God spaketh, but why? Part 6: Language

This series attempts to gather thoughts around the change in human behaviour which led us to dominate nature rather than live in balance with it. I have referred to Sapiens: a brief history of humankind written by Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari. Harari argues that our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers required a brain that could create and believe in fiction, a skill thought to have appeared some 70,000 years ago. If this figure is accurate, this ‘cognitive revolution’ took place thousands of years after several species of human being survived various periods of glaciation in places relatively unravaged by snow and ice, some of whom were able to use fire to keep cold and predators at bay, and to cook food. And I reckon they could talk.

I believe that to survive Ice Ages would have required cooperation, but then wolves cooperate, it’s not a uniquely human strategy. As I said in Part 1, we probably developed the ability to learn from past events, such as floods and famines, through storytelling, before we realised that we could invent a story too, a story of a different future. Perhaps the first was a story of cooperation, of working together  to prevent, or at least lessen, the impact of future extreme weather events on our numbers. Humans had a self-awareness which gave death a whole new meaning. It was about more than flight, fight or freeze reactions – at some point, we learned how to question the present and plan a more secure future.

It is obvious that some kind of language would be required to transmit any story but many species have sophisticated means of communication, whether or not we consider it a ‘language’ as such. For most species, the story being communicated is rigid, genetically programmed, perhaps. Ants don’t withhold their labour for better reward! We are beginning to understand (or remember) that most species communicate, often in ways we can’t detect with our own senses. David Attenborough’s excellent Blue Planet 2 introduced the world to singing fish, and Dame Judi Dench is soon to be on TV talking about the “secret lives of trees and the stories that they tell us”! Understanding our place in the world, that we are part of nature, was lost when we decided to control nature for our own benefit. Maybe one cannot control another species unless convinced it is subordinate, certainly not an equal. Having god put it there for you is certainly a good story, but why do we no longer thank those who sustain us. I’ll consider indigenous cultures and values in a future post.

But back to language, which is as important for teaching harmonious living as it is for something less sustainable. According to the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University, “Darwin started thinking about the origin of language in the late 1830s…. In his private notebooks, he reflected on the communicative powers of animals, their ability to learn new sounds and even to associate them with words. ‘The distinction of language in man is very great from all animals’, he wrote, ‘but do not overrate—animals communicate to each other’. There seems to be a spectrum of belief running from language being unique to Homo sapiens, God-given in some cases, to it being “derived from natural, instinctive utterances that were shared with some animals… and spread gradually according to various natural laws and processes”.

Darwin eventually published his views on language in Descent of Man (1871), acknowledging that language had “justly been considered as one of the chief distinctions between man and the lower animals”; but he went on to emphasize the similarities between animal and human communication. Debate continues today because language is ephemeral, detectable only by indirect proxies, such as the presence of a certain bone or the ability to make symbolic objects. A few years ago, analysis of a Neanderthal’s fossilised hyoid bone – a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck crucial for speaking – suggested the species had the ability to speak. But whether it did or not is the tricky bit to prove. The report continues, “It was commonly believed that complex language did not evolve until about 100,000 years ago and that modern humans were the only ones capable of complex speech. But that changed with the discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone in 1989…”. Much older hyoid fossils, over 500,000 years old, have been discovered in Spain and are attributed to Homo heidelbergensis.

There is no consensus on the origin or age of human language. Once again, Wikipedia sheds some light on the complexity of what is meant by language. Utterances or descriptive statements? Does song count? How about imitation? While Neanderthals may have been anatomically capable of producing sounds similar to modern humans, the Neanderthal brain may have not reached the level of complexity required for modern speech. Whatever the truth is, I think it’s safe to say that, along with the use of fire, language was a skill many humans possessed long before Harari’s Cognitive Revolution. Perhaps it was around a camp fire that people first discussed how to make life better: free from hunger and cold, predation and death. A discussion that continues to this day.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal, amongst other things, and welcomes all comments and corrections. It also seems that links have returned so many thanks to bug-fixers!

