Factfulness: the need to eradicate inequality, not poverty

It must seem as if I listen to BBC Radio 4 all day long. I don’t, honest, but I freely confess to it being my main source of daily info, and being such a good source of stories from academia, many issues raised have ended up in this blog. Today is no different.

A recent ‘Book of the Week’ was Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think by Prof. Hans Rosling. Prof. Rosling has given a number of popular TED talks explaining the statistics behind global health and economics. Before his death in 2017, Rosling spent years asking global audiences simple questions about basic trends. How widespread is extreme poverty? What is life expectancy today? How many children in the world have been vaccinated? He quizzed everyone from medics and lecturers, to bankers, political decision makers, and Nobel Laureates. As Prof. Rosling explains, the results were always the same:

Everyone seems to get the world not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong. By which I mean, that these test results are worse than random.
They are worse than the results I would get if the people answering my questions
had no knowledge at all“.

Identifying key evolutionary instincts that prevent us from seeing the world as it really is, Rosling asks us to fundamentally shift our view of the world. Sounds like my kinda guy! In his 2006 TED talk, Prof. Rosling points out the dangers of using ‘average data’ due to the differences within countries. It is nonsensical, for example, to discuss strategies for universal access to HIV care in Africa, which lumps the top quintile (20 per cent) of South Africa with the lowest quintile of Niger. The improvements in global health and wellbeing must be considered in much more detail than is possible from even ‘regional’ data. Why is this detailed data so often hidden behind a paywall and/or obscured by incomprehensibility? Publically-funded research data should be available for all. Enter Gapminder, an independent Swedish foundation with no political, religious or economic affiliations, co-founded by Hans Rosling to ‘liberate data’. According to its website, Gapminder is a fact tank, not a think tank. Gapminder fights devastating misconceptions about global development, produces free teaching resources and promotes a fact-based worldview everyone can understand. All good stuff, and timely.

Prof. Rosling isn’t clinically optimistic and uses pollution and waste as examples of situations which are much worse than we think. I don’t know how he rated the looming crisis from future energy constraints, or the depletion of our soils and other ecosystems but listening to Prof. Rosling talk about progress reminded me how important it is to decouple progress from consumption. This is one of the key areas which we seem incapable of dealing with. If progress requires poor people to (rightly) consume more natural resources than they do at present, and if we accept that we are reaching limits to both renewable and non-renewable resources due to our rate of consumption, then who will consume less and what are they going to do without?

It’s been a few years since the phrase ‘Make Millionaires History’ popped into my head. It’s quite simple, really—the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (2000 to 2015) led to the Make Poverty History campaign, a global movement to end extreme poverty. It is hard to gauge the effectiveness of that particular campaign as the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty has been decreasing for decades, over most of the 20th century according to one of Prof. Rosling’s Gapminder graphics. Looking at ‘income’ shows that 70.4 per cent of the global population was living in extreme poverty in 1900, this falls to 61.3 per cent by 1945, continues falling to reach 50 per cent sometime between 1977 and 1978, had reached 41.7 per cent by 1990, 32.3 per cent by 2000, 14.7 per cent in 2010 and 11.6 per cent by 2015, the latest year available. It’s probably worth pointing out that Gapminder uses various sources (e.g. OECD, International Labour Organization, World Bank) for its data; the UN says that the global poverty rate decreased from 28 per cent in 1999 to 11 per cent in 2013—close enough.

Call me a cynic but I’d guess these falling figures for extreme poverty have more to do with globalisation than any moral awakening, but perhaps Make Poverty History pushed an open door even wider. No one sane could argue against ‘making poverty history’ but I think we need some factfulness here too. In 2016, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals which consist of 17 laudable yet improbable outcomes to be achieved by 2030, the first being to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”. Ending poverty will mean different things to different people and depending where you live, you may earn considerably more than $1.90/day and still live in extreme poverty. How is poverty to be ended ‘in all its forms’? And more importantly, can we decouple progress from consumption? How can we pull millions of people out of poverty, giving them access to clean water, green energy, decent food and sanitation while consuming less? Make Millionaires History looks to a day when there are no millionaires, not due to some calamitous civil uprising or economic crash, but because we made a radical shift from trying to eradicate poverty to eradicating inequality. Sadly there’s a lot to consider, discuss and fall out about before such an outrageous statement will not be seen as some left-wing threat to ‘our way of life’ but as a wake-up call about our way of life.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal.

