portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary global

animal rights | environment | sustainability

"Evolution In Action" and sick hunters

this is my gift to the happy folks whose earlier posts celebrated the murder of 5 hunters in wisconsin. could modern-day hunters possibly be more "sick" than anonymous people cheerleading their death from the delusional comfort of this toxic cyber-hell?
Derrick Jensen: If the destruction of the natural world isn't making us happy, why are we doing it?

Paul Shepard: Each year for thirty-five years I've started a college course with this question, and I still haven't any answer. But I can tell you the two main directions my thought has gone.

The first is that historical experiences with the natural environment condition our responses to it and our ideas of it. What are the cultural and ecological antecedents of Western attitudes and ideas? One is our belief in a future world that's better than this one; another is the "necessity" of dominating nature; a third is those sharp divisions between the human and the nonhuman, between the spiritual and the bodily. These beliefs emerge from a legacy of catastrophic destruction by people we now identify as Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Persian, Indo-European, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman. Their ideas of themselves emerged in a place where soils were depleted, forests had already been seriously damaged, and the environment was increasingly subject to drought, flooding, and outbreaks of pests.

If the world in which one lives is rotten, impoverished, unsustaining, if it seems to be exhausted and offer no hope and no connections, one's hopes would be placed in another life or another world. If the Earth has not been nourishing, as is happening today in Africa and many other parts of the world where there are too many people and not enough resources, there is no reason one should be concerned about sustaining that Earth. The cycle of despair, rejection, and abuse of the planet feeds on itself.

My second direction takes up the processes of personal development. Everything we know about the early individual experience in life tends to suggest that much of what we think we know and the ways we understand experience have already been set for us by the time we are ten years old. We are profoundly committed psychologically very early in life, so that our adult concepts and ideas later articulate these early experiences, giving logic to the motives that run beneath our consciousness. The question-to which I attempted a preliminary answer in Nature and Madness--becomes: What can we identify that is characteristic of early childhood in the Western world that would lead us as adults to perceive the natural world as hostile to ourselves, as something requiring control and domination, as something to be afraid of, and as something we reject for some mythic world that is better than this one?

Another way to ask this is: How are children raised differently in small-scale societies that are not highly technologically developed, particularly the primal societies in which we evolved, as opposed to the way they are raised in pastoral, highly developed agricultural, or urban societies? What differences between civilized and tribal child rearing might predispose civilized children to be more fearful and controlling of their world as adults?

These two lines of thought ultimately come together. If the people in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, and in the "holy lands" of the world religions, lived in an increasingly overcrowded, threatening, dangerous, impoverished world, this would have affected the way they reared their children and the children's imprint of adult emotions.

Add this to the fact that a pastoral life especially creates a sense of alienation from the natural world that is even more extreme than that of farming peoples, perhaps even that of urban peoples. The terror created by horse-riding cultures distorted the ways in which children are reared and in which men and women relate to one another. The equestrians created the traumatic sense of doom.

DJ: What would cause this alienation among pastoral peoples?

PS: First, the lack of clear dependence on the soil cuts them off from the sort of cosmology planting peoples tend to have. The pastoral peoples are oriented to the sky; their principal concerns are with celestial phenomena-weather, storms-which tend to diminish a belief in the spiritual power of the Earth and of the manifestation of the sacred in terrestrial landforms. Mounted pastoralism is a source of various forms of monotheism that place the sacred somewhere other than on Earth and that tend, because of their unequal gender relationships, to diminish the idea of an Earth mother or of the feminine principle in the Earth, replacing it with attention to some kind of sky or sun god. These people could then see themselves in their essence as nonearthly beings, having a heavenly home from which they come and to which they return. Does this sound familiar?

A second cause of ecological alienation among pastoralists is the interposition of domestic animals between themselves and all other animals. This skews their perception of the meaning and nature of animals.