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God spaketh, but why? Part 5: Fire

We started this series by looking at differing human values and asked why our relatively recent, and overwhelmingly dominant, cultural narrative no longer pays heed to the fact that the environment sustains each and every one of us: all species, plants, animals, everything. This fundamental change in how we live has taken place countless times as people have chosen, or been forced, to leave behind the old ways of hunting and gathering, migrating with the seasons as required, and settle.

There’s nothing wrong with change. Without change, life would never have gotten around to photosynthesising [1] and the Earth would be incapable of supporting complex life. But problems arise when the rate of change is too rapid for ecosystems to adjust to. I am sure settled agriculture, on a small scale with locally-available natural inputs, supplemented by a bit of hunting and foraging can be a very sustainable way to live. Certainly beats popping down to the supermarket for plastic-wrapped crap one can barely identify, let alone reproduce. But that’s for another post, as is population density!

We’ve seen previously [2] that Homo sapiens evolved some 300,000 years ago into a world which already contained several other species of human. Convention has it that humans began using fire on a regular basis around the same time, although new research pushes that date back by over a million years – another indication that humans had many skills we assume only H. sapiens possessed. For most creatures, fire is well up the list of things to fear, perhaps second only to being eaten. Understanding fire enabled warmth to be generated in cold conditions, food to be cooked and thereby impart better nutrition, and was quite good at scaring away predators – remember we’re back in the days when humans were not at the top of the food chain. And, in the fullness of time, fire would provide the ideal setting for storytelling.

An article from 26 January 2017 in Sapiens [3], a digital magazine about the human world not Yuval Noah Harari’s book mentioned in previous posts, explains that the use of fire by early humans was not marked by a single discovery but via several stages of development.  The authors “surmise that during the first stage, our ancestors were able to interact safely with fire; in other words, instead of simply running from it, they had become familiar with how it works. To get a deeper understanding of this stage, we can look to research done on chimpanzees…which found that chimps clearly understand the behavior of fire enough to have lost the fear of it that most animals typically possess”. Chimps have been observed “monitoring the progress of a passing wildfire from a few meters away and then moving in to forage in the burned-out area. So while chimps cannot build or contain fires, they understand how fire moves across the landscape, and they use this knowledge to their benefit. It is not hard to imagine a similar scenario playing out among small groups of our own early ancestors, perhaps the australopithecines, who lived from around 4 million years ago until about 2 million years ago in East Africa. The first stage may have persisted throughout much of prehistory”.

“The second stage would be when people could actually control fire – meaning they could capture it, contain it, and supply it with fuel to keep it going within their living areas – but they were still obtaining it from natural sources like forest fires… During the final stage, humans learned how to make fire, but again, we are not yet sure when this happened. Starting about 400,000 years ago, we begin finding much better evidence for human-controlled fire, such as intact campfires, or ‘hearths’ that contain concentrations of charcoal and ash inside caves, where natural fires don’t burn. Furthermore, the number of sites with such evidence increases dramatically. So it is clear that by this time, some hominins in some regions could manage fire and thereby control it, but whether they could make it remains an open question”. Given its importance, one can understand why many cultures have reference to tending an ‘eternal flame’, and why those who could make fire rather than merely tend an existing flame, could very well have been seen as god-like.

Writing in Scientific American on 19 June 2017 [4], Amber Dance explains how difficult it is to say when humans started to use fire regularly but believes “it almost certainly occurred by 300,000 years ago”, around the time that H. sapiens evolved in East Africa. Dance tells of new findings of 1-million-year-old fragments of burned bone as well as ash in South Africa’s Wonderwerk Cave, suggesting that 300,000 years ago is an under-estimate. Furthermore, the most distant estimates push that first-fire date back to 1.6 million years ago. These are times way before the emergence of H. sapiens.

In the last post [5], I suggested that H. sapiens may have had a creation story in place well before the Cognitive Revolution, thought to have taken place some 70,000 years ago, enabling modern humans to cooperate flexibly in large numbers through a shared story. “In the beginning, there was light”. Perhaps the light was firelight?

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal [6], amongst other things, and is well aware that many people have dedicated their lives to studying history and anthropology, while she is merely dabbling. All comments and corrections gratefully received.

1. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/when-worlds-collide/
2. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2017/11/22/god-spaketh-but-why-part-3-tough-times/
3. https://www.sapiens.org/archaeology/neanderthal-fire/
4. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/quest-for-clues-to-humanitys-first-fires/
5. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2017/11/28/god-spaketh-but-why-part-4-all-humans/
6. http://www.reforestingscotland.org/publications/journal/

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God spaketh, but why? Part 4: All humans

I have set myself a challenge to post once a week for 5 months on where it all went wrong, on why humanity is decimating the environment and not even bothering to share the loot fairly. We all live by a story, a narrative, a paradigm. We all have our own rules of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, our own societal norms and cultural values. Some, such as not killing other people, are fairly universal; others, such as what to wear, vary wildly. I’ve written before [1] about the lack of agreement between people you might think would get along, such as those fighting social and environmental injustice. I really do believe that most people intend to do good most of the time, it’s just that there are a wide range of opinions out there over what ‘good’ is and I’m interested in why that is.

In the last post [2], we saw that modern humans (Homo sapiens) lived through glaciations and volcanic winters, and speculated whether natural disasters might have selected for those with superior communication skills. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time on human evolution and development is Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: a brief history of humankind [3]. Harari describes human evolution well, and I feel it’s worth reproducing his take on it to supplement previous posts. “We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo’, and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.”

He continues, “Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means ‘Southern Ape’. About 2 million years ago, some of these archaic men and women left their homeland to journey through and settle vast areas of North Africa, Europe and Asia…. The result was several distinct species… Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis” aka Neanderthals, who “were adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, who survived there for close to 2 million years…” while “On the island of Java, in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis, who was suited to life in the tropics. On another Indonesian island – the small island of Flores – archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing. Humans first reached Flores when the sea level was exceptionally low, and the island was easily accessible from the mainland. When the sea rose again, some people were trapped on the island, which was poor in resources…. Over the generations, the people of Flores became dwarves”. These small humans are nicknamed ‘hobbits’. More recent discoveries include Homo denisova, identified from a fossilised finger bone found in the Denisova Cave in Siberia in 2010.

Harari points out that “While these 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.”

The study of human evolution is a rapidly changing field [4] but safe to say there were numerous migrations of Homo species over hundreds of thousands of years, and there were several species of human who survived in a hostile climate long before Harari’s Cognitive Revolution. We saw previously [2] that severe conditions reduced human beings to a dangerously small number. One example was the long glaciation between 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, where early humans survived in caves along the southern coast of Africa, at a place called Pinnacle Point. In December 2012, Professor Curtis W. Marean of Arizona State University wrote in Scientific American [5], “While elsewhere on the continent populations of H. sapiens died out as cold and drought claimed the animals and plants they hunted and gathered, the lucky denizens of Pinnacle Point were feasting on the seafood and carbohydrate-rich plants that proliferated there despite the hostile climate. As glacial stage 6 cycled through its relatively warmer and colder phases, the seas rose and fell, and the ancient coastline advanced and retreated. But so long as people tracked the shore, they had access to an enviable bounty. From a survival standpoint, what makes the southern edge of Africa attractive is its unique combination of plants and animals. There a thin strip of land containing the highest diversity of flora for its size in the world hugs the shoreline.” A veritable garden of Eden.

Professor Marean thinks finds including blades made of silcrete (a hard rock difficult to work without heating), decorative seashells, and marine foraging, signal that people had, for the first time, begun to embed in their worldview and rituals a clear commitment to the sea. If he’s right, H. sapiens may have had a creation story in place before their Cognitive Revolution, which we’ll look at again next time.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal [6], amongst other things, and would love to read more of Prof. Marean’s work but it seems to be behind a paywall.

1. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/what-would-the-slogan-be/
2. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2017/11/22/god-spaketh-but-why-part-3-tough-times/
3. http://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens/
4. http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-evolution-timeline-interactive
5. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-the-sea-saved-humanity-2012-12-07/
6. http://www.reforestingscotland.org/publications/journal/


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God spaketh, but why? Part 3: Tough times

I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues”.

