Humanity at a crossroad
In 2020, a UN report (Global Biodiversity Outlook 5) warned:
“Humanity stands at a crossroads with regard to the legacy it leaves to future generations. Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, and the pressures driving this decline are intensifying. None of the… Biodiversity Targets will be fully met…The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of the relationship between people and nature, and it reminds us all of the profound consequences to our own well-being and survival that can result from continued biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems.”
This partly garbled message is telling us that humans are dangerous and largely stupid creatures. They keep increasing in numbers while they decimate biodiversity and ecosystems – technical terms meaning the very foundations of life: a tremendous variety of wildlife and intact rivers, forests, mountains, and land. This natural world is absolutely essential for the birth, survival, and prosperity of human beings. Most humans know they need clean water, fertile land, and plenty of animals and plants, as well as healthy forests, rivers and seas and oceans.
Biodiversity and climate chaos
This biodiversity is crucial to tame or reduce the violence of the anthropogenic climate chaos. Greenhouse emissions enter the atmosphere in the billions of tons. About 50 percent of those Earth-warming gases are absorbed by the oceans and land. Healthy forests and wetlands sequester greenhouse gases. Marshes and swamps store twice as much carbon dioxide than forests. Seagrasses and mangroves sequester carbon four times the rate of forests. The natural world with plenty of biodiversity is our best defense against the climate dragon.
Yet animals, plants, trees, fish, coral reefs, other sea wildlife and plankton, birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and invisible microbes – are in trouble. This is bad news because we are nothing without these forms of life. They give us the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. And yet we keep hunting, eating, shooting, cutting down, starving, and poisoning our natural benefactors. In addition, animals, trees, and other wildlife have no less rights for life than humans do. In fact, they are seniors to humans, having been on Earth much longer than us. Some of them, like Sequoias live for hundreds and thousands of years.
I remember a tree near Humboldt State University in northern California that was 2,500 years old in the late 1980s when I was teaching at the university. Imagine this tree was growing up while the Athenians were building the Parthenon. Those ancient trees are America’s Parthenon.
There are philosophical reasons why humans cannot live without a variety of healthy animals and plants, what we call biological diversity and ecosystems. The non-human or natural world of rivers, mountains, lakes, valleys, seas, and oceans is beautiful in color, architecture, and appearance and atmosphere because of the variety of species (of plants and animals) it supports. That beauty is essential for human sanity and health and the enjoyment of life. Nature has always been the nursery and school for humans.
Ancient people like the Greeks and the Egyptians were well aware of their place in the natural world, which included the starry skies. They worshipped the Earth and the heavens, which they populated with gods.
Filling nature with gods
The Athenians bult the Parthenon to honor their protector goddess Athena, daughter of Zeus, father of the gods. Athena gifted the olive tree to the Athenians. She represented the arts of civilization and wisdom. Her mother, Metis, was the goddess of intelligence.
Greeks had festivals celebrating gods they associated to their prosperity and good harvests. They honored Hephaistos and his sons, the Kabeiroi gods, for being models for metallurgy and technology. The sister of Zeus, Demeter, blessed wheat and rural life; Dionysos, son of Zeus, was the paradigm for the cultivation of vine and the production of wine; Aristaios, son of Apollo, protected beekeeping, and olive oil and cheesemaking; and Pan protected flocks of goats, sheep, and cattle.
The control of nature
Unfortunately, the emergence of Christianity and Islam overthrew this Cosmos of people and the natural world, depended on each other. The new worldview of the one-god religions was the domination of the natural world. Add technologies of exploitation and unchecked population growth to this concept of humans being in charge of animals and everything else, and the result is climate chaos and the wrecking of the boundless natural world.
The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres, is right the humans have become weapons for mass extinction. On December 6, 2022, Antonio Guterres addressed the Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. As usual, he spoke the truth about humanity’s war on nature. He warned the leaders of the world to stop treating the planet like a toilet. He reminded them that we are all facing a biodiversity apocalypse. He said:
“Nature is humanity’s best friend. Without nature, we have nothing. Nature is our life-support system. It is the source and sustainer of the air we breathe, the food we eat, the energy we use, the jobs and economic activity we count on, the species that enrich human life, and the landscapes and waterscapes we call home. And yet humanity seems hellbent on destruction. We are waging war on nature. This Conference is about the urgent task of making peace. Because today, we are out of harmony with nature. In fact, we are playing an entirely different song. Around the world, for hundreds of years, we have conducted a cacophony of chaos, played with instruments of destruction. Deforestation and desertification are creating wastelands of once-thriving ecosystems. Our land, water and air are poisoned by chemicals and pesticides, and choked with plastics. Our addiction to fossil fuels has thrown our climate into chaos — from heatwaves and forest fires to communities parched by heat and drought or inundated and destroyed by terrifying floods. Unsustainable production and consumption are sending emissions skyrocketing, and degrading our land, sea and air. Today, one-third of all land is degraded, making it harder to feed growing populations. Plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates —are all at risk. A million species teeter on the brink. Ocean degradation is accelerating the destruction of life-sustaining coral reefs and other marine ecosystems — and directly affecting those communities that depend on the oceans for their livelihoods.”
Guterres attacked multinational corporations for their rapacity and greed, “emptying our world of its natural gifts” at the steep price costing all of us: $ 3 trillion per year. No wonder he warned that “humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction.” It has.
Returning to polytheism, worshipping the natural world like the ancient Greeks, is not likely to happen any time soon. It would put out of business the savage polluters-destroyers of nature and the purchased theologians, ecclesiastics, and preachers supporting them.
Can we return to nature?
An easier step in returning to some kind of balance with the natural world and civilization would be for prime ministers and presidents to take Guterres seriously. Wiping out biodiversity is slicing human existence. And with the rising of the climate dragon out of millennia of slumber, the conditions for humanity are becoming untenable.
I keep asking myself why. I studied history: Greek, Roman, Medieval, Russian, and Southeastern European, British and the history of science. Medieval history is about Europe during the time monotheism covered the continent with darkness. Could it be, I wonder, that our time (twentieth and twenty-first centuries) is another version of Medieval darkness? That our darkness is primarily the result of the triumph of the industrial worldview? Not that Christianity and Islam have been made irrelevant, they have not, but the persistent mechanization of everything has overwhelmed both nature and civilization?
So, to reverse Guterres’ correct conclusion – that humans are machines of extinction – we need a Renaissance for the revival of civilization. Humans must draw from their ancient traditions of respect and veneration of the natural world. As Native Americans say animals are our relatives. This great insight and understanding is complementary to that of Aristotle that animals are beautiful and perfect. They are the children of nature that does nothing in vain.