Third, the kind of mobility involved is very different from the nomadic mobility of hunter-gatherers. Pastoralists in subtropical semiarid environments constantly glean and move on in a world of limited grass and water. Since they are intensely competitive among themselves with respect to these resources, their social groups tend to be organized on a semimilitary basis. And the more nomadic these societies are, the more hierarchic and patriarchal they are, the more one-sided their gender relationships, and the more they are involved in a world of organized aggression and defense against other groups and the wild world. Also, the more numerous their numbers and therefore the more bellicose they are, the more the range is overgrazed and reduced in its biodiversity and complexity.

Life in a degraded environment, once again, doesn't make you feel at home. And if your environment doesn't sustain you, there is no reason you should participate in sustaining it or joining with those who do. This makes clear why concerns today for such things as biodiversity and "nature" can be seen as mere luxuries of the rich. Only those who are confident and secure can afford to be concerned about the existence of a great many kinds of creatures in the world, whereas we-whoever "we" happens to be-always need more space, energy, resource materials, land, water. After all, what has the California condor ever done for me?

DJ: What has the condor ever done for you?

PS: It has given me, and continues to give me, a sense of the diverse forms creation can take and of my own limited place in an enormously complex other world that was not created for me. The condor, along with the frogs and salamanders that are vanishing, is a constant reminder that I am not the center of it all.

Once they are gone, and we have nothing in their place but our sheep and stupid cows and horses-horses that became our model for horse-power and therefore for dominance-when we have nothing left but those, there will be no evidence that we are not actually the purpose of the whole thing-a delusion. There will be no true otherness in the world to keep us both sane and small.

DJ: Is this culture then on a preconscious level intentionally destroying biodiversity? Is the Forest Service intentionally destroying the last of this country's forests?

PS: They would be the first to object that they are not destroying the forests but are preserving them. What they are actually doing, though, is continuing a process of domestication begun about ten thousand years ago. Forestry schools still foster the substitution of tree plantations for forests worldwide, on the assumption that a plantation of trees is a forest. They are, on a preconscious level as you say, replacing wild forests with something that more and more approximates the domesticated plants and animals with which we have become all too familiar.

I see the process of domestication in somewhat different ways than a lot of people do. My view largely goes back to the work of the geneticist Helen Spurway, who identified domestication as the production of what she called goofies, greatly diminished organisms that have been radically changed through genetic manipulation from what their wild ancestors were like. As we increasingly domesticate wild communities, thereby reducing their tremendous vitality, strength, intelligence, and complex behaviors, we increasingly create the kind of world our philosophy leads us to believe is out there, one subordinate to our own desires and in effect created for our own use.

Once you begin to domesticate plants and animals, you move into a different cosmology, value system, and cultural set of assumptions. The best evidence for this is what's happened to the !Kung in southern Africa. When they were forcibly transformed from hunting-gathering to agriculture, the number of children per woman increased, suggesting that agricultural societies promote population growth. A money economy and the social and physical ills of civilization made their appearance.

In the past it was assumed that populations increased historically because more food was available, and that primal peoples would have been more numerous had not some kind of natural limitation-disease or food-prohibited it. That apparently is not the case. Something else happens to cause the human drive toward fecundity to break out like a disease once you get into the sedentary life associated with domestic plants and animals.

The whole business of nomadic versus sedentary life can be seen in terms of what people can carry. If you've got four children and no domestic animals, it's going to be a lot more difficult to be nomadic. It's been sometimes argued that it is for this reason that nomadic hunters and gatherers don't have more children, but once again I don't think it's that simple. For example, another important factor is the interspecies use of milk. Having an extra milk supply facilitates having extra children.

Milk is a short-term gain at the expense of long-term misery. We've thought of cow's milk as a very healthy and good thing, but we're discovering at the end of the twentieth century that milk is not so good for you after all. We've already had to go through all kinds of human suffering to find what primal peoples already knew-although cow's milk might be all right for cows, it's not so good for us; stay out of social relationships with animals.

There is a growing body of evidence that since we are essentially Paleolithic-being Pleistocene in our later evolution, having Pleistocene bodies and psyches and physiologies-the best model for the way to live is one growing out of our understanding of how our ancestors lived fifty thousand years ago, whether it's exercise, nutrition, group size, inter-family relationships, gender relationships, the way children are raised, or the way in which people deal with the sense of integrity of the nonhuman world around them.

