Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Myth of Human Supremacy

When an unlucky person has been swept away by the brainwashing of a wacko cult, concerned friends or family members sometimes seek the assistance of a skilled deprogrammer to exorcize the demons.  It’s a painful process.  The scrambled soul is blasted with a fire-hose of strong rational arguments, hour after hour, hammering away at the many contradictions in the cult’s beliefs.  Ideally, the shining power of truth blasts away the illusions, and opens the door to healing.

I was reminded of this while reading Derrick Jensen’s book, The Myth of Human Supremacy.  In his story, the wacko cult consists of human supremacists, zombies who have been indoctrinated to believe that humans are the miraculous conclusion of the long evolutionary journey.  Humans are the one and only species that is sentient, self-aware, intelligent, and able to make tools and communicate.

The cult of human supremacy has grown rapidly, and now includes a large portion of humankind.  The zombie mobs are mindlessly destroying the living planet that everything depends on for survival.  Jensen puts a spotlight on the demon: “Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture.”  We are bombarded with supremacist ideas from early childhood.  They define our understanding of normality, and encourage us to live like there’s no tomorrow.  Only humans matter, a living planet does not.

By definition, human supremacy is about hierarchy: the white male God, white kings, white men, white women, minorities, mammals, birds, plants, insects, bacteria, etc.  Most of the community of life is inferior to you, resources for you to exploit or destroy.  The supremacist worldview has no concern for ecological health.  Civilization is a space station where all of our needs are magically met.

Jensen devotes many pages to revealing the cult’s creepy narcissism.  Research is discovering that plants and nonhuman animals are sentient, self-aware, intelligent, and able to make tools and communicate.  Slime mold can learn and remember, displaying more intelligence than a number of world leaders.  Plants do react when damaged, disproving the cult’s belief that organisms without brains can feel no pain.  The cult believes that communication means making funny noises with human lips, but trees communicate using chemicals.

Humans spray neurotoxins on their food, while boasting that we are the only ones who possess intelligence.  “Intelligence” is a slippery word.  From the supremacist perspective, it’s intelligent to create an industrial society that blindsides the planet’s climate.  Thanks to this intelligence, 98% of old growth forests are gone, 99% of prairies, 99% of wetlands, 90% of large oceanic fish.  “When others besides human supremacists look at us, they see the worst thing that has ever happened to this planet,” says Jensen.  “If animals could conceive of the devil, his image would be man’s.”

For thousands of years, agriculture has had a well-documented history of transforming healthy ecosystems into wastelands via deforestation, soil mining, wetland destruction, and water mining — a process that still continues.  Agriculture can never be sustainable.  “Plows are probably the single most destructive human invention ever, and agriculture was the single biggest — and least intelligent — mistake any creature has ever made.”  Humankind is in extreme overshoot right now, as the population skyrocket keeps zooming upward.

There are two flavors of technology: authoritarian and democratic.  Authoritarian technology is produced by complex, hierarchical civilizations.  This technology tends to control the society.  We must have electricity, electronics, sequestered carbon, and transportation devices to participate in modernity.  Consumers are hardcore electricity addicts.  Jensen screams!  Lack of imagination is a primary cause of the Earth Crisis.  We can’t imagine living without electricity, but we can imagine a world without rhinos or tigers.  Oy!

It takes imagination to challenge the unquestioned beliefs that inspire insane behavior.  Jensen’s doctor says that there can be no cure without a proper diagnosis.  Unquestioned beliefs often make an accurate diagnosis impossible.  They tell us that renewable energy, nuclear power, and geoengineering are brilliant solutions.  So, every unquestioned belief must be mercilessly questioned, and the dodgy ones sent to the shredder.

Democratic technology, on the other hand, is stuff that anyone can make, like a basket or bow and arrow.  Chimps use sticks to fish for yummy termites.  Vultures throw stones to crack ostrich eggs.  This is sustainable.  It doesn’t rock the boat.  But authoritarian technology is big juju.  Too often, even green activists have vivid fantasies of a sustainable future, whilst keeping many of the unsustainable goodies of civilization.  The line between naughty and nice can be blurry.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the Aztecs.  In 1492, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of about 200,000, five times larger than London.  They had no horses, oxen, plows, or metals.  The fields were tilled with digging sticks, and fertilized with human poop.  It was a highly sophisticated and authoritarian Stone Age civilization famous for cutting the beating hearts out of thousands of prisoners at a time.

Words can be slippery.  Throughout the book, Jensen frequently uses “stupid” when discussing the quirks of civilized humans.  Stupid means unintelligent, having a limited ability to learn and understand, an incurable handicap.  Maybe "ignorant" would have been more precise.  It means a lack of knowledge — a somewhat curable shortcoming.  Methinks that ignorance plays a major role in the bad choices we make.  In many ways our education system remains lost in a dream world of yesteryear.