So begins Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari [1]. As mentioned in Part 1, Harari argues that some 70,000 years ago, modern humans (Homo sapiens) underwent a ‘cognitive revolution’, which enabled stories to be told, and without those stories no mass-scale human cooperation could have taken place. In the previous post, we went right back to the evolution of H. sapiens and then considered what it must have been like to survive as glaciations ebbed and flowed, and to witness the emergence of new ways of living on the land. In this post, we’ll consider the period between 300,000 years ago, when H. sapiens evolved, and 70,000 years ago, when Harari’s Cognitive Revolution took place. I am sure that Harari’s research was a lot more rigorous than Google and Wikipedia, but a helpful table of Homo species [2] suggests that 70,000 years ago, H. sapiens would have shared the world with H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis, H. tsaichangensis and H. floresiensis. Of course, these species may never have met and I reckon the details of this story will emerge in coming decades as technology advances and new discoveries are made. The main point is that today only H. sapiens remains.

It has not been easy to classify early humans [2] (hominins [3]), not least because bone fragments for some species can be few and far between, and they are found at various locations in time and space. From the aforementioned table of Homo species, it seems that H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, H. naledi, H. hodesiensis and H. erectus were also present 300,000 years ago, when modern humans (H. sapiens) emerged. So what happened between the evolution of modern humans and Harari’s Cognitive Revolution?

As ever, Wikipedia had an entry on the timeline of human pre-history [4]. While I accept that academia would not consider Wikipedia an acceptable source, and rightly so, for the lay-person, like me, it’s a good starting point. That doesn’t mean it’s right. For a start, the Wikipedia page still refers to the first appearance of Homo sapiens in Africa 200,000 years ago; new research has pushed that back to 300,000 years ago [5]. And the figure will no doubt change again. That’s what science is all about. As Professor of Maths at Warwick University, Ian Stewart said in 2013 on BBC Radio 4’s Life Scientific [6], “science is the best defence against believing what we want to”. But that’s for a future post.

Let’s assume Wikipedia is rigorous enough for now. The Middle Paleolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago [7], so this is the period in which story telling eventually developed as a skill. The Eemian was the ‘last’ interglacial period, the most recent being the Holocene which extends to the present day. This Eemian warm period began about 130,000 years ago and ended about 115,000 years ago [8]. According to the “Out of Africa” theory [9], the first wave of migration of H. sapiens took place around the same time but they seem to have died out or retreated. A second dispersal took place after the Toba super-volcano eruption, which occurred about 75,000 years ago in present-day Sumatra, Indonesia.

Toba is one of the Earth’s largest known eruptions and the Toba catastrophe theory holds that this event caused a global volcanic winter of six to ten years and possibly a 1,000-year-long cooling episode. In 1993, science journalist Ann Gibbons posited that a population bottleneck occurred in human evolution about 70,000 years ago, and she suggested that this was caused by the Toba eruption [10]. Could language have been key to people surviving? Did this natural disaster catalyse the Cognitive Revolution, selecting for those with superior communication skills?

The astute reader may notice that a bottleneck also appeared in the last post: “from around 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, harsh climate conditions are thought to have reduced H. sapiens numbers from 10,000 to just a few hundred. One theory is that these early modern humans survived this Ice Age in caves along the southern coast of Africa [11]”. And I’m sure our early ancestors lived through many more periods of natural turmoil; they always seemed able to cling onto life, and the next post will look a bit more closely at where people survived when winter became the norm rather than a season.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal [12], amongst other things, and is merely dabbling with thoughts here. All comments and corrections gratefully received as, to answer Percy’s question, I am researching this as I go. Sadly, hyperlinks continue to be a thing of the past.

1. http://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens/
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo#Hominina
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hominini
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_human_prehistory
5. https://phys.org/news/2017-09-modern-humans-emerged-years.html
6. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03b0wmj
7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Paleolithic
8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eemian
9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recent_African_origin_of_modern_humans
10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory
11. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-the-sea-saved-humanity-2012-12-07/
12. http://www.reforestingscotland.org/publications/journal/

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God spaketh, but why? Part 2: Days of ice

This blog is somewhere more reliable than my memory for me to collect my thoughts on why we live as we do today – in a world of gross inequality [1] and obscene overconsumption [2]. In part 1 of this new series [3], I asked a bunch of questions around how we define our place in the world. To come up with a credible new narrative, which is vital if we are to survive, it is important to consider how the old one arose.

