"Abundant Earth" Offers a Positive Vision for the Future
A new book offers a unique solution to stop human domination and expansionism.
Posted April 10, 2019
"Abundant Earth urges us to confront the reality that humanity will not advance by entrenching its domination over the biosphere. On the contrary, we will stagnate in the identity of nature-colonizer and decline into conflict as we vie for natural resources. Instead, we must chart another course, choosing to live in fellowship within the vibrant ecologies of our wild and domestic cohorts, and enfolding human inhabitation within the rich expanse of a biodiverse, living planet."
A few months ago I was asked to write an endorsement for Virginia Tech professor Eileen Crist's forthcoming book, Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. Once I began reading it, I couldn't put it down and I had to stop using a highlighter because the pages were all yellow. Now that it's been published, I'm thrilled to present an interview with Crist about her seminal and forward-looking book in which she "not only documents the rising tide of biodiversity loss, but also lays out the drivers of this wholesale destruction and how we can push past them. Looking beyond the familiar litany of causes—a large and growing human population, rising livestock numbers, expanding economies and international trade, and spreading infrastructures and incursions upon wildlands—she asks the key question: if we know human expansionism is to blame for this ecological crisis, why are we not taking the needed steps to halt our expansionism?"
I've known about Crist's groundbreaking work for more than two decades, and each time I see something she's written I stop what I'm doing and begin reading the gems she regularly produces. When I received her book I did the same, although I'd previously read the text. I'm pleased that she agreed to answer a few questions about her book and also her positive vision for the future:
Why did you write Abundant Earth and how does it build on your past work?
Abundant Earth is the result of many years of work and thinking about life’s predicament that scientists call “the biodiversity crisis.” Many people do not understand what biodiversity is—they think it is about numbers of species or vaguely assume it has something to do with the tropics. Biodiversity is the plenum of life on Earth at all levels: species, varieties, populations, genes, ecologies, biomes, and phenomena such as nonhuman minds, relations, manifestations, and movements. At all these levels, biodiversity is experiencing tremendous and heart-breaking blows.
With this work, I want to bring greater awareness to the scale, scope, and acceleration of this loss: the extermination of species, the blinking out of nonhuman populations, the rise of mass mortality events, the decline and disappearance of ecologies, the wholesale conversion of biomes, the attrition of ecological complexity and full evolutionary potential, and the erosion of such splendors as animal cultures, animal migrations, and animal orchestras. In other words, the overall deterioration of Earth’s extraordinary living richness. This is the defining event of our time—and so much of this destruction is irreversible. Indeed, Earth is in the throes of a mass extinction event, in danger of losing 50 to 75 percent of the planet’s species by the end of this century. If we do not act to preempt the Sixth Mass Extinction, we will bequeath an irrevocably impoverished world to all human generations to come.
The questions I investigate include why life’s unprecedented destruction is muted in dominant media and steeped in ignorance in the public sphere; why humanity is not taking the indispensable steps to halt the annihilation of life’s diversity, abundance, and complexity; and what are the obstacles to clarity and action surrounding biodiversity collapse that must be removed. In the last section of the book, I elaborate a positive vision of how to preserve a life-rich planet and create a mutual flourishing of human and nonhuman life: I argue that we must scale down the human enterprise and pull back from vast portions of the natural world.
How does your book differ from other books that are asking people to be 'nicer and kinder' to our magnificent but imperiled planet?
My work resonates with the work of many others, but is also divergent in a couple ways. One is my protracted emphasis on worldview—the worldview of human supremacy—as the root cause of the global ecological crisis. Human supremacy is the widely diffused belief-system that human beings are a superior life-form that is authorized to overpower and do what we will to all other life forms, to all places, and (in our time) to Earth as a whole. Most people do not espouse this belief-system consciously: they are corralled to live by its precepts and trained to assume they are sound.
My aim is to unmask this worldview, showing how violent, how shallow, how blinding, how destructive of the nonhuman realm, and how debasing of human dignity it is. I believe in the power of seeing. When we see how things are, beyond the thinning veneer and fiasco of normalcy that keeps the human-supremacist empire chugging along, a shift occurs and will increasingly expand. I am part of a growing human community of all walks of life, who are endeavoring to rupture the normalcy of human supremacy and expose the totalitarian and genocidal project of Earth occupation it is sponsoring.
