Self-Awareness and the Apocalypse

The following is an excerpt from Derrick Jensen’s new book, The Myth of Human Supremacy, published by Seven Stories Press.

Many human supremacists love to talk about the “mirror test” of self-awareness, in which you put a mirror in front of some nonhuman to see if the nonhuman recognizes itself, in which case it is declared to be self-aware (though not as self-aware as we, of course!). Very few nonhumans pass this test, which is I’m sure one reason the test is so beloved by so many human supremacists. I’m sure it’s also a reason this test is sometimes called the “gold standard” of indicating whether some creature is “self-aware.”

The test is fraught with problems. First, there’s our old friend tautology: humans conceptualized the experiment presuming that humans are self-aware and nonhumans are not, and then devised a test humans can pass and nonhumans cannot. Great job. My understanding of my nonhuman neighbors is so much greater now.

Next, there’s our old friend anthropomorphization: the presumption that the self-awareness of others must match the form of our own self-awareness, and further that it must match one specific chosen form of self-awareness. Can there not reasonably be said to be other ways to be self-aware? I know that for myself, I am at least on occasion self-aware even when not looking at a mirror. Imagine that! And I think we can say that humans were probably still self-aware before the mirror’s invention. Or what about the self-awareness of a caterpillar who knows she has a parasite egg in her and that she must eat certain foods or she will die. Do you know when you have parasite eggs in you? If not, then gosh, you must not be self-aware. Or what about the self-awareness of plants who know how to change the taste of their leaves? Can you change the taste of your flesh to make yourself less palatable to predators? To this latter you can reply, “Yes, that’s why I eat at McDonald’s.”51GoFAiojoL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_

And of course there are lots of beings whose primary experience of the world is not visual. How well could you pass a self-awareness test that involves you being able to hear and respond to your own echolocation signals? What? You say you can’t hear your own echolocation signals? That’s a sure sign of a lack of self-awareness.

For crying out loud, anyone who feels hungry is self-aware, obviously, or they wouldn’t know they’re hungry. Anyone who attempts in any way to stop pain or discomfort or to continue to receive pleasure is self-aware, or they wouldn’t know the state they’re trying to change or perpetuate.

Ah, the human supremacists insist, we understand that the tiger is aware of its hunger, but is the tiger aware that it is aware of its hunger? That’s the question. To which I ask, are the human supremacists aware of their own hunger? Are they aware of the violation imperative that drives this culture? Are they aware that they’ve indentured themselves to authoritarian technics and that they are no longer fully human, that they are, to use the Buddhist term, hungry ghosts: undead and unliving spirits of the greedy, “who, as punishment for their mortal vices, have been cursed with an insatiable hunger”?

And then there’s the presumption that the behavior of captive animals (or plants) tells us something about either their interior lives or what their personalities, relationships, or lives are like when they’re free. The behavior of captive beings tells us about the behavior of imprisoned and (by definition) abused beings.

If you take a lizard from his home, put him in a cage, and present him with a mirror, what the fuck do you want him to do with it?

Let’s turn this around and see how you feel about it. You’re sitting in your home, minding your own business, when suddenly several unbelievably ugly creatures burst in. They throw a net over you and begin dragging you out the door. Members of your family rush to save you, and the unbelievably ugly creatures kill them with casual swats. You see one member of your family huddling in a corner, making sounds of terror you didn’t know humans could make. Another casual swat and the sounds stop. The net is hauled outside, and you’re put into some sort of container. You feel the container being lifted. It takes what seems like hours for you to realize that what you’ve read about in the tabloids and bad science fiction novels has happened to you: you’ve been abducted by aliens. The aliens take you to their ship, and over the next days and weeks and endless months they perform tests on you. Do you think your behavior will be the same on their ship as it was in your home, with your family? Do you think your behavior will ever again be the same? And what if these aliens put something in your room, some thing you’d never seen before they brought you to this terrible place. Here, in this alien prison, you’ve seen them preening before it, and making gawdawful faces at it—at least you think those are their faces—and now they’re staring at you—at least you think they’re staring, and you think those are eyes. You look at this thing more closely. They evidently see—perceive is probably a better word, since you don’t think those are eyes after all—themselves in it, but frankly their senses must be different than yours, because you don’t see what’s so great about it. Frankly it’s creepy. But then again, so is everything about this place. . . .

Because you failed to respond as they wished to this new device the aliens put into your cage, the aliens decide—quite rightly, according to their evidence and their belief system—that all you humanbeast-machines (as one of their philosophers puts it) lack self-awareness.

At some point the aliens realize how important vision is to you, and that you see with your eyes. So in order to further their understanding of human behavior, and of course in order to get further grants, they surgically blind you. Sitting in the eternal dark of your cage in some unfathomably huge complex, unimaginably far from your home and from those you love—those who may be still alive among those you love—for some reason you remember an article you read years ago. It was about mice who love to sing, and about what happened to these mice, about how they were put in cages, about what scientists did to them then. Day after day—or at least you think it’s day after day, since in your cell and in your own private darkness there is never any natural indication of the passage of time—you obsess about this article. But for the life of you, you can’t figure out why it is so important to you.

At last to the biggest problem with the mirror test of self-awareness, which is that I find it both extraordinary and all-too-expected that members of this culture have the gall to look down on anyone as lacking self-awareness. Most humans in this culture—particularly human supremacists, or rather supremacists of any sort—fail the mirror self-awareness test spectacularly. Oh sure, most of us can use a mirror well enough to comb our hair or make sure we don’t have boogers hanging out of our noses, and most of us can recognize ourselves well enough in the mirror to become anxious about our looks, but I don’t think an ability to use a mirror to comb one’s hair necessarily implies self-awareness on any sort of significant level.