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It’s just a matter of opinion

“Every tool is a weapon – if you hold it right.”
Ani DiFranco [1]

I love this quote from American musician and poet, Ani DiFranco, because it captures one of our greatest failings: not understanding that we all see the world in different ways. I once repeated it to some guy who had made some comment and he became quite dismissive, saying ‘that’s nonsense’ so quickly that I’m not convinced he was even listening to me. I forget the setting and the context, I just remember thinking it was an odd response to such a general, and astute, comment. Education, which was the focus of DiFranco’s lyrics, is a tool for passing on knowledge, but the values of the teacher [2] will determine whether that process is positive or negative. As will the society within which the education takes place. Imagine how awful it must be for the thousands of girls around the world, who had access to education, who saw a big world and an even bigger picture, yet a few years later, things have changed. Gossamer democracy has been blasted away by the latest sect with power, and they usually undermine women’s rights to some degree.

So in this last regular post, I need to put gods and religion aside to have a think about opinions, that force against reason which can make it so much harder to agree a new human story. We hate ‘going backwards’; we are all about going forwards. Forwards into what, though? As I said in the last post, we have to make the ultimate 21st century sacrifice and consume less stuff. And we need to find incentives other than cost, as that simply creates division; ‘haves and have nots’. Our new story would have people wowing at the smallest house [3] on the block; no one would coo over some luxurious car or house or boat; people who rarely put their wheelie bins out would be admired rather than castigated as being ‘weird’, and perhaps asked about how they have reduced their waste… Yeah, and it’s my fantasy so leave it alone!

Sadly, back in reality, we are consuming more and more. In May 2017, freelance writer Christopher Ketcham wrote an article [4] in the Pacific Standard on the fallacy of endless economic growth. It’s a good place to begin for anyone who hasn’t really questioned our current economic situation. Since the late 1960s, visionary academics and industrialists have been trying to raise awareness of our over-consumption—the limits to growth—yet, “Even in the midst of substantial innovation, today’s global economy has become more profligate and more wasteful, using more materials per unit of GDP than it did 20 years ago.” That’s because we so rarely reduce consumption; we’ll swap one product for another, sure, but there has to be something for sale.

So I was cheered by my trip to Twitter yesterday as I found not one, but two recent cases where opinion in the legal system seemed to be on the ‘right’ side rather than the President’s. First [5], a federal court in Montana ruled against a U.S. Interior Department plan to open more than 15 million acres of public land and mineral rights to fossil fuel extraction, concluding that the government failed to adequately consider how the oil, gas and coal development would affect the climate and other environmental resources. Has any government ever adequately considered such a thing? This follows on from a case in August 2017, where a federal judge stopped Signal Peak Energy from expanding a 176 million-ton mine in central Montana because the Interior Department did not comprehensively account for climate impacts. Hope in Montana then, minutes later, I saw that a Boston judge had acquitted [6] 13 anti-pipeline protesters on the grounds that the climate crisis made it necessary for them to commit civil disobedience. Precedents Day!

Dare we hope that this is the beginning of society refusing to obey the dwindling number of climate deniers [7]—let’s hope so as while they may be small in number, they are being appointed to increasingly powerful positions, certainly in the US. Opinion or fact? Have a look at Trump’s climate science doubters [8] and decide for yourself!