A second thing I do concertedly in this book is to go after the myth that “human nature” is the problem. This is also a diffusely held belief, but too many people hold onto this one explicitly: either human nature is supposedly corrupt, selfish, greedy, or power-hungry, or human nature is supposedly exceptional, overweening, “bigger than life” in its socio-technical reach. I argue that there is nothing demonic or superlative about human nature driving the destruction of the planet. What is destroying Earth is a historically inherited, institutionally entrenched, culturally ossified, and unremittingly actionable credo of human superiority and entitlement: This worldview gives permission to humanity to exercise dominance within and domination over all nonhumans and planet Earth. Once we overcome that conditioning, we will not find some “perfect” human nature underneath. What we will find is a shared, steadfast love for the planet that created us human. When that abiding love is uncovered beneath the supremacist fiction, I believe that human beings will be overwhelmed by the desire to co-flourish with all earthlings and to celebrate Earth’s luminosity in the cosmos.
What are your major messages? How do you suggest people overcome their tendency to dominate/ruin our planet for mainly or solely anthropocentric reasons?
Along with others like Val Plumwood and Derrick Jensen, I prefer the concept “human supremacy” over "anthropocentrism," because its meaning is instantly available. People can readily map this concept onto white supremacy (or male, hetero-normative, or ableist supremacy), and thus immediately grasp its character as a form of socioculturally-propagated, arbitrary right-to-power over others—whether in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, species, place, or planetary body.
The word anthropocentrism is no longer useful, in my view, especially because many environmental analysts claim that “anthropocentrism” serves human interests. But anthropocentrism or human supremacy debases human beings and is leading humanity to an existential and ethical dead end. Exerting power in the sense of subjugating others neither serves nor elevates those who exert that subjugating power. On the contrary, it delivers them to profound suffering: the suffering of narrowness, willful ignorance, blindness, dissociation, and alienation. Let me offer one example. Why was the idea of animal mind(s) taboo in Western discourses until very recently? Why could people (people conditioned into a superlative identity of “the human”) not see animal emotions, intentionality, foresight, cooperation, empathy, and so on—not see the rich spectrum of animals being self-aware subjects of their lives? Because human supremacy is blinding. Indigenous humans, who have not suffered from the mental illness of human supremacy, have had profound clarity about the scope of nonhuman consciousness in the world. But the moment we put ourselves above another (human or nonhuman), the first casualty is clear sight. How can something blinding (call it anthropocentrism or human supremacy) be serviceable?
It is anything but coincidental, of course, that the understanding of animal minds (as well as plant, fungi, and other nonhuman minds) is dawning at exactly the same time that human supremacy is eroding. As the stupidity of inculcated human arrogance wanes, the clarity of our sight increases in proportion.
Who is your intended audience and why should people care about how we interact with Earth right now?
My intended audience is my fellow humans. The reason we care about the fate of the life’s richness is that the human spirit is awakening and becoming present to what is happening—even as conformity with the violent ways of human supremacy persists. By the human spirit becoming present, I mean a rising determination not to look away, but to bear witness. Through the human spirit’s awakening and presencing there arises, and will undoubtedly swell, revolt.
It is telling that the words revolution and revulsion have consonance. To become revolted by something leads to revolting against it. When our whale brothers and sisters are beaching dead with their stomachs full of plastic, what do we feel? Revulsion, which sparks revolution. The examples can be multiplied. Do we not see that it is irrational to trade rainforests for soybeans, palm oil, and beef? Do we not know that it is insane to swap mangroves for shrimp, temperate grasslands for meat and dairy, boreal forests for tar sands, coral reefs for fossil fuels, loving care of farm animals for cheap animal products, or the integrity of the deep sea for cobalt, gold, and rare earths? Why are we destroying cosmic wealth and the honor of belonging with it? If we look closely, the answer is there. For the continued expansion of the superior-cum-entitled human, self-authorized to keep growing our economies, our global population, the stuff in our closets, the industrial-military fishing complex, livestock numbers and factory farms, throwaway cellphones, personal computers, cars (etc.), and infrastructural sprawl.