DJ: How do you respond to someone who tells you we can't go back to being Pleistocene people?

PS: The reason you can't go back is you never left being a Pleistocene person. It's what you still are.

Going back culturally is not a matter of whole-cloth transformation, as a person who sees the world as essentially dichotomous might suppose. We are not either this or that. All cultures are mosaics. Culture, like our genome, like an ecosystem, is made up of a large number of components that are separable.

I recently tried to identify fifty or sixty mobile characteristics of Pleistocene life that can be dealt with more or less separately. Allowances and adjustments might have to be made, but that's no reason we can't begin to identify and recover at least aspects of what we truly are. To do that we need to know more about our heritage. Part of the crisis of the contemporary world, of course, is that peoples who are living in those kinds of cultures are disappearing. The need for protecting them is certainly as great as the need for protecting species from extinction.

DJ: What are some of these Pleistocene characteristics, and how do we recover them?

PS: A childhood in which the infant is constantly in touch with people and children are much more constantly in the presence of nonhuman living otherness, wildness, are both necessary preparations for a philosophy of shared being, as one species in many. We've long supposed that in some vague way nature is good for children, but there's been relatively little close examination of what goes on in the heart and mind of a child who may ramble in the presence of insects and the whole range of plant and animal life. In part it has to do with taxonomy, with the spontaneous emergence of speech in connection with naming a large number of kinds of things, living forms as the basis for the skills of cognition and categorization. If we understood that process better, as well as the way it facilitates all our later thinking in life, we would attend more to those experiences of biological diversity and free space in childhood. We would attend more to the need for identifying living forms, examining them closely, and paying attention to their habits. This is indigenous to our being and a normal part of the growing up experiences of people in small-scale societies.

Another way in which we have obviously left our Pleistocene heritage would be diet. It turns out that wild meat is different biochemically from domestic meat and better for you. It's no wonder, at the very least because of the unhealthfulness of domestic meats, that we are becoming increasingly vegetarian.

I would also suggest we alter our use of space to take account of what's been called the twelve-adult group. This is the optimal size for making decisions, protecting people from authoritarian individuals, and allowing everyone to participate. There's no reason we can't design our living and working spaces to facilitate that kind of face-to-face small group decision making, even in the modern world.

Another interesting area is art. I recently had some conversations with Paul Winter about his thinking on participatory music, as opposed to music that divides the performer and the audience. Music symbolizes the way we socially submit to authoritarian regimes. Imagine the difference in the social constructions that lead to the way we use, hear, and experience music. Take the symphonic performance, with its insular virtuosity of the composer, conductor, and soloist, with its silent audience, each person sitting in his or her own little isolated space, afraid to cough or speak, as opposed to everything we know about "ethnic" participatory music, which isn't read from scripts and which doesn't follow autocratic leaders or ranked parts. Music in small-scale societies joins rather than separates. To isolate us from that by making most of us inert observers rather than participants seems one of those great breaks between what I would call our Pleistocene needs and the way we handle High Art in modern society.

Once again, the more we know about how people lived before ten thousand years ago and the way some small-scale societies still live, the clearer idea we have for a model with which to reorganize our own culture and our own society. The objection that you can't go back, which I've been hearing for twenty-five years, is the bigotry of history, merely an excuse not to look at the possibilities.

DJ: If life in a hunting-gathering community is more appropriate to being human than life in a dense and centralized society, why did we change?

PS: Because we learned to plant and protect. There is evidence that the earliest Neolithic villages, like the settlements of hunter-gatherers, had no walls against military aggressors. Conflict between primal groups tends toward highly individualized daring-do and occasional homicides, and as demonstrations of social display. These almost never involve occupying somebody else's land.

But as human density increased, bringing with it different economies and societies, people became increasingly desperate about land-ownership, expansion, defense, and the exclusion of other people. Here were, on the one hand, cultures to whom it had not occurred to take other people's space and to convert these people forcibly to other ways of life and, on the other, societies with aggressive, controlling, and centralized power structures.

