An Unnatural Order:

An Unnatural Order:
Why We Are Destroying the Planet and Each Other

Jim Mason


Some think human society seems to be steadily going insane. They note the ridiculous hatreds that keep us nearly constantly at war with each other. They see we are fouling our global nest, wiping out much of the planet's life and making life more and more miserable for ourselves. I don't think we are going insane; I think we have just not learned to look deeply enough into the causes of our current social and environmental problems. I believe with a growing number of others that these problems began several millennia ago when our ancestors took up farming and broke the primal bonds with the living world and put human beings above all other life.

Because of this, we have no sense of kinship with other life on this planet, hence no good sense of belonging here. Our tradition is one of arrogance toward the living world around us; it is a thing beneath us to be either used up or kept at bay. We are, as intellectuals say, alienated from nature.

A World Alive and Ensouled

[Although] most religions [today] describe a three-tiered hierarchy: God, people, and everything else ... primal people lived not merely close to, but in and with nature. Food and materials came not by working the soil, not by controlling the lives and growth of plants and animals, but by incredibly detailed knowledge about them. They lived with daily reminders of their connections with the living beings around them and with constant awareness of how their taking from their world might affect their lives in it. All of this evolved into a set of beliefs and eventually into tribal religions, which have taken on many forms and variations. What they all have in common, though, is a deep emotional attachment to, and respect for, the living world that made changing or controlling it unthinkable.

Alienated as we are from the natural world, our modern minds are too maimed to fully grasp how thoroughly this human mind was fed by its environment particularly by the moving, living beings in it. The emerging cultural human mind literally took its shape and substance, its basic images and ideas, from the plants and animals around it. It came to know which plants out of hundreds made the best foods, medicines, and materials. It came to know the life cycles and day-to-day habits of dozens of kinds of animals intimately enough to be able to predict when and where a hunt might be most successful. It came to know how all of the above might be affected by wind, rain, seasons, and the other elements and forces in nature. From such living, the people knew the land, their foraging territory, probably better than any modern ecologist could. They had, after all, generations of wisdom and experience in living in it, and most of all, a feeling for it that no books nor journals can ever convey.

Animals intrigued human beings with their size, speed, strength, habits and other features. They were believed to have powers humans did not. For primal humans especially those with the flowering mind, consciousness and culture of modern Homo sapiens about 45,000 years ago the animals in their foraging lands were the most impressive, the most fascinating living beings in the world. Measured in terms of the amount of human wonder they caused, animals were the most wonderful things out there in the world. The primal relationship with the powers of the living world was more of a partnership in which human beings had interactions and a strong sense of interdependence with them.

Other things in nature impressed us, too, like dark forests, violent storms, rivers swollen by flood waters. Yet animals impressed us in ways that the rest of nature could not. Why animals? Why do animals figure so centrally to the process of mind formation? Why isn't the child moved by stuffed plants and figures of trees and rocks? Animals, like us, move freely; and they are more obviously like people than are trees, rivers, and other things in nature.

Animals have eyes, ears, hair, and other organs like us; and they sleep, eat, defecate, copulate, give birth, play, fight, die and carry on many of the same activities of life that we do. Somewhat similar to us yet somewhat different, animals forced comparisons, categories, and conclusions. Animals made us think. Animals drove and shaped human intelligence. They are fascinating to watch. Of all the things in nature, then, animals stand out most in ways needed by the developing brain/mind. Animals are active, noisy, colorful characters all of which makes them most informative. In contrast, the rest of nature is background relatively amorphous, still, inscrutable, and not much help to the budding brain/mind, whether that of the species or the individual.

As movers of the mind, thought, and feeling, animals are very strong stuff to human beings. No wonder our ancestors believed they had souls and powers.

After centuries of manipulative animal husbandry, however, men gained conscious control over animals and their life processes. In reducing them to physical submission, people reduced animals physically as well. Castrated, yoked, harnessed, hobbled, penned, and shackled, domestic animals were thoroughly subdued. They had none of that wild, mysterious power that their ancestors had when they were stalked by hunter-foragers. Domestic animals were disempowered made docile by confinement, selective breeding, and familiarity with humans. They gradually came to be seen more with contempt than awe.

In reducing domestic animals, farmers reduced animals in general, and with them they helped reduce the animal/natural powers because crop-conscious farmers saw more and more species as pests, more and more natural elements as threats. But it was animal husbandry in particular that nudged people from seeing animals as powers to seeing them as commodities and tools. It was husbandry that drastically upset the ancient human-animal relationship, changing it from partnership to master-and-slave, from being kin with animal-nature to being lord over animal-nature.

