I’ve been wondering for a while about Ingredient X. As in, the part of us, this human animal, that marks us out from the others.
You know all those “humans are the only species to…” (use language / make war / get high / mourn our dead / have the capacity to blow ourselves up / know God / laugh-cry-blush etc.) pronouncements? Most have been overtaken by zoological findings but new ones are continually being minted (…explore space / enjoy extreme sports / watch Bridgerton etc. etc.) What they have in common is an (insecure?) assumption that something very special separates us from the rest of creation.
Could this be analogous to the something that marks ‘me’ out from ‘you’ and all others? In which case, would it be better to frame this primarily as a feeling of being the special one/the chosen species? A subjective assumption that this ‘me’ or ‘us’ is distinct from all the others? A sense of being unique or even, ye gods forbid, of being better than?
Whether Ingredient X is feeling or fact, the evidence of our collective distinctiveness is all around, in the form of this habitat of our own making. A space of relative plenitude and relative security from the vagaries of mother nature. A space in which to multiply, and multiply again, absorbing, repurposing and eventually eliminating at will the habitats of others. A capability of ours which has turned out to be truly unique. A marker of separation.
But evidence of connection is all around too. From the microbiome in our bellies – the cellular organisms who outnumber human cells in our body and arguably have more claim to be ‘us’ than we ourselves! – to the entire interwoven gaia of air, land and sea that gifts us life on this mossball spinning through space.
Connection with, or separation from? Both, clearly. But which of those defines us? Are we made of the same physical and spiritual stuff as all, or are we lifted above the fray by Ingredient X? Who can say?
To that question at least, I think there’s an answer.
The cultural practices and values we inherit and pass on, from and to our family of fellows on our particular patch of blessed earth, determine how we place ourselves along that continuum from connection to separation, from separation to connection. The stories we tell of the universe, the dreaming we share and the patterns we weave, shape what we make of our role in this world. To subjugate and dominate, or to listen, observe and tend?
To put this another way, is it better to love nature in all her unfathomable, gnarly complexity and roll with the occasional punch, or stand apart and punch back hard?
In the short run, perhaps the latter. In the long run, though…in the really, really long run…it’s better to roll with the punches. The evidence is indisputable. Many would disagree. But to those who see a way through the gathering pace of artificially induced environmental catastrophe that involves punching back harder and faster than ever, while detaching yet further from each other and this shimmering, fecund world, the best I can suggest is that they have a thing or two to learn about life.
We may at times feel like a special me, separate from the others, or like a special class of being (special nation, special religious community, special race, special species…), but a healthy culture works to contain that kind of feeling, stopping it from getting out of hand. (When that ‘special me’ feeling gets out of hand, someone or a lot of someones end up dead.)
A healthy culture holds us instead in systems of kinship and connection with the living, breathing world. All human cultures do this, to varying degrees, and that surely accounts for why, by some metrics, we are a wildly successful species. We evidently gave up our claws and fangs, much of our muscle and brain mass, our protective coats and more, taking up fire and tools instead and morphing into the delicately built, largely peaceful, highly cooperative species that lords it over creation today.
But there’s the rub. We didn’t ought to have lorded it over anything. Not over each other, let alone over the endless processes of creation. Cultures have discovered this in the past, across spans of deep time involving plenty of trial and error, and some have taken proactive measures to recalibrate, but ours – this culture of us moderns – is one of those that chose to double down on its blunders. Maybe the acceleration got out of hand once the genies (technology, fossil fuels, systems of mass social control) started getting out of their bottles, and there just wasn’t enough time to recalibrate. Or was there something – Ingredient Y? – that poisoned the well from the start? Either way, the global culture of the moderns appears to be marching out along a rotting evolutionary limb.
In cultures that did, and in some cases still do, get the balance right, a common ethic among them appears to be that our lot, as humans, is to look after the world. That we are the ‘custodial species’ (Yunkaporta, Sand Talk).
This looks to me like an acknowledgement of Ingredient X, however it may have come about and whatever form it may take (each culture tells a different tale). Recognition, in fact, that Ingredient X is the gift of responsibility, with all the powers and burdens thus entailed.
Would it be exaggeration to say that the culture most of us live in is one that fetishizes irresponsibility? A fetish buttressed with manmade ideologies to ensure that each new generation absorbs and implements the code of extraction, excretion and depletion, consequences be damned. The code of exploitation rather than of care and preservation. A code which, in the long run, is counter to any notion of personal responsibility for keeping creation in motion.
How about: “Humans are the only species to…” have the power, right now, to exercise that gift, even at short term cost to ourselves, and take responsibility for getting creation back on track?
And if so, then surely it is for the privileged elites of the world, at macro and micro level, culpable as they are (we are) for disproportionate despoilation, to find it in themselves (ourselves) to lead the way. To interrogate their own (our own) maladaptive cultures and migrate home towards the ethic of gratitude and care for a world for which we are responsible.
The ethic which is our birth right. Ingredient X.