On the forgetting of our human nature

Wendell Berry once wrote:

We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people, but of course we are. Why else would we allow our country to be destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why else would we all — by proxies we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians — be participating in its destruction? Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.

How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being thorough enough, which is the same thing.

The essay from which I pulled this quote addresses the destruction of the land in America and around the world. Berry’s thought: If human beings destroy the land on which they live, they will have committed collective suicide and, ironically, genocide. If human beings lack habitable land upon which to create a life, our species, one of many, will become extinct.

For Berry’s land one could substitute the idea of a world that can sustain both human and a diverse abundance of non-human life. Human beings have known the ‘civilized’ version of this generic world since about 8,000 to 12,000 BC, from the time when our ancestors began to develop an agricultural economy. Although this habitable world is both necessary and irreplaceable, over the last one-hundred years it has become possible to imagine its destruction. About a century ago, the advent of total and world war brought about the age of catastrophe, the age in which we live, an epoch of holocausts and apocalypses, of the subjugation of the human world to globalizing economic and political systems. Nuclear weapons exemplify the destructiveness now in the hands of some of the most belligerent war-making modern states. But it is modern industrial production and consumption, now encompassing the globe, which mortally threaten those species attuned to the mechanisms and rhythms of a first nature billions of years in the making.

Civilized human beings believe themselves to reasonable, pragmatic and thus adaptable. They believe themselves to be masters of and responsible for their destinies. Yet it is the most powerful members of this lot that have shown themselves to be incapable of learning from the situation we all now confront. What must they learn? This: A civilization that requires the hyper exploitation of finite resources will not last forever.

The endgame of the human project has already appeared. These are reactionary times, a moment during which capital is at its apex, and, as such, they thus call for a radical response: Social and political revolution. “If not now, then when?”

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