References
1. https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/anidifranco/myiq.html
2. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/the-values-of-the-teacher/
3. http://www.tinyhouseuk.co.uk/
4. https://psmag.com/magazine/fallacy-of-endless-growth
5. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/26032018/coal-mining-climate-impacts-powder-river-basin-fossil-fuels-wyoming-montana-blm-nepa-ruling
6. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/pipeline-protesters-boston-protest-not-guilty-climate-change-karenna-gore-mary-ann-driscoll-a8276851.html
7. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/03/07/trump-climate-change-deniers-443533
8. https://www.politico.com/interactives/2018/climate-science-doubters
9. http://www.reforestingscotland.org/publications/journal/

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal [9] and is gutted that WordPress link function has vanished again! But delighted to have managed this challenge of writing once a week for five months. I’m not sure what use it has served, but I’ll be back in April. The world’s too darn interesting at the moment!

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God spaketh, but why? Part 16: Sacrifice

This series of posts began with a look at differing values, using as examples the sacrifices made to the gods by the indigenous Muisca and the ancient Greeks. The Muisca, who lived high in the Andes, in what is now Colombia, and thrived between 600AD and European contact, consigned highly-wrought gold figurines to Lake Guatavita forever, while the Greeks’ gifts for the goddess Athena, dating from around 400BC, could be borrowed back—the goddess doubling up as a ‘lender of last resort’. The Muisca sought to appease their gods and restore balance by “surrendering forever things so glimmeringly attractive”; on the other hand, the ‘civilised’ Greeks created an intimate connection between the temple of a goddess and the finance of the state. While both practises can be identified as being sacrificial, we can see that the values of these two cultures differ considerably.

The word ‘sacrifice’ has several meanings and can be open to misinterpretation. Fortunately, BBC Radio 4 came to the rescue last week with an episode of Thinking Allowed, which explored the various meanings of the term. According to Terry Eagleton, Professor of Literature at the University of Lancaster, sacrifice literally means ‘to make sacred’ but the word ‘sacred’ in Latin is deeply ambiguous, meaning either blessed or cursed. Prof. Eagleton continues, “We’re dealing with powers that are either deeply destructive or creative”, like nature itself, methinks. As they clung on to life during glaciations and volcanic winters, the first self-aware humans must have wrestled with the duality of nature as life-giving and life-destroying, and our religions and beliefs reflect that to this day. We attempt to control nature to our advantage when it is there for all, we take more than we need yet we don’t share it fairly amongst our own, and while destroying ecosystems we strive to cheat death ourselves; we have moved from a circular cycle of life to a linear path with who knows what at the end.

What I liked about the Muisca story is that they “forego the pleasure of admiring a glittering thing of beauty”. This is a ‘sacrifice’ both to their gods and in the secular sense of ‘giving up something of value for the sake of other considerations’. Making holy relics for all to wonder at, artefacts celebrating kings and priests as much as gods, doesn’t cut it for me. As for slaughtering others, that probably had more to do with conquest and keeping order than any attempt to appease the gods. Prof. Eagleton’s latest book is called Radical sacrifice, and “tries to make some modern and humane sense of the concept of sacrifice”, arguing that sacrifice is not about self-denial or self-dispossession as an end in itself, it is about “a kind of giving which results in a fuller, richer life”. Sounds familiar!

The more I read about human history and politics, the more I appreciate books like The hidden life of trees, by forester Peter Wohlleben. In a chapter called ‘A question of character’, the author talks about the choices a tree can make as its environment changes. For example, if a tree falls down, a gap is created in the canopy allowing light to flood down to the forest floor. Some trees ‘decide’ to capture this new light by branching lower down the trunk than is usual. This strategy works fine for as long as there is sufficient light, but eventually the gap will close once more and our ambitious tree is left with leaves in darkness. A tree cannot just shed an unwanted branch, it can only let it die and wait for fungi to do the removal work. The wound left when a small branch (up to an inch in diameter) rots and falls off takes just a few years to heal. If the branch is large when it finally succumbs, the resulting wound can remain open and susceptible to deep infection for decades. Even trees gamble! All species assess their environment and do what they do—sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. But we’re supposed to be smart, so why can’t we see that how we live has to change?

