Many religions and cultures have sacred sites to which they return and for which they are willing to make great sacrifices. Some Jews not only yearn to return to the Holy Land, but even feel it is a religious obligation. The Great Sioux tribe recently raised 9 million dollars to buy back Pe’ Sla, a site in the Black Hills they had never given up, and for which they had never accepted the compensation payment offered them decades ago when the land was taken from them. These places are important because of their association with a people’s cultural heritage or because of a promise or prophecy about the future. And yet, I often wonder whether these are not just fragments of a larger concept – that of the sacredness of the Earth as a whole. What if we step back and consider the similar ways in which these sites matter to individual groups of people and then extrapolate from that to think of sacredness as a fundamental aspect of the human relationship to the Earth. In one way or another, these places represent a kind of nativity, a coming into being of some aspect of human existence. The idea that the Earth is a mother, or grandmother perhaps best sums this up, and the Hopi’s use of the kiva to represent a kind of womb is a primal version of this. Though the Hopi, like all other religious societies consider certain places as having a specific role in their emergence – the Grand Canyon – and in their prophecies – Oraibi, they also consider all of the Earth as sacred and desire to maintain a spiritual harmony with all life, even extending this desire to include all other human beings, who they believe can also participate in this harmony – if only they would live in the proper manner. Hopi respect for the Earth, it seems, does not maintain an exclusiveness the way the other peoples’ relationship to place does. Might there be a lesson for all of us here?
Nuvayoiyava (Albert Yava) said it very well:
“We old-timers can see that there has been a steady drift away from our traditional attitude toward nature and the universe. What I’m talking about is not the dancing and the kiva paraphernalia, all those visible things. They are only a means of expressing what we feel about the world. I am talking about the feelings and attitudes behind the kiva rituals. We feel that the world is good. We are grateful to be alive. We are conscious that all men are brothers. We sense that we are related to other living creatures. Life is to be valued and preserved. If you see a grain of corn on the ground, pick it up and take care of it, because it has life inside. When you go out of your house in the morning and see the sun rising, pause a moment to think about it. That sun brings warmth to the things that grow in the fields. If there’s a cloud in the sky, look at it and remember that it brings rain to a dry land. When you take water from a spring, be aware that it is a gift of nature.”
“All those stories we tell about men changing into bears or deer, and then changing back, you can look at them as primitive ideas if you want to, but they really express our certainty that the dividing line between humans and animals is very slim, and that we are here to share what is given to us.”
This is an expression of the natural contract. The idea of a sensitive, interdependent relationship between ourselves and the world in which we live, which gives us life, indeed, of which we are but a part, a dependent part, is not new. It has existed since humans have existed, and has been expressed in many languages in many faith traditions. It is humble, but powerful – due, in part, to it’s humility. I wonder sometimes, whether it would be an impossible goal to recreate and then continue some of these traditions so as to bring them to fruition and to diversify the paths we travel – in case the anthropocentric, individualistic, all-consuming one we are on as a species may not serve us as well as it seems to have so far.
I am suggesting we try just that.
God promised not to send any more floods; He didn’t offer to save us from those of our own making. Perhaps it is apt that as a people who have killed God – if not consciously, then simply by making Him unnecessary for our physical survival (more on that later) – we have actually stepped into the role of that god and brought upon ourselves a far greater punishment than He ever would have delivered. How quickly will we grasp the fate we have created for ourselves, separated from Him and suffering the effects of our self-destruction, as we beseech Him to come to our aid? (He remains silent.)
The irony of our situation is that while we have destroyed countless lives in wars fought to defend our land or to claim new land (or resources, which amounts to the same thing) from other nations, we have simultaneously devastated vast tracts of land to develop (junk) food and (so-called) medicine to save, extend, and (ostensibly) to improve the lives of our people. How much more effective and sustainable it would have been to live in peace on the land according to its very wise counsel – in a symbiotic relationship – and to recognize God as the creator of that relationship, not simply of our arrogant, ignorant pride.
“Keeping the oceans at bay” is how one magazine writer/editor (Newsweek, June, 2011) chose to analogize our attempts to avert the current climate crisis. This strange metaphor works because it points up an absurdity on two levels: it is both a reversal of what we want to contain (not the ships of enemies, but the environment itself) and it is ludicrous to think we can contain this, or any other element of the environment. The kind of simplistic thinking this phrase evokes is characteristic of our attitude and serves as further evidence that the true culprit in the instigation of this climate crisis is the rise to power of inane people. It was clear the habitable world, and humanity with it (necessarily), was utterly lost when the population of the U.S. elected the likes of “W” president – twice. But alas, as Benjamin Franklin so wisely observed in his speech at the Constitutional Convention, we get what we deserve. Unfortunately, so do the hapless animals and plants on whose backs we rose to hegemony (that is: what we deserve, not what they deserve, which would be at least to be left in peace).
Politics is a veil that obscures (but never fully hides) the power struggles that determine how we live and die. There is no fundamental law in nature that determines how we must divide up the resources in our environment, so our ancestors have attempted in a variety of ways to put into place moral/political codes to govern how we do it. Private property is a perfect example of a groundless (sic) concept that can be sustained only by the consent of the members of a society. The fact that private property is considered a right is simply the result of the economic and political conditions that prevailed for the past 500 or so years. All private property (whether homesteaded or mortgaged) exists only on the basis of a power principle. We agree to abide by a code that gives individuals (limited) rights to control pieces of property.
