More About Scapegoating the Environment

alchemy11This weekend Pilar Montero and I led a workshop on scapegoating at Asilomar, a conference center located at the edge of a gorgeous white sand beach on the California coast  just north of Carmel, the group thoroughly exploring theory and practice of our subject, including how easy it was to begin a negative scapegoating process with each other. The weather was fine and the wonderful environment was a major factor in the success of the workshop.

Asilomar is part of the California State Park system and a model for careful protection of the environment, even with the heavy usage that is apparent. For over 20 years, we have come to this site for work and pleasure, and I have watched an ongoing battle between conference-goer behavior and the fragile land and seascape. So far planning, perseverance and a popular preservationist mentality has kept that balance skewed toward natural beauty.

My guess is that most of us believe that we are separate from our human and non-human surroundings, that we stand in isolation, a chosen, superior species, a favorite of the gods.

The synchrony between humans and nature may have contributed to ignoring one question that should have been discussed in our group: whether humans scapegoat the environment. I lost a great opportunity to share other views here. For what it’s worth I think the answer boils down to whether we believe humans are a part of nature or apart from it.

My guess is that most of us believe that we are separate from our human and non-human surroundings, that we stand in isolation, a chosen, superior species, a favorite of the gods. We have evidence for this view from many perspectives: our language development, our ability to reason, our intuition and self-knowledge, our opposable thumb,  our prophet-designated “divine” mission on Earth and in Heaven; different  ways of saying we are not just another life form or a support system for other life forms but something else, something not quite of the natural world. Dante, Milton, Job, Jesus, Mary, Mohammed   and so many other  ecstatics who inhabit our prophet pantheon define our differences in a host of miraculous ways. but all at the core agree to our unique status, which makes the Earth and all its inhabitants a slave to humanity’s needs.

It seems evident that this widely held view of ourselves is not working very well. All scapegoating mentalities assume there is no cost (and a huge gain) to that behavior, and for a long time that seemed true for our species. Our assumption of dominance over all our dominion, combined with technological brilliance and apparently inexhaustible resources, has fueled that opinion. But the cycle of scapegoating includes payback. Scapegoating groups export talent and resources with abandon, until the victim exacts its revenge. It is evident that we are at the beginning of that phase as the consequences of our inflated behavior creates shortages, pollution, climate change, and much more coming. Suddenly humans are fragile; we are not destroying the earth but ourselves.

Suppose we push the boundaries of our human collective to include life itself?

Redefining Humanity’s Role on Earth

So what would it take to embrace a non-scapegoating view of the world, a perspective which puts humans in a chain of being which has no verticality, no direction other than the indefinable miracle of growth and transformation. The acceptance of No God? An agreement to recognize No Higher Power including ourselves? What constitutes proof of that hypothesis?  We might think that just being intellectually alive in the 21st century would be enough to redefine humanity’s place in  a larger whole.  Shouldn’t the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, the genocide of Rwanda and the World Wars be  proof enough of the need for a more capacious and encompassing perspective. Perhaps simply liking one’s pets enough to include them in the family is a good beginning. Or, as happened to me, being awed by the beauty of an orangutan in Borneo and feeling no difference between us in ways that matter.  Which of us, man or orangutan, is more worthy in the chain of being.

Suppose we push the boundaries of our human collective to include life itself?

jainI remember talking to a devout man in Southern India who espoused Jainism. At the time, his view of the relationship between man and nature was unique and extreme to me even in a nation known for its exotic religious views. He came to mind while I was thinking about our selfish relationship to the environment. Here is a paraphrase of the way Jain doctrine defines life: Living beings include not only humans and animals, but everything one finds on earth: soil, sand, oceans, fires, insects, microbes and plants.

At the time, I was awed by the intent of this doctrine but dismayed by its extremity and impracticality. But now I’m not so sure. The boundary we draw for ourselves as a relational species might include an even more extreme version of the Jain’s: life as inseparable from nonlife. Aren’t we already there in our attempts to redefine that state of viruses, DNA and complex “inorganic” molecules? Each distinction takes us further into an obsessive-compulsive world of minute differences with no clear distinctions. It is only a small step further to think of ourselves as part of a horizontal intergroup of a multiplicity of environments. We could reorder our concept of absolute boundaries—nations, species, race, gender—as a useful model for studying functions, rather than a limiting definition of who we are.

In other words supposing we think of ourselves as part of our environment and the environment part of us—and mean it.

Yours truly,

Dr. Scapegoat

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