“Time is running out” (A final message from John A. Livingston)
The following thoughts appear in the last chapter of the late John A. Livingston’s 1973 book, One Cosmic Instant; Man’s Fleeting Supremacy (a book I can especially relate to in that it dissects and begins to dismantle the entrenched, arrogant attitude that humans are apart from, and even superior to, the rest of life here on Earth). Livingston begins by comparing this complex, arrogant, human attitude to an ecosystem:
“In their natural environment, living beings face an infinity of survival problems—food shortages, predators, diseases, competitors, population stresses, and so on. The gravest problem they now face, however—man’s self-appointed supremacy over them—is strangely like an ecosystem. It has a vast and complicated array of interlocking components…
“As any naturalist knows, the quickest and neatest way to destroy an eco-system is to simplify it, to reduce its complexity and thus short-circuit the equilibrium maintained by the mutual interdependence of its component parts. Perhaps the traditional, cultural, institutional, conceptual eco-construct can be decomplexified by our deliberate manipulation—by the exercise of our conscious choice. Intervention in its workings will require degrees of courage, sacrifice, imagination and generosity which have not frequently been displayed in the course of man’s relationship with his environment. One hesitates to predict whether we will be willing to undertake it. The destruction of the power hierarchy over nature will require a shift in attitudes more profound than we can presently imagine.
“The process of simplification or decomplexification will be drastic. Suppose one were to elect to have an initial go at the “rights of man”—the God-given rights of man the individual and man the species. Suppose it were feasible to actually remove some of those rights, one after the other. The consequences might be astonishing… Environmental forces are already ‘eroding’ traditional rights.
“Then there is the right to have children. Suppose people were no longer permitted to reproduce beyond the replacement level. Replacement level means one adult, one child—zero population growth…The environmentalist must look hard at traditional human freedoms.
“There are other ‘rights’ such as the imagined right of man to kill non-human animals for amusement. Clearly the environment itself will deal with this tradition, simply as the effect of men having joyfully massacred so many ducks, geese, rhinos, elephants and Cape buffaloes that there will not be enough of them to go round. A similar end will come to the fashion industry’s apparent determination to exploit to the bitter end the final stocks of leopard, tiger, jaguar, and the rest.
“What of the more fundamental, unquestioned rights of man the species? The right to populate at will must certainly be removed, either by our own conscious choice or by a natural backlash on the part of the biosphere itself. The right to dominate animals of other species, and to dominate landscapes, will not be subverted as readily. Other beings, as species and as landscapes, do not have the ‘clout’ of the combined forces of the biosphere. But that right, too, will disappear. It will be a sad process, for we will not give up the right to dominate without a struggle—a struggle which will cost both human and non-human nature exorbitantly.
“It will not be in our best interests to allow the environment to dismantle our conceptual power structure for us. In such an eventuality, cosmic forces would make life devastating. We should not expect the environmental counter attack to be nearly so dramatic or spectacular as the ancient vision of the Apocalypse, but it would be equally disastrous. Because it would not be sudden, it would be even more agonizing…
“Time is running out for the dismantling of the institutions which have kept us so grimly locked in step with ‘progress.’ There is even less time for reflection on the merits of the traditional components of our culture which have brought us—and all of nature—to the present point of departure. A point of departure it is, either from the narrow and egocentric culture course we have adopted, or premature departure from the blue planet itself. If we are not capable of identifying the specific threads in the fabric of our beliefs which have sustained the entire tapestry upon which the myth of human dominance is emblazoned, then it may be too late already.
“The hope for survival of non-human nature is dim. There is a familiar scenario. As conditions worsen for human populations—as they will, initially, in underprivileged parts of the world—every ounce and erg of our most refined technological skills and energies will be brought into play to extract from Earth and its non-human inhabitants the basic ingredients for human survival. We will first destroy all of the larger animals, either for meat or because they compete with us for space, together with those which may be intolerant of our activities because of their specific natural specializations. Extinctions of non-human species, without replacement, will continue at an accelerating rate, until the only non-human beings remaining will be those who are willing to share their squalor with us—rats, gutter curs, and parasites and micro-organisms which thrive in time environmental dislocation.
“Our capacity for seeing into the future—and we do not want to know about futures of that kind. We withdraw behind the opaqueness of closed imaginations and familiar fancies. We acknowledge that, yes, the situation is bad, but human ingenuity, creativity, enterprise and good will overcome all difficulties.
“While we should be unravelling the threads of tradition, we are weaving ever more elaborate curtains of rationalization. Every avenue of questioning closed off is another route to intellectual and spiritual freedom barricaded forever.
“There is no engineering answer to a problem created by culture. The worst in humanistic ways of thinking opened and kept open the conceptual man/nature dichotomy, and only mature wisdom and insight that categorize the best in natural philosophic tradition can mend it.”