Chapter 10

Why Does It Matter?


I don’t know about you, but I have a problem with death. It’s there, at the end of the journey, waiting to take us all, and there is nothing you can do about it except hope that the act of submission is as painless as possible. Come to think of it, though, maybe even that doesn’t matter; maybe it’s better to go out kicking and screaming in throes of agony having given Death something to think about on your way out.

It’s a romantic vision of sorts. We like romantic visions of death to take the sting out of our inevitable fate: from Ingmar Bergman’s stark, obstinate chess player challenging Death to a final match to the diaphanous, flower-strewn Ophelia being drawn along to her doom by the lazy river in Millais’ celebrated painting; death is something we have represented in as many ways as we have emotions.

Figure 6: We don’t all end up this way (Source: Author’s photo)

Not only do our representations of death vary widely; the way we treat the dead reflects so many things about the cultures we live in. In France, bodies are routinely cremated – a practice that is becoming more popular in almost every industrial nation. In the USA, on the other hand, bodies are encased in the finest wood, and then entombed in concrete caskets, as though somehow death is not the end and we must ensure finality reigns. In Neolithic Europe high status bodies were set into individual burial mounds along with objects symbolising their lives whereas the majority of people were buried in shared mounds or barrows, prior to which bodies were “left in the open air and progressively cleaned of all flesh by the wind and the birds, leaving the bones ready for the burial.”[i]

Whether this “excarnation” makes you feel queasy probably depends on your view of the body as the essence of a person’s existence, or as merely a carrier for the soul. Both views are as ancient as humans, and neither can be proven as false, such is the nature of faith. Religions exist to help people know the unknowable, to think about the unthinkable, to believe the unbelievable: I mean that last one sincerely – faith allows you to believe in whatever you want to believe. It is extremely difficult to know how many people on Earth profess to follow or adhere to a formal religion, as each person’s definition of “follow” or “adhere” may be different; but one semi-reliable source gives the figure as being about 5.5 billion[ii]. That is an awful lot of people who believe in us having something more than a physical existence on Earth; an awful lot of people who want more than mere birth, life and death.

For most people, life is a set of repetitive tasks, interspersed by occasional ups and downs. The seemingly monotonous treadmill that we occupy while on Earth is surely the essence of life itself, though, otherwise we would have people ending their lives as soon as they found out that there was a better, more fulfilling existence beyond our mortal coils. But there are rules: life is a test; it is what we will be judged on in the hereafter; it is a stage in the everlasting progression towards a final place in eternity. Maybe the rules exist because we don’t actually want to die. Maybe life is all there is.


The Three Selfviews

Whatever your spiritual viewpoint – and I am not going to be the judge of anyone’s afterlife, so long as I am allowed to comment on a person’s life itself – while we are on this Earth we find ourselves in a web of differing cultural viewpoints and attitudes; social, economic and political systems; physical and mental interactions with the world around us; all of which end up giving us something we call a “Worldview”. Fundamental to this Worldview is how we envisage our place on Earth in both a temporal and spatial sense; and how we, as humans, relate to that sense of time and space. Knowing what your special type of Worldview is – I’m going to refer to it as your “Selfview” – is one of the most important things you will ever know: it is nothing less than a template on which all of your actions are based.

Selfview One

Humans are a vital component of life on Earth. They have a special place in the pantheon of all life such that they must be treated with special reverence. They are eternal beings that must never fail. They have the right to dominion over all other life and as such hold the future of all life in their hands.

Selfview Two

Humans are part of life on Earth. They are no more special or important than any other organism. They exist to play their part within the web of life and as such, like the vast majority of organisms, are relatively short-term players. They have no more right to decide the path of the biosphere than any other organism.

Selfview Three

Humans are naturally of little relevance to the rest of life. They are a scourge upon the Earth. They have less right than any other organism to exist and the Earth would be better off without them. They must be willing subjects to the actions of all other organisms.

An interesting range of views, and all the more odd for being equally extreme. Given that these Selfviews run from the truly despotic to the humble self-loathing, you would think that the middle ground would be acceptable to the majority of people; but to me, and maybe to you, it feels no less extreme than the other two. How can a middle ground view be extreme? The answer lies in the questions.

Ask yourself the following four questions, and make sure you are completely honest with your answers:

Question One:

What do you feel is humans’ physical place within and in relation to the rest of life on Earth?

