Stripping away our fashions and technology and immersing ourselves into one of the few untouched indigenous cultures remaining on the planet, there would be natural similarities as well as some important differences. On the surface we would be alike in appearance and experience similar physical appetites and enjoyment of human social interaction, but underneath, and in outward perception, there would be a distinct difference in the relationship to non-humans in this local environment.
Relative to the indigenous person, we would have a large general knowledge regarding the planet, its peoples and history, basic understanding of science, climate change, and the problem of carbon emissions, all obtained from school education and modern media, and if lucky enough, university. However, we would typically view this local environment as composed of different objects and perhaps have some knowledge pertaining to their existence or branch of particular species. The indigenous inhabitant, however, would traditionally perceive their environment composed of different subjects, all unique in their own right, and existing as part of an interconnected web of life that they themselves are part. While our modern education has undoubtedly brought us great bounties, it has also brought us a great weakness in how we perceive other creatures and members of this planet with a separate, analytical and hierarchical perception.
The late Thomas Berry, cultural historian and deep ecologist, noted that the university can be considered as one of the four basic establishments influencing human life in higher functioning: i.e. the government, the religious traditions, the university and commercial-industrial corporations. With all of these four – the political, religious, intellectual and economic institutions having failed in their relationship with the planet. This, he argued, is due to human’s current myopic vision of a radical discontinuity between the human and non-human modes of being, with all values and rights given to the human, and all others only obtaining their value through their use by the human. The devastation of the non-human world is due to this attitude.
One could simply call this attitude arrogance, which in effect, is ignorance. And the place to remedy ignorance is in our centres of learning.
It would be a tempting solution to make a course in ecology required for students of all degree paths, and perhaps even making Thomas Berry required reading. But this would not suffice, as what needs to change is a perception of where we fit in, and how we relate knowledge within our modes of activity. Berry wrote what is needed is an ecology-centred approach, where ecology would be the foundation of all courses. For example, law would not be apart from ecology, but an extension of it; the same for medicine. And similarly for economics, one would not have the apparent contradiction about reporting a positive growth in GDP, while the GDP of the planet’s biosphere is rapidly declining.
If we look at our history we have had a theological-centred approach in the past. The church controlled access to knowledge and even in later times knowledge and discovery was viewed through a theological lens. In the 19th century there was outrage regarding Darwin’s theory of evolution as this was difficult to accept from the perspective of that time. Changing our viewpoint has occurred in the past, and can happen in the future, and without being a tyranny or dictating discovery and enlightenment.
Putting the Earth and its many forms of life, and with reference to a basic cosmology as to our place in our galaxy and universe, as the foundation of our studies, would require action from deans, vice-chancellors and governing bodies. Influential donors can also add to this discussion. This would not be about controlling thought and discovery, but one of changing our perspective or reference point. Knowledge would flow ever as freely as before, but without the damaging division between humans and the rest of the planet.
The position in which one stands makes all the difference in viewing the landscape.
This article can be found in SALT magazine.