So there we were, Homo sapiens, living in harmony with the life around us. Then something changed. In an effort to control nature, perhaps to generate more certainty, we cut back on hunting and foraging to provide for our community’s needs, and settled down to grow food locally and in amounts that provided a surplus – just in case. Perhaps, in some places, our hunting and gathering alone was enough to impoverish an area, making settled agriculture a necessity if starvation was to be avoided. This shift from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist and beyond took place all over the world and at different points in time. But here, we’re considering the first time.

Based on archaeological evidence, we believe that the first settled agricultural communities originated by the early 9th millennium BCE [4] in an area known as the Fertile Crescent (a region in the Middle East which curves, like a quarter-moon shape, from the Persian Gulf, through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt) [5, 6]. It is worth remembering that the job of archaeologists and anthropologists is never easy when investigating those who lived with such a light ecological footprint that little remains of their societies and ways of life. But the ancient countries of the region, such as Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, and Phoenicia, are regarded as some of the world’s earliest complex societies and they did leave a footprint.

What must it have felt like to witness that change, to live in a world of connections and abundance, only for others to appear, with new ideas, who tried to tame, if not destroy, your gods? Like Daniel Quinn [7], I reckon the dawn of agriculture was the ‘fall of man’ referred to in religious writings from the Holy Lands. We stopped trusting the gods (of nature) to provide as even in a land of plenty, they were too fickle and unreliable, and we replaced them all with a single deity. A pattern that would repeat itself over and over again as domination, exploitation and hierarchy as a way of living spread across the continents.

The 9th millennium BCE spans the years 8001 to 9000 BCE or 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, if you prefer. But this is not the start of our story. Before civilisations arose, H. sapiens and other hominins [8] lived through glaciations or Ice Ages [9]. As I’ve pondered in the past [10], how did the memory of the ‘days of ice’ shape the stories told by humans? Was the seemingly relentless ebbing and flowing of ice sheets the reason why the environment became something to be conquered rather than revered? Perhaps a vicious streak was essential to survive in such a hostile world? People are usually more peaceable if their needs are met than if they are not, and I’d guess this is quite an ancient trait. But I don’t believe, despite all I see around me, that humans are inherently destructive. How we live is dictated by a story.

Research published on 28 September 2017 suggests that modern humans, H. sapiens, emerged 300,000 years ago [11]. From around 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, harsh climate conditions are thought to have reduced H. sapiens numbers from 10,000 to just a few hundred. One theory is that these early modern humans survived this Ice Age in caves along the southern coast of Africa [12].

As for the most recent Ice Age, which ‘ended’ some 11,700 years ago [13], DNA analysis suggests that Europe was occupied more or less continuously as, for 30,000 years, ice sheets came and went [14]. “Old cultures died and new ones emerged over thousands of years, and the hunter-gatherer populations ebbed and flowed”, according to Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr of Cambridge University. Farming culture apparently arrived in Europe from the Middle East about 8,000 years ago, and it was only then that the structure of European population began to change significantly.

I reckon there were many pockets of people, over the millennia, surviving various environmental calamities in safe places which, once the stories came, would be remembered fondly as paradise or Eden – gardens of God. Obviously climate differs around the globe at any one time. Great civilisations may have flourished in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, but northern latitudes would still be a bit chilly. One thing we know is that human beings were well and truly modern during the last Ice Age, and living all over the world. Then came a new era of climatic warming and stability, albeit with some noteworthy floods as ice sheets collapsed [15]. Imagine the stories!

In the next post, we’ll consider what happened between 300,000 years ago, when modern humans evolved, and 70,000 years ago, when Yuval Noah Harari’s Cognitive Revolution [16] took place.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal [17], amongst other things, and is well aware that many people have dedicated their lives to studying history and anthropology, while she is merely dabbling. All comments and corrections gratefully received. Hyperlinks and image will be added to this post when WordPress sorts itself out! In the meantime:

1. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/what-makes-a-fair-society/
2. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/ignoring-the-signs/
3. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2017/11/08/god-spaketh-but-why-part-1/
4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Era
5. https://www.britannica.com/place/Fertile-Crescent
6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertile_Crescent
7. http://www.ishmael.org/origins/DQ/
8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo#Hominina
9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_glaciation
10. https://mandymeikle.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/when-worlds-collide/
11. https://phys.org/news/2017-09-modern-humans-emerged-years.html
12. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-the-sea-saved-humanity-2012-12-07/
13. https://www.livescience.com/40311-pleistocene-epoch.html
14. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/dna-evidence-proves-that-early-humans-survived-the-last-ice-age-9844877.html
15. https://www.livescience.com/19583-boelling-sea-level-rise.html
16. http://www.ynharari.com/book/sapiens/
17. http://www.reforestingscotland.org/publications/journal/

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God spaketh, but why? Part 1: Such differing values

The day after my last post, BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week was at the Hay Festival for a discussion about why Homo sapiens is so ‘successful’ (their word, not mine!). This programme introduced me to Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, his theory of the Cognitive Revolution, and his captivating book, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind (2011). I was enthralled by the idea that our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers required a brain that could create and believe in fiction, a skill thought to have appeared some 70,000 years ago. Harari argues that all mass-scale human cooperation is based in the belief of fictional entities such as gods, nations, human rights and money.

I liked the way Harari’s mind worked: nations, money, human rights and, yes, religions are all stories we create to make sense of the world around us, and to maintain social order – don’t forget that important part of the puzzle. Why do these stories dominate today? Why does our story no longer teach that the environment sustains each and every one of us? When did certain groups of humans decide that they were not just able to understand and anticipate nature but were above it, able to control it, that it was theirs to do what they liked with? In short, God spaketh, but why?

Homo sapiens, like all life on Earth, evolved to live sustainably and connected to nature. We did so for many thousands of years, and some still do. So why the change in mindset? I reckon we developed the ability to learn from past events, such as floods and famines, through storytelling, before we realised that we could invent a story too, a story of a different future. We had come to understand the world in a way long since forgotten. We created gods and these gods seemed to persist until the dominant culture of the west invaded indigenous lands and minds.

In his series, Living with the gods, historian Neil MacGregor considers gifts to the gods. He tells of the indigenous Muisca people, who lived high in the Andes, in what is now Colombia, and thrived between 600AD and European contact. Part of their belief system was to consign highly-wrought gold figurines to the waters of Lake Guatavita to appease their gods and restore balance. “The Muisca believed that human beings were an integral part of the environment and they all live in an ecology of different relationships”, says Jago Cooper, curator of the South American collection at the British Museum, in a way that made it sound unusual. Didn’t all indigenous peoples believe this? And, over the years, in true European style, once rumours spread that these daft natives were throwing gold away, the lake was plundered, including a final piece of genius – drain the lake and see what’s there! A world such as this, where gold was tossed into a lake, a world without money, was inconceivable to the Europeans. Such differing values; for the Muisca the ‘value’ of gold was “tied up with ensuring peaceful equilibrium in the landscape and the cosmos, which meant surrendering forever things so glimmeringly attractive”. This was indeed a sacrifice, to forego the pleasure of admiring a glittering thing of beauty. Yet the Muisca were trading people, living in a reasonably complex society. They kept their gods until the Europeans came.

Meanwhile, Neil MacGregor explains that back in Europe, records of the treasures stored in the Parthenon, Athens, dating from around 400BC, reveal numerous gifts for the goddess Athena – gifts with a double role. The Parthenon was also a kind of central bank, capable of operating as a lender of last resort, creating an intimate connection between the temple of a goddess and the finance of the state. Muisca gold offerings were gone forever, as far as the Muisca were concerned; Greek gold was a gift to the gods as long as they didn’t need it back! It is this change from respecting and appeasing the gods, on the understanding that they were the driving force behind the natural world, that seems to change how we view ourselves in the world. The original story of how we should live could not withstand the new story of domination, exploitation and hierarchy. Time for another new story.

As the astute reader may notice, it’s been two-and-half years since I last posted. That’s not because nothing noteworthy happened! Focus, that’s my problem. So, in an attempt to write shorter and more regular blogs, I shall consider how the dominant story of settled agriculture came to be and how we might change the story again, to one more likely to persist. In the next post, we’ll go back to the beginning in the Fertile Crescent.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is Secretary of a local Community Trust. Mandy is well aware that many people have dedicated their lives to studying history and anthropology, while she is merely dabbling. All comments and corrections gratefully received.