Question Two:

Are humans more important than, as important as, or less important than other life on Earth, and to what extent?

Question Three:

What is, or should be, the time span of humans’ existence on Earth – or any other place?

Question Four:

What, if any, right do humans have to determine the course of life for anything else on Earth?  

How did you do? I have absolutely no idea what you had as your answers, obviously, but I want you to look back at the three Selfviews and decide where, if anywhere, you fit now. I suppose you want to know what I, as the person writing this book, had as my answers, but I’m not going to tell you yet – all that will become clear during the course of this chapter. I will say this, though: there are more ways to skin a cat than you might suppose.


The Three Tests

I want to simplify the three Selfviews, so that they can be evaluated more easily. The Selfviews are, in the order previously written: Humans Are Vital; Humans Are Relevant; Humans Are Irrelevant. There are three tests that now need to be applied to each of those Selfviews: the Ecology Test, the Cultural Test and the Personal Test. If this is all starting to sound a bit analytical and long-winded, please bear with me – you will understand why this has to be done very soon.

The Ecology Test is a way of objectively understanding the physical importance of humans within the biosphere. The whole of Part One and much of Chapter Eight looked at this in detail, so the results shouldn’t be too hard to predict, should they?

The Cultural Test takes a wider look at humans in terms of how we, as a species, view ourselves; this was discussed in Chapter Nine. The culture you live in will have a huge bearing on the outcome of this test, so I’m going to give you a few different viewpoints so we can work this out between ourselves, regardless of your own cultural beliefs.

The Personal Test finally looks at our relevance from an individual point of view. The outcome of this test is highly personal, but surprisingly there seems to be just one outcome. How important this test is to you, though, depends on your answer to this question: If a tree makes a sound when it falls in the forest, does it matter if no one is there to hear it?


The Ecology Test

As we saw in Part One, small changes to the world’s ecology, to even the most minute organisms, can have a devastating impact on the ability of humans to survive. The problem with being Top Predator is that you are bound to the actions of everything below you. To a certain extent you can control this, as has been attempted with the use of agriculture and animal domestication; but nature always finds a way to come back and bite you: bluetongue disease, potato blight, boll weevil, avian flu are four examples – those that have made the news – but don’t rest assured, there are far more lurking in the well of life.

Humans can ingest just about anything that other heterotrophs (organisms that cannot make their own food) are able to. One outcome of this is that ecologically it is not that difficult for humans to adopt less damaging lifestyles: not eating endangered species; not eating anything that damages habitats; not eating animals; not eating anything produced by animals; not eating anything that causes the death of a plant. Yes, if you want to live a truly sustainable lifestyle then you don’t even have to kill plants: Fruitarianism – a diet consisting entirely of food “given” by plants without killing them – isn’t exactly widespread, but it’s very ecologically sound. The Ecology Test, however, judges how ecologically important humans currently are to the rest of life. It is a test not of mere significance – we are obviously significant by the mere fact that humans are having a colossal impact on the natural world – but a test of whether humans make a positive contribution to the global ecology.

There is a school of thought, mentioned earlier, that says humans are fundamental to life. The thinkers that place humans at the top of the tree of life (which, incidentally, feels like a pretty precarious place to be in such a large tree) take what is known as an Anthropocentric viewpoint: we are at the centre, head, top – whatever shape this thing happens to be – of creation, which logically makes us vital to life itself. I have to point the blame for this squarely in the direction of those religious leaders who extolled (and sadly, some still do) this viewpoint in the face of so much contrary evidence. Yet, as Shannon Burkes writes: “The relative importance of humans in the cosmic hierarchy is made clear in the divine speeches at the end [of the Old Testament], which fail to mention any human significance in creation, and instead exalt Behemoth, ‘the first of the great acts of God,’ (40:15) and Leviathan, ‘on earth it has no equal’ (41:34).”[iii] Always check your references before you quote from them.

