The Conservative Belief in Human Supremacy Is Destroying Our Planet
The following is an excerpt from the new book The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen (Seven Stories Press, 2016):
"The modern conservative [and, I would say, the human supremacist] is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." —John Kenneth Galbraith
I’m sitting by a pond, in sunlight that has the slant and color of early fall. Wind blows through the tops of second-growth redwood, cedar, fir, alder, willow. Breezes make their way down to sedges, rushes, grasses, who nod their heads this way and that. Spider silk glistens. A dragonfly floats a few inches above the water, then suddenly climbs to perch atop a rush.
A family of jays talks among themselves.
I smell the unmistakable, slightly sharp scent of redwood duff, and then smell also the equally unmistakable and also slightly sharp, though entirely different, smell of my own animal body.
A small songbird, I don’t know who, hops on two legs just above the waterline. She stops, cocks her head, then pecks at the ground.
Movement catches my eye, and I see a twig of redwood needles fall gently to the ground. It helped the tree. Now it will help the soil.
Someday I am going to die. Someday so are you. Someday both you and I will feed—even more than we do now, through our sloughed skin, through our excretions, through other means—those communities who now feed us. And right now, amidst all this beauty, all this life, all these others—sedge, willow, dragonfly, redwood, spider, soil, water, sky, wind, clouds—it seems not only ungenerous, but ungrateful to begrudge the present and future gift of my own life to these others without whom neither I nor this place would be who we are, without whom neither I nor this place would even be.
Likewise, in this most beautiful place on Earth—and you do know, don’t you, that each wild and living place on Earth is the most beautiful place on Earth—I can never understand how members of the dominant culture could destroy life on this planet. I can never understand how they could destroy even one place.
Last year someone from Nature [sic] online journal interviewed me by phone. I include the sic because the journal has far more to do with promoting human supremacism—the belief that humans are separate from and superior to everyone else on the planet—than it has to do with the real world. Here is one of the interviewer’s “questions”: “Surely nature can only be appreciated by humans. If nature were to cease to exist, nature itself would not notice, as it is not conscious (at least in the case of most animals and plants, with the possible exception of the great apes and cetaceans) and, other than through life’s drive for homeostasis, is indifferent to its own existence. Nature thus only achieves worth through our consciously valuing it.”
At the precise moment he said this to me, I was watching through my window a mother bear lying on her back in the tall grass, her two children playing on her belly, the three of them clearly enjoying each other and the grass and the sunshine. I responded, “How dare you say these others do not appreciate life!” He insisted they don’t.
I asked him if he knew any bears personally. He thought the question absurd.
This is why the world is being murdered.
Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture. A central unquestioned belief of this culture is that humans are superior to and separate from everyone else. Human supremacism is part of the foundation of much of this culture’s religion, science, economics, philosophy, art, epistemology, and so on.
Human supremacism is killing the planet. Human supremacists—at this point, almost everyone in this culture—have shown time and again that the maintenance of their belief in their own superiority, and the entitlement that springs from this belief, are more important to them than the well-being or existences of everyone else. Indeed, they’ve shown that the maintenance of this self-perception and entitlement are more important than the continuation of life on the planet.
Until this supremacism is questioned and dismantled, the self-perceived entitlement that flows from this supremacism guarantees that every attempt to stop this culture from killing the planet will fail, in great measure because these attempts will be informed and limited by this supremacism, and thus will at best be ways to slightly mitigate harm, with the primary point being to make certain to never in any way question or otherwise endanger the supremacism or entitlement.
In short, people protect what’s important to them, and human supremacists have shown time and again that their sense of superiority and the tangible benefits they receive because of their refusal to perceive others as anything other than inferiors or resources to be exploited is more important to them than not destroying the capacity of this planet to support life, including, ironically, their own.
Especially because human supremacism is killing the planet, but also on its own terms, human supremacism is morally indefensible. It is also intellectually indefensible. Neither of which seems to stop a lot of people from trying to defend it.
The first line of defense of human supremacism is no defense at all, literally. This is true for most forms of supremacism, as unquestioned assumptions form the most common base for any form of bigotry: Of course humans (men, whites, the civilized) are superior, why do you ask? Or more precisely: How could you possibly ask? Or even more precisely: What the hell are you talking about, you crazy person? Or more precisely yet, an awkward silence while everyone politely forgets you said anything at all.
Think about it: if you were on a bus or in a shopping mall or in a church or in the halls of Congress, and you asked the people around you if they think humans are more intelligent than or are otherwise superior to cows or willows or rivers or mushrooms or stones (“stupid as a box of rocks”), what do you think people would answer? If you said to them that trees told you they don’t want to be cut down and made into 2x4s, what would happen to your credibility? Contrast that with the credibility given to those who state publicly that you can have infinite economic (or human population) growth on a finite planet, or who argue that the world consists of resources to be exploited. If you said to people in this culture that oceans don’t want to be murdered, would these humans listen? If you said that prairie dogs are in no way inferior to (or less intelligent than) humans, and you said this specifically to those humans who have passed laws requiring landowners to kill prairie dogs, would they be more likely to laugh at you or agree with you? Or do you think they’d be more likely to get mad at you? And just think how mad they’d get if you told them that land doesn’t want to be owned (most especially by them). If you told them there was a choice between electricity from dams and the continued existence of salmon, lampreys, sturgeon, and mussels, which would they choose? Why? What are they already choosing?
