Umair Haque says the Planet is not our Slave and that If We Don’t Change our Broken Relationship with Nature, Climate Change is Going to Destroy Us.
The image above is of Udaimonia and Co.
The Planet is Not Our Slave
Pandemic. Megafire. Megaflood. It’s becoming clearer by the day, sometimes by the hour, that we live in an age of apocalypse. Twenty million are dead of Covid, and counting. “Climate change” — I mean global warming — is already making parts of places like California uninhabitable.
Apocalypse, as religious scholars will tell you, means “an unveiling.” Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a religious post. But it is going to be one about what’s being unveiled, revealed, to us, by this age of apocalypse. That’s something elemental, profound, and worrying — about us. On the deepest level. Who are we? Who are we here to be? What is the point of us, the human species?
Something has gone badly wrong, after all. But what?
As I think about it, what this age of apocalypse is beginning to reveal is that our relationships are broken — the deepest kinds of ones. Our relationships with nature, and with each other.
The easiest broken relationship to see is the one we have with nature. We are the worst thing to happen to planet earth since the meteor which wiped out the dinosaurs. Our effect is exactly the same — mass extinction, huge climatic shifts — only slower.
Why is our relationship with nature so broken? How would you describe our relationship with nature? It’s a master-slave relationship. We exploit, dominate, abuse, and ruin. Meanwhile, nature has no rights, self-determination, or inherent worth. The problem, though, is that nature wasn’t meant to be our slave, and reducing it to a position of slavery is ushering in an age of climate apocalypse.We don’t really have one. Nature is something to exploit, abuse, and discard. It’s a resource for capitalism to plunder and despoil and for us, as individuals, to consume.
Think for a moment about how profoundly wrong that is. I have a dog, like you might have a dog. My dog is a character. He has a personality all his own. His emotional life is easily as complex as mine, if not more. He is a far better person than I am — more caring, intimate, less capable of deception and folly. He is innocent in ways I am not.
Nature is like that. It is, above all, innocent. It has done nothing to be annihilated by us. And yet we justify it with the way that we see nature. Have you ever watched the show “Naked and Afraid”? In it, people are sent into the jungle, or the desert, and they try to survive. Yet what’s remarkable about the show is that they never, ever comment on how beautiful the night sky is, or how present life seems to be, or how awareness seems to permeate all things. No — the show is an exercise in paranoia and violence, not peace and gratitude.
I don’t mean that in what you might call, derisively, as David Brooks would, a “hippy-dippy” way. It’s true that nature can be brutal. But nothing in nature is as brutal as us. By and large, nature takes what it needs to survive. A tree grows its roots into the soil, and takes what water it needs to reach towards the sky. The animals drink from the lake — but they don’t try to take the whole ocean.
Only we do that. We’re gaining some kind of small awareness, these days, of how wrong colonisation and slavery were. Whose land was it? It wasn’t ours. But the native peoples, most of them, would have told you, and would still tell you: it wasn’t theirs, either. It was for life. All life.
My dog, a city dog, finds himself in the suburbs. And he’s baffled by human property rights. Totally baffled. Dad, why is that the neighbour’s yard? Who made this arbitrary line? How come that tree “belongs” to us — and this one, to them? Who made these crazy rules?!
The answer is: we did. We carved the world up into property, and then kept on carving it. Empires became nations. Slaves became peasants. But who does the world really belong to?
Nobody and everybody is the answer. The world belongs to all of us, and all of us really means all of us. Not just human beings. And so when I say our relationship with nature is broken, I mean it in not just intellectual ways, but pragmatic ones, too.
Why can’t we save the world’s ecologies? Take the example of the Amazon. It’s a net carbon emitter now, having been clearcut into oblivion. That happened because it was privatised and sold off. Capitalism and human property rights again.
We have to really learn to coexist. We can’t do that under the black spell of capitalism and property rights. It begins with the assumption that everything “belongs” to us, the human species, and the only question is which human gets it. Bezos? Zuck? You? Me? Capitalism’s assumption is that everything in the world is a commodity which belongs to human beings, for them to consume.
But we can’t survive as a civilisation that way. We have already consumed too much — several planet’s worth. At this rate of consumption, global warming will proceed even more apocalyptically. This? Megafire and megaflood? California and Canada on fire? This is one degree of warming, barely that. At two degrees, entire regions of the planet become uninhabitable. At three, the water turns to poison and the soil to dust. You don’t want to know what happens at four, which is that it automatically hits five, thanks to self-reinforcing feedback — it’s enough to know that most life as we know it can’t survive.