Anyway, Jensen tackles and paddles many unquestioned beliefs.  We all suffer from them, to some degree, he says.  It’s hard not to, living in this culture.  Questioning is a powerful medicine that should be used daily.  When it comes to innovation, we are terribly clever.  At the same time, we are tropical primates, engaged in a phenomenally ignorant adventure in violating as many of the laws of nature as humanly possible, for no good reason.

The myth of human supremacy asserts that we are rational, moral, and ethical.  Wild animals have no interest in reason, morals, or ethics because they have no need for them.  They live sustainably by simply remaining in balance with the community of life.  They have no need for powerful 20-20 foresight, because they stay on a stable time-proven path.  Supremacists are ravaging Earth, but they look awesome in their smiling selfies.

Jensen's book reminds me of a defibrillator, the gizmo used when someone's heart stops beating.  Its two paddles are placed on the chest, and then a powerful electric shock is blasted into the victim, in an effort to restart the heart.  He doubts that his book will convince many of the living dead supremacists to question their beliefs.  Its main purpose is to encourage the pilgrims who understand that civilization is killing the planet.  We need to save as many species as we can.

The book is also something like a hearing aid.  It heightens readers’ ability to hear the supremacist voices that barrage us every day.  It’s helpful to better recognize the tireless jabber from the lunatic asylum.  And so, Jensen waves and rides off into the sunset.  “The more I learn about the real world, the more wonderful I think it is, and the more honored I am to be here.”

Jensen, Derrick, The Myth of Human Supremacy, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2016.


Riversong said...

When you note "the brainwashing of a wacko cult", I can't help but think of the stridently loyal, unquestioning and sometimes vicious acolytes that Jensen has carefully nurtured and refuses to challenge.

"Jensen tackles and paddles many unquestioned beliefs" – except his own, which includes a certainty that non-violence is a weak and ineffective, and ultimately diversionary, principle for social change action.

In all his early writings and talks, Jensen subtly and almost covertly encourages violence against human artifacts and institutions, much like the Unabomber and some of the most extreme Earth Firsters. He has stated explicitly that attacking anything that is undermining Nature is NOT an act of violence but an act of necessary defense of the defenseless natural world (much the same way that 2nd Amendment fanatics insist that defending themselves and their families with deadly force is a natural right).

That the non-human world needs OUR defense and protection is the height of human arrogance and a logical corollary of the ideology of Human Supremacy.

“If animals could conceive of the devil, his image would be man’s,” says Jensen. In fact, just as animals have no need of moral codes, they have no need of the very HUMAN concept of good vs. evil – or God and the Devil. As you correctly point out, animals would think of humanity as ignorant and misguided, but not stupid or evil. Only a very confused human, anthropomorphizing the natural world, would make such a statement.

Derrik Jensen has much insight to offer the world (just as did Ted Kaczynski), but his core unquestioned belief that human civilization is an evil that must be eradicated from the earth is just more of "the tireless jabber from the lunatic asylum".

Jensen is almost proud of the fact (which he has addressed extensively) of having been raised in an abusive, dysfunctional family. It gives him his identity – and public status – as a "victim", and explains why he continues to lash out at those he perceives as his victimizers in a perpetuating cycle of abuse that is typical of those who have not addressed their own demons but must forever project them onto the world.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Riversong! Twelve or thirteen years ago I hung out on Jensen’s Yahoo mailing list. The vibe was intensely militant. I tried to imagine a strategy for taking out a dam, and it seemed purely suicidal. Gradually draining the reservoir would cause less eco-harm than simply blowing the dam open, and sending a sudden flash flood into the watershed, blasting away everything.

In those days, Jensen was one of the few voices on the planet advocating dam removal. Today, the powers that be are actually removing dams! I sometimes wonder if his ranting transformed a totally ridiculous idea into a semi-respectable idea that might be worthy of consideration. (Of course, many new dams are being built or planned. Ignorance never sleeps!)

With regard to “bringing down civilization,” I considered the immense amount of firepower, manpower, and money needed to bring down the civilization of Nazi Germany, just one nation. This grand vision seems to be light years away from realistic. I agree that industrial civilization is causing massive harm, and that this harm should stop. I also think that the nuke plants should be decommissioned prior to collapse, and all fuel rods stored as permanently as possible. I also think that industrial civilization will collapse before humankind enthusiastically endorses radical change. Anyway, my having questions about the vision triggered strong criticism, and I packed up and moved on.

