Homo Sapiens Ecosophy - Part 1
Mis à jour : 22 janv. 2020
Figuring out my eco-philosophy
I have always loved stories. The stories my mother read to me as a child, and was keen to read myself the moment I was able to decipher and decode the magical world of symbols put together to create words, of words put together to create sentences, and of sentences weaved together to create stories. As a young girl I was sucked into these stories and taken away to worlds where it was safe to discover new places, people and adventures.
I also loved the stories I saw unravel in cartoons and films on television, and remember the successive stages of thinking that these stories and characters were real, to questioning how real they were, to ‘growing up’ and understanding that none of it was real. ’Growing up’ meant drawing a cognitive chalk line between fiction and non-fiction, and developing a clear mental guideline of the real and the unreal, true and false and right and wrong. Between stories and History.
As I read Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind’, I now wonder to what extent I was right, as a young child, to believe that what I read in my books and what I saw on TV was real. Or rather, I wonder whether I was closer to reality in not drawing a line between the stories I read and watched, and ‘real’ life.
In explaining how the cognitive revolution enabled Homo Sapiens to “conquer” the world, Harari highlights that the ability to coordinate large numbers of its members allowed sapiens to gain the upper hand on other human and non-human species. And just how do we coordinate large numbers of people? By creating and sharing information “about things that do not exist at all”. Our unique mastery of fiction and the resulting creation of common myths and imagined realities has, according to Harari, enabled our previously-not-so-special homo sapiens clique to achieve tasks other species and the natural world had insofar deemed unnecessary, such as setting up strategies for hunting larger number of prey or building nations.
Does this place storytelling as one of, if not the, most consequential distinction between our sapiens selves and other living beings? Which brings me to three questions today :
1. What are stories, and what are they made of?
2. How are they transmitted?
3. How do I feel about the Homo Sapiens’ “conquering” of the world?
I’m interested in question three today.
If I take the definition of conquest to be the subjugation of a place or people by force, then I feel uncomfortable about 1. the subjugation of the natural world, given the current state of affairs - pollution, global warming, natural resource depletion and loss of biodiversity, to name but a few current ecological predicaments, and 2. the means through which the subjugation has mainly taken place: by force.
If I take the definition of conquest to be the overcoming of a problem or weakness, then I feel ambivalent. Resilience is a quality I highly admire in people, other animals and in nature. However, I’m not quite sure about what the weakness or problem to be overcome might have been for our earlier homo sapiens ancestors. I understand the wish to develop the skills necessary to adapt to a perhaps hostile environment and to survive, but I feel like we’ve gone beyond. The cognitive revolution seems to have brought with it needs other species do not have, such the need for accomplishment and self-actualisation (maybe other species do have those needs, I don’t know), and I feel that our focus on meeting these needs has separated us from our ecosystem and contributed to the annihilation, destruction and endangerment of other species and of our natural world. We’ve done a good job of “conquering” the world indeed, and I am really fascinated by why we have done, and still do this.
I can understand why a group of animals decides to migrate to a different geographical area because food is scarce, and in so doing find themselves climbing impossible mountains and fighting against harsh conditions. I find it harder to understand why some of us decide to climb Everest, do
crazy trail runs (guilty!), build ships to cross the oceans and explore new lands and rocketships that can take us to the moon. Coming back to the definition of conquest as the overcoming of a problem or weakness, could it be that these weaknesses or problems we homo sapiens need to overcome are internal rather than external - unfortunate byproducts of this cognitive revolution Harari talks about? And if so, why does the rest of the ecosystem of life need to pay the consequences of our quest to fulfill needs which are exclusive to us, sapiens?
If we were to agree that these needs of ours are internal and indeed exclusive to homo sapiens, meaning that they serve no purpose in the context of the ecosystem of life as a whole, could we argue that they are shaped by an equally sapiens-exclusive medium - that of storytelling? Meaning that the stories and Histories we tell ourselves shape our needs. And if so, what gives life to these stories and Histories, and allows them to be developed and transmitted? Language.
Which is to say that language gives life and is a vehicle to the stories we live by (1) - and many of these stories, given an official thumbs up, become History. These stories and History shape our vision of ourselves, others and the world, and this vision in turn shapes our needs. Our needs shape the way we behave, the choices we make and how we impact our social and natural environment. Which brings us back to the notion of “conquering” our environment.
I don’t like that we homo sapiens have “conquered” the world, and I feel that we should reconsider our relationship to our environment in order to create a more harmonious and respectful co-habitation between all living beings. Where to begin? With stories, of course. By understanding the stories I am living by, which are shaped by language, and in turn shape my relationship to the world, I hope to be able to question, analyse and choose to live by stories which will harness the harmony and respect for the whole ecosystem of living beings that I am searching for.
But before I do so, I must begin with the mother of stories : my ecosophy.
To be continued…
(1) The stories we live by is a term used by Professor Arran Stibbe to describe "structures in the minds of individuals (cognition) or across the minds of multiple individuals in society (social cognition) that influence how we think, talk and act. " (Stibbe, 2016)
Harari, Yuval Noah; Vintage (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Stibbe, A. (2016). Ecolinguistics. London: Routledge.