What story do you tell yourself about what it means to be human?
This question matters because the way we frame humanity, will determine the future of humanity (and a load of other species too).
There is a strong story doing the rounds at the moment that humans are the problem. That the world would be better off without us. That we are greedy, selfish destroyers driving the extinction of many species (including our own). This is the story behind the creation of the anthropocene as a new geological epoch- one defined by the destructive capacities of humanity. This frame is summed up by images like the globe damaged by a human footprint
Or this recent BBC headline…
This idea that all humans have an insatiable tendency to consume is wildly inaccurate. The earth is not in a perilous position because of humans per se, but because of a group of humans with a particular economy and culture. Conflating the impacts of humans living under capitalism, with the entire human race, conveniently blinds us to the fact that it is our systems, not our species that are innately destructive. As Sheena Patel puts it in her novel, I’m a Fan:
“The West’s insistence that it is humans who are the antithesis to the Earth is short-sighted and incorrect. It is a certain kind of human built into a particular system whereby solid, physical things like ancestral land, a tree, the rivers, waters and rocks become unreal next to the dreamt up, magical apparatus of the stock market and quarterly growth”
So instead of the anthropocene, it would be more accurate to call this epoch the capitalocene, or the plantationocene in reference to its roots in modernization, homogeneity, and control, which were developed on historical plantations. The more we coalesce what it means to be human under capitalism, with what it means to be human per-se, the less we become able to move beyond capitalism.
This narrative about our insatiable greed, selfishness and destructive capacities is reinforced in popular culture, in some of my favourite TV shows like Succession, Ozark and House of Cards. I often come away from binging these feeling like I need to be nastier to succeed, that any virtuous behaviour is laughable naivety, that I need to ramp up my ruthlessness and reduce my kindness.
Humans are not inherently destructive. There are cultures all over the world where humans have lived in harmony with the natural world for millennia. In a recent conversation with Tyson Yunkaporta for The Long Time Academy podcast, he explained to me how many ecosystems struggle when humans stop playing a custodial role, whether that’s through actively caring for the ecosystem, or fertilising soil with urine, bones and shells from food, through to aboriginal bushfire-management. Humans, he told me, are actually a custodial species.
As historian Rutgar Bregman outlines in Humankind, to suggest humans are inherently selfish and competitive is a relatively recent phenomena that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more the dominant view has emphasised that humans are self-interested, the more self-interested humans have become.
Given this pivotal moment in the history of the planet that we are living in, it’s time we prioritised telling stories of co-operation, of togetherness, of custodial humanity. Sometimes people object that these kinds of stories are less engaging. Audiences of hundreds of millions tuning into shows like Queer Eye, Sex Education, The Good Life, Grace & Frankie and Stranger Things, would suggest otherwise.
How can we possibly expect hundreds of millions of people to evolve our societies into ones that supports life, if we’re telling them that they are inherently bad? If we want people to step up and act in support of life on earth, let’s cultivate stories of interconnection, courage, humility, stewardship and awe for the extraordinary web of life that we’re part of.