If this series is going to draw one conclusion about our new narrative, then it’s that we have to make the ultimate 21st century sacrifice and consume less. The very thing we are programmed by the ad men to do, we must resist. We have to forgo those things we now consider essential: holidays, eating out, fancy gadgets—all those things our grandparents never dreamed of. This modern society we live in has been created by a few people, using wealth from the exploitation of natural resources from around the world with little heed to those who already lived there. I’m not saying give it all up at once; that would wreak economic havoc even if it was possible. But have a think and pick off some low-hanging fruit. If descent meat is too pricy, or you’re not that keen on meat anyway, go veggie. Love meat? Go veggie for one or two meals a week. This isn’t some faddy diet, it’s a lifestyle choice. Just think about what you consume and what you waste and reduce it, gradually over time. Set targets, if that helps. Try doing without something you really don’t want to (like a day without TV?) and you might find it isn’t as bad as you thought. What will your sacrifice be?

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal, Spring 2018 issue just out! And one more post before end March to complete my 5-month challenge…

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God spaketh, but why? Part 15: Which story?

This series of blog posts considers how the dominant story of controlling nature came to be and how we might change the story again, to one more likely to persist into a viable future for all species. It was Yuval Noah Harari and his captivating book, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind (2011) which brought a lot of disparate thoughts together. Nations, money, human rights and religions are all stories we create to make sense of the world around us, and to maintain social order.

Maintaining social order has been a vital part of human civilisation. It was achieved in the past more through fear (of God, execution or some other suffering) than today’s manipulation of our desires: follow the rules and you can afford comfort, convenience and exercise your right to be happy. The internet means that everyone’s ‘story’ is out there, in the ether, creating followers and trolls alike. But we don’t seem able to view our own beliefs in any kind of wider context of what science and/or different cultures tell us. More and more, if people disagree with us, they are just dismissed as wrong. I can well imagine a young person from anywhere in the Middle East becoming quite upset as they learn what ‘the west’ has done to their country in the past. Yet, we don’t discuss why ‘terrorists’ believe what they do; we don’t talk about why the US is deemed by some as the ‘great Satan’ because to do so might be seen as an admission of guilt.

We are social beings, and have been since before our species, Homo sapiens, evolved. Yet ‘progress’ blunders on, polluting the environment regardless of who or what lives there, ‘gentrifying’ poor areas rather than pulling poor communities out of poverty, boldly venturing into space again while here on Earth we are creating a technological, energy-hungry future with rarely a nod to the problems of replacing fossil fuels as our main source of energy. Our oceans are full of plastics and have been for decades, but thankfully someone who people listen to, Sir David Attenborough, has now pointed out the horrors plastic wreaks on the lives of others. Plastics were invented less than a century ago, yet their footprint already reaches everywhere. And they are made from oil, let’s not forget. Why doesn’t the campaign to reduce plastic waste become a campaign to reduce our need for plastics altogether? Remember that there is more to plastics than packaging and poly bags. Need an artificial limb or a pacemaker? You’ll need plastic. But there is such resistance to questioning how we live and what we see as being ‘right’ or ‘true’. I don’t claim to have any answers but I do know that without people, ecosystems  would get along just fine. Without ecosystems, nothing survives. I really cannot work out why we don’t get that.

This is a crazy time to be alive, and it’s tricky keeping up with the various ‘narratives’ out there. Trump’s going to nuke North Korea. Oh, now the Winter Olympics have brought North and South Korea together, and Trump is going to meet his arch nemesis. Phew, Armageddon averted! But wait, in England the Russians are at it again, this time in Salisbury (Salisbury of all places!), striking terror into, well Teresa May anyway. Diplomats, or are they spies, scatter. Meanwhile, back in the US, Trump has fired Rex Tillerson, who is just the latest in a long line of senior officials who have quit, been fired, or eased out by the White House. I felt I knew what was going on in the days of W; just follow the oil. But these Trumpean times have me well and truly baffled.