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When Worlds Collide

In this blog, I consider Climate Justice and the task of reconciling indigenous beliefs with those of the dominant culture. It started life as part of a piece of work which I knew had become too ‘radical’ for its purpose but I couldn’t just delete it, so here I am, almost a year later, with another blog. For Percy.

The crux of climate justice, or indeed any aspect of environmental and social justice, is how one views humanity’s place within the global ecosystem (aka ‘the world’). Definitions of ‘climate justice’ and ideas for how it may be achieved fall either side of a fundamental schism; a split we’ve been aware of for centuries but are unable to accept, let alone repair. Regardless of their origin, the words attributed to Chief Seattle regarding the strange concept of buying land and the sacred nature of all life resonate with indigenous peoples the world over. But not with ‘us’.

From the wonderful Gary Larson

From the wonderful Gary Larson

In essence, does the earth belong to humanity, or humanity to the earth? Is the planet ‘private property’ or ‘global commons’. Did we evolve here on Earth over millions of years or were we created by ‘God’ a few thousand years ago to use all of nature’s bounty? We are in the realm of beliefs and perceptions, cultural biases and blindfolds but unless we can find some way to agree on these fundamental questions, all the activism in the world won’t stimulate ordered change.

Rate of change
It is generally agreed amongst the scientific community that our climate is changing and emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as how we use the land and the oceans, are contributing significantly to this change. There’s nothing new about life leading to global change; plants spewed out tonnes of poisonous oxygen and destroyed the anoxic world in which they came to be some two billion or more years ago. Some argue that humans are doing similar and this is just a new stage in Earth history – the so-called Anthropocene. Earth systems are dynamic but in balance. Change is always accommodated in one way or another, but beyond a certain rate of change ecosystems will collapse rather than adapt in a seamless transition. And I don’t think the plants ‘knew what they were doing’!

Civilisation as we know it has come about, in part, thanks to the relatively stable global climate experienced since the last Ice Age ‘ended’ some 12,000 years ago. With the retreat of the ice, forest cover extended north, as did people. As the climate remained relatively stable, and depending on how rich an environment one found oneself in, some people began to grow some foods while still hunting for and gathering others – all food for the community. Over time, from place to place, people settled down as they were able to grow their food close to where they lived, and use the time not spent migrating to improve their lives in some way; perhaps specialising in activities other than growing food but which still benefitted the community. Making pots and clothes, or healing the sick – definitely not helping with tax returns. Improving your life and the lives of those around you is a good thing. This could be called ‘progress’. But attempts to control nature in this way will, in some cases, have failed. If too many people have forgotten the outmoded hunter-gatherer ways, the community may no longer know what’s safe to eat nor have the skills to hunt.

For how long did the memory of the ‘days of ice’ remain in the stories told by early settled farmers? When did the environment become something to be feared rather than revered? It is impossible to know what happened to stimulate a shift in culture from living in balance with nature to not just controlling, but dominating nature. Once traditional skills are lost (or insufficient to produce what’s needed), communities become dependent on food grown by others. Food which must be purchased if it is not freely given. A hierarchy evolved, and wealth became attainable by those who owned the food, or controlled its production and distribution in some way. Life became easier, so we’re told; more comfortable in harsh climates, less reliant on the vageries of nature. Meanwhile, kings could build pyramids and collect non-edibles such as gems and gold. Gone were the days of the ‘leader’ having essentially the same things as the rest of his tribe; leadership no longer implied wisdom.

For the common good?
Inequity was the topic of my last post and I believe it was born when communities stopped being able to feed themselves and had to buy food from others. To buy, one needs money or some tradable good. Ways were found to store food, but grain piles now belonged to someone – they were no longer a common good grown by the community for the community. In a particularly Machiavellian twist, those adhering to this new (unjust) way of life attested that it is the ‘only’ way to live and set about destroying other cultures. There is no one way to live – the myth that there is and we’re it is the first major barrier to change.