And so our civilisation’s systems collapse, as they’ve already begun collapsing. Air, water, food, medicine — all these things are becoming harder and harder to get. Tried to buy furniture or electronics recently? Not easy, is it? But this is just the beginning. Collapse of an incredible kind — history’s worst — happens in mere decades on the course we’re on. By the end of the century — that’s one human lifetime from now — the planet is unlivable for most life as we know it.
Do we want to be that being? The walking apes who destroyed the planet? The ones who were as destructive as the giant meteor which wiped out the dinosaurs? In geological time, we’re the same thing. A meteor happened overnight — we’ve been around for 300,000 years. Big deal — same difference. The earth will survive us. But we will have been a stain, a black memory, a fatal mistake of evolution.
We need to rethink our relationship with nature. And it needs to happen now. Let me give you another example.
Ever since I got Snowy, I find it difficult to eat meat. I’m not a saint, and I was a rank ignoramus before. Now? I see a little creature just like Snowy, full of character, emotion, personality, life, when I eat meat. I still hunger for it, on some physical level. But morally, emotionally, mentally? I’m repulsed by this act of taking a life needlessly. I feel a terrible sense of shame and guilt.
Who’s innocent? If we think about it, the only forms of life on planet earth which are pure, in the sense that they are genuinely nonviolent, are plants and some forms of bacteria. Plants take in sunlight — something inert. Some bacteria can feed on minerals. These are the only two beings on planet earth who do not need to consume living things in order to survive.
The rest of us? We’re trapped in a kind of living nightmare. We have to kill in order to live. We have to literally take life in order to have it. We have to eat something, consume it in the most naked way, in order to breathe.
This is a horrific place to be, if you think about it. It’s no wonder that it’s easier for us to pretend that we’re not doing terrible violence as we walk the well-lit aisles of some cheery grocery store. And yet that cheery grocery store is full of a false happiness precisely because it is the front for a vast machinery of death. How many animals does it take to feed us? Trillions.
This relationship, too, has to change. We have to consume far, far less, if we want to go on surviving as a civilisation now. That change probably has to begin with what we literally eat. The way that we eat, too, is symbolic of how we consume in general. Mindlessly. Thoughtlessly. Selfishly. Stupidly.
The ancients had a far, far more mature relationship with nature than we do. They consumed what they needed, and drew the line there. They used all of what they took, in gratitude. They had a profound sense of justice towards nature.
Why? Because they understood they were at nature’s mercy. We don’t. We think we’re above nature. Still think that way, though? Or has that conviction been shaken, by the last year or so, of mega fire and mega flood?
Nature’s trying to wipe us out. Wouldn’t you, if you were her? I would. We’re the worst thing to happen to the rest of life on this planet.
Why do we think we’re above nature — so far above it, that we can take as much as we want, exploit it, abuse it, kill it off?
This mistake goes back. Way back. To the Enlightenment, or monotheistic religion, or both, take your pick. I have religious cousins — very religious ones. Their entire lives are lived to please a deity, not to coexist with anyone or anything else. When they see Snowy, they have a strange reaction — they think he’s dirty and unclean. Not just physically, but existentially.
They don’t even care that this is offensive to me, because, well, I adore the little guy. For them, it’s salvation that matters. Why do they think Snowy’s existentially unclean? Because their monotheistic religion teaches them — as all of them do — that animals don’t have souls. So where do animals go, in this scheme of things? Well, either to hell, or nowhere, because they never existed at all.
It’s patently ridiculous to tell me that my best friend doesn’t exist. That he doesn’t have a soul. Of course he exists — he’s sitting right next to me. Of course he has a soul — it’s a bigger soul than most people I know, full of laughter and grace and courage. Think of how brave the little guy has to be to live with us. He’s ten inches tall.
Soul? I don’t know anyone braver — or more loving — than our dogs, my friends. And yet they tell me that the animals are going to hell.
Are you kidding me? How can you believe that? I’m sorry if you’re religious, but I have to draw a line somewhere. An ideology which says: “all the countless trillions of creatures on this planet except you are not really worthy” is basically fascism. I’m sorry, and there, I finally said it.
