lives away living on a pittance than it does with improving the quality of life for all.
Alternatively, we could believe that we are part of the earth, each and every cell. Every molecule, every atom is the earth. Through the food chain, the movement of water and nutrients, and the cycles of decay and regeneration, each living being is made up of every other and of the earth itself. So in taking care of ourselves kindly and patiently, we also take care of the earth and other people kindly and patiently.
How would our world change if we believe that consciousness stems from the body? We are the body; we are matter, 100%. Our flesh is the source of our spark of life. Each emotion is an expression of spirit moving through us. Our desires and sensations are what make us alive. Is it not possible to acknowledge, accept, and rejoice in our natural sensory and emotional experiences and still exercise restraint and discipline in our behaviors?
If we view our bodies as the planet (the body of the earth), our “enlightenment” comes from expressing gratitude for every facet of our experience here by living beautifully. All the life that we take in for our sustenance is death to other parts of Earth and the community of life, so we must recognize that sacrifice and give thanks. We repay the “debt” of life we take not by suffering but by using all of it to spread joy and beauty and be as bright and loving as we can.
From this view, environmental health isn’t an idealistic goal, for if we poison the earth, we literally poison ourselves and compromise the joy and harmony we and our kin enjoy every day. Why, for example, would we risk the possibility of thousands of years of cancer and weakened immune systems with nuclear electricity for the short-term convenience of a few lights and extra heat? Why would we dump our waste into the rivers and lakes which are our lifeblood? Healthy environment means healthy people because we are the earth.
Likewise, our personal health and balance is essential to harmonious relations with all the community of life. Knowing that each of us is the earth, how could we choose to work ourselves to exhaustion or fill ourselves with harmful substances? This runs much deeper than what is commonly considered “saving the environment” – recycling, reducing waste products, energy efficient appliances, etc. What’s more, the most profound shifts we can make for our personal health and growth involve doing the emotional work to be able to harmoniously share and collaborate with other people. Being able to share resources with other people in a mutually beneficial, joy-filled way reduces our overall resource footprint while offering us opportunities to practice communication and cooperative living skills. (Simply living with more people in one house, for example, increases opportunities for emotional growth while also providing electricity and heat resources for more people within the same space). “Want more from life” may be a more effective environmental prerogative than “Reduce, reuse, recycle.”
If we believe that all life is sacred and that we are all made of the flesh of the earth and will soon return back, then human life is no more special than any other life. What follows is that the rights we give ourselves are afforded to all of the earth’s inhabitants. Logically, we eat and excrete and breed the same as all mammals and our population is no more special than any other. As a species, we have unique characteristics, just like all other species in the community of life.