“On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded.”
–Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) from “Dreams and Facts”
By Jason Miller
Russell’s nihilistic characterization of Homo sapiens injects some much-needed perspective into a world in which our species of intellectually evolved primates suffers a collective delusion of grandeur. In “Dreams and Facts,” Russell further savages our God-complex with the powerfully humbling reminder that our solar system is but “an infinitesimal speck” and the Earth a mere “microscopic dot.” He does apply some soothing salve to our wounded egos with the observation that, “No man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness,” but his decimation of our grossly-overinflated sense of importance remains intact.
While I don’t suffer from deep-seated self-hatred and I’m not an alienated misanthrope who has isolated himself from the rest of humanity, I’m penning this brief jeremiad as a deconstruction of our species. And I’m not going to dilute my critique by extolling the real and imagined virtues of Homo sapiens. Pollyanna has fled the building. If you are too deeply immersed in our culture of narcissism to take a moment to gaze upon a collective image of humanity far more hideous and repulsive than Dorian Gray, stop reading and sprint for the television. You might get lucky and catch Paris Hilton’s latest escapade.
My objective here is to storm the parapets of narcissism, assail the bulwarks of speciesism, and batter our increasingly vulnerable ego fortress called anthropocentrism. Centuries ago, Galileo insisted that the Sun didn’t revolve around the Earth. Today there is a growing movement of people, including me, who are equally insistent that the universe doesn’t revolve around human beings.
What God would choose THIS species?
Ultimately, aside from Russell’s “big picture” description of human beings as “tiny lumps of impure carbon and water,” even within the scope and context of Earth and its inhabitants, we have a decidedly distorted and unjustifiably high opinion of our significance and importance. While we collectively view ourselves as “God’s chosen species” we are nothing more than primates with an evolved intellect and a capacity for complex communications. Yet despite the facts that the same anthropocentrasizing myths that inform us of our “divine qualities” also clearly remind us of our human frailties (i.e. Adam and Eve and original sin) and that we share 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees, by and large we still collectively conclude that we are superior to all other animals. Paralleling the widely reviled “master race” mindset propagated by von List, Schopenhauer and Nazi propagandists, most of humanity tenaciously embraces the equally repulsive idea that we are the “master species.”
The reality is that the Homo sapiens branch of the evolutionary tree held the potential to bear the most succulent and nutritious fruit, capable of nurturing the Earth and perpetuating its capacity to sustain the precious commodity of life. Yet at some point something went horribly awry. The apples of humanity over-ripened, their worm-ridden flesh withering and rotting into a pulpy mass of mucous-like, repulsive goo. We Homo sapiens have betrayed the great promise inherent in our powerful intellect, as we long ago became a huge liability rather than an asset to the Earth and its other inhabitants.
There is certainly no rational argument to counter the assertion that human animals are capable of performing many highly complex and amazing intellectual, aesthetic, and technologically-assisted feats. Yet we fetishize our intelligence to such an extent that we minimize or utterly dismiss the astounding capabilities of other animals.
It is true that wolves will never employcalculus to determine rates of change or the volume of a solid. Baboons will never compose Shakespearean sonnets or dance ballets. And dolphins will never build light-weight, aerodynamic, jet-powered vehicles to enable themselves to fly. However, without technological assistance, humans will never fly like bats and birds, echolate like dolphins, detect electrical fields emitted by other beings like sharks, use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate like birds, sniff out one particular grain of sand on a beach like a dog, or communicate over distances of two miles like elephants.
In our self-congratulatory, self-worshipping cultural schema of human supremacy, we devalue nonhuman animals and discount those capabilities they possess that are superior to ours. It is heresy of the first order to suggest that even a dog, despite being man’s best friend, could possibly exist as an equally respected sentient being and rise above the status of property, no matter how sentimental people may get about “their” pets. Why? Because if nonhuman animals ceased to be legally and morally (according to the dominant culture) subject to our perverse desire to subjugate, dominate, objectify, and exploit nearly every other being on the planet, our diseased means by which we’ve organized our existence, often referred to as “civilization,” would collapse in favor of a radical alternative.