A similar school of thought, less polemical but seemingly more ingrained in our culture, sees the world as the outcome of human intervention: i.e. “it is what it is, so it must be so.” Let me explain. Because humans have had such an impact on, for instance, the landscape of the planet, that landscape must, therefore, be natural: it is natural because it is the result of human agency, because humans are part of life. It makes some sense when you think about it. William Wordsworth in his Guide through the District of the Lakes asks the reader to try and imagine the landscape without any human intervention:

He will form to himself an image of the tides visiting and revisiting the friths, the main sea dashing against the bolder shore, the rivers pursuing their course to be lost in the mighty mass of waters. He may see or hear in fancy the winds sweeping over the lakes, or piping with a loud voice among the mountain peaks and, lastly, may think of the primaeval woods shedding and renewing their leaves with no human eye to notice, or human heart to regret or welcome the change.[iv]

The world that Wordsworth inhabited was one of grand romanticism, of the sanctity of human design and invention, and one in which the aspects of the natural world that mattered most were those which pleased the human eye. The age that valued aesthetics has a legacy in the groups of people that oppose wind farms on the basis of attractiveness, and wish to preserve a sense of order in the countryside rather than let nature have its way. If only the rest of life could talk.

“There’s been so much death out there. Who gave the humans the right to decide who’s a weed and who’s not? They say they’re doing it for the crops but even the crops have started to complain. They don’t like being sprayed and regimented, there’s no variety any more.”[v]

We have but one viewpoint, that of the human. The rest of life only has a voice in modern cultures when humans choose to offer it; and even then any “rights” we invest upon other species are couched in our terms. The anthropocentric viewpoint is only relevant to our ecology. To get an idea of the difference humans make to the rest of life, you have to imagine a world without us.

You can take two approaches to a world without humans: one of them in a world where humans once dwelt such as we are now, in the same numbers and with the same impact; a second in a world in which humans never existed at all. To understand the first world you must suddenly take humans away: don’t even leave those who live relatively sustainable lives – exterminate us all from the face of the Earth. Who would miss us? Pets maybe – I can envisage a smattering of mournful, solitary Greyfriars Bobbys laying at the bedsides of their former owners, pining away – but even the most devoted companion would eventually be forced into following their instincts by the drives of thirst, hunger and the need for a mate. Animals in cages would starve, after resorting to cannibalism. The same goes for farmed fish in concrete pens and synthetic nets, but the fish in ponds in gardens throughout the world would – as mine started to many years ago – live happily on weed, insects and other wildlife. Farm animals in fields would break down fences and roam wild: flimsy electrical tape being no impediment after humans stopped producing the source of those little jolts.

Bob Holmes took New Scientist readers on a stark ride into a world in which humans once existed, ending: “It will only take a few tens of thousands of years at most before almost every trace of our present dominance has vanished completely. Alien visitors coming to Earth 100,000 years hence will find no obvious signs that an advanced [sic] civilization ever lived here.”[vi] The toxic impact of humans in the industrial age lingers for a while, continuing to heat up the Earth for decades before this trend finds a natural balance; while the chemicals gradually break down through a host of natural processes, eventually dissipating to harmless levels. This may take eons, and some substances may never completely go away. What is particularly interesting is the rapidity with which our visual impact breaks down in the face of Nature. Without the constant attention given to mowing, cutting, shaping, beating down, ploughing, realigning and reclaiming the Earth’s surface, the planet will once again take on the softness that is the mark of life forms that intimately depend upon, rather than push back and defend against, each other.

The second world, one in which humans never existed would resemble the world 100,000 years after humans had left: a mere one forty-six thousandth of the lifespan of the Earth. Life would go on, all forms of life except for those we purposefully created for our own ends: the synthetic hybrids; the chimaeras; the genetically modified organisms that ravage the plains of Canada and Argentina; the farmed salmon that threaten to dominate the gene pool each time a marine wall breaks down. And what of the dodo, the passenger pigeon, the Yangtze River dolphin, the unknowable numbers of species that lived and then were snuffed out by our agency – often without us ever realising we were doing it? Imagine a world in which humans had never caused a single extinction: this could only be a world in which humans had never existed.

We don’t come out well on the Ecology Test: the rest of life would be better off without us. It seems that we are irrelevant.


The Cultural Test

I was listening to the news on the radio the other day; it was an article about the UK armed forces in Afghanistan losing soldiers because of a lack of decent armoured vehicles. The phrase that struck me was the same one that some other writers have picked up on, “Our armed forces”. I don’t remember being asked permission for my armed forces to fight in Afghanistan, nor did I realise that I even had any armed forces that I could ask to fight on my behalf[vii]. It turns out that my sister has some armed forces too, and my best friend, and my neighbours who go everywhere by car.