I think I’ll end this post with a couple of quotes from acclaimed novelist, Ursula Le Guin who died recently. The news I was watching played a clip of Ursula accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014. She spoke of the need to see ‘other ways of being’.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings! Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and very often in our art – the art of words.”

In her 1974 book, The Dispossessed, she said, “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

So, for now, I write.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and was sad to hear of Stephen Hawking’s death this morning. There are some excellent quotes from him here.

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God spaketh, but why? Part 14: Death

So, having covered aspects of early humans from their value systems and rituals, through language, writing and art, to their domestication and domination of nature, this week we are looking at death. I wasn’t sure where to even begin when I happened across this quote from Ursula Le Guin, the award-winning fantasy and science fiction author and pioneer of feminist speculative fiction, who died on 22 January 2018, at home in Portland, Oregon, aged 88.

“You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose… That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself?”
Ursula K. Le Guin

I was not familiar with this quote but it resonated strongly as the more I read about human culture, the more I am torn between which is most important: the rights of the collective or community (including non-human communities) or the rights of the individual. I believe people should be allowed to be who they are, who their own story tells them they are, but what if who they are kills others?

One of my favourite Daniel Quinn books is Tales of Adam, a slim volume published in 2005, which tells of the world seen through animist eyes. Adam is a hunter-gatherer who is passing his knowledge and wisdom on to his son, Abel. Using stories, Adam teaches Abel how to make tools, track animals, build shelter, but also how to live in harmony with the world around him—this is the wisdom bit. One of my favourite quotes from the book is, “When you come to a land where the people marvel at the wisdom of their children, know that you are in a land of fools.” I have looked at children differently ever since.

But the topic of death brought this book to mind because while it is obviously Daniel Quinn’s creation, it rings so true. The father teaches the son only to take what is needed and to do so respectfully, and death is very much a part of life. Near the end is the story of the troublemaker, someone who refuses to obey the Law of Life. Such behaviour is initially ridiculed, in the hopes that the individual will see the error of their ways and stop behaving so foolishly. If they do not, they are shunned by the community and sent to live apart from it. Should this individual reassess things and come back with an offering of, say, a deer, they would receive him back into the community with no more said about it. However, should that individual refuse to reform or to leave the community, continuing to steal, and assault or even kill people, “…then, if all agree, he must be killed.” This killing would be merciful, and done out of need not revenge, as breaking the Law of Life is seen as a madness and if that malaise won’t pass, it cannot be allowed to destroy the whole tribe.

I am aware I’m treading dodgy waters here but, thankfully, I’m not the type to ‘go viral’. Death is a mind-blowing concept that, as Ursula Le Guin says, only humans realise lies at the end of every life. As with other areas, such as communication and cooperation, I do not believe that H. sapiens is the only being on Earth to be aware of death. We see elephants, whales, primates, wolves and even magpies displaying certain behaviour only when a family or group member dies. Whether it is mourning as such, who can say, but there is an interest in their dead. Other animals know death when they see it, but humans always know it is present and they strive to avoid it if they can.

In addition to sustaining life through food and shelter, evading predators would have been a serious occupation as we moved up the pyramid of life. Life strives; death creates the cycle of life and by trying to cheat death, we disrupt the balance. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Let’s hope we never have the power to do so, because I really think we would. Our new story must include respecting all life, taking only what we need (once we have reminded people of the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’) and embracing death when our time comes.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and absolutely must write the Editorial for the forthcoming Spring issue today!

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God spaketh, but why? Part 13: Recap

The point of this ‘God spaketh, but why?’ series is to think about how the dominant story of humans controlling nature came to be and how we might change that story to one more likely to persist into a viable future for all species.

