Monday, September 17, 2018

Lives less valuable

“The Myth of Human Supremacy” is the latest book by Derrick Jensen, a controversial environmentalist activist. His political philosophy could be seen as a combination of left-wing anarchism and deep ecology. Jensen heads an eco-radical group called Deep Green Resistance (DGR).

Jensen argues that humans aren't “better” than animals, plants or Nature as such, merely different. Virtually everything we associate with humanity (intelligence, tool making, language, self-awareness etc) can also be found in Nature. A large portion of the book reviews recent research on the intelligence of plants and fungi! Most tests “proving” human supremacy are tautological and hence rigged in advance. Why should self-recognition in a mirror be seen as valid evidence for supremacy, just because humans can do it while most animals can't? Ironically, such tests are therefore anthropomorphic – something scientists usually claim to avoid. And why do we assume that other animals or plants lack self-awareness just because they may be self-aware in a different way from us? Jensen also attacks Neo-Darwinism and its talk about “selfish genes” as a projection of competitive capitalism onto the natural world, a world Jensen sees as essentially cooperative. Every creature eats and is eaten in a never-ending cyclical pattern, with nobody being truly “on the top of the food chain”.

However, it seems that humans are fundamentally different on one crucial point: humans have “liberated” themselves from Nature, act and/or imagine themselves as supreme, and are rapidly destroying the entire planet in the process. Jensen believes that this fundamental change took place, not with industrialism, but already with the introduction of agriculture during the Neolithic. Agriculture is inherently destructive to the environment. It also destroys egalitarian human communities in favor of patriarchy, class society, war and slavery, in sum hierarchy and “civilization”. Our global society is simply the end point of this development. For this reason, Jensen doesn't see human intelligence as particularly intelligent, at least not the intelligence of supremacist-hierarchic humans. He constantly contrasts modern humans with the Tolowa, a Native American people who lived in northern California for 12,500 years in roughly the same area without destroying their land base. (Jensen is a resident of northern California.)

But what should be done about this state of affairs? Here, Jensen remains largely silent, but judging by his other books, the DGR calls for eco-terrorism on a massive scale to bring down modern civilization. Of course, such a program would probably exterminate 95% of the world's population, including most people in the Third World (despite the DGR apparently thinking otherwise). The DGR explicitly says that the present culture of human supremacy is sociopathic and that most people will never agree with the Deep Green perspective – true, since most people presumably don't want to starve to death!

While Jensen supports Native peoples, one could take his reasoning one step further and exterminate *all* humans. After all, how did human supremacy arise in the first place? It must have arisen among Native peoples at some point during the Stone Age. It must have contaminated quite a few Native cultures since then – witness the large amounts of “Fourth World” peoples who don't mind hunting with shot guns, trapping and killing animals for the fur trade, etc. So why let humans stay around at all? Their creative intelligence and ability to rise “above” Nature seems pretty dangerous…

Many of the points raised by Jensen are broadly correct, but like other deep ecologists, he has a tendency to simply invert human supremacy into a kind of human inferiority or original sin. Personally, I think humans will always try to “cheat Nature” by using the creative intelligence evolution/God/Brahman gave them. Nature isn't always playing nice with Man, and it's naïve to think that humans will respond by simply rolling over and adapt (or die). Modern medicine and “cargo” seems tolerably popular among Native peoples! The real challenge for humanity is to combine human creativity and civilization with sustainability. It won't look like present modern civilization, but it probably won't look like a deep green malarial swamp either.

No comments:

Post a Comment