We all have to share the same armed forces, of course – well, at least if you are in the same country as me. But then who are those other people in Afghanistan, the NATO lot? And there are lots of United Nations forces trying to sort out problems in West Africa. Are they all mine? Which ones belong to me? I’m getting confused. The problem with trying to ascertain which culture you belong to is that there seem to be so many different ones to choose from. I could easily put myself in the following social / racial / religious etc. groups:

Earth dweller






All pretty standard stuff, and none of them contradictory – or are they? Britain is a Christian nation, according to various religious people I hear on the radio. I can be an Earth dweller and White, for sure, but does this recognition of my global position mean I’ve opted out of any regional or national geographical identity? In fact your cultural identity is a mix of just about anything you want it to be: football team, favourite brand of cola, sexual orientation, hair colour.

However you position yourself amongst others, though, you probably feel you belong in one of the few dominant cultures on the planet, and almost certainly the one you have been born into. Someone born in North America, Europe, Australasia, certain states in Asia, South Africa and many other parts of the world, would have been dominated from birth by a culture that is predominantly Christian (at all points along the belief spectrum) and which is centred on the acquisition of money and property through the production of goods. This culture has a tendency towards high-consumption, high-pollution, the private ownership of land and property, representative democracy[viii], the English language, and a relatively free press and media. This culture is usually known by a combination of the words “industrial”, “Western” and “capitalist”, though there are many other names for it. There are variations on the predominant features, especially in the use of language, but in general that’s about the size of it.

Many other people (or rather their governments and especially their business leaders) aspire to be like those in the industrial capitalist West. Religions provide some resistance, especially where the church and state are closely linked – Iran, Nigeria and Pakistan are examples – but even where religious belief is strong, like in the USA or Italy, the high-consumption, high-pollution norms seem to do fine, or even thrive, on such beliefs.

Huge population centres, like those of India and China – accounting for nearly 2.5 billion people between them – have their own cultural systems which originate from a combination of theistic and secular beliefs; but the wholehearted embrace of capitalism by both nations, if not that of the appearance of a democracy or a free press, suggests that other truly distinct cultures are more of the exception rather than the norm. I don’t think I would be insulting many people by making an assumption that the majority of people reading this fall within the same basic culture that I was brought up in. If you were not, then you may come out of this test better than the people who have the majority of financial wealth on this planet.

One way of getting towards the level of objectivity needed for the Cultural Test is by looking at the dominant “symbols” of a culture, and working out what they say about the people within it. That can be complicated, but also very enlightening.

Figure 6: How many do you recognise? (Source: Various – Author’s image)   

I put together a montage of logos because it seems to me that if you can bring together many of the symbols of a culture you can create something that actually resembles that culture. When I went about choosing the logos, I selected those that I thought most people would be able to recognise throughout the entire Western industrial capitalist culture: most of them are commercial, which is not surprising considering the importance of commerce in almost every aspect of the culture; some of them are media organisations, like the BBC, CNN and MTV, which signifies the importance of the media in defining cultural inputs from day to day; very few are non-commercial – the Red Cross / Red Crescent, the Star of David, the Christian Cross and the WWF panda amongst them. There are lots missing, of course, but overall I think the montage fairly represents the priorities of this culture.

The message that this gives to me is that much of humanity has become a commercial entity. No longer are we about subsistence, despite the rich, fulfilling life that – as you have seen – it can entail. There is apparently far more to life than this: we enjoy listening to music; watching TV; buying toys, clothes, cars and computers; eating fast food; flying to far-off places and, when it suits us, giving a little money to charity. We even pray, for others and ourselves: for longer lives, for healthier lives, for the dead, for the living, to make us wealthy, to make us happy. Some of us pray for a healthier natural environment; some of us try to create a healthier natural environment. When it comes down to it, though, it’s really all about taking what we want, so long as we can afford it.

Humans are Vital; Humans are Relevant; Humans are Irrelevant: which is it to be? The predominant culture is one that certainly puts humans at the centre of things, so it’s clear that humans cannot be irrelevant, but does this culture really suggest humans are vital? In this culture, wars are started and countries are invaded, within and beyond its cultural boundaries. In this culture, only some people have access to universal health care, and commercial pressure is encouraging those countries that do have it to privatise their health provision. In this culture, heavy metals are released into the water and air; organophosphates and other long-lived human toxic chemicals are widely used in poorly controlled conditions; corporations lobby to prevent the control of cancer-causing substances. In this culture humans are warming the Earth as a by-product of the commercialism that dominates those cultural symbols. The implication is that some humans are vital to this culture, but not all of them.