In Part 4, I reproduced a summary of human evolution by Yuval Noah Harari, who points out that, “While these [archaic] humans were evolving in Europe and Asia, evolution in East Africa did not stop. The cradle of humanity continued to nurture numerous new species, such as Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, and eventually our own species…Homo sapiens… The members of some of these species were massive and others were dwarves. Some were fearsome hunters and others meek plant-gatherers. Some lived only on one island, while many roamed over continents. But all of them belonged to the genus Homo. They were all human beings.” I found this passage quite moving and can’t help but wonder how and why all other humans died out.

But die out they did and H. sapiens is the sole survivor. Remains from both southern Africa, and northern Africa indicate that Homo sapiens emerged in Africa over 300,000 years ago. In this series, we’ve seen that language, communication, cooperation, using fire and creating art were all human skills prior to H. sapiens emerging; they evolved via tweaks of genes and environmental selective pressures, such as volcanic winters and glaciations. A Guardian article from last week caught my eye: Homo erectus may have been a sailor – and able to speak. In addition to perhaps being the first human able to use fire to cook food, H. erectus is known to have travelled by ‘boat’. The theory now goes that in order to sail successfully, H. erectus must have used language.

The BBC aired a programme back in 2011, which I only discovered today, called ‘Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth‘. While research findings which make it to mainstream media may not necessarily be accurate or up-to-the-minute, this programme is a thought-provoking fictional drama about how, against all the odds, H. sapiens might have survived as they moved into parts of the world already populated by other hominins.

The first episode is set 74,000 years ago in India, following the catastrophic Toba super-volcanic eruption mentioned in Part 3. The story has it that H. erectus was well-established in the area when H. sapiens came along about 100,000 years ago. Problems arose when Toba blew, causing an environmental catastrophe even 2,000 miles away in India. In the struggle for access to a diminishing supply of food and drinking water, H. sapiens is thought to have outsmarted the stronger and more numerous H. erectus. The second episode is set 32,000 years ago and depicts the encounter between H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis. As the ice caps retreated, the Neanderthal stronghold in Europe weakened, providing a window of opportunity for H. sapiens. Whether this is anywhere near what happened, I suppose we’ll never know. But perhaps H. sapiens didn’t fight its way to dominance, it was just better at surviving because it was better at forward planning and communicating thoughts and discoveries than other humans. As long as research continues, how we view our origins is set to change significantly over the coming years, because that’s how science works.

Much of what I have read over these past few months has left me wondering about various belief systems and how they develop over time. I can imagine how the concept of spirits, or the unknown, would have arisen as humans gained greater cognitive skills. However, I can’t help but feel we should have grown out of such beliefs by now. No, that’s unfair. Let’s not lump too many things together; beliefs can lead to the preservation of a natural balance, as we saw with the Muisca in Part 1, who consigned highly-wrought gold figurines to the lake to appease their gods and restore balance, and the Yup’ik returning seal bladders to the sea in Part 12. But beliefs can also bring war, hatred and environmental destruction. It’s not that we believe, but what we believe. This links to values, which come from one’s culture. When did we dismiss the need for natural balance, and why?

In Part 12, we saw that the Judeo-Christian belief system was unusual in that dominion was not tempered by the understanding of our dependence on the environment. But wait, I think there’s an area I’ve avoided so far and it’s bound to be important. So it is to death I think we’ll go next time.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and has set self-imposed deadlines for these weekly posts. Yes, today’s the day, it’s 20.30 and I’m hungry!

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God spaketh, but why? Part 12: Dominion

The last post ended with the idea that early human art was an attempt to communicate with the spirits of the land. Being a bit of an atheist, I tend to view ‘spirits’ and ‘gods’ as similar entities. But the spiritual is important, even to an old scientist like me. When chatting with our local theologian (Part 9), I questioned why God would give humans the right to dominate all other species. “No, God granted dominion, which is different.” OK, I always thought dominion and domination meant more or less the same thing, so let’s see where this goes.