This happened, and continues to happen, time and again around the world. For the most part, the hunter-gatherers initially welcome strangers, on the assumption they are as generous as themselves. This eventuates in their being colonized and destroyed or enslaved.

This ties to some interesting ides about primates by M.R.A. Chance. He sees the two types of societies I described above as already represented by different species of primates and argues we have within our primate evolutionary background the potential for either of these ways of being. You can organize your life around control, conflict, competition, and the subordination of others, or you can organize it around cooperation, sharing, and mutuality. Both of these are present in the larger primate genome. As a flexible species, we may be able to call on either of these basic biological ways, depending on our circumstances, situation, psychology, and culture. At the same time, there is no guarantee that the logic apparent to some of us that the cooperative, sharing, and mutual way is better will convince everyone else.

Jane Goodall and her successors also showed that when the chimpanzees are provided with more food than they can eat at one time, they become conflicting and competitive, with tyrants arising among them that threaten, intimidate, and injure others.

This suggests an analogy to agriculture's creation of storable supplies that somebody has to guard, control, and either dispense or hoard. Power becomes centralized in a world where nature is no longer your storehouse.

DJ: What are your views on the crash of which so many environmentalists speak? Do you have hope?

PS: I think that planetary, ecological disaster is a reality. But the popular imagination is in error. It is not something that may happen. We have been in the midst of it for the last century. Because of our biblical and Hollywood imagery of catastrophe, with walls collapsing and people screaming. It's not like that at all. It's much worse, a creeping thing that we identify as something else-inflation, poverty, recession, levels of mental ill-health, suicide, crop failure, political upheaval, famine, social discontent-anything except its true nature, the disintegration of natural systems. It has nothing to do with the media question, "Will mankind survive?" because a species as tough as ours is not yet ready to join the cavalcade into eventual extinction.

Of course I have hope. Why not, it's cheap and available. It is also the last resort. It allows one to be seen as chipping away defiantly at "the problem" rather than taking one's sour misanthropy off into the rubble to await some final bell.

DJ: Different subject. In Man in the Landscape you wrote, "In all worthwhile travel, the search for god and reality and truth must occupy a center which is both philosophical and psychological." We can substitute other words for travel-conversation, relation, action, sexuality, leisure, exploration, art.

PS: Ever since the Renaissance, the arts have been disconnected from the rest of culture, particularly from religion. By the end of the nineteenth century they were even disconnecting themselves from content, so you had a body of experts which internally judged itself on purely abstract criteria, rather than on any kind of connectedness to the natural world, the ecological needs of being human, human economics, and human social life.

In increasingly disconnecting the arts form the rest of life, and particularly from psychological and religious belief, we have once again parted ways with our tribal background and human identity. The arts have always been part of the means by which people articulate and participate in those things central to what they believe. Art still does these kinds of things without our realizing it. Alienated pictorial forms speak to our larger alienation from nature, in the cosmos.

DJ: The separation of science, art, and the sacred from everyday life would seem to be a natural consequence of surrounding yourself with domesticated creatures and your own products, as well as the result of putting a monotheistic god "out there."

PS: It's a feedback system. Picture the circumstances of growing up today, surrounded not only by domestic as opposed to wild things but also being encased continuously in structures and landscapes that are the creations of human beings. Our lawns of domesticated plants, and the very laying out of streets and enclosing of space by buildings, engenders the illusion we've created the world. That kind of imprint, using this world in the Lorenzian sense of semi-irreversible knowledge acquired extremely early in life, lends itself to the notion that indeed a humanlike deity somewhere created this world very much as we create towns. And did it for our use.

DJ: What does the word sacred mean to you?

PS: It refers to those inexplicable relationships and processes that govern existence. There is no reason sacredness cannot be manifest in any circumstances whatever, or in all circumstances, even if some are more numinous than others.

DJ: What's the connection between sacrality, ontogeny, and poetry?