Moving forward in time, the Bali Principles of Climate Justice (PDF here) were produced in 2002 and state, amongst other things, that “combating climate change must entail profound shifts from unsustainable production, consumption and lifestyles, with industrialized countries taking the lead” and “this unsustainable consumption exists primarily in the North, but also among elites within the South”. The Bali Principles come from representatives of indigenous people’s movements together with activist organisations working for social and environmental justice.

The first principle is, “Affirming the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, Climate Justice insists that communities have the right to be free from climate change, its related impacts and other forms of ecological destruction.” It is hardly surprising that little, if any, change has taken place in the industrialised countries to this effect because the culture of these countries does not see ‘Mother Earth’ as being ‘sacred’. Those who do not live intuitively with the land do not understand the interconnectedness of all species – it’s just ‘woo-woo’; not founded on good scientific evidence (which must really piss off the ecologists). The dominant narrative in the industrialised countries is that other species are ours to use as we see fit and our way of life is the only way. Yet those at the bottom of the (human) hierarchy are insisting that those at the top give up some of their wealth, their comforts, for reasons that make no sense to them. Never gonna happen! Unless we alter that narrative.

The Bali Principles also state that “Climate Justice requires that we, as individuals and communities, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources, conserve our need for energy; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles, re-thinking our ethics with relation to the environment and the Mother Earth; while utilizing clean, renewable, low-impact energy; and ensuring the health of the natural world for present and future generations.” How can this be reconciled with an economic system which fundamentally requires people to consume more and more of the Earth’s resources, which has to grow inexorably, and which has never had fairness at its heart? These are the questions NGOs usually fail to answer and politicians rarely think about, let alone discuss. Although Naomi Klein’s “This changes everything” might go some way to changing our blind acceptance that capitalism is the only way to live. Let’s face it, it’s not even working if you bother to look.

Back to the Stone Age
That’s the refrain we hear, those of us who even dare question endless population and economic growth. If we do not alter our behaviour and live in a more fair and sustainable way, our systems of industry, agriculture and finance will collapse. Maybe not this year, maybe not this century but they will fail. How long do you think would be long enough to transition away from this lifestyle which causes climate change to one which won’t? How long to alter global energy infrastructure to end fossil fuel reliance? All whilst keeping most people employed, of course.

People living in the ‘Stone Age’, neolithic hunter-gatherers and farmers, grew up with all the skills they needed to make their livelihood. They knew how to feed and shelter themselves and how to make all the tools they needed for this task from what grew around them. How many readers could make a simple fork from scratch, let alone provide all their own food? The Stone Age would be a picnic compared to the chaos which would reign if the just-in-time delivery of monocrops and junk food failed to fill the supermarket shelves. Demanding fundamental social change such as is required to achieve climate justice will fall on deaf ears because industrial capitalism is treated as destiny, the one and only way to live.

In today’s conflict-ridden world, those with least power are feeling the effects of climate change already. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt but in whose interest will this adaptation be? The same authoritarian power structures that caused climate change are shaping the response to it – to protect themselves. Who will be locked out of the climate-proofed gated communities of the future?

On failure of COP
It is time that all people understand why the efforts to mitigate the climate crisis have failed to date, what needs to be done now and how the social transformation which will bring about the necessary changes works. Brian Tokar’s “Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change” aims to counter misinformation about climate change and ‘solutions’ such as carbon trading, biofuels and nuclear energy. Rather than being lured by ‘green capitalism’ and technological fixes, Tokar urges us to build a social movement that reaches to the roots of the crises. He urges us to completely transform society so that it is more about creating non-hierarchical communities based on interdependence in which everyone’s basic needs are met. Tokar (more here) provides clear insight into the failures of the United Nation’s COP process and the rise of the global climate justice movement led by those on the front lines of the climate crisis.

Some argue that the seeds of that new society are here, as witnessed in the Occupy movement (it may not be visible so much now but the people and their grievances remain) and the People’s Climate March on 21 September 2014. We are all needed in this move towards climate justice but unless we agree on humanity’s place in the world, and reconcile indigenous beliefs with those of the dominant culture, we’re on a hiding to nothing.

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is a climate justice researcher. She’s also read quite a bit of Daniel Quinn.

Posted in Civilisation, Climate Change, Food | Tagged , | 2 Comments