Dominion means “control over a country or people”. The synonym given is “power to control”, which fits with the concept of humans looking for ways to prevent or lessen the impacts of nature’s vagaries. Humans are seeking the power to control nature—we stop trusting ‘the gods’ and acquire the arrogance to think we can do nature better ourselves. Domination, on the other hand, means “power or control over other people or things”, which sounds pretty similar to me! And guess what the synonym was? “Power to control”. So the difference must be pretty subtle, at least as far as the Cambridge online dictionary is concerned.

A blog I found put it like this: “Humans were given dominion over creation—that is, God asked them to take care of it.” Care? Let’s cast our minds back to Part 8 and Genesis 9:2, which says, “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.” How does one get from that to caring?

Thought-worlds
In Part 1, I referred to a series on BBC Radio 4 called Living With The Gods, in which historian Neil MacGregor considers the expression of shared beliefs in communities past and present. One episode seemed worth a re-listen for this post: Dependence or Dominion?

Recounting the story of Noah’s ark, Neil MacGregor refers to the biblical idea of dominion and its influence on how Western civilisation uses and abuses the natural world. What interested me most was that “…in this regard, the Judeo-Christian tradition is unusual. Most belief systems suggest a more subtle, reciprocal relationship between us and the living world; a relationship where dominion is tempered by dependence.” Ah ha, so there is something about the Judeo-Christian tradition which puts it at odds with other cultures, but let’s not get side-tracked.

Neil MacGregor tells of two traditions, one from Alaska and one from ancient Egypt—both reflecting a complex relationship between humans and their food. The Yup’ik depend on harvesting seals for food, clothing, and fuel for cooking and lighting. There is also a spiritual and social aspect to the seal harvest as the Yup’ik believe that a seal’s soul lies in its bladder. Each winter, a celebration of the lives of the animals harvested that year is held and thanks are given. The celebrations include releasing the bladders into the sea, so their kin will know that they were treated well and other seals will allow themselves to be harvested in future. It is a respectful relationship; all parts of the animal are used: skin, flesh, guts, bone, even whiskers. This is an obligation in respect of the animal; a frugal economy which honours the gift of a life.

Across space and time, in ancient Egypt, the annual flooding of the river Nile is celebrated as it is known to be essential for agriculture. Everything hinged on the proper balance of nature—too much flooding could destroy farms and settlements while too little could mean drought and famine. The balance was maintained by a god who lived and died—Osiris. Made some 2,500 years ago, the ‘corn mummy’ is a small statue of beeswax and earth made in the image of Osiris. The story goes that Osiris was a king of Egypt long ago, teaching agriculture to the Egyptians, giving them laws and civilising them. But his jealous brother killed him, cut his body up and scattered the bits throughout Egypt. Osiris’ wife, Isis, gathered all the pieces together and he was brought back to life, becoming the ruler of the underworld—the kingdom of the dead. The fundamental core of the Osiris myth is of a god who dies and returns to life, giving all mortals the hope of life after death.

The corn mummy has another secret to reveal. Break it open and it’s full of corn seeds; “it contains the fact of death and the sprouting of new life”, says MacGregor. These figures were a key part of the celebrations held around the annual Nile floods. As the waters receded and exposed the fertile silt, priests would gather seeds from the banks of the Nile, and mould the figure of Osiris. After a number of rituals, the figure is kept until the following year, when it is buried respectfully, and a new figure made. Seasonal renewal—the whole cycle continues. Osiris, the king and the god, lives, dies and lives again so the Egyptians might eat, and thereby live.

These stories come from “thought-worlds very different from our own, thought-worlds which may seem, to many, as little more than charming fictions. Yet both stories speak to truths and challenges of great importance to us today”. Unlike the total dominion assumed by Noah and his descendants, both indigenous Alaskans and ancient Egyptians, “living in radically different climates, devised practices that acknowledge their dependence on the natural world and engage everybody with the responsibility of cooperating with it. Our modern world has yet to come up with an equally coherent response to the natural forces beyond our control.”

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and will revisit the concept of thought-worlds.

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