Canadian scholar John A. Livingston (1923-2006) was a pioneer in the deep ecology movement, and a notorious rogue thinker. He detested the senseless ecological destruction caused by civilized societies, and blamed this on their humanist ideology, which seemed to be possessed by an insatiable hunger for perpetual growth at any cost — a death wish.
This ideology had poisoned the minds of most modern humans, and it had roots even deeper than religion or politics. Communists and capitalists, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Muslims — all shared a fervent blind faith in human superiority, and our right to ruthlessly plunder the planet to support any and all enterprises that human folly could fancy. Destroying the future was what cool people did. The planet was ours to devour, of course.
Wildlife conservationists, environmental activists, animal rights advocates, spiritual leaders, politicians, and mainstream consumers all earned Livingston’s scorn for their failure to think outside of the humanist box. What a jerk! Cool people never criticize humanism. Consequently, he gained a reputation for being a pessimistic misanthrope, which is why you’ve probably never heard of him.
Pessimist is accurate; like any sane person, he did have “a lack of hope or confidence in the future.” A misanthrope is one with “a hatred, dislike, or distrust of humankind.” Livingston did distrust our species, but he seemed to be a compassionate misanthrope — he hoped that we could get our act together some day, and believed that this was not totally impossible. So, he really wasn’t a nutjob, he was just someone who had a rare gift for being able to see what was clearly obvious.
In Rogue Primate, Livingston discussed the boo-boos of human history, and contemplated the possibility of undoing them. Many thinkers have concluded that agriculture or civilization was the start of our downfall. Livingston believed that the stage for disaster was set long before that, when we invented magical thinking.
In an earlier essay, One Cosmic Moment, Livingston concluded that the development of magic had done far more to damage the future than our adventures in tool-making. Cave paintings and fertility figurines were created to metaphysically encourage successful hunting and abundant game. At this point, we began symbolically controlling nature — from an imaginary position of human superiority. As everyone knows, those who flirt with magic will have to marry it.
The magic act began maybe 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Our cultural evolution became unhitched from our slow-motion genetic evolution, and it moved into the fast lane. We ceased being evolutionary creatures, and became revolutionary. Some have called this transition the Great Leap Forward. At this point, we began accumulating how-to information, which eventually turned us into the loose cannons of the animal world. By and by, we became clever enough to live and prosper almost anywhere.
Wildness was about freedom. Wild animals had no masters or owners. Domestication, on the other hand, was about submission and dependence. Non-human domesticates were selectively bred to be passive, fast growing, and capable of producing abundant offspring. They were dim, infantile creatures who did not blend in with the wild ecosystem. They had lost the ability to survive in the wild, and depended on humans to provide them with food, water, and protection. Humans were the crutch that they could not live without.
Following the Great Leap Forward, humans became highly dependent on a different sort of crutch. Evolution had not elegantly designed us to thrive as ground-dwelling creatures. What we lacked in strength, speed, teeth, and claws we eventually replaced with cleverness. We developed complex language and abstract thinking. We learned how to make and control fire. We became good at cooperation, sharing, tool-making, and hunting. Every useful bit of learning was passed on to the next generation, and our knowledge base snowballed in size and power.
Cleverness became the crutch that we could not live without, our key to survival. As our dependence on learning grew, our own biology became less and less important. The embarrassing result was that humans became the only species to accidentally domesticate themselves, a dangerous and unnatural achievement.
With the emergence of agriculture and civilization, our mindset got much wackier, and we began causing significant ecological damage (while hunter-gatherers continued a low-impact way of life). In the civilized world, the notion of human superiority moved to center stage, and old fashioned ritual magic was replaced with powerful human-like gods and goddesses. The new mindset majored in individualism, competition, and aggression. The entire planet, and everything on it, was absorbed into the human sphere. This gave birth to the humanist ideology, which had now spread to almost every society on Earth.
As domesticated animals, we became excellent followers, obedient hard working servants. We could endure living in high density populations, and spending many hours a day in windowless factories manufacturing frivolous status trinkets. We had an extremely high tolerance for abuse. Alas, our days of wild freedom were behind us, and forgotten.
Some say that there is a window of opportunity, between the ages of 5 and 12, when we are most likely to form vital emotional bonds with nature. A bond with life on Earth is essential for a sane mind. Unfortunately, today’s kids are far more likely to stay indoors and form bonds with technology, which we eagerly encourage. They are dangerously isolated from the family of life, and likely to remain stunted for the rest of their days.
Livingston went on and on, illuminating the various errors of our ways. This was not a celebration the amazing brilliance of humankind (which sounds sillier every year). Instead, he presented us with a coherent explanation of how we got into this mess — a sobering look in the mirror.
The good news is that the core of the problem is thought patterns, and thought patterns can be changed. First, the notion of human superiority must be disemboweled and fed to the ravenous mongrels. It is essential that we once again develop an intimate and respectful relationship with nature. Remember that there was a time when this culture did not exist. We can live without it, and we must.
Many thinkers have come to the same conclusion, that we must radically change the way we think and live. Livingston’s analysis focused attention on domestication, bonding with nature, abandoning dominance relationships, and denouncing the diabolical cult of humanism. He followed a different path, and added some important pieces to the puzzle.
He concluded by prodding his readers: “We, the educated, the informed, the well nourished, the affluent, do pathetically little to stall the human juggernaut.” We need to imagine an alternative way of human being in the world, and we need to stop being silent, passive, tolerant, domesticated sheep. No matter how broken we are, we all still possess traces of undamaged healthy wildness buried deep inside — ancestral memories of better days. Courage!
Livingston, John A., Rogue Primate — An Exploration of Human Domestication, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 1994.