One more way of judging the cultural importance of humanity is to look at the aspirations of humans: what it is they want to achieve in the long run. It is certainly not a universal truth that all humans aspire to something beyond living their lives in a regular way: what can you possibly aspire to if your life is deeply fulfilling? In Western cultures, on the other hand, aspirations to greatness have driven technological and social development to places where, without the desire for greatness, they would never have reached – for better or worse. In Western educational systems, and also those of many other modern cultures, it is assumed that people want to “become” something, such as a lawyer, doctor or hairdresser, before they have even reached their teenage years. Presumably many peoples’ aspirations are going to be cut tragically short due to the kinds of activities I mentioned above; but there must be more than just commerce if humans really are Vital.

Michio Kaku, author of Parallel Worlds, is a highly respected cosmologist who dabbles in philosophy. He views humans as having enormous potential for good, even beyond the lifespan of the Earth, but has severe doubts about our current efforts to realise that potential. Beyond carrying out useful work and giving or receiving love – two vital ingredients (he says) in ensuring humans are fulfilled – he sees two other key factors that, in my mind, make the difference between whether humans are Vital or just Relevant: “First, to fulfil whatever talents we are born with. However blessed we are by fate with different abilities and strengths, we should try to develop them to the fullest rather than allow them to atrophy and decay.

“Second, we should try to leave the world a better place than when we entered it. As individuals, we can make a difference, whether it is to probe the secrets of Nature, to clean up the environment and work for peace and social justice, or to nurture the inquisitive, vibrant spirit of the young by being a mentor and a guide.”[ix]

Does this culture fulfil all of Michio Kaku’s requirements? If so, then I can, without hesitation, pronounce humans as being Vital. But it’s not true, is it? The culture does not truly care for the environment; it does not give equal opportunity for all to fulfil the range of their talents; it does not provide widespread provision for nurturing mentors and guides. This culture as a whole does not even value love in any obvious capacity: certainly nowhere near as much as it values economic work. The 2005 European Working Conditions Survey[x] found that an average of 83 percent of workers were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their working conditions. Interestingly, when asked about job opportunities to learn and grow (i.e. the job mentors and guides them), only 54 percent of respondents agreed that this was a factor in job satisfaction. An awful lot of people don’t see work as a means of self-improvement: perhaps there is a message there.

Is it just serendipity that the New Economics Foundation’s “Happy Planet Index”[xi] has managed to take into account almost every one of the above factors and package them into a convenient measure of how much a culture (in the shape of individual nations) views humanity as a going concern? Possibly not. Unsurprisingly we have returned to happiness as the key factor in judging the well being of humanity. Neither is it entirely surprising that the Happy Planet Map shows that the countries most dominated by the Western industrial capitalist culture – the USA, Australia, Canada, Western Europe – score as badly as those countries suffering from abject poverty or political repression. In fact, despite us being told that happiness is something you can buy in a shop, China comes out better than any of these other areas: political repression aside, the people of China still manage (at the moment) to be “planet happier” than much of the rest of the world.

What I especially like about the HPI is that a culture that is environmentally destructive will, on balance, comes out worse than a culture that is not. You cannot value humans if you are making the environmental conditions they live in unbearable. According to the 2007 list, Vanuatu, Columbia and Costa Rica come out on top, closely followed by Dominica and Panama. To find the countries that are most closely associated with the predominant culture you need to go all the way down to Austria, at 61. The UK is at 108, sandwiched between Laos and Libya; the USA is at 150, admittedly brought down with a tremendous bump by its massive environmental impact.

In some cultures humans are considered to be no more than Relevant, largely because the rest of life is considered to be just as important. In other cultures humans are considered to be transcendent – right at the top of existence – yet such cultures also manage to treat the natural environment with sufficient care as to not being grievously damaged. The predominant culture, in which exists the majority of financially wealthy nations, and is having an increasing influence on billions more people, seems to put humans right at the centre of things; but somehow it has conspired to treat the majority of humans as not really important at all. As far as Industrial Civilization – the dominant culture – is concerned, humans were never going to be judged as vital. I’m afraid it was a bit of a fix: we are merely Relevant.


