Monday, June 8, 2015

The Eye of the Crocodile

In February 1985, Val Plumwood was having a lovely time canoeing by herself in Australia’s Kakadu National Park.  The ranger had assured her that the saltwater crocodiles, notorious man-eaters, never attacked canoes.  It was a perfect day, gliding across the water in a beautiful land, no worries.

She was a scholar and writer who focused on feminism and environmental philosophy.  The Earth Crisis was pounding the planet, and it was obvious to eco-thinkers that this was caused by a severely dysfunctional philosophy.  Her book, The Eye of the Crocodile, is a fascinating voyage into the realm of ethics, values, and beliefs.

Plumwood understood that the ancient culture of the Aborigines was the opposite of insane, and she had tremendous respect for it.  It presented a time-proven example of an ethic that had enabled a healthy and stable way of life for more than 12,000 years.  Australia was blessed with a bipolar climate that often swung between drought and deluge, making low-tech agriculture impractical.  The land escaped the curse of cities until you-know-who washed up on shore.  (As her canoe gently drifted, a floating stick slowly moved closer.)

Plumwood grew up in a rural area.  She was home schooled, and enjoyed a fairy tale childhood outdoors, delighted by the “sensuous richness” of the forest.  She was unlike most of her generation, because “I acquired an unquenchable thirst for life, for the wisdom of the land.”  Thus, her appreciation of the Aboriginal culture was not merely intellectual — it was real and deep.  Unlike most of her generation, she enjoyed a spiritual connection to the land.  (The floating stick had two beautiful eyes.)

The stick with two eyes was a crocodile, nearly as big as the canoe, and it was five minutes to lunchtime.  Suddenly, the reptile began ramming her canoe.  She rushed toward shore, but the crocodile leaped and grabbed her between the legs.  Three times it pulled her underwater, trying to drown her.  Miraculously, she managed to escape, severely injured, and survived.

It was a mind-blowing life changing experience.  Intellectually, she had understood food chains, predators, and prey.  But this was the first time in her life that she was nothing more than a big juicy meatball — impossible!  She was far more than food!  The crocodile strongly disagreed.  Its sharp teeth drove home the message that she was not outside of nature.  She was a part of the ecosystem, an animal, and nourishing meat — no more significant than a moth or mouse.

She wrote, “In the vivid intensity of those last moments, when great, toothed jaws descend upon you, it can hit you like a thunderclap that you were completely wrong about it all — not only about what your own personal life meant, but about what life and death themselves actually mean.”

She was blindsided by the realization that an entire highly educated civilization could be wrong about subjects so basic — animality, food, and the dance of life and death.  The crocodile painfully drove home the point that the entire modern culture was living in a fantasy.  Our highly contagious culture was ravaging the planet, and we didn’t understand why.  Each new generation was trained to live and think like imperial space aliens.

Plumwood was educated by the space alien culture, but the crocodile was a powerful teacher from the real world, the ecosystem.  Darwin revealed that humans are animals, but this essential truth harmlessly bounced off a long tradition of human supremacist illusions.  It was easy to see that those who were demolishing the planet were radicalized space aliens who believed that human society was completely outside of nature, and far above it.

The Aboriginal people inhabited the real world.  They were wild two-legged animals who had learned the wisdom of voluntary self-restraint.  For them, the entire land was alive, intelligent, and sacred; even the plants, streams, and rocks — everything.  Nobody owned it.  Mindfully inhabiting a sacred place required a profound sense of respect.

Space aliens drove them crazy.  Colonists in spandex jogged mindlessly across sacred land, listening to electronic pop music.  Reverence was absent.  They did not belong to the land, and were unaware of its incredible power.  Some of the traditional folks wanted to ban these disrespectful intrusions.  The colonial era had been a disaster.

The colonial worldview had many layers of hierarchy.  At the summit were the elites.  Below them were women, peasants, slaves, and the colonized.  Beneath the humans were animals.  Some critters, like dogs, cats, and horses, had special status.  If they obediently submitted to human domination, they were not meat.  Below them were meat class animals that had no consciousness.  Especially despised were man-eating animals, and critters that molested human property.  They were mercilessly exterminated.  Beneath animals was the plant world, a far older realm.

