In a world that’s undergoing a Sixth Mass Extinction, brought about largely by human activity, Earth in Transition explores the psychology of human nature and whether it is possible, at this late stage, to transform the way we relate to our fellow animals, to nature and to each other.
Life on Earth is now in the early days of a sixth mass extinction. Currently, according to U.N. reports, more than 2,000 species of animals are already going extinct every month.
More and more scientists are telling us that the extinction process is irreversible. The best case scenario is that a few very hardy species (extremophiles) will survive, maybe setting life back to where it was millions of years ago. The worst case scenario is that no life will survive.
To the best of our knowledge, there have been five previous mass extinctions. One of them, the Permian extinction, 250 million years ago, wiped out about 90 percent of life on Earth over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. The most recent, the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, destroyed 75 percent of all life over thousands of years.
What’s unfolding now is the first extinction event to have been brought about by a single species – ourselves. And it’s happening at a rate that dwarfs what happened in any of the previous events.
How did this happen? Why is it that the situation for animals just keeps deteriorating? Why, even now, are the animal protection movement, the environmental movement, and people generally who care about what’s happening unable even to slow down what’s happening? Why is there more factory farming than ever, more vivisection, more exploitation of the animals, and more destruction of the land, the oceans and the atmosphere?
In the field of animal protection, while there have been small improvements, like a reduction in the number of homeless pets being killed in shelters, we must acknowledge that the animal protection movement overall has failed in its mission.
That’s not a criticism of all the people and organizations who are doing everything they can to help. It means that something deeper is going on – something that underlies our relationship to our fellow animals and the world of nature.
Our purpose on Earth in Transition is to understand what’s gone wrong with that relationship so that we can work together to do whatever can be done to reduce the suffering of our fellow animals in the years ahead.
It’s been called the signature cry of all humanity: “I am NOT an animal.”
Over thousands of years, we humans have sought to separate ourselves from the rest of nature, to see ourselves as superior and “exceptional”. We don’t even like to be reminded of the fact that we are animals. They are animals, we are humans.
But the more we try to separate ourselves from nature, the more we inevitably alienate ourselves from our own nature.
From our ancestors who, about 11,000 years ago, built the first temples that portray humans as superior to other animals … to philosophers like Rene Descartes who proclaimed that nonhuman animals are nothing more than soulless, emotionless, thoughtless biological machines … to our modern society that treats nonhuman life as an earth-size warehouse of supplies, resources and spare parts, we have cast ourselves as the gods of this world, and all other animals as things that exist not for their own sakes but for ours.
This denial of our own nature, coupled with our ability to do great damage to the Earth, is the recipe for the growing catastrophe that’s overtaking our world.
In 1973, anthropologist Ernest Becker published a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death. Pulling together a lot of the work of philosophers and psychologists through the ages, Becker argued that human civilization and culture is basically a defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality – our own animal nature.
We humans, Becker noted, are the only animals who live our lives in the terrifying knowledge that we are doomed to die. And we spend our lives doing everything possible to deny this irrevocable fact. We create belief systems to support the notion that we will live on, one way or another, after we die. We build legacies and join groups through which our name will endure. We produce works of art and culture that can represent who and what we are once we’re gone. And we create for ourselves a symbolic or “spiritual” identity that transcends our animal nature – a “soul” that is immortal and indestructible.
Typically, our belief systems reinforce this symbolic self by saying, for example, that “animals” (meaning nonhuman animals) don’t have a soul.
Whether or not these claims have any basis in truth, we use them to proclaim that “I am not an animal!” and to separate ourselves, at least in our own minds, from the other animals and from our own true nature.
And we defend our “immortality projects” by any means possible, including going to war with people of other cultures whose beliefs and practices seem to threaten our own.
The end result is an entirely dysfunctional relationship to each other, to our fellow creatures and to the planet that’s our home and our environment.
As long as we’re in denial about our own nature, almost any effort to treat other animals with the respect we grant each other is doomed to fail.
Only a few hundred years ago, it was a crime even to suggest that the entire universe might not revolve around the Earth. Today, it’s still unacceptable to suggest that we humans are not the center of all life on Earth. Basically, we remain as self-centered and self-absorbed as we ever were.
Even highly respected scientists and other experts advocating for saving ourselves from catastrophe routinely leave nonhuman animals out of their circle of what needs to be protected rather than exploited. The bottom line is always the protection of humans.
But the more we protest our exceptionalism, the more we’re just demonstrating our own sense of insecurity and helplessness. Meanwhile, the “unsinkable” Titanic that is our fragile civilization has already hit the proverbial iceberg, and we’re taking on water.
Earth in Transition explores the growing fields of animal cognition, terror management theory (the science of the denial of death), and how we humans are relating to our changing world.
The story of humankind is a tragedy in the classical sense of the word: the tale of a prodigal species with a tragic flaw that it could never overcome, and the denial of which has brought disaster upon itself and upon the whole world.
The one remaining question is whether, in the final act of this drama, we can recognize and come to terms with what we have brought about and do whatever we can for our fellow creatures who have borne the brunt of our denial.
We can do this in large ways together or in small ways individually, but it is the one thing we can actually do that will address the situation, even if only in small part.
And perhaps, in making restitution where we can, we will find some relief from our own fears and anxieties, and a measure of redemption for ourselves.