The Personal Test

How would you feel if you were dead? If ever there was a “non question” then this is surely it.  But, it’s still worth asking – critical to ask, in fact, because unless we know how we feel about our death then we cannot possibly know the answer to the next question: Does it matter to us if we are not here?

I want to take you aside for a short moment to discuss the past and the future. Imagine, for a moment, that you are to undergo an operation[xii], one that will lead to a great deal of discomfort for a few days requiring heavy doses of morphine in order to make the pain bearable. Unless you are the kind of person who thrives on pain – and there are such people – then the chances are that you will need some support from others, a range of distractions and quite a lot of tea or coffee leading up to the operation. Once the operation is complete then, as I have said, there is pain; but eventually the pain goes and you are better off for the procedure that has been carried out.

If you look back on that operation you may feel a pang of emotion, maybe even a phantom memory of pain, but you won’t actually feel the pain as it was; nor will you “look back” to the event in the same way that you were forced to look forward to it. Time travels forwards and so we do too. The human body has various tricks that it can pull to ensure we are in tune with the incessant movement of time: one of them is hormonal, and every new mother will have experienced this trick under normal circumstances. When a woman is giving birth, large amounts of various hormones are released into the bloodstream. One of these hormones is called Oxytocin, and it is this hormone that prepares the mother to be for both the second stage of childbirth – the delivery itself – and the essential task of breastfeeding. During the most strenuous and painful stages an odd thing happens: the pituitary gland, that sits just behind the forehead, releases further chemicals known as Endorphins. The result is a decrease in pain perception, quite naturally. The rising level of endorphins also contributes to a shift from a thinking, rational mind-set to a more instinctive one. Endorphins create a dream-like state, which appears to help women in the tasks required for giving birth.[xiii]

Natural birth (without artificial chemicals) may be a question of taste, but there is little doubt that the natural chemicals the human body is able to produce make childbirth a more bearable process. Now here is the really clever part: the endorphin rush not only reduces pain, but it also acts to suppress the memory of that pain, and many other aspects of the birth itself. This effect is not unique to childbirth; in fact there are countless documented cases of people who have undergone grievous injuries, immense tests of stamina and traumatic incidents who just can’t remember the pain of these events.

Why would this be beneficial? If you think about the kinds of situations during which pain-reducing endorphins are released then it becomes clear that pain memory would not be helpful in most cases. Undoubtedly the visual and other sensory aspects of an event may remain vivid – I still feel tense inside when I recall the time I sliced the edge off my left index finger with a Stanley knife when cutting a piece of card – but the pain does not. I have no memory at all of the pain, so while I would be more careful with a sharp blade in the future, based on my memories of the event, I could not tell you how much that knife incident hurt. With childbirth it is critical for the DNA to be able to replicate, so the evolutionary process that has led to endorphins being released ensures that a woman can remember many of the sights, smells and sounds of previous births but, crucially, cannot remember the pain that would otherwise discourage her from trying for another baby. It seems that we have evolved to only remember the parts of the past that it is worth remembering.

Another trick that humans have developed – working out how you would test for this in any other organism is challenging, to say the least – is our ability to treat the future as more important than the past.

Time is a concept that philosophers, and more recently scientists, have struggled with for millennia. There is an organisation called the International Society for the Study of Time that presumably talks about nothing but time, and have been doing so for over forty years with seemingly little agreement. I love this quote from the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: “Time has been studied by philosophers and scientists for 2,500 years, and thanks to this attention it is much better understood today. Nevertheless, many issues remain to be resolved.  Here is a short list of the most important ones…what time actually is; whether time exists when nothing is changing; what kinds of time travel are possible…whether the future and past are real…”[xiv] and so on. Maybe the author has had his or her irony gland removed, or maybe they forgot to read what they had just written, but it is pretty obvious that time is something that we understand very poorly.

We do know that time is distinct from space in as much as you can travel forwards and backwards in space, but you cannot travel backwards in time: the notional “fourth dimension” tag given to time is merely a convenience based on the fact that humans are three-dimensional beings. If we were two-dimensional then (a) we would treat the third dimension differently to the way we do as three-dimensional beings and (b) laying gas, sewage and water pipes to houses would be an absolute nightmare! Maybe if we were four- (or five-, or six-) dimensional beings then time travel would be a breeze, but only relative to beings that exist in fewer dimensions.