The foundation of the dominant worldview was human supremacy, and this mode of thinking had been the driving force behind a growing tsunami of ecological devastation.  Plumwood saw two alternatives to supremacist thinking.

(1) Ecological animalism was the realm of crocodiles, Aborigines, our wild ancestors, and the rest of the natural world.  All life was food, including humans.  In an ecosystem, “we live the other’s death, die the other’s life.”  Our bodies belonged to the ecosystem, not to ourselves.  The spirits of animate and inanimate beings had equal significance.

(2) Ontological veganism did not believe in using animals or eating animal foods.  This ethic was an offshoot of human supremacy.  It did not condemn the dogma of human/nature dualism.  It denied that humans were meat, despite the fact that a number of large predators have been dining on us for countless centuries.  It believed that animals were worthy of moral consideration, but the plant people were not.

Ontological veganism was queasy about predation; it would prefer a predator-free world.  It believed that human hunting was cultural (animal abuse), while animal predation was natural (instinctive).  But every newborn human has a body carefully designed by evolution for a life of hunting.  We are capable of smoothly running for hours on two legs, and we have hands, arms, and shoulders that are fine-tuned for accurately throwing projectiles in a forceful manner.  What you see in the mirror is a hunter.

Plumwood was a vegetarian because she believed that the production of meat on factory farms was ethically wrong.  She had no problems with Aborigines hunting for dinner.  All of the world’s sustainable wild cultures consumed animal foods.  She was well aware that her plant food diet was not ecologically harmless.

Cultures rooted in human supremacy have achieved remarkable success at rubbishing entire ecosystems.  This is not about flawed genes.  It’s about a bunch of screwy ideas that we’ve been taught.  Sustainable cultures perceive reality in a radically different way.  Luckily, software is editable.  Plumwood recommended that creative communicators bring new ideas to our dying culture; stories that help us find our way home to the family of life.  This is an enormous challenge.

Plumwood also wrote an essay, Prey to a Crocodile, which is not in the book.  It provides a detailed discussion of the attack.  The rangers wanted to go back the next day, and kill the crocodile.  She strongly objected.  The crocodile had done nothing wrong.  Predation is normal and healthy.  She had been an intruder.

A free PDF of the entire contents of The Eye of the Crocodile is available online.  It’s just 111 pages.  A paperback edition is still in print.

Plumwood, Val, The Eye of the Crocodile, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 2012, ed. Lorraine Shannon.


Unknown said...

A nice summary Richard.

Her other two books are incredible, too, albeit harder work. Start with the Conclusion chapter of Environmental Culture if you need convincing - I think it would be up your alley.

With regards to the earth-shattering croc attack -- the funny thing is she had actually already written, a few years beforehand, what I think still stands as one of the best articulations of the need to adopt an ecological worldview! For her, of all people, to get that lesson is pretty funny. Yet she still approached the topic of spirituality very cautiously, even as she approached animism in later years tending to preface it "philosophical animism".


P.S. Got sick of Facebook and deleted my account but still keenly following your blog.

Riversong said...

Ironically, as I began reading this article, my mind began to piece together a new critique of veganism (of which I have offered several) as a manifestation of humanistic arrogance and conceit and a denial of the evolutionary importance of plants as more fundamental (and hence important and sacred) in the Web of Life.

Then I came to the very argument I was considering, in the form of "ontological veganism", which precisely mirrored my thoughts.

It seems that you, Val and I walk a parallel path.

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, the review contained a link to a free PDF of the book. She had a lot more to say on the subject. See chapter six.

What Is Sustainable said...

Russell! Thanks for the Plumwood tip. I have a feeling that Crocodile was her most accessible work, for general readers, like myself. I like the fact that it’s a free download, making it easy to access, and affordable. I’ll take a look at her other work.

I enjoyed her respect for the Aboriginal worldview. It seemed heartfelt, not intellectual. It’s refreshing to see scholars think outside the box. That doesn't seem to be the trend these days.

I just started The End of Plenty, which takes a grown-up look at the current state of global agriculture, and the slim chances for feeding nine billion in a few decades. There is so much blind faith that we can pull that off — and too few seriously challenging the fantasy.

Yeah, Facebook can be a big time-sucker if you don’t keep it on a short leash. I do enjoy how it can send my work out to every corner of the world. My blog just passed 100,000 views a few days ago.