This reduction of animals the soul and the essence of the living world to the primal mind reduced all of nature, creating, in the agriculturalist's mind, a view of the world where people were over and distinctly apart from nature. Animal reduction was key to the radically different worldview that came with the transition from foraging to farming, for more than any other agricultural development, it broke up the old ideas of kinship and continuity with the living world. This, more than any other factor, accelerated and accentuated human alienation from nature. It originated in the East's first agricultural center, it founds its legs there, and then it spread to the other centers of civilization.

Husbandry was, I think, the more influential side of farming that led, ultimately, to the agrarian worldview that we still hold today. As that worldview began to emerge thousands of years ago, wrote University of California historian Roderick Nash, "for the first time humans saw themselves as distinct from the rest of nature."

Misothery, Misogyny and Racism: The Reduction of Animals, Women and People of Color

Alienated from animals and nature by misothery, our agri-culture puts us superior to, and distinct from, the living world. In that position, we can only despise and deny the animal and natural wherever we see it in ourselves or in the rest of humanity. Our anxieties about our animal-like characteristics cause us to project our fear and hatred onto not only other animals but other people whose differences we think places them below us nearer to animals and nature than us.

On this ladder or hierarchy of being, women of one's own group are one step down. People whom we call "Others" are another step or two down, depending on their usefulness and their distance from nature. Male Others may outrank the women of one's group if they are "civilized" that is, if they have a similar agri-culture with dominionism, patriarchy, royalty, wealth, monumental art, urban centers, and so on.

On the rungs below Others stand animals, first those useful to men, then, father down, all the others. At the bottom of the ladder is raw, chaotic nature itself, composed of invisible organisms and an unclassifiable mass of life that feeds, grows, dies, and stinks in dark, mysterious places. This is muck and swamp, and steamy jungle and all backwaters and wildernesses far from the pruned orchards and weeded crop rows of agrarian civilization; this is nature least useful, nature most mysterious, and therefore nature most hostile and sinister.

Then it draws on the breeder's ideologies of bloodline and purity, as it did in Nazi Germany and the segregated South; as it still does today among neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The rhetoric of all these racists speaks of the breeder's obsessions, and the extremity of their actions speaks of the depth of their fear and hatred of "lower" nature. The Nazis ranted against Jews, gypsies, Poles, and other "mongrel races" and then methodically tried to exterminate them. Southern segregationists preached against "race mixing" and used lynchings, mob violence, and terrorist campaigns to keep people of color "in their place."

This is why, despite all the efforts of science and civil rights campaigns, the racial hatred still lies, like a great aquifer, just beneath the surface of consciousness in our culture. On occasion, it wells upward and becomes a very conscious, very political cause.

Beyond Dominionism

Biologically speaking, human beings have been too successful at the expense of other species. For one thing, our numbers have swollen quite recently. The global human population first reached a billion about 150 years ago; it reached 2.5 billion only 40 years ago. Our numbers are expected to pass 6 billion in the year 2000. Even if we started now to put the brakes on world birthrates, experts predict that the human population will swell to 10 to 12 billion people before it levels off around the year 2050.

The average human being today uses dozens of times more energy and materials than ever before. We have become very materialistic animals. We boast of our affluence barely realizing that, ultimately, all of our wealth consists of stuff taken from the environment.

Consequently, human voracity has set off a chain reaction of destruction in the world's food chains. Since we began steadily intensifying human food production through agriculture 10,000 years ago, we have just as steadily wiped out species after species. Biologists fear that human impact is setting off mass extinctions that could wipe out a fourth of the world's remaining species in the next 50 years.

The scale of war and massacre has increased with the scale of both technology and society. In sheer numbers, the 20th century has been the bloodiest in history. In our century alone, nearly 36 million have been killed in battle in the various wars. An incredible 120 million more have been killed by the various genocidal programs carried out by governments. Human devastation, this huge, this constant, must have some basic causes, which the West avoids looking too deeply for.

The movers and shakers of conservation and environmentalism, with rare exceptions, stop dead in their tracks when they approach the Animal Question the whole sticky mess of human views toward, relations with, and uses of animals. This part of the Nature Question is oddly off limits. Should one of them step on it accidentally, he or she usually jumps back to safety in the remoteness of discussions about trees or the abstractions of biodiversity and species.

The Animal Question is regarded as illegitimate, silly, peripheral. Those who address it are regarded as emotional, sentimental, neurotic, misguided, and missing the bigger picture of human relations with the living world. One's bigness and seriousness as a thinker on the Nature Question is measured, in part, by how well one steers clear of the Animal Question.

On the contrary, the Animal Question is the very heart of the Nature Question. Animals have always been the soul, spirit, and embodiment of the living world. To exclude discussion of relations with animals from the discussion of our relations with nature is to exclude the most important part of the discussion. Emotionally, culturally, psychically, symbolically just about any way you want to measure it animals are the most vital beings among all the beings of the living world. They are fundamental to our worldview; they are central to our sense of existence in this world.