Not being able to move backwards in time may seem like a bind, but anyone who has watched Doctor Who or Back To The Future will understand why it’s probably a good thing that we can’t go back in time and alter the course of events – regardless of my overwhelming desire to go back to 1980 and present to every student what we now know about climate change. My younger daughter became very upset when she realised that, if my wife and I had never been born, or had never met, or had never decided to go to Dover one New Year’s day, she would never have been born: such thoughts are of no practical use, and rarely trouble the adult mind. The fact that we are always moving forwards through time, eating up our future as it becomes our present and then our past, means that it would be completely pointless for us to have evolved a fear of the past. I fear the future – I would not be writing this book if that were not the case – but I am only aware of what has happened in the past. The aforementioned painful operation, once it has occurred, merely becomes a memory of something that can never happen again.

The point of all this discussion about time is to give you another perspective on top of the spatial one that you read about in Chapter Eight. We should not only see ourselves as relatively insignificant when it comes to knowing our place in the Tree of Life; we also need to put the past into perspective. By all means we can learn from it, reflect on it and enjoy the memories it has given us, but what matters to us will not happen in the past – it will happen in the future.

Ask yourself the question again: Does it matter to us if we are not here?

Remember the discussion about selfishness in Chapter Nine? The conclusion of this was that selfishness is unsustainable, and that we must take account of other things in order to ensure that our behaviour does not lead to unsustainability. Sustainability is not just about the use natural resources; it is about the use of our lives.

If we do not survive then our DNA will not survive, therefore our DNA will have failed in its role as replicators of information. If you are thinking that we can deny our genetic information then go ahead, do something fatal – take a knife, or a rope or some non-prescription drugs and deny your DNA their inbuilt destiny. It’s not something that anyone would carry out lightly, nor is it something that happens very often. Suicide, although relatively more common amongst older men, is not a leading cause of death on a global scale. The World Health Organisation estimates that suicide accounts for less than two percent of all deaths, ninety percent of whom have been diagnosed with a psychological condition, which would increase the likelihood of the sufferer taking their own life[xv].

It is worrying to note, though, that the global rate of suicide has been steadily on the increase, up by 40 percent amongst females, and 60 percent amongst males since 1950. Economic pressure and social fragmentation, in a culture in which the words, “There is no such thing as society”[xvi] have become iconic, have no small part to play in this trend[xvii]. Studies in a wide range of cultures have consistently found a close negative relationship between the personal value people place on material wealth, and their psychological health[xviii]: depression appears to be less common amongst people who don’t live their lives in the pursuit of wealth.

The role that religion plays in the question of suicide is fascinating. It would be tempting to think that a religious belief that has as part of its articles of faith the existence of an afterlife would be rife with followers eager to take the next step towards a divine future. It is significant, as I hinted earlier at the beginning of this chapter, that all of the world’s major religions treat suicide as a mortal sin or its equivalent, which draws the conclusion that the founders of such doctrines were not too keen on their followers taking a shortcut to eternity. Was this a conscious (or Super-conscious) decision to maintain the natural desire to preserve life? Certainly the presence of willing volunteers in “suicide bomb” attacks is testament to the power of religious belief to overcome the natural desire to survive, both for the perpetrator and the victims: were it not for certain types of religious indoctrination, such attacks would be far less common.

The rarity of suicide overall, and the prevalence of psychological problems amongst those who do commit suicide makes a very strong case for humans as being natural survivors. If this were not the case then humans would have died out long ago through natural processes, much like any other organism that, through a lack of viable healthy adaptable DNA, no longer exists.

More than just our natural tendency to survive, though, is the manifestation of that survival instinct in the way we think. Consider the question: What would you risk your life to save? My initial instinct is to say “my family” then “me” then, with a little more thought, “the Earth in general” and “my friends”. Remove the Earth from the equation and you have the kind of answer that most people give. In fact, all three typical responses are directly related to the natural instinct for survival. We want to protect our family in order to secure the continuation of our DNA through blood relatives and the people they depend upon to survive. We want to protect ourselves in order to protect our own DNA, and the opportunity for that to be further replicated. We want to protect our friends because they too are human beings, but not only that, we have consciously chosen our closest friends because of what they have in common with us – they are almost like family. 

