Why Does It Matter?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
yourself the following four questions, and make sure you are completely honest
with your answers:
you feel is humans’ physical place within and in relation to the rest of life
humans more important than, as important as, or less important than other life
on Earth, and to what extent?
or should be, the time span of humans’ existence on Earth – or any other
if any, right do humans have to determine the course of life for anything else
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.
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
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
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?
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’
Always check your references before you quote from them.
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:
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]
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
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
We don’t come out well on the
Ecology Test: the rest of life would be better off without us. It seems that we
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.
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:
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,
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.
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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.
* * *
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.
**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”, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehengeinteractivemap/sites/normanton/02.html (accessed 6 November, 2007)
[ii] Religion Facts, “The Big Religion Chart”, http://www.religionfacts.com/big_religion_chart.htm (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”, http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/mg19225731.100 (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, http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/ewco/surveys/EWCS2005/ewcs2005individualchapters.htm (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.
[xv] World Health Organization, “Suicide prevention (SUPRE)”, http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en/ (accessed 19 November, 2007)
[xvi] Margaret Thatcher Foundation, “Interview for Woman's Own ("no such thing as society")”, 1987, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=106689 (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.
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