PS: Until an individual is about eleven, twelve, or thirteen, he or she takes things extremely literally. God the Father means a literal father, someone who looks and acts like their father. At about fifteen, though, because of the kind of creature we are, something emerges in our mental timetable, and we reconsider the literal things already learned during the naming phase of early speech as having further reference than themselves. We spontaneously grow into poetry. It becomes possible to talk about aspects of the sacred that can only be conceived metaphorically. Reference to the ineffable aspect of the universe becomes a possibility in the individual ontogenesis at about puberty, when normally individuals are inculcated into a religious system. In other words, we utilize the first twelve years gaining the substance, the referents, which can then be used as an allegorical basis for representing in speech-and art-that which is not literal, tangible, or visible. In that sense cosmological matters come to be understood as some kind of an analogy to, but not the same thing as, the society and the familiar world.

I do not speak of the written or printed word here. Poetry is different from prose and other kinds of literature in that it is meant to be spoken, not as "literary," solitary High Culture, in isolation. Poetry is halfway to music. It brings us together rather than isolating us in our little solitary cell.

DJ: How do you interact with the other? How do trees signify?

PS: They are presences. I recently visited an enormous tree on the Upper Bitterroot in western Montana. I had a profound sense of a living presence, as I do among whales or elephants. That mystery of otherness-the fact that there is an unbridgeable gap between myself and the other-is extremely important. While we share common ground with any living thing, and to some extent with the nonliving world, it's not that ground which is necessarily the most interesting and beautiful quality of their presence.

DJ: Is seeing the other as other analogous to saying Marting Buber's sacred word You?

PS: Garrett Hardin feels "I-Thou" presumes too much about the Thou being like me and also that it doesn't sufficiently extend the awareness into the past and future. He's concerned-and I agree-about our failure to think backward and forward in time, especially in terms of the consequences of our actions. Buber's "I-Thou" is a bit too anthropomorphic.

DJ: I've grown to realize relationship is responsibility, which extends into the past and future.

PS: The trouble is that conventional Christian apologists for responsibility express this concern in terms of kindness and caring. The model for this responsibility is Noah's ark. Arrogance in the guise of love. Following this model, we therefore take control of their lives. With the idea that the planet's life is threatened comes the idea that we must somehow control the creatures. For instance, we put them into zoos in order to "protect" them from becoming extinct. This seems merely another way of setting up an authoritarian system in which we see ourselves as viceroys of God in our superiority over the rest of life. The alternative, of course, is to live in such a way that the rest of life is not endangered.

DJ: The responsibility I mean is closer to R. D. Laing's line: "Love lets the other be, but with affection and concern."

PS: "Letting be" sounds a little too much the observer, the symphony-goer. What's important is to participate appropriately in the world, to limit ourselves, to acknowledge we are a part of world food chains. We have a long history of interaction with the rest of life; we should expect to house parasites in our bodies, to decay, to become food for others, and accept the responsibility of eating others and therefore of killing them in order to sustain our lives.

We need to have confidence in ourselves as organisms, neither as masters nor as mere voyeurs. Belief in ourselves as natural is critical, because we will only enter into fully human social and cultural systems through compliance with and affirmation of what it means to be an organism.

DJ: What does it mean to be an organism?

PS: It means accepting the world as given, rather than made, a world of limits, contingency, the courteous readiness of the sacramental reality of death. However much we pride ourselves on those magnificent things human beings have done and made, the final criterion by which all human creations will be judged is the extent that they are consonant with the natural world, of which humans are a part.

We have scarcely begun to discover what it means to be an organism on a very small planet, from which there is no escape, no alternative.


(Paul Shepard's work on environmental perception and human ecology spans more than forty years. A Missourian and a graduate of Missouri university, he took his Ph.D at Yale University, where he studied the relationship of ecology and art at the cultural roots of American attitudes toward nature. He was a conservation activist in the 1950s, then a teacher and an author.

His books include Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature; an anthology, The Subversive Science; a tract on primal cultures, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game; and Nature and Madness, identifying the origins of the disease of environmental abuse in child rearing, or ontogeny. In recent years his work has explored the roles of animals in modern culture, notably in dreams and the development of personal identity. From this has come Thinking Animals-Animals in the Development of Human Intelligence and (with Barry Sanders) The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature.)