It might seem crass to bring all of this down to genes and DNA, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. When a male spider mates with a female it has to adopt various strategies to ensure that it will not be eaten or killed prior to inseminating its mate; its utmost priority is to ensure its DNA gets passed on to the next generation of spiders. Male redback spiders, that are doomed to die following mating, have developed a method of carrying out “dual insemination” – a remarkable adaptation that counters the female’s ability to choose between the sperm of different mates[xix]. The even more remarkable thing is that the adaptation does not ensure that the male spider himself survives, in fact the extended mating time makes death even more likely: the spider is simply ensuring that his DNA has the best possible chance of surviving. This is the way of nature, and we are simply following nature’s rules.

The Ecology Test showed that humans, however successful in evolutionary terms, are irrelevant to the continuation of the Earth’s ecosystem. The Cultural Test showed that although the dominant culture on the planet puts humans above all else, it is not treating humans as though we were vital – we are merely relevant. The Personal Test has given another outcome entirely: humans are the ultimate expression of all we hold dear, and nothing else comes before us.

*   *   *

The outcome of the both the Ecology Test and the Cultural Test could change dramatically, depending on how we treat both the Earth and how we treat ourselves. We could choose to live lives that are fully sustainable and give all other species on Earth the ability to exist according to the rules of nature, rather than the toxic rules we have drawn up. We could choose to live in a culture that values humans as individuals, treats them equally and does not threaten our very existence through its destructive activities. But we can never change what we are: survivors.

In the end, surely what matters is what matters to us.


[Continue to Part 3]

**NEW** For a more detailed analysis of the "What Matters..." hypothesis, read "As If Humanity Actually Mattered" on The Earth Blog


[i] English Heritage, “Normanton Down Barrows - Burial Preparations in the Neolithic period”, (accessed 6 November, 2007)

[ii] Religion Facts, “The Big Religion Chart”, (accessed 6 November, 2007)

[iii] Shannon Burkes, “God, Self, and Death. The shape of religious transformation in the second Temple Period.”, J. Study of Judaism Supplements (79), 2003.

[iv] William Wordsworth, “Guide through the District of the Lakes” (quoted in W.G. Hoskins, “The Making of the English Landscape”, Penguin, 1985.)

[v] Ana Salote, “Tree Talk”, Speaking Tree, 2007.

[vi] Bob Holmes, “Imagine Earth Without People”, (accessed 8 November, 2007). I purposely inserted the “[sic]” in relation to the discussion of our place on Earth. Use of the word “advanced” needs an awful lot of qualification – the word “industrial” would have been far more suitable.

[vii] Derrick Jensen discusses this brilliantly in “Endgame”, Seven Stories Press, 2006.

[viii] That’s not to say that democracy is a good thing in itself. Ethically it’s almost certainly a better choice than totalitarianism in all its forms, but it still doesn’t seem to work very well in solving the problems we find ourselves in.

[ix] Michio Kaku, “Parallel Worlds”, Penguin Books, 2006.

[x] European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, “Fourth European Working Conditions Surveys”, 2005, (accessed 13 November, 2007)

[xi] New Economics Foundation, “A map of the world colour-coded by HPI”, (accessed 13 November, 2007)

[xii] Both Thomas Nagel and Derek Parfit have influenced my thinking here.

[xiii] Judith A. Lothian, “Why Natural Childbirth?”, J. Perinatal Education (4), 2000.

[xiv] The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Time”, (accessed 14 November, 2007)

[xv] World Health Organization, “Suicide prevention (SUPRE)”, (accessed 19 November, 2007)

[xvi] Margaret Thatcher Foundation, “Interview for Woman's Own ("no such thing as society")”, 1987, (accessed 11 December, 2007). Margaret Thatcher actually said “and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” Effectively she was washing her hands of social responsibility.

[xvii] This is a large subject and there is no space to explore it here. The subject is covered extensively in Robert E. Lane, “The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies”, Yale University Press, 2001.

[xviii] Tim Kasser, “The High Price Of Materialism”, MIT Press, 2002.

[xix] Matthew Gage, “Evolution: Sex and Cannibalism in Redback Spiders.”, Current Biology (15), 2005.


A Matter Of Scale by Keith Farnish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.


[Top Of Page]