If we stopped denying that nonhuman animals are as worthy of unfettered and unexploited existences as we are, not to mention our disregard for their sentience, we would obliterate our guilt-assuaging rationalizations for slaughtering them and eating their rotting flesh, reducing them to machine-like entities used to mass produce milk and eggs, gunning them down for “sport” (imagine a duel in which only one person was allowed to have a weapon), performing barbaric laboratory experiments on them in Mengele fashion, employing myriad psychologically and physically torturous tactics to train them to perform for us, “deploying” them as stand-ins for enemy soldiers in cruel, murderous tests performed by the military, and much more.
Rather than acknowledging the growing body of knowledge that demonstrates that we are just scratching the surface in comprehending the complexity of the emotional, intellectual and social lives of other animals, it is far more convenient, and in fact essential, for the dominant culture of speciesism and anthropocentrism to define nonhuman animals as the complex organic automatons that Descartes described. “Robots” don’t think, feel a range of emotions, or socialize with other robots. Therefore they cannot suffer and there can be no moral objection to exploiting them. So goes the “logic.”
At what cost?
Yet despite the fact that many Homo sapiens have little or no concern about the moral implications of the holocaust we are visiting upon other animals or our rape of the Earth, bending nonhuman animals and nature to our will is producing a fierce backlash that is impacting all of us.
In Averting the China Syndrome, which I co-wrote with Steve Best, we summarized the hell we’ve brought upon ourselves, other animals and the Earth:
“In just 10,000 years, a millisecond of geological time, Homo sapiens civilization, embodied by the repulsively rapacious paradigm of Western speciesist capitalism and anthropocentrism has managed to push the planet to the brink of ecological collapse. Droughts, violent hurricanes, melting ice caps, drowning polar bears, increasing hunger, food riots, diminishing supplies of potable water, species of plants and animals disappearing at an alarming rate, and a host of other frightening events are unfolding more quickly than scientists can even document. Scientists throughout the world are warning of a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity for averting a catastrophic level of climate change, and NASA scientist James Hansen warned newly elected President Obama that he has “four years to save Earth” through a radical shift in US energy policies or face the real potential of ecological breakdown reaching a crucial tipping point.”
Mirror, mirror on thewall. Which is the ugliest species of all?
Our childish collective belief that we are superior to other animals, which many Homo sapiens will fight tooth and nail to defend, is both delusional and a sign of a deep psychological insecurity. Some even revel in the illusion that we are at the “top of the food chain,” not realizing that we exist in a food web or that both human activities and human over-population are straining that web to its limits and beyond.
The sad reality is that we are 6.5 billion self-absorbed, self-destructive, and rapacious primates (the “third chimpanzees actually,” as asserted by Jared Diamond) running amok in an orgy of buying and consuming a nearly infinite number and array of toys, gadgets, gizmos, baubles, trinkets, clothes, autos, yachts, houses, planes and on and on to the extent that to take it all in would leave one’s head spinning like a roulette wheel in Vegas; gorging upon all manner of factory “farmed,” processed, industrialized, and genetically modified “food;” creating inestimable tons of repulsively stinking “solid waste” that we cram so tightly into canyon-sized garbage dumps (euphemistically called land-fills) that it won’t decompose for tens of thousands of years; pouring, leaking, or trickling millions upon millions of gallons of sludge, sewage, toxic waste, and hazardous chemicals into streams, rivers, lakes, oceans and the ground-water; felling old-growth and rain forests with the furious rapidity of Paul Bunyan suffering a meth-induced psychosis; waging perpetual wars and thereby contaminating and obliterating vast swatches of the Earth and wreaking havoc upon myriad ecosystems; sucking vast quantities of liquefied dinosaur remains from the Earth to feed our addictions to our smog-emitting shiny metal boxes on wheels and to industrial agriculture, a planet-raping evil that has allowed the “third chimpanzee” population to grow exponentially; maintaining vast arsenals of nuclear weapons, which could at any moment annihilate hundreds of millions of humans and other animals and plunge the Earth into a dismal nuclear winter; and more. Documenting all of the outrageously reckless, selfish, and destructive activities of Homo sapiens would require a tome so large that publishing it would take a sizable notch out of one of the rapidly vanishing old-growth forests.
“Man vs. Nature”
However, being the clever little bipedal primates that we are, we have erected an artificial world within the natural world, which affords us comfort and protection and serves to shield us, for now at least, from much of the damage inflicted on the Earth by our obscenely orgiastic existence. We utilize concrete, asphalt, mortar, brick, steel, engines, computers, and a host of other materials, mechanizations, and technologies to maintain a multiply layered barrier between us and the rest of nature, content in the “knowledge” that we are unique, special, and superior to the extent that the Earth and its other inhabitants are mere objects we can use and abuse at our discretion.
