When Eve plucked that shining apple from the Garden of Eden, little did she know such a simple act would twist its roots through time and shape the future for thousands of years to come. Whether truth or tale, the Genesis creation myth and a slew of similar others have helped sculpt the ‘meta-cognitive schemata’ buried deep in our culture-wide consciousness, shaping how we collectively see and act upon the outside world.
If you feel like you’ve already been hit over the head with consciousness-forming jargon, then allow me to explain. Up until the twentieth-century or so, Western society typically perceived the human and nonhuman worlds as fundamentally divided, separate and distinct.
This is often known as the nature-culture dualism, gracing us with a foul attitude of mastery that helped legitimise exploitation of the biosphere to develop large scale societies. Today, it helps perpetuate a broken economic system functioning on the parasitic illusion of limitless growth, whilst lining the super-wealthy’s pockets and fattening their weighty coffers – at the high price of planetary survival.
But as the waves of climate change wash disaster after disaster on the shores of industrialised culture, we can no longer sweep our total entanglement with nonhumans under the rug. The effects of industrial development are being diligently exposed by researchers and activists across the world – with major, lasting consequences for the strength of ecosystems and all participants involved.
From fossil fuels causing severe droughts that extinguish species and spread famine, to deforestation disenfranchising local peoples and wiping out biodiversity – human and nonhuman ecologies are totally (and always have been) interdependent. However, such environmentally-degrading practices aren’t instinctive, but are a direct result of complex cultural belief systems developed over time.
Touched on in our article on plastics and agriculture, these systems are fundamentally structured by what are known as root metaphors. In essence, they subconsciously frame the way we see and understand the world as individuals and a collective, then influencing our actions. Think of root metaphors as like the foundations of a house, in that you can’t ordinarily see them, but they hold the whole thing together – inside and out.
But our house is built on ancient foundations that are now rotting – and in desperate need of change. The nature-culture dualism is one such foundation, and must be replaced before it’s twelve-years too late. To do so, we must trace their origins.
One dominant origin of root metaphors is mythology. Mythology, as Gert Malan explains, is a combination of a culture’s ‘narrative threads’ – such as legends, tales and folklore. These then help legitimise and explain ‘societal norms, institutions and functions’, with Malan claiming ‘no society can survive’ without an established mythology.
Creation myths are key to a culture’s overall mythology, explaining how life began on Earth – and how humanity came into being. On the surface they may appear as simple stories, but in truth they are loaded with meaning that dictates the way a culture perceives the world. Although the interdependence of human and nonhuman existence has been historically ignored, we can begin to see how creation myths have helped form the way we treat the beyond-human world.
Modern Western culture, whilst Graeco-Roman in origin, is heavily influenced by Christian doctrine – with the Genesis creation myth at its heart. However, this myth is composed of two dominant threads, seemingly apart in their meaning at first glance.
In Genesis 1, God waves a six-day wand and creates everything in existence, we two-legged troublemakers included (at the end, of course):
Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.Genesis 1.26
The keyword here is dominion, which scholar Cambry Pardee explains as meaning no other than ‘complete and oftentimes deleterious hegemony’ – or in other words, we’re in charge, no matter the destructive consequences. This is then bolstered by Genesis 1.28:
God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.Genesis 1.28
Here dominion skips merrily along with subdue, the original Hebrew word meaning literally ‘to trample‘. These two motivations, combined with a mankind made in God’s own image, set us psychologically apart from the rest of nature. Reinforcing the nature-culture dualism, it embedded a smash-and-grab ecological attitude to serve our own material ends. As Lynn White put it in her famed essay on the subject, with Christianity ‘Man and nature are two things, and man is master’.
Once Christianity conquered the final vestiges of Paganism, that typically saw existence on a more entangled and equal scale, Anthropocentrism reigned. Spurring on renaissance humanism, a techno-scientific revolution then swept the world with industrial wildfire, its early proponents very much set in the mindset of human mastery inspired by Christian theology. During the colonialist expansion that followed, Christianity followed suit and was brutally forced on occupied regions, whipping indigenous ecocentric philosophies into abandon.
This attitude of mastery dominates today – despite being a largely secular society – with Christianity and techno-scientific progress still sharing the same fundamental goal of human advancement over all else. Nonhumans are not considered as living, autonomous beings demanding rights and inherent respect, but resources to be stuck with price tags and extracted or managed for corporate benefit. And if they hold no such economic benefits, then they are ridden over roughshod into extinction. If you don’t believe me, ask this Orangutan fighting a plantation bulldozer. Dominion indeed.
But to be fair to Christianity, a more environmentalist interpretation of Genesis has inspired admirable efforts from the likes of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who is deeply involved in the activist group Extinction Rebellion. This is known as Christian stewardship – as opposed to dominion – and arises in Genesis 2:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.Genesis 2.15
To till the land (as in to work it), and to keep the land, as in ‘to serve and preserve – even conserve – the land‘. A noble sentiment, taking shape in Christian environmental groups, and to some extent echoing mainstream conservationists such as Greenpeace, who see humans as caretakers determined to ‘defend’ a fragile Earth.
However, despite the obviously positive impacts, it does nothing to address the nature-culture dualism that structures the way we see the nonhuman world. Whether we view nonhumans as deserving of exploitation or protection, both perpetuate the falsehood that we humans are distinct from the rest of nature – as opposed to ecologically intertwined. Yet as Timothy Morton argues, there really is no such thing as a separate nature. He states, ‘we need to go beyond the idea of nature as something external and detached’.
Both Christian dominion and stewardship are exactly the kind of psychological baggage preventing us from shaking off this idea. Although this is slowly shifting, economic growth still dominates the industrialised agenda, and conservation discourse is continually mired in a protectionist attitude. So could we benefit from a new creation myth, built along ecological lines?
Environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott seems to think so. Although he believes that it is irrelevant whether the authors of Genesis intended to craft a dualistic ecological ethic – it does so regardless, and needs to be transformed as a result.
He argues that in its place, we require a post-modern mythology that exists as an easily understandable and applicable ecological ethic for all humans. This mythology must have ‘aesthetic and spiritual’ appeal, whilst being grounded in contemporary ecology, emphasising the importance of balanced ‘relationships and wholeness’ between humans and nonhumans.
Lacking an emphasis on absolute truth – common in both religion and science – such a mythology would be constantly adapting to scientific discovery and cultural/ecological shifts. Reflecting the diversity of human culture, such a mythology would sow the metaphorical seeds that could help blossom a truly ecological society devoid of the disastrous nature-culture dualism.
If this sounds far-fetched – it isn’t, and to some degree already exists. The Universe Story was crafted as a collaboration between theologians, academics and scientists. Tracing life ‘from the primordial forth to the ecozoic era’, The Universe Story retells cosmogenic history with a poetic edge – emblematic of the oral traditions in ecocentric, indigenous belief systems. By placing ecology at the fore of universe evolution, a framework of ecologically-minded root metaphors can be established.
But The Universe Story is now over twenty years old, and has yet to take the reins of shaping our culture-wide consciousness. So whilst its existence may not be far-fetched, the sermon is yet to be heard from our increasingly-degraded mount. That said, with concerns over climate change at an all time high, and groups such as Extinction Rebellion experiencing a dramatic surge in support – perhaps more are now willing to listen.
The Millennial Ecologist