The cicada emerges from its burrow. It spent 17 years underground and has just appeared into the morning sun for the first time. Time to stretch its wings — one flap, two, then more. It is moving along the ground, first slowly, then quickly. Ready to attempt full-fledged flight through the air, it pauses. A cardinal alights on the ground, looking for some morning nourishment. It spies a large insect nearby. If it can just move immediately — one peck, two, then more. It cannot hold the insect in its beak but continues to strike at it. A squirrel sees the same insect and same opportunity. It must get there before this bird makes off with its morning meal. It advances and, as it does, the bird notices and backs away. The squirrel grasps the insect and stuffs it whole into its own mouth. A man stands nearby, watching all of this unfold. The cicada eaten, the squirrel gratified, and the cardinal thwarted, he turns away to continue his morning run.
It is this detached, observer role that we take in most of our interactions with what we call “the natural world”. We regard ourselves as both biologically and morally distinct from the desires and dangers of other animals, and feel that this is normal. Yet much of this detachment has occurred relatively recently in history. As of 100 years ago, when my grandparents were born, they still lived lives governed by the cycles of our planet. All were born on farms and grew up connected to the rhythms of planting and harvesting. It is only in their lifetimes that our global consumer capitalist culture truly began to take hold, and this is what has separated us at an exponential rate from our planet and its other inhabitants. This is the culture that tells us that we are masters of our own destiny, able to make all our own dreams come true if we just try hard enough. And what are we encouraged to place in our dreams? The latest phone, the sleekest car, the largest mansion… these are the emblems of success we lust after, and our consumer culture tells us nothing about how these emblems are produced or where they come from, nothing about the resources it takes to create them. Even the more mundane items we use in our daily lives are all manufactured and processed by our consumer economy — nothing we own or encounter is untouched. We now live our lives believing that we are separate from “the natural world”.
It is this separation that allows us to suppress knowledge about how the production of our food affects the water we drink and the air we breathe. It is this separation that allows us to use plastic products at an amazing rate even as we hear of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch growing to more than twice the size of Texas. It is this separation that allows us to understand the horrible effects we will experience from climate change, yet take no steps to avert them. In our worst moments, this is the same stance we take with other humans whom we don’t know — we hold these other human beings at a biological, moral, and cultural distance to justify our lack of compassion and action.
This separation, driven by our global capitalist culture, is destroying our environment and creating dramatic wealth inequalities. It also produces in us a profound spiritual sickness. We have evolved to be in connection with others — our planet, other animals and plants, with other people. Our bodies, brains, and spirits are not aligned with the goal of obtaining ever more possessions for our own individual gratification. This misalignment creates in us an emptiness that we try to fill with acquisitions, medications, and entertainment. None of it works.
In closing, let us return to the parable of the cicada. Right now, we believe we are the man who stands outside the story, as if we do not play a part. In reality, at different times, we play every role in the story. Regardless of our role, it is not our responsibility to intervene in the interactions between the cicada, cardinal, and squirrel. But it is also not our role to separate ourselves from their experience. We all struggle for our sustenance and life on this planet. The sooner we realize our biological and moral connection to humans, other living beings, and our planet, the sooner we and our world can begin to heal.
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