When we relinquish the human-supremacist identity, the desire to embrace limitations in what we consume and how we inhabit will naturally arise. We know that in our individual lives limitations support health, well-being, comfort, and integrity—why does this understanding fail us with respect to human life on Earth? Once we shed human conceit, we will naturally embrace the wisdom of limitations.
Are you hopeful things will change for the better? Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
The question of hope today pertains to what the future harbors; it is both a very human preoccupation and a red herring. It seems to me that the mandate of our time is to attend closely to the present. When the question of the future becomes foregrounded (or even dramatized)—and we anticipate something good or something awful will occur—we can lose focus on what is happening here-and-now.
Yet the problem of future-think is doubly worse, because fixation on the future is spurred by the very status quo that we must mobilize to supplant. The contemporary globalizing technological-industrial complex foists upon the human collective a frenzied future-oriented movement for more output, more productivity, and more achievement. Critical theorist Paul Virilio describes this phenomenon as “the acceleration of reality” and “the cult of speed,” driven primarily by the colonization of human life by the technosphere. To Virilio’s disclosure of the present-day shared trauma of life acceleration, we can add having to cope with a shockwave of infinite information. The human lifeworld is being crushed between these two forces: frenetic speed and stimulation overload. We must find ways to resist the draining and dangerous excesses of this age, turning toward cultivating the seasonal, liturgical, and golden mean rhythms of primordial reality.
The question of hope often comes at the expense of the question of presence. We need to presence ourselves in the right-now, starting by battling the systemic forces that are undermining our capacity to presence ourselves. Everything is speeding up, accelerating by, and coagulating into clutter: life has become a blur. Setting aside the question of hope, we must resist the colonization of our minds and bodies by the all-out assault on a human-scale time-space reality inflicted by the vertiginous and suffocating distortions of a system gone haywire. Let’s say “No” to having our noses smashed into a pointless, frantic grind. We must create personal and community refuges of slow and high quality living, thereby recovering stereoscopic vision of the present situation. This is not the only site of resistance of course, but it is a critical one. In slowing down, embracing quality over quantity, and grounding ourselves in the here and now, we will claim the needed collective power to oppose the machine of Earth colonization.
"I don't understand why all adults, who make more humans, don't do all they can to make a better future for us."
Thank you, Eileen, for a most thoughtful and future-looking interview. We are living in an era many people call the Anthropocene or "the age of humanity." However, this period of time can more accurately be called the "rage of inhumanity." The above quotation was expressed at a class discussion I was having with a group of young teens, all of whom were really frightened by what their future might look like based on what was happening currently in their neighborhoods and around the world.
Obviously, we surely need to change our ways, and I hope that everyone will align with your thoughts and feelings that you clearly lay out in Abundant Earth so that we can move into a far less destructive and violent presence on our magnificent planet. The endorsement I wrote for your book still stands: “Abundant Earth is a gem of a book. Eileen Crist clearly shows how essential it is for humans to appreciate that we’re just one species among many, to recognize that it’s high time that we deeply appreciate and embrace Earth’s biodiversity, and to understand that we’re not superior or ‘better’ than other animals. When we come to realize that coexistence has to be the name of the game as we move forward in an increasingly human dominated world—we are the most dominating species—and that each and every individual can make positive differences in the ongoing health of our magnificent planet, there is hope that the future won’t be as bleak as many claim it will be. Future generations surely will inherit a different planet. However, different doesn’t necessarily mean a worse place to live if we reconnect with nature, rewild ourselves, and come to understand that we’re just one of a gang of many diverse beings, all of whom matter.”
Humanity surely will not advance by entrenching its domination over the biosphere. I hope that everyone interested in Earth's future will read your excellent, forward-looking book, and share it widely. This is the least we can do for future generations who will inherit the messes we leave them.
Bekoff, M. Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence. New world Library, Novato, California. 2014.