We are fooling ourselves if we think we can deal with the big picture, the mangled mess of our relations with nature, without a soul-searching examination of our dealings with animals. For if we try to steer around the Animal Question, then of course we leave it in place, forever to trouble our relations with nature.

When we come to the laboratory and the slaughterhouse, the calls for a "radical" or "fundamental" overhaul of relations with the living world suddenly go silent. Indeed, no reasonable person challenges these bastions of dominionism. Those who do so are pegged as the "lunatic fringe," which is a handy way of disposing of them and their troublesome ideas. The overwhelming perception is that these uses of animals are well justified in that they confer great benefits to the human species. That perception is, of course, both the source and the lasting strength of dominionism.

If we want a truly "fundamental" overhaul of our dominionist worldview, then we are going to have to deal with the most difficult issues, which are meat-eating and animal experimentation. Many, of course, will refuse to step onto these sacred grounds. They will simply fall back on familiar dominionist axioms and stand their ground. To be charitable, we must excuse them, for many, if not most, people are simply not inclined toward soul-searching and changing their habits. Age, subculture, and other circumstances tend to instill a certain inflexibility in many people, and it is probably best not to bother them. But for others who genuinely want to help reconstruct our worldview, our sense of ourselves, and our human spirit, nothing can be off limits for reexamination and soul-searching.

Men today needn't feel responsible for the mistakes of both men and women who lived 5,000 years ago. Men do have a huge responsibility, however, to participate in the processes of restoring female principles, status, and power to society and of building an egalitarian sexual ethic. These are difficult tasks, of course, and no group that has long enjoyed supremacy and privilege of any kind has ever relinquished them gladly.

These and other chores offer plenty of opportunities for men to find and build in their humanity, as opposed to carrying on boyish displays of macho manhood. In the past, men showed bravery in the hunt or in battle; they showed "strength" in taking pain and dishing it out without feeling.

Instead of macho displays, the modern man can show genuine human bravery and strength. He can be brave enough to tackle the thorny strands of tradition that warp human society and threaten the living world.

Men can have the strength to accept an equal role in the house, at work, in bed, and in society as a whole.

Men, the predominant makers and users of pornography, can have the bravery and strength to dismantle this industry that degrades women, the human body, sexuality, and nature.

Men, whose traditional masculine culture values stoicism, detachment, and control of others, can use their strength to uproot those values and to build a culture that values empathy, altruism, and kinship with all Others regardless of sex, "race," size, or species.

We are coming full circle around to the kind of awareness held by primal human society. We see the awesome web of life in the world; we see the human place among it all. We see the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth that keep all of nature alive and evolving. We see the living world as a First Being made up of many lesser beings, of which we are one. We see the miracle of living existence animated and given character by animals. We feel for animals whom we see as kindred beings; they give us a sense of belonging here, of membership in the Great Family of life in this world. Our ancestors gained this worldview through real experience, we are gaining it, ironically, through science.

This emerging global view conflicts with many of the main beliefs of the West's agrarian religion, which sees this world as a temporary testing ground for humankind, as a lowly way station full of soulless beings whose despicable existence offers temptations to sin and evil. It will be interesting to see if religion's various branches can accommodate the emerging understanding of humans as beings kindred with others in the living world. If they cannot, they will become increasingly irrelevant. If they are unable to join the rest of us in coming to terms with nature and finding kinship among the life around us, they will cease to provide spiritual guidance and comfort and they will fall away as religions have done before.

Western religion needs to come to terms with its ancestor religions the "idolators," "pagans," goddess worshippers, and the other belief systems that the monotheists so ruthlessly tried to stamp out. Many traces of these are alive and well today in the developing world despite centuries of mostly Christian and Islamic missionary campaigns. Judaism, to its credit, never sought to impose its theology and its God on other peoples and cultures. If Christianity and Islam can get beyond their current phase of strict fundamentalism and their obsessions with the "revealed word of God" on the printed page, they could bring massive mending to the spiritually torn fabric of humanity. When they recognize that human spirituality began with awe of life on earth and that humanity has always found comfort in a sense of kinship with the living world, perhaps they will see the need for, and the wisdom in, coming full circle to the primal worldview.

My own view is that the primal worldview, updated by a scientific understanding of the living world, offers the best hope for a human spirituality. Life on earth is the miracle, the sacred. The dynamic living world is the creator, the First Being, the sustainer, and the final resting place for all living beings humans included. We humans evolved with other living beings; their lives informed our lives. They provided models for our existence; they shaped our minds and culture. With dominionism out of the way, we could enjoy a deep sense of kinship with the other animals, which would give us a deep sense of belonging to our living world.

Then, once again, we could feel for this world. We could feel included in the awesome family of living beings. We could feel our continuum with the living world. We could, once again, feel a genuine sense of the sacred in the world.

Jim Mason is the author of the book An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other

, from which this essay has been edited.





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