There is no reason to believe that this will always be the case; nor is it a forgone conclusion that it should have been the case. More than one European colonist or visitor to the New World suggested that the native tradition of holding land communally and sharing the resources in common may be preferable to the “old” world custom of divvying things up and putting up fences to control resources (and ourselves). Other codes are possible – in fact, are in effect – we are just blind to them because of our conditioning.
We are now experiencing the absurdity of the concept of individual ownership of elements of the environment on many levels. The manufacture, marketing, and making of genetic varieties of seed crops (whether hybridized or otherwise manipulated) opens up uncharted areas of legality about who can own what and who is responsible for what. In order to understand how we got to this point, we have to consider a fundamental dichotomy in how we, as a species, have related to and lived on this planet. The idea that we tend and treat with respect God’s creation was abandoned in favor of the idea that we bend and mistreat this same creation to meet our own (human) needs at any expense to other species. There is no solid boundary between these two approaches, but there is a fundamental difference in attitude, and it is along this same line of distinction that sustainability is demarcated.
The amount of nitrogen that exists in the natural environment (the environment without significant human intervention) is limited to a very determined amount. Nitrogen is released as a result of two processes – decay and lightning (significantly more in the first than the second). The amount of vegetable (and consequently animal) life that can be maintained on this closed system is finite. When the possibility of creating nitrogen by a chemical process was discovered, the rules of the game were radically altered. It is moot point to ask whether we should perhaps have suppressed this ability to create nitrogen and limited ourselves to the food production available without it, because the answer to that proposition is the same as it is for any similar proposition: being human, we could not have. In other words, it is inherent in our nature (way of being) to grasp as much as we can and to either ignore or suppress any hint of a consequence that may make things inconvenient in the future. In other, other words, we had to make more nitrogen – if not then, then shortly after. There is no stopping us. The only brakes on our train are those of explosion or implosion. Which leads us back to the issue of genetically modified crops. Like the artificial production of nitrogen, the alteration of a plant’s dna is a solution to a perceived problem – the need for more food to feed an ever-expanding population. Population growth is taken either as a necessity or as a victory over the conditions imposed by nature, but never as a mistake or as an artificially sustained momentum. But that is exactly what it is. We see it as an unchallenged, even sacred precept that every human life is sacred, and by some strange mathematical formula, that the more of it there is, the better; more packets of sacredness equals more overall sacredness – as if sacredness could be unitized.
This view of sacredness is a residue of our individualizing of everything. Instead of seeing life as a whole as sacred, which would mean concerning ourselves with the quality of all life on the planet (or even, for the sake of argument, all human life), we sacrifice (consciously or not) the quality of life for most in order to maintain life at whatever level for a few. If we try to argue that the goal is the improvement of life for all and point to humanitarian relief efforts to support this claim, we are being stupendously duped. Humanitarian relief is neither sustainable (effective) nor altruistic. It is part of the power play that keeps things under control and benefitting those who have what they need-want.
Our current idea of religion is a very limited one, and, again, just as with our view of private property, not the only one ever operable on this planet. What if we considered it our religious responsibility to protect and sustain our grandmother, rather than to reduce our existence to a wager for a reserved place in the pleasure palace after we expire? Leaving our physical bodies out of the formula leads to the very unsustainable attitude that our physical surroundings are not inherently meaningful – that they are expendable to the supposedly higher purpose of our individual soul-salvation. In a sense, we are talking about a variation on the theme of mind over matter – but, in this case, soul over matter. Well, in either case, matter is under mind (sic pun). Is our current conception of the role of religion anything but an extension of our egocentric need for attention/fulfillment?
If, on the other hand, we perceived our relationship to God as manifest in our relationship to his creation, we may recognize that we owe something to something other than ourselves. Indeed, that we are something more than ourselves. Perhaps the meaning of existence could be measured in terms of our belonging to something greater, vaster, grander, and more perfect than our individual selves. This would be, in effect, a contract – a being bound to, or, even better, a being bound up with, the world that we call nature. A natural contract.
The idea of the Natural Contract was first proposed by Michel Serres in his book Le Contrat Naturel (Editions François Bourin, 1990).
” . . . we must add to the exclusively social contract a natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity in which our relationship to things would set aside mastery and possession in favor of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect; where knowledge would no longer imply property, nor action mastery, nor would property and mastery imply their excremental results and origins. An armistice contract in the objective war, a contract of symbiosis, for a symbiont recognizes the host’s rights, whereas a parasite–which is what we are now–condemns to death the one he pillages and inhabits, not realizing that in the long run he’s condemning himself to death too.” (From the English translation of Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson, Univ. of Michigan, 1995, p. 38)
Please join me in developing a natural contract that can guide humanity in reciprocating for the gifts we have received from nature. Whether we think of her as grandmother or as the creation of a god, the same principles define our relationship with the natural world in which we live. We owe our existence and our sense of meaning to our relationship with the larger whole in which we participate, both as individuals and as humanity. Our survival is codependent on the survival of our planet and this contract can give us a way to contribute to that co-survival consciously and conscientiously.