Our houses, offices, schools, and cars, in which many of us spend most of our time, are hermetically sealed and “climate-controlled,” shielding us from the “deleterious effects” of direct interaction with nature. We drive and walk mostly on pavement. Our gargantuan cities and their sprawling suburbs continue to sprout up faster than fungi on a compost pile in a windowless barn, knocking out those annoying trees that block our view of the horizon; asphalting over the unkempt, insect-infested meadows; and filling up all that wasted, undeveloped land with cul-de-sac upon cul-de-sac of McMansions, row upon row of strip malls, and two convenience stores, a McDonalds, a Wendy’s and a Pizza Hut on the corner of every newly paved street. DuPont promised us better living through chemistry and they delivered a slew of disinfectants, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and various and sundry other weapons in the war to keep the feral elements at bay. Most of us participate in an economy which employs division of labor and money, further alienating us from the rest of the planet. As technology and corporations, our principal means of “fending off nature” advance and proliferate, we become more and more partitioned off from nature in a sad amplification of the alienated way in which we exist on Earth.
Television (the opiate of the masses that Marx couldn’t have foreseen) entertains, indoctrinates, desensitizes, and pacifies us. It also serves as the primary emotional and intellectual moat around our castle of artificiality. Recognizing that they capture the attention and arrest the thinking of billions of us for several hours a day, seven days a week, the corporations that determine the content of television programming take full advantage of this opportunity to ensure that consumerism, the worship of wealth, narcissism, and many other pathologies (which both the programmers and the programees have been indoctrinated to believe are “normal”) continue to infect our diseased psyches, thus enhancing their profits and preventing many of us from catching even a glimpse of the world that hasn’t been distorted by the labyrinth of funhouse mirrors that pervades our consciousness.
Yes, we’ve been naughty little chimps and no matter how furiously we work to wallpaper over the murder, mayhem, destruction, and contamination we leave in our wake, and no matter how stridently we deny our culpability for the impending ecocide, animal holocaust, and omnicide, the wallpaper inevitably sags and tears away and our denials wear thin as a razor’s edge, exposing the unbearable truth that one shitty little simian species is on the verge of extinguishing itself, millions of other species, and, quite possibly, the Earth’s capacity to sustain life.
We are all complicit to some degree. And it impacts us, whether we admit it or not. Our souls are stained a deep crimson with the rivers of blood of the slaughtered, shot, tortured, skinned, beaten, and disemboweled; our ears are deafened by the cacophonous din of the desperate cries of the defenseless who endure a lifetime of agony for our momentary pleasures; our noses are assaulted by the appalling stench of legions of rotting corpses, mountains of fetid garbage, acrid smoke belching from billions of smokestacks and tailpipes, and all the other noxious and nauseating smells of industrial civilization; and our psyches are strained beyond their limits by the intense cognitive dissonance born of maintaining the self-delusion that we are essentially good as we participate in the constant gang rape of the Earth and nearly all its other inhabitants by our 6.5 billion strong troop of “third chimpanzees.”
Those corporate whores who are still chanting denials that humanity is killing the planet can rally under the banners of idiotic demagogues like Senator James Inhofe and industry shills like David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, trumpeting the virtues of industrial civilization until the cows come home and die, but their efforts to perpetuate the culture of Thanatos will ultimately be thwarted in one of three ways:
1. Those of us who oppose them will prevail in the prolonged struggle for the total liberation of humans, other animals, and the Earth.
2. As the battle rages and corporatism persists, Mother Nature will eradicate Homo sapiens from the Earth, much as our immune system eliminates a virus.
3. Worshippers of profit, property, and themselves will prevail over liberationists and nature, artificially sustaining human “life” on a dystopic techno-hell of a planet bereft of potable water, flora, or fauna, before finally exhausting the last of their plundered resources, expiring with a pathetic whimper, and having successfully “achieved” omnicide and ecocide.
So ask yourself, fellow “third chimp,” what’s more important? Our egos and our comfort, or the perpetuation of life on Earth?
Jason Miller is a relentless anti-capitalist, vegan straight edge, animal liberationist, and press officer for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. He is also the senior editor and founder of Thomas Paine’s Corner.