This post is very much opinion / faith / personal views. If you want to stick to facts, see my climate change lessons. It is also inspired by two books I’ve recently read: The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann and Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I recommend both books – one biography, the other fiction. The first helped me put the second into perspective as a “Prophet story” (ironically, Ishmael uses the term “prophet” in a way that links more to the “Wizard” viewpoint, but both, roughly, recognise the same dualism). It also has some ideas I got from “The Human Planet: how we created the Anthropocene” by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (I recommend that one too, and I know Mark).
The first chapter of Genesis tells a very different story to the story that follows in Chapters 2-4. Chapter 1 (and the first three verses of Chapter 2, to be pedantic) tell a story of a world and universe that “God saw was good” and that was created for humanity. Chapter 1, verse 26 (almost perfectly repeated again in verse 28 to really bring the message home) sums it up with:
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ NRSV Anglicised, my emphasis in bold.
In this story there are already cattle and humankind’s dominion (farming?) is a blessing.
In chapters 2-4 there is a different story being told. Here Adam eats of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” after the serpent tells Eve: “… for God knows that when you eat of it you will be like God, knowing good and evil …”. Being like God, humanity can choose which animals and plants get to live, and which get to die – and that curses humanity to be farmers. “… in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground…”
Just to emphasise the point, in Chapter 4, Abel, the sheep herder, is brutally murdered by Cain, the farmer. When God calls up Cain for this, Cain asks: “… am I my brother’s keeper?” – the farmer has rejected the herdsman, taken his land to farm, and killed his brother without care for his brother’s livelihood (life). Again, God curses Cain: “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength…” But then God protects Cain and builds everything that follows on him and his descendants.
The argument in Ishmael is that this is the story that the ancient, herding and gathering Semites told to explain how the northern farming tribes burnt their pasture to turn it into farmland that quickly disintegrated by over-farming – so they burnt more, killing their “brother”. In farming, humans make the choices about what species live and which die, and humans go out to search and kill (plants, animals, other people) to limit competition, and not just for the immediate purposes that hunter-gatherers kill (food, safety, maintaining/gaining territory). The farmers are “like Gods, choosing good and evil” rather than like animals living in accordance with the hunter/prey relationship. In that argument, the Hebrews, who wrote the story down and were descendants of the original Semite story tellers, could no longer understand this story, as they too had abandoned herdsman lives for farming and “civilisation”, but they recognised it as their story, so wrote it in their creation. The first (probably later-written) chapter, in contrast, is the creation myth (I don’t necessarily treat a myth as “untrue”, depending on how you define “true”!) of a civilisation (the Hebrews) that sees humankind’s destiny as owners and controllers of the land as a blessing rather than a curse.
In “The Human Planet”, there is supporting evidence for these ideas. Farming started on a large scale around 10’000 years ago in different locations, including the “fertile crescent” (modern day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Egypt), but that this was a “progress trap” – farming made people’s lives worse: they had to work longer hours, they were more at risk of starvation when a harvest failed, life expectancy decreased as diseases increased (cross-over from animals and having people living closer together). But once you start on the journey of agriculture, it is very difficult to go back. Later, we, the descendants of those early farmers, fell and jumped into further “progress traps”: globalisation 1 (Europeans to Americas), the industrial revolution and then globalisation 2 (modern life). In each of these progress traps, life got harder for most people in the short term, then easier in the longer run – and with it we got/took yet more control over (and, unfortunately, because we didn’t manage it well, created damage to) nature. We have become more and more like Gods making decisions of who and what is good and who or what is evil, and now we control the whole planet.
In Ishmael the two cultures have divided, with the majority of the planet following the path of the “Takers” – societies that control nature. Only a few “Leavers” (hunter/gatherers and small scale herdsmen) remain. In Ishmael, Quinn encourages us to believe that only the “Leavers” are living in accord with the fundamental laws of nature. He makes some points that I don’t agree with – we have (possibly) managed to get on top of population since he wrote it, and by feeding people and educating women, rather than by letting people starve (I don’t like the suggestion in Ishmael that we should leave, or even encourage, people in poorer countries to die because that’s more “natural”!). I also don’t think his “Leavers” were quite as pure as he makes out – or as unsophisticated (Lewis and Maslin describe how the early American tribes also cut down large amounts of the rainforest and possibly altered the climate in so doing). But overall, I think he’s absolutely right – that it is our cultural assumption that we are meant to rule the world, that has been extremely damaging – for that world, and also for ourselves.
In this, he is proposing the worldview of the “Prophet” in the “Wizard and the Prophet” book. If ever-increasing technology has caused the problem, and if our “ruling” over nature has only made everything worse, then we should stop with the technological fixes and move to a more localised, small scale production: organic farms that bring nature back into our food supplies, small, supportive communities and a fundamental shift in our lifestyle so that we can become more in tune with nature (even if we don’t give up all of our “civilisation”).
The Wizard worldview, according to Mann, is very different: it says that the solution to our poor management of the world is good management of the world. We should accept that we are now running the world, whether we should have done or not. Wizards wouldn’t usually put it like this, but basically: the fruit of knowledge of good and evil has been well and truly eaten over and over again in the last 10000 years and we cannot go back into the Garden ever again because we have been cursed. Even God has recognised this, which is why he still protects Cain, even after his murder of Abel. Given that we do rule the earth, we can no longer relinquish our control, and maybe now we are at the beginning of the wisdom necessary to control it well. We shouldn’t give up just as we have learnt that wisdom, instead we should harness our technology to save the world, rather than to harm it. We should build carbon sequestration units, install windmills and LED lighting, build hydrogen and electric vehicles, limit our farming to small areas of intensive farming and manage the rest of the land for wildlife and biodiversity.
I find myself curious about both approaches. I have a lot of sympathy with the Prophet/Leaver viewpoint, but I wonder if we no longer have time to wait for a complete shift in human philosophy. I wonder whether a Wizard/Taker approach may buy us that time and whether it just feels a more feasible shift in a world that is so dominated by “Taker” thinking. I know, however, I have friends who strongly feel that we can shift humanity towards a more natural life.
I’ve always found Genesis 1 consoling and Genesis 2-4 disturbing. Perhaps it’s time to accept that that may be because of my cultural conditioning and, as so often in my faith, I’d be better to sit with the disturbance than take refuge in the consolation! Maybe Jesus’ biggest challenge – far more challenging even than loving our enemies – is to consider the birds that do not sow and reap and the lilies that do not spin. Almost none of us have taken that particular statement literally!