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Dominion: A Matter of Interpretation?

God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying:

“Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28

It doesn’t matter whether we interpret dominion as domination or stewardship. An authentic call for respect would transcend it.

We pretend free-living animals need our stewardship as we ravage their rainforests, plant vast monocultures over their prairies, and build the factories, mines, walls and roadways that fragment habitat, pollute the biosphere, and disrupt the Earth’s climate irreversibly. And we are the primates who will wire our own brains to computers. Why would any other species in its right mind trust us with dominion?

Shivon Zilis, special projects director at the Neuralink Corporation, says testing on monkeys is necessary before brain chips are implanted in disabled humans, then in depressed people, and then, ultimately, in so-called healthy humans. In seven to ten years from now, chips in our skulls will synch with our devices—making it more convenient to summon our Teslas. Meanwhile, Neuralink’s CEO Elon Musk says the company’s monkeys “look totally happy.” This is the type of stewardship dominion permits.

Another humanity is conceivable, right? I don’t know. Our familiar hierarchies started long before Genesis. I’d imagine they go back tens of thousands of years, from the time our ancestors fashioned blades and harpoons and moved outside our equatorial niche. Over the centuries, we’ve made our dominion over other animals so complete that we don’t think of ourselves as vanquishers even as we consume them.

We form nations, and equip them to kill. We lock each other up for crossing imaginary lines between “our” land and “theirs” (the “our” part often having been wrested away from “them” through past force). How can other animals, whether plentiful or at the brink of extinction, be respected by a humanity that’s so willing to kill, shun, or cage its own members?

I’m told we must have borders. Otherwise, heaven forbid. Chaos and mayhem. As though an overwhelming volume of chaos and mayhem weren’t evident in our current news headlines. Our walls rob us all—bighorn sheep, nectar-feeding bat or human—of our natural ability to move across the surface of the planet on which we were born.

The thought manifests as the word,

The word manifests as the deed,

The deed develops into habit,

And the habit hardens into character.

So watch the thought and its way with care,

And let it spring from love,

Born out of concern for all beings.

— Paraphrasing of a Buddhist teaching, published by K. Sri Dhammananda

Creeds, nations, species; those categories have served as alibis for living within an oppressive hierarchy. Love, born out of concern for all beings, is what we and certainly our lethal nations haven’t tried much.

The only honest concern for all beings I’ve come across is the vegan principle; and in place of pleading with government or commerce to shift things for us, this form of commitment reclaims personal and community decision-making. It sustains the ideal of a concerned society, one in which humans and all beings have a respected birthright not to be commodified or held accountable by the threat of official violence.

And looking back on the Judeo-Christian context of the dominion directive, we know we’ve been “fertile and multiplying” our way to the Anthropocene age. What are the consequences for climate, for life on Earth as we know it? We’re now pushing past the boundaries of Earth’s capacity to sustain us. If you’re not terrified, you’re either not paying attention, or maybe you fancy yourself living on Mars with Elon Musk. Could we have reached this state of emergency had we questioned human supremacy?

Animal liberation would be the status quo and not a fantasy if we never had the gall to assume dominion over fish, fowl, etc. Could it ever be more than a fantasy until every biological community unravels for as long as we keep human dominion—no matter how we define the word?

We have people believing in life on Mars—our own. If that idea is conceivable, then living as a member (not a conqueror) of the planet’s biological community seems a fairly modest proposition. And yet, the relinquishment of dominion could be the final frontier, the greatest journey humanity could take from here.

Until then, let’s drop the claim that stewardship could either justify our domineering conduct, or save us from it.

With gratitude for Chris Kelly and Robin Lane, two human apes who have influenced my mental meanderings for decades, steadfastly pointing out that benign dominion is no bargain.

Buddhist quote from p. 192 of How to Live Without Fear & Worry by K. Sri Dhammananda, BMS Publications (1989).