Monotheistic religion began this strange way of thinking. The ancients didn’t think this way. For them, not only did animals have souls, but all of nature did. Greeks were just of many ancient cultures to deify nature. The Egyptians did too. Most ancient cultures had such an intimate relationship with nature that “becoming” an animal, in a vision, with the help of a hallucinogen, was considered something divine, something elevated — not something subhuman and degraded, like we do. That’s telling. Of how broken our relationship with nature really is.
The Enlightenment continued the mistake monotheistic religion had made, of subjugating nature, of degrading it. The Enlightenment picked up where monotheistic religion had left off. Animals couldn’t “reason” and employ “logic.” And therefore they were inferior. Enlightenment thinkers loved to build hierarchies, and in them, human beings — “white” ones, because they’d just invented the idea of “race” — were on top, the most “rational” of all. Below them came other “races”, “yellow”, “red”, “black”, and so on.
But there are no yellow or red people, for Pete’s sake. Enlightenment thinkers at this point were literally making things up. What a stupid, stupid tragedy that we still believe them.
But their hierarchies didn’t stop there. Below the inferior “races” came the “animals.” In descending order of reason, too. And since then, that’s the way we’ve come to see the world.
The more “rational” a being is, the more they deserve dominion, power, and control.
Only now, that entire worldview is being revealed as a lie — in a kind of grand, morbid, ironic joke. What was “rationality,” to Enlightenment thinkers? It was self-advantage, basically. Being able to amass and acquire and outwit. It wasn’t just putting cause to effect, but the idea that all that could be employed in profit. Hence, capitalism was the great outcome of Enlightenment thinking.
But if rationality is the maximisation of one’s own advantage — then the ugly endgame is before us now. What kind of world does that form of “rationality” lead to? A world where Bezos or Zuck could vaccinate the entire planet — but don’t. A world where billionaires own the entire American working and middle class, keeping them in perpetual debt. A world where the human “race” goes on consuming as much as it can, as fast it can — even if destroys its own civilization.
“Rationality” of this form — consumption maximization — turns out to be the most irrational thing of all. Short-sighted, narrow-minded, foolish. The ancients knew it. They weren’t dumb, they just weren’t interested in this way of thinking. They saw where it would lead, which is to human beings acting like locusts, like viruses, like dishonourable and mindless things. Even locusts and viruses have limits to their appetites. Do we? The ancients did not want to go down this road. They saw where it would lead. Nearly every ancient contains a stark prohibition against “rationality” as selfishness and consumption maximisation, as materialism and invididualism — most have complex norms against this mindset. Just think of complex forms of egalitarianism like gift economies or moral codes like Ubuntu.
We are at the end of this way of thinking. And that’s a good thing. Because the price has been steep. Regarding nature as something inferior, stupid, worthless — meat to be consumed — has had a terrible price for us, too. We’ve grown alienated from nature. Our own nature.
What are we? Above all, we’re social beings. We’re not the lone-wolf apex predators that American pseudo-science makes us out to be. We can try to be that, which is what American culture wants everyone to be, but we’re not happy that way. We’re not happy, fulfilled, or ennobled as idiots who carry guns to Starbucks and consume everything in sight with abandon. We just end up like Americans — lonely, dumb, angry, and self-destructive.
We need to become very different kinds of people now. Full of gratitude and love and respect for all of life. All of it. From the tiniest creature to the greatest. Rationality can’t be the measure of a creature, because it’s only made fools of us. It’s only led us to self-destruction and ruin, the idea that a person, a nation — or a species — should only be in it for themselves, their own gain, profit, advantage. We need to rethink our relationship with nature from that perspective. It needs to become one of investment, not consumption, which means giving back, nurturing, nourishing, protecting, guiding, coexisting — not abusing, violating, and dominating.
Can we be that thing, that being? I don’t know. Nobody knows. The ancients and the primitives wanted to be those beings. But modern societies came along — and killed them off. With efficiency, with productivity. By instilling this insatiable appetite for mindless consumption, TikTok style. Maybe, in the end, that’s what we’re destined to be, by our primate brains.
This century tests all that. Who we really are, can be, want to be, in this world. The truth and essence of us.
So far, though, I have to wonder — are we even trying to be any different from the violent, stupid, selfish, self-destructive, walking apes capitalism and patriarchy and empire, all those old systems of domination, violence, and violation, want us to be?