In this new book, Jensen still hopes that civilization ends, but he doesn’t recommend that readers fetch their stealth bombers, guided missiles, and battleships and do what needs to be done. The tone is softer. Jensen admits that the cult of human supremacy is so infectious that we’ll probably continue trying to manage nature until the end (154). The madness can only be stopped by the (probably involuntary) abandonment of the technics (219). This book won’t change many minds. It was written to support those who are questioning the myth (330). The destruction must be stopped. We begin by questioning the unquestioned beliefs. Once you can do this, you can figure the rest out yourself (333).

My objective with this blog is to help pilgrims who want to learn, and Jensen is a significant voice in the discussion. Human supremacy is essentially the air we breathe (Shoot the gorilla! Colonize Mars!) Jensen’s book presents a potent critique of this belief. It will help some readers better understand reality. I agree that Jensen is a wounded healer, and I have some issues with his ideas, and the ideas in every book I review. I agree that he also offers important insights.

ZANNEN said...


Venkataraman Amarnath said...

I am not well read in this area, but my perception is this.
If we assume the coming end of industrial civilization, how to make it happen? If we let the power people to continue their control, they will burn all the carbon and hydrocarbon they can scrap until the earth is unlivable not only to Man but also to all large animals. If we can nudge Nature to do the job by cutting off the blood line of petroleum, may be we can save tiny parts of Amazon forest, Ganges plains etc.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Amarnath!

I don't think that we large-brained primates are in a good position to pull off a brilliant win-win strategy. Your note seems to assume that civilization as we know it will proceed as it now is until we take action to pull the plug on it. I see the situation as far more complicated.

First, industrial civilization is doing a fabulous job of destroying itself. The human herd is in extreme overshoot, while the cheap energy bubble is starting to soften. What I'm hearing from my 93-year old friend, a retired Exxon-Mobil petroleum geologist and geology professor, is that the production curve post-peak is likely to have a far steeper downward curve than the pre-peak boom.

The reserves of sequestered carbon are getting far more expensive to extract, because shale fracking, deep offshore drilling, and bitumin mining take a much bigger investment of money and energy. A lot of sequestered carbon will be left in the ground forever because it takes more energy to extract it than the end product contains.

The major grain exporting nations are not at all prepared for a smooth transition to muscle-powered agriculture. Oxen and horses for pulling plows will require a huge expansion of grazing land, which is now being used for cropland and cities.

Meanwhile, the climate change adventure is starting to roll now, with flooding in Paris, Germany, and Texas, extreme heat in India, and so on. We're going to see more droughts. We're overpumping many acquifers for irrigation. I don't think that 11 billion will come for dinner in 2050. Our staple crops, maize, wheat, rice, and potatoes are adapted to the stable climate that is beginning to unravel. How much heat can agriculture take?

We now have over 440 nuclear power plants, and these generally take 50 or 60 years to cool down before being safely decommisisioned (see my review of Too Hot To Touch). Nuclear wastes remain extremely toxic for a million years or more. Almost none of these wastes are currently stored in stable geologic repositories. It would be polite to clean up this mess before pulling the plug on civilization.

This morning, there are 7,427,000,000 humans. Read the news, and it seems clear that conflict is rising on every continent. I don't think that this century is going to be smooth sailing. I think that there are far more people with an eager interest in making money by destroying the Amazon rainforest and Ganges plains, compared to conservationists.

We currently do not have the willpower (intelligence) to take serious action on population reduction, carbon emissions, soil mining, forest mining, fish mining, and on and on. You know the work I'm doing, trying to help people learn about environmental history and ecological sustainability. We are still HUGELY ignorant about how we got into this mess in the first place. Our education system is a disaster, still preaching "sustainable" development and perpetual growth. For 10,000 years, we've been repeating the same mistakes. Today, a few are just beginning to comprehend the mistakes.

So, my prediction is for change. Everything is very screwed up. I have no solutions. My job right now is to help people learn. That's all I know.

Norris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Norris, I clicked on your link twice, and twice got "file not found."

Norris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Norris said...

For Venkataraman Amarnath or anyone else wondering whether there's a realistic way to cut off the life blood of industrial civilization, to give the rest of the world a breather against the onslaught of zombie humans: yes, there is! Jensen, with Lierre Keith and Aric McBay, wrote Deep Green Resistance, which outlines a general strategy and pointers towards the movement necessary to implement it.

Their vision includes a place for everyone: aboveground activists of all sorts defending land and rebuilding sustainable local cultures, and belowground activists dismantling industrial infrastructure.

The whole book is worth studying, but you can start by reading the Decisive Ecological Warfare excerpt for the core of the strategy.