Especially when you’re killing the planet.

When we look in the mirror, what do we see?

We see God’s image on Earth or the pinnacle of evolution. We see the greatest gift the universe has ever given itself. We see the bringers of the light of consciousness to the universe. We see the universe knowing itself. We see those whose responsibility it is to bring this light of consciousness everywhere. When we look at our technics, we see only our own brilliance.

When others look at us, however, they see something completely different. They see those who have become Death, destroyer of worlds. They see those who invent machines to outsource Death, and to outsource and facilitate the destruction of worlds. They see those who lack the self-awareness to perceive, much less comprehend, that they have become Death, destroyer of worlds. They see those who lack the perceptiveness or honesty to acknowledge that they are murdering the planet.

They see beings who care more about money than life.

They see beings who care more about power than life.

They see beings whose imagination is so impoverished that they cannot imagine living without industrially-generated electricity.

And they see beings whose empathy is so impoverished that they can imagine living without salmon, passenger pigeons, whales, snub-nosed sea snakes, ploughshares tortoises, and on and on.

They see those who when they even acknowledge the Death they cause, they see only how this Death will affect them and the economic systems they serve.

When others look at us, they see those who have so destroyed their own empathy that they don’t even acknowledge—can no longer even conceptualize—that anyone else actually subjectively exists. It is impossible to be less empathetic than that. They see those who have so destroyed their own empathy that they routinely torture those they perceive as below them on the insane Great Chain of Being, that hierarchy they had the lack of empathy and creativity to come up with in the first place. They see those who have so destroyed their own empathy that the males of the species now routinely rape the females of the species. They see those who have so destroyed their own empathy that they have developed an economics, a politics, a science, an epistemology—an entire worldview—based on projecting this lack of empathy onto the real world, a worldview that makes a virtue and a fetish of this lack of empathy, that attempts to naturalize this lack of empathy, that attempts to pretend empathy doesn’t exist in the real world. They see those who have so destroyed their own empathy that they use the empathy of others—empathy they are all the while pretending does not exist—to kill these others. Recall the whalers who would intentionally wound but not kill one whale, then kill all others who came to help. Recall those who would do the same to the Carolina parakeets. They drove Carolina parakeets extinct. They are driving the world extinct.

When others besides human supremacists look at us, they see the worst thing that has ever happened to this planet.

When we look in the mirror we see the only creature who is fully intelligent, with a brain that is the “most complex phenomenon in the universe.”

When others look at us they see those who are stupid enough to put poisons on our own food, to poison our own drinking water. Those who are stupid enough to murder—sorry, reorganize—the planet that is our only home.

When we look in the mirror we see the only creature who is fully imbued with the ability to make choices.

If this is the case, and if actions speak louder than words, then we are evidently choosing to kill the planet.

R.D. Laing wrote, “At this moment in history, we are all caught in the hell of frenetic passivity. We find ourselves threatened by extermination that… no one wishes, that everyone fears, that may just happen to us ‘because’ no one knows how to stop it. There is one possibility of doing so if we can understand the structure of this alienation of ourselves from our experience, our experience from our deeds, our deeds from human authorship. Everyone will be carrying out orders. Where do they come from? Always from elsewhere. Is it still possible to reconstitute our destiny out of this hellish and inhuman fatality?” 1

So, when others see us they see those who have enslaved themselves to their own creations, who are unable or unwilling to question these creations even when these creations are killing the entire planet. They see those who at one time had the ability to choose, but long ago surrendered that ability in exchange for the ability to leverage power and outsource killing.

Choices? Choices? We don’t need no stinking choices.

We just follow wherever the system leads.

When we look in the mirror we see the only source of meaning in the universe.

When others look at us they see destroyers of meaning, converters of forests to parking lots, prairies to monocultures, rivers to the industrial electricity without which we can’t imagine life. They see us as the destroyers of all complexity, the great simplifiers, making things simple so our simple minds can (still fail to) understand them.

When we look in the mirror we see ourselves as the creators of great art.

When others look at us they see the destroyers of art, the destroyers of beauty, the destroyers of bison and blue whales and monarch butterflies and old growth forests and prairies at dawn and oceans full of fish. What is more beautiful, the sound of a meadowlark or the sound of a highway? The sight of a river or a dam? The smell of a forest or a city? If you are in a city, look around: once this place, too, was wild and beautiful.

I recently watched a documentary on the U.S. invasions of Iraq. There were lots of photos of tanks and trucks and troops moving through the countryside. What impressed me most were the desert backdrops. You could look from horizon to horizon and not see a single plant.

Before this culture, that was cedar forest so thick that sunlight never touched the ground.

We have become Death, destroyer of worlds. We are driven by our insane—and insatiable because impossible—quest for validation of our self-perceived superiority. We are driven to destroy all that is alive and free and beautiful and wondrous and meaningful and is not made by or dependent upon us, not under our control.

Our failure at the mirror test of self-awareness reminds me of nothing so much as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the central conceit of which is that as the main character becomes increasingly vile his countenance remains clear, but a portrait of him changes to reflect who he has become. When we look in the mirror, we continue to see a bright and beautiful and intelligent and wonderful being, but who we actually are has become dull and ugly and stupid and as vile as it is possible to be.

And we can’t see a fucking thing. We can say, with a clean (because completely eradicated) conscience, “I see no evidence of any inherent destructiveness in what we do or who we have become.”

1 Laing, R.D., The Politics of Experience, Ballantine Books, New York, 1967, page 78.

Derrick Jensen is the author of numerous books, including Endgame, Listening to the Land, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing and Revolution, and co-author of Deep Green Resistance.