This is too abstract. Here is human supremacism. Right now in Africa, humans are placing cyanide wastes from gold mines on salt licks and in ponds. This cyanide poisons all who come there, from elephants to lions to hyenas to the vultures who eat the dead. The humans do this in part to dump the mine wastes, but mainly so they can sell the ivory from the murdered elephants.
Right now a human is wrapping endangered ploughshares tortoises in cellophane and cramming them into roller bags to try to smuggle them out of Madagascar and into Asia for the pet trade. There are fewer than 400 of these tortoises left in the wild.
Right now in China, humans keep bears in tiny cages, iron vests around the bears’ abdomens to facilitate the extraction of bile from the bears’ gall bladders. The bears are painfully “milked” daily. The vests also serve to keep the bears from killing themselves by punching themselves in the chest.
Right now there are fewer than 500 Amani flatwing damselflies left in the world. They live along one stream in Tanzania. The rest of their home has been destroyed by human agriculture.
This year has seen a complete collapse of monarch butterfly populations in the United States and Canada. Their homes have been destroyed by agriculture.
Right now humans are plowing under and poisoning prairies. Right now humans are clearcutting forests. Right now humans are erecting mega-dams. Right now because of dams, 25 percent of all rivers no longer reach the ocean.
And most humans couldn’t care less.
Right now the University of Michigan Wolverines football team is hosting the Minnesota Golden Gophers. More than 100,000 humans are attending this football game. More than 100,000 humans have attended every Michigan home football game since 1975. There used to be real wolverines in Michigan. One was sighted there in 2004, the first time in 200 years. That wolverine died in 2010.
More people in Michigan—“The Wolverine State”—care about the Michigan Wolverines football team than care about real wolverines.
This is human supremacism.
I just got a note from a friend who was visiting her son. She writes, “Yesterday morning when I emptied the compost bucket, the guy next door called out to ask if that was ‘garbage’ I was putting on the pile. I told him it was ‘compost.’ We went back and forth a couple of times. Then he said, ‘We don’t want no [sic] animals around here. I saw a raccoon out there. There were never any animals around here before.’ What better statement of human supremacism?”
Recently, scientists discovered that some species of mice love to sing. They “fill the air with trills so high-pitched that most humans can’t even hear them.” If “the melody is sweet enough, at least to the ears of a female mouse, the vocalist soon finds himself with a companion.”
Mice, like songbirds, have to be taught how to sing. This is culture, passed from generation to generation. If they aren’t taught, they can’t sing.
So, what is the response by scientists to these mice, who love to sing, who teach each other how to sing, who sing for their lovers, who have been compared to “opera singers”?
Given what the ideology of human supremacism does to people who otherwise seem sane, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the scientists wanted to find out what would happen if they surgically deafened these mice. And we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the mice could no longer sing their operas, their love songs. The deafened mice could no longer sing at all. Instead, they screamed.
And who could blame them? This is human supremacism.
Or there’s this. Just yesterday I spoke with Con Slobodchikoff, who has been studying prairie dog language for more than thirty years. Through observing prairie dogs non-intrusively in the field, he has learned of the complexity of their language and social lives. But he has done so, he said, without the aid of grants. Time and again he was told that if he wanted to receive money for his research—and if he wanted to do “real science” instead of “just” observing nature—he would have to capture some prairie dogs, deafen them, and then see how these social creatures with their complex auditory language and communal relationships responded to their loss of hearing. Of course he refused. Of course he didn’t receive the grants.
This is human supremacism.
And then today I got an email from a botanist friend who has worked for various federal agencies. His work has included identifying previously unknown species of plants. He said this work has not been supported by the agencies, because the existence of rare plants would interfere with their management plans, including the mass spraying of herbicides. His discoveries have been made on his own time and on his own dime.
It’s a good thing science is value free, isn’t it?
I told him Slobodchikoff had said to me that the scientific establishment makes it very difficult for people to manifest their love of the world. Slobodchikoff said this as someone who loves the earth very much.
My botanist friend agreed. “Science makes it very hard to love the world. Most scientists want the world to fit nice, clear, linear equations, and anything that doesn’t fit is ignored, unless you can get a publication out of it. Love isn’t a concept that would even come to mind concerning the natural world. The natural world is just a means to an end. A thing to be dissected, so they can get tenure. I was talking to a local botany professor, about how geology can drive speciation/change, and he was actually surprised to consider anything outside of genetic mechanisms. I was surprised at his surprise: his view just seemed so limited. A plant to him is an isolated, discrete entity, rather than the expression of the complex interactions and relationships between all the entities/factors in the environment going back 3.5 billion years.”
Or there’s this. I just saw a snuff video of scientists pouring molten aluminum into an anthill to reveal the shape of the tunnels. Then the scientists marveled at the beauty of the shape of the anthill they just massacred to the last ant.
This is human supremacism.
Or there’s this. The air around the world has recently been declared to be as carcinogenic as secondhand smoke. The leading cause of lung cancer is now industrial pollution.
This is human supremacism.